Ex-pro boxer Menefee keeps it real with trainees, himself

Former professional boxer Tony Menefee, of Lincoln, in the ring at his gym, Menefee's Boxing Club, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Former professional boxer Tony Menefee, of Lincoln, in the ring at his gym, Menefee’s Boxing Club, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Former professional boxer Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss once fought twice in one night — once as himself and once as his “twin brother.”

He got knocked out in his first fight, changed to a different colored pair of shorts and went into the ring again.

That was “the craziest thing” Tony Menefee ever saw during his professional boxing career.

In a profession often dominated by publicity hounds and showmen, Menefee, a Lincoln native, was always authentic. And he’s maintained that reputation as a boxing trainer at his gym, Menefee’s Boxing Club, at 1201 S. 12th St., where he makes a priority of being open and honest.

“I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said. “I’m human; I’ve made mistakes. The point is, don’t keep making them. Do something different.”

A child prodigy and young professional

Menefee, 44, fought his first amateur fight in the basement of the Pershing Center when he was five.

With training from his dad, Ray Menefee, also a professional boxer, Tony kept boxing as an amateur until 1989, when he won the Midwest regional title in the Golden Gloves of America, the Super Bowl of amateur boxing.

The next year, at age 17, he became a professional, one week before graduating from high school.

But once he turned pro, he saw a different side of boxing, one that resembled the staged entertainment of WWE.

“Guys fight one night in one state, then fight the next night in a different state under a different name,” Menefee said.

And people like Strauss would fight just to win money, not to win the match.

Menefee, on the other hand, said he always loved the sport for what it is, not just for the chance to make money.

Sparring with legends

In his first televised match, he sparred with Roberto Duran, whom the Associated Press named the best lightweight of the 20th Century.

Menefee lost badly, but he said he didn’t go into the ring to win. He just wanted to do his best.

Menefee had the same attitude when he went to-to-toe with Hector Camacho, who won four major world titles, despite being ranked higher than Camacho at the time.

But he beat plenty of other fighters, reaching the pinnacle of his career in 1998, when he was ranked as high as the No. 3 middleweight in the world by the World Boxing Association.

About that time, Menefee achieved what he says is his claim to fame: Sugar Ray Leonard backed out of a fight with him because “he didn’t have the motivation,” according to a January 1998 Associated Press article.

The limelight takes its toll

Menefee got wrapped up in the fame. He didn’t take his fights seriously, caring more about having fun than playing the game. And for him, having fun meant drinking. Thus began his lifelong struggle with alcoholism.

His wife, now divorced from him, didn’t like it when he drank, so he mostly drank on the road, and his performance suffered because of it.

“I took fights at the last minute, unprepared, not ready,” Menefee said.

He wishes he took boxing as seriously then as he does now.

“I could’ve been a contender,” Menefee said.

Menefee’s father had problems with alcohol too, as did his grandfather. So Tony knows it’s hereditary, at least to some extent.

“Some people get it; some don’t,” he said. “You know, it’s just a matter of learning to be stable within yourself.”

Menefee’s last hurrah

In 2007, the State of Florida suspended him after he received two straight technical knockouts and required him to undergo neurological testing. The neurologist wouldn’t let him fight, so Menefee hung up his gloves.

By that time, he had fought in 104 professional matches, racking up 78 wins, 25 losses and one draw.

He said many of the fighters he faced off with were publicity-oriented and “always putting on some kind of front,” which he didn’t like.

“I’ve always maintained myself as being a very humble guy, just like anybody else,” he said. “We all bleed the same color blood.”

Now, Menefee, who once sparred with ex-world champions and fighters twice his weight, trains people of all sizes and skill levels.

He said he focuses on instilling in his trainees the discipline they will need to succeed in boxing and in life.

“If you want to be a champion, bottom line: You have to be willing to do what the other guy is not,” he said.

Connor Koukol has only been training under Menefee for about a month, and he’s already experienced a heavy dose of discipline.

“If you mess up with your form, he’s going to punish you for it so you learn,” he said.

Former professional boxer Tony Menefee works with one of his trainees, Connor Koukol, at his gym in Lincoln Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Former professional boxer Tony Menefee works with one of his trainees, Connor Koukol, at his gym in Lincoln Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Even so, Menefee said he wants to be his trainees’ friend, not just their coach. So he gets to know each of them personally.

“I got a habit of BSing with people because I believe that’s the most important thing in any relationship in life: honest communication, being able to talk to somebody, be straight up, be real,” he said.

While he no longer has to battle world legends, the fight to overcome his personal struggles continues. He was sober for 5 1/2 years but had a relapse a year ago.

But Menefee believes that in life, just as in boxing, if you want to get better at it, you have to keep working hard every day.

“Life’s a lesson; you’ll learn it when you’re through,” he said, quoting a song from a “Mission: Impossible” movie. “Well, I want to learn it before I’m through.”

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