Legacy Stories

Johnny Lira

Johnny Lira was a world-class boxer. Lira became a lightweight champion with a record of 29-6-1 with 16 knockouts. Outside of the ring, Lira founded S.P.A.R.T.A (Sports Professionals and Amateurs Resolving To Achieve) and also served as a mentor and boxing coach for the Union League Boy’s Club in Chicago. Lira was also an actor. After his death, Lira’s family donated his brain to the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank where researchers diagnosed him with stage 3 (of 4) Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). His family shared his story to help further research of the long-term effects of boxing and to support Lira’s beloved boxing community.

Johnny Lira Concussion Legacy Foundation

Our father, Johnny Lira, was more than a boxer.

He was an activist who rallied on behalf of boxers, having founded S.P.A.R.T.A (Sports Professionals and Amateurs Resolving To Achieve), trying to get people to come around and see how badly they needed a pension and union, and how ridiculous it was that they didn’t already have one. He was a silly father with firm convictions, a son who adored his mother, a brother who loved his sisters, the uncle every child loved to see come around at family functions and goof off, a mentor to people whom he so deeply wanted to help, whether training a boxer or martial artist, or providing tools to help navigate through the boxing world, an actor (“Gladiator” with Cuba Gooding Jr. and the History Channel’s “Who Shot Martin Luther King, Jr.”), a friend (always ready with a crazy story or joke) dabbler of local politics, teller of riddles, boxing promoter. But perhaps his most favorite role later in life was that of loving father and grandfather. You’ve never seen someone light up so brightly as he did when he was able to be around his three daughters, son and his grandchildren. His grandchildren all adored him SO much.

Johnny, the “World Class Pug,” was a fighter in more ways than one. If he wasn’t fighting for himself he was fighting for someone else and we were raised seeing that. He was passionate about hard work and he swore that anything was achievable. That everyone has the potential to succeed. You were never able to say, “I can’t” to him. Priceless lessons.

He was born in Chicago, Illinios, to Duiko Lira and Delores DeRose Lira in 1951 and was a red-headed and freckle-faced trouble maker and the youngest of three children. That mischievous streak continued into adulthood and, honestly, led him to his boxing career.

His amateur career started in Chicago boxing at the Chicago Youth Organization (C.Y.O. gym) training under Harry Wilson and corner man Chuck Bodak. He went on to compete and win in the Chicago Golden Gloves in 1974 and 1975 as a welterweight and middleweight and after turning professional, he relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada, to train under the legendary Johnny Tocco.

Johnny Lira went on to become the United States Lightweight Boxing Champion (Hawaii 1978) with an impressive record of 29 wins, 6 losses, 1 draw and 16 knockouts.

lira family (3) 22

Our father had a very close relationship the Union League Boys Club (club #2) throughout his whole life, a youth club member, staff member, volunteer, mentor, and in the late 1970s he was the head boxing coach. Later he went on to work for the Chicago Park District as the boxing supervisor for the citywide boxing program. He loved kids and believed so firmly that children, especially ones with few options or many disadvantages, should be given an outlet, something that teaches them hard work and discipline while boosting self esteem and pride. That was why he believed boxing was a great tool for kids.

He was a judge, referee, corner man and trainer for both boxing and martial arts. Promoter of 2 televised boxing events that were on national television. He loved to travel, learn new things, meet new people, and charm them with his crooked nose and sneaky smile. With his charm and smile he would impress people with his wide and unique range of self-taught knowledge.

On December 8, John “Johnny” Lira, “World Class Pug,” “Italian Rose,” “Character Extraordinaire” (as noted on his business cards!) left us, and left behind a great legacy in the Chicago and has made a print in the world of boxing.

Even though that sneaky smile and chuckle of his is no more, the things he left us with are more than we could have dreamed. He wasn’t perfect, no one is, but he was so loving, so encouraging and the biggest fan to each of his children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, godchildren, kids/teens he mentored and he really believed in them. Never a phony. Kids can smell phony a mile away, and when someone who shines as brightly as our father did, he would tell you that you’re great, smart, strong and beautiful – the effect that has is something that can’t be matched! He has taught us so much, always preparing us for anything in life, teaching us chess, boxing, swimming, business, self-respect and having a touch of class.

He will be missed so much.

We are all so proud of him and his accomplishments, and his last gift of his brain donation. It added some closure to some of the tough stuff that we had to go through. We are so glad to be able to maybe help, even a little, further the research to help bring awareness to CTE.

Thank you, Boston University.

Miss you Dad

Listen to Johnny's daughter, Gina, discuss his story on Jill Hopkins’s “Mixtape” radio show here. Watch his daughter Nina share his story on ABC7 Chicago.

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