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Boxer Craig “Gator” Bodzianowski, who overcame disability to fight again, dies at 52

Craig Bodzianowski

Craig Bodzianowski

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YouTube video: Trailer for documentary on Craig "Gator" Bodzianowski
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Updated: August 31, 2013 6:21AM

“One-legged” and “boxer” are not usually found in the same sentence.

But Chicago fighter Craig Bodzianowski, who lost his right leg after a motorcycle accident, undertook training so grueling that he was able to box in title fights on a prosthetic leg.

“He just never quit,” said Steve Wilburn, whose production company, Windy City Images, has been developing a film about Mr. Bodzianowski. “Out of 103 amateur and professional fights, no one stopped him — he finished every fight.”

And of those 103 bouts, he lost only nine, Wilburn said.

After becoming an amputee, he won two big fights: an Illinois heavyweight title against Bobby Hitz and a WBA Continental Americas Cruiserweight Championship against Anthony Witherspoon, said Don Lenza, Mr. Bodzianowski’s promoter.

Friends and admirers say he wasn’t the best in the ring, but he had a stolid power that could wear down more skilled pugilists.

“He was all brute,” said Mike Joyce, boxing coordinator at Leo High School, and the son-in-law of Muhammad Ali. “He wasn’t a Fancy Dan type of boxer. He was straightforward, come-at-ya — so losing a leg wasn’t really a [career-ender] for him. He was a fearsome puncher with a great chin. He could take a tremendous punch.”

The Polish-American fighter even got to meet Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pontiff, after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wrote a letter of introduction, his family said.

Mr. Bodzianowski, 52, died Friday of a heart attack in his sleep at a nephew’s home in the south suburbs, said his sister-in-law, Kristen Bodzianowski.

He grew up in Tinley Park and went to Sandburg High School. His family of six kids didn’t have a lot, so they supplemented their dad’s income as a construction worker by killing their own meat. Young Craig was adept at bow-and-arrow hunting for pheasant and duck, his sister-in-law said.

Wilburn said Mr. Bodzianowski’s parents, Pat and Gloria, taught him to “ ‘Always do the right thing, and don’t take no crap from no one?’ ”

His father, who also was a tattoo artist, inked an alligator on Craig’s chest. That led to his nickname, Gator, and a way for him to poke fun at pretension.

He used to cut a hole in his shirts to show off the alligator tattoo.

“He said it was because he went to school with the rich kids, and he couldn’t afford those Izod shirts,” Lenza said.

He got involved in boxing in the 1970s and won a Golden Gloves title in 1981. But in May 1984, a car hit his motorcycle, breaking his leg “in like 20-something places,” Wilburn said. When doctors told him he would be able to navigate better on an artificial leg than a mangled one, he opted for amputation about six inches below the knee, Wilburn said.

While still in the hospital, he resumed training. “He was doing chin-ups using the bar that ran along the top of his [hospital] bed,” Lenza said.

“The first year, he broke 18 prosthetics, because he was so tough on them,” Wilburn said. To help the prosthetics withstand his workouts, he obtained titanium jet bolts from Boeing aviation, Wilburn said.

His triumphant December 1985 return to the ring was described in a Sports Illustrated article by William Nack. At the opening bell, “a curious silence fell over the arena, as if the crowd was holding its collective breath. ‘Everyone was looking at Craig’s foot,’ says his manager, Jerry Lenza.”

He anchored himself with the artificial foot to throw punches at Francis Sargent.

Later, Sargent, an African American, told Chicago Sun-Times writer Lacy J. Banks in a tape-recorded interview, that he threw the fight because of hostility from the crowd and racial intimidation before the match.

Later, he said he “blew” the fight, not “threw” it.

“Whatever, Bodzianowski had come back from the operating table, hitched up his seven-pound prosthesis and had won his 14th straight fight, and his first as a one-legged boxer,” Nack wrote.

“Gator had tremendous heart,” said Mike Fitzgerald, who wrote a book, “Tale of the Gator,” about Mr. Bodzianowski. “He returned to boxing using a prosthetic, and he fought for a world title [the WBA Cruiserweight Championship]. I’m not sure of any other athlete who returned to their previous sport under such conditions.”

In that 1990 WBA fight, he endured injury but lost to fighter Robert Daniels.

“One of his eyes was closed, his ribs were broken; he couldn’t throw his right very well anymore because of the broken ribs,” Wilburn said. “So he had one eye, one arm and one leg, and he’s chasing the champ around the ring.”

His comeback was not without controversy. Some fighters didn’t want to go up against a boxer with one leg, saying they would be criticized whether they won or lost.

In 1993, he retired from the ring. Later, he trained boxers and worked in construction. But he always loved cooking. In 2012, he graduated from Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Relatives clamored for his “Gator beans,” a side dish he brought to family gatherings. Mr. Bodzianowski participated in Alcoholics Anonymous and cooked at the AA picnic, his sister-in-law said. “It was all good; all positive. He had a million friends.”

A disorderly conduct charge a few years ago was a reflection of a Cubs-Sox dispute after a Subway Series, relatives said.

He is survived by his mother, Gloria; his children, Kenneth and Paige; his sister, Denise Worley, and his brothers, Howard and Kenneth.

His memorial visitation is from 2 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Brady Gill Funeral Home, 16600 S. Oak Park Ave., Tinley Park.

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