Hard knock memories
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
They were a closely knit and tough bunch, those Dupas kids, all 11 of them growing up in the 1950s shoulder-to-shoulder in that tiny two-bedroom house on the rim of the French Quarter near the river.
Ralph Dupas’ father was gone for long stretches trying to hustle up a meager living as a fisherman. Two week’s pay for the old man usually amounted to about $30.
And if you grew up having to scrap for every necessity of life, like these Dupas kids, it’s no wonder that every one of the seven Dupas boys found their way to St. Mary’s gym and into the boxing ring.
They fought amateur and pro and racked up some good numbers.
One of them, Ralph Dupas, beat the popular Denny Moyer in 1963 at the Municipal Auditorium for the Light Middleweight championship of the world.
Several months later Ralph lost that title, but what the hell. He came from nowhere and he battled his way to somewhere.
And while it was commonplace for boxers to run through their ring earnings like water through a sieve, Ralph squirreled away most of his money to buy a four-bedroom house for his family.
Angelo Dundee, the famous trainer who guided Muhammad Ali to becoming a household name was a frequent presence in Dupas’ corner and once said: “Ralph Dupas is amazing. He says ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ and he’s quiet and respectful. He was one of the nicest kids I ever worked with. I often wonder how in the hell did he ever get mixed up in the boxing game.”
A bigger question was how Ralph Dupas, after running up a lifetime 104-23-6 record, wound up collecting bottles and cans in a Las Vegas parking lot to earn enough money for his rat trap apartment.
Brother Tony, himself a boxer of some repute, found Ralph and brought him home to New Orleans.
In his later years, Ralph Dupas, the boxer they called the “native dancer” because of the deft evasive footwork he showed in the ring, began exhibiting the result of all those blows to the head. They call it dementia pugilista, a neurodegenerative disease that most often leaves its victims helpless, shuffling masses, often unable to tie their own shoes.
Ralph spent his final years sitting on the bed in brother Tony’s home with that blank thousand-yard stare as he rocked back and forth.
Ralph was finally placed in a home in Denham Springs where he passed away in 2008 at age 72.
Ralph’s older brother Pete was also a boxer. “I had one amateur fight,” Pete says. “I won it then I got out of the ring. I guess you could say I’m the only undefeated boxer in the Dupas family. But after that one fight, I never went back. I liked boxing, but not fighting. I guess I just had too much of that when I was in Korea. I just didn’t care for that at all.”
Eighty-three-year-old Pete is a retired pipefitter. He lives in a modest home in Kenner, the living room of which is a mini shrine to his brother Ralph.
He points to the framed cover of Boxing and Wrestling Magazine hanging on the wall. Ralph was the cover boy for that issue. There is a framed newspaper clipping on the wall exclaiming, “Boxing hall of famer, Dupas dies at 72.” Various other clippings about Ralph and his boxing brothers adorn the wall. Those clippings and a monstrous Rottweiler dog that has the attitude of a child’s stuffed toy and is named Rocky Balboa are the only nods to boxing.
“Me and my first wife had five boys and one girl,” Pete says. “One of my sons passed away. I didn’t want them to get involved with boxing. In fact, I steered them away from the ring. All of them were or are still involved with horse racing: jockeys, trainers, grooms.”
While he’s talking, Pete is walking back and forth to another room and returning to the kitchen repeatedly, where he lays down yet another scrapbook of press clippings and photos and news stores about Ralph Dupas; not his brother the late boxing champion, but Ralph Dupas, his son the former jockey, who like Ralph the brother was, is now in a care facility because of a devastating head injury suffered in a race at Jefferson Downs.
Pete is flipping the thick pages on the scrapbooks and talking all the while: “Ralph rode at Jefferson Downs, the Fair Grounds, Louisiana Downs, Texas. He rode Risen Star (car dealer Ronnie Lamarque’s horse who won the Preakness and Belmont stakes races in 1988).” Pete runs through a long list of horses his son Ralph rode to victory: Boom Again, Champsville Star, Crafty Barzone, Fearless Flower, Borrowed Funds, Traffic Hostess. “My son Ralph had over 500 wins,” Pete says.
Pete talks about each of his sons, listing the horse racing-related work they’re in today, and he lingers on memories of a then-6-year-old Ralph who had gotten into the habit of skipping school and spending his days doing odd jobs at the Fair Grounds. “Cleaning up stables and all.” Pete says he caught Ralph at the track one school day and the two came to an understanding.
“He said, ‘Dad, I’ll cut you a deal. If I don’t do real good at horse racing I’ll drop it and go back to school.’” Pete recalls the details of that afternoon at the Fair Grounds. Pete went for the deal figuring his son’s mind was made up. He again mentions the “… more than 500 victories.”
Before long, there was another ‘Ralph Dupas’ name on the sports pages. Ralph became a jockey and began getting mounts, good mounts. It was what the young Ralph had long wanted. He was in heaven coming out that gate. Indeed, all was going well as until that terrible day in 1977. He was coming out the gate at Jefferson Downs. One horse spilled, then another. Ralph was on the track and the horse behind him kicked him in the head then landed on him fracturing his skull.
“When my wife and I got to the hospital, the doctor said, ‘You’d better go in and see him,’” Pete says. “His skull was cracked.”
Pete admits his son Ralph was a tough customer and that he “cut up and all that stuff. Because of that he’s bounced around to a few homes.”
“But he’s in a good place now,” Pete says. “His mind gets to where he’s just not there … like when you get old. But he’s doing real good. They even put him in charge of a few things, like taking care of some of the other people there. We talk about Uncle Ralph sometimes, and you know it’s strange. I look at my brother and what boxing did to him. Then I look at my son. My son loved racing the way my brother loved boxing. You just never know.”