THE first time I ever heard of Bobo Olson was in 1987 while drinking beer with legendary boxing promoter Sad Sam Ichinose at his house high above Honolulu.
Bobo brings back
boxings glory days
When I met Sad Sam, he had already settled into the quiet last years of his long, colorful life. His last big foray into the boxing world had been in 1981 when he tried to set up a Muhammad Ali fight in Honolulu, which the boxing commission thankfully squelched. (Ali was unfit to fight, already suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Sad Sam had been hornswaggled into pitching the bout by a California hustler who later went to prison for embezzling $21 million from Wells Fargo.)
Sad Sam was pushing 80 when I met him, but he was still feisty and outspoken. It was easy to see how he had become one of Hawaii's most dashing and controversial sports figures.
But I realized that Sad Sam held more than sports in his head. He held vast pieces of Hawaii history. And so, working with the University of Hawaii Oral History Project, I set out to download as much of that history as I could. Over a period of months, I sat with Sam as he poured beer and memories out with equal abandon. Fighting legends like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano came alive. So did home-grown champions like Dado Marino and a middleweight bruiser named Bobo Olson.
Sad Sam promoted several of Bobo's fights in Honolulu. And he loved him. He talked about Bobo's courage, heart and strength. As Sam talked, Bobo became a larger-than-life figure to me: the "Kalihi Kid" who went from a Bethel Street fist-fighter to middleweight champion of the world. Bobo fought and lost to Sugar Ray Robinson four times.
Unlike today's pampered boxers who will fight no more than 30 or 40 professional fights and get paid millions, in Bobo's day, fighters fought a lot. Between 1945 and 1966, Bobo fought 109 fights. He lost only 16. And his biggest purse was only about $100,000, chump change by today's standards.
Sad Sam died in 1993. I've forgotten a lot of what we talked about on those beery afternoons at his house. Luckily, they survive on tape. But I could never forget his descriptions of Bobo.
So there I was sitting in the Columbia Inn not long ago when someone asked, "Hey, isn't that Bobo Olson?"
I was shocked. I'm sorry to say that I assumed Bobo had passed away. But there he was, sitting in a chair directly over the floor tile marking the spot where O.J. Simpson had sat during his glory days as a football star.
The difference between what sports were and what they have become could not have been more striking. On one hand, you have O.J. Simpson, a multimillionaire walking Wheaties box hero, who, corrupted by fame and power, killed his wife.
Then there's Bobo Olson, 70 years old, a guy who fought all comers for the pure love of the sport at a time when the big money wasn't there. A humble champion from Hawaii who has maintained his grace and dignity.
And here was Bobo in the flesh. I had to meet him, so I selfishly intruded on his dinner and introduced myself. I told him about my conversations with Sad Sam and how much Sam had admired him. We talked for a while until I felt as if I had infringed long enough.
I've seen him a few times since then and, it's hard to explain, but every time I see him it makes me happy. I think the world is just a little better off with Bobo Olson with us.
Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
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