On Tuesday, The Argonaut ran a story about the golden era of Idaho boxing. Frank Echevarria was Idaho’s last national champion, winning the title in 1952 at 119 pounds, before the sport was discontinued. Many of Idaho’s boxing legends have since passed away, but Echevarria, now 84 and a resident of Blackfoot, Idaho, still remembers many of the good ol’ times in the Memorial Gym ring. Here’s a partial transcript from our interview with him.
The Argonaut: When did you start boxing?
Frank Echevarria: I started in high school, at Blackfoot High School. We had a real good boxing team, in fact I won the scholarship up there and that was when the University of Idaho was throwing great guns and Gonzaga was too. San Jose State and Michigan and Wisconsin and some of those back east colleges were big. Louisiana, LSU, we fought in the Sugar Bowl. We had a good team, just a good bunch of guys and we enjoyed a lot of fun from it.
TA: Why Idaho?
FE: Well, actually, Idaho State had a boxing team and I sort of wanted to go here and then Frank Young came over and talked to me. At that time, Idaho State was big guns in the inter-mountain area, everybody thought they weren’t in the national picture at all and Idaho was. My first semester up there, I wanted to go home, I was so homesick. Just a dumb kid off the farm. After awhile, I wanted to stay there. I loved it.
TA: What were some of your first memories boxing at Idaho?
FE: I think my first memory was going down in the gym and the first time Frank had me put the gloves on with Norman Walker. Norman was a big contender and I was real conscious and real, kind of, sort of apprehensive and scared and he hit me in the chest and I couldn’t even breathe but I didn’t let him know it. Years later we put on an exhibition in his hometown of Wallace. I always told him… “I’m going to get even with you one of these days.” One day in Wallace at his own hometown we put on an exhibition. He took a big haymaker at me and slipped and fell off. Of course, I kicked him in the seat of the pants and knocked him over. Then I said, “Okay, there you are, give him the count.” The rest of the crowd went wild in his hometown. He was embarrassed. We had a lot of fun and we had a great bunch of guys. We had a lot of prestige from it at the time. Boxing was big up there and we capitalized from it.
TA: What was the atmosphere like at Memorial Gym?
FE: I think they said we had round 5,200 one time. We’d pack that gym. We felt good about it all the time, when you had that gym packed. We’d get some tough teams in there. San Jose State, Wisconsin one time. Gonzaga was always tough. We felt good about it all the time, when you had the gym packed. It was great for me.
TA: When you were growing up in southern Idaho, what did know about Idaho boxing?
FE: We didn’t have a lot of communication. The one we had communication with here was Idaho State cause it was right here. I started hearing a little bit about it my senior year but they would never emphasize it down here. Until Frank Young came down here to my house. He was the coach up there. I don’t know where he got my address or a darn thing. He’s the one that asked me to go up there.
TA: What was your best memory at Idaho?
FE: I think probably the most memorable memory to me was when I fought Mac Martinez from San Jose. He was the national champion and had never been beat. We went to San Jose and I was really apprehensive about fighting him and he beat me in a split decision. And then we met that fall year in the Pacific Coast Championships in Sacramento and he was kind of a slugger type, so I thought well by God, I ‘ll beat him at his own game. Well, I didn’t. He beat me on a split decision. The next year we met, they seeded us in separate brackets and we met at the final championship in Sacramento. And I figure well by God, I thought if I can’t get the guy, I’m going to outsmart him. And everything worked my way that night and I beat him and like I said, it was the highlight of my career because he’d won the national championship. He’d been national champ three or four times before that … He was really a nice guy.
TA: Can you talk about your relationship with Norm and Leonard Walker?
FE: I knew those guys really well and they were about as good of guys as you could ever meet. They were about as tough as anybody you could ever meet too. When the going got tough, those guys got going. They were from the old mining town of Wallace up there. They grew up fighting. I say boxing, not fighting, no they grew up fighting too. They didn’t walk away from a fight either. Whether it was in the bar or in the ring, it didn’t matter to them. They were great guys and Norm and I became great friends. We were together all the time and we sparred hundreds and hundreds of times…
TA: What made Herb Carlson so special of a boxer?
FE: What made him special is that nobody could beat him. And I think that’s maybe more special than anything. I can’t say this but sometimes when the coaches are there and they match their guys up because they want to keep their winners winning, they match them up a little better than they do with the guys that they don’t care if they get the tar beaten out of them a little easier. Herb was a good boxer and he was tough. And he was Idaho’s best.
TA: What do you remember about your national championship?
FE: The one that beat me the year before was Neil Oftshun from Minnesota. My last year there I beat Neil in the finals so I got it back on him.
TA: Did it surprise you when they discontinued the sport in 1954?
FE: It did and of course I was really enthusiastic about it because that was the only thing that I had was good for me. And it was good for a lot of guys, not just me. I learned just as much from a loss. You know how to win and lose. When you get in a ring with a guy, I don’t care how mad you get… You have to outsmart the other guy and outthink him and then you have to out-gut him. Very few of the guys that I knew, that were of any caliber of boxers, were bullies. It took the bulliness out of you because you knew there was someone there that was going to beat you somewhere along the way, and could beat you. On the other hand, it gives you confidence because you’re not afraid of anybody. I’m back here in the corner, I know I’m going to come out fighting, but I hope I’m not bully enough to stand out there and be a bully to someone else. Because I know what I can do, I don’t have to prove anything. And that’s what boxing does. It gives you confidence, because you know even if you go back in the corner, you may not get a full lunch but you’re going to get a sandwich and that’s the way I looked at it.
TE: Are you fortunate that you made it up there right before the sport was discontinued at UI?
FE: Oh, yes. That was the best years of my life. I went up for boxing and it spawned that for other things… I had golden opportunities up there and good jobs and offers, anyway. I loved it up there. My first semester, I was probably one of the most homesick kids ever because I’d never been away from home. After that, I could’ve stayed there forever.
MORE CONTENT: For a full photo gallery of Idaho boxing, visit https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152184938982982.1073741876.244185562981&type=1