by Troy Sparks
Eddie “The Bossman” Brooks sat at the table on a recent Sunday afternoon ready to eat. Brooks’ normal routine of eating every day around the same time at the same restaurant was thrown off a bit.
The man with the dark brown complexion and wearing a camouflaged military baseball cap invited a guest to his table, which meant that satisfying his big appetite at an all-you-can-eat place took a back seat. The guest glanced at Brooks’ big fists and sat straight up to hear what he did to a boxing legend that many called “The Greatest” and the “Champ.”
Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight title but was stripped of the belt when he refused to participate in the Vietnam War. He won a Supreme Court decision and regained the heavyweight belt after beating George Foreman. That’s why Ali is known by either nickname and is clearly a worldwide sports icon.
Ali was trying to recover from the loss to Joe Frazier, a fight that many people favored him to win on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. Frazier gave Ali a reality check with a knockout in the 15th round. Brooks, one of Ali’s many sparring partners, reminded him again of what it felt like to hit the deck. Ali was once quoted as saying, “If anybody ever dreamed of (knocking him down), he’d better wake up and apologize.”
The knockdown in camp took place in Johnny Coulon’s gym in Chicago, which sat above the elevated tracks. Ali was preparing for an upcoming fight against friend and sparring partner Jimmy Ellis. That fight was July 26, 1971 and Ali won.
People who were at the gym saw a man called the “Fastest Gun in the Gym” floor the champ in a sparring session. There’s no known video out there, but Brooks talked about showing Ali up. “They’ll take a picture of me with my mouthpiece bared like fangs and my hands upraised like Ali over the outstretched (Sonny) Liston,” Brooks told Life Magazine in a July 9, 1971 issue.
When Brooks dropped Ali three times in a two-round sparring session, according to a sports reporter for the Washington Post, it sent shock waves through the gym. The New York Times said that Ali was “knocked flat on his back via a short right to the chin.” The Sheboygan Press said “Brooks knocked Ali to his knees near the end of the first round of their sparring match with another right hand.” Ali’s camp said that he wasn’t in great shape.
Ask Brooks how he knocked Ali down and he gets excited when talking about it. “After I knocked him down,” he said, “he would be looking at me, just staring me down. I would catch his eyes and he would turn his head.”
The champ didn’t expect an Army sergeant to catch him slipping in what were supposed to be practice rounds in padded headgear. “MA-HAA-MAD ALI,” Brooks said in his Howard Cosell voice, laughing. “The left hook is what took Muhammad Ali down.” Brooks said his left hand floored Ali. Others said it was the right hand. It doesn’t matter. He dropped the champ.
Brooks was asked if Ali was embarrassed. “Yeah,” he said laughing. Was Ali really embarrassed? “He was embarrassed.”
For all of Brooks’ efforts in helping Ali for fights, he was treated like a stranger outside the ring by the champ. Brooks worked with Frazier, Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, Scott LeDoux (LA-DUE), a French fighter, and Ernie Shavers. He fought Foreman in a scheduled 10-rounder in 1976 and was knocked out in the fifth round. He traveled to training camps and fought around the world.
People who watched Eddie Brooks fight knew he wasn’t a slouch in the ring. His own boxing career began in 1966 and ended in 1979. Brooks was 18-4 with seven knockouts and a draw. Most of Brooks’ 22 fights were in Milwaukee, usually at the Eagles Club or the Auditorium. He once fought at Madison Square Garden. Brooks lost his first fight but ended on top when he beat Leroy Caldwell to win the Wisconsin State heavyweight title in Waukesha.
Brooks and Billy Braggs taught young boys how to box in the early 1970’s in a building on N. 4th St. and W. North Av. called the Braggs-Brooks Fitness Center. They didn’t have enough money to keep the center open. Braggs partnered with Orville Pitts and renamed the center Braggs-Pitts. The building, which last housed the Milwaukee Black Holocaust Museum, is now closed and boarded up.
One man who was trained by Brooks still has a lot of respect for him. “He’s a wonderful person as a boxer and as a person,” said Israel (Shorty) Acosta, who train amateur boxers at his south side gym and won a national Golden Gloves championship. “He used to help a lot of kids. He loves kids and he used to hang out with a bunch of guys, especially boxing kids.” Ironically, Brooks has no children of his own.
“I knew Eddie Brooks since 1973 when he used to train me,” Acosta said. “I saw the picture on the wall when he used to be training. I used to go to the Braggs and Brooks Center. That’s when I saw the picture (of Brooks boxing) over there and I said, ‘Wow, what a guy.’ ”
Eddie Brooks is the youngest of C.L. and Arlean Brooks’ seven children, which included four boys and three girls. He was born in June 1938 and spent his early childhood in Monticello, AR. C.L. Brooks moved his family to Milwaukee and found work at International Harvester.
Young Eddie went to the Urban League and watched boxers train. “I used to watch boxing on TV and that took up my interest,” he said. “I got enough nerve to (try it). I asked (Baby) Joe Gans if I can join the boxing club. (He said) ‘Yes.’ ” He was 13 years old and attending Roosevelt Middle School when he started boxing.
Brooks graduated from Boys Tech (now Bradley Tech) and went into the Army as an infantryman. He was too busy to train because of his many responsibilities as an active duty soldier. Once Brooks joined the 84th Division of the Army Reserve here, he had more time to train for fights.
In civilian work, Brooks spent 30 years at the post office as a mail handler. He was a drill sergeant and retired as a First Sergeant after 21 years in the reserves. All three of Brooks’ sisters and a brother are still living.
A man who can remember some things from years ago has early to mid stage dementia. Brooks, who will be 74, can’t do some things on his own like he used to. Eddie Joe Brooks is the main caretaker who organizes his uncle’s daily schedule and keeps things in order. He gets assistance from family friend Cedric Harris. Renee Brooks, Eddie Joe’s brother, said her uncle is still active and keeps a neat house.
Not anyone can knock on the door at Brooks’ house and expects him to answer right away. He might be upstairs with Boy, his seven-year-old German Shepherd. Eddie Joe and Harris know how to get Brooks out the house. “We establish a good repertoire,” Harris said. “I call him up and let him know when I’m on my way. He would answer the phone, and I would say, ‘Ed, don’t go back to sleep on me. I’ll be there in a minute.’ ”
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