Name: Russell Tague
Alias: Baby Faced Tague
Birth Name: Russell Eugene Tague
Birthplace: Guthrie Center, Iowa, USA
Died: 2003-04-22 (Age:72)
Hometown: Eldridge, Iowa, USA
Height: 5′ 3½″ / 161cm
Boxing Record: click
Fierce featherweight retired to quiet Q-C life
By Craig DeVrieze
None of Russell Tague’s seven children can tell you their father’s record as a professional prize fighter.
That is because Tague, who died in April at the age of 72, could not tell them.
“He didn’t know,’’ says his youngest son, Scott, “because he didn’t care.’’
For Tague, fighting was a passion but not an all-consuming one.
In the 1950s, boxing could not keep a family fed. So when a job at John Deere Plow and Planter in East Moline came available in 1959, Tague called it a fight career and went to work for 32 years, raising a family and doting on the love of his life, his wife, Juanita, until she died in 1986.
A rough-and-tumble featherweight, Tague twice fought Hall of Famer Willie Pep — and once thought he beat him, although both 10-round decisions favored Pep. He once beat future champion Davey Moore in Chicago; topped Mexican contender Lulu Perez in Miami Beach; lost a close decision to popular Cuban fighter Puppy Garcia in Havana; and fought South American champ Sonny Leon to a draw before losing a rematch six months later, both times in Caracas, Venezuela.
“Only tough guys fought him — he must have been a hell of a fighter,’’ noted famous fight trainer Angelo Dundee, whose brother Chris promoted five of Tague’s fights. “And he had to go after them in their hometowns.’’
Tague grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa, and enjoyed an estimable amateur career while fighting out of Davenport. But he fought only twice in the Quad-Cities as a professional and was a bit of a secret when compared with the well-chronicled careers of future Q-C fighters such as Michael Nunn and Antwun Echols.
When he left the ring, Tague retired to relative anonymity, although his children all knew he was a pretty fair fighter in his day. No. 1 fan Juanita saw to that, having carefully compiled scrap books during his career.
Tague, though, rarely bragged.
“When he did talk about fighting, he always smiled,’’ said oldest son, Steve. “That was where he liked to be.’’
Tague was introduced to boxing by his father, Clyde, who was a two-time state champion corn husker, but his mother, Bernice, also served as a tutor.
“She would put on the gloves and knock the (heck) out of us,’’ remembered Tague’s older brother, James, who still resides on the family farm.
“I don’t know if Russell was no different than other kids,’’ James said of their youth. “We were just kids who didn’t have nothin’.’’
Boxing, James said, “was just one of those things you grow into.’’
Brothers Orlen and Ron also boxed, but Russell was the natural.
“He was real good,’’ said Quad-City boxing legend Alveno Pena, a former amateur stablemate of Tague’s. “He was a tough kid, a farmer.’’
Pena, who was a bigger fighter, sparred with Tague on occasion.
“He was pretty fast and he was strong,’’ Pena said. “He could hit for a little guy.’’
Tague made his professional debut June 22, 1950, in Davenport. And lost. A six-round decision went to Mel Hammond, but Tague did not lose another fight until Oct. 24, 1953, when he was knocked out by Joe Maldonado in Chicago.
In between, he won 24 fights and fought to a pair of draws, scoring 12 of his 22 career knockouts in that span.
Clyde Tague was in his son’s corner for the early portion of his pro career, but as his reputation grew, professional fight managers came callin
Tague eventually landed with the L.A.-based Danny Spunt, both a promoter and a cornerman. Spunt managed the latter half of his Tague’s career, Steve Tague said.
Spunt, said Scott Tague, “was as crooked as they come. He was the Don King of the ’50s.’’
On Nov. 18, 1954, in Omaha, Neb., Tague knocked out the very same Hammond who had started his pro career on a losing note. That pushed his professional record to 32-3-3 with 19 knockouts.
He had fought in places as far flung as Toronto and Butte, Mont., but the bulk of his bouts were waged in Chicago and the Midwest.
In 1955 he stepped up in class.
The fights came fast and furious, and losses were as frequent as wins. He was 7-5-1 in 1955, 5-5 in 1956, then lost all but one of eight succeeding fights from 1957 through 1959.
He fought Pep — a three-time world featherweight champion who compiled a 230-11-1 career record — in Miami Beach on June 19, 1956, when Tague lost a split decision that he and others felt could have gone his way.
Said Steve Tague: “One time he said, ‘I remember when I hurt him in the sixth round, I hit him so hard with a left hook that his feet came off the ground.’ But then he said he stepped back and Pep hit him with a right cross across the chin.”
Tague went to visit Pep after the fight to congratulate him on his victory. He found him in a hospital. “He had 14 broken ribs,’’ Steve Tague said.
Pep told a Miami reporter after the fight: “I listened to everyone, and I thought he would be a soft touch. He surprised me. The kid is tough. He caught me on the button a couple of times, and I felt it.’’
That Pep fight was the first of five that Tague fought for Chris Dundee in Miami Beach in 1956.
By then, Tague was a father of four, and fighting was all about the money.
And the money was not real good.
“One time he came home from Miami with $1,200 and a gold watch, and he had fought three times,’’ Steve Tague said.
He went to Caracas twice to fight Leon in 1957 and came home with $3,200.
“He often thought how easy it would be to feed all of us kids on the money the pros make now,’’ said Robin Peters, one of Tague’s two daughters.
Although Tague was on the back end of his career when he met him in 1956, Angelo Dundee remembers Tague “as a pretty fair fighter. When you fought Tague, you knew you were in a fight.’’
Tague was in lots of fights — and big ones — from May of 1956 through September of 1957, when he fought 16 times.
With two fights in between, Tague decisioned then third-ranked Lulu Perez in what might be remembered as his finest win just two months after his loss to Pep in Miami Beach. Then he lost a grueling decision to Cuban Garcia in Havana all of 11 days later.
In 1957 he fought Leon to a draw in Caracas in January and then lost by sixth-round knockout there six months later.
Just a month after the latter fight, he met Pep in a rematch and lost a 10-round decision.
“He said Pep went through him pretty easy,’’ Scott Tague said.
Tague fought three more fights during the next 21/2 years, then retired from fighting at age 29.
Russell Tague apparently never knew, but his nine-year professional record was 44-20-5 with 22 knockouts.
Cheri Smeltzer remembers her father as protective and stern.
“If we got in trouble, we knew we were in trouble — and we were afraid,’’ she said.
Said Robin Peters: “He could be mean when he wanted to, but he could be the sweetest guy. If a neighbor needed help, he was always there to lend a hand.’’
The former fighter was a hard-working man. For years he held down his job as tool crib manager at John Deere by day and tended bar at night.
“He worked every day, and he worked hard,’’ Smeltzer said. “He had seven children to raise.’’
All five of Tague’s sons boxed as amateurs. Steve won an AAU state title, and Terry, the fourth child, won a state Golden Gloves competition.
Their father did not coach them. He sent them first to Pena’s Davenport Boxing Club and then later to a club in Muscatine, Iowa.
“He kind of introduced us to it and then stepped back and watched,’’ said Brian, the sixth of the seven kids.
Tague could be gruff. And he could be rough.
“He didn’t go picking fights,’’ Steve Tague said. But he could finish them.
“He was a hell of a bouncer,’’ Peters said.
Tague had one subsequent brush with the news. He was a bartender at the Shamrock Tavern and was on hand the night of the infamous 1972 murders there.
Peters said his father never talked about that night.
He talked a little more about his days as a boxer.
“Not a lot, but he would tell us different stories,’’ said Scott Tague.
Said Steve Tague: “He never bragged about how tough a fighter he was.’’
Tague retired from John Deere three months before Juanita died. His children say he never recovered from her loss.
In his latter years, Schmeltzer said, he suffered from dementia, a condition doctors attributed to his boxing.
When he died in April, more than a few Quad-City fight fans were surprised to learn that one of the fiercest featherweights of the 1950s had walked among them.
“He was a good guy and a good father,’’ Pena said. “He was a quiet guy — he didn’t say nothing. But during my time he was one of the best fighters to come out of here.’’
Craig DeVrieze can be contacted at (563) 333-2610 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2002 The Quad-City Times