Extra Points: RIP to Bridgeton, NJ, boxing contender Richie Kates
The local boxing community just lost another legend.
Former Bridgeton light-heavyweight contender and trainer Richie Kates passed away Saturday, two months shy of his 70th birthday.
Kates retired after a 14-year career in 1983 with a record of 44-6 with 23 knockouts. His 44 wins are the most of any boxer from Atlantic, Cape May or Cumberland Counties over the last 60 years. Former heavyweight champion Bruce Seldon (Atlantic City) is second with 40 victories. Millville middleweight Thomas LaManna (34-5-1, 13 KOs) will have a chance to take over third place tonight in a 10-round bout against Rahway's Salim Larbi in Orlando, Florida. He is currently tied with the late Leavander Johnson (34-5-2, 26 KOs), of Atlantic City, who was a former lightweight champ.
Richie's journey began on the farms of Cumberland County.
The sixth of John and Alice’s 11 children was born in Savannah, Georgia, but he was just an infant when the family moved to South Jersey.
"My parents were migrant farm workers, just like a lot of blacks in the South," Kates said in a 2017 interview. "You named it, we picked it. Tomatoes, beans, okra, asparagus. That’s where I learned the value of hard work. Nothing was given to you. You had to earn it."
Kates worked alongside his parents and siblings - younger brother Charlie went on to become a star basketball player at Vineland's Sacred Heart High School and also coached at Bridgeton High - until he was 13, when he got a job sweeping floors and stocking shelves at the local Acme.
His boxing career began a year earlier, almost by accident.
"I hated school when I was younger," the 1972 Bridgeton High graduate said. "I used to skip all the time. One day, a truant officer found me and told me I needed to find new places to hide. He told me about a boxing gym in Millville, so I rode a bus there one day."
Richie turned professional when he was 16. He lied about his age and made his debut at a show in Baltimore on Dec. 11, 1969, during his sophomore year at Bridgeton High.
Kates fought a guy named Bobby Haynes, earning a four-round decision victory.
"I remember looking across the ring before the fight and telling my trainer (Vineland’s Letty Petway), ‘That’s a grown man over there,'" Kates said with a laugh. "Letty said, 'You’re a pro now. You’re going to be fighting grown men all the time.'"
Kates is widely considered the best local fighter to never win a world title. And with respect to Seldon and Johnson, the argument can be made that Kates was the best local fighter, period.
He competed during an era in which the light-heavyweight division was laden with talent.
Bob Foster, Victor Galindez, Marvin Johnson, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Mike Rossman and Michael Spinks held the WBA and WBC titles at various points.
Three of Kates’ six career losses came against Galindez (twice) and Saad Muhammad. He waged two epic fights against Galindez, who was the WBA champ at the time, losing via a 15th-round KO and 15-round decision, in Johannesburg, South Africa and Rome, respectively.
"Richie fought during what was the best era of light-heavyweights in history," former Philadelphia promoter Russell Peltz said in a 2017 interview. "The current light-heavyweights are good fighters, but they wouldn't have the records they have if they were facing the guys from the 1970s and early '80s."
Kates retired from boxing in 1983 at age 30. Although he was still ranked among the top light-heavyweights at the time — he had won five straight fights — Kates chose to quit after his 50th professional bout, a split decision victory over Jerry Martin on Oct. 26, 1983, at the since-demolished Sands Hotel Casino in Atlantic City.
"I was only 30, but people don't realize that I had been fighting as a pro for 14 years," Kates said. "Too many fighters stay too long. I wanted to be able to speak in complete sentences when I was older."
After his fighting days, Kates moved to Vineland and became a trainer. Ironically, he worked Seldon's corner during the former champ's comeback from an eight-year hiatus, guiding him to a 4-1 record in five bouts in the mid-2000's.
"Richie was like local boxing royalty to me," Jim Kurtz, Seldon's former manager, said Saturday. "And as great a fighter as he was, he was an even better person. For somebody who was so savage in the ring, Richie was kind and humble outside of it."
Richie was later inducted into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018, along with the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Boxing Halls of Fame. In 2017, a capacity crowd filled Vineland's Landis Theatre for the premier of the SNJToday documentary entitled: "Richie Kates: An Uncommon Journey."
Russell Peltz delivered the heart-breaking news of Richie's passing Saturday.
Although he never won a world title, Richie's character, dignity, grace and humility made him a champion.