Anyone born in Louisville, Kentucky, birthplace of Muhammad Ali, is bound to have more than a passing interest in boxing and that is partly why ‘Stormin’ Norman Wilson has been immersed in the sport since childhood.
Wilson is the assistant coach to Donie Anglin at the new D. Dalmain Ebanks gym at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex, and between them they are rapidly bringing on the boxing programme. Wilson is trainer to Charles ‘The Killa’ Whittaker. They have worked together for nine years and forged a special bond, contributing to the fact that Killa has remained unbeaten for six years. (He has only lost once since 2001 stretching over 22 contests.)
At last month’s amateur boxing show at the gym against teams from the Bahamas and Jamaica, Cayman fighters won six of eight bouts and looked impressive while doing so. Their next assignment is at the West Palm Beach Show in Florida on 20 November. So every evening from 6pm for two hours, Anglin and Wilson, Troy O’Neil and Whittaker put the youngsters through their drills and sparring, honing their skills not only for this challenge, but also for many future ones because at least three of them – Dariel Ebanks, Jason Parchment and Kendall Ebanks – hope to make the London Olympics in 2012.
Novices Tafari Ebanks and Dwayne Anglin-Folkes look like championship material in the making too. Peter ‘Lightning’ Lewison, Eric McField and Aaron Powell also have a lot of potential. There are also the women prospects, Tracey Seymour, Jessica McFarlane-Richards, Myra Bodden and beauty queen contestant Shari Walton.
Wilson commends Premier McKeeva Bush for helping to fund Whittaker as one of Cayman’s elite athletes and giving both of them the support to keep Killa’s world title hopes alive. In some ways Wilson has become a favourite uncle, just like Dalmain, aka Dee Dee was in Whittaker’s formative years.
Wilson’s wife Jenrose of the Philippines recently joined Wilson here. They own a pig farm in Sinaragan, which his father-in-law runs. “I never thought I would ever get so close to a pig!” He also runs a bus service.
The Filipino connection came from his days serving in Vietnam in the US Marines in the 1960s. American military went there for some rest and relaxation. The boxing culture there was also an attraction for him. It is even bigger now because of the success of Manny Pacquiao, the brilliant world champion who fights for his eighth weight division title – the WBC light-middleweight crown – against Antonio Margarito in Dallas on 13 November.
There is a fully equipped boxing gym on his farm and a house solely to accommodate boxers. The intention was to open a boxing gym in town, but it made more sense to simply build one on his property. “Charles (Whittaker) helped me build it. It has everything, including a 20-foot square ring.”
Wilson is on a one-year contract to bring the boxers along. He says: “I really appreciate the Cayman government bringing me into the programme, especially Premier McKeeva Bush and Mark Scotland (sports minister) and Tommy Ebanks (president of the boxing association). The programme is really taking off – and a lot of women are joining too. Donie is picking up ideas and I’m happy to help him. It seems there are a lot of people in Cayman who have been in boxing a long time who are willing to give a hand to the programme. I’m really grateful.
“Cayman needs a supersonic sports programme to help the economy in sports tourism. There are superb athletes here, giants, and the facilities are excellent for them to really get involved. I like the mix of cultures here, it’s like the United Nations.
Wilson is the second youngest of seven siblings. His father was a performing strongman who died tragically from a broken neck sustained in an accident on stage when Norman was three. The family moved to Philadelphia where his mother’s folks lived. Times were tough, especially when Wilson had to walk to the grocery store each morning because boys used to challenge him to boxing matches. “I tried to find different routes to avoid them. It would take me so long to go that little distance that mum started questioning why it took so long.”
So he put some clothes in a pillow case, went in the basement and started practising boxing. After a while he started taking on the street boys and quickly became accepted by the little hoodlums.
Heavyweight champ Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the biggest name in Philadelphia then, and because Wilson couldn’t afford to pay the $5 gym fee, he just watched in awe. He attended Germantown and then Ben Franklin high school, which had the reputation of being one of the roughest in the US, and knew he had a future in the sport after winning a boxing match there.
The Wilsons soon moved to Jacksonville, Florida. Time in their first house did not last long because one morning they woke up after a tornado had passed overnight to find most of the roof had been crushed in. “It was a miracle that none of us was killed.” They moved to Miami and Wilson was pleasantly surprised that unlike Philadelphia, nobody on the streets wanted to challenge him to a fight. “I never wanted to go back to Philadelphia again!”
He left school to join the Marines although there was a job offer from computer giants IBM. The lure of travel and adventure was greater. Despite a tour in Vietnam, Wilson enjoyed his time in the military but having served in the rocket launchers and demolition divisions led to him losing much of his hearing. The highlight of his boxing time in the military was beating the all-Marine light-heavyweight champion in a tournament in Cuba where he also trained boxers.
In 1974 at age 24, Wilson left the armed forces, and on a $200 budget funded by the City of North Miami Beach, started a boxing programme. “There was no ring, we just had tape on the floor. But in that first year we won the Sunshine State Games.” It was hugely successful and is still running today — only with a budget of millions.
In 1980 he started his own gym, the first black-owned business in Opa Locka, Florida, which ran for five years. Kenny Snow was the biggest name to reach world class from the gym, although the legendary Jamaican Mike McCallum spent some time there too. Wilson helped Sugar Ray Leonard on his first comeback fight and the greatest fighter of the last 30 years was so impressed that he said if he wasn’t with Angelo Dundee he would have hired Wilson. The late Alexis Arguello was another superb fighter Wilson worked with for a time, as well as top promoters Don King, Cedric Kushner and Bob Arum.
His time in the military included teaching scuba diving and swimming survival tactics, so for a few years Wilson worked as the assistant director of swimming at Miami Dade Community College.
Back at the ring, Wilson was in Trevor Berbick’s corner the night in 1986 he lost his heavyweight title to Mike Tyson, who became the youngest heavyweight champ in history, at 20. Wanting a break from boxing and with the lump sum from that fight, Wilson went into business as an insurance agent.
But he never got boxing out of his system, and he trained top fighters in the ‘90s, including Oliver McCall, Tony Tucker, Michael Nunn, Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, Richard Hall, Bert Cooper and Randall Bailey.
His reputation was such that Wilson got to work with heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis in London for five years. “I enjoyed my time with Lennox, but London was too cold and foggy.”
He moved back to Florida and trained various fighters with former world champ John David Jackson. Killa was one of them and eventually Wilson focused solely on him.