Friday, Aug. 21, 1998 | 10:37 a.m.
WHEN DONALD "Doc" Romeo muses about his 30 years as the preeminent ringside physician in the Las Vegas fight game, the winners and losers fade, for the most part, into the background. What endures is a patchwork of the fights, fighters and friends who made boxing not just a sport but a way of life for the physician who gave so much of himself to the sport.
The way Doc remembers it, he got involved in Las Vegas boxing quite by accident. Shortly after moving to Southern Nevada in 1960, he was called to the house of Jim Deskin's ailing mother. The conversation turned to sports and came to rest on boxing. Romeo says Deskin saw his interest and made reference to a position at ringside.
Though Doc had boxed with some success during a stint in the military, his only other experience with the sport was as a spectator. Nonetheless, he jumped at the chance to be a part of the action.
"I have been ringside at 10,000 fights, and that is not exaggerating," Romeo says, wearing a proud expression of accomplishment. He fondly remembers hundreds of club fights in smoke-filled arenas at the Silver Slipper, Las Vegas Convention Center and Silver Nugget, but some of his most rewarding work involved the Golden Gloves organization, which once flourished in Las Vegas.
For much of his time as a ringside physician, Romeo was the only doctor for the Golden Gloves, and he remembers working more than 100 matches in a night at no charge to ensure the children's safety. Beginning in the early evening, he would often work until 4 a.m., much to the chagrin of his wife and 11 children. With so many fights going on, Doc saw some pretty good bouts and a few freak injuries. He claims that in the same night he saw not one, but two young fighters suffer broken legs after being knocked down.
When it came to championship fights, Romeo was a ubiquitous ringside presence ringside in Las Vegas. Many of the biggest fighters in the game left an indelible mark on his memory with their antics in and out of the ring.
Heavyweight Jerry Quarry, whom Romeo describes as a good man and "an Irishman with all the guts in the world," was always good for a story or two, Doc says. He recalls that, after a fight at the convention center, whether Quarry had won or lost, one could always expect a ruckus in the parking lot as the fighter's corner crew would have it out among themselves.
Reporters were always after Doc for a comment on the condition of the fighters. When Sonny Liston was to fight Floyd Patterson for the title, the pressure was especially bad because the fighters were so evenly matched. Romeo points out that a fighter, like any professional athlete, should be in top shape. That was the case in the Liston-Patterson fight, but Doc felt compelled to say something. "So I said 'the deep tendon reflexes in Patterson are faster than those of Liston,' " he recalls.
When the night of the fight came, Liston knocked out Patterson in the early rounds, and as he descended from the ring he turned to face Romeo. "Who's got the best reflexes now?" Liston snapped. Doc smiles sheepishly as he tells the story, much as he might have on the night of the fight.
The best fight Romeo ever saw was also the most tragic. When Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini fought Duk Koo Kim, Romeo says, "the two of them just stood toe to toe and slugged it out punch for punch in every round." He fully expected one of the fighters to go down, but neither did -- until the fight was over. As soon as Doc spoke to Duk Koo Kim, the fighter began to slide off his seat. Doc called for a stretcher and directed the crew to Desert Springs Hospital where he asked Dr. Lonnie Hammargren to prepare to operate. Unfortunately, Duk Koo Kim did not survive, but he lives on in the mind of Doc, who could do nothing for the fallen fighter.
As with all great stories, moments of tragedy serve only to heighten Doc Romeo's successes in the eyes of the world and, more importantly, of his family. With a tear in his eye, he recounts a time when Sugar Ray Robinson, who Doc claims was the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his day, invited the doctor and his wife to dinner at the Desert Inn.
Barbara Romeo knew little about boxing and less about Robinson, but that night she learned a touching lesson about her husband. When longtime Las Vegas performer Debbie Reynolds turned the spotlight on Robinson and welcomed the champ to her show, Doc recalls his wife turning to him and saying in all honesty, "You really are someone, aren't you?"
Romeo feels that boxing in Las Vegas has quieted down some, and he is displeased with the trend of referees stopping fights early. "In the past if a guy was fighting for $10 million, a cut over the eye or a bloody nose didn't bother me a smell," he says. "If they were fighting for that kind of money, they were gonna earn it."
Also, he laments the departure of ringside announcer Chuck Hull from boxing prominence. "He was the true voice of boxing, not this guy (Michael) Buffer they have announcing now," he asserts.
For all the boxing he saw during his tenure, it is the names of the men he worked with that bring a look of silent reverence to the retired doctor's face. Two strokes and assorted health problems cannot weaken his feelings of friendship and respect for men such as former commissioners Jimmy Gay, Don Digilio and George Foley as well as inspectors Larry Scatina and John Lehman.
"These fellows are fine men and did a good job, but commissioners Dr. James Nave and Dr. Elias Ghanem as well as executive secretary Mark Ratner are without a doubt some of the best I have seen in all my years," Doc says. The list of people he remembers as instrumental in Las Vegas boxing is nearly as long as the list of fights he has attended, and he is grateful for the role each person played in creating the boxing world he loves so much.
Though he does not move as quickly as he once did, Doc still attends fights whenever he can. "Once the bug has gotten into you, you're bit real good," he explains with a telling smile.
As he brings his recollections about boxing to a close, Doc Romeo returns to the beginning, and, as is his nature, humbly thanks the man who gave him a chance. "I want to say that I honestly enjoyed my job as ringside physician for 30 years. I will be forever grateful to Jim Deskin, who got me started on my way."