Looking back: Bobby “Iceman” Coolidge vs. Tony Sibson
Nearly 37 years ago, in September of 1980, an opportunity arose for Minnesota middleweight Bobby Coolidge to fight British middleweight Tony Sibson at Wembley Arena in London, England. It was a fight that would certainly be under the bright lights as it would be one of the chief support bouts to the main event that would see Marvelous Marvin Hagler challenge Alan Minter for the WBA and WBC world middleweight championships.
Waukesha, Wisconsin-born Coolidge was raised in the projects in North Omaha but was later living in Minneapolis, where he took up boxing under legendary Minnesota boxing man Jimmy Morgan.
Bobby turned pro at age 27, in May of 1979, and fought for less than four years. But during a career that would see him fight 25 times in that span (23-3-1, 17 KOs) he quickly acquitted himself as a rough and rugged middleweight, who would give anyone a night’s work. He put 10 wins in the bank in his first year alone as a pro.
While Coolidge had earned a reputation as a tough, game brawler at the club-fight level, Sibson would be a huge step up in class.
Coolidge manager Pete Susens recalled, “We took the fight for the opportunity, a trip to London, getting Bobby on a world title card, a good experience and a good payday. But Bobby only had 11 fights and against much lesser opposition than a guy like Sibson. Bobby knew he was in very tough. Bobby could knock you cold if he caught you, so he always had a puncher’s chance but he was clearly being brought in as the B-side in this one.
“But I remember early, in the fight, Sibson was getting a little rough in close with Bob and he cracked Sibson with a very intentional elbow to the head”, recalled Susens with a chuckle. “Bob would do whatever he had to do in a fight and he wasn’t intimidated by anyone.”
Coolodge would enter the fight undefeated (10-0-1 9 KOs), with a reputation as a game brawler, who could punch, but he would be facing a solid, strong, world-class middleweight in future title challenger Sibson who was coming into the fight at 37-3-1, with 22 knockouts.
In short, Sibson had twice as many knockouts as Coolidge had fights.
However, like all Coolidge bouts, the fearless “Iceman” entered the ring unwilling to concede anything to Sibson before or during the fight.
Coolidge was a fighter’s fighter and Sibson would soon discover this.
The fight would last into the seventh round with Coolidge giving as good as he got throughout the fight, winning over the admiration of the crowd, and Sibson’s respect, along the way. The Midwest club fighter, brought in as a stay-busy opponent, was proving to be a hard day at the office for Leicester, England’s Sibson.
Coolidge had never been confused with Fred Astaire in the ring and had earned a reputation in boxing as a puncher with lots of heart and grit. However, despite fighting in front of a very pro-Sibson crowd, and facing a tough, much more experienced opponent, Coolidge boxed well.
The “Iceman” landed a lot of great body and head shots on Sibson and was giving a very good account of himself. Not only was Coolidge proving strong offensively but he was showing why he had a reputation as a hard man in the ring, absorbing thunderous hooks to the body and vicious counter rights from Sibson.
In the seventh round, Coolidge was caught with a hard right uppercut off of a very fast three-punch combination he didn’t see, right on the point of the chin, and was KO’d by Sibson.
Despite the loss, Coolidge left the ring a better fighter. And he had certainly won the respect of his opponent and a very partisan London crowd. He also left the ring with a memory that would last a lifetime.
UCNLive had a chance to catch up with Coolidge, now age 65, at home in Minnesota, and get his thoughts on his memories of a great fight and a great night in London.
Bill Tibbs: Hi Bob; thanks for taking a minute to chat.
Bob Coolidge: Hi Bill; no problem, brother.
BT: How did you get into boxing?
BC: I was sick and tired of bad decisions on amateur shows so I decided I would fight pro. My friend Pete (Susens), who would go on to be my manager for my career, was already managing fighters and booking fights, at this time, so I said to him to get me a fight. He told me that I had a better style suited more to the pros anyway. I thought I’d have a couple of pro fights, just to say I did it. I mean how many people get to say they are a professional athlete, at one time?
BT: You had such a crazy schedule back then.
BC: It was. I worked the night shift at a factory, just so I could train. Then I would get home and
sleep for a few hours and then go run. Then later, I’d drive 120 miles round-trip to the gym in Minnesota. I’d sleep in the car to get some rest. I’d box in the gym and then head back to work for the night shift. It was crazy and says something about what a woman my wife Moe was to allow me to do that, while she was raising the three boys. We were living out in the country, at the time, so there were no boxing gyms anywhere hear us.
BT: I was thinking about your fight in London the other day, as I was writing this. I was thinking that was quite a jump from small-town Minnesota to London, England.
BC: You’re telling me (laughs). I’m a small-town guy, a Minnesota guy. I think back and realize now how naive I was really. Maybe that helped me a little? I didn’t even know they had a Wembley Arena. I had only heard of Wembley Stadium from the tennis matches. I had never heard of Tony Sibson but Pete thought it was a good opportunity, a good trip, a good payday. But we knew the score going in. I understood the game. There are lambs and there are wolves and, in this fight, I was the lamb, I knew that but, it didn’t matter to me because I fought the same way every time and I was going to fight this guy the same way as well: Go forward and look to land a hard shot.
BT: How did you feel arriving there? What were your feelings, going from fighting in smaller club shows to an event like that?
BC: Well, it was something. Pete and I were in New York at Gleason’s Gym before we went to London and riding the subways. They were all covered in graffiti and rough-looking. Then, when I got to London, the subways – well, they called them the tube there – were all filled with people with their umbrellas and suits looking like CEOs of big companies. I remember the weigh-in was quite the scene. I had never seen so many people at a weigh-in for a fight, like a couple of thousand people there. They paid to get in to watch. I had never laid eyes on Sibson, never really heard of him actually. The first time I ever saw him was at the weigh-in. He looked like a keg with limbs. I thought British fighters were more lean, stand-up type of fighters. Not this guy, very stocky and thick. Then Hagler stepped on the scale and he was a half-pound over, so he dropped his underwear off. Geez, it looked like a dead cat fell out of his trunks (laughs). He got the last little bit off and made weight. It was quite something being at a weigh-in for an event like that. Earlier in the day, I was in the restaurant having breakfast and I was chatting with Vito Antuofermo and he asked who I was fighting. I told him “Tony Sibson.” He looked at me sitting there and kind of politely said, “Well, good luck.” I’m sure he was rolling his eyes as he walked away but was too polite to tell me what I was in for the next day (laughs). I couldn’t believe I was hanging out with these guys.
BT: Tell me about your memories of the fight.
BC: Well, as I said before, I knew I wasn’t being brought there to win but I didn’t care. I could punch and I was determined; I was never gonna quit. I was going to do anything I could to win. I mean, I wasn’t there to make friends.
BT: Including throwing an elbow if you could get away with it.
BC: (Laughs). I threw a few elbows that night. I was going to do anything I could get away with. I’m fighting for my life in there and there are thousands of Brits who want me hung from the nearest tree. I cracked Sibson, hard, with an elbow and, when we got into a clinch, he said to me “Ya bloody bastard” in that real thick English accent. I remember laughing to myself thinking, “Did he just call me a bloody bastard?” (Laughs).
BT: I know you understand that sometimes a fighter is clearly being brought over as the opponent but you sure didn’t fight like a guy who was just trying to survive and get a few rounds in.
BC: Yeah, well, like I said before, I think being a bit naive helped me. I didn’t know Sibson had been a European champ. I didn’t know quite how good he really was and I think that helped me. Pete told me about a fight over in England and I said, “OK , let’s go.” I just went in there and fought him the same way I fought everybody. I didn’t know enough about him to be worried about him and that was probably a good thing (laughs). Later on down the road, when I fought (Bobby) Czyz (in Coolidge’s final bout), I was going there with a different mentality, not just to be a good opponent, even though I knew he was the favorite. I wasn’t content to just go there for the experience; I was going in to upset the favorite. I was more aware of who he was and I felt he was my shot to see what I could do in boxing at a higher level. I said to my wife that if I can’t beat this guy then I will retire from boxing. He beat me fair and square that night.
BT: After retiring from boxing, you took up running. You’ve logged a lot of miles. I remember Pete telling me one time, “I could never get Bob to run during his boxing days. Now you can’t stop him.”
BC: I sat around on my couch for a month or so and I was always used to being busy, always doing something with my life. So, I saw an ad for a 10K race in the next town and I thought I’d go do it. I had a lot of fun and started to take up running after that and, a month later, I ran my first marathon. I have now ran 47 marathons in 34 years of running. I am now running ultra-marathons and am keeping pace with my son who runs them and I am 65 years old.
BT: While some fighters look back with regrets and anger at the game, feeling they were used or treated unfairly at points in their career, you seem to have nothing but fond memories.
BC: My manager, Pete Susens, who is still my friend today, he treated me great. He got me good fights and was always honest and fair with me. He helped me improve my record and improve as a fighter. And then got me a couple of great, world-class opportunities. I was lucky to have Pete as my manager and we had a good ride. Pete and I grew up together and we boxed a lot of rounds together. The guy used to bleed all over me (laughs). So, when he decided that it was time to stay in boxing on the other side of the ropes, I trusted him implicitly with my career. After the Sibson fight, with a white guy who could box a bit and hang in there for some rounds, there were a lot of opportunities for me but Pete always looked out for me. He turned down a lot of fights and he passed on a lot of money for himself. My last fight against Bobby Czyz was a good payday. If I won then, maybe I would see what I could do but if I lost, I promised my wife I would retire and I did. Pete got lots of opportunities after that but he would tell people, “He’s retired.” Pete was – and is – my friend.
BT: Any closing thoughts?
BC: I have nothing but great memories on my boxing career. I look back on those days fondly and I especially love having that memory of a great experience in London. The money is gone and the aches and pains are gone. But one thing I will always have is a great memory of being part of a great night in London, fighting on a world championship fight card.
BT: Thanks for the chat, Bobby. Great talking to you.
BC: Anytime, brother.
Sadly, after leaving boxing, Coolidge did experience tragedy with the passing of his beloved wife Moe from cancer. Bob was again able to find happiness in his personal life, later marrying his beautiful wife Bonnie. The two look forward to celebrating 14 years of marriage this year. Coolidge is now retired from his career as a corrections officer, enjoying life with his wife, family and two beautiful bulldogs.
Bobby is still living in Minnesota and running in every marathon he can.