Alfred Jones: The Olympic Bronze Bomber
Before Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr., Alfred “Tiger Cat” Jones was on the losing end of one of the most controversial decisions in Olympic boxing history.
“In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.” – Andy Warhol, 1968
On October 24, 1968, Alfred “Tiger Cat” Jones stepped into a boxing ring in Mexico City and onto the world stage. It was the Olympic boxing semi-finals for the middleweight division and the bout was being broadcast live on ABC in the United States and other networks around the world. If Jones could defeat Chris Finnegan of Great Britain, he would have one last fight to win the gold medal.
For an Olympic boxer, the road to a gold medal is a war of attrition. You must face a fighter who is the best that their country has to offer in your weight class. In three, three-minute stanzas, you must prove to five judges, with a sheer volume of punches, that you are the better man. With minimal rest and regardless of injury, you then need to do it four more times within two weeks.
Jones felt well prepared for the challenge. His fight in the finals of the US Olympic trials against Al Bolden of Pittsburgh was a gold medal-worthy performance in itself. The action packed amateur fight broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports was so well received, in an age before DVR’s and VCR’s, viewers called in to ask if the network would show it again. It would be the first time in the immensely popular show’s history that a boxing match was broadcast a second time.
But with Detroit and several other American cities facing rioting in the streets, and with the country at war, Jones faced insurmountable odds not just to get to this point, but to survive in life.
Detroit’s 1965 Golden Gloves team, including Alfred Jones (third from left)
Boxing had been a part of Detroit’s culture, ever since a young man named Joe Louis won the National Golden Gloves light-heavyweight championship in 1935. But there was another champion who made him fall in love with the sport. “I watched Muhammad Ali in the 1960 Olympics, and that got me really interested in boxing,” he says. “I had never seen anyone that flashy or fast, especially with their feet.”
In high school, Jones played wide receiver and defensive back for the football team. He competed on the swim team. He also competed in five track and field events, and was an all-city pole vaulter. But he was also finding great success in boxing. “I won the Parks and Recreation championship when I was 14,” he says. “I won the Silver Gloves when I was 15. Won the Golden Gloves Junior Novice, then the Novice. I won the Golden Gloves Open in 1965, all while I was in high school.”
After graduating as his school’s class president, Eastern Michigan University offered Jones a football scholarship, but it didn’t include room and board. The drive was over two hours each way to school, not including the time he would need to study and practice. So he opted against the opportunity. Then he received a letter that would change his life.
“On January 4, 1966, I received a letter from President Lyndon Baines Johnson,” Jones says. “You are hereby drafted into the Armed Services of the United States of America. Please report to your nearest recruiting station within 24 hours.” And I tore the letter up and went to Chrysler to get a job. That’s why I’ll never forget the date. The day I got the letter was the day I started work at Chrysler. I was there for a year and a half.”
Jones was no stranger to the racial turmoil that was engulfing the country at the time. By the following year, army tanks with machine guns were patrolling the streets of Detroit. “There were people getting killed in Detroit a block away from where I lived,” Jones says. “They had tanks, literally, going up and down my street. A tank blew up a house a half a block from me. The tank pulled up. The guy yelled, ‘You’ve got ten seconds to come out of the house. 10, 9…’ Boom! They didn’t even get to one, and they blew that house up. Guys came running out, and threw their rifles down. We didn’t have any place to shop. The A&P supermarket on the corner was burned up. All the dry cleaners, all the stores—they were shot. Then they put a curfew on the city.”
A US Army tank patrols the streets of Detroit during the riots of the late 1960s.
With nine sisters, Jones was doing everything he could to help support his family. “I had a motorcycle. At that time, I was working in the foundry, and I had to start work at 11 o’clock at night. The problem was that the curfew started at 9 p.m. I used to turn my lights off and drive to the foundry at night for the midnight shift. I made a lot of money, because guys were afraid to work the midnight shift, so I made a lot of overtime. $2.35 an hour in 1967 was a lot of money!”
Nearly 18 months after receiving his draft notice, Jones arrived at home to see a police car and an army jeep parked on his street. Soldiers carrying rifles patrolled the block. “You have to remember, this was during the Detroit riots in 1967,” Jones says. “They were doing searches up and down the street for contraband, because people had robbed stores and stolen furniture, cases of whiskey, all kinds of things, and they were often looking for stuff that people had stolen.”
The soldiers asked Jones to identify himself. “When I did, they said ‘You’re the guy we’re looking for.’ (click-click) They handcuffed me and took me to the police station. They told me I was a draft dodger, and that in the morning, they were sending me to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to spend the next four years in jail.”
With one phone call to make, Jones contacted a local businessman who owned a number of liquor stores in the area. The businessman made a few calls and arranged to have Jones released with the condition that he was to report to the local recruiting station by 9 a.m. the next morning.
“When I got to the recruiting station, the guy there was mad!” Jones remembers. “He said, ‘I’m only doing this because of your friend! So he tore up my draft papers, and I was enlisting in the army for the next four years.”
Jones was shipped off to Fort Devens in Massachusetts and put in the Army Security Agency (ASA) to learn how to send messages by code. Of the 400 soldiers in the unit, only two were African-American. As it turned out, the other African-American soldier was a friend of Jones.
“The other black guy had graduated from a neighboring high school in Detroit,” Jones says. “He was class president and so was I. Can you imagine? 400 guys, there are only two black soldiers, and we knew each other! At that point, I hadn’t boxed in a year. We were going to school at night to learn how to code messages. It was very boring in the daytime, so we went to the boxing gym. When they switched my friend to days, I told him, “Why don’t we get a boxing team together? I’ll get 10 guys from the night shift, you get 10 guys from the day shift. And we’ll have a competition.”
Jones brought the idea to his company commander who thought it was a good idea. He then convinced the local Golden Gloves organization to send referees and ringside doctors for the fights. While in the Army, Jones won the Lowell, Massachusetts Golden Gloves, the Massachusetts state Golden Gloves, and the New England Golden Gloves, qualifying him for the national tournament. “Then I was told, I was on my way to Vietnam,” Jones says.
The order came down that all 400 soldiers in the unit could go home for Christmas, and then they were to report to California’s Fort Ord to be shipped to the front line of the war. “I was like, ‘Wait! What? We haven’t picked up a rifle in over a year!” Jones remembers. He returned home to Detroit for the holiday facing the grim reality that he would soon be off to war. Two days after Christmas, just before he was to report to duty, his father passed away.
“I was the only surviving male in the family with nine sisters, so the Army discharged me in February,” Jones says. “But I was still on the New England Golden Gloves team that was competing in the National Golden Gloves. I sent a letter to the Boston Globe asking if I could still fight. They said I could, and they sent me a plane ticket from Detroit to Salt Lake City. I fought for the New England team, and got all the way to the Finals. And I lost to a guy from Detroit (laughs).”
With most of the roads to Olympic qualifying closed, the only way left for Jones to make it to the Olympic trials was the AAU national tournament. Jones wrote the Boston Globe again to ask if they would sponsor him for the tournament. The Globe told Jones he could fight under their banner, but they wouldn’t finance him.
“As fate would have it,” Jones says, “the tournament was in Toledo, Ohio, just an hour from my home. I had relatives in Toledo, so I stayed with them for the week. I won all five fights in the tournament, and I qualified for the Olympic trials.”
Jones went with several boxers to training camp. “There was a heavyweight named Buster Mathis,” Jones says. “He was the No. 1 heavyweight contender, and he fought Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title that they took away from Muhammad Ali. He had a training camp in Pennsylvania, and that’s where we went to get ready.”
Jones battled his way through the trials, including his well-received nationally televised battle with Al Bolden. Now securely on the US Boxing Team, he was faced with another challenge. Given the racial climate in America at the time, several African-American athletes were discussing whether or not to boycott the Olympics.
“In 1968, there was a whole lot of turmoil,” Jones says. “Dr. King was assassinated in April. There were riots in Detroit, in Watts, California and Newark, New Jersey. It was rough. The whole protest thing with Tommy Smith and John Carlos, it was a message to people that we understand what you’re going through. That’s how I took it and how I felt about it.”
Several people had requested to speak to the athletes about a potential boycott. Jackie Robinson, an icon to every African-American athlete of the day, spoke to over 40 athletes, including Jones. “Jackie talked to us about not going and how to protest. He said that it was up to us, but he made it very clear that we could boycott.”
Soon thereafter, Olympic legend Jesse Owens spoke to the athletes, urging them to compete. “Jesse said that this was our opportunity to make people aware of things. He said, ‘You can’t make progress if you’re not there. You can’t make an impact if you’re sitting at home and the team is here. You go to the Olympic Games, if you have an opportunity. Then you can protest.’ So they both had their points of view.”
For Jones, boycotting the Olympics was never a thought. “When they started talking about challenges and protest, I wasn’t prepared to discuss that stuff,” Jones says. “It never crossed my mind not to go. I’m sitting with George Foreman, who was my roommate for some exhibition fights in Europe. George was like, ‘Listen here. I came here to win a gold medal, so I can become heavyweight champion of the world. Them other guys can talk all they want. They want to protest? Let them come down to the Fifth Ward in Houston, and I’ll show them some protest.’ (laughs)”
Jones’ first Olympic fight was with Marcelo Quiñones of Peru, where he dominated to win a nearly unanimous decision. His second fight was with the overwhelming favorite to win gold, Raúl Marrero of Cuba.
“When Marrero came to the ring, people were cheering and screaming and hollering,” Jones remembers. “My coach said, ‘You’re not getting a decision against this guy. You have to whip this guy’s ass.’ So I was on him. When the bell rang, I was already in his corner. When he turned around, there I was. When I got to whupping him, I was a local hero. I was signing autographs for everybody. The Mexican people love fighters. Not boxers. Fighters! And I came to fight!”
In the quarterfinals, Jones faced a game Simeon Georgiev from Bulgaria and won the decision. But during the fight, he received a cut on his face which jeopardized his medal hopes. “We put this tape on the cut called New-Skin. I really needed about three stitches. If the doctor had seen the cut, they never would have cleared me to fight. I kept turning my face to the side so he couldn’t get a good look and he signed off for me to fight in the semi-finals.”
Jones entered the ring confident and with the crowd on his side. The fight was being televised to the US audience. “You have to remember,” Jones says. “In 1964, the Games were in Tokyo, so the fights were on at 3 a.m. Nobody watched them. And in 1960, most people didn’t even have television sets yet. We were the first US Olympic boxing team that most of America got to see.”
Jones stalked Finnegan early and pushed the pace. His power punching led to the referee giving Finnegan two standing eight counts. In a three-round fight with amateur rules, it would be considered a dominant performance. Yet when the ring announcer read the judges’ scores, four judges selected Finnegan as the winner, while only one selected Jones. Finnegan would be going on to the gold medal round.
“It was chaos after that,” Jones said. “People were throwing tomatoes and hats and all kinds of things into the ring. They had to bring in soldiers to calm people down. It delayed the next fight for over a half-hour.”
On television, Howard Cosell railed against the verdict. “I don’t believe what I just saw,” Cosell said. “I’m not making excuses for Alfred Jones, but he won that fight!” In the fifteen minutes from when Jones entered the ring in Mexico City until he exited the ropes, he felt like the world was in his corner. “Everyone wanted to interview me,” he remembers. “Howard Cosell would just hang out in my room in the Olympic Village. I was getting telegrams from around the world. Even my mother was calling me long distance to talk to me. (laughs)”
Though Jones felt he won the fight, he wasn’t even sure he would be able to compete for gold. “That cut that needed three stitches now needed eight,” he says. “The Mexican doctor didn’t have any Novocain, so he just gave me a shot of tequila and stitched me up. He did a hell of a job. To this day, you can’t see the stitches. But I doubt I ever would have been cleared to fight again. But I would have rather won and defaulted than lost the way I did. I won the fight.”
With his newfound celebrity and an Olympic bronze medal, several people were looking to represent Jones if he would turn pro. A group of lawyers in Detroit agreed to back Jones by paying him a salary and for training expenses. They would split his purses 50/50 for the first three years and then 75-25 thereafter.
Jones’ professional career would last 13 fights. He was the second main event on a card in his hometown, when then heavyweight champ Joe Frazier defended his title against Bob Foster at Cobo Hall. “I earned $10,000 for that fight, which was a lot of money back then. But my heart wasn’t in boxing anymore.” With a 12-1 record, Jones retired from boxing.
“There’s a big difference between professional fighting and amateur fighting,” he says. “In the amateurs, the glory is right there. In the pros, it’s a long term thing. It’s a very different kind of training; there’s no real fun to it. You’d go to the fights, and people were smoking in the arena. There would be a big cloud of smoke in the ring! I had done what I wanted to do in boxing. I won national championships, an Olympic medal, fought in so many different cities, different countries.”
Back home in Detroit, Jones would go back to work for Chrysler, where he developed workplace training videos for the company’s union members. He would also go to school at night to complete his college degree and earn two Masters degrees. Nearly fifty years after his Olympic experience, people still recognize Jones in Detroit from his boxing days. “I can still remember when we went to compete in the National Golden Gloves and guys complaining about having to ride on a Greyhound Bus from Detroit to Kansas City,” Jones says. “For a kid like me, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was all an adventure to me.”