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Backstage at one of the craziest, most chaotic tournaments in heavyweight boxing

heavyweight boxing
In a bar of no return in Mississippi 20 boxers, their trainers, agents, managers, wingmen, gunmen and more, were told that the million dollars they were set to win had disappeared. Steve Bunce sets the scene

THE big men gathered in a surly mix, sitting at the poker machines that lined the bar and telling stories of their fights in Sing Sing, Angola, San Quentin, York Hall and the MGM in Las Vegas.

In a corner of the bar, safe from any danger, I sat wedged in a booth with my newspaper colleague, Jonathan Rendall. There was, trust me, real danger in the air. A meeting had been called for about 20 boxers, their trainers, agents, managers, wingmen, gunmen, dealers, dopers and other no-hopers. It really was a bar of no return. The barman had an alligator eye patch.

One of the fighters had only been released from prison six weeks earlier and several others were proven felons. Others would graduate to that school. We were in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi at a place called Casino Magic, more specifically we were in a bar about a mile away, two nights before The People’s Choice World Heavyweight “Super Fights” tournament was due to start.

It was near the town of Waveland in South Mississippi, an area of unforgiving swamps, the perfect landscape for what was about to happen. The fighters were about to be told that the money had run out and that the backers had pulled out and that there was no longer a million dollars available to the winner. The last man left standing would, after four fights of three three-minute rounds, leave Casino Magic with less than 120,000 dollars.

There was mutiny in the air that night in the bar at the Waveland Inn, the fight hotel for the week. Bert Randolph Sugar, who was demanding his own money for hyping the event, had put himself in charge of the meeting, but it was being run by former world heavyweight champion James “Bonecrusher” Smith. “I just want to fight now that I’m here,” insisted Bonecrusher.

“I signed for the million and that is what I plan on making,” Derek “Sweet D” Williams told me. He agreed those original terms when he had been invited to enter, but he would leave Mississippi with just six thousand dollars. He refused to do the press conference.

The day before the tournament, Rendall and I offered to take Sweet D for some lunch, but each place we stopped at was rejected by Williams, who sat slouched down in the back of the car. “This is redneck country, I don’t see any black people here – I’m not going in there,” he said. He had a point.

The meeting was ugly, the mood was nasty. Bonecrusher tried to pacify some of the more agitated fighters. Norway’s Magne Havnaa withdrew. Former Olympic champion Henry Tillman withdrew and he was not happy. He was ready to fight somebody for nothing that night in the bar. However, they had the money to leave without having to fight to make the money to leave. Most of the men were trapped in the swamp with one or two people dependent on them fighting and making some money.

The manager at the motel was chain-smoking by the pool. He was waiting on his money. Even Sugar was struggling to make light of the mess. I asked him about several articles that he owed me for, going back a lot of years. I knew I would never get the money, but it felt like the right time to bring up the cash. Sugar laughed, puffed heavily on his cigar, ordered a drink and then floated away. That was another seven bucks he owed me.

In the bar that night the full glory of the lost and found tried their best to look either dignified, bored or tough. Former world heavyweight champions Tony Tubbs and Bonecrusher, Olympic gold medallists Tyrell Biggs [pictured above] and Tillman, “Smokin’” Bert Cooper, Australian Craig Petersen, Strong Man competitors, unknown Eastern Bloc fighters, debutant Jason Williams, fresh from four years in the penitentiary.

Some men were missing that night. There was a boxer called Leoncio Bueno from the Dominican Republic, he failed to get a visa, but Bueno claimed a record of 90 wins, 85 quick and no defeats. It was probably closer to one win, no defeats. Joe Savage from the Black Country was meant to be there, but that is another story. Savage had never had a fight at that time. Make no mistake, this was a crazy one-off event, unmissable as far as I was concerned.

I tracked down the two Canadians running the show. They had been let down by a backer from Singapore. They blamed an unnamed glamour model for the Singapore collapse, a mutual friend. They vowed that the boxers would get paid before they got paid. They talked boldly of selling just one per cent of the potential pay-per-view of 22-and-a-half million and still making a lot of money. And added this wonderful line: “Even if we only get a half-percent the fighters will still get most of their money.”

So a million-dollar purse had been sliced, nearly 90 per cent was gone, but attached to that shrunken total was the hope that the boxers might just get “most of their money.” It’s hard to invent. However, you have to remember that most of the fighters and the ready reserves were desperate. World champions, Olympic champions, challengers, dreamers, novices, liars and exiles were all trapped in that swirling swamp. We left a fetid bar that night for the journey back to our digs, uncertain if we would really be ringside.

On the day a case of beer was placed under our table. The fights came and went. World champions Bonecrusher and Tubbs won fights one and two. Sweet D destroyed and dropped Joe Ribalta in fight four. The knockdowns should have earned him a promised bonus, but they never even helped him get the verdict and he lost a disgraceful split. He had to share his six grand with his people. That’s harsh.

And the day turned into evening and then it was late at night with boxers, their people and the fans inside the lime green Casino Magic ballroom all suffering from fatigue.

Tubbs beat Biggs in the semi-final and Bonecrusher could go no further after two wins and Daniel Dancuta got the decision in their semi. I went to see Tubbs after his Biggs win. He was shattered, bruised and sore, stretched out flat and still. He looked like a monument. His people were trying to revive his body with buckets of ice and cold water. The dressing room was like a paddling pool. Tubbs could barely walk, he had won three times that day so far. It was relentless, I had never been so tired. And the beers were untouched.

Tubbs beat Dancuta in the final.   

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