• Video Below: Watch a YouTube video of the 1972 fight between Joe Frazier and Ron Stander
* * *
COUNCIL BLUFFS — On this sunny afternoon, Bayliss Park is nearly silent.
A preschool-aged boy splashes in water on one side of the large fountain. Council Bluffs native Ron Stander clowns for a local photographer on the other.
In complete anonymity, the “Bluffs Butcher” has come home.
Stander wears a Styrofoam cap acquired in this very park at a pep rally four decades earlier. It reads: Who the hell is Joe Frazier? Go Big Ron.
Forty years ago, a crowd of 3,000 gathered at Bayliss in support of its hometown hero. Stander was only days from fighting Frazier, the heavyweight champion of the world.
In May 1972, nearly everyone in Council Bluffs knew the Butcher. That's not the case today.
Stander switches props for the photographer, from a pair of boxing shoes he once lent Rocky Marciano when Marciano was refereeing a 1960s fight to a collage of Stander's fight career put together by his wife of three years, Toddy.
A man walking through the park, drawn by the continuous sound of the camera's shutter click, stops to look at the collage and asks, “Ron Stander. ... Is that the old boxer that fought Joe Frazier?”
Indeed, the man is told, and the guy holding the poster-sized frame is, in fact, Ron Stander.
The Butcher immediately has a new friend.
Today is the 40th anniversary of Stander's bout with Smokin' Joe. In a once-in-a-lifetime event at the Omaha Civic Auditorium, the Butcher went toe-to-toe with an unbeaten champion only 14 months removed from his signature victory over Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century.
Fight of his life
Nearly 10,000 people filled the Civic on May 25, 1972. Electricity was in the air as the majority of the capacity crowd backed the local challenger. Chants of “Go Big Ron” echoed through the arena.
Early on, Stander gave as good as he got. At one point in the first round, he landed a right to the chest that put Frazier on his heels. A follow-up left sent the champ staggering backward.
Frazier later contended that he slipped.
In the next round, Stander unleashed an enormous right uppercut as Frazier ducked his head while coming out of a corner. The punch — the one the Butcher's trainer, Johnny Dunn, thought could bring the world title to Council Bluffs — whizzed past the champ's left ear.
Stander's chances for victory went with it.
From that point on, Frazier carved up the Butcher. After the fourth round, ringside doctor Jack Lewis stopped the fight due to lacerations on Stander's face that took 17 stitches to close.
Frazier retained the title by technical knockout, although that was the last time he'd leave a boxing ring as a world champion. George Foreman TKO'd Frazier in two one-sided rounds in his next bout.
After that night in Omaha, Stander wasn't a major factor in the heavyweight division again.
“It helped me understand that a little bit of luck helps out,” he said. “They say, ‘Make your own luck.' Well, that's easier said than done. If I'd have been lucky — and ‘if' is the biggest word in the dictionary — he would've went down when I hit him in the first round and stayed down.”
Stander has shared tales of the Frazier fight for years. He knows that some people will continue to ask about it.
“There's still a few, but they're dwindling,” he said. “Time's marching on, you know.”
Lately, there have been more people asking, which he expects with the events surrounding the bout's 40th anniversary. Stander shares the fight stories, but he often drifts away from them to discuss the people he met because of boxing.
Evel Knievel, Redd Foxx, Gene Hackman and the Eagles. Once holding court with the likes of those names seems to hold more interest to the 67-year-old Butcher than a fight that lasted 15 minutes, counting the time between rounds. The fight was fleeting, but it led to lots of memories.
“If I would've beaten Frazier, I'd still be here now,” he said. “Where was I going to go? I've been to New York and I've been to Hollywood. It was fun. I've got a lot of memories.”
He's also got a lot of jokes. Now nearly 30 years removed from hanging up his gloves, the Butcher is still cutting people up. He does it with punch lines instead of punches.
During an interview, Stander sidelines boxing talk momentarily to impersonate Elvis Presley — while wearing a mask. Later, at a photo shoot, he breaks out his best Robert De Niro impersonation, repeatedly asking the photographer, “You talking to me?”
Toddy Stander tries to keep her husband on task, but the impulsive Butcher has his own agenda. A question about the origin of his nickname sparks an immediate desire to visit a longtime friend.
“Maybe another day,” Toddy suggests, to which Stander replies, “No, today.”
Butcher and Mad Dog
Former professional wrestler Maurice Vachon is napping in his wheelchair as Stander and Toddy walk up Mad Dog's South Omaha driveway. The Butcher wants to share stories.
He begins a remember-the-time tale about Vachon's career, to which Mad Dog replies, “I don't remember that.” He then moves on to a story about Vachon's brother, Paul, who, like Stander, was known as Butcher. As the yarn ends, Vachon responds, “I don't remember that, either.”
The routine continues until it's time to depart. Vachon expresses appreciation for the visit.
“God bless you both,” he tells the Standers as they leave.
Encounters like this, not the fight with Frazier, are what define the Bluffs Butcher to those closest to him. As his longtime friend and former matchmaker Tom Lovgren likes to say, “Ron could be friends with anyone in the world if you only gave him two minutes.”
Back at Bayliss Park, another passer-by unwittingly makes Lovgren's point. Drawn in by the photo shoot, a woman pulls out her phone to take a picture of Stander as he poses on the lawn. She says she had just returned from New York, where she “didn't see anyone famous.” She then proceeds to ask Stander who he is.
The Butcher again has a new friend, until Toddy once again pulls him back to the task at hand.
Stander finishes the shoot alone in the park where thousands of supporters once gathered to cheer him on. Many of them, he knows, will remember him only for that one night 40 years ago.
Asked if that bothers him, the Butcher says he can't avoid it. He seems to wish that weren't so.