Leon Lawson Sr. and Cassius Clay were just teenagers in Louisville when Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali, turned to his newfound Flint brother and asked him a point-blank question.
“You ever look in the mirror and think that some day you will become champ?”
The two were shadowboxing in front of a mirror in a Louisville gym.
Lawson had moved to Louisville after getting into some trouble as a teen in Flint before befriending the man who gained the nickname “The Greatest.”
It was Lawson’s response to Clay that told you everything you needed to know about the person that’d become the godfather of Flint boxing.
“Of course. That’s what we do it for,” Lawson Sr. replied.
For Leon “Bumper” Lawson Sr., who died at 82 on June 12, failure wasn’t an option. It didn’t even exist in his mind, according to close family and friends that spoke with MLive-The Flint Journal about his legacy.
That was how he built his boxing empire after returning to Flint when he was honorably discharged from the Army at 20.
Hard work was rooted in everything that he taught to his son, Leon Lawson Jr., and grandson, Andre Dirrell, who both went on to pursue boxing.
The Dirrell brothers — Andre and Anthony — moved in with Lawson Sr. when they started getting into trouble as teenagers around the house around age 13 and 14.
As Andre described, the two were getting caught stealing candy from the gas station and hanging around developing bad habits. Andre’s biological father wasn’t in the picture at the time.
Andre recalled the very moment when his grandfather told his mother that he wanted to move the two of them into his house. They immediately knew it was “over,” Andre joked.
“Thank goodness he gave us a try because our father wasn’t around, and our big brother was our example. I love that guy to death, but another kid cannot show another kid how to be a man,” Andre said.
Looking back, Andre credits that moment with changing his life for the better. Lawson Sr. trained both of them into the men that they have now become, Andre said.
Family comes first
Lawson Sr.’s larger-than-life personality didn’t get in the way of his ability to be a father.
He instilled confidence in his family at every opportunity and taught many of them how to be a man.
Work ethic, discipline, loyalty and leadership were just a few of the things that became ingrained in everyone who spent significant time with the man.
He always had advice to give, always had the right answer and always knew the right buttons to push, Lawson Jr. said.
Growing up in the state street neighborhoods of north Flint, Lawson Sr. would drive off on his motorcycle to run errands while the boys were training in the garage.
Assuming that they would tend to slack off the moment he left, Lawson Sr. used to turn off the motorcycle’s engine to cruise into the driveway quietly and catch them in the act.
This kind of chicanery was normal for Lawson Sr., who was known for his creative tactics to keep family on the right track and training hard.
Lawson Sr. set a path for his son and the Dirrell brothers to run every morning that crossed over the Flint River. The reason he did that, Andre said, was so that you would get caught and soaked if you cheated and took a shortcut.
Andre remembered being challenged to set the best time for the two-mile run they used to start their morning.
Wanting to impress Lawson Sr., Andre pushed himself the whole way — only to later find out that the time he set that day would become a deadline.
If they didn’t beat the time the next day, they’d have to keep running.
Lawson Sr. had the Dirrell brothers on a strict training schedule that included a three-mile run to school, track practice after school and the boxing gym at night.
There were two things that Lawson Sr. held closest — his family and his money used to support his family.
Lawson Sr. worked at the General Motors truck plant for more than 20 years and operated as a loan provider for the community.
While he was an intimidating figure, Lawson Sr. was great with children. He would light up the room with his personality and willingness to have fun. He even had a few magic tricks up his sleeve.
Up to his final moments, he was joking with family and winking at Andre.
“He knew how to turn on the light, bubbly grandfather demeanor,” Andre said. “That’s the greatest thing about him because I think the biggest impact you make on a person’s life is how you treat them as a youngster. … That’s who my grandfather was, you know, fun and loving.”
Lawson Jr. soaked up wisdom from his old man who was a veteran fighter that was well-respected in the Flint community by people at every level.
“If you come to him with something, he is going to have good advice for you. He is going to have something to tell you,” Lawson Jr. said.
The Leon Lawson name will live on, as he has 70 children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — many of which share both his first and last names.
Lawson Sr.’s straightforward, disciplined demeanor earned him a lot of respect in the boxing community — one that isn’t always known for its straight shooters.
Lawson Sr. went on to work alongside some of boxing’s finest — Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Claressa Shields.
“He made it to the top level and since he was a real dude, people gravitate to that,” Lawson Jr. said.
Historical family photos show Lawson Sr. kicking it on the set of Ali’s acting debut miniseries “Freedom Road” and memories with Sugar Ray Robinson and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
The Lawson family patriarch always told a story about how Ali asked him to skip school with him one day and Lawson Sr. decided against it. He remembered getting on the bus and waving back to Ali from the window.
“He just said, ‘Man, I wish I would have gotten off that bus and actually kicked it with him,’” Andre said.
Ali later hosted the family at his 81-acre farmhouse on the St. Joseph River in southwest Michigan’s Berrien Springs. It was a life-changing moment for Andre, who grew to idolize Ali due to the connection to his father and boxing.
Even in his later years, Ali was playing practical jokes on Lawson Sr.’s family.
In one instance, they were standing in his driveway when Ali told Andre to “start running.”
A confused teenager, Andre started jogging to the end of the driveway in back, not really sure what was happening.
He looked back and Ali is telling him, “Go, go.” Right when Andre took off, Ali’s three Dobermanns popped their heads up from the porch and started chasing Andre around the yard.
The relationship between Ali and Lawson Sr. inspired Andre’s decades-long boxing career. He still has the T-shirt that Ali signed and drew a heart on when they met that day.
Some of Andre’s best memories with his grandfather came from international tournaments.
They traveled all over the world together when Andre was an amateur, including a trip to Cuba where Fidel Castro was attending fights.
While many felt he should have won silver, Andre took home a bronze medal in the middleweight division at the 2004 Olympics. The first thing he did after the fight was visit Lawson Sr.
“When I saw him in the room, I just burst into tears because I know he wanted gold bad, but at the end of the day he just reassured me. He said, ‘I’m proud of you, man. You did a good job. I love you and you should be proud of yourself. We are going home with a bronze medal.’”
It was the exact thing that Andre needed to hear in the moment.
“It was so reassuring, because you don’t want to let your idol down,” he said.
Boxing quickly became the culture of the Lawson and Dirrell families because of Lawson Sr.
Since he knew Ali from the early stages, he was supremely confident in the way that he trained other boxers.
“Boxing came in this family because of him,” Andre said.
His impact is obvious to anyone who has visited the Lawson’s home, where outside there is a garage converted into a fully functional boxing gym. Lawson Sr.’s looking over the gym from a mural on the wall based on an image from him coaching from the ring corner.
The younger generation joked about how Lawson Sr. only allowed the family’s young ones to play three sports — wrestling, track and boxing.
“He didn’t respect sports with balls. He felt that in the world we grew up in, you have to learn how to protect yourself,” Andre said.
Leon Lawson III, who’s currently fighting professionally with a 15-1 record, said fighting without his grandfather by his side is going to be different.
“It feels like there’s a lot more weight on my shoulders, you know? I’m not just fighting for myself.”
Lawson Sr.’s memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 24. The venue has yet to be determined.