"10-bells" rang at the end of the Service of Celebration for the Life of former lightweight boxer Irish Johnny Copeland. It was a sad moment for the crowd who came to say good-bye, and especially for his daughter, Nickole Uitts who wept.
For the man who thanked Joplin, MO each time he was in the ring and said that Joplin made him feel like a champion, it was fitting that so many people came to Memorial Hall "Ring Side" today to show their appreciation to him. It was impossible not to feel the spirit of the man whose trademark was a quick jab to the ribs with his lefthand for anyone willing to attempt to shake his right, and his bravado that he'd "fight anyone, anywhere, anytime for a Big Mac!"
Don Clements, an entertainer, former boxer, and Johnny's confidant, helped stage the service. Johnny in his first- class coffin was in the ring one last time with the people he loved and the music he would have appreciated, including the entry selection, "I'll be Going Home...with the One that brought me here." Other songs were "Like to Be Remembered" and "America the Beautiful." TV videotape, displayed on a screen in back of the casket, highlighted his recognition as a boxer.
"Johnny liked publicity," Clements said. "He would spar with 12-year old boys at the Joplin Boy's Club. He never said he retired."
Accepting a purse of only $1,000 to boxer Sugar Ray Leonard's $80,000, Copeland confided in Clements that he "needed money for Linda," his wife who eventually lost the battle with cancer.
Long time friend and former manager, Bill Whipkey, a Golden Gloves champ himself, remembered how local aspiring young boxers would either gorge themselves on food or else diet so as not to be in Johnny's weight class. He had "good coordination," Whipkey told everyone, in speaking of young Copeland whom he said "picked up [his skills] just like that at the Boy's Club.
"He took more punches than anyone in Joplin. His right hand was his weapon. He was aggressive and guaranteed to hit you with his right hand or jab you with his left."
Sadly, Whipkey spoke of how Copeland fell into the hands of promoters "who wanted to make a buck off of him. "Two or three fights per week made him 'punch drunk.' You can't recover from that," Whipkey said, even with a "tough chin that can take a punch."
Whipkey remembered the phone call he received from his protege telling him how he wanted to kill himself due to the back pain he felt. The pain pills were just not strong enough.
The final eulogy was made by Wendell Redden, long-time sports reporter for the Joplin Globe who wrote many articles about Copeland and his heyday as the Kansas City Golden Glove champion during the 1960s. In speaking about Doug Lord, Copeland's Dallas trainer, Redden wondered what would have been the outcome if the feisty fighter had a better manager and better training.
Redden told of how Copeland had been inducted into the Joplin Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 after earning the honor the year before on the state level, and how Copeland's dream of owning a boxing club came to pass with the help of Skip Stewart and Clements.
"I will miss his friendship and signature handshake," Redden concluded.
Over a dozen pallbearers escorted the casket from the ring. About 65 vehicles followed the hearse. Interment was at Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery in Joplin.
A large number of Irish Johnny Copeland's fans showed up to pay their last respects to a man who credited his home town with making him feel like a champion. Copeland, 58, passed away on March 19, 2004, from injuries sustained in an accident on the interstate.
For the notice of death posted earlier, entitled, "Irish Johnny Copeland dies in accident," click here.