As a heavyweight fighter, Gary Bates lacked great power. His speed was barely average, and compared to some of the giants he battled he was downright short-armed.
At the height of his career, chances were good Bates was an underdog whenever he split the ropes. In those days he was matched, at times on short notice, against some of the best boxers in the division.
But, good Lord, he was game. That much was undeniable.
That’s only part of what his friends loved and will miss about Gary: There was no quit in him. His body was all too human, but his fighting spirit was simply indefatigable.
Bates died Friday at Nathan Adelson Hospice after jabbing and hooking and brawling a full 15 rounds with cancer. He was 69. A memorial Mass is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.
Gary was fearless. While all fighters worth a drop in a spit bucket train hard, in the late 1960s Gary was the sparring partner and occasional running mate of heavyweight legend Charles “Sonny” Liston. After hammering it out with Sonny on a daily basis, Gary didn’t fear taking on the likes of Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and Gerry Cooney.
Norton broke Bates’ jaw. Lyle cracked his ribs. You could sew a baseball with the stitches Gary took in his brows. He once fought with a dislocated shoulder.
Gary didn’t stop coming until he was counted out.
He ran after midnight for a while with Liston, who died in 1970 of a mysterious drug overdose. Gary roomed for a time with Johnny Hicks, the slippery son of mobbed-up casino man Marion Hicks, who likely was murdered by Tony Spilotro.
Boxing lore is riddled with colorful journeymen who lost as many as they won and have only their stories and scars to show for years of dedication to the unforgiving sweet science of bruising. Gary was different. Against considerable odds, he managed to move forward with his life.
As a general rule, the sons of country club members don’t do much boxing. As a boy Bates, moved with his family from Estes Park, Colo., to old Henderson, where his father looked for work and found little. The family lived for a time out of their car at Lake Mead before landing government housing at the old Victory Village apartments. Gary later joined the Marines. The Corps fit his personality.
Outside the ring he often had a wild life, one that was a heavy favorite to end badly. Until he met Carmen.
He earned a living as a casino dealer, but Gary found a life with Carmen. Together, he and his wife raised wonderful daughters, focused on their Catholic faith and carved out a meaningful path between shifts at local casino resorts.
If the story ended there it would be intriguing enough, but the same Gary who spilled men’s blood and his own for a living also donated more than 25 gallons of blood and platelets during his lifetime. His decision to put his name in the national bone marrow registry resulted in a match and a donation that helped save a life.
It wasn’t the only one the Marine managed to rescue. He stopped purse snatchers, converted muggers into sidewalk pacifists and once dragged a person from a burning car.
Gary started boxing in Henderson, and at an early age befriended future Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Until late in his life Gary helped provide security for Reid.
In Reid’s memoir, “Fighting the Good Fight,” he devotes ample space to praising Gary’s loyalty and pugnacity. When then-Nevada Gaming Commission member Reid’s life was threatened, Gary offered to find the threat and cancel it for keeps.
“My good friend had just told me that he would kill for me,” Reid wrote. “And the thing is, he would have.”
Bates once told Reid, “Harry, I know your dad hit your mom. My dad hit my mom. Our lives are the same. That is a thread. That’s raw, pure. I’m with you. I’m with you to the end.”
Although Reid never took Bates up on the offer, Reid would recall, “Now, with my life threatened, I could do worse than have Gary Bates accompany me on my morning runs.”
Living in the same house for many years on St. Jude Circle near the old Bishop Gorman High School, Gary mellowed — but only a little. He was well known as a fiercely dedicated neighbor who was a stickler for compelling public employees to do their jobs and help keep the streets clean. He had county code inspectors on speed dial.
Gary was an outspoken Catholic who was as pugnacious as he was pious. He provided maintenance for more than one time-worn parish.
For years he stayed in shape by hard-core training that included swinging a 24-pound sledgehammer against a tractor tire out behind Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym downtown. It was at Johnny’s gym Gary and I first met many years ago.
The life of Gary Bates reverberates with meaning and serves as a reminder that the true spirit of the fighter lives on even after the final bell has rung.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.