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  • Steve Hunt

Fairytale of New York: How the dream turned into a nightmare for Tim Witherspoon

“I could have been someone,

Well so could anyone,

You took my dreams from me,

When I first found you.”

Tim Witherspoon felt terrible. It was December 1986, and he was WBA heavyweight champion of the world. He was in New York to make the second defence of his title but was discovering that ownership of a sanctioning body belt did not guarantee a fairytale ending.

Earlier in the year, Witherspoon had defended the title against Frank Bruno in the challenger’s backyard at Wembley. Witherspoon had overcome the stubborn Brit to club the challenger to defeat in eleven rounds. His joy was short lived when he discovered he would be receiving just a fraction of the money that Bruno would be taking home. How could that make sense? But now it was on to New York and topping the bill at Madison Square Garden.

“You promised me Broadway was waiting for me.”

Witherspoon was originally due to face Tony Tubbs, until Tubbs pulled out claiming a shoulder injury. Don King accused Tubbs, managed by his son Carl, of faking the injury and simply wanting more money. The promoter was furious.

“You scumbag, you maggot…”

James “Bonecrusher” Smith had been training for a fight against Mitch “Blood” Green. He was offered the chance to step in for a late notice shot at the WBA title and accepted. The chance to fight for the title came with a condition. Smith would have to sign over a portion of his management to none other than Carl King. Christmas should be all about family, after all.

Witherspoon did not want to fight Smith at short notice. He had been training for a completely different type of fight. He also heard that Smith had been offered $200,000 for the fight, a figure not far short of his purse as champion. Tim was also “managed” by Carl. Despite the fighter’s reluctance to face Smith, Carl King signed the contract for the fight, committing Witherspoon to the contest without his agreement. New York rules stated that a manager could sign a contract on behalf of a fighter, so there was no legal wrongdoing. Still, it stinks.

Was Carl acting in Tim’s best interest? Or in the best interest of his father, by keeping the WBA title fight on the bill and the HBO unification series rolling?

Don King maintained that the dispute was over money. Just another fighter trying to extort more money from him. Witherspoon was being represented by attorney Dennis Richard. Richard argued that King was misrepresenting the disagreement and offered his summation of the promoter.

“I’ve dealt with people like King before. They all share the same characteristic. They usually succeed in taking advantage of those they’re pretending to be saving.”

The night before the bout, Witherspoon confirmed he would go through with the fight, fearing he would be stripped of the title if he pulled out. Get through this fight and financial riches awaited in the shape of a Tyson fight.

“I can see a better time,

When all our dreams come true.”

At 28 years of age, Witherspoon should have been in the prime years of his fistic career, but mentally he was not in the right place.  He brought a record of 25-2 with 17 stoppage wins into the bout that was scheduled for 15 rounds. The crowd at the Garden was a disappointing 5,042; only about a quarter full.

“Bonecrusher” Smith was 18-5 with 13 knockouts. Now 33, he’d been plugging away since losing his first world title shot against Larry Holmes in November 1984. Still, as late subs go, there have been much worse. Most observers gave him at least the proverbial puncher’s chance. Boy, did he take that chance.

Smith hurt Witherspoon with the first punch of the fight and Tim never recovered. The champion was sent to the canvas three times in the opening round and Smith was declared the new champion as the fight was stopped on the three-knockdown rule.

For Witherspoon there was a sense of relief that it was over, and he could come back again with a new team around him. He was done with the Kings.

“I don’t ever want to fight under Don King. I had to fight because I was threatened to be stripped of my title, but I was never mentally in this fight. They’re clever people. Carl is supposed to be my manager. I never see him until fight night. I don’t know what happens to my money. This will be a good start in a way. I’ll find good managers who have my interests at heart.”

“Happy Christmas your arse,

I pray God it's our last.”

Witherspoon’s troubled week was not yet over. On 18 December it was reported that he had tested positive for cannabis before and after his loss to Smith. Jose Torres, head of the New York State Athletic Commission, made the announcement and declared that Witherspoon would be suspended in the state.

But two days later, Torres was forced to admit that a mistake had been made. Witherspoon’s test had been negative, and he would not face any sanction. Of course it was not Torres’ fault, even though he had rushed to make the announcement of Witherspoon’s suspension. It had just been a clerical error. A tick in the wrong box. Only in boxing.

“…still singing Galway Bay,

And the bells are ringing out,

For the WBA!”



Original lyrics courtesy of Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan.

A longer version of this story appears in my forthcoming book on the history of the heavyweight division in the 1980s. Release date yet to be confirmed.

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2 comentários

Caroline Smithers
Caroline Smithers
19 de abr.

Another great article!

20 de abr.
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