All last week in broiling Las Vegas, Pinklon Thomas, the World Boxing Council's heavyweight champion, was saying that he was the one and only heavyweight champ. "Larry Holmes [IBF] and Tony Tubbs [WBA] are just contenders like all the rest," he kept repeating. And everybody else was saying that Thomas, a natural southpaw turned around, had a great left jab, perhaps the most powerful since Sonny Liston's, and that he brought his right fist into the ring only for balance.
It was Thomas's jab that won the day as he took the title from Tim Witherspoon, and it was the jab that installed the 27-year-old reformed heroin addict as an 8-5 favorite over Mike Weaver last Saturday night at the Riviera Hotel. Nobody, not even Weaver, mentioned the right hand.
Angelo Dundee, Thomas's trainer, liked it that way. "I hope everybody thinks he's gonna come in the ring wearing just one glove," Dundee said. "I hope Weaver forgets that Pink even has a right hand. Because when Weaver gets banged with that hand, he's gonna forget how to stand up."
Just a little over two minutes into the first round, Dundee's prophecy and Thomas's right hand intersected at the head of Weaver, the shy, muscular, 33-year-old who, from March 1980 until December 1982, was the WBA heavyweight champion. It wasn't even a clean shot, but Weaver was stunned. Forgetting his ring discipline, Thomas, whose 26-fight pro record included 20 KOs, unleashed a flurry of 11 arm punches, the last of which, a chopping right to the top of the head, dropped Weaver. Rising quickly, the WBA's No. 1-ranked contender took a mandatory eight count from referee Carlos Padilla and was able to stay out of trouble for the final 30 seconds of the round.
As Weaver sat in his corner, Dr. Kip Homansky of the Nevada State Athletic Commission leaned in between the ropes. "You O.K.?" he asked.
"Yeah," said Weaver. Disgust carved lines in his face.
Across the way, Dundee struck a cautionary note. "Keep doing what you are doing," Thomas was instructed. "Pick it up a little. But don't look for one big shot. Set it up. Make him worry about the jab."
The champion had danced for most of the first round. Now he came out flat-footed. The jab, fired from down around the waist, hammered Weaver's disgusted expression into one of confusion. Midway through the round, the challenger yelled over to Padilla and covered his left eye with a glove. When the glove came away, Weaver's eye was blinking and tearing. At the end of the round, Padilla came to Thomas's corner and said to Dundee, "Your guy is thumbing."
"Bull——," Dundee bellowed. "It's the jab. He can't thumb him; look at his gloves." Dundee grabbed Thomas's arm and held up the glove, a 10-ounce Tuf-Wear with the thumb stitched to the main part of the glove. The semithumbless glove had been agreed upon by both camps. "He's got no thumbs," Dundee protested.
Padilla withdrew the charge.
Weaver won the third round with superior infighting and took the next three with an attack that was more methodical than menacing.
By the end of the sixth round Dundee was furious with his fighter, the 10th champion he has trained. "You're fighting his fight," Dundee yelled at Thomas. "You can't do that. You're slowing down. Pick up the pace. Take it to him. Let's go."
Thomas was playing a waiting game. He sensed that Weaver was tiring. In the seventh, staying mostly with the hard jab, he landed 35 of the 55 punches he threw. Flagging badly, Weaver connected with only 17 of 44. At the end of the round, two of the judges, Dick Cole and Herb Santos, had the fight even, while the champion led by a point in the eyes of Dave Moretti. That was an excellent example of how a fight should be scored.
Although he had but three fights as an amateur and was 25-0-1 overall as a pro, Thomas was quick to notice that Weaver had begun to drop his left hand after a jab. "This is the round," Thomas thought as he came out for the eighth. He caught Weaver's attention with hard jabs, then deliberately backed off. Weaver stepped into the trap and fired a double jab. His left hand came back low.
Thomas threw a short jab low to divert Weaver—"I'd seen him looking at the jab," Thomas said later—and while the left was still moving forward, the champion's right followed with savage leverage. The fist arced high and down and crashed against Weaver's left temple. The challenger slammed to the canvas. "I was watching the jab; I never saw the right coming," Weaver admitted.
Weaver landed on his back, arms outstretched. He looked as though he would lie there forever. Slowly he managed to roll over and then started to pull himself up, only to topple again. Padilla immediately signaled the fight was over, at 1:42 of the round.
It was the seventh time Weaver had been stopped early in 39 fights. But it was the first time he had ever been knocked out by a single punch. For Thomas it was knockout No. 21, and it established him as the next legitimate opponent for Larry Holmes. But this is boxing, and Holmes, who is chasing Rocky Marciano's record of 49 successful title defenses, has said he wants no part of Thomas. That was before the Weaver fight.
With or without Holmes, life for Thomas is definitely on the upswing. A street junkie at the age of 12, he beat both the drugs and the streets. Recently his hometown of Pontiac, Mich. changed the name of the street he grew up on to Pink-Ion Thomas Drive.
Thomas has even turned ring adversity into a plus. He has broken his left hand three times and his right once; after breaking both hands in winning a 10-round decision against Jerry Williams on Aug. 28, 1980, he was introduced to Jeong Lee, a karate master from Kent, Wash. Lee showed Thomas how to use karate techniques to get more power into his right, and, not incidentally, to minimize damage to his hands. "But more important," says Lee, who now is Thomas's conditioner, "I taught him the importance of discipline in life. Now he uses that discipline in the ring."
Then last year, shortly after Thomas won the title and things seemed to be falling into place for him, he suffered a serious injury to his right eye in training. It was similar to the retinal damage Sugar Ray Leonard suffered in 1984. Thomas underwent surgery in October of last year. The doctors have pronounced the eye healed and fully functional.
"I don't want to talk about it," Thomas said of the eye. He refused even to confirm that it was his right eye that was injured. "It's history," he said. "So many bad things have happened to me, this is just a minor thing. Now my life is positive, and I only want to think about positive things. Like being the only heavyweight champion of the world."
The challenger was so wary of Thomas's left that he never even saw the big right.
Weaver survived one knockdown, but this time it was down and out.
When Padilla cautioned Thomas to watch his thumbs, Dundee gave the referee the thumb.