Joe Bliss stands a lean 5-foot-6 with a thicket of white hair and bronzed skin sheening under the sun.
A case of shingles a decade ago sapped some of his strength and he wears hearing aids, his ears the victims of too many close-proximity 85-pound shell howitzer blasts when he served in the Korean War. The 81-year-old isn’t as quick as he used to be — certainly not as quick as when he won Nevada’s first national championship in boxing in 1959 — but there’s no question boxing remains in his blood.
Bliss, a gentle soul with a quick right-handed jab and powerful left hook, is explaining the importance of footwork for a boxer. He’s dancing on the grass outside his home in old southwest Reno, his feet nearly as nimble as they used to be when he boxed, his mind flickering back to all those championship bouts he waged as a Wolf Pack star in the 1950s.
“You watch boxing on TV and you never see any body punches anymore,” Bliss says. “Ever. And that was my favorite punch. You set them up with a body punch, and if you hit them in the solar plexus that’s the end of them. I’d fight with my defense. Bob and weave and make them miss and then start in on them. You set them up with different body combinations and you have them. Those were the good ol’ days.”
Bliss wasn’t only the last man standing after most of his fights. He’s also the last man standing from the Wolf Pack’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1973. Of the 13 legends inducted into Nevada’s Hall of Fame more than four decades ago, Bliss is the only one still living. After ex-Reno High and Wolf Pack star skier Dodie Post Gann died last Christmas Eve, Bliss is the last link to Nevada’s first great Hall of Fame class.
“Every time I pick up the paper I see friends in the obituary section,” Bliss said, sadly.
That first Hall of Fame class included seven football players, two basketball players, two coaches, one skier and Bliss, the first of nine Wolf Pack boxers who have been inducted into Nevada’s Hall of Fame. Local boxing legends like Mills Lane, Sam Macias or Jimmy Olivas could have been in that first class, but the Wolf Pack opted for Bliss, who remains a perfect representation of the state of Nevada and its flagship school.
“I started the Hall of Fame and he was in that first class because he was in a class by himself as far as boxing went and was in a class by himself as a person,” athletic director emeritus Dick Trachock said.
A Lovelock native, Bliss grew up humbly before starring in five sports for Pershing County High. He began boxing in the third grade at the now-closed Stewart Indian School in Carson. After high school, he was drafted into the Army and served two years in Germany during the Korean War. He dabbled in boxing, but it wasn’t until he returned home and enrolled at Nevada that he fully fell into the sport.
Under Olivas, the Wolf Pack’s legendary boxing coach who Bliss called “one of the best men I’ve ever known,” Bliss became Nevada’s first great boxer. As a sophomore, he reached the 1958 national championship round, losing to San Jose State’s Welvin Stroud by split decision in a fight called the “most wild and dramatic bout” of the tournament in the book “The Six-Minute Fraternity,” the Holy Grail of college boxing.
Bliss returned to the championship round one year later with the national tournament being held in Reno at Nevada’s Old Gym, a rarely-used facility on the west part of campus. The 139-pound class was dubbed the “hottest division in the tournament” and Bliss didn’t disappoint the hometown crowd.
Sports Illustrated was on the scene and wrote this about Bliss’ title win over Darrel Whitmore.
“The crowd — mostly Nevada partisans, naturally — had other wild moments on the three nights of the tournament but none wilder than when it shook the gym, filled to its 4,500 capacity, with hysterical roars as another Indian lad, this time a Paiute, brought Nevada its first NCAA championship in history,” the story read. “Joe Bliss, a 139-pounder, outpressed and outslugged clever Darrel Whitmore of Washington State and so became immortal in the annals of his college.”
Bliss’ victory was the first NCAA title in boxing for Nevada, the second in school history (skier Pat Myers won the downhill in 1954) and makes Bliss one of just 10 individuals to win an NCAA title for the Pack.
The national title was celebrated up and down Virginia Street. Back then, boxing was one of America’s most popular sports, especially in Nevada. Boxing also was an NCAA-sanctioned sport, unlike today, with schools from coast to coast vying for national titles. Bliss was the first to deliver one to Nevada.
“We’ve had really good boxers who were technically skilled, but for somebody like Joe to capture an NCAA title was extremely difficult back then,” said Mike Martino, the ex-Nevada boxing coach and interim head of USA Boxing. “College boxing back then was highly competitive, much more than today. We still get some pretty good college boxers, but back then it was just so much more competitive.”
As a senior, Bliss returned to the national title bout in 1960, where he lost to Wisconsin’s Brown McGhee before a crowd of nearly 14,000 at Camp Randall in Madison, Wisc. (One of Bliss’ best friends, Mills Lane, won an NCAA title for Nevada that year.) Bliss didn’t cap his career with an NCAA title, but he was named the tournament’s “Outstanding Sportsman,” a testament to the kind of person he is.
“That’s Joe,” Martino said. “Hard worker. Technically sound. Great man. As a coach, those are athletes you want in your gym. He led by example. He was no-nonsense, all business. He was there to do his job, to be a great student-athlete. Jimmy Olivas would tell us about kids he coached and he loved Joe.”
A Living Legend
The 1960 title bout was the last in Bliss’ college career (and the last sanctioned by the NCAA after Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr died after sustaining a head injury in the tournament, which caused the Badgers and the NCAA to drop the sport before the start of the 1961 season).
Bliss advanced to the 1960 Olympic qualifier in San Francisco, where he met a then-unknown Cassius Clay, who would win a gold medal in Rome. The then-27-year-old Bliss reached the semifinals of the Olympic qualifier before being accidentally head-butt in the first minute of the bout, forcing him to withdraw.
Bliss wouldn’t get to the Olympics and his boxing career was over, but his legacy at Nevada was clear. Olivas, Bliss, Lane and Macias laid the groundwork of Nevada boxing, which dates back nearly 90 years.
“Really, they were the foundation of Nevada boxing,” Martino said.
After retiring from boxing, Olivas helped get Bliss a job at the Palace Club, where he earned $14 for each eight-hour shift. Bliss went on to work 40 years at the CalNeva, never getting the itch to leave Reno.
“I love it here because you’re close to everything,” Bliss said. “We’re close to San Francisco. If you’re married and have a family, you can take the kids in the summer time to Tahoe. You can go swimming and fishing at Pyramid Lake. The mountains are beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Despite giving up boxing rather than pursuing a professional career, Bliss continues to love the sport. He watches bouts as often as possible, although he’s not a fan of MMA. In the 1980s, Bliss and Lane would return to the gym. Nevada’s current boxing coach, Dan Holmes, remembers watching the two fight.
“When I first started boxing at Nevada in the early 1980s, we’d have alumni fights and Joe would spar with Mills and it was a good show,” Holmes said. “He could put it on Mills pretty good. What a legend.”
Said Wolf Pack Hall of Fame boxer Mike Schellin: “You just cannot talk about this sport at Nevada without saying the names of Joe Bliss and Mills Lane. They were that good. Years and years after people graduated, they’d come back to the alumni match just so they could watch Joe spar against Mills.”
Bliss’ life has slowed down. He had four children and so many grandchildren he’s lost count (“I know there’s a birthday every month,” he joked). Bliss used to swim, fish and hunt, but the case of the shingles means he can’t do those things anymore. He runs along the Truckee River when feeling well.
Bliss was a survivor inside the ring and a survivor outside of it. As a life-long Nevadan and the last link to the Wolf Pack’s first Hall of Fame class, he has a unique perspective on the history of the university, the city and our state. He begins to shuffle his feet, bob and weave and hold up his hands in a boxing pose. It’s been decades since Bliss last stepped in the ring. But the memories haven’t faded too far away yet.
“Yep,” Bliss said. “Those were the good ol’ days.”
Source: Chris Murray, RGJ.com