Cumberland County's Champ: Richie Kates Focus of Award-Winning DocumentaryLast Edited:
SNJ Today documentary celebrates Richie Kates, who rose to the top in the world of pro boxing and in his community.
VINELAND, N.J. — The late James (Wallace) Muhammad—who sadly passed away in January, at 77, after quietly battling an illness for several years—remembered seeing the young Richie Kates walking from his home in Bridgeton to Millville every day after school, on his way to the former Millville Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) gym. It was Muhammad, driving to and from work, who was one of the first to spot the 12-year-old Kates hitchhiking on Route 49.
“He was a kid,” remembers Muhammad in the new documentary Richie Kates: Uncommon Journey. “Walking up and down the street, taking my pies and stuff, but he was always a good kid.”
Muhammad would become one of several folks in the southern New Jersey area to take the young Kates under their wings.
He would eventually drive Kates back and forth between Bridgeton and Millville, becoming a dependable form of transportation, as well as a role model, friend, and someone who would remain in Kates’ corner—in and out of the ring—for the rest of his life.
“When I saw him trying to hitchhike to Millville … I would stop and pick him up a few times,” remembered Muhammad. “And [then] he realized I was going to [pick him up] so he stopped hitchhiking and came to my house and waited for me.”
In the new film, Muhammad remembers that even early on, Kates was determined and committed to becoming a professional boxer—and a good one.
“He decided he was going to be champ of the world,” said Muhammad. “That’s what he told me, and he almost did.”
At the age of 16, Kates turned professional (with a fake ID and stating he was 18), had a loyal group of local trainers and managers, and was, as Muhammad put it, “running around with gloves on wanting to fight people professionally, and he did. He did very well, he just kept winning.”
Kates, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, in May 1953, moved with his family to the Bridgeton area in 1954. The members of his large family were migrant workers, as Kates remembers, and he spent his childhood years working in the fields of Seabrook and other area farms, along with his parents, 10 brothers and sisters, and their extended family.
Before he was even 13, Kates had set his sights on a prize well beyond the rows of crops at Seabrook, and was actively moving toward it. This self-motivation, commitment, discipline, hard work and sacrifice not only led Kates to win his initial 18 professional bouts—including six knockouts—and become one of the most respected pugilists of his time, but would also inspire generations of young men, from South Jersey to South Africa.
Throughout Kates’ storied boxing career, he also worked in the New Jersey State Prison system as a recreation supervisor. To this day, Kates works part-time mentoring inmates at the Cumberland County Jail, something he enjoys still being able to do—nearly 35 years after his retirement from professional boxing.
|You can also stream the documentary any time online at SNJtoday.com/Kates|
(Kates, who retired in 1983, with his final bout in Atlantic City’s burgeoning Casino Era taking place at the Sands against Jerry Martin, would help usher in the gaming era of A.C. a few years beforehand, with a November 4, 1979 bout against Carlos Marks at the shiny-new Resorts International Hotel & Casino. His last five fights were in Atlantic City.)
Before that, Kates cultivated a local team of people he could depend on, which helped lead to one of the most fascinating careers in boxing history.
Most of the people who were in Kates’ corner since he was in his early teens and throughout his extraordinary boxing career—including trainer Letty Petway of Vineland; managers Tony and Bonnie Coccaro of Millville; and recently Muhammad—have passed away; they are all remembered fondly by Kates.
In addition to a deep dedication to his family—he has three sons with wife Gloria Kates, who he’s known since grade school—Kates has always been dedicated to those who have helped him in his life and career.
Despite offers of bigger purses from managers such as Don King and others, Kates remained loyal to the Coccaros, Petway and Joe Gramby, another long-time member of his management team from the Philadelphia area.
He decided he was going to be champ of the world. That’s what he told me, and he almost did.
Today, Kates is as devoted to helping his own Cumberland County community as his loyal fans from southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia area were to him while he was fighting.
Although he was always humble and his “true self,” as Muhammad recalled, upon returning home to Cumberland County after a fight, Kates turned heads wherever he went and it wouldn’t take long before local sportswriters began to take notice. Less than 10 years after he retired from boxing, he was inducted into the Bridgeton All Sports Hall of Fame (1991), followed by an induction into the NJ Sports Hall of Fame (1996), and the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame (2011).
Kates was also honored at the 2012 Atlantic City Boxing Legends event; was a recipient of the Bridgeton African-American Union Association of South Jersey Community Service Award (2012); was inducted into the Champions in the Legendary Blue Horizon Museum (2009), the Bridgeton High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame (2007), and has been recognized by the NAACP (Greater Vineland Branch 2115) as a 2005 Freedom Fund Banquet Recipient. The former Vineland P.A.L., where Kates coached boxing and worked with hundreds of kids over a stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was named after him in 2008. (It has since been torn down as has the Millville P.A.L. where he first trained.)
Along with working with inmates at the County Jail, Kates has long been involved with local politics, his church, and encouraging young boxers wherever and whenever he can.
As Richie Kates: Uncommon Journey details, Kates’ life has been one of ups and downs, but also one driven by a desire to help others. This motif is as apparent as ever today, as Kates spends hours a week coaching young boxers at the Next Level Boxing Gym in Vineland, just blocks away from where Kates now resides.
In a large room behind Hassan’s Hair Hut Barbershop in Vineland, local youth as well as professional boxers train at the Next Level Gym, run by Richie’s longtime friend and fellow pugilist Hassan Hameed-El.
This is where, in a sense, Richie’s life story has come full circle.
He is now the one offering a helping hand to young boxers, coming into the gym on a weekly basis. His wealth of experience and expertise in and out of the ring is invaluable, says Hameed-El.
“When I began boxing at 12, 13 years old, he was already No. 1 in the world,” Hameed-El says of Kates. “And he … kind of served as my inspiration actually. [He] and his brother, they kind of adopted me as their little brother, and I’ve been intertwined both as a friend and as a stable mate ever since 1975.”
Hameed-El, who runs the barbershop during the day and the gym during the afternoons and evenings, says Kates brings a special presence to his boxing facility.
“There’s a different energy when he comes in,” says Hameed-El. “There’s an authenticity that he brings that, even though I boxed, and the other trainers here boxed—with Richie having competed in the highest level of boxing … his presence is greatly inspiring and greatly needed.”
Ending his professional career with an impressive 44-6 record—with several milestones along the way, including holding onto the coveted NABF light-heavyweight title from May 1974 to February 1978; getting the chance (twice) at a light-heavyweight world title (in 1976 and 1977, both controversial losses against Victor Galindez)—Kates was only 30 by the time he retired from the sport. He was years ahead of his age, however, and finished his pro career with class, dignity and respect.
Dave Bontempo, a veteran boxing analyst and current network television boxing commentator, who covered Kates during his Atlantic City years, remembers Kates as a one-of-a-kind individual.
“Richie was always a classy guy,” says Bontempo. “[He is] one of the most favorite people I’ve ran across all the time that I’ve been in boxing and that’s more than 30 years [now]. And an exceptional product of his time. … I look at the body of work, and I look at the consistency ... this guy was an exceptional fighter at a great time [for boxing].”
Bontempo adds: “Anytime you would have seen Richie Kates fight—in any era—he would have been a Top 10 fighter.”
With a record of 44-6, why does Bontempo think Kates is not a household name outside of Cumberland County?
“You’d have to go beyond boxing and compare it to other sports,” Bontempo says in the documentary. “That’s [just before] football players broke into some big money. Just before baseball players broke into some money. It was just before the television era came in. He fought at the tail-end of that era in which the television and casino money had not yet come together. He was just a few years early. As far as anything else, look, the connections to put guys together weren’t there. You had to go to someone else’s backyard to fight, which he did, so I would say the only thing for Richie Kates, the only reason he wasn’t the household name is when he fought.”
As Kates says in the documentary, he has no regrets: “I look back over my career and the things I’ve done and I’m proud of the way I am now. I’m proud that I’m still able to communicate. I may not be the best spokesperson, but I just thank God for my ability just to put words together [for this interview], because so many people, they can’t do that.”
Kates’ journey continues. With his three sons now grown, and his own boxing career behind him, Kates has hope there’s a young fighter with the same determination and desire to commit to the sport that he had when he was a young teenager.
“Maybe I’ll find him—or her,” he says.
Maybe the next Richie Kates is training at the Next Level Boxing Gym right now.
Update (August 22, 2017): The former Burt Street in Bridgeton has been renamed Richie Kates Sr. Way.
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