The three calves were standing single file in the narrow chute at one end of the paddock, eyeing the cowboy who sat high astride his cutting horse, a 15-year-old sorrel gelding named Dolamite. It was late one morning last week, and the sun was lifting in a blaze over Tulsa. James (Quick) Tillis wiped the sweat from his forehead and snapped down the brim of his big straw hat.
"Turn on a dime, this horse," Tillis said. "Big little horse, that's what I like. He knows all the tricks and everything, this horse does." Tillis picked up the reins and lasso with his left hand, clamped a shorter, thinner piece of line between his teeth and twirled the noose end of the lariat with his right hand. Rancher Reuben Hura waited at the door of the chute.
"Open it, Reuben," said Tillis.
The first calf sprinted from the chute, veering left toward a wire fence. Tillis spurred the sorrel after him, twirling the lasso quickly over his head three times and letting it fly. It dropped over the calf's head, snapping the animal to a halt while Dolamite planted his back feet and skidded to a stop. Tillis leaped off his horse and raced to the calf's left side. The rope went slack. "Make the horse go back!" Hura shouted. "The rope's got to be tight before you can throw the calf down."
Tillis jerked the line, and Dolamite backed up, tightening it. The white-faced Hereford weighed about 400 pounds, at least 100 too much for competitive calf-roping, but Tillis has built himself up practicing for the rodeo on such outsized animals. He reached over the calf's back, heaved mightily three or four times and flipped the calf on its side. He snatched the tie-string from his mouth, looped the noose around the calf's right front hoof, then crossed both its hind legs over that and wrapped them all together with the string, twice quickly, tying it off with a flourishing half hitch and raising his hands triumphantly in the air.
"I'm a fightin' cowboy," Tillis says. "Something new. Fastest heavyweight in the world. I ain't no city slicker. I'm a boots-and-hats guy. A real live fightin' cowboy, a black cowboy. I'm Quick Tillis, the next heavyweight champion of the world. When I fight Mike Weaver you'll see."
At age 24, with a pro record of 20-0 and 16 knockouts, Tillis finds himself emerging from the obscurity of a career spent almost exclusively in Chicago, one of the game's ghost towns, and living a dream he has had since he was a boy of 15 growing up in Oklahoma and fighting in smokers as an amateur. On Oct. 3, in the Horizon, an arena in the village of Rosemont outside Chicago, Tillis is scheduled to meet Weaver for the WBA version of the heavyweight title, which Weaver won by knocking John Tate unconscious on March 31, 1980.
The fight is still three months away, but Tillis has already been the object of a lot of controversy and comment. Weaver had signed in April to fight No. 1 contender Gerry Cooney this fall, but the WBA quashed that bout by ruling that the third-ranked Tillis was the leading available contender on March 31, the deadline by which Weaver was supposed to sign under WBA rules for his first mandatory defense. At the time Cooney was preparing to fight Ken Norton on May 11, and Leon Spinks, ranked second, was training to fight Larry Holmes, the WBC champion, on June 12. So both were unavailable. That left the 6'2", 219-pound Tillis, largely unknown and untested, to have at Weaver for a purse of $250,000.
But money was not the object here. In fact, Tillis turned down a bigger offer to step aside and let Cooney-Weaver happen. Jim Kaulentis, the 35-year-old Chicago pork-belly trader who manages Tillis, says that Sam Glass, who has promoted a number of Cooney's fights, offered Tillis $250,000 in cash, a $150,000 purse to fight on the Cooney-Weaver undercard and a shot at the Cooney-Weaver winner, perhaps for as much as $500,000, as inducement to step aside. Kaulentis called Tillis to relay Glass' offer. "What do you want, the money or the championship belt?" Kaulentis asked.
"The belt," Tillis said.
When the press jumped on him for getting in the way of a good fight, Tillis felt the lumps and they still hurt. "Weaver, Weaver, Weaver, that's all you hear," Tillis says. "People must think that I'm a chump. I've just got to show them; I've got to. I want the championship. I turned down almost $1 million to do this. I wouldn't have done that if I didn't think I'd beat him. Money's good, but it ain't all that counts. It's a matter of self-respect, man. Nobody's going to respect you if you can be bought off. This was my dream since I started fighting. Everything will work out all right. You'll see."
Tillis is an engaging, gregarious, often amusing young man who knows where he came from and where he's going. He was born in north Tulsa, the black section of town, one of the nine children—six girls and three boys—of Rosie Tillis, whose maternal grandmother was a Cherokee Indian. The family scratched to live. "We ate government food," Tillis says. "Spam and rice, powdered eggs, powdered milk. We were on ADC. That's After Daddy Cut out."
Tillis started riding and breaking horses when he was eight, and his mother bought him his first horse, for $30, when he was 13. He called him Casper. "He always loved horses," Rosie says. One bitter winter evening, she says, she found Casper in the middle of the family room in the basement. James had led the horse in the back door. "He didn't want to be laying in the warm and Casper in the cold," she says.
Tillis' early life was horses. He used to ride the Osage Hills around Tulsa, hunting raccoons and squirrels. Tillis appeared in rodeos, too, riding small steers for fun. He learned to lasso calves and spent hours tossing ropes at wooden dummies. "It looks easy but it ain't," Tillis says. "It's like hittin' the speed bag. That looks easy, too, but it ain't. It's handling the rope and riding the horse at the same time. You got to get the feel of it. Cowboyin's a lot of fun."
Tillis played some football in junior high—he was a fullback and split end—and some first base. He discovered fighting in 1973, when he joined a local boxing team at the Chamberlain Park gym. Then fighting and riding became his only games. "I fell in love with boxing," he says. Tillis immediately showed fast hands and grace afoot. On a team that included an Al (Bubba) Thompson and Sugar Ray Johnson, all he needed was a nickname. Keith (Flash) Reed, a cousin and teammate, announced one day, "We're calling you Quick." The name stuck.
Tillis was, say those who knew him then, a hard worker, jumping rope an hour a day and training all the time. Rosie recalls her daughters' complaining that their shoes were getting mysteriously scuffed. One day she heard a popping sound from out in the yard. She found young Tillis wearing girl's shoes on his hands and punching a tree. "He'd boxed half the bark off it," she says.
"The thing I liked about him is that he liked to train," says Ed Duncan, the boxing team's trainer. "He ran an hour and 15 minutes, three days a week, in the hills. And anywhere they had some good competition, we would go."
Duncan, who sandblasted oil filters for a living, often took the youngsters on road trips in his own car. "He drove me all over the country," Tillis says. "Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas. I had a lot of fun. Muhammad Ali was my idol. I wanted to be like Ali." Tillis, meanwhile, worked at assorted jobs. He delivered mail, washed dishes, was a janitor, trained briefly to be a welder, and worked on a construction gang.
"I remember laying pipes in the hot blazing sun and watching white folks walk into restaurants talking and laughing," Tillis says. "I always wondered what they were laughing about. I was just a kid then. It was tough. But I knew one day I would have money. I had a dream one time. A man with a long white beard and long, long white hair was telling me what I was going to be. It was like we were in a cozy den underground and there was a fire in the fireplace and the fire was going and he was telling me something. I don't remember exactly what he said, but what he was sayin' was good. I look back over the years and think I've been pretty lucky."
By the time Tillis decided to turn pro, in the fall of 1978, he had a 92-8 record and had won three state Golden Gloves championships and four state AAU titles. And he had been befriended by Joseph Gibson, the white principal of McLain High School in Tulsa. Tillis called him Pops. Gibson became Tillis' confidant and counselor, a surrogate father, and even assisted him financially in the months before he turned pro. "Pops helped me when I didn't have confidence," Tillis says. "I was scared of putting out as much as I could. I don't know. I was stupid and young, young, young."
What he came to realize was that he had to leave Tulsa if he wanted to work seriously as a prizefighter. "He was discouraged," Rosie says. "He told me, 'Mom, I've got to go away and I've got to do it soon.' He wanted to be the champ and he wanted to own his own ranch."
"I had to leave Tulsa to get my show on the road," Tillis says. "Ain't no action in Tulsa." So he set out for Chicago, hoping to hook up with a former heavyweight champion, Ernie Terrell, who was promoting fights there. He came with a new manager, Robert Hudson, but Hudson soon returned to Oklahoma, and Tillis ended up alone in the city with $30 to his name. He lived in what he calls the Cockroach Hotel, later in a room at the YMCA on Chicago's South Side and then in a room across the street from the Y. Tillis says that Terrell paid his $60 rent three weeks in a row and for a while gave him $25 to $30 every other day. But he didn't room alone.
"The rats and the roaches were running into each other," he says. "You walked in the door and the roaches tipped their hats. I had to knock them off the bread in the morning." Through Gibson's wife, Margurite, who knew someone on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Tillis got a job as a runner. "A very slow runner," Tillis says. He used to dance and shadowbox across the exchange floor. "People would look at me and say, 'Look at that crazy nigger.' " But through the job he met Kaulentis. A friend of Kaulentis' told him there was a fighter on the floor who needed a sponsor and was he interested?
Kaulentis thought it might be fun to have a local club fighter to root for. When he and Tillis met, the boxer spilled out his story—about how he had come from Tulsa and about the roaches and the rats and how he needed some backing.
"Do you have any money?" Kaulentis asked.
"No," Tillis said. Kaulentis gave him $200. "I was happier than a rat in a cheese factory," Tillis says. That was Dec. 11, 1978. He had already won his first pro fight, on Nov. 18, and on Dec. 15 he won his second, knocking out Al Bell in one. By February he had worked out an arrangement with Kaulentis and five other sponsors who put up $50,000 to back him. They bought out Hudson for $5,000, and Tillis agreed to split his ring earnings with them, 50-50. He would get a $650-a-month salary, rent for a 19th-floor apartment about a quarter mile from Lake Michigan, on Chicago's North Side, a life insurance policy, travel expenses and a charge account at a restaurant called The Seminary.
The charge account became part of the deal after Kaulentis found out that Tillis was sending most of his paycheck home to his mother. "He was eating in these cheap steak houses," Kaulentis says. "We were concerned because he wasn't gaining weight." So the backers opened the charge. Tillis fought at 190 pounds in those days; against Weaver, he's expected to weigh 210.
He had much more to gain in Chicago than weight. He didn't know what it meant to slip a punch. "They don't teach that stuff in Oklahoma," he says. In pursuit of such knowledge Tillis has been through a number of trainers in the last two years. Rory O'Shea, a tough former welterweight who had recommended that Kaulentis sign Tillis, trained Tillis for a while. Lightweight Johnny Lira also had him for a couple of fights. And even the old Mongoose, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, took him on for a few months.
Says Tillis, "Archie would say, 'Tillis, what are you doin'? There are no soft jabs at all.' One day I said to him, 'Archie....' And he said, 'Don't call me Archie. Call me Instructor Moore.' He cooked for me. He once cooked some greens in 10 or 15 minutes. You're supposed to boil 'em an hour and a half. He put 'em on my plate and I thought I was chewin' rubber bands. He made some hard corn bread and when he turned his back, I threw it out the window. The birds ate it and couldn't hardly fly. Archie was rugged, let me tell you. But I respected him. I learned a lot of confidence bein' with him. Jab hard and confidence. And I learned how to pivot. Move."
Tillis has lately been under the care of Angelo Dundee, the trainer of Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Dundee knows that his fighter rose to third in the WBA rankings—he's eighth in the WBC ratings—by attrition, having beaten no one of consequence. Still, says Dundee, "The guy is real, a real diamond in the rough. A good athlete, good balance. Not the greatest whacker in the world, but a good left hand. I've been working with him. He's coming along. It could happen. He's ready. I expect him to lick Weaver, I swear to God."
Diamonds in the rough take time to polish, and whether there is time in the next three months is problematical. Tillis has never learned to pace himself—his stamina has failed him in the past—but Dundee says that he's working on that and Tillis is learning. He's also finding out about the jab—how to throw it properly and consistently. He still has a tendency. Assistant Trainer Harry Wilson says, to deliver punches with just his arms, with no body behind them.
"Once in a while turn that jab over, for power," Wilson hollers to Tillis as Tillis shadowboxes. Tillis also tends to drop his left, opening him up for an overhand right, and to keep his right too low, leaving him open for a hook. He's also inclined to dance, emulating his idol, and to throw punches while he's bouncing on his toes, powerlessly. "Some commentators claim he can't punch," Wilson says. "I'll tell you something. He can punch if he ever sits down on his punches. He gets lackadaisical. You tell him to do something, but he'll go out there and go back to that bouncing stuff."
In his last fight, against a pet rock named Roughhouse Fisher, Tillis danced around the way Ali did and got hit with some overhand rights. Dundee was in Tillis' corner for the first time, and once in between rounds Dundee could be heard saying, "Quit the bouncing! You don't have to bounce. Hit him to the body."
Whatever questions there are about his power and skills, Tillis indisputably has his chance, and he has his strategy. He calls Weaver "The Beaver," using Ali's phrase, and generally he borrows his tones, words and inflections from Ali. "Box him all night long," the fighting cowboy says. "All night long! I'll be stretchin' out, boy, I'm gonna be movin' and stickin'. I'm gonna be touchin' him all night long. I'll be pickin' and pokin', no jokin'. Let everythin' flow on out. That's what I'm gonna do to win the championship. I'm stretchin' out."
Tillis is experiencing, it appears, the merriest days of his life. A compulsive conversationalist, he talks to everyone, everywhere. To flight attendants: "You going to take a picture of me, sweetheart?" To strange women in slow elevators: "What's your name? What room are you in?" On Chicago's jammed Lake Shore Drive recently, he hollered to a passenger in another car: "Hey, brother. Ever heard of Quick Tillis?"
"Oh yeah," the man said.
"That's me. Come to the fight. Bring some buddies and bring some girls. We'll have a bad victory party."
His sense of humor is ingenuous, often accidental. After dinner in a Chicago restaurant one night last week, he said to Bob Arum, who's promoting the Weaver-Tillis fight, "I'm a religious man. Are you?"
"Yes," Arum said.
"What are you?" Tillis asked.
"I'm Jewish," Arum said.
"Oh yeah?" Tillis said earnestly. "You have a good Passover last Easter?"
For himself, Tillis had a very good Easter this last Passover, on his way to signing for the Weaver fight. Aside from the heavyweight championship of the world, Tillis' wants are modest. He plans to bank his purse, after paying off the $11,000 mortgage on his mother's house. "There's nothing I want now," he says. His lawyer, Jeffrey Jacobs, will one day be looking for what Tillis really wants, a piece of real estate in Oklahoma where he can have a ranch and horses and calves to rope and tie. "Fightin' is my profession now," Tillis says. "Rodeoin' is an aside. Eventually I'm going to be rodeoin' professionally. Calf-ropin' and bulldog-gin'. Right now all that counts is what's in the ring. It'll be just me and Weaver. You'll see."
According to the undefeated Tillis, hitting the speed bag, like calf-roping, "looks easy, but it ain't."
Rosie Tillis once found a horse in her basement.