Photography by David Nevala
As Hinds sees it, that just means the fitness industry has finally figured out what he’s known for decades. “People would much rather sell you a $2,000 elliptical machine or a $20,000 weight machine or some $200 product they advertise with an infomercial than sell you a resistance cable that costs $7 or an entire portable gym that costs $49.95,” he says. “But the cheaper stuff, the stuff we sell, works so much better.”

Of this, 81-year-old Bobby Hinds believes, he is literally the living proof.

On the side of his tiny Smart car, Hinds has a decal of an old newspaper clipping. It reads, “Hinds Scores First Round KO.” The story is from his college days, when Hinds went 28-2 boxing for the University of Wisconsin.

Boxing techniques, crudely applied, had kept Hinds from being beaten up routinely in reform school. After he got out of the ­Wisconsin Industrial School for Boys, boxing, with more formal training, became his path to a new life. That training came from his part-time foster parent, a newspaper photographer and amateur boxer named Marshall Simonsen. “What Marshall did was exploit what I knew in a socially acceptable way,” Hinds recalls. “He’d tell me, ‘Would you rather win a fight in the back alley or win the Golden Gloves? Because if you want to win the Golden Gloves and get your name in the paper, you can’t drink or smoke or steal. You have to be focused and in top condition.’ So that’s what I did.”

Hinds, whose career has spanned decades and dozens of people, seen here with Oscar-nominated actress Lily Tomlin
Courtesy Bobby Hinds
By age 13, Hinds’ name was in papers across the country as the youngest boy to that point to win a Golden Gloves championship — one of amateur boxing’s highest achievements. The success carried over to college, where Hinds was Wisconsin’s top heavyweight. Doug Moe, a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal who wrote a book called Lords of the Ring, about Hinds’ college boxing team, says that even in his college days, Hinds was “a hustler and self-promoter who was at the same time charming and without guile.”

In college, the other boxers called Hinds “Gabby” because he rarely shut up. But Hinds preferred the nickname “Sugar” because of the association with Sugar Ray Robinson, who is considered one of boxing’s all-time greats.

The “Sugars,” just 10 years apart, once fought on the same card when Hinds was just a year out of college. He was teaching art classes full time at a Madison high school but still training as a boxer, and he was offered $1,500 to fight on the undercard of a Sugar Ray Robinson bout in Milwaukee. “That doesn’t sound like a lot of money now,” Hinds says. “But it was probably six months’ pay for me at the time. So I took it and I called in sick the day of the fight.”

Trouble was, Hinds was actually slotted to fight after Robinson, not before. So when Robinson scored a third-round knockout, the Wisconsin kid went into the ring — and on live TV, as it turned out. “Everyone was watching, including the high-school principal,” Hinds says. “He fired me the next day.”

Hinds turned back to boxing, hoping to make it into a career, but a broken wrist ended his run with an 8-0 record. So the champion boxer — who had a degree in art and a teaching background — did the least-logical next thing: selling insurance.

“To be honest,” Hinds says, chuckling, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in ­insurance. In most of the things I’ve started, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But I was led by a passion, and I’ve succeeded in spite of the things I didn’t know.”

He certainly succeeded in insurance. Six months into his first job, he’d sold $1 million worth of policies. Three years later, Hinds’ rags-to-riches story came to the attention of U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, the Wisconsin Democrat who succeeded Sen. Joseph ­McCarthy. Proxmire entered a proclamation into the U.S. Congressional Record recognizing Hinds for his “inspiring personal success.”

Hinds keeps a copy of this proclamation in one of the many drawers in his office that hold the countless things that have been written about him over the years. It’s also framed in a hallway of the large Madison warehouse that serves as LifelineUSA’s headquarters and distribution center, along with pictures and autographs of the rich and famous — mostly those who were rich and famous when Bobby Hinds was jumping rope on The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show and To Tell the Truth and any other show that a host with wide lapels and flared pants would have him on.