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Bump City Blues

By Richard E. Baker on February 24, 2020


“He was a champion around here. I seen him on the street a few times, pretty beat down.”

Sometimes a boxer runs up against an opponent he cannot beat—himself. So it was with Johnny “Bump City” Bumphus (29-2, 20 KOs), former WBA Light Welterweight Champion (1984). Drugs did him in, put him out for the count. The coroner listed his death as heart failure, a heart that never filed to beat during a fight, a heart that won him fame, a heart that beat with pride before every opponent. Cocaine is not a man, not a living creature as we understand living creatures, but an insidious kind of demon promising life, yet offering only confusion and death. In that fight he lost.


With the help of former boxer Ronnie Warren, I had arranged an interview with both Warren and Bumphus several weeks before Bumphus died. We were to met at the Tacoma Public Library at noon. The library was closed. I waited for half an hour with several homeless people standing outside. They use the bathroom in the library. I offered them a cigar, a stash I always keep with me when walking about the streets and a way to break the ice.  


“Do you guys know the boxer, Johnny Bumphus?” I said.  


The younger man shook his head, no. He wore sand colored combat boots and his fingernails were black and he looked cold and lost. The other man, older, knew him. He drew on the cigar, a JR knockoff, a fat torpedo in Connecticut wrapper. The elbows of his jacket were out on the sleeves and hung down in ragged threads. He was freshly shaved with black chips in his teeth.


“He was a champion around here,” he said. “I seen him on the street a few times, pretty beat down.”


“He was a champion everywhere,” I said. “I was supposed to meet him here.”


The man was not impressed. “Thanks for the smoke,” he said.


No one showed, so I left.


I saw Bumphus a week later at the Emerald Queen Casino. He often showed up for the Battle of the Boat series of professional boxing. I had watched him for years at the fights, looking worse each time. He first looked old and beaten like a rich man who had just lost his fortune in the stock market and did not know how to get the money back.


Years later he hobbled in on crutches, growing fat and stiff. He often spent time in jail for crack cocaine. I knew a guard there. He said Bumphus never caused any trouble and mostly kept to himself, a sad case being picked clean by drug dealers.


Drugs had always confused me. Perhaps the government should not regulate morality, if drug use comes under the guise of morality. Opinions very. Many laws are against the simple pleasures of poorer people. It they want to take drugs, or drink, let them. If they steal a television to pay for the drugs, arrest them for stealing the television, not for the drugs. The rich can drink all the expensive Oban Scotch they want, but cheap fortified wine must be regulated. Criminalizing and arresting people with an illness does not solve the problem, it only beats them further down. There is something cruel about arresting people with an illness, sort like arresting people for having a mental illness.


The last time I saw Bumphus was about a week before he died. He was rolled into the fights the Emerald Queen Casino, bundled tightly against the weather, and smashed into the wheelchair like an overstuffed soft leather plush toy. His cheeks folded around his thick glasses. He was not yet sixty, but looked ninety. His face and eyes were expressionless.


On the way home, I wondered why I had never interviewed him. He somehow seemed unapproachable. He wasn’t, nor was he mean. Quite the contrary. He had a great smile as a younger man before the drugs had turned his lips into ridged and thick ropes. I had never interviewed him because I never knew what to ask. Talking about his early boxing successes might only cause him sadness. People often live in the past when the past is the one thing they have. The Buddhists say, “All suffering lies in the past.” Time there cannot be revisited. We are what we are today. I also did not want to discuss his drug addiction. Everyone wanted to talk about that, to pry, to ask what he was doing about the problem, if it was a problem. That was his business. Life is not a reality show and most things are simply no one’s business. I knew plenty about him, all superficial, anyway, the usual write-ups.


He started boxing at the age of eight at the Tacoma Boy’s Club. Most of the boxers were trained by Joe Clough, a legend in boxing. He helped turn out great boxers and champion after champion including Rocky Lockridge, Leo Randolph, Sugar Ray Seales, and Davey Armstrong.


Bumphus was born in the Hilltop area of Tacoma, the roughest neighborhood in town. He was the only male in a family of six sisters and started boxing at the age of eight and amassed an amateur record of 346-18. He earned his spot on the 1980 Olympic boxing team while working for the Nashville, Tennessee Sheriff’s Department. He was rated as the number one Lightweight by the U.S. Amateur Boxers and Coaches Association.  


His life soon went horribly wrong. His mother was shot to death and the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The death of his mother severely affected him emotionally and the missed Olympics affected him financially. Boxers, like Ray Leonard, who had won gold in previous Olympics often earned $40,000 for their first professional bouts. Bumphus was offered less than half that amount.


Watching Leonard inspired him to try for the Olympics. He was 15 and he said to his mother, “I’m going to be there in 1980.” He ran up to nine miles every day to keep up his wind and endurance. He moved to Nashville after trainer Joe Clough moved there. He felt that Clough was the best trainer there was.


Bumphus has his own ideas about boxing. “Boxing is the art of landing more punches. Hit and not get hit is my style. I don’t go out looking for a knockout.”


Bumphus won his first 22 professional fights. He signed a promotional contract with Bob Arum for an estimated $500,000. He beat Lorenzo Luis Garcia in 1984 to win the WBA Light Welterweight title. The glory was short-lived when Gene Hatcher wrested the title in an 11th round TKO in the upset of the year.


Bumphus attempted to win the WBC and IBF Welterweight title from Lloyd Honeyghan in a fight that should have been a disqualification for Honeyghan. Bumphus, hurt in the first round, stood for the start of the second round when Honeyghan rushed across the ring and nailed Bumphus before the bell sounded. The match was given to Honeyghan by TKO. Various countries like to protect their own fighters.


Toward the end of his career, cocaine entered his life. He had always been susceptible to drugs. For a short time he managed to overcome the addiction. The cure did not last long. He became addicted to crack cocaine, cheap and really obtainable in the Hilltop area of Tacoma. He was not finished yet. In an attempt to kick the habit he spent a year in rehab, then went to work for Lou Duva in Florida. He relapsed and Duva let him go. The worst place for him to return was back to Tacoma, but that was the only place he knew.


Poor friends and bad acquaintances helped do him in. There were in a constant struggle with the good friends who attempted to help him recover. Often in life, evil wins out.


I watched Bumphus being backed through the back door of the casino in his wheelchair. Outside he was pushed along the sidewalk lighted briefly under one streetlight after another until he disappeared into the dark.

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