Hayes Edward "Big Ed" Sanders (March 24, 1930 – December 12, 1954) was an American heavyweight boxer who won an Olympic gold medal in 1952.
As a child, Sanders, the oldest male child of the family, was mature and physically strong. He collected coffee cans, filled them with cement and connected two of them with a steel bar to make a weight set for exercising. As he grew bigger, faster and stronger, Sanders excelled in football and track and field at Jordan High School. On May 26, 2012 Sanders was inducted into the Compton Community College Athletics Hall of Fame, under the category of boxing.
After graduating from Jordan High School, Sanders attended Compton College, where he again excelled in football and a new sport, boxing. In 1950, at the National Junior College Boxing Championships in Ogden, Utah, the six-foot four-inch, 220 pound Sanders attracted the attention of Idaho State College boxing coach Dubby Holt and football coach Babe Caccia. "He had a good left hand, and for the big man that he was, he was a real orthodox, skilled boxer," Holt recalled. Shortly thereafter, Sanders was awarded an athletic scholarship to Idaho State College (now Idaho State University) in Pocatello, Idaho, where he boxed and played football.
Sanders flourished at nearly all-white Idaho State. In his first collegiate bout, Sanders knocked out the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Champion. Sanders also set a record by never losing a bout in a collegiate dual meet. While attending Idaho State, Sanders fell in love with Pocatellan Mary LaRue, who was then a secretary at Idaho State's athletic department. She would later become his wife.
In 1951, Sanders was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War, but was convinced to join the Navy by his coaches. He then continued his boxing career as part of the U.S. Navy Boxing Team. Sanders scored a string of major victories when he defeated the Navy Heavyweight Champion, Kirby Seals, in San Diego, California and won both the Los Angeles Golden Gloves and Chicago Golden Gloves Tournaments. He subsequently toured Europe, winning the Golden Gloves Tournament in Berlin, Germany, which enhanced his reputation as a dominant heavyweight. Upon his return to the United States, Sanders trained at Naval facilities in Maryland for his dream—the Olympics.
The Olympics, once a faraway dream, were suddenly within Sanders’ grasp, but the Olympic trials loomed as a major test, as stiff competition from around the country vied for the few coveted U.S Team spots. In the Mid-West Regional in Omaha, Nebraska, Sanders was defeated by Army Corporal Lloyd Willis, but still advanced to the finals because of his prior victory over Navy Champion Seals. Sanders and Willis would meet again in a bout in Kansas City, Missouri that would decide the last spot on the Olympic boxing team. With a broken hand, Sanders knocked out Willis, dropping him with a smashing left hook in only one minute.
The 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki turned out not to be much of a challenge for Sanders, as he knocked out his first three opponents and reached the final against Swede Ingemar Johansson. Their match was unremarkable. For the entire first round, Johansson avoided Sanders by circling along the edges of the ring. The crowd, growing impatient, called for Johansson to fight. In the second round, Johansson continued the same strategy. Finally, in the third minute of the second round, Johansson was disqualified for failure to fight by the referee. Johansson was ushered from the ring between policemen, and was subsequently refused the silver medal. Sanders would later stand atop the prize dais with the place for the silver medallist vacant and a Swedish flag in its unfurled knot. Johansson maintained he was not fleeing Sanders, but rather was trying to tire his huge opponent for a planned third round onslaught but Johansson would not be awarded his silver medal for another 30 years.
Sanders and Johansson
Sanders, the first African American Olympic Heavyweight Champion and the first American to win gold in the division since 1904, returned to the United States a national hero. The combination of his tenacious fighting style, deep sense of assurance and humble demeanor attracted constant media attention. The City of Los Angeles named a day in his honor, and he was inundated with requests for his attendance at athletic, social and religious events.
After the Olympics, Sanders’ amateur status became a burden on his ability to provide for his wife and young son, Russell, who was born in 1953. As a Navy man, Sanders was prevented from boxing professionally, so he continued to box in the amateur ranks while lawyers and commissions analyzed his applications to turn pro. It was during this time period that Sanders fought future World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. Liston emerged victorious, though witnesses at the fight accused Liston of clutching Sanders illegally. Sanders, always noted as a Negro in press reports, ended his amateur career with a record of 43 wins and only 4 losses.
Sanders turned professional a few months later. Sanders fought eight professional fights within only nine months, losing two fights in close decisions.
Last fight and death
On Saturday, December 12, 1954, Sanders fought Willie James, the New England Heavyweight Champion, in Boston, Massachusetts. The fight would be his last. Sanders, who had complained previously of headaches and shoulder cramping, was uncharacteristically listless in the opinion of some observers. James and Sanders traded heavy blows for ten rounds. In the eleventh round, Sanders appeared "tired," in James’ estimation, and was felled by a simple punch combination. Sanders dropped to the canvas and lost consciousness immediately, breathing laboriously while lying on his side. Ring personnel carried him out of the ring by stretcher. He never regained consciousness and died after a long surgery to relieve bleeding in the brain. Doctors disagreed on the cause of Sanders’ death, but most felt that he had probably suffered a prior injury that was aggravated in the James fight.
Sanders was laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California after a 21-gun military salute.
1. Ed Sanders. sports-reference.com
2. "Past champions". Golden Gloves of America.
3. Boxing at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games: Men's Heavyweight sports-reference.com
4. Ingemar Johansson: Boxer who beat Floyd Patterson to win the world heavyweight title. The Independent (February 3, 2009)
5. Professional boxing record for Ed Sanders from BoxRec