Bernard Fernandez: Honor for unsung Little

Steve Little (left) had his career cut short by colon cancer at the age of 34.
Steve Little (left) had his career cut short by colon cancer at the age of 34. (FILE PHOTO)
Posted: March 06, 2012

SGT. STEVE Little Jr.'s voice was filled with the kind of pride befitting a United States Marine. But then, the 24-year-old son of the late former WBA super middleweight champion always sounds that way when speaking about his father, who was only 34 when he died of colon cancer on Jan. 30, 2000, leaving behind a grieving wife and six children.

"Obviously, I wasn't around, or was very young, when he was boxing," Steve Jr. said of his dad, whose professional career spanned from 1983 to '98. "But from what I've heard from people who knew him then, and seen for myself on DVDs of his fights I was able to obtain, he was a real technician in the ring. Opponents hated to fight him, because he gave everyone problems and he never quit.

"I have to believe he would have made a great Marine, because he fought with honor."

Words that have special meaning in the Corps - duty, honor, faithfulness - were the hallmarks of the late Steve Little, the pride of Reading, whose 25-17-3 record (only six victories by knockout) and brief title reign (5 1/2 months) were hardly indicative of the fierce competitor who was driven to succeed for reasons that went beyond the standard pro athlete's desire for fame, glory and maybe a lot of flashy bling.

"My husband was one-of-a-kind in many amazing ways," recalled his widow, Wanda Little. "People here [in Reading] remember him as much or more for his good deeds as for his boxing. He was my best friend, someone who worked so hard to be a great provider. I was so blessed to have him for as long as I did."

Steve Little is the only former world champion who will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame on May 20 at Romano's Caterers, Castor Avenue at Wingohocking Street. The Class of 2012 includes living honorees Johnny Carter, 54, a Philadelphia bantamweight who went 33-8 against mostly top-flight opponents in the 1970s and '80s; and Philly lightweights Dorsey Lay, 84, and Eddie Corma, 77, who posted respective records of 39-18-1 and 18-1. The non-boxer category includes former The Ring editor and author Nigel Collins, 65, and promoter/manager/gym proprietor Joe Hand Sr., 75.

Posthumous selections include boxers Joey Rowan, Jesse Smith and Frank Moran. But one of the highlights of the day figures to be the acceptance of Steve Sr.'s Hall of Fame plaque by Steve Jr., who joined the USMC in 2006 and is a Harrisburg-based personnel administrator who dreams of qualifying someday for Officer Candidate School. Given his father's legacy, it would be unwise to believe he won't make it.

Undoubtedly, the tale of Steve Sr.'s proudest moment as a fighter - his dethronement, as a 40-1 underdog, of WBA 168-pound titlist Michael Nunn on Feb. 26, 1994, in London - will be told and retold. Little floored Nunn in the first round of the scheduled 12-round bout, and he boxed well enough thereafter to come away not only with the split-decision victory, but a $60,000 purse, which was to that point by far the largest of his career. Some have dared to describe Little's shocker over Nunn as a fluke, but Steve Jr. isn't buying it.

"I finally got to see the DVD of that fight, in 2008, after I obtained it from a boxing historian when I was stationed at Cherry Point [N.C.]," Steve Jr. said. "This was not a case of Michael Nunn fighting down to a lower level; he was fighting his fight just as hard as my dad was fighting his fight. But, on that night, my dad was the better man."

Little's time at the top was brief. He relinquished his title on his first defense of it, dropping a unanimous decision to southpaw Frankie Liles on Aug. 12, 1994, in Argentina. Little was paid $100,000 for that fight, which might sound like a lot, until you consider the bite the tax man took and fees owed to his promoter, manager, trainer, etc. And, of course, he had a wife and six kids at home.

Fighting only seven times after the loss to Liles, Little went 3-3-1, his final bout an eight-round draw with Courtney Butler on Nov. 3, 1998, in Woodlawn, Md. But toward the end, he was fighting something far more fearsome than men wearing padded gloves.

"Steve Little was the most courageous person I've been around," said Rob Murray Sr., a former manager. "He fought those last few fights when he was terminally ill, although nobody knew it then. One day he was playing around in the gym with this guy, and he started bleeding and it wouldn't stop. That's when they found out he had Stage 4 cancer."

Little was diagnosed in February 1999. There would be no more boxing paydays, no way to keep the wolf that was always howling away from his door.

"We never had much, but when Steve died, our situation got much worse," Wanda, a stay-at-home mom, said in 2002. "We lived from month to month off $1,700 in Social Security. It's always a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul. We were always trying to catch up, but we never got to a point where we could say we were actually ahead."

The most anxious days for the Little family ended when undisputed middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, a friend of Little's, pledged $100,000 of his $2.5 million purse for his 10th-round technical knockout of Carl Daniels in Reading's Sovereign Center on Feb. 2, 2002.

"It helped us stay on our feet financially," Steve Jr. said of B-Hop's much-needed gift. "My father's big thing was our being self-reliant. We grew up with that. He told me, 'The first thing about being a man is to be the best husband and best father you can be, and to always put your wife and kids above you.' "

Tickets for the Hall of Fame dinner are $55. For more information, call John Gallagher at 215-920-8791.

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