We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Boxing is not a team sport, except in the Olympics. The greatest squad in ring history was that which represented the United States at the 1976 games. The bicentennial team left Montreal with five gold medals—for Leo Randolph, Howard Davis, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Michael and Leon Spinks—and one silver.
Charles Mooney got the silver.
The gold medalists quickly found worldwide ring fame and at least temporary fortune. Mooney went back to the U.S. Army.
The ’76 team offered the folks at ABC, then the network of the Olympics, all sorts of soap-opera subplots for their hype machine while the games were going on. Davis, a 132-pounder, had played drums for James Brown, and his mother died just days before the opening ceremonies. From the ghettos of St. Louis came the Spinks brothers, light heavyweight Leon and middleweight Michael, who were fighting to become the first siblings ever to win boxing gold. Light welterweight Leonard fought with a photo of Juanita, his teenage girlfriend and the mother of their infant son, taped to his sock.
Mooney, a 119-pounder, was, at 25, the oldest member of the U.S. team; he was already happily married and living a stable existence. Not the sort of stuff that celebrity is made of.
So Leonard, who grew up in Maryland’s Palmer Park, got a hero’s welcome when he came home. Mooney, who grew up in the Trinidad section of Northeast and still lives in the area, got little notice, even locally.
“I guess that’s maybe the difference between gold and silver,” says Mooney, now 53. “But even people who don’t remember me remember my team. It’s like everybody remembers that team.”
As a kid, Mooney wasn’t close to big. But he was fast. “Fear will make you quick,” he says. “And I had a lot of fear.” Most boxers learn the craft from a former pug while hanging around a local boys’ club. Mooney taught himself how to fight by obsessively watching boxing all alone on a television in his basement. He’d lace up a pair of gloves and mimic the stances and punching styles of the pros on TV.
When he thought his mimicry was getting pretty good, Mooney began inviting bigger kids over to his house to box after school.
“And then I’d knock them out,” he says, with a guilty chuckle.
Word of his prowess got around the neighborhood, so he began complying with requests to bring his gloves to the schoolyard. Big guys who’d never worn boxing gloves before had no chance against the small but relatively seasoned opponent.
Mooney never thought his boxing career would go beyond the playground, and in 1968 he signed up for the U.S. Army out of Eastern High School. He’d never been in a real ring before and found that Fort Bragg had incredible facilities. Back then, all branches of the service promoted boxing in hopes of later using star fighters in recruiting efforts. So when his superiors saw that Mooney could throw leather like a veteran, they told him to let his military training take a back seat to the ring. And when he was transferred around the country and even to the DMZ in South Korea, the Army let Mooney’s superiors know that he was to stay in boxing shape.
The training regimen paid off for the Army and the soldier come the bicentennial. Back then, the winner of the All-Army boxing tournament was given an automatic berth to the U.S. Olympic trials, while civilian fighters had to go through all sorts of local and regional competitions before reaching the national championships. Nobody in the Army could touch him. And at the trials that summer, no civilian touched him, either. Mooney had fought his way onto the greatest squad of all time.
Scott Wagner, who promotes Ballroom Boxing events in Glen Burnie, Md., remembers the aura of that squad.
“You know how nobody can name 20 NHL hockey players, but everybody can name the goalie and the coach from that ‘Do You Believe in Miracles?’ hockey team in 1980?” says Wagner. “That’s the way it was [in 1976] with boxing. Olympic coverage used to make pop stars out of guys before they ever turned pro.”
(One sign of the strength of the squad: Thomas Hearns, Aaron Pryor, and Michael Dokes—all future world champions as pros—did not make the team.)
His path to the Olympics left Mooney with nowhere near the experience of his younger U.S. teammates.
“At a big press conference for the team at the Olympics, the reporters asked Ray how many fights he’d had, and he said 200, and then Leon said he’d had about 180. They went down the line and got to me, and I kind of froze, then just said ‘60!’ I didn’t mean to lie, but I was embarrassed. I’d probably only had 30 fights in my life, and I was in the Olympics.”
Mooney dominated his opponents in the early rounds, earning a spot in the gold-medal match by disposing of favored Russian Viktor Rybakov in the semifinals. But in the finals, Gu Yong-Ju of the People’s Republic of Korea cut Mooney early and took a 5-0 decision. The Montreal Forum crowd booed the judges after the result was announced and called Mooney back from the dressing room to show support. Mooney tried taking the high road—to a point.
“I thought I outpointed him, but I knew I hadn’t fought my best,” he says. “I really felt like I had let myself down, let my country down. But it was over. So back in the dressing room, I went up to [Gu Yong-Ju] and, since I learned Korean while I was stationed there, I shook his hand and congratulated him and said to him, ‘Korean people are very good people,’ in Korean.”
In response to his multilingual show of kindness, however, Gu Yong-Ju gave Mooney a silent stare and a weak shake. Mooney dropped the gracious-loser act.
“I called him an asshole in Korean,” Mooney says, again with a laugh. “I’d learned bad words, too.”
Mooney retired from the military in 1992, and took a job with the D.C. schools teaching ROTC classes at his alma mater, Eastern High School, where he still works. The school’s drill team has been one of the best in the city since Mooney took it over.
Mooney accomplished a lifelong goal in 2000 when he opened his own boxing club, the Charles Mooney Academy of Boxing/Fitness, in Laurel, Md., where he now lives. Five nights a week, he passes on his ring knowledge to rank amateurs and world-ranked fighters.
“At the end of a day at the school, going to the gym is like a drug or like coffee,” he says. “I know it’s where I should be, and I’m just glad to be there. I love being there, and I love seeing some kid off the street come into the gym and just become a different person. No matter how they act outside, when kids are in the gym, for some reason it’s all ‘Yes, sir! No, sir!’”
Boxing’s dark side is never too far away, though. Lately, Simon Brown has started coming to Mooney’s gym, preparing for a comeback. Brown, who turns 41 next month, held welterweight and middleweight world titles between 1988 and 1994. But he took some brutal beatings after losing the championship for the last time to Terry Norris.
Local boxing fans still shudder at the memory of Brown lying on the canvas after being knocked out by Vincent Pettway at USAir Arena in 1995, unconscious but somehow still throwing punches. He quit the ring in 2000 after losing his last six fights, three by knockout.
“I’ll help Simon out, whatever he wants,” says Mooney.
And next month, Mooney’s top fighter, light heavyweight Darnell “Dingaling Man” Wilson, will go against George Khalid Jones in Baltimore on a bout to headline an ESPN 2 card. In a televised match in 2001, Jones put a terrible beating on local favorite Beethaeven Scottland. Scottland died in the hospital six days later.
Mooney can stay in touch with several of his teammates through the newspapers. Leon Spinks’ son Cory is a world champion welterweight. Leonard, the godfather of Mooney’s daughter, is involved in The Contender, a reality boxing show scheduled for next season on NBC.
He says he doesn’t think about the Olympics experience, proud as he is of it, unless somebody else brings it up. Last month, those days were brought up in a big way when he visited Davis at his home in Florida. Davis asked his ex-teammate if he’d like to lace up the gloves for old times’ sake. Mooney, though about 45 pounds over his Olympic fighting weight, agreed.
“I’m in the ring all the time at my gym, but there I know I’m not going to get hit,” says Mooney, recalling the spontaneous sparring session with a big laugh. “This was different. We went four rounds, and, man, was I tired. I think I’m still pretty tough, but, man, I’m too old to get hit in the head.”
Mooney doesn’t say who beat whom. —Dave McKenna