BRIAN ROSE of Blackpool stays busy this weekend when he takes on Oklahoma City’s Carson Jones in Blackpool. It’s the local light-middleweight’s second bout since his unsuccessful challenge to WBO champion Demetrius Andrade last June and a fight Brian has to win to stay relevant.
For long stretches of boxing history, the default assumption was that a fighter from Oklahoma would be a pushover. This state to the north of Texas has contributed surprisingly few quality fighters, although during the last few decades there have been two notable exceptions in Sean O’Grady and James Tillis. Both were active from the second half of the 1970s into the first half of the 1980s, and O’Grady became WBA lightweight champion while Tillis fell short (but not by much) of the heavyweight title.
O’Grady, from Oklahoma City like Carson Jones, turned out to be a far better fighter than people originally thought. He turned pro at 15 and in the early days built an impressive record feasting mostly on stiffs and retreads. But it was all part of a cunning plan by his father, Pat O’Grady, a wily old promoter who for years kept the sport alive in Oklahoma: rather than enter Sean in big amateur tournaments where he would have no say over the opponent, Pat staged shows on which he could match his son with opposition Sean could beat without suffering any damage. Once in a while Sean would be risked against better rivals who could teach him something without upsetting the applecart.
Sean’s first world title tilt (WBC) ended in controversial defeat when he was cut by a headbutt and stopped by Jim Watt in Glasgow (below).
But he rebounded to rip the WBA belt from Hilmer Kenty in a thriller, one of the best fights of 1981. Sean was soon stripped by the WBA in a row over accommodating a mandatory challenger, and he never again hit the heights, becoming a boxing TV commentator before moving into real estate.
From Tulsa in the north east of Oklahoma, “Quick” Tillis was a real character. Known as the “Fighting Cowboy” (horse riding and cattle rearing are big in Oklahoma), James lost a WBA heavyweight title challenge to Mike Weaver in 1981 (below) and also shared a ring with Evander Holyfield, Frank Bruno and Gary Mason (the last two in London rings).
But he was so nearly the first man to beat Mike Tyson. They fought in Glen Falls, New York in May 1986 and after 10 rounds veteran trainer Beau Williford, who was handling Tillis at the time, was convinced his man had done enough for victory against the rising youngster. So much so that when Williford heard one of the scorecards announced as “eight rounds to two”, he thought “That’s a bit harsh on Tyson…”
As it turned out, all three judges plumped for Tyson and Tillis had to continue as an “opponent”. So near, yet so far.
Holyfield: “Mike looked at me and I looked at Mike, I made it clear that whatever he did, however he played, I would do it all night…”
Lewis: “All of a sudden Tyson turned into King Kong. Where did that guy come from?…”
Williams: “It was the second or third round when I just thought, ‘Forget it, I’m going to war with you.’…”
McBride: “Thank God he had the mouthpiece in, or I’d be the only guy in Ireland with just one nipple…”
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