THERE will be no fond memoirs of them, nothing like Being Geniuses Together or That Summer in Paris, which celebrated Hemingway, Pound and Fitzgerald. Together, the heavyweights of the 1980s were a better subject for The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness than for The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing.
Among them were fighters good enough to win National Golden Gloves titles, fighters precocious enough to be featured in Sports Illustrated while still teenagers, fighters witty enough to be hailed as the second coming of Muhammad Ali. That was in the beginning. Later they would become vagrants, murder victims, addicts, rapists, walking – no, shuffling – suicides, with that sad gait familiar to anyone who has spent time in a boxing gym.
In the early 1980s, before the go-go, glitzy, Day-Glo era took off like a space shuttle from the Kennedy Center, they were already being called The Lost Generation. Between 1978, when Ken Norton was retroactively named WBC titlist, and 1988, when Mike Tyson earned universal recognition by annihilating Michael Spinks, there were 15 different heavyweight title-holders.
“It was The Lost Generation not so much for a lack of depth or talent as for a lack of motivation on the part of some of the heavyweights who held alphabet heavyweight championships but were widely viewed by the public, with justification, as being lesser entities,” says Bernard Fernandez, who covered boxing in the 1980s for the Philadelphia Daily News.
For heavyweight boxing, Year Zero was 1978, when Leon Spinks, in only his eighth pro bout, outworked a weary Muhammad Ali on February 15 for the championship. In a sense, Spinks, impulsive, childlike, recklessly slapstick, was a precursor of appalling things to come. When Spinks agreed to give Ali a rematch, Don King, as bold as any man in an unregulated pursuit could be, browbeat WBC president José Sulaimán into stripping Spinks of the WBC title. Spinks, you see, had violated the WBC ban against immediate rematches. For that infraction, the heavyweight division was plunged into chaos. And at the centre of it all was silver-tongued King, formerly an inmate of the Marion State Correctional Facility. Only a few years after walking out of his cellblock – where he spent time for stomping a man to death over a $600 debt – King had reinvented himself as a flamboyant promoter. And his star client in the mid-1970s was none other than Ali. King, the biggest numbers runner in Cleveland, had started at the top in boxing, and when Ali dumped him for Bob Arum, the electro-haired promoter with a booming voice fit for midways plotted his revenge. When he struck – initiating the Spinks stripping and setting up a parallel universe in the heavyweight division – it was with all the capitalist malice and menace he could muster. His cut-throat business practices (along with those of his equally ruthless nemesis Arum), dovetailed neatly with the growing ethos of greed, soon to dominate the 1980s.
In fact, his creative accounting – along with his reported ties to wise guys in Ohio, Philadelphia and New York – spurred the FBI into launching an undercover sting operation, which fizzled out when the US government refused to take part in the actual staging of a fight card.
Armed with a slew of malapropisms culled from the works of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Freud and Nietzsche, as well as a lifetime of street knowledge gleaned from hustling in the Cleveland underworld, King was uniquely qualified to mesmerise spottily educated pugs from hardscrabble backgrounds. Like magpies, they were drawn to King, whose pinky rings and jumbo bling glittered with every step he took.
“The baubles get attention,” King once told writer Thomas Hauser. “If I wear diamonds, I get the ear of those within the system who are less fortunate than I am and who want to get to the top like I did.”
Certainly there were plenty of the less fortunate to go around. As the US sagged beneath the weight of stagflation and unemployment, the poverty rate rose from 11.5 per cent in 1979 to over 15 per cent in 1982. Even while the country struggled with a powerful recession, however, televised sports were in boom-time mode. And boxing, led by Sugar Ray Leonard and his kilowatt smile, was part of the gold rush. Television money poured into boxing for the first time since the Golden Age of the 1950s. That combustible mix – an impoverished labour force and a sudden infusion of cash in an industry without standards or structure – sparked a strange collective ennui among heavyweights promoted by King. But there were other factors that created the heavyweight malaise. Although he was the most famous athlete in the world, and, at that time, its most revered, Ali inadvertently caused untold collateral damage to boxing.
“I think that the shadow of Ali was so great that it was just an act that nobody could follow,” said Barry Tompkins, who was the blow-by-blow announcer for HBO for most of the ‘80s. “In its own way, it hurt the sport. I think that Larry Holmes was a hugely talented fighter who deserved far more respect than he got – because he followed Ali.”
Not only did Ali overshadow the heavyweights in his wake, but he also cast a pall on a division that seemed hexed from the moment he announced a comeback in 1980. Ali, who took to calling himself “Dark Gable” and dyed his hair in hopes of appearing younger, foolishly challenged Holmes for the WBC heavyweight title. On October 2, 1980, Ali, already showing signs of deteriorating health, took a frightful beating from Holmes, who wept in the ring after the carnage was finally halted. (Incredibly, Ali fought again. In 1981, Trevor Berbick pounded out a decision over the ghost of “The Greatest” in the Bahamas, putting a mournful end to the Ali era.)
Another factor that led to heavyweight doldrums of the mid-1980s was Holmes himself, the most talented big man of his era. In late 1983, Holmes split with King. The only heavyweight who mattered was no longer interested in anything but dollar signs.
More than once Holmes had publicly accused King of bilking him. In 1988, Holmes told Newsday that King had skimmed $10m from him over the course of his career. To make up for that lost fortune, Holmes shunned the idea of competition almost entirely. He faced several no-hopers following his superfight against Gerry Cooney in 1982. There was Randall “Tex” Cobb, ex-kickboxer, part-time bit actor, and perpetual screwball, whom Holmes thrashed in a fight so one-sided it drove journalist Howard Cosell out of boxing; Scott Frank, whose only claim to fame had been winning the New Jersey State heavyweight title; Marvis Frazier, only 10 professional bouts into his career, humiliated in less than a round, with Holmes begging referee Mills Lane for a mercy stoppage.
Instead of defending his championship against Greg Page, Holmes vacated his WBC title and accepted recognition from the upstart IBF, in the process setting the foundation for three sanctioning bodies.
“I don’t really have to have a title unification fight,” Holmes said. “That’s something that’s important to the public. But it’s not really important to me.”
A few months into 1984, there were three heavyweight titlists: Holmes, Gerrie Coetzee and Tim Witherspoon. Confusion over the honorific Heavyweight Champion affected even the fighters. “Every darn heavyweight in the United States has a title,” said Page at the time. “I will be heavyweight champion, but people will be bewildered about who is who: WBA, WBC, IBF, USBA, ESPN.”
Meanwhile, King, already in control of the division by mid-1983 (Holmes held the WBC title and Michael Dokes was the WBA titlist), continued stockpiling contenders. By creating a sporting orphanage, where, as in some Gothic novel, his contractually-bound charges were rarely allowed to leave, King virtually eliminated the concepts of merit and accomplishment. Winning or losing appeared to mean nothing to King – who stood to profit from both sides of every fight – nor to his stepson, Carl, who managed most of the King stable in a conflict-of-interest scenario as brazen as it was profitable. What followed was a series of dreadful fights and an entire division made up of prizefighting nihilists. “Those under
his control, like Michael Dokes, Greg Page, Tim Witherspoon and Jeff Sims, were forced, like slaves, to do what Don King wanted,” opines Randy Gordon, associate editor of The Ring in the early ‘80s. “They trained when he told them to train, did press conferences when King said it was time for a press conference … and they fought who and when King demanded. They also got paid what King decided to pay them.”
King was sued by Witherspoon, Tony Tubbs, Ali, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, and Cobb. Page once confessed to purchasing a .357 Magnum with the express purpose of emptying its clip into King. Leon Spinks and Berbick both verbally abused his stepson, Carl, and bolted from the King training camp in Ohio. A few years later, Tyson would apparently use King as a heavybag. For sheer heartbreak, however, nothing compares to what Dokes, who would wind up in prison after sexually assaulting his girlfriend, said about his former idol.
“Don King hurt me,” Dokes told author Jack Newfield. “One time, I went to Cleveland to ask Don for some money when I was in a jam with the IRS. He said he didn’t have any money, and I started to cry. I loved that man. I looked up to him like he was my daddy. I even tried to comb my hair so I could look like him. And he had this big mansion and millions of dollars, and he wouldn’t help me out just a little. I became suicidal, close to a nervous breakdown.”
It was, among other things, the microchip era, and under the flinty engineering, the heavyweights of The Lost Generation were all seemingly programmed for one thing and one thing only: auto-destruction. Page, Tubbs and Witherspoon all entered the ring with various body parts jiggling, as if their training diets consisted of Twinkies and not T-bone steaks. No sooner had Tubbs and Witherspoon won alphabet soup titles than they failed post-fight drug tests. Although Mike Weaver earned millions for beating Coetzee in South Africa in 1980, he spent most of his title reign embroiled in legal squabbles. After losing his WBA title via a controversial first-round stoppage to Dokes on a King card in Las Vegas, Weaver returned to the erratic performances of his early days.
But there were far worse stories. One of the saddest figures of The Lost Generation was Page, an amateur standout whose talent atrophied during an era with no shortage of wasted potential. In 1984, however, Page showed an uncharacteristically nasty edge in dismantling Coetzee for the WBA title. At one point, Coetzee lost his mouthpiece, and Page, deft as Kenny Dalglish, kicked it out of the ring and onto the ringside floor. Fittingly for a division whose narrative might have been scripted by Groucho Marx, Page scored a KO well after the eighth round should have ended: the timekeeper at ringside failed miserably at his appointed task. But, like so many of his stablemates, nothing changed for Page. In his first title defence, against Tubbs, Page fought listlessly in dropping a 15-round decision so dull it made the movement toward 12-round fights seem like a small mercy for the public.
Long after his glory days, if you can call them that, Page continued to take punishment in regulatory backwaters for what would have amounted to pocket change when he was at his peak. Finally, the punches caught up to him. In 2001, he was seriously injured in a fight against Dale Crowe for a $1,500 payday. After emerging from a coma, Page was partially paralysed and barely able to speak. He was given a pencil and a notepad early in his physical rehabilitation stint. On a sheet of paper, out of the blue, he scrawled:
“Don King stole my money.” In 2009, Page fell out of his bed and, unable to turn himself over, smothered to death on the floor.
Of all the fighters controlled by King, it was Witherspoon who offered the most pushback. In 1987, Witherspoon took his troubles to court, eventually winning $1m in damages in a settlement that took years to materialise. He won the vacant WBC title in March 1984 by outpointing Page, but in his next fight, however, Witherspoon dropped the belt to Pinklon Thomas via majority decision. No matter: King matched Witherspoon against pudgy WBA champion Tubbs anyway. When the two fighters met on January 17, 1986, Witherspoon emerged as the winner after 15 monotonous rounds. Carl King allegedly took 50 per cent of his earnings. At the same time, there was suggestion that Don skimmed Tim’s purses with a daring that seemed almost reckless. Eventually, Witherspoon slipped into the self-destructive behaviour so common among The Lost Generation.
“Witherspoon, Page, and Tubbs all had weight issues that might or might not have been an indication that they had given up,” Fernandez says. “But Tim told me it was hard to mentally gear up for a gruelling training camp when he knew he was going to be stiffed on the kind of contract a heavyweight champion should never have been fighting under.”
Soon, Witherspoon was beset by fatalism. When his $500,000 purse for stopping Frank Bruno in London allegedly withered into a little over $90,000, Witherspoon hit bottom. On December 12, 1986, Smith, a substitute for Tubbs, charged out of his corner at the opening bell and dropped Witherspoon three times for a first-round KO. Afterward, Witherspoon, who had lost a few teeth to go along with his title, seemed more relieved than upset. “I didn’t care,” he said. “Losing meant Don was out of my life, and that was all I wanted.” A few months later, he filed a $25m lawsuit against King. Witherspoon never received another title shot.
One of the few heavyweights of his era to occasionally show some zing in the ring, Thomas – whose 1985 stoppage of Weaver is a Lost Generation standout – misplaced his focus after only a single title defence. As a contender in the early ‘80s, Thomas was frozen out of the title picture until, like so many others, he signed with King. Not long after making his Faustian pact with Don, Thomas won the WBC title from Witherspoon. But Thomas was undertrained for the lumbering Berbick, who clubbed his way to a decision win against him on March 22, 1986. A few years later, Thomas would lose himself in a haze of drugs from which he would not emerge until the1990s. (As for Berbick, he would go on to spend time in prison for rape, before being murdered by his nephew.)
By 1986, even King was disgusted. “I’m sick of it,” Don told Sports Illustrated. “I’m tired of looking at it. I’m tired of the pace.”
King worked out a lucrative deal with HBO for a tournament that would unify the heavyweight division for the first time since the days of Ali. The Heavyweight World Series figured to be another string of monotonous waltzes between Lost Generation bit-players. But that was before Tyson crashed the scene. In just over a year, Tyson, such a hot item that HBO insisted he be added to the heavyweight tournament, defeated an entire battalion of King irregulars: Berbick, Smith, Thomas and Tony Tucker. As a result, King moved in on Tyson in 1988, using the same street pitch he had used on so many fighters. It worked.
Eventually, Tyson, who had singlehandedly put an end to The Lost Generation, would become part of its legacy. After years of spawning lurid headlines, Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992.
Boxing afterlives, for the most part, are grim. Pauperisation and physical diminishment are virtually retirement guarantees. Even for boxing, however, the heavyweights associated with King in the 1980s suffered gruesome fates. With the exception of Holmes and, perhaps, Smith and Weaver, The Lost Generation was united by misfortune.
Take the sad case of Leon Spinks, the man who unintentionally capsized the heavyweight division back in 1978. Less than three years after losing to Ali, Spinks attempted one last run at the title. Erratic as ever, Spinks notched a single significant win (against Bernardo Mercado) before being annihilated by Holmes in three rounds in 1981. From that point on, Spinks was nothing but a walking tragedy. In the early 1980s, long after he had become a punchline for talk-show hosts, Spinks was still sucking his thumb. Butch Lewis, who managed Spinks in the 1970s, once described the rise and fall of “Neon Leon” like this: “He went from beans to Chateaubriand to beans.” Lewis might have been talking about an entire generation of heavyweights.