Support Local Journalism. Join Riverfront Times Press Club.

Prized Fighter: Boxing in St. Louis will never die — not as long as Kenny Loehr has a kid in the ring 

You heard of Pruitt-Igoe? Yeah, the projects. I was down there twelve years, at the DeSoto Center. Twelve years, man. I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't torn it down. I'd have been in the funny farm. I had like 70 guys. And I was the only white one down there, the whitest white guy they ever seen. They thought I was crazy.

But man, they were good. They were dedicated. I had so many kids I didn't know what to do with them. But they worked. They had heart. And they all listened to me. Today they don't want to train! And I tell 'em, "You ain't training, I ain't taking you anywhere!"

I'm not too nice of a guy sometimes. But these kids are my life.

Kenny Loehr hasn't a cell phone and rarely answers at home. He doesn't e-mail and he's never seen the Internet. Still, it's not hard to track down the old coach. Chances are good he's at the city rec center just south of downtown, at Twelfth and Park. Head upstairs, hang a left and follow the stench.

Loehr is there Monday through Friday, not a minute before 2:25 p.m. and not a second past 5:30. He'll be seated at a scuffed-up card table in the center of the gym, barking at newcomers, telling off spectators and staring down his boxers when they'd better quit slacking.

The gym itself is pretty hard on the eyes: exposed pipes, walls slathered in mint-green paint and windows covered with heavy-duty cardboard. It's dark and dank; on a hot summer day the temperature inside can spike past 100. The place hasn't changed a lick in the 34 years that Kenny Loehr has been coaching there.

In the old days, Loehr would be jumping rope and holding the pads for the guys. He'd ferry the kids between home and the gym whenever the gangs were on a tear. He'd come early and stay late, departing with burned palms and bloody knuckles.

But times change, and even though Kenny's still Kenny, as his friends like to say, some things are different. The hard-charging march has slowed to a resolute shuffle. The burly upper body curves forward in a hunchback. His 76-year-old ticker now keeps the beat with the help of a pacemaker.

Kids these days play football and baseball, Wii and Xbox. Amateur boxing coaches are lucky to get five guys on a card and maybe draw 50 spectators. In the old days, hundreds — thousands, even — showed up.

Still, after 53 years spent training countless young amateur fighters, Loehr has no plans to throw in the towel.

"He's one of the toughest coaches in the business," observes Stan Gallup, former executive director of the National Golden Gloves. "St. Louis, under his leadership, probably won more top-five national championships than any other franchise since I started in 1964.

"He coached the World Championships, the Goodwill Games, the Pan Am Games. St. Louis still has a reputation as a boxing town because of Kenny Loehr."

I fought for six years. When I came back from the war, my coach quit. They hired a new guy. I said, "Oh, no. He ain't gonna be the coach of this team. I'm taking over." I didn't really want to coach, but that's what I did. I was only 23.

I took two buses to get to the gym, from Shaw to Sherman Park. Two buses, every day, and I never missed one. Then they sent me to the projects. Thank God they tore them down. The last year I was down there I had 78 kids fighting in the city tournament. We got so good we had to go to the prison in Jeff City to get some work.

They sent me to Cherokee for three years, and then they sent me here. I ain't going nowhere now. I leave here, I'm done. That's it.

You can't just walk into Kenny Loehr's gym. "Hey! What do you want? Can I help you?"

You have to work. "There ain't no spectating in here! I ain't no babysitter!"

The routine's on the crinkled piece of cardboard taped to the wall: 100 jumping jacks, 50 pushups, 50 toe touches, 50 squat thrusts. And so on.

Finish with the knee-bends, move on to rounds of rope-jumping, the heavy bag, pull-ups. Pay attention to the clock. "We do four minutes here — not three, fat boy!"

Don't even think about asking to spar. "I tell you when you're ready."

As former middleweight Rodriguies Moungo puts it, "You be soft in a place like this as a white man, you won't survive."

"The first time I walked into his gym," recalls Harold Petty, the decorated bantamweight, "he had a stick in his hand, like a broken-off piece of a two-by-four. I saw him crack somebody with that stick – pow! – and yell, 'Get your hands up! Extra rounds!' And right then he sees me, and he screams, 'Waddaya want?' I told him I just wanted to box. He yells, 'Get a rope!'

"I didn't talk for my first three years."

That was 1970, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was one of the most notorious in the country. But its DeSoto gym under Loehr's command — home to future National Golden Gloves champions Michael Spinks, Claudell Atkins and Don Carbin — was the place to box.

"My God, it was years before anybody could really compete with him," recounts north-county coach Jim Howell, who finally upset Loehr in 1976. "He won the Golden Gloves team championships so many times it wasn't funny."

Back then, Loehr made his brood run Art Hill in Forest Park thirteen times (yeah, thirteen) before gym workouts. He hurled medicine balls at their stomachs till they felt sick, and dished out extra rounds for so much as a smirk.

"We always tell the kids," says Petty, who now assists Loehr, "'You never would have made it at DeSoto.'"

A short, compact man, with a creamy-white buzz-cut and craggy frown lines, Loehr has softened a trifle on the training regimen as he's aged. Other trademarks, though, remain. His fighters have always been known for their relentless body-punching. They like to flash the stealthy left hook. The trainer himself was a southpaw and has taught the left-sided stance to many of his best protégés.

Some have brought home Olympic gold. Some have died in the streets.

Perhaps the real badge of honor was putting up with "Crazy K.L.," with his name-calling ("chicken-shit!") and incessant ribbing ("bok-bok-bok!").

"You know you're finally all right with Ken," says fellow coach, Winston "Buddy" Shaw, "when he calls you a creep."

I never did kiss nobody's butt.

I was the best coach they had for years. I took on so many national teams.

But they never made me the Olympic coach. Never. I put in for it a couple times. But I wasn't what-you-call-it: politicking.

I always told 'em: "I ain't kissin' nobody's butt."

City proclamations line the walls in Kenny Loehr's Mehlville living room, but the real loot collects dust in his basement, where two walls of floor-to-ceiling trophies frame a rowing machine, an exercise bike and a mini-fridge full of Busch.

Even Loehr's worst moment in boxing has a commemorative plaque: "You won the championship in 1967-68," it states. "Regardless of what the paper says, you're the best coach. — The DeSoto Team."

"That was the year of the city tournament when they took three fights from us," explains Loehr. "The year we got screwed. I was in tears. It really hurt, 'cause they worked so hard. I was the only white guy; our judges were black. I said I was gonna quit. Man, that didn't work. The next year I was back."

The basement's swag also includes old posters and a few photos, including a shot of Loehr and Eric Griffin, wearing gold medals on the podium at the 1989 World Boxing Championships in Moscow. Another photo shows the trainer with St. Louis' best-known boxing brothers, Michael and Leon Spinks, before the 1976 Olympics.

"It was just great to be there," remembers Loehr, describing the Montreal games as the highlight of his career. "Mike and Leon both knocked 'em out in the finals. I was happy as hell. I didn't get to be in the corner, but I got as close as I could."

Loehr never became head coach of a U.S. Olympic team, but the amateur boxing community did enlist him to lead numerous national teams. The assignments sent him to Poland and Finland, Russia and Cuba, Germany and all over the United States.

Loehr's wife, Rose, recalls how her husband had little to say about meeting Fidel Castro in Cuba during the 1991 Pan Am Games, but he did boast of acquiring some New York Yankees gear from George Steinbrenner on that trip. "I could just picture him saying to George Steinbrenner, 'I don't want that! That's not Cardinals!' People don't impress him too much."

Of the many memories forged during his globetrotting, Kenny Loehr distinctively remembers the food. In Russia, he says, it was so bad he lived on beer and peanuts. "Their buns you could throw at that wall and make a hole — they were like rocks!"

In Cuba, Loehr goes on, everybody got diarrhea. "Now Seattle, for the Goodwill Games, they gave you two steaks for breakfast. Whatever you wanted. That was awesome. That's when I had Oscar De La Hoya on my team. He was a super guy. He played tennis."

Loehr never did much sightseeing — that is, outside his hotel pool and bar. "He'd always come back with, 'The electric didn't work;' 'The bugs were bad;' 'We didn't have toilet seats,'" recalls Rose. "And I'd say, Well, what did it look like? What was the scenery?"

Kids come in here all the time and say, "I know how to fight." Well, I fought in the streets. I know what it's like. And this ain't like fighting in the streets, boy.

But I ain't telling you all the things I used to do as a kid. No way. I'm just sayin' I know what's going through these kids' heads.

My coach would leave, and say you hadn't been down there before, I'd come up to you, and I'd say, "Hey, let's spar a little," and then I'd get you in the ring and I'd try to kill you.

They called him "Bullhead," because as a child he'd plunk down on the sidewalk during family errands and make somebody carry him.

Kenneth George Loehr, born in the middle of the Great Depression, was the son of a St. Louis cop who later owned a tavern. The five Loehr boys grew up near Sherman Park and had their first jobs setting bowling pins, long before they were teenagers with a rap for brawling in back alleys.

"I had my first fight in 1945," says Loehr. "I was thirteen. I won, and I won again, and I lost my third fight. I was out the whole next year with a ruptured appendix, and man, you don't know how bad I wanted it when I got back in. My coach was a guy named Vic Windle, and he was a hell of a coach. My dad used to think I thought more of that guy than I did of him."

Loehr never lost a bout in the City Recreation Tournament, and he won the regional Golden Gloves in 1948. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in September 1950, was shipped to Korea in March 1952 and got shot in the foot four months later. "I don't know where the hell I was," he grumbles. "I just know I was lucky as hell not to get hurt worse."

Back in St. Louis in 1955, he took over the boxing team at the Wohl Center, on the north side near Sherman Park. He became a letter carrier so he could work early and get to the gym by 2:30 in the afternoon.

"We were all poor kids who had absolutely nothing, and he took care of us," remembers Floyd Johnstone, one of Loehr's only two white fighters. Johnstone says he made Loehr his best man when he quit boxing to marry. "I'll never forget: We're in the back of the church, waiting for my wife to come down the aisle, and Kenny says, 'This is your last chance, dummy.'"

Loehr likes to complain that his fighters get distracted by girls once they become teenagers. He laments those with promise – like Johnstone – who quit fighting to marry or have babies.

But the trainer himself never would give up the sport for the love of a good woman. "When we first got married, I thought I could change him," says Rose. "It didn't work that way."

She did, however, convince her husband to rent a tuxedo for their fiftieth anniversary party in September, which was held, says Kenny, "at that place with all the flowers, on Vandeventer." (That would be the Missouri Botanical Garden.) Rose says her bullheaded husband refused to buy a new suit for the affair.

You know how they used to wear their hair in Afros? Not at my gym. And no braids, either. I only let one guy have an Afro. I'm from the old school.

I've seen a lot of racist coaches. There's a lot of people I know are jealous of me. But I don't give a shit. They can suck it up. A kid's a kid. I don't care what color they are, as long as they train and do what I want.

I could care less about the pros. They don't do what you tell 'em to. They don't listen. So why should I work with 'em? I don't want their money.

Kenny Loehr never gave a rat's ass about the money. It was always about helping a kid.

"He always loaned me money," reports former light middleweight Chantel Stanciel. "And I'm not talking no little five dollars. I'm talking twenty, fifty, a hundred."

Loehr kept his gym well-equipped with gloves and bags he bought himself. He paid for his fighters' annual registration fees, and on trips he footed the room and board bills. "I always said boxing never put food on our table," adds Rose Loehr.

Kenny Loehr could have made some serious coin in boxing, but he never gave a squat about taking a guy pro. "Them guys in the pros are so, what's the word — corrupt. They'll put you in the ring when you ain't ready, just so they can make a payday," he'd tell his young charges. "Get a job."

To be sure, the coach followed the pro careers of his former standouts, mostly by grapevine and television. "Bill White and Harold Petty were really the only ones who ever wanted me there for a pro fight, especially Harold. I'd go to Texas to see him, and they'd try to put a cowboy boots and hat on me.

"See, Harold, that's what's so great about him: He never made, a what-you-call-it, a big payday. But he's always been there for the kids."

"A lot of times coaches develop a couple good, big fighters and forget all about the little guys," observes Jim Howell. "It's never been that way with Kenny. He'd take off with just two or three little kids for tournaments way down South, and out West, and he'd take them in his own car. He's made a path for the rest of us to follow."

Loehr swears nothing will keep him from getting a ringside seat, though, when DeAndre "Bull" Latimore fights fellow St. Louisan Cory Spinks for the International Boxing Federation junior middleweight belt. Latimore called out Spinks just last month. The fight is expected to take place next year, with Latimore's promoters hoping the show will go in St. Louis.

"They won't schedule it for St. Louis," Loehr predicts. "Cory is not that much of an exciting fighter. Bull will kick his butt."

Latimore, 23, trained with Loehr from the age of eight until moving to Las Vegas two years ago. "I knew he fell in love with me the first time he saw me," says Latimore. "I just had that feeling from him."

Technically, amateur fighting starts at age eight (nine for some tournaments). But Loehr will take a child as young as seven. He admits to fudging a registration form or two if a kid is ready and hungry.

On the road at tournaments, Loehr rules with an iron fist, says Steve Holley, former president of the St. Louis Amateur Boxing Association. Wake-up call's at 6 a.m. There's no swimming until after the fights. "Whoever loses goes home on the first thing that smokes: plane, train or automobile," says Holley. "No kidding."

Loehr and his wife never had kids of their own, but when their favorite niece and nephew had a son, Loehr insisted the grand-nephew get his moniker.

Says his niece, Jean Loehr: "I told him once, If God had given you your own children, you may not have had the time or motivation to be a father to all these kids who needed that kind of figure in their lives."

Kenny Loehr agrees. He used to carry a wallet full of his boxers' school pictures, numbered and arranged chronologically, according to when they walked into his life.

"He'd pull that thing out everywhere," says Buddy Shaw. "He'd say this is my No. 1 son, and this is my No. 2 son, and so on."

The schtick raised eyebrows, Loehr admits, but he insists it got him out of a speeding ticket once. "I think the lady who pulled me over thought I was a saint for having all these black kids."

He quit carrying the wallet two decades ago, when the thing got too damn big.

You don't know how many I lost. I lost so many.

A guy would lose a fight — he'd get a bad decision — and he'd come to me the next day and he'd say, 'Kenny, I can't do this no more.' Three, four weeks later he'd be dead.

He was out there playing on the streets. He was trying to make that fast dollar.

It tore you up, man. It just tore you up.

Seems like once a week Loehr gets a fistful of bad news. A promising young amateur is locked up for stealing cars. A pro he once trained fails a drug test. One year a fighter got killed on Christmas. Another year three brothers all got killed within weeks of quitting the gym. Then there was the fighter murdered by his best friend, over drugs.

The meanest, hardest-hitting boxer Loehr says he ever had, Ray "Lethal" Lathon, was shot dead right on the steps of the rec center, only an hour after Loehr had left for the night.

"He knew he was gonna get it," says Loehr, "because he knew he was foolin' around. You try to talk to 'em, but once they leave this gym, I can't control them."

Loehr tries to keep tabs best he can. "That one's got a mom; that one's got a mom and a dad; that one's dad's in jail; that one over there is raised by his grandma," he says, glancing about the gym. "Most of them, this is the only structure they got."

Says Jerry Clinton, the ex-boxer and former owner of Grey Eagle Distributors, "I would hate to think about the number of kids who would have been in a lot of trouble if it hadn't been for Kenny Loehr."

Leon Bobo, a 30-year-old featherweight who grew up in the Clinton-Peabody housing project across from the 12th and Park rec center, says he left a gang because of Loehr. "Kenny kept me in the gym. I stayed out of jail because of him, and I'm doing good."

Chantel Stanciel says Loehr made him a man. "I got a brother on death row. Both my parents been shot. Kenny kept me out of all that. He took me places, he showed me how to act, how to respect and get respect. He was like a daddy that didn't go home with you at night. He was more of a daddy than I ever had."

When I had that pacemaker, I was stuck in the hospital and we had fights that night. I told them there ain't no way I'm missing my little guys box. They been working so hard.

But the wife talked to the doctor. I know she did. They wouldn't let me leave. They came and told me, "Sorry, but you ain't getting out of here tonight." I had to call Harold and tell him what to do.

Man, we won that night, too.

On the eve of the Silver Gloves qualifiers last month, eight-year-old Marcus Golliday has a question for his coach before leaving the gym. "Wait a minute, Kenny. I'm fighting somebody who's seven?"

"No," hollers Loehr. "He's ten. He weighs 60 pounds. And he told me he eats nails for breakfast."

Golliday recoils and cries, "Eww! I'm gonna hit him right in the stomach to see how those nails can come back and haunt him!"

Loehr grabs his fist and looks him in the eye. "Hey, buddy. Talk's cheap. I wanna see action."

In the fall of 2000, Loehr was hitting golf balls — his only pastime outside boxing — when his chest didn't feel right. Before long he was under the knife, for a quintuple bypass. Things would have been all right if he hadn't developed a staph infection at the hospital. The illness kept him out of the gym for six months. "I think that nearly killed him," says Harold Petty.

"When he got sick, I told him, You're just too mean. God don't want you yet!" recalls coach Shaw.

Two of Loehr's brothers died in their fifties. One has dementia. "My mother died of a heart attack in her eighties," he says. "They found her dead in bed. That's the way to go."

In January, Loehr had his pacemaker installed. He missed some fights but was back at the gym within a few days. This past summer he took five kids to a tournament in Kansas City. "We had a couple big guys who didn't barely do nothing," he reports. "But the three little guys fought so hard. My heart was beating like a little kid's."

Loehr has lost his patience with teenagers. "One night I had two guys supposed to fight at South Broadway. They found out who they were fighting, and they never showed up," he complains. "Sheesh. Seventy bucks, shot! One of them had the nerve to show up at the gym the next day. I said, Are you crazy? You think I'm going let you keep training here?'

"And last year we had four guys who wanted to go to the PAL [Police Athletic League] tournament in California. But they wouldn't do what I wanted! I told them there ain't no way I was taking them. And I didn't go. I don't think they could believe it."

But Loehr has two little guys, eleven-year-old Orlando Hill and Golliday, who fellow coaches expect will keep him in the gym awhile longer.

"That Orlando is just super," Loehr marvels. "He's already had 32 fights, and he always brings his own gear and trunks. I never have to take anything home to wash!"

At their Silver Gloves qualifiers at the Marquette rec center last month, Loehr comes prepared as always, his black fight bag full of shorts and cups and mouth guards — and always the red towel. Taping the kids' hands, escorting them to the ring, he barely has a word to mutter.

"Kenny was always so cool and confident," recalls former boxer Mike Cross. "He made you feel so comfortable."

Once the bell sounds, it's a different story. "It used to be that you couldn't coach from the corner," says Shaw, "but he'd be over there yelling into a towel. He has such a distinctive voice; everybody knew what he was doing. The refs would come right over and tell him to be quiet. He'd go, 'I didn't say anything.' Eventually, he'd get thrown out, go sit in the audience and scream louder."

After the boys win, they get a hug and a few bucks for sodas. Loehr is out the door for "a cold one," his own 53-year post-fight ritual.

"I love Kenny," says Golliday, before stepping into the ring. "I don't want him to die."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 20, 2021

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

© 2021 Riverfront Times

Website powered by Foundation