Feature | Mar 28 2019

Doug DeWitt: ‘I don’t mean to brag but I used to outbox Marvin Hagler’

On this day in 1980 Doug DeWitt started his pro career. Jack Hirsch caught up with the ferocious contender and former WBO titlist who, while struggling to adjust to the scars fighting left behind, is happy to reminisce about wars with the likes of Thomas Hearns and Nigel Benn
Doug DeWitt
LEAD SHOT

SOMETIMES Doug DeWitt thinks he’s in a bad place. The former WBO middleweight champion occasionally has balance issues, and his speech, while clear, is nevertheless a little bit slower than he would like it to be. When you have had as many tough fights as DeWitt had it becomes almost inevitable that the years in the ring will ultimately take a toll. DeWitt acknowledges this, but has not fully come to grips with it.

“I enjoy the company of women,” says DeWitt “and it bothers me that they sometimes comment that
I seem tired while I speak.”

Reminded that he is now at an age (55) where women might be a little more tolerant that he is not quite as debonair as when younger, DeWitt laughs. He is conscious of how he appears outwardly, which perhaps explains, in part, why until recently he had disappeared from public view.

DeWitt, nicknamed “The Cobra”, boxed from 1980-1992, compiling a 33-8-5 (19) record. For all the bad breaks he might have received they pale in comparison to the good one he got which changed his life forever. DeWitt’s career was at its lowest point when the WBO came into existence and asked him to box for their inaugural crown on April 18, 1989 in Atlantic City, against Robbie Simms, to whom he had previously lost. DeWitt won the rematch and a world title, which put him in the select company that all fighters strive for.

DeWitt was inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame. However, as the date of the induction ceremony grew near there was concern, as no one had been able to locate him. Eventually that was resolved and DeWitt’s career was given the ultimate validation.

It has been more than a quarter of a century since I did a feature story on DeWitt for Boxing News and referred to him as a noble warrior. On reflection calling him the ultimate overachiever would have been a more accurate assessment. He was not big, did not have impressive power, and wasn’t particularly quick, yet found a way to win a world title and compete admirably against the best of his era. Yet DeWitt is dissatisfied, feeling he could have accomplished so much more if not for the personal problems he says were created by being in a relationship with a woman 14 years his senior.

“We met when I was 20 and she was 34,” he explains. “She was a good woman, but did not understand the demands on a boxer’s life. The two of us had a lot of fights.”

Today Doug is unattached. His full-time job is being a dad to his 10-year-old son from another relationship. Both parents work diligently in sharing responsibilities in the boy’s upbringing. DeWitt, who boxed out of Yonkers, now resides in the Scarsdale section of New York.

With the rave reviews he was getting on the way up it is understandable why DeWitt feels he short changed himself. Said DeWitt, “After I beat Mike Tinley (Atlantic City – 1984), Cus D’Amato told me, ‘You should have been champ already.’ Mike Tyson came up to me and told me I had fought fantastically. Teddy Brenner commented that I had reminded him of Joey Giardello.”

DeWitt’s favourite performance came before that, when late in 1982, he became the first to stop veteran Teddy Mann, doing it in six rounds at the Westchester County Center.

“I was just a kid coming up and thought they were rushing me,” DeWitt admits. “Mann had just been in with Bennie Briscoe who he gave a tough fight. After we fought he was matched with Juan Roldan, won the fight but was not given the decision. Roldan fought Marvin Hagler for the title soon after. When I beat Mann people started to take notice.”

According to DeWitt, his promoter Bob Arum had big plans for him, grooming the New Yorker for a title shot against Hagler. Dethroning Hagler would have been a monstrous chore, but DeWitt would not have been intimidated.

“I don’t mean to brag, but I used to outbox Marvin when we sparred. My skill set was such that I outboxed everyone in the gym,” he says before adding, “I don’t really like to talk about it because those guys are my friends.”

Stability was not always a trademark of the DeWitt career. Angelo Dundee worked his corner for one fight, a victory over Tony Thornton. “Angelo wanted 15 per cent for coming in the day before the fight. That was unacceptable to me,” says DeWitt. For a while DeWitt was trained by former light-heavyweight contender Herschel Jacobs, but the relationship did not last: “He was a great teacher, but not reliable. He would not always show up at the gym while I was there.”

DeWitt’s career was progressing nicely – he was on a 19-fight unbeaten run – as he entered his summer 1985 clash at the Westchester County Center against Detroit middleweight Don Lee. Those in attendance call it one of the best fights ever fought in New York. After 10 rounds of head-to-head fighting it was called a draw. “I knew what I was up against,” says DeWitt. “Lee had knocked out Tony Sibson easier than Hagler had. He was a 6ft 2in southpaw who was very dangerous, but I should have been given the decision.”

DeWitt was then outpointed over 10 rounds by Robbie Simms in his next fight, then won a couple before being easily outscored by Milton McCrory in Las Vegas. Sometimes losing fights creates more opportunities than winning them. At least that appeared to be the case with DeWitt, who was given the chance of a lifetime in his next fight when he was matched with Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on October 17, 1986 for the NABF middleweight title. Hearns was in his prime and most thought that he would be the first to stop DeWitt. However, outside of a short-lived attack in the third round that had DeWitt unsettled, Hearns never came close to an abbreviated ending. DeWitt was defiant and roughed Hearns up a bit, but came out on the wrong end of the 12-rounder via scores of 116-110, 117-110, and 118-108.

“I invite you to watch a tape of that fight with me with the volume off. If you do you might think that I won,” says DeWitt, hopefully. “Some people think I should have gotten the decision. I agree that Hearns won, but not by the margins he was given.”

But the good will that DeWitt gained from his gritty effort against Hearns evaporated when in his next fight he was inexplicably stopped in three rounds by ordinary Jose Quinones.

“He couldn’t fight,” says DeWitt, the old competitor in him refusing to give his opponent much credit.

“Mentally I was not there. I was beating Quinones all three rounds and he landed a bomb when I lost concentration. The fight should not have been stopped. That loss cost me the semi-final slot on the Sugar Ray Leonard-Hagler show. I was scheduled to box against James Kinchen.”

DeWitt had now lost three straight and his career was on the skids, but he rebounded, going 3-0-1 in his next four fights, beating Thornton and Lenny Lapaglia. And just like that, DeWitt was back in the title picture challenging Sumbu Kalambay for the WBA middleweight championship in Monaco in November of 1989. DeWitt was given virtually no chance and his performance reflected that as he was stopped in seven.

“At that point my head was so screwed up I did not know whether I wanted to continue to be in boxing” he explains.

The WBO would then throw DeWitt a lifeline. Although the Kalambay loss had firmly relegated Doug into gatekeeper status, the WBO – who was in its infancy – did not care. Few were taking the sanctioning body seriously at that time. Certainly DeWitt wasn’t.

“When they asked me to box for the title I thought it was a joke,” he says, “but after I won it I thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”

DeWitt fought well, as did Simms (who is a half- brother of Hagler). The decision was split with scores of 115-113 and 116-112 favouring DeWitt, and the other 115-113 going to Simms.

Doug DeWitt

DeWitt’s confidence and motivation were restored, but he now admits to having some serious reservations when he defended against Canadian Matthew Hilton in his first defense. Hilton, the former IBF super-welterweight champion, had established a reputation as a devastating puncher which DeWitt could attest to from first-hand experience: “I held Matthew Hilton in high regard because of the times that we boxed in the gym. It felt like he had bricks in his gloves. I knew how capable he was of hurting me.”

Hilton was expected to win. He had lost just once entering the January 15, 1990 bout in Atlantic City, but it was DeWitt who turned in arguably the best performance of his career, stopping the former champion on cuts at the end of the 11th round. DeWitt who rarely shied away from a punch fest changed tactics for Hilton, boxing masterfully from the outside and gradually breaking him down. He looked so good that many were tipping him to beat Britain’s Nigel Benn in his next defence, which was three-and-a-half months later in Atlantic City.

“The Dark Destroyer” had lost just once, that to Michael Watson 11 months previously. It would be his first try at a world title after he had rebuilt his career, and approach, in the US. DeWitt was confident of victory, perhaps a little too so. “Benn I did not respect,” admits DeWitt. “He had not beaten anyone. I took Benn lightly.”

When Benn was floored in the second round, DeWitt seemed on his way to victory. “I dropped him with a left hook while I was backing up,” he says. “He went down and his legs were wobbly. It wasn’t even the best left hook I threw.”

Benn rebounded magnificently, flooring DeWitt in the third and dominating for the most part thereafter. When DeWitt went down three times in the eighth it was stopped. “I was butted early and blood got into my eye. I could not see his punches,” DeWitt explains, offering yet more excuses before changing tact. “But
I have to give Benn his due. He hit me harder than any opponent I ever fought.

“My best opponent though was Hearns if you take into account speed, power, and ring generalship. He would have knocked out Benn within two rounds if they fought.”

Benn would go on to have some memorable fights, but for DeWitt it was basically the end of the line. He boxed three more times, the last against James Toney in Atlantic City on May 12, 1992 retiring on his stool at the end of the sixth round.

“I went through with the fight, but knew I would lose”, he acknowledges. “I had completely lost interest.”

DeWitt was only 30, and anxious to start the next phase of his life. “I got in touch with Mickey Rourke to become an actor. I studied for a couple of years and had bit parts in movies. I also did about 30 plays.”

DeWitt also found himself back in the gym. “I started a white-collar boxing program at Gleasons Gym” he says proudly. “A lot of finance guys were my clients, and I trained people for fitness and self-defence. I stopped doing it to spend more time with my son.

“I did not fall into poverty like some people may think. I did very well in the stock market. In a period of two years I made more money than I did over the course of my whole boxing career. I own a town house that I rent out and drive a BMW.” But you get the feeling that he would trade that all in for an improved set of vocal cords. One that would allow him to woo the ladies again.

Not his world title though. That speaks louder and clearer about Doug DeWitt than words ever could.

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