Boxing community says good-bye to legendary coach Ed Milberger
At 1 p.m. Monday in the VFW Post 4248 at 7118 S.E. Fern Avenue in Portland, a boxing legend will be laid to rest.
I never met Ed Milberger, but I surely heard the name many times in my years writing sports.
Anyone involved with boxing in the city of Portland knew Milberger, who died last week of Alzheimer's disease at age 88. And judging from the people I've talked to who knew Milberger, he was a pretty amazing guy.
'What it boils down to is this,' one of Milberger's protegees, Andy Minsker, tells me. 'Ed needs a bigger sendoff than a run-of-the mill obituary.'
Let's see what we can do.
Boxing was clearly Milberger's first love, other than wife Dorothy, with whom he would have celebrated his 66th anniversary on Sunday.
'Ed really loved the sport,' says Ray Lampkin, a former NABF lightweight champion who once went 14 rounds with Roberto Duran. 'He stayed around it. It was all I ever knew him to do.'
'Nobody loved the sport more than Ed,' Minsker says. 'I'd like to say I did, but in all honesty, I can't tell you that.'
One of 10 children and a Marine Corps veteran who served four years in the South Pacific in World War II, Milberger served as athletic director for boxing at Mt. Scott Community Center for many years.
Before that, he was an Oregon and Washington Golden Gloves champion. He was still fighting the amateurs into his 40s.
'When I was an amateur boxer, we fought on the same card several times,' says Lampkin, 63, and 25 years Milberger's junior. 'He was one of the oldest amateur fighters.'
Milberger wasn't renowned for his pugilistic prowess, though.
'Ed wasn't a very good boxer,' says Minsker, 49, a former U.S. amateur and golden gloves champion who won the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials. 'He started his boxing career in the circus. He fought all comers in Nebraska.'
Boy could Milberger coach boxers, though, and train them.
'Ed stepped up for every kid who came to him for 40-some years,' Minsker says.
'He was always in the gym, holding the mitts for boxers,' Lampkin says. 'He did that quite a bit. He didn't turn nobody down.'
'Ed would never say no,' seconds Alex DeLucia, the 1981 U.S. amateur champion at light heavyweight. 'He was a force of nature. He was like the apostle of boxing - a very giving person.
'Ed lost his son in Vietnam. He filled that void with his coaching. Dorothy was like our mother, and Ed was the father of us boxing warriors.'
Ed was the godfather of the Mt. Scott Boxing Club that was one of the nation's best through the 1970s and '80s.
'There's no boxing gym that has pumped out more state, regional and national champions than Mt. Scott,' says Minsker, who later joined Milberger running the program there. 'We owned the world.'
Milberger was so well-regarded nationally, he coached a U.S. national team, which included Sugar Ray Leonard and Aaron Pryor, on a tour of Russia in the '70s.
But mostly, Milberger was there for the kids at Mt. Scott and the Grand Street gym. The locals. He was a Portland guy.
Minsker came to Milberger at age 8 and stayed with him until he retired with a 12-2-1 record as a pro at age 29.
'Do you know how many Portland boxers have won the Olympic trials? One,' Minsker says, 'and it wasn't because of me. I had the best coach on the face of the earth. This guy influenced thousands of kids in the boxing ring.'
After Minsker won the 1984 Olympic trials, I covered him in a box-off at Las Vegas for the right to represent his country in the Los Angeles Games. He lost. And Milberger wasn't on hand to see it.
'Quite possibly the most selfless man I've ever met,' says Minsker, who lives in Damascus, remodels homes and coaches mixed-martial arts fighters. 'I won three national championships and the Olympic trials, and Ed wasn't in my corner when I won any of them.
'You know why? He had to be at Mt. Scott with the guys. Think about that. Ed's a different man than me. If I had a guy at the nationals, I'd be there with him. But Ed had that kind of confidence in me, and he told me that. Made you feel like winning.'
DeLucia came to Milberger late, as a senior at Clackamas High. After winning the national amateur crown, he was 12-1 as a pro, beating such as Tony Tucker in a career abbreviated by hand injuries.
'Ed was in my corner for 90 percent of my fights,' says DeLucia, who now makes his living training MMA fighters in Portland. 'I felt confident going with Ed after he took Tommy Sullivan to victory over Michael Spinks in the 1975 national golden gloves - and he beat him handily.
'Tommy would hurt people with body shots to the liver. That was unheard of. I knew if I paid attention, Ed would teach me how to deliver that kind of punishment.'
Milberger trained Minsker, Sullivan and DeLucia - 'the only three national amateur champions from Oregon in the last 30 years,' DeLucia says. 'He had a lot of national junior champions, too, and a lot of contenders.'
So Milberger's training/coaching credentials were impeccable. Then there was his status as a human being.
'Ed was an outstanding person,' Lampkin says. 'I never heard anyone say anything bad about him.'
'The best man I've ever known, by a mile,' Minsker says. 'Listen, there'd be nights when I couldn't sleep. I'd call Ed up and he'd say, 'Come over.' I'd work with him on the mitts at 3 in the morning.'
At some point, the city of Portland dropped Mt. Scott Community Center boxing from its budget. Milberger wasn't making much money there to begin with.
'The last 10 to 12 years, he worked for nothing,' Minsker says.
The boxers needed him. Invariably, they loved him.
'I have a nice home, a wonderful wife, a wonderful life, and I got news for you - it's all because of Ed,' Minsker says. 'He was the man. I want to talk with the guy who disagrees with me on that.'
DeLucia doesn't. He stayed close to Milberger as his mind failed him, through the last five years in a nursing home. Toward the end, communication was difficult.
'I'd spend time with him,' DeLucia says. 'He'd smile, and sometimes he'd get a word or two out. Once near the end, I was talking about something regarding boxing, and he put his hand in the air, jerked his shoulder - and I picked up on what he was trying to say.
'It reminded me of what he once was. It completed the process.'
DeLucia pauses, then gathers himself.
'I loved the man,' he says. 'It's a great loss. I felt empowered just by being around him. He had a lot of reach in this community. He was a warrior with a beautiful heart. I'll miss him.'
So will a lot of people. They'll be at the VFW Post on Monday, eager to answer the bell for the final round with a legend.