THEY called him Mr Kates.

Such was the respect that perennial light-heavyweight contender Richie Kates had, it did not matter if you were in boxing, a work colleague in the New Jersey prison system or one of the youngsters he tried to teach the ways of the world to, he was referred to as Mr Kates.

Boxing obituaries will normally be about who fought who, what happened and what a fighter’s legacy was. And while Richie Kates was a terrific fighter who only just – by the narrowest of margins – failed to crack the big time, those who knew him measured him by the type of man he was rather than the brilliant ring craftsman he had been throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

Kates, from Bridgeton, NJ, was born to parents who were sharecroppers in Savannah, Georgia, and was only a few months old when the family moved to New Jersey.

He had to learn how to fight early in life because he had 11 brothers and sisters, and reckoned he had about 70 amateur bouts, losing just five. He did menial jobs to make ends meet and worked for everything he had.

Aged 18, he made $50 for his first four-rounder in Baltimore and always joked that he gave his cutman $15 of that.

“I was a hard trainer. I always took it seriously,” he said.

As a young man, Kates went to Joe Frazier’s gym and sparred with the heavyweight great. While there, Kates sparred another future light-heavyweight contender Len Hutchins. Richie felt certain that he had Len’s number and would often ask his manager, Joe Gramby, to make a fight with Hutchins.

“No, you’re not going to beat this guy,” Gramby told him.

Kates eventually got what he wanted.

“I remember, I wasn’t supposed to beat Len Hutchins,” Kates said. But in April of 1971, underdog Kates defeated Hutchins on a split decision in Philadelphia.

However, a couple of fights later, Richie lost for the first time when stopped by Eddie “Red Top” Owens. Still, a defeat wasn’t the end of the world back then and Kates returned four months later, won four on the bounce and then avenged the Owens loss.

He fought in good class again, defeating Utah veteran Don Fullmer in September 1973, on points. Fullmer said his body “was going haywire” at the time and retired afterwards, but Kates learned from the former world title contender and moved on.

In May of 1974, Kates chinned the very good Jimmy Dupree in a round for the North American light-heavyweight title and, like Fullmer, Dupree never fought again and, through Gramby, Kates then started a side gig boxing in South Africa.

Richie defeated James Mathatho in Durban, returned to the US for two fights and then went back out to Durban where he beat Mohamed Afonso.

“At the time, I wasn’t educated with the politics of apartheid, I was there to fight,” Kates reasoned. He was a humble man and never believed any decision he made would have widespread consequences. He was a fighter, so he fought.

Kates signed for a big fight with former world title challenger Pierre Fourie, which was an eliminator for the WBA light-heavyweight title in everything but name, and Kates won over 10 rounds at Johannesburg’s Rand Stadium.

Boxing News said Kates had handed Fourie “a real boxing lesson” and some ringsiders didn’t even give their own fighter a round on the cards.

Promoter Russell Peltz, whom Kates boxed for 15 times in all – from late in 1970 against Paul Dickenson to Richie’s final fight in 1983 – felt the Fourie win in South Africa and the Hutchins victory were the best results of Richie’s career.

Richie told the South African press that he had lured them in, trying not to look too good in his two earlier fights so Fourie’s team would take the bait, and after beating Fourie, Kates was confident of defeating WBA champion Victor Galindez.

It wasn’t to be.

Back in South Africa, on May 22 1976, Kates gave Galindez hell but eventually succumbed to the Argentine with one second left of their 15-rounder.

South African journalist Bert Blewett was ringside in Johannesburg and his excitement was palpable, calling it “one of the most savage and sensational fights ever seen in South Africa.”

Blewett continued excitedly: “It was a fight of bloodiness, courage and controversy, and it had the crowd of more than 35,000 screaming from bell to bell.”

The Rand Stadium drama started in the third round. Kates claimed he cut Galindez with a left hook but referee Stan Christodoulou ruled it a head clash. Galindez screamed in anger and agony, and there was a melee in the ring as, according to Boxing News, spectators and reporters poured into the ring. With the Argentine’s team working on his cut, no one knew whether the fight was over, if Kates had won on cuts or if Richie had been disqualified. Kates thought he was going to be declared the winner.

“I assumed the fight was over and I was the champ,” Richie recalled. “I was as happy and excited as I ever was in my life.”

After about five minutes, the ring was cleared and the fight was back on, but Kates’s emotions had dropped through the ring canvas.

“I was thinking about how they were going to take the championship away from me,” Kates continued. “I was having trouble coming to terms with it. I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Emotionally, it tore me apart.”

Galindez asserted himself as the fight wore on but Richie hung tough, finally wilting with just one second remaining.

He admitted that, despite many good performances in the years that followed, he was never the same. Kates had another shot at Galindez a little more than a year on, in Italy, but lost a decision.

Kates was a real pro, blessed with more skills than luck. He stopped Harold Carter in Vineland two months on, then came up against Philadelphia’s improving Matthew Franklin in February 1978.

While Kates had conducted business overseas, the NABF had allowed Franklin, later Matthew Saad Muhammad, to fight for the vacant title, the one Richie had beaten Dupree for. Kates argued he should still have had the belt, and even though Franklin-Kates was postponed a few days after a snowstorm bleached the streets of Philly, Kates came out hot.

At the end of round four, Kates levelled the future Hall of Famer with a right hand that would have set off car alarms outside. “I thought that was it,” Kates said. “Goodnight.”

So did the 6,586 screaming Philly fans. The fight would have been stopped today.

Franklin rose unsteadily at the bell, was carried back to his corner and the war went on.

At the end of the fifth, Franklin did the same thing to Richie and Kates was saved by the bell. But Kates hadn’t fully recovered and Franklin bombed him out in the sixth. It had been extraordinary and they’d earned every cent of the $15,000 pot they divided.

Afterwards, Kates was taken to hospital and stories were leaked that he had suffered brain damage. He put it down to exhaustion as much as anything else, and said he was given a clean bill of health, but there were some macabre headlines in the local press that upset him even years later.

Given Philly’s exceptional back catalogue of incredible battles, it meant something that Gene Courtney, writing for the Inquirer, called it “the most savage fight in Philadelphia in more than a decade.”

Richie laughed fondly at memories of that fight when we spoke last year. “He [Franklin] wanted the fight more than I did,” Kates sighed. “I still thought I was the better fighter.”

Things weren’t getting any easier for Richie. In 1979, he fought in Rahway Prison in front of 400 paying fans and 40 inmates against ranked contender James Scott, who remarkably had been allowed to continue fighting behind the jail walls – and on TV – even though he faced another 30 years behind bars for serious crimes.

Kates might have worked in the correctional system in an administrational capacity, but he was psyched out by the whole experience of fighting inside a maximum-security prison. Scott swamped Richie in the 10th and final round, with Kates never down but finally sagging on the ropes.

Years on, Scott joked about their fight saying, “Richie’s a nice guy. He’s the only guy I fought who when he hit me apologised. He’d hit you in the face, cut you in the eye and say ‘Excuse me’ and stuff like that. He hit me so much in the face he got me mad, especially when he said ‘Pardon me’ afterwards.”

Yet despite the rough, physical contests, veteran observers appreciated Kates’s intricacies as a fighter.

“More of a boxer, than a puncher, despite his 23 KOs,” assessed Peltz, even though Kates had the power to nearly flat-line Franklin with that right hand that caused the Spectrum to shake. Years ago, the Hall of Fame journalist Nigel Collins wrote of Richie, “In spite of his skill and outstanding record, Richie was not popular with Philly’s bloodthirsty fans. He was, and still is, a quick-handed counterpuncher. Not a go for broke bomber.”

And Kates was always a straightshooter. Perhaps that was a quality reinforced by his relationship with Gramby.

“Kates never argued with Gramby,” Peltz said. “Gramby was the boss and that was the way he managed. It was his way or the fighter could sit out. Kates respected him and Gramby was good to them. He never double-dealt them or anyone when his fighters fought for me. All the money was on the contract. No hidden payouts. One of the smartest boxing men I ever knew. His word was gold.”

After Scott, Kates still had big wins over future super-middleweight belt-holder Murray Sutherland at Pontiac’s Silverdome and he split a pair of contests with another very good ex-con Jerry Celestine in New Orleans, winning their rematch at the Superdome.

Kates called it a day after a fine run of form, winning his final five fights and scalping Jeff Lampkin and former world title challenger Jerry Martin in his last two fights, both in Atlantic City. Richie was 32 and still ranked in the top 10.

“When I retired, it was just time for me,” Kates told me over the phone in late 2020, happily discussing Scott, Saad Muhammad and the others.

“I wanted to know when it was time to get out. I didn’t want to be one of the fighters who sticks around too long.”

Kates was a gentleman and commanded respect. Even colleagues in the New Jersey correctional department called him Mr Kates, and so did the kids he worked with at the Vineland Police Athletic League gym in later years. It was there where his fatherly arm extended around the likes of Darrell Wilson and Bruce Seldon as they tried to relaunch their heavyweight careers with Kates’s tough love. They were inspired by him, wanted to impress him and they went to him because they knew they would get a straight-talking coach.

When anyone turned the music up too loud in the gym, Kates would instruct them, “turn that thing down.”

The dial was immediately spun anti-clockwise, a respectful hum would take over and his business would resume.

Kates worked in Trenton by day and went to the PAL to train aspiring boxers in the evening. He had first started working at the Department of Corrections in the late sixties after graduating from high school, departing for several years before returning in ’96. There, he would assign inmates to programmes they might need for rehabilitation, taking into account treatment they required, too.

“I’ve always been a people person,” Richie told me a couple of decades ago when I visited him at his home in Vineland. “Someone who believes you might be able to help turn someone’s life around by giving him the proper instructions and guidance. I’d like to think that, through my job, I’ve been able to make a positive impact on a significant number of people.”

Richie Kates, a kind and courteous man, did not have many regrets following a career that saw him win 44 fights and lose just six. Yes, he would say the Saad Muhammad night was “the stupidest fight I ever fought – I tried to outslug a slugger” but Kates was not just about boxing. His wisdom stretched beyond our fistic turf.

“I tell kids to do things the right way,” Richie explained, of how he helped people in life. “I don’t just train them, I take it a step further. The kids don’t come in cursing, with their pants hanging by their butts, wearing doo rags or hats that are twisted to the side. I don’t allow that. I send them outside and tell them not to come back until they get rid of the doo rag, pull up their pans and speak proper English. This isn’t just about boxing. It’s about life.”

And Richie’s life was a full one, in and out of the ring; it was so full that Peltz refused to remember him as a fighter or to judge him by his merits from those heady nights at the Spectrum and beyond.

In his typically brilliant Facebook memorandum to Kates, Peltz wrote: “I could start by saying Richie Kates was one of the nicest boxers I ever knew, but that wouldn’t be fair. He was one of the nicest people I ever knew.”

“I try to be a good husband, a good parent and a good citizen,” Richie once said to me. “I’m a church deacon and I have a variety of interests. I’ve seen so many fighters, including ex-champions, who are unable to put sentences together, who are begging for handouts. I take a look at my life and I consider myself fortunate.”

Richie Kates passed away on Saturday, March 11. He was 69 and he was a good fighter and, yes, Mr Kates was a good man.