In 1976, a group of young athletes journeyed to Montreal to fight for their country. There were no great expectations for the men who populated the American Olympic boxing team. When they returned with no fewer than five gold medals, they were welcomed back as heroes by an adoring public.
Very soon, all five — Howard Davis Jr., Michael and Leon Spinks, Ray Leonard and Leo Randolph — had joined the pro ranks and by 1980, three of them had tasted world championship glory. But then, by the end of 1980, all three were ex-champions. Leon Spinks had scored a huge upset when he won the heavyweight championship of the world from Muhammad Ali in 1978. Months later Ali won the title back. In 1979, Sugar Ray Leonard defeated Wilfred Benitez to take the WBC version of the world welterweight title; less than a year later, Leonard defended against Roberto Duran, and lost.
The third gold medallist to claim a world title was Leo Randolph who won the WBA super bantamweight title on live national televsion, defeating Ricardo Cardona by dramatic, final round stoppage. Like all of the other Olympic heroes, Randolph was now in an excellent position to win fame and fortune at a time when boxing was more popular than ever. But, like Spinks and Leonard before him, he was soon an ex-champ.
After his huge win over Cardona, Randolph was a boxing star, in constant demand for public appearances, and the weeks following were one big celebration. Thus, proper preparation for his first title defense, held just three months after his title-winning effort, didn’t receive the focus and attention it deserved. Like the Cardona fight, his next bout took place in his home state of Washington and on national television, but his opponent, Sergio Victor Palma of Argentina, didn’t need to worry about outside distractions. He arrived in Spokane ready to rumble and at the first opportunity let Randolph know all the celebrating was about to come to sudden halt.
“I want to say that you are a very nice person,” he told Leo at a press conference, “but I’m sorry, because I’m going to take the title away from you.”
“I fly 23 hours to win,” he then told the press, “not to lose.”
Palma’s fighting style proved just as direct and to the point. The challenger answered the opening bell with an aggressive attack, throwing heavy punches and looking to ambush Randolph early. The result was two knockdowns in the opening round.
“He came out hard,” said Randolph afterwards. “I was expecting him to be more of a boxer. He caught me with a good punch and I never did recover from it.”
Over the next few rounds the champion fought to survive but could do little else. Palma was in command, chasing Randolph from one side of the ring to the other and waiting for another chance to attack. It came in the fifth. A minute in a left-right combination scored a third knockdown and while Leo managed to beat the count, he was glassy-eyed and hanging onto the ropes for support. The referee had no choice but to stop the match.
Just like that, Leo Randolph’s championship ride was over. As was his boxing career. Shortly after the loss the devoutly religious young man, who had been reluctant to turn professional after the Olympics, announced his retirement. While many at the time thought he would eventually return to the ring, he never did.
“I’ve lost the desire,” said Randolph. “There are two things a boxer needs to become a champion: lots of determination and a killer instinct. A lot of boxers can go on with the killer instinct alone, but I don’t think I ever had that. And I don’t want to keep boxing just for the money.”
Randolph soon started working for the public transit authority of Pierce County in Tacoma, Washington as a bus driver and supervisor. He has been employed there ever since, and has also been recognized for his volunteer work with at-risk youth and for the Tacoma Boys & Girls Club.
Palma held his world title for almost two years, defending it five times before surrendering it to Leonardo Cruz in June of 1982. — Robert Portis