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Obituary: Wichita boxer Greg Gorrell remembered for toughness in ring, kindness in life

Greg Gorrell poses for a photo with Muhammad Ali.
Greg Gorrell poses for a photo with Muhammad Ali. Courtesy photo

Jesse Gorrell and his four sisters have always known their father was one of the best boxers in Wichita history, but they found a new appreciation for his accomplishments this week.

While sorting through the many mementos Greg Gorrell collected during his 53-bout career, they discovered photos of him with Muhammad Ali.

“That was the coolest thing we came across,” Jesse Gorrell said. “As far as boxing legends, there is nobody bigger than Muhammad Ali. It was great to see some of those pictures. We grew up hearing the stories about how he did a tribute fight for Ali and how honored he was to get to meet him and to sit down and tell jokes with the guy. It was actually a big emotional thing. We had heard the stories our whole life, then you see the pictures and you realize, wow, that happened. It wasn’t just a story.”

Greg “The Gorilla” Gorrell had many wild and crazy stories – that turned out to be true – about his boxing career before he died at the age of 58 in a one-vehicle accident on Sunday. Gorrell went 33-17-3 as a professional boxer, traveling as far away as Canada, France and Indonesia for fights.

At his peak, he was good enough to win the USA Mid West Cruiserweight title in 1988 and hold it for an entire year. He also fought against heavyweight champions Lennox Lewis and Tim Witherspoon. You can still find a complete television broadcast of the Lewis bout on YouTube.

“His claim to fame is he fought Lennox Lewis,” said Melissa Ramon, Gorrell’s daughter. “Of course, he lost. That was always kind of a joke we made about it. But he fought him really hard.”

Gorrell’s family still watches the fight from time to time. Even though the 1989 bout was a mismatch between a tall, muscular fighter that would one day become a world champion and a stocky underdog that went on to become co-owner of Walt’s Refrigeration Services, it lasted five rounds. At the time, no other fighter had lasted more than four rounds against Lewis.

Every time Lewis knocked down Gorrell, he was quick to return to his feet. In the opening round, Lewis sent him to the ground with a powerful right to the face, but he bounced up instantly, telling the referee “I’m fine” before a knockdown count could begin. He eventually lost by technical knockout, but even then he pleaded for the fight to continue.

As Jesse Gorrell likes to point out, that’s arguably better than Mike Tyson performed against Lewis in 2002, losing by knockout in the eighth round.

“He could take a lot of abuse,” Jesse Gorrell said of his father. “I think that was his strength. He was not built like a boxer. He was a pretty stocky guy, didn’t have a reach, didn’t have long arms. He would always say that he was at a big disadvantage in those fights. It’s always funny to go back and watch some of them. He was such a stocky guy, even the announcers said he could be in better shape. He didn’t look like a pristine Olympic boxer. He wasn’t chiseled. In many respects, he looked like an average guy.

“But he could take a hit and get back up. A lot of that carried over into life. He would always tell that to his kids: If you take a hit, you have to get back up.”

As tough as Gorrell was in the ring, his family says he was the opposite in everyday life.

Though he taught all five his children proper punching technique, he warned them never to fight. He helped his daughters with homework and took his son golfing. He was in charge of getting everyone to school.

His job in refrigeration took him all over the Wichita area, and it seemed like someone knew him every time the family went out to eat. After he retired from boxing, he mentored younger area fighters and became a promoter of fights and toughman competitions. His family says he was always trying to help others.

That has resulted in an outpouring of support since his death.

“If you met him, you probably wouldn’t think he was a boxer,” Jesse Gorrell said. “He was not a big, tough guy. He didn’t fit the bill of a boxer. He was just a gentle guy. He could stand toe-to-toe with theses giants in the ring and then take his kids to a Disney movie and cry his eyes out.

“He was the softest guy you will ever meet, and it seemed like everyone in Wichita knew him or knew of him in some way. We never looked at him as ‘The Gorilla,’ we looked at him as dad.”

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett