Boxing lost three wonderful people last week. Angelo Dundee and Goody Petronelli drew more ink than Wayne Kelly did, but that doesn't mean Kelly was any less beloved. The 63 year-old Kelly, best known to fight fans as a rock-solid ref, who presided over the Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota "riot fight" at Madison square Garden in 1996, died of a heart attack last Wednesday. The Long Islander was an Army vet, who served a year in Vietnam, and then had a few cups of coffee as a professional fighter, going 4-3 as a light heavy from 1975-1979. Kelly showed a sure, confident, kind hand in the ring, during fights like the 1995 Arturo Gatti-Wilson Rodriguez classic, as an advocate for the ex welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith, who suffers from dementia, and as a physical conditioning specialist for the elderly at his 9-to-5, in Hempstead, Long Island.
I didn't know Wayne, so I thought it better to let you hear from someone who did, someone who can properly convey just what kind of void his death leaves. Dan Sapen is a faithful reader of the website I edit, TheSweetScience.com. Clinical psychologist/psychotherapist Sapen, who is awaiting the publication of his book "Freud's Lost Chord" this summer, attended the viewing and service for Wayne on Saturday on Long Island.
"I've heard that Irish wakes could be pretty boisterous and celebratory - the funeral was a full house, standing room only, divided between old family and friends, IBF officials and colleagues, trainees and sparring partners from the gym. More laughter and loving cross-talk than tears and lamenting. The priest and various friends who stood to offer testimonials told, one and all, about Wayne's triumph over personal darkness and tragedy, his unfailing sense of humor, his dedication to the happiness and comfort of friends, strangers, and the elderly he served throughout his career as a counselor; they spoke of a man in love with boxing, who didn't give a damn about the egos and politics of the boxing world, and whose main goal as a referee was "to protect the fighters as if nothing else matters." People spoke of his combined traits of fierce principle and light-heartedness, his ability to find the best and funniest and warmest aspects of any situation. Wayne was described as a man who, more than most, lived life to the fullest, not in the cliched sense we use when we want to comfort ourselves that the deceased had an OK life, but in recognition of a guy who lived the extremes without backing off or losing his decency. "Strength, persistence, and tenderness" were words used in combination, several times.
As for me, I met Wayne barely two years ago when I got back into boxing after decades away. I knew of his refereeing work - no sense in my re-hashing that. We hit it off right away, after Randy Gordon introduced us - I also work with the elderly, and we found plenty of common values, including the ability to make each other laugh. We spoke several times a week, ate and drank together, confided like friends who've known each other their whole lives, worked out, sparred a little (though Wayne, strong as an ox, was already kind of tentative in the ring, having gone through bypass surgery not long before). I was privileged to meet and start to get to know his son, Ryan, a very cool guy and good southpaw heavyweight, and his lovely and warm-hearted daughter, Jackie. He invited me to join him and ref Charlie Fitch at the IBF convention in Vegas, and made me feel like a boxing insider, telling exaggerated stories of my re-discovered ring prowess, involving me in all the social and professional activities, and encouraging me forcefully to train for the masters tournament he seemed sure I could compete well in. He spoke with humor and humility about his own boxing ability, admitting that he was a much better gym fighter than competitive pro; but the guy was, you could still see, at 63, still a formidable athlete. Most of all, Wayne was, in a short time, an easy and true friend, with no BS, no fear of sentimentality, who spoke his mind and his heart in ways that humbled me and inspired me to loosen up and take life less seriously, and at the same time, to value friendship more directly and warmly than I've had much of a chance to in my adult life. At his funeral, I was surrounded by more than a hundred people, all of whom seemed to have had the same experience of him as a genuinely good man who serves as an example of how to live well, honestly, and fully. One friend paraphrased Wayne paraphrasing President Barack Obama, that the measure of a man is not in money, power, or the respect granted him, but the love and respect he shows for others. About Wayne's success in this regard, the whole room was unanimous. I will miss my friend, but life is better because of the short time I had to know him."