The Forgotten Man: Charles Mooney and the ’76 US Olympic team

By Jack Hirsch

TO THE young aspiring boxers at the Palm Beach Boxing facility, coach Charles Mooney is royalty not only for the way he teaches them but for what he accomplished in his own youth as a silver medal winner in the 1976 Olympics. Mooney was part of a US boxing team that many regard as the greatest in Olympic history. It produced five gold medal winners, a silver, and a bronze.

Of the five gold medalists, four of them – Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks, and Leo Randolph – would go on to win world titles as professionals. The other, Howard Davis, would never reach that pinnacle but boxed for a world crown on multiple occasions. The bronze medalist, John Tate, would also claim a world belt. As for Mooney, he didn’t even try, deciding to retire right after the Olympics and he didn’t box again. Yet he has outlasted all of his Olympic teammates by still maintaining a healthy involvement in the sport at the age of 73, by doing what he loves best: Training fighters.

The gym is located in a small strip mall, but it’s an impressive facility inside. As I enter, Mooney is in the ring working the pads with one of his boxers. He sees me, reaches over the ropes for a quick fist bump, and then gets back to work. I am enjoying watching the activity in the ring where the various boxers are going through their paces, and I’m in no rush, but Mooney sees me standing still with pen and pad in hand and looks for a better way to keep me occupied.

He tells me to check out all the pictures and memorabilia which adorn the walls. I intentionally stretch out my tour around the gym so he feels no pressure to expedite his session in the ring. Mooney is sweating, probably more from his work in the ring than the Florida heat and humidity. He looks remarkably fit for a 73-year-old man.

Winning an Olympic silver medal is a great achievement but, both invariably and unfairly, it comes with baggage: The recipient will always be asked about missing out on the gold. For Mooney it is no different. In large part because he never turned pro, Charles has been the forgotten man on that great United States squad. That was evident back in 2016, when on Hall of Fame weekend in Canastota, a 40th anniversary reunion of the team took place. They sat on the dais during the banquet and watched clips of their Olympic matches, before it was time to say a few words to the crowd. “The USA won the gold,” Leonard proclaimed proudly. In reality, four did not medal: Louis Curtis, Davey Armstrong, Clint Jackson, and Chuck Walker. So if we are to rate Mooney’s Olympic performance in comparison to his teammates he comes out exactly in the middle, ahead of five, but a step behind the five gold medalists.

”I don’t really think my life would have turned out differently had I won the gold medal,” surmises Mooney. “For the most part my legacy would have been the same for today’s fans, who don’t appreciate boxing history like we did back in the day. I have talked to the kids in the gym, but they don’t understand that what happened in history determines the future. When I was younger, I would know about so many of the ring greats like Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jersey Joe Walcott.

”Getting a certain amount of fame from the Olympics was great. I enjoyed that, but never seriously considered going pro. Had I done so I think I would have been very successful. Pep asked me to turn pro, but I was in the military at the time. Another factor is that there was not enough money in my weight class (bantamweight) to make it worthwhile.

“My situation was different from other fighters. I had a great job in the army. I was in the service for 22 years overall and Sergeant 1st Class for seven of them. I got to travel the world and experience many great things. I always fooled around with boxing, but never started seriously with it until I was 19.”

Mooney is from the Washington DC area which neighboured Maryland, a hotbed of amateur boxing talent at the time, known for producing Ray Leonard, who later would be Mooney’s roommate on the Olympic team. “What people don’t realize,” said Mooney, “that as great as Ray turned out to be, the biggest amateur star in the area was not him but Derrick Holmes.” Ultimately, Mooney would have to work his way through Holmes to garner a spot on the United States squad. That he did successfully, fighting three close matches with Holmes and winning all of them on points.

The mountain that Mooney had to climb to make it to the Olympic Games was in Bernard Taylor, who at the time was arguably one of the best amateurs in the world at any weight. Mooney knew that from experience having lost their first two meetings. Taylor defeated Mooney by a 5-0 decision in Wisconsin, on September 6, 1975, in the USA Pan American Games trials finals. Then on May 15, 1976, in Las Vegas, Taylor repeated the feat, winning again on points in the National AAU finals (119lbs division). Crazy as it seems, it was Mooney’s fourth match in as many days.

The one thing that Mooney had going for him was maturity. He was in the service at the time and, having represented the army, faced tough competition from within. Mooney had already traveled the world. And at age 25, he would be the oldest man on his Olympic team. While others may have been intimidated by the previous two losses to Taylor, Mooney was confident. “I was an all-army champion,” says Mooney. “Taylor was a nightmare for me except for the last fight. Although I had won the Nationals a couple of times, I still think I was a little inexperienced at that level for our first two fights. I initially had a little fear of Taylor because he was so busy and threw a lot of punches just like I did. But he did lose a match to a Hawaiian boxer (Elichi Jumawan), who I had beaten right before facing Taylor in the finals of the Olympic Trials.”

The match in Vermont on June 26, 1976, is one that Mooney remembers for the great anxiety it caused him. “I was so hyper during the fight that I drained myself of energy. In the corner after the first round I was sucking oxygen. My coach saw how tired I was. He told me to look into the crowd and pointed to a girl, saying she wanted to meet me if I won. That relaxed me,” Mooney laughs. A rejuvenated Mooney got his second wind and outpointed Taylor, securing his spot on the team. Four years later, and with Mooney retired, Taylor earned a place in the 1980 squad, but the USA’s boycott of the games deprived him of the Olympic experience.

“We had a close-knit group,” Mooney says of his Olympic teammates. “Some of the sparring sessions were better than the real fights. Whenever Howard Davis and Aaron Pryor (Olympic alternate) sparred they went at it all out. Everyone in the gym would stop and watch. Leonard and Davis were so lightning-quick they couldn’t hit one another no matter how hard they tried.

”Chuck Walker (middleweight), was the only white guy on the team, but he fought like he was black” Mooney jokes. “He was so fast and skillful.” After winning his opening match in the tournament, Walker was eliminated on a controversial 3-2 decision in his next. “He won that fight,” Mooney contends. “I watched it from the stands. He had dreams like the rest of us. I hated to see his end that way.

“Because of our familiarity it was only natural that me and Leonard became roommates. My mother moved to Palmer Park (Maryland) and lived around the corner from his family. His brother Roger was a friend of mine.

“We all wanted to win badly, but I don’t think anyone was quite as hyper as Ray was about it. He would literally get out of bed and punch the cubicles in the walls at night while I tried to sleep.”

The big story in Montreal occurred three days before the Olympics were about to begin when Davis’ mother passed away. Not sure whether to stay or not, the Glen Cove, Long Island resident gained comfort from conferring with his teammates. “I remember me and Ray on the balcony talking with him,” says Mooney. “Ray told him to do whatever he thought was best.” Davis stayed and not only won the gold but was awarded the Val Baker trophy as the outstanding boxer of those games.

“We had all been together in camp in Michigan, before arriving in Montreal,” says Mooney. “Our coaches Pat Nappi and Sarge Johnson ran a great training camp. I knew them from the service and enjoyed having them as coaches.” Tragically, coach Johnson would later lose his life in the plane crash of 1980, headed from New York to Warsaw, in which 22 representatives of the USA boxing team (fighters and staff), were killed. “A lot of my friends were on that plane,” sighs Mooney. “It pains me to talk about it.

“Although we were on business in Montreal, we enjoyed one another’s company a great deal.” One funny incident stands out in particular for Mooney. “I was watching a cartoon when John Tate told me to change the channel. I told him I wouldn’t. He said shut up, little guy. He then picked me up in the air. Leon (Spinks) saw it and shouted, put him down. Tate did immediately because he was scared of Leon. In all of their sparring sessions, Leon would beat Tate up. I was close with both Leon and his brother Michael. Leo Randolph and Chuck Walker are close friends as well.”

The Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal hosted all the boxing events over the two week period. After wins over Mohamed Rais (Morocco), Juan Francisco Rodriguez (Spain), Bernado Onori (Italy) and Chul Soon Hang (South Korea), Mooney was guaranteed at least a bronze. He believed the biggest obstacle to gold was who awaited in the semi-finals, Russia’s Viktor Rybakov. “To me he was the favorite,” says Mooney. “He hurt me badly to the body. It was a very close fight that could have been scored either way. Had he been given the decision I would not have complained,” Mooney said of the verdict he was awarded by a 4-1 margin. Rybakov would return to the Olympics four years later in Moscow and win yet another Bronze medal.

On July 31, 1976, just two days after defeating Rybakov, Mooney squared off against fellow southpaw. North Korea’s Young Ju Gu in the bantamweight gold medal match. In his previous fight, Gu had beaten Britain’s Pat Cowdell. “He wasn’t friendly at all. I spoke to him in Korean, but he didn’t reply” he says of Gu.

Reportedly Mooney was sick going into the fight, something he confirms, but says it did not affect his actual performance inside the ring. “I thought I won the fight, and the coaches thought I won the fight,” Mooney says of the 5-0 decision that went against him.

“When I connected with hooks the referee said I was slapping and took away points. I find it hard to believe that not at least one judge scored it for me.” Mooney also thinks there might have been an ulterior motive behind the judges’ scores. “Some people were unhappy that I was given the decision over Rybakov the match before. This might have been their way of evening things out.

”What I remember most is walking back to my dressing room afterwards while another fight was going on. The crowd stopped watching the fight and gave me an ovation. It warmed my heart.”

The match with Gu was fast-paced. Gu’s punches were harder, Mooney’s a little crisper. A difficult fight to score in that neither man really showed superiority over the other. This was confirmed in the never before seen CompuBox statistics of the fight that were provided to this writer by Lee Groves, that were signed off by company owner Bob Canobbio. When I forwarded it to Mooney he was ecstatic. It was a form of redemption to Charles in that he could now provide proof he performed much better in the fight than the judges gave him credit for.

Exactly how close it was could be reflected in the numbers which saw Mooney land three more punches overall and throw 23 more. Statistically speaking he was the busier fighter that night. In summarizing the match, CompuBox’s notes said that Mooney deserved, much better than a shutout verdict. “A 3-2 decision either way would have been more reflective of the action inside the ring.”

One thing that is never mentioned is how unbalanced the Olympic schedule was. Mooney had to win five fights just to get to the gold medal match, Gu just four. As for his American teammates, the only one who was required to box as many times as Mooney, was Leonard. Howard Davis’ gold medal match came in his fifth fight, the same with Leon Spinks. Michael Spinks and Leo Randolph had just four fights in the tournament compared to Mooney’s six.

Leonard announced the first of his several retirements from the sport at the conclusion of the Olympics, saying he planned to attend college. Few believed him.

Mooney’s situation was different. He already had a career, one which gave him the lifetime benefits that went along with it.

Even had Mooney won gold, the road to a professional championship would not likely have been any easier had he tried. Like he says there was little money or interest in American fighters in the lower weight classes during that era. And in reality, for Mooney, boxing was not the end all.

When he got out of the service, Mooney went into the school system as an RTC instructor. He also started the Charles Mooney Academy of Boxing in Laurel, Maryland. And throughout the years he has trained the likes of William Joppy, Keith Holmes, Shambra Mitchell, Simon Brown, and Tony Thompson. In fact, Mooney worked the corner of Thompson’s two stoppages over David Price in the UK.

Currently Mooney trains several amateurs he hopes to one day turn pro. He is also working with former belt holder Bermaine Stiverne, but admits that being in his 40s he is not too enthusiastic about the fighter’s comeback. “He thought he was still under contract to Don King, but isn’t,” Mooney chuckled.

Mooney points to a punching bag at the opposite side of the gym. “Mike Tyson drops by now and then to hit that bag,” he says. “He has a home in Boca Raton (about a 40-minute drive).

“Not all the guys from the ‘76 team are still around, but I keep in touch with those who are. We were very close, always rooting for one another. It was great seeing the guys and reminiscing when we had that reunion in Canastota.”

Mooney’s name will always be linked to that Olympic team. That is something of which he is darn proud.

Jack Hirsch with Charles Mooney

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