If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then here is an old black and white photo with a story to tell.
It is a story about two men on a summer day in 1966. Both are boxers. One is the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. The other has only recently turned pro.
Both men are in their mid-twenties and both are facing a future that, strangely, they both have already imagined. One will go on to become larger than life, while the other will heed the call of his life back home and give up on his dream of one day stepping in the ring with the man standing next to him.
For one of the men, the story the old black and white photo tells is about a moment that, even without the photo, is indelibly etched in his memory. Because, in the picture, he is shaking hands with and listening to career advice from the boxer who inspired him to dream and, at the same time, he is realizing the sacrifices he will have to make to chase that dream.
The photo captured Perry native, Joe Louis White, at a crossroads in his life.
“I was in Miami preparing to fight a former top 10 boxer, Willie Besmanoff,” White recalls. “My manager knew Cassius Clay’s manager, Angelo Dundee, and they arranged for us to meet at the famous Fifth Street Gym where Clay was training for an upcoming fight.”
White had only eight professional bouts under his belt when he met Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. When the two met, White says he told Ali he was hoping to become the world heavyweight champion soon and Ali responded, “You’re going to have to work your way up to me. There’s a ladder you’re going to have to climb.”
And White knew climbing that ladder meant making sacrifices not just for himself but also for his children and family back home. It also meant he had to climb fast because having come into the sport after the age of 20, the window of opportunity would be closing for him in a few short years.
White’s journey into the sport of boxing began after he’d been in the military. He was living in Clearwater when he met a group of guys who were boxers and began training with them. A year or so later, he returned to Perry and really began training.
“I opened a training gym in the building that is now the Foxtrot Beauty Salon when I came home,” he reflects. “My first match took place on the outdoor basketball court at Jerkins High School around 1961. That’s where Perry Chief of Police George Rich saw me and became my first manager. He took me to Macon, Georgia to fight the Georgia State champion. I won by a technical knockout in the first round. I caught the guy with a right to the forehead and it caused a big gash. They stopped the fight because he couldn’t continue.”
Rich not only managed White’s early boxing career, he also made him Perry’s first African-American police officer, a career move that only lasted two days.
“Chief Rich thought I was tough, so he hired me to be the first Black police officer in Perry. He told me the county had already hired its first Black deputy and he wanted to bring on a Black policeman,” White elaborates. “He gave me a police uniform and I wore it for maybe one day. I took it off and told him I wanted to keep boxing and pursue a boxing career. That’s when he hired Otis Williams, who you can say was the first official Black policeman in Perry because I only did it for a day or two.”
Later, White would be managed by the man who owned the bowling alley in downtown Perry during the 1960s. Under his guidance, White turned professional, a move that eventually resulted in the old black and white photo which has yet another story to tell. The story behind the stare down.
“There is no story behind the stare down,” White laughs. “We didn’t really spar. We were both in training sessions, so all we did was put on the gloves and play around in the ring for a few minutes. I was a rookie so it wasn’t really sparring. He just basically let me knew what it took to get to the top. And, he was the top.”
”No,…” he quickly answers when asked if he managed to land a lick during their playing around. “Clay was really floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee in them days.”
White never became the professional champion he set out to become, but he couldn’t just walk away from the sport he’d grown to love.
“When my career ended, I began training several local young men,” White says. “And, over the years, I opened a few boxing and training gyms here in town.” Other locations included the Bellamy produce building next to Gilman’s on Highway 19 and the old Seminole Restaurant and the building next to it in Brooklyn. White even put on and promoted boxing events around town in venues like the Forest Capital Hall.
Today, White says he’s still a fighter, but now, he’s fighting for Jesus. Through his 11-year-old prison outreach ministry, he visits jails and prisons and ministers to inmates in Taylor, Madison, Lafayette, Suwannee, and Gadsden County.
“I’m still fighting, but now I’m fighting for everyone whose lost and don’t know the Lord,” he says. “Everywhere I go, I run into people I’ve met while they were locked up and they tell me how my faith in them helped change the direction of their life.”
“That photo was my life then. This is my life now.” Then he stares down at the photo and fondly reminisces, “That was the day.”
A day an old black and white photo will make sure he never forgets.