Bob Beal, Illinois boxing and martial arts hall of famer, dies

Bob Beal, center, an inductee into both the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame and the Illinois Martial Arts Hall of Fame, died May 27. He’s pictured with grandsons Dylan Edwards, left, and David Edwards.
Courtesy of Andre Avanessian

If you got hit by boxer and martial artist Bob Beal, you likely didn’t get up.

Once described as having fists “like hammers from hell,” Beal was an inductee into the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame and the Illinois Martial Arts Hall of Fame, both in 2015. He died May 27.

A graduate of Chicago’s Waller High School — now Lincoln Park High School — since 1997, Beal lived in Des Plaines. He was 86 years old and had been married to wife Josephine, or “Jo,” for 60 years.

“He went out like a warrior,” said one of Beal’s three grandsons, Dylan Edwards of Des Plaines.

He lived like a warrior as well. Born Robert Brutus Beal, by 7 he was being trained in boxing in a homemade gym by his stepfather, Frank Beal, and his father, Harold Lett. Known in the ring as Ray Vegas, Lett once fought Jack Dempsey to a draw in a bare-knuckle exhibition match.

By 13, Bob Beal was training in professional gyms under former world champions Johnny Coulon and Tony Zale. Beal went on to become a four-time Catholic Youth Organization heavyweight champion in Chicago.

At Coulon’s gym, Beal was a sparring partner with a young Cassius Clay, according to Beal’s former martial arts student and studio partner, Fred Degerberg.

Beal had a purported amateur record of 291-9, according to BoxRec.

At 17 years old, in 1955, Beal fought Pete Rademacher in a national heavyweight bout that served as a qualifier into the 1956 Olympics. Beal knocked out Rademacher but in the process broke his hand, enabling Rademacher to advance to the Melbourne Olympics where he won the gold medal.

Beal’s immense punching power resulted in recurring hand injuries, and by the end of the 1950s he left boxing — to the displeasure of former undefeated heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, who Degerberg said came to Chicago with an offer to be Beal’s manager.

Beal instead turned first to wrestling, then to martial arts, where he earned grandmaster status and a 10th-degree black belt in Bushido karate.

Bushido, “the way of the samurai,” was a combination of boxing, wrestling, karate and various martial arts that Beal developed with the assistance of Degerberg, a fellow grandmaster and 10th-degree black belt.

After meeting in the early 1960s at former Marine Ted Amos’ Byakko Do Karate Kai studio, Beal and Degerberg created the Midwest predecessor of today’s mixed martial arts, with Bushido.

“He was one of the first complete mixed martial artists back in the 1960s and ’70s,” Dylan Edwards said.

Beal later took over Amos’ studio and renamed it the Bushido Fighting Society. Beal operated studios at several different Chicago locations over his career.

Beal awarded Degerberg, who opened the Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts in 1980, his first black belt.

“He was a man and a half, I’ll tell you,” Degerberg said.

“He didn’t talk much because his hearing wasn’t that great. He was more ‘action speaks louder than words.’ And he was the nicest guy,” Degerberg said.

Beal retired from training professionally in 1997. At home, he was a master woodworker who loved watching classic horror movies, the Green Bay Packers, and the Minnesota Vikings.

Bob and Josephine Beal had two children, Cora and Jeanne; grandchildren Michael, David and Dylan; and one great-grandchild, Colton.

“He was like a big father figure to my brothers and I, and I was one of his last students,” said Edwards, who earned his black belt under Beal and Degerberg.

A celebration of Beal’s life will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. July 27 at the Degerberg Academy of Martial Arts, 4717 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

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