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Andy Furillo: Bill McMurray fought the best; he was family man, too

The night Bill McMurray beat Thad Spencer

On Sept. 13, 1966 in Sacramento, local heavyweight boxer Bill McMurray scored a technical knockout victory over No. 1 contender Thad Spencer. McMurray, who fought some of the biggest names in boxing's heavyweight division in the 1960s, died on Feb
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On Sept. 13, 1966 in Sacramento, local heavyweight boxer Bill McMurray scored a technical knockout victory over No. 1 contender Thad Spencer. McMurray, who fought some of the biggest names in boxing's heavyweight division in the 1960s, died on Feb

In the days when the heavyweight champion was the king of the world, Bill McMurray of Sacramento fought two such monarchs.

McMurray lasted one round with Floyd Patterson and made it into the fourth with Sonny Liston. McMurray also drove trucks and raised a family; his job and his people mattered more to him.

McMurray, who died Feb. 23 of Parkinson’s disease at age 79, reigned for a short time as the heavyweight champion of California, but he’ll live as a king forever in the memories of his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews whose lives he nurtured as patriarch of an extended Northern California family.

They buried McMurray on Friday at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon. More than 150 people ascended into the hills Thursday to attend his funeral at Magalia Upper Ridge SDA Church. The generations remembered him as grandfather and uncle with arms of steel he flexed for them to climb as if they were monkey bars. Those same arms drove fists into men like Thad Spencer and George Logan, heavyweight contenders of the 1960s McMurray defeated. Those arms also fended off the blows of top-ranked heavies like Patterson, Liston, Eddie Machen, Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton and Blue Lewis – against whom McMurray did not fare as well.

McMurray, born and raised in San Bernardino, was a high school track star who took up boxing after he was drafted into the Army in 1955. He turned pro upon his discharge, moved to Sacramento and established Memorial Auditorium as his home base. He fought in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Francisco, Cleveland and four times in the hallowed boxing hall of Los Angeles, the Olympic Auditorium. He fought professionally from 1959 through 1971, going 26-24-3. He knocked out 10 and was knocked out by 11.

Perhaps McMurray will best be remembered as the sparring partner who caused a six-week delay of the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Perhaps McMurray will best be remembered as the sparring partner who caused a six-week delay of the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. McMurray had worked in the camps of multiple heavyweights, including Liston’s and Foreman’s, due to his stylistic resemblance to Ali – tall, muscular, fast hands, light on his feet. McMurray, even though he hadn’t fought in three years, was hired to spar with Foreman. During one session, McMurray slashed open the undefeated and defending champ’s right eye with his left elbow. During the six-week layoff, McMurray switched camps and helped Ali figure out Foreman, according to McMurray’s son, Keith.

McMurray once held claim to the championship of Ireland. Pat Stapleton came to town in 1969 touted as the Emerald Isle’s best. McMurray knocked him out in 62 seconds. The next week, the Sacramento City Council passed a resolution proclaiming McMurray the heavyweight champion of Ireland. Six months later, when McMurray went to Cleveland to fight Lewis, he promoted himself as “Irish Bill” McMurray.

Promoters loved the guy. He’d take a fight on a week’s notice, or less, to fly off to Pittsburgh to fight Patterson, or down to L.A. to take on Norton, or make it across town to the Memorial to stand in with Spencer, the state heavyweight champ.

McMurray’s TKO over Spencer on Sept. 13, 1966, was his high-water mark in the ring. Spencer was 29-4 and ranked third in the world by Ring Magazine. If Spencer had beaten McMurray, he would have been in line for a title shot against Ali. Spencer shut out McMurray through six rounds, but in the seventh McMurray unleashed a left hook that tore Spencer’s right eye open, and they had to stop the fight.

“Bill had more ability than even he realized,” International Boxing Hall of Fame promoter Don Chargin said Friday. “The one thing that hurt him, he got in that frame of mind of being a sparring partner. Once in a while, those kinds of workouts are OK for you, but after a while, if you’re not allowed to do certain things, you pick up bad habits. He was durable and tough. I remember Sonny Liston told me once, ‘You absolutely can’t hurt that guy.’ 

McMurray’s day job in the cab of an 18-wheeler also impeded his career. He short-hauled regularly to Portland. The job ate up 80 hours of his week and cut into his time in the gym.

Bill had more ability than even he realized. The one thing that hurt him, he got in that frame of mind of being a sparring partner. Once in a while, those kinds of workouts are OK for you, but after a while, if you’re not allowed to do certain things, you pick up bad habits. He was durable and tough. I remember Sonny Liston told me once, ‘You absolutely can’t hurt that guy.’

International Boxing Hall of Fame promoter Don Chargin

His wife, Margaret, identified another issue.

“He just wasn’t a killer,” she said. “He was a gentle giant. He did it basically because he thought he could make money at it. And when he was in the Army, when we were in Alaska, he didn’t really want to go out into the field, in the winter time, and they found out he was an athlete, and they said, ‘Hey, Bill, have you ever boxed?’ He said, ‘I could try.’ 

McMurray and his family lived in Sacramento until 1993, when he bought a spread near Rackerby, in the foothills east of Oroville. In 2005, McMurray and his wife moved to Paradise, as nice a place as any to finish your race. It kept him near family. His fame as a fighter had long since given way to his real life’s calling, fatherhood.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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