Light as a Feather, Tough as Nails

Ben Easter captured John “Champ” Roby’s solid gold swagger.

Writer: Hailey Allen
Photographer: Ben Easter

If you come across John Roby at the downtown YMCA, the first thing you might notice is his swagger. After decades as a professional boxer, the wiry 61-year-old still trains with the rigor and discipline that won him a title back in his athletic prime. That drive won him the International Boxing Organization’s featherweight championship in 1993.

So these days, his friends call him “Champ.”

He chronicled the ups and downs of his career in a biography called “The Belt of Wisdom,” which he released in 2022. And whatever your fitness goals might be for 2024, you could probably take a page from his book.

The biography, as told to Kathy Bruins, tells of Roby’s dedication, his rise to success and the hard times that followed. A few skeevy managers and fake friends took advantage of him financially, and a bad accident left him struggling to compete. But even after his boxing career ended, he still found reasons to be grateful.

As he put it, the life of a champion “still had its ups and downs.” He overcame many of his challenges with more than his physical strength. His determination and the support he’s received from family and friends have kept him chasing new dreams.

John “Champ” Roby

The road to success

Roby grew up in Fort Dodge with his five siblings and two stepsiblings. He played football and basketball, like a lot of kids, but really took to boxing when he first tried it at age 16. He won 40 fights during his amateur boxing years and went pro at age 25. Within five years, he’d won an IBO championship.

About a year after his big win, Roby hurt his head falling from a ladder during a shift at the grocery store where he worked. By this point, he’d taken plenty of other blows in the ring, so he shrugged it off as a minor accident — until he started stuttering. At the doctor’s office the next day, he learned there was severe bleeding and swelling in his brain. And even after treatment he suffered headaches, slurred speech and delayed reaction times during training.

Roby blames many of his subsequent losses on the injury, but it didn’t stop him from pursuing more wins. After taking some time to recover, he continued boxing for more than a decade.

He competed across the country and around the world, including Canada, Israel and Sweden. He won some and lost some and learned a lot about himself along the way. He began to seek success beyond the boxing ring, with his family and community.

Roby’s solid gold style

Learning and growing

Roby retired from professional boxing in 2006. He was 43 years old and had fought a total of 222 rounds. He moved back to Des Moines to be closer to his family and rebuild relationships. He admits in his book that he wasn’t always the best husband or father during his years as a pro boxer, and he regretted it once his fame fizzled. “Boxing is a one-man sport,” he said. “It can be lonely.”

He realized the blessing of having family and true friends in his corner. When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2012, he was in for a wholly different kind of fight. There were tough days, but his positive attitude almost never waned.

Today Roby is cancer-free, and his positivity is contagious. He’s a fixture at the Y and has befriended many of the regulars, including photographer Ben Easter (who took the photos on these pages), and the restaurateur Steve Logsdon, who hosted a party at Lucca to celebrate Roby’s book release.

“When Champ gets something in his mind, he sticks with it,” said Ray Bening, another friend from the Y and a financial adviser. He said people are drawn to Roby’s humor and loyalty — and his motivating example.

“John is a nice guy who loves to help people,” said Bruins, the biographer from southwest Michigan. “He has a strong work ethic, and he’s very proud of the accomplishments he’s made, which he should be. It’s been a difficult road for him, but he keeps going.”

Thirty years after his big IBO win, he’s still hitting the gym and encouraging others.

“I’m always willing to keep going, no matter how many times I get knocked down. I’m the kind of guy who won’t give up,” he said. “Whatever you’re going through, you can make it through.”

 

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