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Former boxer Skelton talks a good game

One after another, the cars line up in all sizes, makes and colors. But there is one trait that binds them all.

Filth.

Dirt. Grime. Dead bugs. Bird droppings. You name it, Ben Skelton has seen it.

At 84, he has seen plenty in his life. But he also sees what happens during the 15 to 20 minutes those cars are given back their showroom shine at Fabulous Freddy’s Car Wash in Summerlin. That’s when Skelton does his best work.

He doesn’t wash cars. That job is for the “kids.” His job is to talk. His title is customer service representative, but it ought to be chief schmoozer. While customers await their vehicles, Skelton regales them with tales of his boxing career and his days as owner of a New York nightclub.

He’ll tell you about how he sparred with Joe Louis, which led him to climbing into the ring with other great fighters, including Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

If you’re not a fight fan, he’ll talk about the jazz club he owned in Jamaica, Queens, that attracted star performers such as Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.

The time flies by, and then his two-way radio crackles and another car is ready for pickup. Skelton politely excuses himself and then yells out the customer’s name.

“I love people,” he said. “I help out with anything they need. If there are any complaints, I deal with it and get it straightened out.”

Skelton has been at the car wash since it opened in 1996. He is as much at ease talking with working stiffs as he is with celebrities.

“Ben’s got a great personality,” car wash manager Don Stephens said. “People tell us all the time how much they enjoy having him around. We consider Ben family.”

Skelton grew up in Pittsburgh during the Depression. His love for boxing came from listening to Louis’ fights or watching the newsreels at the movie theater. Like many black kids of the 1930s, he wanted to be Louis.

“I always wanted to be like Joe,” Skelton said. “When he lost to (Max) Schmeling, I cried like a baby.”

Skelton’s father introduced him to boxing when he was 13. He joined the Navy after high school and was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He boxed in the service and became the Navy’s light heavyweight champion.

“I never weighed more than 168 pounds,” he said. “But I could hit hard and I could move.”

Late in the war, Skelton got to meet his boyhood idol while Louis was on a promotional tour, fighting exhibition bouts to boost troop morale. Louis took a liking to Skelton and told him to give him a call when he got out of the Navy.

Skelton turned pro in 1946 and says he compiled a record of 38-4. However, Boxrec.com lists his pro record as 13-15 with seven knockouts. Skelton said the Web site is wrong.

“They left out a lot of my fights,” he said. “I’ve seen what they have on me and it’s not correct.”

Skelton thrived as a sparring partner. His speed and strength were utilized during Louis’ training camps in upstate New York. That led to work with other fighters. Ezzard Charles sparred with Skelton at his training camp. So did Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston.

“I can’t explain it. It was such a thrill,” Skelton said. “I was in awe of being in the same ring as Joe Louis, my boyhood idol. But I couldn’t let him know that, because I’d be out of a job otherwise. Training was serious business for those guys and if you didn’t do what they told you to, you were gone and they’d find someone else. So I couldn’t afford to be in awe of them.”

Marciano was by far the toughest fighter with whom Skelton sparred.

“No one hit harder than Marciano,” he said. “When you stepped in the ring with him, you better be ready because he was all business. He tried to destroy you. He didn’t care if you were a sparring partner. To him, it was like a real fight.”

Skelton had retired as a pro fighter by the time he got in the ring with Ali, who was still going by his given name of Cassius Clay in 1962.

“Ali, he had fast hands,” Skelton said. “He loved to talk but he wasn’t a puncher. He’d wear you out. Joe Louis, he’d knock you out.”

Skelton got his first taste of Las Vegas through boxing.

“It was the early 1960s and I was trying to help Floyd Patterson set up his training camp at the old Dunes Hotel,” Skelton said. “That was the real Vegas back then. Not the crap you have now. Back then everyone knew each other. Now it’s gotten out of hand with all the growth.”

But Skelton liked Las Vegas and after he sold the Village Door, his jazz nightclub in Queens, he and his wife, Rena, and their two children decided to move west. Skelton called Fred Smith Sr., who was opening a car wash, and asked if he needed any help.

Smith created the customer rep position at Freddy’s and Skelton has been there since Day One.

“Vegas is all right,” he said. ”But I do miss the old days.”

Business is good on this particular spring Saturday. There’s a steady stream of cars. Skelton is handshaking and hugging customers, chatting with them.

“It makes me feel good having the customers come over,” he said. “I love them all.”

Skelton admits he doesn’t watch a lot of boxing these days, though several fighters, including Floyd Mayweather Jr., come to Fabulous Freddy’s to get their vehicles washed.

“There’s no one today who really impresses me,” he said. “I talk to them but it’s not like the old fighters. Sugar Ray Robinson, he was the greatest to pull on a glove. He was the smartest fighter ever. He could do anything. He could box. He could slug. He could fight going backward.

“Floyd Jr.? He’s real good, but he’s not even in that conversation.”

Skelton said it’s hard to compare eras, especially because of all the different weight classes today.

“It’s a different ballgame altogether,” he said. “The training is different now. They got all those fancy machines. We chopped trees to build strength.”

Skelton said he has lived a blessed life. He and Rena have been married 38 years. He has two grandchildren and his health is good. He had some stomach issues but said he’s OK now.

“It’s been a good life,” he said. “Every day I get up and go to work, it’s a fabulous day.”

Skelton’s two-way radio squawked. Another car was clean and was ready to roll. It was time to go back to work.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.

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