Hayes Edward Sanders was at the 1950 National Junior College Boxing Championships in Ogden, Utah when Idaho State College boxing coach Dubby Holt spotted him.
Holt, for whom Holt Arena at Idaho State University is named, led a boxing program that was getting national attention. “Big Ed,” who had won the NCAA Junior Championship in 1949 and 1950, jumped at the chance to box for ISC.
A young man by the name of Jake LaRue picked Sanders up at the train station. “Big Ed” would soon marry Jake’s sister, Mary, who worked in the ISC athletic department. Things happened fast in Sander’s life.
“Big Ed” knocked out the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Champion in his first fight for the college. He continued for a little over a year, setting a record by never losing a bout in a college dual meet.
In 1951 the Korean War was the big fight the country was most interested in. Sanders got drafted. Holt advised him to enlist so he could join the U.S. Navy Boxing Team. He did so and proceeded to beat the Navy Heavyweight Champion and burn through a series of Golden Gloves tournaments.
In 1952, “Big Ed” Sanders qualified for the summer Olympic games. His first three opponents were no match for him. The fight for the gold was with Ingemar Johansson who would later become the World Heavyweight Champion. Johansson was less trouble for Sanders than the previous fights. The Swedish boxer was disqualified in the second round for largely avoiding contact with Sanders.
“Big Ed” Sanders became the first African American Olympic Heavyweight champion. The City of Los Angeles named a day in his honor. The media loved the humble big man, constantly asking for interviews. He turned pro in 1953. It was the logical next step for such a gifted fighter, and with a new son at home, he needed the money. But boxing is not a gentle sport. On December 12, 1954 Sanders fought the New England Heavyweight Champion, Willie James. In round 11 James threw a flurry of punches that knocked Sanders down. He would not get up again.
Sanders died at age 24, leaving behind his wife Mary and their 17-month-old son, Russel. He was inducted into the Idaho State College Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2012 Sanders was also inducted into the Compton Community College Athletics Hall of Fame.
Thanks to Idaho State Journal writer Jason Enes for his story on Sanders in 2012, from which much of the information for this post was gleaned.