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Ron Lyle: From Prison Inmate To Boxing Legend

It’s time for another look at one of the biggest names in the history of boxing. In our latest Phenom profile, we’re shining a spotlight on Ron Lyle, one of...

It’s time for another look at one of the biggest names in the history of boxing. In our latest Phenom profile, we’re shining a spotlight on Ron Lyle, one of the most talked-about boxers of the 1970s. 

While Lyle wasn’t well known for a succession of victories or world championship titles, he did become renowned for his style, flair and pure determination, quite often against all the odds. Read on to discover how he turned around a murder conviction and a near-death experience into one of the most storied boxing careers of the 1970s. 

19 Siblings And Counting 

Life didn’t start out easy to begin with for Ron Lyle. He was born on 12th February 1941 in Dayton, Ohio. The third child of his parents William and Nellie Lyle, young Ron wasn’t short of siblings. He was eventually joined by 18 more. Being part of such a large family had its drawbacks, and the Lyle family frequently struggled to make ends meet.

Growing up in inner-city Denver, Colorado, Lyle soon got involved with local gangs who often found themselves on the wrong side of the law. These early dalliances with the boys in blue were only a sign of things to come. 

Murder, He Wrote 

After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Lyle was arrested for his involvement in the murder of a 21-year-old gang rival. Lyle alleged that he was being attacked with a lead pipe before the shooting occurred, and that he was not the person who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, he was convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to 15-to-25 years in jail. For a 19-year-old about to miss out on his 20s and 30s, Lyle was convinced his life was effectively over. 

He Was Almost Murdered Himself 

It was almost really over. After his conviction, Lyle was sent to Colorado State Penitentiary, a notorious prison packed with some of the state’s most serious offenders. He soon faced up to the harsh reality of his new surroundings, as he was attacked and stabbed by another inmate. Lyle almost died on the operating table, but was saved after an eye-watering 36 blood transfusions.

The incident led to Lyle being sent to solitary confinement for 90 days afterwards, a decision which marked a significant turning point in his life. With so much time on his hands, he turned to using his surroundings to improve his situation. He spent his time doing pushups, sit-ups, squats and a variety of other exercises, building up his strength, physically and mentally. 

This newfound approach to fitness is ultimately what led to him taking an interest in sports, but not boxing. Yet.  

Legendary Football Coach?

Having hit rock bottom, Lyle was determined to get himself out of “the hole”. With his energy now focused on fitness, and with a subsequently improved physique, Lyle decided to take the reins of a prison football team known as the Wildcats, as part of the Black Cultural Development Society self-help group. He successfully led the team through a championship, but football wasn’t where he was destined to be.

Lyle first witnessed a prison boxing event as a spectator on July 4, 1962 and was inspired to take part. Prison Officer Cliff Mattax, the athletic director at the prison, played a significant role in Lyle’s initial interest in boxing. Although when Mattax first tried to woo Ron to the sport, he was met with resistance: "man, you're a screw and I'm a convict. I came here by myself and I'll leave the same way”, Ron responded. 

But with a newfound focus following his near-death experience, Ron changed his attitude. "It was a turning point in my life. Although Mattax was white and wore a badge, he genuinely cared about me and my abilities. That's when I made the decision to be successful," Ron later recalled. Mattax, on the other hand, downplayed his contribution: "I don't like to take any credit, but Ron transformed into a real gentleman.”

In his debut match for the prison boxing team, Lyle was defeated by Texas Johnson, but he went on to win all his subsequent matches. Prison Warden Wayne K. Patterson referred to Lyle as a "natural born athlete.”

The Muhammad Ali Of Prison Boxing 

During the rest of his prison term, Lyle had about 25 informal boxing matches, losing only once and winning six heavyweight competitions. Despite being eligible for parole at the age of 28, he was denied twice, and a professional boxing career was deemed an unlikely prospect. 

Despite being behind bars, his reputation reached the city of Denver, where the Denver Rocks boxing team had recently joined the International Boxing League. Bill Daniels, a cable TV executive and owner of the Denver Rocks, offered Lyle a job as a welder at his company to help increase Lyle’s chances of being offered parole. On 9th November 1969, Lyle’s wish was answered - he was released on parole after serving seven and a half years in prison. The next day, he turned up at the Rocks' gym in Denver and made the team after trying out.

His Most Famous Fights Were Losses 

Not long after his release, Ron Lyle skyrocketed into the upper echelons of professional boxing, quickly building up a streak of winning matches. One of the most memorable moments of Lyle's professional career came in 1975, when he faced George Foreman in a highly anticipated match. Despite being a significant underdog, Lyle gave Foreman all he could handle, coming close to knocking him out more than once. Although he lost the fight, he gained the respect of boxing fans and experts alike for his tenacity and bravery in the face of Foreman. This performance helped cement his reputation as an unforgiving competitor, one certainly not afraid to take on anyone.

In 1976, Lyle faced another legendary heavyweight, Muhammad Ali, otherwise known as “The Greatest". Although again he lost the fight, Lyle impressed fans with an impeccable technique and his sheer fearlessness when engaging in a toe-to-toe battle with one of the greatest boxers of all time. The fight was a testament to Lyle's strength and his determination to succeed, even when it seemed like the world was against him. 

It’s Not Always About The Winning

Ron Lyle's life was one of redemption and perseverance. In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, whether it was growing up in poverty, involvement in gang violence, a murder conviction and a near-death experience in prison, he was able to turn his life around through his passion for boxing. Despite not having a succession of notorious victories or world championship titles, Lyle remains one of the most talked about boxers of the 1970s, serving as an inspiration for millions who grew up watching him. 

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