by Steven J. Canton, April 18, 2009

       When you think of Boxing and Louisville, Kentucky, you think of Muhammad Ali, or, to a lesser extent, Jimmy Ellis. But, before Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Ellis was Rudell Stitch. Rudell Stitch never won an Olympic gold medal, or a world championship, and he will never get inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but he did earn something much more important, though less publicized, something that only four people during the past century have earned. Rudell Stitch was awarded two Carnegie Hero Medals for risking his life to save another.

Rudell was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 26, 1933. During his teens he walked into the Headline Boxing Gym, in Louisville, and started boxing as an amateur. He won 45 bouts with only a handful of losses, winning Kentucky state titles in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. He also turned professional in 1956, with his longtime amateur trainer, Bud Bruner, who also acted as his manager. Bud, the face of boxing in Louisville, also trained future WBA World Heavyweight Champion Jimmy Ellis, who defeated Muhammad Ali, as an amateur. Ali sometimes trained at Bruner’s gym too. Bruner contracted Tunney Hunsaker to be Ali’s first professional opponent, and worked Hunsaker’s corner, as well. Ali won a six round decision.

On August 27, 1958, Stitch defeated welterweight contender Isaac Logart by a ten round decision. It was the first big win of his professional career. However, two months later, Logart turned the tables and avenged his loss by winning a decision over Stitch. In November of 1958, Stitch, who only had 19 fights at that point, came back and won a decision over the tough Yamaha Bahama, who, at that time, had over 50 wins to his credit. Bahama had won a decision over the great Kid Gavilian earlier that same year. Stitch followed that big win with a victory over the popular contender Chico Vejar.

It looked like Stitch was on his way to stardom. However, some began to criticize him, saying that he was too nice to be a boxer, and lacked a fighter’s instinct to put away his opponent. They pointed to his February 6, 1959 fight against world class contender Gaspar Ortega. In the third round, there was an accidental clash of heads. Stitch wasn’t hurt or cut, but Ortega was staggering around with blood gushing from a bad cut near his eye. The referee told Stitch to resume fighting, but instead , he walked toward Ortega, touched gloves, and said “I’m sorry,” then stepped back and waited until Ortega’s head had cleared. Ortega later rallied, winning a ten round decision. Boxing fans were appalled at Stitch’s actions, but the media embraced him. Stitch later said that he didn’t believe in taking advantage of an opponent in such a situation. Although he lost, Stitch’s sportsmanship showed what kind of person he was. Three months later they had a rematch and Stitch won by decision.

In August of 1959 Stitch lost a decision to Cuban great, and future world champion, Luis Manuel Rodriguez, but two months later he decisioned another future world champion, Ralph Dupas, and followed that victory with a decision over contender Holly Mims, a veteran with 47 wins to his credit. Charley “Tombstone” Smith would be his next victim, falling in four by TKO.

In March of 1960 Stitch defeated Randy Sandy. Sandy had defeated the great Emile Griffith a year before his loss to Stitch. Stitch then traveled to Australia, and lost the rematch to Ralph Dupas, but followed with a win over Stan Harrington, in Honolulu. Harrington later defeated Sugar Ray Robinson twice. Rudell Stitch was keeping fast company and the fighter who was “too nice” to be a top fighter was now ranked #2 in the world, and had a record of 27-7, with 13 K.O.’s. A world title shot was imminent. However, fate had other ideas. The Harrington fight turned out to be his last.

On June 5, 1960, Stitch, who loved to fish, went fishing with his trainer and manager Bud Bruner, and Charles Oliver, a close friend. Oliver slipped off a ledge at the McAlpine lock and fell into the River. Stitch swam to his friend, in the swirling Ohio River, but when Oliver grabbed onto him they both went down and drowned. Stitch left behind a wife, a daughter, and five sons. He was only 27. Ironically, two years earlier, while fishing, in roughly the same place along the river bank, Stitch had been successful in saving a stranger, Army Corps of Engineers worker Joseph Shifcar, who had fallen into the river near the same location. He received his first medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund then and posthumously received another medal. Only three other people have received two Carnegie Fund medals. The year after Stitch’s death, the National Boxing Association presented his family with the first annual Rudell Stitch Sportsmanship Award.

Stitch’s oldest child, Donald, still has the fighter’s Carnegie Hero Medals, his boxing robe, several scrapbooks of press clippings, and some precious memories of his parents. Donald was only 9 when his father died. The children lost their mother, Rosa, just four years later. Their grandmother came down from Detroit, after the death of Rosa, in order to keep the kids all together and in the same house, rather than having them separated. She took them to church, worked hard, and provided for them. In an interview with Byron Crawford, Donald remembered that, “The lights were never turned out, and we never wanted for anything.” Donald’s youngest brother, Daryl, later fought in the Golden Gloves, but Donald liked football better, and earned a scholarship to Jackson State University.

Numerous friends and relatives who revere Stitch’s contributions to boxing, and to humanity, hope that somewhere in Louisville’s new Muhammad Ali Center, space can be found for an exhibit commemorating the fighter.

A Bible verse that Stitch, a member of the Hope Presbyterian Church, had heard many times in his youth, is cradled along the edges of his two Carnegie Hero Medals. “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In the elite class of heroes, Rudell Stitch is among the greatest, and will never be forgotten.


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