By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
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It didn't take long for the word to get around when Ray Whebbe Jr. died. Whebbe, who was 48, had been in ill health for a long time before succumbing on the operating table in the early morning hours of August 15. While hardly a household name in the Twin Cities, Whebbe was nonetheless a minor legend in certain circles. Among small-time boxers, minor-league wrestlers, street people, and social workers, nearly everyone knew Whebbe. And even if they didn't know him personally, they knew of him.
Maybe they caught a glimpse of Whebbe's once orbital, later gaunt figure on his long-running cable access show, The Spectator. Or maybe they read his columns--Whebbe banged out countless typo-ridden screeds for various small Twin Cities newspapers over the decades. Perhaps they met him at local homeless shelters. For years, Whebbe worked in social services; and from 1987 to 1994, he organized an annual rock and wrestling benefit for the homeless--by all accounts, the crowning achievement of his career as a promoter.
People knew or heard of Whebbe for one reason: He relentlessly made it his mission to be known. In the face of chronic disappointment and epic physical suffering, he plowed ahead. He was a hack, both figuratively and literally (he drove a cab for three years). But he was a hack possessed of boundless drive and a distinct personal code.
"Ray always made his bookings," recalls Patrick Hollis, Whebbe's longtime friend and housemate. "That was one of the things he always said, 'You've got to make your booking.' Come hell or high water, he'd make it. He said he never missed a deadline, and he was very proud of that."
Invariably, people who are asked to describe Whebbe will use the word "colorful." The story that comes up most often is the tale of Whebbe's one fight, in 1994, as a professional boxer. Whebbe--who gloried in hanging around boxers and wrestlers--had accompanied a group of Minnesota boxers to the Chinese hinterlands for a fight card.
As it happened, one of the boxers didn't show for the scheduled bout. Whebbe volunteered to step in. It is a gross understatement to say that he was in no shape to fight. For most of his life, Whebbe was morbidly obese--peaking at around 400 pounds. After having his stomach stapled, he shed much of that weight. But at the time he stepped into the ring in Macao, China, there was so much loose flesh on his body that he looked less like a fighter than a shar-pei, the famously loose-fleshed Chinese fighting dogs.
Accounts vary as to what happened next. Whebbe always insisted that he got off a few good shots before being felled. That's the version many of Whebbe's friends choose to believe. Others say it ended both more quickly and more ingloriously, with a retreating and passive Whebbe getting whacked on the back of the head.
"I watched the fight, if you want to call it a fight," recalls Jack Basting, a heavyweight who fought on the same card. "Ray had no experience. It wasn't pretty, I can tell you that. He just got his ass knocked out." Why Whebbe would even step into the ring--without any experience or proper conditioning--is another question. "I don't think it was for the money. I think he just wanted to make sure everything went smooth," says Basting. Whebbe, in fact, never did receive the $1,000 he was promised for his short night's work.
But if his performance as a boxer was fodder for laughs in the Twin Cities fight circles, Whebbe viewed it with pride. "If somebody said something rude to him, he'd say, 'Well, I boxed professionally in China. What have you done?'" recalls Eddie Sharkey, a local wrestling impresario and longtime Whebbe associate.
Over the years, Whebbe was involved in numerous boxing and wrestling promotions closer to home. Disasters were the norm there, as well. Fred Askew, a heavyweight boxer whom Whebbe befriended in the early '80s, remembers a card in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Whebbe helped organize the show, which was intended as a protest and benefit to address the treatment of local juveniles by the police and the courts in the community.
"The city was split. The person that ran the hotel where Ray and I were staying was with the other side," Askew remembers. "When we came back to the hotel, all our bags were sitting outside. Ray just started laughing. I was ready to tear up the city. I said, 'What the hell's wrong with you?' And he said, 'Freddie, there ain't nothing we can do about it.' And he just kept laughing. That was Ray."
Whebbe got used to defeat, and he was drawn to other people who had experienced their own share of hard luck in equal or greater proportion. At homeless shelters, Whebbe occasionally recruited clients to round out local fight cards. "You could call him for a fighter and he'd say, 'Oh yeah, I got one. He's from Philadelphia and he can fight like a son of a bitch,'" says fight promoter Ron Peterson. "And it would be an old fucking wino who couldn't walk or talk. He got them fights, and they'd get knocked out right away. For a while there, he had someone on every card."