Chatelain: Memories of Ron Stander, the greatest heavyweight boxer in the city’s history | local

She walked alone to the lectern, turned and looked down on 200 mourners inside Holy Name Catholic Church. Stained-glass windows illuminated their faces and revealed the scars of age, tears and — in some cases — fists.

“The Bluffs Butcher,” the greatest heavyweight in the city’s history, was gone now. But his true love remained, staring out at this century-old cathedral and its 33 rows of wooden pews, including row 32, where she placed a sign: “Ron Stander’s favorite spot.”

A brand-new cheetah-print jacket covered her shoulders. A silver cross dangled from her neck. A voice echoed in her heart. On only 90 minutes of sleep, 78-year-old Toddy Stander began reading from a 13-page script she’d typed up with a poet’s precision.

“You all have an insight to the life of Ron Stander,” Toddy said, “So today I want to talk about the man, as a father, friend and as my husband.”

She could’ve told tales of his heroics. The nights he flattened Earnie Shavers or went toe-to-toe with Smokin’ Joe. His days on the road, body-guarding Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli, the Eagles and The Rolling Stones. His friendships with Redd Foxx and Evel Knievel. She could’ve detailed his cameos in Hollywood movies or his R-rated escapades at local bars. There’s a whole lot of Ron Stander unfit for print.

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Joe Frazier lands a punch on Stander in their world championship bout at the Civic Auditorium.


THE WORLD HERALD


Instead, Toddy described two high school classmates reuniting after 45 years apart, rekindling an old flame and illuminating each other’s darkest years. Ronnie, who had a hundred favorite sayings, preferred one above all: “Love you more.”

That tenderness and compassion didn’t fly on the cover of a boxing magazine, but the gentle giant couldn’t hide it. Quick with a punch but even quicker with a punchline, Stander made easy friends.

Born in South Carolina, Stander’s family moved to Council Bluffs before kindergarten. He dominated the football field at Abraham Lincoln High School, but he was too strong not to fight.

Tony Novak recalls meeting Stander in a downtown Omaha boxing gym. At the time, nobody wanted to spar with Stander, so Novak took the challenge. He soon regretted it.

“He hit me in the elbow and I couldn’t move my elbow for about a week,” Novak said. “He hit like a bull.”

“Freddy Gagliola had him down at the Foxhole gym. And Joe Monastero was holding the medicine bag. And Ronnie hit that damn medicine bag so hard it busted open. All the stuffing flies out.

“Coach says, ‘Goddammit, Ronnie. We’ve had that bag for five years.’ †

At 24, Stander became Omaha Golden Gloves champion and turned pro. Over the next three years, he went 23-1-1, including a knockout of Earnie Shavers.

“Lights out,” Novak said. “Earnie Shavers was gone.” (Shavers won his next 33 fights and eventually went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.)

Stander’s moment of fame came two years later, May 25, 1972, a world championship bout with Joe Frazier at the Civic Auditorium. Stander fought fearlessly.

“He absolutely won the first round,” said “Mouse” Strauss, Stander’s close friend. “I should’ve called in a bomb scare after the first round. He would’ve won the fight.”







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Ron Stander, left, after his fight with Joe Frazier. At right is Dr. Jack Lewis, who stitched Stander’s face in the locker room.


THE WORLD HERALD


In round five, a facial cut prompted the referee to stop the fight. “Unfortunately for Butcher, he cut easy,” Strauss said.

Said Novak: “He would’ve stayed with Frazier for 15. You couldn’t knock Ronnie out. Nobody could.”

Stander fought another decade professionally, racking up 38 wins in 62 fights. He refereed hundreds more, appearing on ESPN and USA Network. He traveled the world protecting famous people, making fast friends with his quick wit. “He always had a comeback,” Novak said.

But Omaha was always home. Butcher never forgot where he came from. Never acted like a guy who fought for the world championship. “If there was a line,” Novak said, “he’d wait in it.”

How many times did he help a stranger in need? How many times did he spot a bully picking on a little guy in a bar or a gym and intervene?

“If you went in to a bar with him, you didn’t worry about nothin’,” Novak said. “And we went into many of them.”

Too many. By the time Stander turned 62, the accumulation of late nights and left hooks had taken a toll. Then a bell rank. At his 45th class reunion, Stander reconnected with an old crush, whose husband had recently passed away.

Did Toddy remember Ronnie? Of course she did.

They met in the early 1960s at Abraham Lincoln High. She was going down the stairs; he was going up. “What’s your name, young lady?” he said. She wouldn’t tell him.

A few days later, Ronnie saw her again: “Hey, Hot Toddy. Toddy with the body.”

Toddy actually attended the 1972 Frazier fight. Standing on a chair, looking through her binoculars, she hyperventilated, crashed to the floor and landed in the emergency room.

Now they were toe-to-toe again. talking. flirting. They started dating in 2007 and Ronnie quickly fell in love with her baking. He wanted two pieces of every dish: “A bird can’t fly with one wing,” he said, another of his favorite sayings.

They married on Halloween 2008. “It just seemed natural to say Ronnie tricked me and I treated him,” Toddy said.

They weren’t perfect. You don’t come together in your 60s without some baggage. But they learned to compromise. They ironed out each other’s wrinkles and softened each other’s flaws.

“God knew I needed someone to make me complete,” Toddy said. “Ronnie was that man.”







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A family member wears an “In Loving Memory” T-shirt during Ron Stander’s funeral at Holy Name Church in Omaha on Monday. Stander died last Tuesday at age 77.


LILY SMITH, THE WORLD HERALD


For the next decade, you never saw them apart. She encouraged his Catholic faith and cheered his redemption as a family man. Ronnie called his kids and grandkids sometimes 3-4 times a day, leaving voicemails when they couldn’t pick up. Why do you leave so many messages, Toddy asked him.

“I wasn’t always there for them, so I want them to know that I am here for them now,” he said.

Connection got harder in 2019 when Stander, a diabetic, suffered an infection that nearly killed him. Doctors removed five joints and one toe. He returned home after six months in hospital beds and assisted living. That was Jan. 28, 2020. Then, boom, two years of COVID quarantine. Toddy refused to venture out for fear of getting him sick.

They passed the time playing games, watching movies and singing along to his favorite love songs: Elvis and Barry White, especially.

“I let you chase me until I wanted to be caught,” she told him.

She told her love story from the lectern Monday morning, the highlight of a funeral that wasn’t just a tribute to a local hero, but a step back in Omaha history. To a time of hitchhikers and packing houses and Sinatra records. A time when you celebrated knockouts with three-hour meals at the neighborhood Italian restaurant.







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Row 32 is marked “Ron Stander’s favorite spot” at Holy Name Church during his funeral Monday.


LILY SMITH, THE WORLD HERALD


Toddy looked out from the lectern and saw men in sport coats and ties, others in leather jackets, some in T-shirts. Almost all of their faces, though, wore the deep creases of time.

Toddies too. But her cheetah-print jacket distracted the eyes.

She brought it home a year ago and Ronnie liked it immediately. She decided to save it for a special occasion that never came. For Ronnie’s funeral, she ripped off the price tag and wore it to church.

Before she finished her eulogy and walked down the long aisle of Holy Name, past his seat in the 32nd pew, she shared one last exchange between her and the Bluffs Butcher, the soulmate she found much too late … but just in time.

“Ronnie,” she said, her words bouncing off those stained-glass windows. “I love you.”

Then Toddy lifted her hand to her ear and repeated the voice in her heart.

“I can almost hear you say…’Love you more.’ †

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dirk.chatelain@owh.com, 402-649-1461, twitter.com/dirkchatelain

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