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A Ring of Truth

Boxing: Bill Slayton trained Ken Norton. Now owner of a small gym, he looks for youngsters he can 'teach a little about life.'

December 05, 1996|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are no StairMasters at Bill Slayton's gym. Nobody walks in carrying designer water and the only music is the rat-a-tat-tat of the speed bag. This is the Broadway Gym, the world that 74-year-old boxing trainer Slayton has owned for nearly two decades.

Located on the second floor of an old brick building at 108th Street and Broadway in South-Central Los Angeles, the small gym consists of two boxing rings, several heavy and speed bags, weights and jump ropes.

Slayton, who bought the gym on earnings from his work with former heavyweight contender Ken Norton, still gets excited when he sees a new prospect with potential. But only on Slayton's terms.

"If some smart-ass comes in here, I don't want him," he said Wednesday morning as he waited in the gym for Carlos Hernandez, a lightweight from El Salvador who is in line for a title shot. "Don't care how good he is. I want a kid who I can teach a little about life, not just boxing. I want to get him away from this ghetto street crap. Instill some knowledge in him. These guys are like my kids and I want to give them advice just like any good father would."

Slayton, still handsome and well-toned at his fighting weight of 195 pounds, was raised in Boyle Heights, where he said he received an early education in fisticuffs. In elementary school, he was the only black student and often had to prove himself.

"I had two fights every single day at school. In the morning, I would beat up some boy, and in the afternoon, that boy's older brother or cousin would come and beat me up."

Five years later, the fights stopped completely. "I kept growing and they didn't. I never had a fight again after the fifth grade," he said with a laugh.

While he was growing up, boxer Joe Louis was his idol. "I would pull up a chair and watch the radio and listen to Dan Dunphy announce Louis' fights," he said. "My imagination would go wild."

*

Louis' fighting ability also allowed Slayton to earn a few dollars. Whenever the "Brown Bomber" fought, even before he was heavyweight champion, Slayton would go to the Los Angeles Examiner and buy about 50 papers at 3 cents each. He'd then hop on the B-Car trolley and take it to Central Avenue, where many blacks lived in an era of segregation. "I'd walk up the street at night yelling 'Extra! Extra! Joe Louis knocks out Max Baer! Joe Louis knocks out Primo Carnera!' Joe Louis was their hero, and I sold them papers quick."

He joked that he might still be in the newspaper business if Louis hadn't been knocked out in 1936 by Max Schmeling.

"I got 75 papers that night and went down to Central Avenue and could not sell one paper. Nobody wanted to hear about Louis getting beat. They would tell me, 'Get away from here with that damn paper.' "

At Garfield High, Slayton played football and was voted to the 1940 all-city squad, the same year as Rams Hall-of-Famer Tom Fears.

"There was this great mix of students. Slavs, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Mexicans. I was the only black guy and they all kind of adopted me. They would call me 'Slaytonovich' or 'Slaytonberg' or 'Slaytonian."'

After a stint in the Army during World War II, Slayton returned home and started playing semipro football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He'd won a local Golden Gloves boxing tournament before the war, and as his football career wound down he began training boxers.

He became Norton's trainer after Norton beat Muhammad Ali in a 1973 nontitle bout, and stayed with him through a career that saw Norton twice fight unsuccessfully for the heavyweight title. Slayton says he earned close to $1 million from their relationship.

The Broadway Gym has about 50 members who pay from $10 to $20 a month. Slayton, who still earns money from his pro fighters, says gym dues usually cover the rent and utility bills.

"A lot of the Norton money is used up, but I do this because I love it," he said.

"Some day another Norton will come along my way. My mom used to tell me when you give somebody something, don't expect anything in return and one day someone will come along and give something to you."

*

Five years ago, Slayton attended the 50th reunion of his Garfield High School class. "I walked in and everybody said, 'You must be Bill Slayton.' I got up and made a brief speech and kinda got choked up. You know, how nice they always were to me.

"I feel real good about my life and my relationships with people. I don't have any enemies. I would rather get screwed by someone then screw someone. At least I can sleep good at night."

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