Boxing historian Jimmy Jacobs just couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the heavyweight division had fallen to the pathetic state manifest last September in Las Vegas, where Larry Holmes was defending his WBC championship against the ultimate mega-banger and lump merchant, Earnie Shavers.
The quality of heavyweight fighters, like the length of skirts and the price of cabbage, is given to periodic fluctuations, but this was something else. Jacobs owns the U.S.'s most extensive collection of fight films, a library whose contents he studies regularly, but of all the heavyweight championship fights he'd ever seen, from the early part of the century to the present, he'd never witnessed a performance to compare with this—never watched a heavyweight championship bout so laughably inept and amateurish. Jacobs has to go back almost 50 years to find anything remotely like the state the division is in today.
In the doldrums of the early 1930s, before Joe Louis won the title, there were five champions in five years—Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Camera, Max Baer and James J. Braddock. "But this is worse," Jacobs says. "By far. It is only temporary. But right now it is dreadful." And most dreadful of all was that fight last fall that underscored in Jacobs' mind the extent to which the heavyweight division—normally the most exciting in boxing—had sunk since Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali suddenly grew old together in Manila and Jimmy Young gave religion to George Foreman in San Juan and then slipped away himself into the twilight.
Here's how it went in Vegas: Shavers' thunderous right hand decks the champ in the seventh round. Holmes is out. But wait! Holmes staggers to his feet and, swinging into an old survival tactic, begins dancing in place and shaking his head to clear the fog away. And here comes Shavers again. He swings, a roundhouse right, but misses, and nearly catapults himself into the seats. Thus Holmes gets away. And the remainder of the fight is reduced to slapstick—Shavers too limp to defend himself, Holmes too spent to drop him. "I'd never seen a heavyweight championship fight in which, after it was half over, neither man could throw an effective punch," Jacobs says. "By round eight, if someone didn't know it was for the championship of the world, if he'd just tuned in, he'd have thought it was a comedy. Holmes and Shavers could barely lift their arms. They were throwing punches at phantom heads. Here were two men fighting for a cherished title. It was inept. That is a perfect illustration of the plight of the heavyweight division today."
Much like that of Rome, the fall of the division was long antedated by a gradual decline, which became startlingly visible in February 1978 when Leon Spinks, virtually an amateur, easily outpointed an undertrained and overconfident Ali to win the title. In short order, Ali won the championship back and then retired; South Africa's Gerrie Coetzee knocked out Spinks; John Tate beat Coetzee handily to win the WBA title vacated by Ali; Holmes, who had become WBC champ in 1978 after winning a very close decision over Ken Norton, barely survived Mike Weaver, a complete unknown; Shavers knocked out Kenny Norton; Holmes barely outlasted Shavers; Alfredo Evangelista almost knocked out Spinks; Holmes defeated a feeble Lorenzo Zanon; Ali revealed—astonishingly—that if the money is right, he'll come back.
With Holmes giving off signals that he is spent and with no one knowing whether Tate is of true championship caliber, with the division no longer consolidated around the dominating presence of one man, the heavyweight class is boxing's most spacious neutral corner. Fighters are standing by waiting to be waved in. There's plenty of room. The established boxers, from Tate to Weaver, are being joined in the battle to become the next undisputed champ by a bunch of prospects. Most of the good ones are a year or so from a title shot. Most are in their early 20s, all are largely unchallenged and relatively unknown. There are more hooks and jabs than right hands here, more boxers than bangers. There is among them a dancer out of Ali's hometown, Louisville; like the young Cassius Clay, he's sure there is no heavyweight who can beat him. One prospect used to make his own clothes, and today he throws roses to his mother at ringside. There is a former heroin addict who says he kicked the habit with a New Year's resolution, and, of course, there's a former convict who fought his way out of prison. There is a Great White Hope with a chilling left hook, a real Crunchola bar, and there is an orthopedic technician from a Baltimore hospital who wants to be known as "the master boxer" of all time more than he wants to be champion of the world. With Ali and Frazier gone, the stream is filling up with trout, but can any of them swim?
In the order of prowess and promise, here is the 1980 unofficial SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ranking of promising young heavyweights. The assessments are based upon interviews with trainers, managers and fighters, upon ringside observations in gyms and arenas and the reading of palms and tea leaves.
1) Greg Page, 21, of Louisville. Weight: 225 to 242 pounds. Height: 6'2". Pro record: 8-0. None of the young heavies is as skilled and naturally gifted as Page. In fact, there is probably no heavyweight anywhere, young or old, who has so many tools. Nonetheless there are serious questions about him—about the way he has been nursed along on tomato cans since he turned pro in February of 1979, about his tendency to gain weight, about his penchant for showboating in the ring, à la Ali, and about the depth of his desire, the strength of his self-discipline. Page was an excellent amateur, a national heavyweight champion in both the AAUs and Golden Gloves, but he lost to Tate twice in the amateurs and once to another prospect, Michael Dokes. Page was an accomplished high school basketball player who has said he would rather play ball than be a boxer. He is marvelously agile, lithe and fluid, and in and out of the ring he moves with the quick rhythms of a basketball player, as if forever looking for a board to crash. He hits hard with both hands, throwing effective hooks and jabs. "A monster with tremendous skills," says Angelo Dundee, Ali's former trainer. Longtime New York Manager Al Braverman goes even further. "He has more ability than everybody put together," he says. "Best-looking fighter in the whole group of prospects. But a bad image as far as picking opponents. He looks for guys from Woodlawn Cemetery."
That is a standard knock against many young fighters and their handlers, but with Page it seems especially relevant. Since becoming a professional following his distinguished amateur career—he was 90-11 with 55 KOs—not one of the eight men he has fought has come even remotely close to testing him. He knocked out all eight before the end of the fourth round, and six of them didn't make it through the second.
And then there's the matter of weight. As a pro Page has fought at as much as 242 pounds. At one point he shot up to 250 between bouts. "Pizza, potato chips, candy bars, popsicles, hamburgers, peanuts," Page says. That's a list that leaves the experts shaking their heads; if Page hasn't the will to lay off the junk food, can he possibly have the determination to become a heavyweight champ? Page's father, Albert, a bus driver and one of his son's handlers, figures that Greg should fight at between 220 and 225. If he's already having trouble making that weight as a 21-year-old, how much is he likely to weigh at 25?
2) Gerry Cooney, 23, of Northport, N.Y. Weight: 222 pounds. Height: 6'5". Pro record: 22-0. If Page has it over the other prospects in talent, Cooney stands above his peers, including Page, as a one-punch banger in the tradition of Sonny Liston and Shavers. In fact, aside from Shavers, who is nearing retirement, probably no active heavyweight throws a more devastating punch than Cooney. Cooney is a converted southpaw, and his left hook, equally punishing to the body and to the head, has done most of the damage to the 19 opponents he has laid out since he left the amateur ranks in early 1977.
Unlike Page, Cooney has no weight problem and the intensity of his desire is unquestioned, but there are other matters that raise doubts as to exactly how far he can go. His color has unavoidably given rise to the suspicion that he will turn out to be just another White Hope who'll get his soon enough, just wait and see, in the way of the Quarrys and Bobicks. And there are boxers, Page among them, who scoff at Cooney, calling him a one-punch fighter who lacks the diversity to beat them. "If you kill his left hook he's dead," Page says. "It's like killing the battery of a car. All you have to do is go back to the fundamentals to beat him." Some experts think Cooney is too tall and too awkward to be taken seriously. But Dundee likes the clumsiness and says that Cooney handles his height well. "Ali had a little bit of awkwardness about him and I left it alone," Dundee says. "Victor Valle, Cooney's trainer, is leaving it alone, too. His height is a big asset. You have to reach for him. That's why he's developed a left upper-cut. If you make a mistake he'll hit you on the chin with that uppercut, and that's the best punch in the book."
Cooney grew up on Long Island, the son of construction worker Tony Cooney, who pushed Gerry into boxing in his teens, forcing him to do roadwork, exhorting him to train. He taught his son discipline. "I had to be in bed early, up early, and run, run, run," Cooney says. "After school I'd have to catch the train for a gym in Queens. I'd get home at 9:30. Even on Sunday I'd go to the gym. I couldn't even think about not showing up." Though Cooney bridled at the discipline, he went along. Tony died four years ago of lung cancer, at age 55, and today Gerry sees his drive toward the heavyweight title as a kind of imperative; he must do it to fulfill the promise his dad had seen in him.
Cooney's managers, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport, have come under attack for the way they have handled him, just as they've drawn fire for picking spots for the other star of their stable, Lightweight Howard Davis. "I hope Cooney doesn't have his managers' guts," Braverman says. "They're always treading on camphor balls. If they're that careful they must be scared of something we don't know about. Perhaps he's got a potato for a chin."
Jones bristles at that. "When we signed Gerry he was 19," he says. "It takes time for a heavyweight to develop his confidence and skills. It would have been a terrible mistake to succumb to the constant pressure to rush Gerry into fights we didn't feel he was ready for." For the most part, Cooney's record is a roll call of sausages, but some of the victims could fight a little, notably Dino Dennis, who had a 38-2 record and an iron chin. Dennis was coming off a long lay-off, and there is doubt whether he was anywhere near ready. "Dennis trained with me five weeks for that fight, and he had no excuses," says Braverman. None other than George Foreman had once pounded Dennis mercilessly, but he didn't drop him. Cooney, who cut up Dino in the second round, knocked him down with a left hook in the third to finish it. "I'm not on his bandwagon, but I've got to admit that Cooney is one of the most devastating left-hookers since Joe Louis," Braverman says. "This guy can rip with a hook, under and over. Dennis always took a great punch. He took murderous punches from Foreman. Nobody, but nobody, put down Dennis—except Cooney."
3) Michael Dokes, 21, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Weight: 217. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 17-0. He's called Dynamite Dokes by publicists, but don't be misled by the appellation. Before his last fight, a February victory over French heavyweight champion Lucien Rodriguez, Dokes' followers and promoters made much of the nickname, suggesting that he was one of the biggest bangers in the division. Even Dokes extolled his own prowess, but less biased observers were not so sure. And the Rodriguez fight did nothing to dispel the doubts. In fact it reinforced them. Dokes throws a punch that keeps your attention, but he couldn't take out Rodriguez, though he hit him with triplicate lefts and rights.
Ray Arcel, the venerable trainer of Roberto Duran, sees in Dokes a heavyweight of considerable promise who, like Cooney and Page, continues to learn from fight to fight. "That fight against Rodriguez did Dokes more good than any other fight he could have had," Arcel says. "You don't knock a guy out hitting him with a right hand; you knock him out by setting him up with the left hand. Dokes has one thought-bang-bang-bang. He gets ahead of himself. He loses direction. You have to know how and where to hit a guy, how to set a man up. Deep down he had to learn something from that fight."
Dokes has the gifts. While he isn't the puncher he thinks he is, he has exceptional hand speed and reflexes and is among the better natural athletes in the division. He's a clever boxer who works hard at his job. He tended toward flamboyance in his early days as a pro, but that's no longer part of his style.
The turning point for Dokes came last year when he decisioned contender Jimmy Young in Las Vegas. "I had to show everybody I could fight," Dokes says.
If he stays on schedule, Dokes should be making a run at the title by the end of the year. He has some flair. He throws roses before every fight, a tribute to his mother, Sopora, and dresses immaculately. He is even able to make his own clothes. "I learned how to do it in school," he says. "Instead of taking auto mechanics, I took home economics. But I haven't had the opportunity to sew in some time."
4) Pinklon Thomas, 22, of Pontiac, Mich. Weight: 210. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 12-0. Last Dec. 14 at 4:30 a.m., Thomas was leaving an Atlantic City casino with $300 he had won at the roulette table when someone stopped and asked him if he wanted to fight that night. Thomas, who trains in Philadelphia, had come to Atlantic City to watch the fights, not participate in them. One of the heavyweights on the card pulled out, and the promoters needed a man to fill the card. Thomas accepted, and at 5 a.m. he slipped off to bed. Cooney and Page also fought on that card, but Pinklon (Think Pink) Thomas stole the show. He dispatched Bobby Jordan in five behind a popping sweet jab.
Thomas is the question mark among the heavyweight prospects, but he has won against long odds before. At age 11, running with an older crowd in Pontiac, Thomas started doing drugs. "I began snorting dope and never thought I'd catch a habit, you know?" he says. "A year and a half later I found myself sticking myself with that spike. I was a dope fiend. I started doing crazy things to support it."
Thomas was on drugs, except for brief periods of rehabilitation, until New Year's Eve of 1977, when he made a resolution to get off them for good. He had always been an excellent athlete. In the seventh grade he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9, according to a former junior high school coach, Bob Kaiser, and he was an ambidextrous pitcher in baseball. Once, in grade school, he won both ends of a doubleheader—the first throwing lefthanded, the second throwing right. By the time he was 19, he was concentrating on boxing.
Thomas turned pro in August 1978 after winning two of three amateur bouts and has since knocked out Leroy Caldwell, a journeyman, and stopped Jerry Williams, the former all-Army champ who just turned pro. Green as a roulette table, he has a bunch to learn. His jab goes bang, but he hardly uses his right, and when he does, it's as a righthand lead, not off the jab. He jumps around too much in the ring. Still, he's fast, strong and talented and can only get better.
5) Willie (the Cannon) Shannon, 27, of Portland, Ore. Weight: 190. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 15-0. Shannon served nine years for robbery in a Florida penitentiary before settling in Portland to fight for Mike (Motor-Mouth) Morton, a builder and fight manager there. He is light for the division nowadays, but experts rave about his grit and boxing skills. He beat Caldwell in Las Vegas last October even though he broke his right hand early in the fight and had to get off the deck in the eighth. When the fight was over, Sylvester Stallone, who happened to be in the crowd, climbed into the ring, embraced Shannon and said, "You're the real Rocky." Shannon is a combination puncher-boxer. The only knock against him is the apparent brittleness of his right hand. He has now broken it in two fights.
6) George Chaplin, 29, of Baltimore. Weight: 212. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 17-1-1. Chaplin wants more than anything to be known as the best boxer among the heavyweights. To that end he works diligently in Mack Lewis' gym on Eager Street in Baltimore. He came to boxing late, following a four-year tour in the Air Force and college at Morgan State, where he earned a physical education degree. He describes himself as a boxer who moonlights as an orthopedic technician at Lutheran Hospital in Baltimore. He has stopped Duane Bobick and is beginning to look higher.
7) Marty Monroe, 26, of Los Angeles. Weight: 218. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 20-0-1. Monroe is a fine boxer with an excellent jab, crisp and accurate, and a fair right hand. The rap against him is his tendency to train at half speed.
8) Perscell (Magic) Davis, 21, of Los Angeles. Weight: 220. Height: 6'3". Pro record: 10-0. Davis will be the first fighter to be managed by Ali; in fact, Ali gave Davis his nickname. Drew (Bundini) Brown, Ali's witch doctor of many years, is handling Davis. Magic still has a long way to go, but he's coming. "Another young fighter with a lot of confidence," says Ken Norton, Ali's old rival. "He has a lot of speed, a lot of agility, and he's a fairly good puncher. He's still maturing and very hungry."
9) James (Quick) Tillis, 22, of Chicago. Weight: 195. Height: 6'2½". Pro record: 13-0. Tillis grew up in Tulsa, but last year he struck out for Chicago to put his future in the hands of Ernie Terrell, the former WBA heavyweight champ. "He read about my promoting in a magazine," Terrell says. "He arrived with $30 in his pocket, so I put him up at a YMCA." Tillis has since been learning his trade and improving. He is neither big nor a big puncher, but he's as fast as a dart and throws his punches unerringly.
10) Jeff Podgurski, 25, of Las Vegas. Weight: 200. Height: 6'2". Pro record: 7-0-1. A long-shot special, Podgurski is a former kick-boxer who holds a black belt in karate and is a student of ballet. That unlikely background perhaps explains why he's extraordinarily mobile.
And then there are these others in their fashion: Lee Canalito, 25, is 8-0 fighting out of Houston for Dundee. He played in the movie Paradise Alley with Stallone. There is 27-year-old Lynn Ball, who just beat Ron Lyle, and Terrell says he has another fighter, a 29-year-old former convict named Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, who's 7-0 in the pros. Philly's Marvin Stinson and Randy Mack and Mircea Simon of Torrance, Calif. also deserve a close look.
Then there is 28-year-old Mike Koranicki of Youngstown, Ohio, who recently knocked out Kallie Knoetze. And that's not all. This year three talented amateurs who have been pointing for the Olympics are expected to turn pro. Marvis Frazier, son of Joe, looks as good as any prospect to emerge in years. There is Tony Tubbs, who recently beat Marvis. And there is Jimmy Clark, who last month lost a questionable decision to Cuba's Teofilo Stevenson, twice an Olympic gold medalist. With the state the division is in, there's plenty of room at the top, to say nothing of the middle and bottom.
Page, like Ali, is from Louisville, and he's so good that his major foe may be his appetite.
Dokes (above) is no ordinary Joe. He's unbeaten, and so is Cooney (below), a slugger who could soon become the division's real power.