Requiem for an Ex-Heavyweight

Ray Whebbe Jr., hustler, journalist, champion of lost causes, dies at 48

But unlike the sport's more notorious meat peddlers, friends say, Whebbe genuinely seemed to be trying to help out when he got a bum a fight. And, sometimes, the men he pulled from the missions actually were bona fide fighters. For a spell, Whebbe managed the late Walter Cowans--one of the legendary opponents of the Midwest fight circuit.

In the mid-'90s, Whebbe ran a boxing gym out of the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue. As a troubled teen, Wolf Bellecourt found the gym and, he says, it helped turn his life around. "At the time, I was going through lots of depression, lots of despair. I think those were feelings shared by most of the native boys," Bellecourt recalls. "After we trained, we would always have a talking circle. The gym was a tool for Ray, not necessarily to make boxers out of us, but to teach us how to control our lives and not be controlled by our environment. He used to take all the kids out to eat. It all came out of his pocket."

That Whebbe was drawn to the downtrodden is not surprising. Growing up on St. Paul's east side, Whebbe ran with the wrong crowd, dealt drugs, and fancied himself a thug. He also got busted, spent time in the workhouse, and finally went into treatment. Friends say he managed to stay sober for better than a quarter of a century, though not by any stretch of the imagination as a traditional 12-stepper.

The insider: Whebbe, right, gives the soul shake to a judge at a pro boxing card on the White Earth Indian Reservation last February
Courtesy of Richard Darud
The insider: Whebbe, right, gives the soul shake to a judge at a pro boxing card on the White Earth Indian Reservation last February

"At the meetings, one of the tenets is to say that you're powerless over whatever chemical used," friend Patrick Hollis recalls. "But Ray would always get everyone riled up by saying, 'I'm powerful.' He'd say, 'It doesn't control me, I control it, I make the decision. So I'm not powerless.' That's how he viewed life."

If sport was Whebbe's great passion, his calling, in a manner of speaking, was journalism. Over the years, he founded one neighborhood newspaper (The Whittier Globe), wrote columns for a half-dozen others, cranked out two wrestling histories and, finally, landed a job as the editor of The Watchdog, a muckraking tabloid bankrolled by a group of Twin Cities landlords.

The paper was pure Whebbe. In its pages, he noisily inveighed against municipal corruption. He was boundless in his contempt for Minneapolis pols like disgraced former City Council member Joe Biernat, ex-mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, and Police Chief Robert Olson.

"DID STERRIODS RUIN THE STATES BUDGET?" [sic] blared the front-page tease for a Whebbe story that claimed Jesse Ventura's use of steroids as a wrestler adversely affected his ability to govern. Perhaps because of the time he spent among wrestlers, steroids were a favorite theme of Whebbe's. In a story on the Minneapolis Police Department, he claimed steroid abuse was rampant among the rank and file, and a leading cause of brutality.

Most of Whebbe's friends knew that he tended to embellish and exaggerate. They all forgave him, though. "He was kind of hard on the truth sometimes," observes Eddie Sharkey. "But in a way where he was just trying to help someone. He wasn't trying to hurt no one."

Richard Darud, who produced Whebbe's cable access show The Spectator, agrees. "In the world of hustlers, he could swerve with the best of them. Sometimes, he'd do things I'd question. But when they're always trying to swerve you, you've got to swerve them," Darud says. "Ray never got his due. He was always in the hunt for the payday. In the last few years, I think he realized the payday was not coming. Even the wrestling books he wrote, there weren't any real paydays, just a little chicken feed."

If Whebbe's professional life was the source of considerable frustration, he didn't exactly find refuge in his personal life. He was married once for a time, and had several girlfriends over the years. Nothing worked out. "He was lonely," recalls Darud. "Ray liked the young women. About three years after I started with him on The Spectator, our relationship soured because he had this young girl he dropped everything for. At the time, he was just 40, she was like 22. She was taking him for a ride, and he knew it, but he didn't care. She played him. A year or so later, after she went away, he called me up and said, 'Richie, you were right.' And we got back together. Picked right up where we left off."

Still, by last May, Whebbe seemed to have settled into a new, seemingly more tranquil life. After years of living either alone or sharing an apartment, Whebbe rented a house in the Phillips neighborhood. "He kind of handpicked the people he wanted to live with, to make his family. This was going to be his house, and this was going to be his family," says friend Patrick Hollis. Whebbe was the house cook. On Saturday nights, he would invite other friends to watch fights on TV.

The good times didn't last. Within three weeks, Whebbe, who lived with a staggering number of health complications, fell ill. Chronic problems from the operation to staple his stomach worsened; a bleeding ulcer led to heart trouble. He bounced back and forth from the Hennepin County Medical Center to a St. Louis Park nursing home. The Watchdog published a picture of him on his deathbed.

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