After 50 years, Boxing and Wrestling Commissioner hangs up his gloves

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!

Robert 22Bobby22 Stephen
Robert “Bobby” Stephen hangs up his boxing commissioner gloves. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – He has rubbed elbows with world champions, has gone nose-to-nose with the powerful, helped uplift those in need, built businesses and broken bread with friend and foe, alike.

That’s enough to earn anyone a rest.

For the first time in 50 years the State Boxing and Wrestling Commission will not include Bobby Stephen. The long-time chairman retired last year, ending a remarkable era for combat sports in the Granite State. Originally appointed by Gov. Meldrim Thompson in 1973 to what was then called the “State Athletic Commission, ” Stephen was re-appointed by 10 governors, a testament to his abilities as a commissioner and, perhaps, his greater skill at dodging political hooks and uppercuts.

“Mel Thompson asked me to be on the commission, there were three of us,” said Stephen. “My good friend, Bobby Rivard, a former middleweight and light heavyweight Golden Gloves champ, was on there with me. We stuck together and had quite a history.”

w4t5gbwt rotated
While serving as a New Hampshire state senator, Bobby Stephen greets President Ronald Reagan at Manchester Airport. (Courtesy photo)

Rivard and Stephen would go on to be inducted together into the Queen City Athletic Hall of Fame.

A few years ago, Gov. Chris Sununu spoke to Stephen about a change in leadership at the commission, with Stephen staying on as a member but being replaced as chair. It was a difficult decision, but like every fighter, Stephen knew it was finally time to hang up his gloves.

“If I wasn’t going to be chairman, I really didn’t want to stay on,” said Stephen, 83. “No one is going to listen to the opinions of an old man. But I’ve worked under a lot of governors and they’ve all been good. None of them have really gotten too involved in the decisions we make.”

456yu34thee rotated
Bobby Stephen, right, is sworn as State Athletic Commissioner in 1973 by Gov. Meldrim Thompson. To the left is Bobby’s son, John. (Courtesy Photo)

Stephen served out the remainder of his term before retiring to his home in Florida with Shirley, his wife of more than 50 years.

The Boxing and Wrestling Commission operates under the State Office of Professional Licensure and Certification. When he was first appointed, the commission was exclusively in charge of overseeing amateur boxing, including the Golden Gloves. A former amateur boxer and three-time Golden Gloves champ, Stephen was well suited to the role.

In 1980, while Stephen was serving as a state senator, legislation was passed to include professional wrestling events the commission’s oversight responsibilities and changed the name to the Boxing and Wrestling Commission.

“At the time, we didn’t oversee wrestling but people thought we did. I kept getting calls from high schools and other venues asking for us to oversee their pro wrestling event,” recalled Stephen. “So, I talked to my colleagues (in the Legislature) and suggested we change the name and be able to oversee the wrestling.”

In the early ’80s, pro wrestling wrestling events in New Hampshire were nearly all promoted by the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), which had not yet grown into a sports entertainment juggernaut. In those days, Stephen built a solid professional relationship with company founder Vincent J. McMahon and his son, Vince McMahon.

Later, the commission’s responsibilities were expanded further to include mixed martial arts (MMA) events and proposed bare-knuckle fighting.

121212 rotated
Bobby Stephen and Bobby Johnson, along with boxing legend Willie Pepp. (Courtesy photo)

According to Stephen, the top priority of the commission is the physical safety and the fair treatment of the athletes participating in the events. Sometimes, this meant refusing to sanction a fight or grant a license.

“You had fighters who weren’t really qualified, sometimes,” said Stephen.

“They might have an awful record, like, let’s say, 10 wins and 20 losses, and we shouldn’t have to allow them in the ring. And we would discuss this with the promotors and say, ‘hey, this fighter is totally outclassed and shouldn’t be in the ring,” he said.

“And the promoters would want these fighters in there because, I believe, they were getting paid a little differently, not top-dollar,” he explained. “And we wanted to make sure these fighters had contracts and were getting paid what was in the contract. We demanded that there was a contract on every boxer.”

7756767 rotated
Bobby Stephen is flanked by legends Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and “Hands of Stone” Roberto Duran at the “Fight to Educate” benefit fight card. (Courtesy Photo)

The most unusual “sport” the commission oversaw in Stephen’s tenure was Jell-O wrestling at a Manchester club. The involvement of the state in events grabbed the attention of the television show, “Real People,” which ran a segment on Jell-O wrestling and the Boxing and Wrestling Commission on its Season 5, Episode 11 (1983).

“The Jell-O wrestling I thought was hysterical. But it was another way to make more money for the commission and the State of New Hampshire,” said Stephen. “So we sanctioned the event and I attended one of the events. I knew the fellow who was running it and he said, ‘We don’t need a license,’ and I said, ‘Says who?’ And they called and checked and they had to get a license. It was funny.”

“Dad was such a stickler about having a doctor at ringside, he was there with the commissioners at ringside, making sure they had a doctor there,” added Stephen’s son, John.

The emergence of mixed martial arts as a popular combat sport presented new challenges for the commission. Stephen admitted he was taken aback by the level of violence in the sport and the injuries suffered by the participants. It required a different approach to oversight.

64j45hwt rotated
Bobby Stephen, left, trains young fighter Greg Joseph at the Manchester YMCA. Joseph would go on to compete in the New England Golden Gloves. (Courtesy photo)

“(The Legislature) wanted us to oversee (MMA) and I had hoped there wouldn’t be many events but there were. I would attend the events and be at ringside and I always made sure they had two doctors at ringside, so they would be there to see if someone was getting hurt,” he said. “At many events, I’d have to raise my arm and say ‘stop the (fight) because the fighters was on the mat getting pounded.”

While most of the boxers the commission dealt with were local, they occasionally were called upon to license some of the biggest names in the sport. Such was the case when former Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson had trouble getting licensed anywhere in America, after biting off part of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

“(Promotor) Don King came to us and asked if we would allow Mike Tyson to fight in New Hampshire,” recalled Stephen. “I told him the only way we’d let him fight here was if Tyson was led to the ring with a muzzle on his mouth. (King) was so upset, he said, ‘We wouldn’t even think of New Hampshire.'”

While Tyson never fought in New Hampshire, several other champions and future champions did. Among them was “Irish” Micky Ward, the two-time World Champion from Lowell, MA, whose story was immortalized in the movie, “The Fighter.”

In July 2001, Ward fought Emanuel Augustus at the Hampton Beach Ballroom. Stephen convinced promoter Al Valenti and ESPN to feature the bout on its live boxing series, “Friday Night Fights.” The move paid off for everyone involved. Ward beat Augustus by unanimous decision in an epic war that Ring Magazine chose as its 2001 Fight Of The Year. Among the judges for the bout was Stephen’s son, John.

Bobby Stephen with “Irish” Micky Ward, after Ward’s 2001 “Fight of the Year” against Emanuel Augustus at the Hampton Beach Ballroom.

“Micky and I are still good friends to this day and he always thanks me for letting him come to fight in New Hampshire,” said Stephen, adding that Ward fought three times in New Hampshire. “The problem was that in Massachusetts, Micky was banned, because he and his brother (Dicky Ecklund) were getting into too many arguments and fistfights. He had a hard time getting licensed.”

In an addition to events being licensed by the state, each athlete needs to be licensed to compete also. Most often, this isn’t a problem. But every once in a while, it can become a VERY big problem. Such was the case with 7-4, 500-pound professional wrestler Andre The Giant. On one particular trip to the Granite State, Andre had not obtained his license and Stephen looked him square in the sternum and laid down the law.

“Each wrestler had to have a license, which was $10, and Andre didn’t have his,” said Stephen. “And he looked down at me and said, ‘I’m still gonna wrestle.’ And I said, ‘You’re not, not without a license.’ And he mumbled something and his trainer came up to me and said, we’ll pay you the license fee.”

Combat sports in New Hampshire have been a family affair for the Stephen clan. In addition to John doing work as a boxing referee and judge, son Robert is an attorney who has done work as legal counsel for the Boxing and Wrestling Commission.

Stephen’s career has impacted business, sports, politics and education

Stephen’s career as a small business owner, politician and public official has had the common thread of leadership. Never one to hide in the shadows, Stephen has had an undeniable impact. His passions for business, boxing, politics and education often overlap, to varying degrees, in his endeavors. This is most notable in Stephen’s Magnum Opus, the Bobby Stephen Fund for Education.

Bobby Stephen, right, competes in the New Hampshire Golden Gloves as a teenager. (Courtesy photo)

Stephen began his career as a boxer at the age of 17. He enjoyed success as an amateur, winning three New Hampshire Golden Gloves championships in the Bantamweight (118), Featherweight (126) and Lightweight (132) and twice reaching the finals of the New England Tournament of Champions.

“I had a great trainer and manager (Willie LaFond) who took care of me. He made sure I was home every night and in bed by 8 p.m.,” said Stephen, with a chuckle. “He trained me for many years and stayed close to me.”

Stephen participated in the 1960 Olympic Trials, in the Lightweight Division, losing to eventual Olympian Nick Spanakos,

“I’m very blessed that I was fast in the ring,” he said. “I remember when I was fighting for the (Golden Gloves) lightweight championship and the (previous) champion was Harry Mack. And I beat him and we were taking a shower after and he said, ‘I couldn’t lay a glove on you, you were so fast in the ring.’ And I said, ‘Well, Harry, that’s the idea!'”

Rather than pursuing a career as a pro fighter, Stephen chose to join his family’s restaurant, Cedars of Lebanon, full-time. Granite State diners are glad he did.

In 1967, Stephen bought Verani’s Italian Restaurant from Ozzie Verani, a move that worked out well for both men. Verani was exiting the restaurant business to go into real estate, founding the hugely successful Verani Realty. Stephen went on to become a fixture on the Manchester dining scene for decades, first with Verani’s and then with The Vault.

“(The Vault) was an older building, a bank, that we reconstructed into a restaurant,” said Stephen. “It was a success. All year we’d have a backup of people waiting to get in.”

Bobby Stephen brought in Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran to help promote “The Fight to Educate” benefit card. (Courtesy photo)

The Vault became a popular spot for business and political leaders of Manchester, as well as members of the boxing community, to grab a bite to each and talk shop. It was at The Vault, in 1978, where Stephen began the Bobby Stephen St. Patrick’s Day Event, attracting hundreds of people annually. It was the place to be seen and quickly became a “must-attend” event for Manchester elected officials and their challengers.

During his years as a restaurateur, husband, father and boxing commissioner, Stephen also served New Hampshire in other roles, at various times. He was a five-term state senator, as well as serving as deputy executive director of NH Job Training and director of Community Services at the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development.

Education and opportunity have always been an important cause for Stephen. Beginning in 1994, he began donating proceeds from his annual St. Patrick’s Day Event to the NH Jobs for America’s Graduates program, to be used to help “at-risk and disadvantaged high school students in need of financial assistance for college.”

In 1999, he began to use the event as the primary fundraiser for his newly established Bobby Stephen Fund For Education. According to its website, the fund “provides scholarships for post-secondary education for provide scholarships to NH Jobs for America’s Graduates students, as well as other disadvantaged citizens throughout NH who need financial assistance to help them reach their educational goals.”



About this Author

Bill Gilman

Bill Gilman is a veteran journalist with 35 years of experience covering community news and sports in New England. He and his wife have two grown sons and two perfect granddaughters.