Bad Boy Boxer Wilhelm von Homburg


by Patricia Nell Warren; Special to

Patricia Nell Warren is the author of several well-known novels that feature gay people in sports, including The Front Runner. She has also written sports nonfiction for magazines like The Advocate, and keeps adding to her ongoing series on gay sports pioneers in Her Web page is at  E-mail her at

Copyright (c) 2004 by Patricia Nell Warren.  All rights reserved.

Bad-Boy Boxer:

Wilhelm von Homburg 

By Patricia Nell Warren
Special to

On March 10, the once-celebrated heavyweight fighter Norbert Grupe aka Wilhelm von Homburg -- later celebrated as an actor playing movie villains -- died of prostate cancer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He was 63. European commentators eulogized him as a “fearsome boxing legend in the Sixties and Seventies.” During that revolutionary era, he was one of those figures whose passionate, controversial lives created more wiggle room for personal liberty in sports – a bad boy who tried to make good. 

I knew Norbert in his later years, long after he retired from the ring. He always reminded me of a big cat -- with a deep purring voice that could shade from mildness to menace, and a mane of greying hair that he now wore in a neat ponytail instead of the rock-star shag of yesteryear. Standing 6 feet 1, he seemed taller because he was good at the mind games that boxers combine with throwing punches. Even his green eyes made you think cat. Norbert also had that “heart” -- that fierce will and intelligence described by world light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres as the defining power of a good fighter. Boxing people say that, if you have that kind of heart, you can get up from the knock-downs and come on again, and again.  

Greeks, Romans and Britons 

Today, in the American mainstream, boxing is viewed as a “niche sport,” i.e. having its devoted demographic but lacking the mass appeal of football, baseball, etc. Within the gay world, boxing has an even smaller niche because it offends the PC sensibilities of some. But this sport does have its GLBT fan base – Oscar de la Hoya publicly thanks his gay fans! Indeed, for centuries this sport has been a battleground where sexuality issues and sports stereotypes were slugged out. 

“The manly art” or “sweet science,” as many call it, is the oldest art of unarmed self-defense and attack. Middle Eastern art shows boxing as long as 7,000 years ago. At the ancient Olympic Games, great amateur boxers like Diagoras and Theagenes made their prayers to Apollo, celestial boxer among the gods. Then the pairs of naked fighters strapped their hands and wrists in leather, and traded punches inside a ring drawn in the dirt.  

Sexuality questions already rankled in ancient times. Boxers from Sparta, who wore long hair and favored a skill-based boxing style, were evidently dismissed as “effeminate” by boxers from other Greek city-states, who wore short hair and relied more on strength and hitting power. But Spartan boxers must have been hard to beat – Sparta’s men were raised in its army, famed for courage and toughness. Same-sex relationships were part of the fabric of ancient Greek life, so we can be sure that some of those boxing heroes were orientational ancestors of ours.  

The Romans invented professional (i.e. paid) boxing, and their gladiator games brought boxing to Britain, where it survived long centuries among the lower classes. By the 1700s, the British were organizing boxing, complete with promoters and the machismo that drapes it like a fighter’s robe today. Prize fights were brutal bare-knuckle affairs, going 75 or 100 rounds, with fighters proudly showing how much punishment they could take or dish out. By the 19th century, British aristocrats took up boxing too. Since no gentleman would fight for money, they revived the ancient Greek ideal of the unpaid amateur athlete. But after personally experiencing those broken jaws and lethal pummeling, the bluebloods hastened to make boxing more humane. In 1865 the Marquis of Queensbury, himself a notable boxer, drew up his Rules of Boxing. They mandated use of protective gloves, limited rounds to three minutes, banned head-butting, etc.  

In 1908 boxing came to the Olympic Games, creating an international base for amateur fights. As time passed, more safety measures were taken – protective mouthpieces, groin cups, etc. The sport still held the old extreme ground in machismo. Yet, according to Australian boxer/author Mischa Merz: “The sexual element of boxing has always been there in a way, when men do it. They’re barely clothed, and they’ve got these satin shorts that are sort of very silky and sensual and there’s a lot of physicality and a lot of admiration of physique and people talking about the way a boxer is lean and looks fit …It highlights a sort of homoeroticism that’s been part of the sport.” 

Evidently some boxing insiders are aware of a quiet gay/bisexual subculture in the sport. Noted boxing author Thomas Hauser, who writes a regular column for, states in his book The Black Lights  (generally viewed as the best on the sport) that several world champions of the past were gay.  "After all," Hauser told me in a phone interview, "in individual sports -- like tennis and golf -- we tend to see more openly gay and lesbian athletes, compared to the team sports where we see fewer of them."  

L.A. playwright Oliver Mayer wrote movingly about a top U.S. fighter of the Thirties who was gay, and compelled to fight mostly in Europe because of his sexual orientation. According to Mayer, “Jet-black and reed-thin Panama Al Brown [was] considered one of the finest bantamweight of all time. Not only did he dominate his generation in boxing, but he hobnobbed with 1930s Paris intelligentsia, particularly with Jean Cocteau, his lover and manager. In France, a man like Al Brown could be himself. But in the U.S., homosexuality and sports have never gotten along. Panama Al ended up derelict and dead from drugs in New York, the city famous for its lack of pity.”

According to other boxing people I talked to, another old-timer who was reportedly gay was Lou Nova. As an amateur, the California-born fighter was 1935 International Amateur Heavyweight Champion.  He had a long professional career, KOing the great Max Baer in the first-ever televised fight in 1939, and losing to Joe Louis in a world-championship bout in 1941.  He finally retired in 1945.  Nova married twice, and is said to have made his sexual orientation known to a few  friends and family towards the end of his life.  He died in 1991. A retired fighter from earlier times, who prefers not to be named in connection with Nova, told me, "One thing must be understood.  I do not believe people from this period thought of themselves as gay.  It is very hard to get anybody from that period of boxing to admit this.  It's a mind set."  

Indeed, as sexual revolution hit the West in the Sixties, and some people began to express homosexuality more openly, some fighters felt compelled to prove how heterosexually macho they were. In 1962 this social pressure led to tragedy at a world-championship fight between Benny Paret of Cuba and Emile Griffith of the Virgin Islands. Paret made the mistake of calling Griffith a maricón, which is Spanish for “fag.” Furious at the insult, Griffith pounded Paret so relentlessly that afterwards the Cuban went into a coma and died.  

Prince of Boxers 

Most successful fighters start out as tough kids on the street, where self-defense is a life-or-death business. Norbert was no different.

He was born in Berlin in 1940, as World War II was engulfing Europe. His father, Richard, was a baker. The boy turned 5 as Allied air raids pounded his city and the Nazi regime collapsed. With Germany split into communist East and democratic West, the Grupes chose West Berlin and struggled with postwar hardship. As a teen, good-looking Norbert showed early strength and athletic ability. So in the 1950s, Richard and Norbert emigrated to the U.S. where they launched a career as professional wrestlers. Billing themselves as “The Vikings”, father and son did the circuit in barbarian costumes and cow-horn helmets. The young man learned to project a bad-guy persona – it was part of wrestling drama. How much of it reflected his real self, and how much was a mind game that helped him win, only Norbert could know.  

In 1962, the year that Benny Paret died, Norbert traded his wrestler’s leotard for the satin trunks of boxing. He was now 22, one of the few whites in a U.S. sport increasingly dominated by blacks and Latinos. He now billed himself as “Prinz (Prince) Wilhelm von Homburg,” wanting to tweak class-conscious Germans with his humble origins. After two years and winning 15 of his first 20 fights, the young man returned to West Germany, where he settled in Hamburg and was hailed as a “promising newcomer.” Now managed by Willi Zeller and winning seven of the next 11 fights, he started earning big money, and lived large in a new home in Hamburg’s bohemian quarter, St. Pauli. At one point he even got married (was later divorce).  

Norbert aimed to be European champion, then world champion in the heavyweight division. But he did wonder how he’d manage when he couldn’t fight any more. Successful fighters are seldom good businessmen -- they can wind up broke, owing back taxes, with no support networks or health insurance. Long-term problems can afflict older boxers, especially brain damage resulting from hard punches to the head. “I never wanted to wind up a punch-drunk old guy in a wheelchair,” Norbert told me later. So in 1965 Norbert started a second career – acting. It was a good choice for a man who had learned to project himself powerfully. His first minor part was in a European flick, Morituri.  

All across the West, young people were rioting, flaunting authority and conservative tradition – and the trend was hitting sports in a huge way. In the U.S., a young black heavyweight named Cassius Clay was turning boxing upside down. A vivid talker, Clay described his punching style as “sting like a bee.” He stung conservatives into cat-fits when he threw away his Olympic gold medal to protest racism. He stung again as he joined the Nation of Islam religion, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, protested the Vietnam draft, fought the N. Y. State Boxing Commission all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and won) after they punished him for his war protest.

Meanwhile Norbert was being called “the German answer to Muhammad Ali.” 

His “offenses” against sport conservatism were as varied as Ali’s, but he was taking on different issues. In a Europe where old-school politeness was still valued, Norbert was considered “rough, rowdy, impertinent.” Fighters were supposed to look military and clean-cut – Norbert flaunted his long blond mane and was dubbed “the Beatle Boxer.” Der Beatle arrived at the ring with a cigarette in his mouth, wearing trunks trimmed with mink. Norbert’s air of menace did preclude public discussion of his sexual orientation – most Germans (like most Americans) trusted the stereotype that homosexual men are effeminate and gentle. Yet Norbert was openly sexy, riding that androgynous edge so visible in rock star Jim Morrison and other counterculture figures, in a way that was appealing to young boxing fans of both genders. The camera loved him, and he loved it back, working the crowd.  

Many rebellious German youth thrilled to Norbert’s defiance of authority. Though Norbert hadn’t won a championship belt yet, he became one of Germany’s first modern pop idols – a rock star in boxing gloves. There was no televised boxing, so the “Beatle Boxer” became a way to fill sports arenas with screaming young fans and swarms of paparazzi. One writer said later: “He brought sex and show business to boxing.”  

But Norbert was falling victim to the sex-drugs-rock-n-roll syndrome that undermined the lives of so many Sixties celebrities. Gradually – in the opinion of German commentators – the bad-boy lifestyle “ruined him completely.” He lived right in the Kiez, notorious red-light district of St. Pauli, where he reveled in the low-life atmosphere, the brassy tolerance of gay and straight sexual liberties. He hung out with pimps, drug dealers, underworld characters, a local chapter of Hell’s Angels. Little by little, there was less time for the relentless training that a fighter must do to stay on top. 

Then, in November 1966, right in his home city of Berlin, came the heartbreaker. Boxers often talk about how a single punch can change your life forever. Norbert was finally getting his shot at the European championship in a bout with Italy’s Piero del Papa. He knocked Del Papa down in the first round, and the judges had him ahead on points. Suddenly the French referee insisted that he had head-butted Del Papa. Norbert was disqualified. 

Physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, a single defeat can send a fighter – even one with a lot of heart – reeling onto the ropes. By 1969 Norbert was being beaten up regularly by other ranked heavyweights and light heavyweights. Yet German champion Jürgen Blin had great respect for the Beatle Boxer. "He was tough … the best man fighting in Germany at that time,” Blin said later.

Norbert’s fury over what he viewed as prejudice against him by sports authorities led to his ultimate “impertinence.” It happened in 1969, during a TV interview on Germany’s Channel 2. A sports talk-show invited Norbert to discuss his humiliating defeat of the day before, when Argentina’s Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena knocked him down five times and finally won the match on a TKO (technical knockout). Sports-anchor Rainer Guenzler was unfriendly, and asked questions that needled deeper and deeper. Norbert responded to each question with stony silence.  

Ironically, if Norbert had beaten Del Papa and Bonavena, he might have had a shot at fighting his American namesake, Muhammad Ali, for the world belt. As it turned out, Bonavena went on to face Ali – and got stung by the American “bee.” Norbert lost his last four fights and retired from the ring in 1970. Now he tried to pursue acting full-time. But his social life finally caught up to him. He was charged with various crimes – including extortion, promoting prostitution, drug-dealing. Lawyers and court costs ate up the last of his fight earnings, and he served a total of five years behind bars.  

When he got out, he was broke and returned to the U.S. on a tramp steamer, working to pay for his passage. It was time to re-think his life. 

A New, Improved Prinz 

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1991, a mutual friend introduced me to Norbert. Now in his 50s, he rented a tiny apartment in Venice. My girlfriend and I would meet him for a drink at some dark noisy rock club, or dinner at his home, which was crammed with mementos and photos of himself. The photos were a springboard to talk about the past. Norbert still grumbled about the unfairness of German journalists and criminal-court judges who had portrayed him as a monster. But the “fearsome legend” had his gentle and playful side too. Though formally uneducated, he was an entertaining conversationalist who could deliver jabs of wit. An animal lover, he always had dogs underfoot and galloped the bridle paths of Griffith Park on horses belonging to wealthier friends.

These days, the bad boy was careful about alcohol, drugs, diet. He worked out at Gold’s Gym in Venice, even tried to quit smoking. All that remained of the Jim Morrison/Hell’s Angel persona was his long hair, black-leather jacket and bike. In Hollywood, he was just another struggling actor who saved on gas costs by driving a “steed” to acting classes and auditions.  

Privately, if he talked about his sex life, Norbert made it clear that the Beatle Boxer had taken on all contenders, regardless of gender. But we never saw Norbert with girlfriends or boyfriends in tow. He seemed to be the perennial loner. After all, he’d already been “out” as the ultimate renegade, so tattooing the word BISEXUAL on his forehead was not something he’d rush to do at this late date. Besides, homophobic Hollywood of the ‘90s -- with its panics about AIDS death -- was not a place where open gayness would be rewarded. Like the dancer in Chorus Line, Norbert’s motto was “I need this job.”

His resume was angled to snag action parts.  And he’d made some progress -- two dozen minor roles, mainly in action films like Die Hard, The Package. He worked with top directors like John Carpenter and Alfred Hitchcock. His battered face and Germanic glower were a shoo-in for bad-guy roles. Terrorists, cops, killers, saboteurs, Western outlaws -- he did them all, and did them well.

Indeed, Norbert now had his movie fans. They loved him most as Vigo the Carpathian, the evil magician in Ghostbusters 2. Later Vigo would make #42 on the 100 Best and Worst Villains of All Time list, joining Darth Vader, the Terminator and other illustrious baddies. One perceptive fan commented on Vigo’s androgynous look, saying, “Now is it just me or is this guy a little fruity?”  

But casting directors weren’t giving him big parts. Long ago his upper lip had been split by a punch -- the old scar was still visible. So he spoke with a slight slur that speech coaching couldn’t overcome. "They have to dub my dialogue," he told me sadly.  

Learning that I had written The Front Runner, Norbert read the novel and immediately wanted to play Coach Harlan Brown in the movie version. A gay coach? Nicht problemo. If he could get this role of a lifetime, he would not fear what Hollywood said about his sexuality. He gave me the phone number of Capital Artists, his agent, and coaxed in his purring voice, "You’re the writer, you can make it happen for me, yes?" I was impressed by his intense interest in the part, but explained that somebody else owned the Front Runner film rights, so I couldn’t make anything happen right then.  

With his film career stalled, Norbert made ends meet by doing commercials. One afternoon in 1993, he biked up to Malibu to visit me. I was renting from a friend there, and working on the Front Runner sequel, Harlan’s Race. Norbert said he was moving to Hawaii, where a friend had a house on the beach and he’d be caretaker as a trade for rent. Before he left he wanted to remind me of his interest in The Front Runner. He knew that I and my new business partner, Tyler St. Mark, were starting a lawsuit that might get the film rights back. He supplied his latest headshot, showing him in his black-leather jacket. Tyler tucked it in our infant casting file. 

After a few “hello, how’s the movie going” phone calls, Norbert saw that our lawsuit might last for years. Gradually he faded out of our lives. 

Boxing and Homophobia Today  

For decades, professional boxing has struggled with a seamy image – racketeering links in the old days, recent scandals involving both promoters and fighters. But the show-biz trends that Norbert helped to launch are here to stay, thanks to satellite TV, pay-per-view, and network support from HBO, Showtime and ESPN. Box office on a big title fight goes well into the $20 millions. 

Meanwhile, the courage of some individuals – fighters, coaches, trainers, gym-owners, writers, etc. – has opened the way for some tolerance of homosexuality in amateur boxing, notably in the UK. Openly gay boxing coach Jim Atkinson describes his positive experience at Fitzroy Lodge, one of London’s oldest and most prestigious amateur boxing clubs. He told me: “The club knew of me as a gay man (and knew my partner, Phil) before they invited me to take on the role of secretary. Subsequently they have sponsored me to take my coach’s exams. I feel valued and very much a part of the team at Fitzroy Lodge and have never had any negative comment from a member or coach or official.” Recently Charles Jones made BBC headlines when he came out just before his first fight. Too old at 43 for regular amateur boxing, Jones debuted in London’s “white collar bouts,” popular with the financial, legal and stock -trading communities in the city. Mark Burford, who runs the gym where Jones trains, told BBC: “The lads here don’t give a stuff about Charles being gay.”  

Jim Atkinson knows the U.S. from his travels and competition here, and feels that the U.S. is similarly more open to GLBT amateur boxers and coaches. He spoke highly of U.S. gay boxing pioneer Greg Varney, saying, “He was for many years (till his retirement) an openly gay coach. He deserves a LOT of credit.” So I tracked down and interviewed Varney, who never fought professionally but was probably the first U.S. amateur boxer to be “out” in the new-millennial sense -- he started the first gay U.S. boxing club in 1975.  

Greg described those early times to me: “I have loved boxing since an early age. I was a boy who boxed in the boys clubs in the 1950s and 60s. Later I had a lover who boxed. Yes, I started the first gay boxing club in San Francisco. There were others before me but very closeted. We built a ring and in 15 years we had the first All-Gay Rainbow Boxing Championships. I was viewed by the old-timers as dangerous, and my club was watched from afar. My outness frightened them. Jack Fiske, who is dead now, told the world that he was thinking of starting a gay club, which hurt him terribly.” Fisk had been a celebrated boxing reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle; the gay-club thing possibly kept him out of the Boxing Hall of Fame till he was well in his 80s. 

Varney went on: “The gay sports in San Francisco then were softball, tennis, wrestling and boxing. Tuffys was the first gay sports store in the Castro district, and everybody gathered there. The Bay Area Boxing and Fight Club had three active periods. The first period was 1975 to ’80 at the Attic Gym. The second was very brief, in the mid 80s, just boxing lessons. The main period was 1992 to 1997. Boxing lessons to the gay community every Thursday night, and boxing shows twice a year. One night Harvey Milk was there. The championships were in 1992, just amateur guys, no big names. A few Latino and black fighters, but mostly white. We had two women’s bouts.”  

Varney missed no opportunity to promote boxing. “My Attic Gym was heavily published in gay magazines. We boxed in the ‘70s gay parades and in leather festivals. In New York I boxed in front of Stonewall Bar. On the docks of New York I put on jockstrap boxing there in the late 70s. I even got invited to Studio 54. The one thing that I am proud of in gay boxing … is the fact that for almost 20 years I offered boxing to the gay community and was respected enough that when I called for a show, people came from all over to box in these events. I made enemies because I put up with no other agendas. But boxing was never a success with the whole gay community. They simply do not accept it.” 

Jim Atkinson continues to be optimistic about mainstream acceptance of gays in boxing. He says, “There IS an argument that real boxing people (as opposed to the fans who have never been in a ring in their lives) will accept gay boxers since ANYONE who has the guts to get in the ring and submit to the disciplines of the sport deserves respect. I think there is a lot of truth in this.”

On the professional front, the first to come out was Olympic boxing medalist Marc Leduc of Canada, in 1994. Turning pro at age 30 after the 1992 Games, Leduc won the Canadian super welterweight title, but his pro career struggled – partly because of his age. So he retired undefeated and announced his sexual orientation. Like Norbert, Leduc went to work in the film industry, where he’s now a set builder.  

Author/columnist Thomas Hauser shares Jim Atkinson's hopefulness.  He told me, "If a champion fighter were to come out today, the majority of fight fans wouldn't care.  In fact, I think a gay boxer would be a big draw."  Hauser mentioned a reality TV show in the works, in which a dozen young fighters will be put through a selection mill -- evidently one of the contenders will be gay.  Kickboxing judge Gianni Verdoliva agrees, saying, "I think the general attitude ranges from the very homophobic, to the 'gays can't fight' one, to the 'he's a fag but if he's good who cares.' "  

Despite these advances, homophobia is still a problem in professional boxing.  The "talking trash" about one's opponent, that started in Benny Paret's time, has become standard MO for some U.S. pre-fight publicity.  Example: the homophobic campaign by some U.S. fighters and fans against British heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis.   

In 1990 Jamaican-born Lewis had won that European championship coveted by Norbert, then went on to own the belt for the world title in 1993.  Rumors that Lewis is gay circulated widely in the U.S., even appeared in print.  The British, who revere Lewis as one of their greatest pugilists, were baffled by U.S. hostility towards him. Coach Atkinson told me: "You just had to read the sickening bullshit on the chat rooms to appreciate how much many fight fans in the USA hated Lewis. Of course he isn't gay -- as far as I know."  Redneck Americans were suspicious of Lewis's laid-back Rastafarian ways, his dreadlocks, his grand entrances to reggae music, his refusal to talk trash.  Other facts that fueled the rumor mill: he's a chess player and computer nerd, owns a pet poodle, lives with his mother, is unmarried in his late 30s (though he has a long-time girlfriend).  Even the fact that he’s a scientific fighter, not a "banger" who relies on brawn -- made him a target.   

One fighter who taunted Lewis openly was Hasim Rahman.  In 2001 Rahman defeated Lewis to take the world title, then refused a rematch with Lewis, though the rules required him to defend his title.  During an ESPN interview, Rahman told Lewis that it was "gay" of him to go to court demanding the rematch.  The two men wound up in a tussle in front of news cameras.  Thomas Hauser denounced Rahman's behavior in a fiery column titled "The Bigot."  Hauser had become a voice for human rights in the sport, co-authoring a book on tolerance with Muhammad Ali, and now he said, "Prejudice is learned .…The lesson that Hasim Rahman taught last week is that gay-bashing is all right." Fans deluged Hauser with more than 300 e-mails; most thanked him for speaking out.  Lewis got the last word -- in the rematch, he KOed Rahman in the fourth round and took back his title.  

But Mike Tyson kept up the gay-bashing, aiming to take the world belt from Lewis. In extensive and revealing interviews quoted in a Hauser column “Lewis-Tyson: The Gathering Storm,” Tyson admitted frankly that he struggles with his own rage, violence and sexuality. Indeed, Iron Mike's verbalizations about gay sex led some observers and fans to wonder openly about his sexual orientation. Finally, in 2002, at a press conference before the Lewis-Tyson title fight in Memphis, Tyson exploded, biting Lewis on the thigh during the fracas and hurling anti-gay insults even at reporters.   That did it.  Dozens of angry human-rights activists, led by Peter Tatchell from the UK, converged on Memphis. Tatchell buttonholed Tyson outside a Memphis gym and challenged him to make a positive statement on human rights for gays and lesbians.  If Tyson didn't stop his abuses, Tatchell said, there'd be a huge demonstration.

"I oppose all discrimination against gay people, OK?" Tyson shrugged.  He shook Tatchell's hand on it.    

Tatchell regarded Tyson's statement as a victory for gay rights, and said he hoped Tyson was sincere about it.  Meanwhile Lewis had the last word again -- he KOed Tyson in the 8th round and kept his title.   

At the moment, the only active “out” professional fighters in the U.S. and Canada are women. Judge Verdoliva tells me: “According to what I know, there are more lesbians than gay men in boxing and similar combat sports.”

In 1996, women's professional boxing made its official U.S. debut as the opener to the Tyson-Bruno championship fight in Las Vegas. In 2002, with her proud father Muhammad Ali at ringside, Laila Ali won her first world title in the super middleweight division. The first lesbian pugilist to come out was Canada’s pioneering woman boxer Savoy Howe, in the 1993 award-winning sports documentary For the Love of the Game. In the U.S., Curve Magazine has profiled Gina "Boom Boom" Guidi, who won the women’s North American Welter Weight Championship boxing title. Guidi also took the gold medal in her division at the 1982 Gay Games, and is now semi-retired. More recently hot newcomer Angel McNamara was written up in the Washington Blade.

Ironically, in spite of all this undeniable “gay subculture” in men’s boxing, and the guts and visibility of lesbians in women’s boxing, the Gay Games is not very fight-friendly. The Games did offer the sport in 1982, but has ignored it since. Long Beach’s and Toronto’s bids for the 2006 Games proposed boxing as exhibition only.

Reason: the lingering PC prejudices against boxing as too “aggressive” and “dangerous.” Australian gay boxer Tony Whelan notes: “Many gay men have been conned into believing that combat sports like boxing are somehow at odds with being gay -- which is what the dominant culture tends to teach.” Likewise, women have been socialized to believe that combat sports are … inappropriate for women.”  Defenders of boxing can pull out statistics showing that football, even horse racing, result in more annual fatalities. But fighters, who should know, admit honestly to the risks. One black boxing coach said, “Ain’t no such thing as recreational boxing. You get in d’ring, this is serious business.” Yet the touchstone of any sport is intense competition, which can’t happen without a spirit of aggressive play, whether it’s the ancient game of chess that Lennox Lewis loves, or the newest sport to hit television -- dodgeball.

Meanwhile, according to Jim Atkinson, many GLBT boxers are shrugging off Gay Games disinterest and making their own way, fighting their human-rights battles as regular amateurs and professionals. According to San Diego boxer Ray Lee, tolerance of gays is also emerging in masters’ (over 40) boxing, a new thing in the U.S. Enough gay people do boxing for fitness that lesbian trainer Cappy Kotz has written a book for them, Boxing for Everyone. In Los Angeles, the Gay and Lesbian Sports Alliance organized to support local recreational and competitive sports; boxing is on their wish list. How could it be otherwise, in this vast city where Oscar de la Hoya has so many adoring gay fans?  

In Remembrance

When I learned that Norbert had just died, Tyler and I searched in the casting file for that old headshot. It’s a little ceremony that people in the film industry often do this when they read the obits. Our file was fatter now -- Front Runner film rights were finally ours, and dozens of struggling new actors had shown up wanting the role of Coach Brown … but our development company was still struggling to find financing. Usually the little ceremony turns up an early photo – a face that was young and cute and full of hope. In Norbert’s case, the face was already older and battle-scarred, but still handsome, with those eyes telling their story of a bad boy who tried to make good.  

Searching online, I learned more about his final years. In 1999, at age 58, Norbert got his final shot at movie immortality. Well-known German writer/director Gerd Kroske did a 100-minute documentary about Norbert’s life, calling it “the last will and testament of a loner.” He found the aging fighter still knocking around L.A. “It took nearly a year before Wilhelm accepted the fact that I was making a documentary and not a feature film about his career,” Kroske told me later. “ He initially expected far more money than I could pay him.”  

Unfortunately, after so many years of acting, Norbert found it hard to be himself in front of the camera. “The only times Wilhelm was truly authentic,” Kroske grumbles, “were the moments when he talked about events that still made him angry [like the del Papa fight].” Even so, Norbert made a lonely, indomitable figure on the screen -- less fit but still impressive, with silvery stubble on his chin, still going tirelessly to acting lessons and auditions, still getting up and coming back from every film-industry knock-down like the warrior he still was. But his speech was more slurred, and I wondered if it was old brain damage. Kroske made the round of Norbert’s old friends and enemies, interviewing bikers, pimps, prostitutes, admirers, and other aging fighters.  

For the ads, Kroske picked a vintage photo that I remembered seeing in Norbert’s apartment -- the Beatle Boxer with his sinewy torso dramatically lit. He looked like one of those smoldering models that you see on the covers of Bruno Gmünder’s gay erotica.

Premiered in Germany, Der boxprinz (The Boxing Prince) was an instant hit, garnering festival awards. IMDb called it “stunning.”  

After that, said Kroske, “It was difficult to keep in touch with Wilhelm because he was constantly moving. He got a few little TV roles in L.A. and a TV movie in Germany. Then he got a role in the feature film Ein Schiff wird kommen (A Ship Will Come), and he was supposed to return to Germany for filming. But a physical revealed the prostate cancer.  An old friend from Hamburg days, Walter Staudinger, had a ranch in Mexico, and he offered to let Wilhelm use this ranch as a hospice. Walter and his staff looked after Wilhelm until he died.” 

Norbert’s death headlined with German media. In the U.S. his movie fans mourned his passing on blogs and discussion boards. "Rest well, Vigo," one said. "Respect for the big guy," another offered.  

No, Wilhelm von Homburg never won any titles or gold medals. Unlike some figures I’ve covered in this series, he didn’t pioneer athletic firsts in his game. Yet he should be named among the Sixties revolutionaries who risked everything to enlarge the tight social space around sports. Athletes had been too controlled, too puppetized for too long. They hungered for the right to express themselves politically, to take on the bright colors of radical social change, to defy lethal bias in their sport, to be controversial and sexy and show-bizy -- even to risk “ruining themselves completely” if that meant a chance to take command of their lives. Ultimately that larger space that Norbert helped to hammer open with his lion-paw fists would include a fighter’s right to be open about sexual orientation.  

Good night, Prinz. May flights of angels with black-leather wings sing thee to thy rest.