For years, heavyweight boxing's status in the US has dropped into outright obscurity. Once one of the premier athletic endeavours, its now just an occasional side show featuring muscled up European fighters of wildly varying skill levels along with the occasional completely overmatched American heavyweight. And almost never are the fights entertaining. Things weren't always this way. Even though heavyweight boxing has been described as being on a decline since the days following the Brown Bomber's retirement, its almost always provided regularly entertaining fights on American shores. Only in recent days has that fact changed.
Even in the early 1980s, during the dawn of present multi-belt era, heavyweight boxing was largely dominated by American heavyweights, and generally consisted of fights that did not suck. Larry Holmes, the top man of the era, is often criticized for being a dull champion. And yet, to watch his fights is to see a mastery of skill as well as a wealth of excitement: Fights with Norton, Shavers, and Weaver would be considered the best heavyweight fights of the present decade. Even when beating down overmatched foes like Scott LeDoux and Tex Cobb, he was scintillating. This is a far cry from the jab and grab of Wladimir Klitschko, or even the slow motion annihilation provided by his brother Vitali. Just as Holmes was so much better than his contemporaries were willing to admit, so were many of the other heavyweights of the era. Men like Tim Witherspoon, Renaldo Snipes, Trevor Berbick, and Greg Page had real skill and could really fight. Like many other athletes of the era, these men had issues such as cocaine addiction and poor management that derailed careers for years at a time.
Two of these talented men were Pinklon Thomas and James Tillis. Tillis claimed in later years to have had issues with citric acid that caused him to gas early and never achieve what his trainer (Angelo Dundee) believed he could. Pinklon Thomas' harsh background led him to heroin addiction as a 12 year old, and he'd struggle with the disease ever forward. The two men back in August of 1982 at what is presently the Renaissance Cleveland's Ballroom on an ABC televised fight made on short notice. Tillis was intending to fight fellow top contender Tim Witherspoon, only for Witherspoon to drop out on late notice due to to a claimed injury. Thomas, a tall and rangy heavyweight in some ways similar to Witherspoon, was brought in to take his place.
What took place was the kind of heavyweight fight we never see any more; two well skilled and trained men in top condition throwing educated punches, landing hard, throwing combinations, and showing real skill and athleticism. Thomas kept his left hand very low and very successfully threw a hard up jab that set up left hooks and right hands throughout the rest of the fight. Tillis stayed in the contest on heart, a decent chin (he went the distance with Iron Mike once) and landed plenty of his own overhand rights against Thomas. Heads swung around, sweat flew, and by round 6, it seemed clear what direction the fight was going. Thomas had taken over and was landing the comprehensively better, cleaner, harder shots. In round 7, Tillis was badly hurt with combination punching and was sent reeling multiple times, but he managed to hang on and even swing back. In round 8, the shots were too much for the ref to ignore, and he stepped in to save Tillis and give Pinklon Thomas the win that would propel him into heavyweight contention. He would stay generally relevant for the next 5 years, and even became a reasonably decent trial horse after that into the 1990s.
While the fight was entertaining (I'd argue better than any I've seen in the heavyweight division proper in this era....period), I'm painfully reminded of what the heavyweights once where and why I used to love watching them. In the post Ali era, we've gone on to ignore a great number of skilled, able fighters who engaged in great fights that are quickly forgotten because of what we associate their weight class with now. If only the heavyweight division were so rich with talent today that we could have the likes of a Pinklon Thomas deep in the top 10 or 15....if only.