The year was 1936. Joe Louis, a powerful, fast-rising heavyweight boxer from Detroit, had become a source of pride for the United States’ Black population.
Accordingly, Hannibal and Nellie Murphy, of 709 Riverside Drive in Albuquerque’s South Valley, named their fourth son after the great young fighter.
Today, Joe Louis Murphy can look back on an eventful life: Air Force veteran, insurance agent, nightclub owner, actor, husband and father. He’s a survivor of cancer, a stroke, a brain tumor, a heart attack and, most recently, COVID-19.
It’s for his seven decades of contributions to boxing, however — fighter, referee, judge, promoter, trainer — that he’ll be honored on Nov. 19 in Roswell as an inductee into the New Mexico Boxing Hall of Fame.
Plans for Murphy to attend the event had to be scrapped when the 86-year-old was diagnosed with COVID early last week. His daughter, Sandi Kay Shelby, said her father has not been hospitalized, has been treated with Paxlovid and is coping well.
While under hospice care and using a walker to get around, Murphy has continued to train young fighters.
“Oh, I love boxing,” Murphy said during an interview at his West Side home in Albuquerque. “I think it’s one of the greatest sports of the world.”
Shelby, one of Murphy’s four children, is in the process of filming a documentary chronicling her father’s life.
“He’s a pretty remarkable story,” she said. “He reminds me of a Black Forrest Gump. He’s done everything. He has memories of every major thing that happened in Albuquerque.”
It wasn’t quite a given that young Joe would follow his famous namesake into the fight game. But that process evolved quite naturally.
He and his three older brothers, he recalled, would fight all the time — never, though, in the house. Hannibal Murphy was a big man, strong, and took no guff.
“He’d say, ‘No, no, go outside,'” Murphy recalled. “‘You can fight all you want, but not in the house. Get out of here.’ So we made us a ring in the dirt.”
Murphy said his three brothers — John, Clarence and Edward — boxed in intramurals at Albuquerque High. Only he, the only southpaw in the bunch, went into the sport for real, first appearing in the pages of Albuquerque’s newspapers as a 16-year-old amateur, winning a collection of titles.
At 18, he entered the U.S. Air Force. While stationed in Reno, Nevada, he launched his pro boxing career. After his discharge in 1958, he came home to Albuquerque and kept fighting — a career interrupted when he was tapped for active duty by the Air National Guard and sent to Vietnam.
The online boxing record repository boxrec.com shows Murphy with a 13-11-3 record with four wins by knockout, mostly as a welterweight (147 pounds.) That’s almost certainly incomplete. He recalls three fights at Albuquerque’s old Civic Auditorium with local rival Joey Limas, having won two and lost one — the latter an outcome he still disputes. Only the two victories are listed on boxrec.com.
As a boxer, Murphy said, Limas “didn’t faze me. (But) he was a good man.”
Murphy retired as a boxer in 1966 at age 30. But he dived back into the sport as a referee, a judge and as an occasional sparring partner for his childhood friend Bob Foster.
Foster’s family had moved to the South Valley from Texas. Bobby was a gangly kid who, as a newcomer, was a target for bullies. Murphy, older by six years, became Bobby’s protector and, no doubt, taught him a little about self-defense.
Taking those lessons and others to heart, Foster went on to become a world champion and, arguably, the greatest light-heavyweight boxer of all time.
That long friendship came unraveled when, in 1982, Foster married Murphy’s ex-wife, Shelby’s mother. Patricia Foster died by suicide in 1984.
“It ripped their friendship apart,” said Shelby, saying that though she reconciled with her stepfather, she’s still figuring out how he fits into the story she wants to tell.
When Foster died in 2015, Murphy, his fellow devotee of the Sweet Science, attended the funeral.
The Murphy family’s athletic genes flourished outside the boxing ring as well. Joe Louis Murphy Jr. started in baseball at Rio Grande High School and played at Seward County (Kansas) Community College on full scholarship. His sister, Monique Murphy (now Robinson), played softball on scholarship at New Mexico Highlands.
Of herself, Shelby said, “I was not the athlete. I was a violinist. I was the sickly child who read a lot.”
One fight Murphy admittedly lost took place in 1971, when actor Robert Blake came to Albuquerque to film an Italian-produced movie entitled “Ripped Off,” alternatively known as “The Boxer.” Murphy accepted the role of a ring opponent for Blake’s character and agreed for cinematic purposes to be “knocked out.”
“I was 3 or 4,” recalls Shelby. “I hated Robert Blake because I thought he actually hit my dad.”
But, she said, Blake had said to her father, “Please, don’t actually hit me.”
Much later, Murphy appeared in an episode of the New Mexico-filmed TV series “In Plain Sight.”
Meanwhile, he continues to work with aspiring young fighters. What’s the first thing he teaches them? The footwork, the jab, the hook? No.
“I try to teach them respect,” he said. “… How to get along with other fighters and other people.”
Zimbalist “Zim” Satcher has trained with Murphy since the mid-90s. He says he’s received that message loud and clear.
“Being a man, an adult,” he said, “(Murphy) has cleaned me up a lot.
Shelby, in fashioning a career as a documentarian, has appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows. She once worked with the late Betty White, who, she said, told her, “Honey, as long as you have life in your body, you can do whatever you want.”
As moved as she was by that exchange, Shelby said, White wasn’t the first person to tell her that.
“One thing my dad always said,” Shelby recalled: ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from; it’s what you do with what you know.'”
With what he knew, Joe Louis Murphy has done it all.
New Mexico Boxing Hall of Fame Class of 2022
Banquet: Nov. 19, Roswell
Ronald Kent Brown, boxer
Rocky Burke, boxer, referee
Bill Daniels, boxer and philanthropist
Willie Hall Jr, coach
Joe Louis Murphy, boxer, trainer, promoter
Florencio “Flory” Olguin, boxer
Jerry Martinez, NMBHOF founder
Elba Burke, lifetime contributor