Calvin Grove gets one more night in the spotlight

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Calvin Grove won the IBF featherweight title in 1988, and shared a ring with Azumah Nelson, Jeff Fenech, Arturo Gatti and Kostya Tszyu. Photo by James Vanegas

GARFIELD, N.J. – Coatesville isn’t the first town that comes to mind when you think of boxing, but when you think of boxing in Coatesville, only “Silky Smooth” comes to mind.

Thirty years have passed since Calvin Grove won his world title, a fourth-round knockout of Antonio Rivera to lift the IBF featherweight belt, and the subsequent parade through the Philadelphia suburb where he was given a leased car from a local dealership.

People still recognize him around town — the perks of staying local after making your name. In recent weeks he’s had a new reason to be congratulated after it was announced he’d be inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame on November 8 at a ceremony in Garfield, N.J. Though not a Jersey-based fighter, Grove did fight in Atlantic City 32 times during the gambling resort city’s boxing boom during the 1980s, making him eligible.

“It’s good to see that somebody cares,” said Grove, now 56. “I touched somebody for them to want to put me in all of this.”

Grove touched a lot of opponents, too, in his 59-fight pro career, which spanned 1982-1998, utilizing side-to-side movement and a stinging jab, which he used to set up his money punch, a long right hand he called “John Boy.” Yet, despite having fought many of the big names of his time, including Hall of Famers, his name rarely comes up in conversations about the best fighters of that era.

“Calvin was never respected as well as he should have been,” said Bob Spagnola, who managed him from 1984 until his retirement.

“Because Calvin was a defensive fighter, because he was a beautiful, fluid boxer, I used to think he was like a waterbug skimming across the top of the water. But that sometimes isn’t the most charismatic, most exciting fighter. I think those things hurt Calvin.”

Grove has been fighting for respect since he was a child. One of five children, he recalls having to throw hands regularly with other kids who tried to test him or someone in his family.

“My family is a real tight family. If somebody was fighting, we would jump them,” Grove says. His cousin George, better known as Bunky, had taken to training the 14-year-old to hone that instinct, and by 16 he had his first amateur fight. 

He lost just four times against 40 amateur wins, highlighted by a Pennsylvania Golden Gloves title at 125 pounds in 1982. After working as a roofer for four years, he decided to give the pro game a shot.

By 1988 he was in Normandy, France, fighting for the title. Seconds into the fourth, Grove was sent down by a left hook, his arm dangling on the ropes the only thing preventing his head from hitting the canvas. Spagnola says Grove’s trainer, Al “Potato Pie” Bolden, had turned away from the ring and figured the fight was over. But Spagnola, who had seen Grove get dropped numerous times in past fights only to win, knew it wasn’t over until it was over.

“We didn’t have the best chin in the whole world. When Calvin would get dropped, he would go ass over tea kettle and look like he’d been shot. And he’d come back from that like the Rivera fight,” said Spagnola.

A three-punch combination landed on Rivera to send him down moments later. A follow-up attack sent Rivera down for a second time. And after he was struck repeatedly without answering back, the fight was over.

“He knocked me down, so I figured I gotta get him back. I got him back and that was it,” said Grove.

After the celebration, Grove was back in Atlantic City for his first defense four months later against Myron Taylor, the brother of Olympic gold medalist and multiple-time world champion Meldrick Taylor. Myron, plus Meldrick and his twin Eldrick had all trained alongside Grove at Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philly, and all had amateur experience far superior to Grove’s.

“When Calvin started boxing, the Taylors used to beat his ass,” said Spagnola. For this fight, Grove moved his training camp to Houston, where Spagnola was based, and signed with promoter Josephine Abercrombie, an heiress to an oil fortune. The two fighters hugged before the 12th round, a sign of respect between two men who had participated in many more Philly Gym wars away from the casino lights. Grove walked away with a unanimous decision.

Grove’s second defense later that year would be remembered as the final 15-round world title fight ever. In retrospect, Spagnola wishes he had never accepted the contract to meet Jorge Paez in a Mexicali bullring on a muggy August day.

“That was all my mistake. I could have taken half as much money and stayed and defended the title in Atlantic City,” said Spagnola. “Instead, I didn’t think much of Paez; he was known as a clown.”

Through 14 rounds, Grove led on all three cards. The heat – easily over 100 degrees – had gotten to Grove, and Paez, who had started slow, was making a desperate late push to win the belt. All Grove had to do was remain on his feet and he’d retain the title. Instead, he was dropped three times and lost a majority decision.

A rematch was supposed to happen in the States, but when the contract came back, the offer was Mexicali or bust. This time Paez finished matters in 11 rounds. Grove would make a bit of history in his next fight, traveling to Moscow to defeat Anthony English by unanimous decision, headlining the first pro boxing event in the Soviet Union in 47 years.

Years after their careers, many fighters look back at the fights they couldn’t get because of the sport’s politics. For Grove, the fight he most wanted was against an opponent he had faced but didn’t get the decision he felt he deserved. 

“They knew that [I] didn’t lose this fight,” said Grove of his 1992 fight with Azumah Nelson. “I was like ‘I can’t believe it.’ I walked over to him and said, ‘You know you didn’t beat me, but congratulations anyway.’”

On that night, Grove used his stick-and-move act to keep Nelson at bay, and in spurts was able to dominate one of the best fighters in the world. But in the end, he lost a unanimous decision.

“I think a lot of it was the way people looked at Azumah Nelson compared to Calvin,” said Spagnola. “He couldn’t do to Calvin what he did to others, and to me that meant Calvin was winning.”

The Nelson fight breathed new life into Grove’s career, earning him a shot the following year against former three-division world titleholder Jeff Fenech in Australia. Fenech had just come off a pair of fights with Nelson in which he was brazenly robbed of a decision and was then brutally stopped in a rematch. Before the fight, Grove says Fenech wasn’t particularly hospitable.

“He’s a very arrogant person. When we weighed in, he stayed right in front of the scale and I said, ‘Excuse me.’ He just looked at me,” said Grove. “I said, ‘I’ll take care of you in the ring.’ Sure enough, I did.”

By “took care of him,” Grove means he put Fenech on his back, out cold, from a single right hand in the seventh round. It was a most unexpected outcome for a visitor not widely regarded as a big puncher.

Losses to Freddie Liberatore, Miguel Angel Gonzalez and Angel Manfredy in 1994 and 1995 cut his title contention dreams down, but after settling a score with Lester Ellis in Melbourne, Australia, Grove got a style matchup in Atlantic City he really liked.

“I was never so confident in the style of a match,” Spagnola said of the 1997 fight with Arturo Gatti. Grove was, in defeat, at his offensive best. He couldn’t miss with his right hand, staggering the larger man in the fourth round after one particularly flush sucker punch.

The fight ended anti-climactically, with Grove remaining on his stool after the seventh round, complaining that he couldn’t see. He’d fight just once more, being knocked out in one round by a much larger Kostya Tszyu in 1997.

“They’re catching me now; before they couldn’t catch me. It’s time to hang it up,” said Grove, who retired with a 49-10 (18 knockouts) record.

Life after boxing

Spagnola had managed numerous fighters throughout, beginning with Cedric Rose and continuing with Orlando Canizales, who revealed recently on Facebook that Grove had the fastest jab he’d ever seen in a fight or in sparring, and that “he was the only guy I didn’t like to spar with.”

“How many guys do you see that have life after boxing?” Spagnola asked. He remembers Grove’s decision to move back from Houston to Coatesville to be near his four sons, who are now 38, 36, 32 and 30, and gives him credit for putting his family first.

“He was an international sportsman and a gentleman, but first a father. A lot of people that have been through and accomplished what he did are stuck in the glory days, but he went on with his life,” said Spagnola.

“He’s a credit to his community. He’s everything that a lot of great champions really aren’t.”

At Thursday’s induction, at least a dozen friends and family accompanied Grove to see him honored, including Kim, his girlfriend whom he says he’ll marry next year.

“She keeps me in order,” said Grove. “I’m just happy with her, and next year is the big day.”

He left his post-boxing job as a roofer about five years ago, and is passing on his boxing knowledge to local youths whom he brings to Phoenixville to train. He worries some of them are into negative behavior outside the ring. He’s giving them until the next Pennsylvania Golden Gloves in March to get their act together.

Grove says he doesn’t watch as much boxing nowadays, but has become a big fan of mixed martial arts.

“Boxing has changed very much. If boxing and UFC was on, I’d watch UFC. Boxing is just not like it used to be. I haven’t pinpointed it yet, but boxing just isn’t the same,” said Grove.

From the podium, Grove told the story of how he got into boxing, winning regional titles and then the world title, and his plans for marriage. The crowd’s attention waned as Grove’s hand gestures moved the microphone from his face, and he admitted to being nervous about speaking in front of a crowd. The speech was hard for some to hear, but there was no griping about the Paez or Gatti fights, or any other what-could-have-beens. The what-have-beens were good enough for this Coatesville native.

“Boxing made me the person that I am today. I had a good father, I had good roots,” said Grove.

“I did what a lot of people couldn’t do. I did that a couple of times, so I’m satisfied with that.”

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].

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