Photo by Linda Platt for Boxing Today magazine, 1981
Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010 | 2 a.m.
During Las Vegas boxing’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Willie “The Cannon” Shannon, a tall, lanky, good-looking heavyweight hopeful, swaggered onto the scene and made a splash.
Shannon fit the bill of the boxer in the “Rocky” films of that era — the down-and-outer who sought redemption through his fighting and eventually won the love of the public while regaining his self-respect and self-worth.
A troubled youth who was in a Florida prison from age 16 to 25 for robbery, Shannon, then 29, began the road to recovery by winning his first Las Vegas bout in 1979 and within months capturing the Nevada cruiserweight championship. He set his eyes on the world title, which by 1981 was within his grasp.
But a sharp and unexplainable decline abruptly ended Shannon’s fighting days and in 1985 he was in prison for kidnapping and battery. He got out in 1998 and returned to Florida, where he laid low.
Maybe for good reason. Shannon, now 60, was arrested this week in Florida in connection with the slaying 29 years ago of an 18-year-old Las Vegas woman, Jamey Walker. Shannon is in the Manatee County jail awaiting extradition to Nevada on charges of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.
However this latest chapter ends, the story of Willie “The Cannon” Shannon is one of wasted talent and lost redemption, an athlete whose return to a life of crime led him into a world of drugs, sexual assault, kidnapping, battery and, depending on how a future Las Vegas jury rules, perhaps even murder.
This journalist knew him well, having written a profile of Shannon for the now-defunct Boxing Today magazine in 1981 — the year, it turns out, that Shannon allegedly killed Walker.
Shannon was a study in contrasts. He could be soft-spoken and convincing when he wanted to be, and brash and arrogant when he felt he needed to be.
He claimed to be a devout Muslim who believed in charity and doing what a proper religious person should do. But he did things at the height of his local fame that were not religious and certainly not charitable.
Shannon crashed the elaborate wedding reception thrown by local businessman and boxing judge Joe Swessel for one of his daughters — an event attended by about 2,000 guests.
As the orchestra played and venerable boxing referee Davey Pearl sang “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” Shannon, clad in a quintessential and ill-fitting 1970s blue leisure suit, strolled into the reception with his dates — eight known prostitutes.
“Certainly nothing bad can come as a result of this, huh?” a reporter wisecracked.
To be fair, Shannon’s upbringing was troubled.
Born in Florida, he was raised in a Palmetto home he shared with 20 other children — a poor family pieced together from two broken marriages.
In 1967, at age 16 and weighing 135 pounds, Shannon went joy riding with a group of older teens. While gassing up, some of the guys pulled a snatch-and-grab robbery of the station’s register, copping $93. Police stopped the car in nearby Arcadia.
All were convicted. Shannon’s sentence was 15 years. He served nine years and was released in 1977.
In prison, Shannon changed from a scrawny teen into a 6-foot-5, 185-pound mass of muscles. He took up pro boxing, seeking only heavyweight matches in small Florida arenas, often against opponents who outweighed him by 10 to 30 pounds or more.
Shannon said in the 1981 interview that he chose to fight as a heavyweight because promoters were paying them more.
He won his debut pro bout on Sept. 15, 1977, earning a four-round decision in Daytona Beach. During the next two years, Shannon fought 10 more four-round fights in Florida, winning them all — nine by knockout.
He wound up in Las Vegas on Oct. 30, 1979, with a 14-0-1 pro record and 11 knockouts. He would go on to win the Nevada cruiserweight crown but then get knocked out in Portland, Ore. He said he was done fighting heavyweights and would focus on winning the world cruiserweight title.
Outside the ring, his life began to go awry.
In spring 1981, Shannon reportedly started keeping an eye on teenage neighbor Jamey Walker, according to what Walker family members later told police.
She was the daughter of nightclub owner James Walker and past Las Vegas NAACP President Eleanor Walker.
According to a criminal complaint filed in late November, Walker’s father received a telephone call on May 9, 1981, informing him that his daughter had been kidnapped that day and that the abductors were demanding $75,000 in exchange for his daughter being returned alive.
After Jamey Walker was allowed to get on the line and tell him “Daddy, they are not kidding,” the father informed the caller that he needed time to raise the cash and that the banks were closed for the weekend. He did not get time. The next day, Jamey Walker’s body was found 47 feet below a bridge in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area a half-hour’s drive from where she was abducted.
An autopsy determined she had been raped and flung off the bridge.
Shannon was considered a suspect almost immediately because he allegedly attempted to make contact with her.
When questioned by Metro Police, Shannon denied involvement, saying he was busy training for an upcoming bout. Also, fingerprints at the abduction scene did not match Shannon’s.
This was well before police began using DNA evidence. But last month, forensic scientists were able to test a small amount of semen found in Walker’s underwear and determined that it contained Shannon’s DNA.
Despite the initial lack of evidence, Metro had never dismissed Shannon as a possible suspect — and Shannon knew it, which no doubt affected his training after the killing. One month after Walker was kidnapped, Shannon fought journeyman Carson City light heavyweight Rocky Lee Burkey at the Showboat Sports Pavilion.
Burkey, a fighter of marginal talent who managed to win barely more than half his fights during a seven-year pro career, wasn’t expected to last more than a couple of rounds. But Shannon was not his usual self that night and needed eight rounds to beat Burkey by technical knockout.
Two months later, Shannon returned to the Showboat and put his state cruiserweight title on the line against former WBC world cruiserweight champion Marvin Camel. At stake was more than Shannon’s crown. The winner would be in line to face U.S. Boxing Association cruiser champ Bash Ali that October. The referee had to jump in during the third round to stop the fight and save Shannon from being pummeled. After that, Shannon caught the proverbial last train to Palookaville.
He fought only one more time as a professional.
The murder investigation aside, Shannon had other problems. He was convicted in July 1985 for the 1983 kidnapping and battery of a woman he was dating.
He was sentenced to 30 years in Nevada State Prison and was paroled after 13 years.
Police say that in 1986 or 1987, he admitted to another inmate, James Phillips, that he was cheated out of $27,000 in a heroin deal with a member of the Walker family. The family has denied any involvement in the drug trade.
Still, police think Jamey Walker may have been killed in retaliation.
Detectives say they think more than one person was involved in the kidnapping and that more arrests are possible.
Several Florida newspapers have reported that in recent years Shannon has lived in Ellenton, Fla., and worked as landscaper. And, according to neighbors, Shannon has been a courteous, hardworking and charitable resident. They expressed disbelief over his arrest for the 1981 killing.
One neighbor described Shannon as a grandfatherly figure who threw birthday parties and taught a neighbor boy how to hit a punching bag at Shannon’s home. Another said Shannon did good deeds such as helping to fix his sons’ broken bicycle chains.
But Shannon could always charm. In the Boxing Today profile as he was on the cusp of stardom, he was philosophical and confident as he looked toward the rest of his life.
“When I die, I know I am going to heaven,” Shannon said. “I’ve already spent my time in hell ... In prison I learned to take my chances. I’ll keep on taking them till the day I die.”
Ed Koch is a retired longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter and was a member of the Boxing Writers of America from 1980 to 1984.