Boxer made 'the greatest' sacrifice of all
By Byron Crawford, The Courier-Journal, November 25, 2005
Yet the Louisville welterweight, who worked at a meat-packing house and rose to No. 2 in the world rankings in early 1960, earned a distinction that even "The Greatest" is unlikely to achieve:
Stitch was one of only four people in the past century to be awarded two Carnegie Hero Medals for risking his life to save another.
The fighter drowned in the summer of 1960 at age 27 when he deliberately swam back into a swirling Ohio River current in an effort to save his friend, Charles Oliver, after Oliver slipped from a ledge at the McAlpine lock and pulled Stitch in with him.
"Rudell was swimming toward shore and Charlie started yelling, and Rudell turned around and went back to get him," recalled Rich Keeling, Stitch's longtime friend.
The drowning 6-foot, 180-pound Oliver still had on his waders when he grabbed the 5-foot-8, 146-pound Stitch, and they disappeared.
In 1958, Stitch, the father of five boys and one girl, had rescued a stranger, Army Corps of Engineers worker Joseph Shifcar of Elizabeth, Ind., after Shifcar fell into the river near the same site.
Stitch's oldest child, Donald, still has the fighter's Carnegie Hero Medals, his boxing robe, several scrapbooks of clippings and photographs, and a few precious memories of his parents.
Donald was only 9 when his father died. The children lost their mother, Rosa, just four years later.
"Our grandmother came down from Detroit when our father died, and after my mother passed, she just kept all of us together at the house there -- instead of us getting separated. She took us to church, worked day work, got Social Security, and we never wanted for anything. The lights were never turned out," Donald Stitch remembered.
Donald's youngest brother, Daryl, later fought in the Golden Gloves, but Donald found football much more to his liking and earned a scholarship to Jackson State University.
Although Donald Stitch really hasn't recovered from the early loss of his parents, he has a wonderful legacy of his father that sportswriters, fighters and other fans of the sport have preserved over the decades -- including one of the most revealing episodes of Stitch's short but brilliant 27-7-0 pro career.
"In the third round of his fight with Gaspar Ortega in Madison Square Garden, they accidentally butted heads," said Mickey Clark of the Louisville Sports Report, a friend of the boxer. "Rudell wasn't hurt, but Ortega was staggering around, and Rudell sort of backed away and wouldn't continue to hit him."
Stitch, who was leading the fight on points at the time, later told Clark that he never believed in taking advantage of an opponent during a head-butt.
Although Ortega would win a decision, Stitch's action helped define his integrity in the boxing world as a fighter in a class all his own.
Clark, Keeling and numerous others who revere Stitch's contributions to boxing -- and to humanity -- hope that somewhere in Louisville's new Muhammad Ali Center, space can one day be found for an exhibit commemorating the fighter.
A Bible verse that Stitch -- a member of the Hope Presbyterian Church -- had doubtless heard many times in his young life is cradled along the gilded edges of his two Carnegie Hero Medals: "Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends."
In that elite class of heroes, Rudell Stitch is among the greatest.
- Stitch won Kentucky state amateur titles in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. He reached the semifinals of the Chicago Golden Gloves and the finals of the National AAU Tournament in 1956.
- Shortly after Stitch's death, the National Boxing Association created the Rudell Stitch Sportsmanship Award.
- Stitch's youngest child, Daryl Stitch, boxed as an amateur. He was trained by Bud Bruner, who trained and managed his father. On October 9, 1982, Stitch boxed Charles Love in the welterweight semifinal of the USA/ABF Kentucky Association Senior Open Championship. Stitch stopped Love at 1:55 of the first round. Following the stoppage, Love walked to his corner, sat down on his stool and then slumped over unconscious. He was hospitalized and had two operations to remove blood clots from his brain. Love died six days after the fight.
- On June 5, 2013, the 53rd anniversary of his death, Stitch was honored with a giant Hometown Hero mural in Louisville. Stitch was the 22nd Louisvillian to be honored with a Hometown Hero mural under a program created by the Greater Louisville Pride Foundation in 2002. Others include Muhammad Ali, Diane Sawyer and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
- Stitch was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014. Each inductee is recognized with a bronze plaque that hangs inside Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
- Kentucky singer-songwriter Mickey Clark, who was a friend of Stitch, paid tribute to the boxer with two tracks on his 2014 album Reasons & Rhymes. The album concludes with "Song for Rudell (Stitch)" and "Rudell's Story," a recording of Stitch's son speaking about his father.