By Steve Bunce
NOT all boxing stories are told under lights and with cameras rolling.
Tim Witherspoon once told me a story I knew but he added a beautiful twist or two. We were sitting on the BoxNation sofa at some point in the middle of the night, watching a prelim from a faraway fight in Las Vegas. It was probably at some point in 2013. The fight is not the story.
I think it was the night he had to bring his little girl. There was a babysitting problem, and Tim arrived with the child at about one in the morning. She was only about two and we did our best to make her happy; she was actually sleeping on one end of the sofa during most of the broadcast. You could see her tiny feet as we talked about Danny Garcia or Keith Thurman. We pushed several boundaries during the BoxNation years.
“When I beat (Frank) Bruno we drove around all night,” Witherspoon told me. “We bought newspapers and I read about the fight. I read what I was meant to be making and ignored that. We took turns to read out loud. That was some night.”
Just a few hours earlier, Bruno had been rescued from Witherspoon’s fists in round 11 of their heavyweight title fight at Wembley; it was heartache for Big Frank. I knew the story of the victory drive, but it is often reassuring when a big story is told again. That journey is epic, the images of Tim and his people buying first editions of the Sunday papers and reading out loud. That is nice.
It was close to dawn when Tim arrived back at his hotel in Park Lane. In the lobby stood Muhammad Ali, on his own and seemingly waiting for Tim to get back. The old friends and sparring partners embraced. Ali stood in that lobby like a vision – it took a moment for the people from the drive to realise it was him.
Witherspoon had spent a lot of time with Ali at Deer Lake. He had been hired and paid for about two years of sparring at the end of Ali’s career and had gained an education that is not available any longer. “That time made me the fighter I became,” Witherspoon always said. He loved Ali, worshipped him.
“Then Ali pulled me in a bit closer and moved his lips closer to my ear,” remembered Witherspoon. “I know you’re not gonna get all your money.” To be honest, so did Witherspoon. Nobody else heard the truth from Ali’s lips.
The rest of the story is known: A few weeks later, Witherspoon was paid 90,000 dollars by Don King, the promoter. He had been expecting 500,000 dollars; he had read in some of the papers, on the drive after the fight, that he was getting a million dollars. A million dollars still sounded magical in 1986. It was certainly magical to Witherspoon and he went on a long, long mission to reclaim what he believed he was owed. He took King on and he won.
“That night was a dream and a nightmare all rolled together,” Witherspoon told me. “I was reading I was a millionaire and then I got paid.” Ali was right, he knew.
The life and times of Tim Witherspoon contain a lot of tales like that; there are promises and memories in equal measure. He was in a lot of big fights, but that dramatic night at Wembley against Bruno was special. That fight was front and back page news. Witherspoon was considered the weakest link, the man our Frank could knock out. The defeat and the beating he took, made Bruno a national hero for life and barely changed Witherspoon’s life. The cruel image of Bruno, his face busted, going down in broken instalments remains disturbing. He was in a wasteland; amazingly he would go on and make millions and win his own world title nine years later in 1995.
When he sat on my sofa that night at BoxNation, Witherspoon was still trying to make money from fighting in exhibitions, signings and picking up a bit of media work. Tim was all over the place, being pulled several ways at the same time. His boxing days were over and he was left with a lot of regret. There were still serious offers coming in.
“There were a lot of big fights that nearly happened,” added Witherspoon. “That is just the way it works.” He has been saying this for 30 years.
He talked about the fights he did have and the years when he was one of the best heavyweights on the planet: “That was a bad time for me, a real low point. There was no motivation.” That was a curse of the day, the problem for all of the men Witherspoon called the ‘lost generation.’
He met big names in fight after fight; Larry Holmes, Renaldo Snipes, Greg Page, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tubbs, Bruno and Bonecrusher Smith twice in a four-year spell. He had six other fights in the same period.
On another night a decade earlier, this time in my kitchen, Witherspoon told me about the real hardships, the failings and his search for respect in his hunt for justice; the heavyweight division has always been light on both. It was 2003, we were on our way to Matt Macklin’s 21st.
The night of the party was not long after Witherspoon’s last official fight, a split decision loss to Brian Nix. He had 42 fights after the Bruno win, but lost the world title in his next. It was never easy with Tim.
“Damn, I got close to a Klitschko fight, but in the contract they demanded and they would get my life forever,” he said at my table. Witherspoon at his age back in 2003 would have still been a danger for any version of any Klitschko. At Macklin’s later that night, Witherspoon stopped about five or six fights. It was that type of party.
At that time there was still talk of a Klitschko fight, a fight with Tony Tucker in Dubai and still his name was linked to the kids coming through. Witherspoon must have been close to 45 at the time. One of the Klitschko offers back then was three times what he had ever made in one fight.
Ten years later, on that BoxNation sofa, there were still offers coming in. He was about 55 and still a name. It can be a long, long life of fantasy fights for a heavyweight.