Back in 1964, John Phillips became the first Black boxer in the United States to win a Golden Gloves state championship.
The retired truck driver, who turned 81 in February, has a stack of faded newspaper clippings and photos at his San Diego home that attest to his pioneering Golden Gloves win. But these mementos are the only proof he's got. Back in the early 1960s, amateur Black athletes' accomplishments rarely made it into the history books.
"There's not a record of it now if you look for it online," he said. "What I have here with me is basically it."
Today, Phillips is a grandfather of eight who has built a comfortable life for himself and his second wife, Renee, far from Texas. Although he's happy to answer questions about his boxing days and the discrimination he faced, he doesn't dwell on the past.
Phillips gave up boxing, or more like boxing gave up on him, when he was no longer able to qualify for his California state boxing license at age 38. But more than four decades later, the man once known as "Big John," still practices punching on the heavy bag each day. Age may have taken an inch off his former height of 6-foot-4, but he still weighs 225 pounds, the same weight he carried in the early '60s.
"One thing from my childhood that I remember is my daddy would come home every night and go to our garage and hit the speed bag," said Angela Phillips Caruso, one of Phillips' four children. "My friends would know he was home by the rhythmic sound it made."
Standout in basketball
Born in the Bronx on Feb. 13, 1940, John Leonard Phillips Sr. moved with his parents to Chula Vista in 1957 where his father worked selling pontoon boats. At Chula Vista High School, Phillips was the only Black student. His height and natural athleticism made him a standout in basketball and he was popular on campus — to a point.
"Everybody was my friend, and it was pretty cool. But there were limits," he said. "I was a good basketball player, but nobody wanted a Black guy on their team. I was good at football but I couldn't play that. I didn't go to prom because nobody would date a Black guy."
When Phillips graduated, he joined the Marine Corps in 1958 and served three years. Back home in 1961, he enrolled in the inaugural semester at fledgling Southwestern College, which operated at Chula Vista High for its first three years. While playing tackle football for Southwestern, Phillips was named to an all-conference team and had dreams of playing professionally. But one day he was at home messing around with a gun and shot himself in the foot. No longer able to play and with a $40 hospital bill to pay, he left school and got a job washing pots at the North Island naval station in Coronado.
Then one day in 1962 he saw a recruiting ad for Black heavyweight boxers in The Ring magazine. At the time, cities that wanted to field a Golden Gloves amateur team were required to have Black participants, so two Houston gym managers put out a national call for trainees. With a cousin, Phillips drove to Texas, but realized life there would be very different after he crossed the state border.
"We pulled into a gas station and saw signs for four bathrooms for men, women, colored men and colored women. I didn't know if we should continue," he recalled. "When we got to Houston we asked a guy for a motel where we could stay, and he said the only motel for colored people was on Jefferson Street."
Phillips had experienced subtle racism in California, but nothing so overt as in Texas, where there were separate beaches, hospitals, taxis and restaurants for Black people — and usually of inferior quality. Even the Mexican-owned restaurants wouldn't serve him. Phillips made his home in a Houston gym where he trained all day and slept on a cot at night.
After 14 months of training, he had his first Golden Gloves heavyweight bout against a fellow Black boxer and accidentally knocked him out. The two other local heavyweights, both white, refused to fight Phillips, so he won the city championship by default. That win sent him to the state championship in February 1964 where he won the heavyweight division. According to newspaper articles, Phillips was the first Black boxer to win a Golden Gloves state championship.
With fellow Houston boxer Jesse Valdez, who won the state welterweight championship that year, they brought the state Golden Gloves trophy back home to Houston for the first time in 28 years. After that win, Phillips went pro and married his first wife, Barbara.
'Already a champion'
Phillips' boxing career had its ups and downs, but he had one big fan in his corner: Houston Post boxing columnist John Hollis, who went on to become the newspaper's sports editor and, later, a member of the Houston Boxing Association. In 1966, Hollis wrote an enthusiastic column about Phillips as a man of character.
"Phillips is a 27-year-old heavyweight who probably will never win a championship belt, but as far as I'm concerned he's already a champion," Hollis wrote. "He has power and speed and reflexes, and when he hit people they usually fell down and didn't get up. He became the first Negro to win a Golden Gloves state championship."
Just over a week after Phillips clinched his Texas title, Kentucky-born Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight championship and announced his name change to Muhammad Ali. Five months later, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Phillips said that even after the act forced Texas to begin dismantling its segregation policies, life didn't change much for Black people in Texas.
"There was a lot to overcome, so it was as if the people were brainwashed," he said. "Even though Blacks could go somewhere, they were so used to doing the same thing they never branched out."
Caruso said growing up in a multiracial family — her mother Barbara is mixed race — meant that she and her siblings dealt with prejudice from both sides.
"We were not Black enough or White enough," Caruso said. "But my dad set an example for us of how to be."
When Phillips earned enough to buy a home in the late '60s, he left Texas and moved his growing family back to Chula Vista. He worked for a few years as a painter with the Rohr aerospace in Chula Vista, then got a trucker's license and drove semis for the next 20 years until he retired. In his downtime, he worked as a boxing trainer for Dan Hamel, a business owner who ran a boxing gym in Mission Beach. Among Phillips' trainees was '80s-era heavyweight Pierre Marchand.
Caruso said her father at 81 is in a good place in his life. He felt guilt over a divorce from his first wife, Barbara, and in 1990, their son, John Jr., was killed in a motorcycle accident. He also fought and beat throat cancer several years ago and has spent much of the past year at home due to the pandemic. But life is sweeter these days. He and Renee, a retired schoolteacher he started dating 25 years ago, planned a birthday trip to a resort in Cambria.
"It's good to see him smile and see him happy these days," Caruso said. "He's an amazing man and has always been my hero."