At 9 years old, Harold Petty already had big dreams.
Growing up in Stl’s Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, the adolescent professional-athlete-in-the-making never left home without his beloved baseball glove. For hours every day Petty played “pop-fly” with older boys from the neighborhood. The day he caught a fly ball that soared over all of the taller boys’ heads, Petty was certain his future included the Major Leagues. His determined eyes were set on the baseball field until one day out of the clear blue sky, like that fly ball, Petty and his friends decided to go check out a boxing gym.
Petty was instantly drawn to the challenge and quickly traded in his baseball glove for boxing gloves. 42 bouts and 328 rounds later, Harold “Lil Man” Petty solidified his skills between the ropes and among boxing’s elite. Five-time Golden Gloves champ, national AAU champion (’79), runner-up in the Olympic trials (‘80), NABF bantamweight title (‘82), WBC Continental America’s bantamweight champ (‘85); the southpaw successfully turned passion into profession. At 5’5,” Petty’s power, defense, footwork and strategic approach were too much for many of his ring opponents. He even became the world's No. 1-ranked contender at bantamweight and super batamweight. When Petty retired his boxing gloves in 1988 to train the next generation, his record stood tall at 37-5.
Most days you can catch Petty at the 12th & Park Boxing Gym training young men with similar enthusiasm and dedication to the sport, the same gym Petty thrived in under the wing of boxing legend and friend Ken Loehr. Carl Daniels, Freddie Norwood, the Ingrid Twins, Arthur Johnson…a few of the many who joined Petty in the gym for training and workout sessions. Even current UFC Welterweight champion and St. Louisan Tyron Woodley acquired Petty as his boxing coach in the months leading up to the title fight.
The St. Louis Spotlight steps into the ring with Harold Petty as he takes us through the past 40 years of his boxing life and experiences.
LeShea Agnew: You’ve got over four decades of boxing under your belt.
Harold Petty: Yes, that’s right. One thing about boxing as opposed to other sports, it was a challenge. No one taught me how to play baseball, football or basketball. I just naturally grasped to it. Boxing was different and that’s what really attracted me.
For boxing, we had to get physicals where they let you spar to see if you can actually fight. I sparred with a couple guys. They were a little different from me, cocky guys. Rubbed me the wrong way. One of them busted my nose. That day, I made a vow that I would get him back. When winter came, the other guys quit training but I kept training every day. We had a big tournament coming up called Diamond Gloves back then. I got all of them back. It got hard to find sparring partners. No one wanted to spar with me. Guys would come late to the gym so they didn’t have to spar with me. (laughing) Seriously. It was crazy.
Agnew: What is it about your style that sets you apart? Is it your power, footwork…?
Petty: I am very strong for my size. I always worked on my mechanics. Usually within the first 20-30 seconds of the fight, I’m figuring out what you’re trying to do and then I take away all your weapons. I’m very good at adjusting.
Agnew: Is boxing more mental than people realize?
Petty: Oh yeah, it’s mental. It’s a chess match. Definitely. Every amateur fight I had I’m willing to bet I lost every first round. The first round I’m starting slow and watching you. I’m trying to figure out what your objective is, what you’re trying to do to me. If you start jabbing, I’m blocking it. Or I’ll counter your jab. If I counter, where I make you miss and I hit you, it makes you not want to jab anymore. I’m slowly taking away your weapons. So by the middle of the second round, you got no weapons and you’re getting beat on. Usually, they quit or take a rough beating for the rest of the fight.
Muhammad Ali was hard to hit. I was hard to hit in a different way. I stay right in front of you and block and slip out of range. And that does a lot to a guy. He’s saying to himself man, I’m throwing all these punches and I’m not hittin’ the guy. It wears you out more to miss than to hit somebody.
Agnew: Who are you training these days?
Petty: I’ve worked with a lot of guys, a lot. I’ve worked with Jesse Finney, trained some of his other fighters. I’ve trained everyone in this city that fought on a professional level especially in terms of boxing. Carl Daniels. Freddie Norwood. The Ingrid twins. Arthur Johnson.
I train a lot of young guys like Quincy Paige. He trains harder than anybody. His problem is he’s too advanced and already fights like a pro. And he’s only 11. He takes his time, sets his punches up. He’s really good. I give him another year, nobody will beat him. I wish I could turn him pro now.
Tyron Woodley, I’m training him. I’m his boxing coach. It came about strangely too. There is a family I’ve been training for 16 years. The oldest son called me and said Champ, you should train Tyron Woodley. Tyron’s sister called and said he would call me back. I honestly thought that was it but his sister called me the next week and said Tyron wanted to set up workouts. And he did. He trained for two weeks and hired me.
Agnew: You had a hand in Tyron’s development and success in the cage, how does that feel?
Petty: Tyron is a very interesting athlete. He’s a lot different than I thought he would be. Tyron is real laid back, real professional about his training. I seen him spar before and he’s pretty good which made my job a lil’ easier. He’s naturally an orthodox fighter. We worked on the quality of his punches, footwork and foot placement when setting up to fight a guy.
Tyron winning the belt does a lot for our city and the newer sport (MMA). It’s a big sport and he’s a good example of a champion. Not only is he a great black man but he’s a great man, a family man. I mean right after he won the belt, he flew to Houston to watch his son run a track meet. He’s a good, good guy. Best young guy I’ve trained in a long time.
Agnew: A lot of people believe winning the belt is the end of the marathon but it’s really just a new starting-line so to speak.
Petty: That’s right! It’s harder to keep the belt. You have to keep reinventing yourself because everybody is watching you, watching your tape. You’ve got to make yourself more versatile. Once they figure you out, they’ve got the blueprint on you.
Agnew: What is it about your coaching that keeps you in high demand?
Petty: I have more professional experience than most in St. Louis. I fought. I won the Golden Gloves. I fought on the USA team. I went to the Olympic trials, had my first pro fight when I was 20. I’ve trained amateurs. Pros. Top level. Bottom level. I know my stuff. Thing is, I’m the only trainer who can teach a fighter how to transition to pro. The young guys call it “ol’ school training.” I can teach you how to sit down on your punches. I stress defense because my defense sets up offense.
Agnew: Typical fighter question, have you ever been hurt in the ring?
Petty: (chuckles) No. Not really. I had a cut eye, stitches in my lip. But I was never to a point where I said I can’t do this anywhere. The main reason I wouldn’t do it again is because I hated being that sore. It was the equivalent to being in a car accident. Going 10 rounds is no joke and a lot of my fights were 12 rounds.
Agnew: How to do you prepare and pace yourself for 12 rounds?
Petty: You learn. And it’s the best feeling in the world. When you train 8 weeks for a 10 round fight and you’re running 8 ½ miles a day, you’re saying to yourself, if he ain’t training…he’s in trouble. You can take a deep breath and feel air going all the way through to your lungs. It’s the best shape to be in. I miss a lot of that.
Agnew: Your beginnings were here in St. Louis and you’re still here.
Petty: Yeah…yeah. I’ve always done this. (pauses) Boxing is one of those things. I get tired of it. Walk away from it and it calls me back. I’ve gotten offers to go to other places and other gyms but this…this is home. I know all of my clients’ relatives, probably fought in the ring with their dad or uncle. This is where I need to be. This is it. I’m a trainer. I was bred to be a trainer.