Little Man’s Big Heart: The Story of Harold Petty, St. Louis Boxing’s Hidden Gem

The dictionary describes passion as a strong liking, desire for, or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.

For almost 50 years, Harold Petty’s found his passion inside the ring.

“I was actually a Major League Baseball fan. I always carried a glove everywhere I went,” Petty said. “Then one day after football practice the guys went over to the boxing gym, so I followed them over there. I sparred with this guy I didn’t particular care for and he busted my nose. Right then and there I knew I wanted to box because I had to get him back.”

He would eventually get him back, training in the ring while others were playing basketball and football. When he had the chance for redemption the following spring, the rematch went in Petty’s favor.

Boxing became Petty’s outlet while growing up in an area of St. Louis with a high crime rate, It allowed him to find his calling and avoid falling into the pitfalls teenagers around him commonly did.

“It kept me out of trouble and it was a blessing for me to learn how to take care of myself, my body, and learn how to train because it makes everything else so easy,” Petty said.

Inspired by the older boxers, Petty had the talent and determination to make it pro.

“They came back from Nationals with the real neat USA sweatsuits and boxing shoes and I said I want to make that team. I finally made it when I was 18,” Petty said.

Harold Petty
Harold Petty sits ringside

After rising through the AAU circuit, Petty squared off against Jackie Beard in a controversial 1980 Olympic trial. Judges declared Beard the winner, although Petty believes he should have won.

He was unsure if he wanted to fight professionally full-time, but made the decision to go pro after encouragement from his first professional manager.

“I went to a couple of pro fights and my trainer asked me what I thought about it. I said, ‘I can whip both of those guys tonight if I fought them.’ So he got me a couple of fights and after I won the first two by knockout, I turned pro,” Petty said.

Petty still had plenty of people telling him he had potential to be more than just a boxer. After winning three belts, he made the decision to come back home. But he wasn’t ready to trade in the gloves just yet.

“I loved the computer field, I loved baseball, I was good in school, but as much as I tried to get away from (boxing), it’s where I was meant to be,” Petty said.

Kenny Loehr
Kenny Loehr and Harold Petty watch young boxers

Working alongside his old trainer, Kenny Loehr, Petty found a new passion in training fighters of all ages at the 12th and Park gym.

“I train Tyron Woodley currently. I’ve trained pretty much every professional boxer that’s come out of St. Louis since the 1990’s. If it wasn’t six months, it was two years. Any of them that have come out of St. Louis and been on TV, they’ve been through me one way or the other,” Petty said.

It doesn’t come easy. Petty puts his boxers through rigorous drills to teach them discipline and determination.

“Everyone that comes in here learns the routine. You have to do your exercises, you have to go outside and run, you have so many rounds of jump rope and rounds on the bag. If you ask to spar you have to spar. Then I get the kids on the hand pads and teach them technique,” Petty said.

That disciplined routine inside the gym has helped boxers like Terrance Akins trade in a life of crime for a life of purpose.

“I’m a convicted felon. I have gun cases. If I wasn’t boxing I’d probably be in the projects doing the same thing, but if only you knew how much boxing has motivated me,” Akins said. “You have instant aggression on the streets, but in here you have discipline. The more you apply yourself in the gym and be humble, the more you can apply that in the streets.”

Terrance Akins
Terrance Akins boxes at 12th and Park gym

Another boxer at 12th and Park, Ryan Adams, said it’s a lifestyle he’s determined to succeed in.

“It changed up a lot for me. I have to show up here at 3 o’clock every day. It’s automatic. It keeps me in shape, makes sure I eat right, it keeps me away from certain friends even if I have to cut certain people out,” Adams said.

Both fighters recently turned pro, thanks in large part to Petty’s guidance.

“He’s a great great person person” Akins said with a smile.

“I take a lot of personal problems to him because I can trust him. He gives me the best answers with his stories that I can relate to. He’s more than a coach, he means everything to me,” Adams said.

“I always tease people and say I’m a boxing coach last. I’m a teacher, I’m the babysitter, I’m the psychiatrist, I’m the janitor, I’m everything. You have to do everything,” Petty said.

Getting kids into the gym and giving them a path to succeed and make the right choices is something Petty takes pride in.

“I use to say this is how I give back to the community, but these kids have given so much to me. Some days I’ll come in tired, but then I watch these kids and it’s a ball. I can teach them about boxing, but also about life too and hear their stories,” Petty said.

For Petty boxing is more than just a hobby, it’s a way of life.

Holly Dunaway
Harold Petty and Holly Dunaway train

“One of my old fighters, Holly Dunaway, said she could have the worst day in the world and come into the boxing gym and it takes it all away because everybody gets along. All colors, all races, all classes. We’re just all here to get some work in and get the job done, that’s what boxing is. It’s the closest thing to real life there is…it’s how I sleep at night,” Petty said.

Story written and edited by Hanna Yates and Nick Yahl