Just hours before the start of the preliminary rounds of the Golden Gloves centennial tournament, the back room of Cicero Stadium is a crowded jumble of ambition and nerves.
At the center of the rectangular cement room full of folding tables and chairs stands one of the most revered figures in the tournament who has never taken a punch.
The soon-to-be 88-year-old Dr. Glenn Bynum quietly assesses each fighter as men of varying ages, ethnicities and weight classes line up single file in their underwear for the stressful final weigh-in.
Dressed in a Navy blue windbreaker, Bynum appears decades younger than a man born in the middle of the Great Depression. He stands straight as he uses his aged stethoscope to check each fighter’s heart rate or eye pupillary response, asking whether they have noticed changes to their health since their last fight.
Bynum will rule a fighter ineligible at any sign of impairment or cognitive injury, or if they haven’t submitted the proper paperwork clearing them to fight.
Those who pass, quickly dress and await final clearance from Bynum and two other doctors.
Preliminary bouts for the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament began earlier this month and nearly 500 male and female boxers will participate leading up to the championships in mid-April.
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The longest-running and largest non-national amateur boxing event in America, the tournament is celebrating 100 years in Chicago, one of 30 cities holding similar tournaments. For 55 of those years, Bynum has served as a familiar face ringside.
Among gym regulars, veteran boxing coaches and returning fighters, “Doc Bynum” is a legend having examined and given clearance to thousands of fighters, including a number of greats in their early years.
“Every walk of life,” Bynum said softly inside the heart of the fighter check-in. “We’ve had a lot of people: ordinary workers, teenagers … we’ve had lawyers who wanted to fight, policemen,” he said. “Older fighters who come back, they just want to prove something. They said they want to fight all their life, and this is their opportunity.”
The Detroit native who grew up idolizing fellow Detroiter Joe Louis has earned a reputation as a firm-but-fair ringside doctor who strictly adheres to boxing protocols and will stop a match if a boxer takes repeated blows to the head. During a match, he is laser-focused on any signs of trouble or impairment by a fighter. In one early match, Bynum ended a bout after one of the fighters took several hard blows to the head. After the match, Bynum examined the fighter.
Dr. Pamela Nickson, a ringside doctor since 1995, said she learned the ropes and gained confidence under Bynum’s mentorship.
“Over the years, (Bynum has) taught me a little bit about the game — what to see, what to look for when I’m examining the boxers and just introduced me to a lot of people,” Nickson said. “It’s amazing how many people Doc knows and how many people know him.”
As hundreds piled into indoor stands at Cicero Stadium on a chilly Wednesday evening, Shaun Tallon, president of USA Boxing Illinois and a trainer, called Bynum indispensable to amateur boxing.
Tallon, 38, should know. Bynum was the doctor when he boxed.
“There’s a dozen or so shows leading up to this tournament this year, and he was at probably three or four of them,” Tallon said. “And a majority of the time, they do it as volunteers, going out and helping the sport of amateur boxing keep going. Without guys like him trying to give back and help out, we wouldn’t even be talking.”
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The world of amateur boxing has changed dramatically during Bynum’s tenure. Unlike boxing’s golden years, boxers no longer fight multiple matches a day, fighters are now required to wear headgear and must electronically file their medical clearance paperwork.
“Without a doctor on site, there is no boxing,” said longtime Chicago trainer Sam Colonna. “In the old days, you got on a scale and you were off. Now we’ve got to have all of this paperwork downloaded and uploaded.”
Only Bynum and his concern for a boxer’s well-being has remained constant. “He’s very reliable. I use him all the time for amateur boxing shows,” Colonna said. “He’s a hell of a person, and once he retires we’re really going to miss him.”
Up close Bynum has met and examined some of the boxing world’s most exciting fighters on their way to greatness, such as Olympic boxer, Danell “Doc” Nicholson, heavyweight titleholder Ernie Terrell, Indiana native Angel “El Diablo” Manfredy and retired prizefighter Floyd Mayweather Jr., who won 15 world championships and three national Golden Glove championships in the 1990s.
Bynum may have never boxed, but he’s seen a common thread among winners, particularly Black fighters of a certain era. “Desire to be the best, especially in the Black community in the era where they grew up in was Muhammad Ali or Mayweather. They all want to be great. A lot of them come in … they show all the flashy moves of their heroes.”
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One of the ringside doctors at the preliminaries was Diwante Shuford, who prior to earning his medical degree from Medical College of Wisconsin, tried his hand in the Golden Gloves. The south suburban native has thought of Bynum as a mentor since their first meeting when he was a medical student, later seeking his counsel on becoming a ringside doctor.
“This is my first year doing this and now I get to work with him … he’s a wealth of knowledge,” said Shuford, 32, an emergency room resident at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. Shuford said he hopes for a career as long as Bynum’s, adding, “If I live that long.”
“I love boxing. It’s something that’s gotten my friends off the street, it’s something where I got more disciplined,” he said.
A doctor’s medical clearance can mean more than just being allowed to enter the ring for a young fighter. “It’s more like a thing of success and approval,” said West Side welterweight Michael Brown, 32, who boxes under the name “Sugar Mike” Brown, like his idol, national Golden Gloves champion, Sugar Ray Robinson.
“When we make it to the doctor and the doctor clears and approves us, it let’s us (know) all the more that the training we’ve been putting in is paying off and now we’ve got one more step to go to see if we can execute all the training that the doctor has approved, our feelings, our mental clarity, our physical clarity,” said Brown, who is teaching the sport to his young daughter and nephew.
As a health science policy analyst at National Institutes of Health in Maryland, Dana Bynum lives in a world of reducing risk to injury, so she understands why some give her the side eye when she tells them she’s going home to attend a boxing match.
“But I tell them that the Golden Gloves is all about safety,” said Dana Bynum, who was born on her father’s birthday, a year after he first became a ringside doctor.
In a telephone interview, she said she plans to return for the quarterfinals, as she often does. After years of watching her dad work local and national matches, she understands that boxer safety is high among the amateur ranks, particularly when her father is calling it. Golden Gloves physicians, she said, are great at “stopping fights or not letting people fight if they’re not in good enough shape to do so.”
Before his time as a ringside doctor, Bynum was primarily a family physician and obstetrician, often cutting short family events to zip off to the hospital to help deliver babies.
“I think that was the trade-off. There were times we were at the movie theater or out to dinner and he’d get a call from the hospital that a baby was about to be delivered, or needed to be delivered and we’d leave the movie, or theater,” Dana Bynum recalled. “But he also was a very hands-on father. He got us ready every morning before my mom got us out the door. He got us up in the morning, took us places, movies, museums and places like that.”
Despite the sometimes flamboyant personalities that can populate boxing, Dana Bynum has only known her father as a quiet, dignified character more comfortable with listening than talking. She remembered a time when her family attended a reunion with distant relatives they didn’t know well.
“Before we arrived, my father turned to me and said ‘Don’t tell them I’m a doctor. I don’t want them to think I’m on a pedestal or anything. I just want to be known as Glenn.’”
“He is understated, but he has such a big heart about all of the people that he meets. I’m just so proud of him for all of that,” she said.
Bynum’s modesty may be a product of his working-class upbringing. One of six children born to a Detroit autoworker and a Sunday school teacher, Bynum attended and graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1962. He moved to Chicago in the 1960s and opened an office in the city before eventually relocating to River Forest, where he helped raise two children. Bynum was working as a pediatrician in 1968 when a medical colleague who worked as a fight doctor asked him to help at a Golden Gloves match and the rest is history.
“I love boxing. I’ve been a boxing fan my whole life — never boxed, myself,” he recalled during a slow moment before a fight.
Bynum has been inducted into the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame and the Golden Gloves of America Hall of Fame.
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Dana Bynum said it’s difficult to imagine her father without boxing, just as it was hard to imagine him retiring from his medical practice about 15 years ago. “It would be hard not to think of him not doing it anymore because it’s been a part of my whole life,” she said.
“I think he enjoys it. I think he enjoys the sport and the people. His medical career was so much a part of his life, I was really concerned when he retired,” she said. “Work was his thing. But he still had boxing, and this has really kept him going.”
Nickson, one of the other fight doctors, said Bynum empowered her and other younger doctors to take firm control of a fighter’s health and proper documentation above all else. Bynum often reminded her that doctors should deny entry if their questions aren’t answered or the fighter’s medical book isn’t complete.
“No book, no fight, hold firm on that,” she said Bynum would tell her.
Now the fabled fight doc says he’s finally looking at retirement, though he hasn’t chosen an end date, something his work colleagues playfully said they’d fight tooth and nail.
“That’s frightening because then they’ll make me jump into his shoes. I’m like ‘I’m not ready for that,’ ” joked Nickson.
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