The Matt Bobick family of Little Falls, Minn. consists of wife Rose, a 3-year-old daughter and an extraordinary 10 sons, two of whom are heavyweight boxers. The older brother is Duane, a 214-pound, auburn-haired giant with a Huck Finn smile. The name should stir memories. Five years ago at the Munich Olympics he was considered a sure gold medal winner. The expectation made him the hottest property in boxing, maybe the first white American world heavyweight champion since Marciano. Then Bobick was TKO’d in the quarterfinals by Cuban Teofilo Stevenson.
“The morning after, all the reporters and autograph seekers were gone,” recalls Bobick’s close friend, writer David Wolf. “Duane was back from the hospital. There was pus draining from his eye. It began to dawn on him that the path to the heavyweight championship was no cakewalk.”
For five years (38 fights; 38 victories; 32 knockouts) Duane Bobick, now 26, has tried to live down the memory of Munich. Now his second big chance has come. On May 11 in Madison Square Garden, Bobick, the fifth-ranked heavyweight, will fight second-ranked Ken Norton for $300,000, a shot at Muhammad Ali’s title and new fame as a real-life Rocky.
“One thing people don’t understand about Duane,” says Wolf. “Even though he’s white, he’s also working-class. He’s from poverty. That hunger is still there.”
At the age of 9, Duane was working alongside his father, a plasterer. “Even when he thought the way I was tellin’ him to do the work was wrong,” says Matt, 50, “Duane did it the way I told him. The other boys would get pissed and quit. Not Duane.”
He starred in every sport Royalton, Minn. high school offered (while achieving a B-minus average), but from the moment he and brothers Rodney and LeRoy joined the boxing team, fighting was his favorite. “Duane used to beat up Rodney [now 25 and a struggling pro],” recalls a friend. “Then LeRoy would get mad and beat up Duane.” Big brother LeRoy, 27, who is still disabled from a 1968 fall while in the Marine Corps, adds, “Then I’d get home and Dad’d let me have it.”
Duane quit Moorhead State College in his freshman year, joined the Navy, and in four years won one AAU and three all-Navy titles. After Munich he turned pro. He kept winning but got nowhere.
“The guys I fought,” says Bobick, “read like a Who’s Who of the Bum-of-the-Month Club.” In the fall of 1974 he contacted former champion Joe Frazier, who put Duane under contract the next year. With a new trainer, Eddie Futch, Duane’s opponents—and his fighting—improved. He KO’d Chuck Wepner in six rounds, for example, when it had taken Ali 15.
But a tangled personal life got in the way. An impulsive 1973 marriage to an Arizona artist-model led to a painful divorce. Duane lost $33,000 in a settlement; he gained perspective. “We were married two years and 11 months,” he says. “That was two years and 10 months too long. The first month was great, because she was in Arizona and I was in New York.”
By October 1975 Bobick had moved to Frazier’s base in Philadelphia and met a pretty restaurant hostess named Denise DiRose. A native of South Philly, Denise describes her 6’3″ boyfriend—who writes poetry and says he’ll go back to college someday—as “cute and very gentle.” Says Duane of her: “If I had to describe the woman I’d want most in the world, it would be Denise.”
The two have been living together for a year. (“Denise understands that marrying right now is impossible,” he says. “She knows how important boxing is to me and she supports me.”) Duane decided to abstain from sex for five weeks before the Norton fight—”It gives you the attitude that the other guy has taken all the good things from your life.” Afterward, win or lose, he and Denise plan to move into a new $80,000 house in Margate City on the Jersey shore.
She will be at the Garden May 11, sitting in the second row, wearing a black pants suit she bought especially for the fight. She will carry a bottle of smelling salts (“I can’t stand the sight of blood—they nearly had to carry me out of one fight”) and she will be praying—”not that he wins, but that he’s okay.”
If it sounds like Rocky, there are other similarities. Being called the Great White Hope is one. The description bothers Duane. “The people who work with me are black,” he says. “I know I’m their hope, so does that make me the Great Black Hope?” Bobick can, of course, see the parallels between himself and the Italian Stallion. Like Rocky, he stays close to his roots. On a recent trip to Minnesota to buy the house his parents now rent (his mother has been on welfare since his father had stomach surgery), Duane looked around and said, “It’s easy to become a pompous ass in this business. I come back here to remember who I am.”
Most important, he understands—in the face of heavy odds in Norton’s favor—what it means to be driven. “Rocky was the story of a guy with nothing who makes it to the top,” Duane says. “That’s me. I come from a town of 265 people and now I have a chance to make 10 times what the whole town is worth.”