For years, little Buddy McGirt sat in a tailor's shop in New Jersey and studied at the feet of boxing's greats. Last Friday night McGirt stood up in a ring in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas and joined their ranks. Then, after a nearly flawless 12-round performance in which he wrested the WBC welterweight championship from a badly dehydrated Simon Brown, McGirt returned to his room at the Mirage and celebrated by taking a hot bath.
There was no music, no tinkle of ice against glass, only the soft voice of Gina Mendez, McGirt's girlfriend and the mother of his youngest daughter. "The days of victory parties are behind me," said the 27-year-old McGirt through the steam rising from the tub. "Now I'm just a little tired. I put my whole life on the line tonight. All the hard work, all the pain and frustrations, they were all there, and I made Brown pay for them. I loved it."
How Brown paid. Employing an ever-changing swirl of baffling head and body feints, McGirt dazzled Brown early, sliced open his right eyelid in the fourth round and dropped him with a classic straight right-left hook combination in the 10th. "I didn't even know I had been hit until I found myself on the floor," Brown told his trainer, Emile Griffith, at the end of the round. "What did he hit me with?"
"Everything," said Griffith.
For the 5'7" McGirt, the key tactic was constant movement, to make Brown reach with his vicious punches. But there was a psychological key too. "I've got to command his respect," said McGirt the night before the bout.
McGirt knew he had done that after the first six minutes of fighting. When the two men answered the opening bell, Brown refused to touch gloves with McGirt. However, when Brown came out for the third round, he extended his right hand. Ignoring the proffered glove, McGirt laughed and said, "Later, Bub."
"I knew I had his respect then," said McGirt afterward. He had gotten it by setting an exhausting pace, first moving in tight circles and then ducking in behind his leading left shoulder to get close, where he fired two- and three-punch combinations before spinning out of danger. "When I got inside, I just watched his arms," said McGirt. By doing that, he knew when Brown was going to unload a right uppercut or a hook.
Once inside, McGirt could push his supposedly stronger opponent just hard enough to keep him back on his heels. Willie Pep stuff. Only once, in the ninth round, did Brown catch McGirt with a hook before McGirt could get away. When the punch crashed against McGirt's head, the 5'9" champion paused, looking for his smaller rival to fall. The punch only made McGirt grimace in anger at himself for having made a mistake. Brown's look of anticipation switched to one of surprise.
McGirt's only other moment of apparent danger came in Round 8, when, with a minute to go, he spit out his mouthpiece. Exhausted fighters do that, hoping that without a mouthpiece they will be able to suck in more air. McGirt wasn't tired; rather, he had neglected to sip water during the rest period, and his mouth was cotton dry. With no mouthpiece, he was able to produce saliva.
Just before the bell ending the round, referee Mills Lane, acting in accordance with WBC rules, stopped the bout long enough to have McGirt replace the mouthpiece. "I don't believe this——," said promoter Don King, who had paid McGirt $700,000 to fight Brown. McGirt's take was that large because King also obtained options on McGirt's next four bouts. He will copromote them with Madison Square Garden, McGirt's promoter. Brown, who already had promotional ties with King, made $500,000.
After 11 rounds, McGirt appeared to be on the verge of a stunning shutout, although, as it turned out, all three judges had given Brown at least one round. "Don't do anything silly," McGirt's trainer and manager, Al Certo, warned him. "Just go out there and box, and don't get caught with anything. Use the jab. Move."
McGirt laughed and said, "Don't worry about it. All I'm going to do is run. If the ropes don't hold me, I may run right out of the ring."
Like Mike Tyson, who was at ringside doing color commentary for Showtime, McGirt, now 56-2-1, is a student of boxing history. There would be no repeat of Billy Conn's fatal mistake in his first fight against Joe Louis. "I was just looking to stay out of trouble," said McGirt from his bathtub later, "but I was worried about the scoring. Anything can happen when the fight goes to the judges."
Although the scoring reflected some sympathy for the fallen champion, none of the ballots were close. Luther Mack, chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, even had the WBC belt wrapped around McGirt's 28-inch waist before the judges' scores were announced. Mack is new to the post.
The fight was supposed to be a classic match of McGirt's speed and finesse against Brown's strength and firepower, the artist against the assassin. Only no one suspected that the assassin had had trouble making the 147-pound weight limit. He had been as heavy as 175 pounds as recently as late September. During his final two weeks of training, Brown ordered that the heat pumps be cranked up to full bore. Brown said he went without food and drank only sparingly for four days before the fight.
Last Thursday, when he should have been resting, Brown lost more weight by training long and laboriously in a rubber suit. And for an hour before the Friday morning weigh-in, he shed the last stubborn ounces in a steam room. The cost to him in strength and endurance was high.
"I tried to get him to pull out of the fight," said James Cooks, Brown's adviser, "but he said he needed the money. I blame myself; it's my fault that I didn't throw a temper tantrum." Brown's impressive credentials—26 knockouts while winning 34 of 35 bouts—were no more than seductive clothing draped on a mannequin. Without his marvelous strength and stamina, Brown was just an ordinary fighter.
Still, McGirt gave a brilliant performance—two parts Pep, one part Jersey Joe Walcott, with occasional flashes of Muhammad Ali, Jake LaMotta and Joey Giardello. "He studied under them all," says Certo, who owns that tailor shop in Secaucus, N.J. "I made suits for Pep, Walcott, Giardello, LaMotta, Dempsey, Ali. A hundred fighters. They'd come by and tell stories, and Buddy soaked up every word. Pep showed him a couple of moves. All of them showed him something."
On Friday night, Brown was taken to Valley Hospital where, after his eyelid was repaired with 15 stitches, he spent the remainder of the weekend. "Total dehydration and exhaustion," said Flip Homansky, the Nevada commission's top physician. "He needed to lose a great deal of weight just prior to the fight, and it messed up his electrolytes. It's pretty frustrating. His people are supposed to look out for him. Things like this just aren't supposed to happen."
McGirt (right) stayed in close only long enough to sting Brown before slipping out of danger.
Because McGirt was always moving, Brown's lunging punches rarely found their mark.