WHEELING - Vernon Schwender lifted his head and smiled broadly as four brawny men approached his wheelchair. It's been a long time since the 92-year-old Schwender was in a boxing ring, but these four guys made the "Fighting Gentleman" feel right at home.
Schwender, a native of the Martins Ferry area, knew his way around a boxing ring as a young welterweight contender in the Ohio Valley and Pittsburgh area. On Thursday, members of the Bull Pen Fight Club of Wheeling - Mike Napple, Ronell Green, Ronnie Green and Justin Hastings - visited Schwender at Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital and Geriatric Center in Wheeling, and made him an honorary member of their club.
They each shook hands with him and presented Schwender with a plaque, honoring his time in the boxing ring and welcoming him into their club. Bullpen Fight Club, located at the Nelson Jordan Center, 12th and Jacob streets in Wheeling, specializes in boxing, kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and mixed martial arts.
Photo by Heather Ziegler
Martins Ferry native Vernon Schwender, 92, shows off his fighting style with his newfound boxing buddies, from left, Ronell Green, Mike Napple, Ronnie Green and Justin Hastings from the Bull Pen Fight Club, and Sharon Travis with Heart 2 Heart Ministries.
Schwender said he and his father enjoyed boxing and he got his dad's OK to enter the boxing ring when bare knuckle fighting was still in vogue. As a youth, Schwender caught the attention of Homer Doughty, a fighter during the Great Depression who also hailed from Martins Ferry.
Doughty went 32-0 as an amateur, 38-3-1 as a professional fighter and 25-0 when he was in the military. He eventually left the ring - at the insistence of his young wife - to give more time as a family man.
However, Doughty so loved the sport that he took up mentoring other young boxers, paying special attention to Schwender. Although Schwender could not recall his own boxing record, he said he loved the sport and didn't set out to do anything more than enjoy the competition. His fighting style and non-bragging ways earned him the nickname of the "Fighting Gentleman."
"Some boxers don't care who they hurt, just so they win. I wanted to win, but fair and square," the soft-spoken Schwender said.
Not grand in stature, Schwender was said to have pushed himself beyond his natural ability as a fighter but never took cheap shots.
While speaking to his visitors, Schwender showed off his one-two punch style, which garnered praise from the young fighters from the Bull Pen.
"I quit boxing when I was getting to the age that I realized something could happen to put me on the shelf for life. The time comes, you know it when the reflexes aren't there anymore," Schwender said.
Napple, who runs the club, told Schwender they wanted to honor him because of his high standards during his fighting days. "We are honored to have him in our club and we would love to have him visit us and see what we are doing," Napple said.
Ohio Valley Awards in Wheeling donated the plaque.
The club learned about Schwender through Hasting's mother, Sharon Travis, who works with Heart 2 Heart Ministries. Travis said when she became acquainted with Schwender and he talked of his boxing days, she knew the fight club members would want to meet him.
"He is a sweetheart. He really is the 'Fighting Gentleman,'" Travis offered.
Schwender's wife, Alice, is deceased and he resides at Peterson. Travis contacted Doughty's son and grandson who live out of state, and they are planning to visit Schwender in the near future.
"I didn't do too bad for a sawed-off Dutchman," Schwender joked while saying goodbye to his new friends in the ring.