Some people hunt all their lives for a Derby horse, while others may back an emerald expedition into an Ecuadorian jungle or comb the world for other rare and wondrous objects. Of all such things, none has been more eagerly sought than that elusive species called the young heavyweight, who in the past did not mind being looked upon as a thing; breathing was allowed, with talking permitted later. The last of this kind was the early Rocky Marciano, and no sightings have been reported since. To qualify nowadays, one must be well over six feet tall, weigh 200 or better, be 19 to 26 years of age, have the heart of an elephant, the jaw of a hippo and the humility of St. Francis of Assisi.
Right now the stage is being set for the appearance of the young heavyweight. Within a year or two the division will have been ripped asunder. Muhammad Ali will have been beaten or retired. The great Joe Frazier will have finally recognized that he has reached the end, something his heart will not now allow him to see. Ken Norton could be a full-time Hollywood plantation slave, and the confused George Foreman, his giant shadow already fading, will be only a big name for some kid to erase.
Put simply, the young heavyweight business is risky, yet the perils do not slow the search. The promoter Don King, suddenly estranged from the Ali camp, dreams of a young heavyweight every night, and has built a large gym and quarters near his Ohio farm in the expectation of finding one. Down in Houston, Hugh Ben bow, who used to handle Cleveland Williams (badly), has built a $30,000 gym. He lacks only a young heavyweight, he hopes a lily-white one, with a tattoo of a battleship across his chest, an eagle on one thigh and an ax on the other. Benbow means business.
The feverish search began with Ali and his Louisville backers, then came Joe Frazier and his Cloverlay syndicate. But there have been some notable failures. For instance, there were the celebrated Jim Beattie and Buster Mathis. In 1962 Beat tie answered a want ad for heavyweight prospects placed by a New York restaurateur, who was deluged by applicants, among them a butcher, a hairdresser and a circus strong man. But of this motley crew, the restaurateur chose Beattie: 6'8", handsome and innocent. In no time he became known as Kid Galahad. Beattie claimed that he had had 54 amateur bouts, and that he once punched a police horse between the eyes.
Beattie signed on at $155.50 a week. It was not long before he was being chopped down like a redwood. His hypochondria, well hidden at first, became uncontrollable. His trainer, Freddie Fierro, maintained that he would take eight or 10 pills a day. When he fought James J. Woody in 1965 he was like a palm frond in a heavy wind and lost on a technical knockout in the seventh round. His license was lifted after that one, but he came back a couple of months later—after being cleared by the Mayo Clinic—to be cut down by Buster Mathis, an Olympic Trials heavyweight winner, who would soon join Big Jim in obscurity. Mathis would become a victim of his own obesity—he always flirted around the 300-pound mark—and his backers were a troop of boy scouts with Brooks Brothers ties and Madison Avenue ideas who could not wait to get their hands on the heavyweight title.
Young heavyweights, says Paddy Flood, co-manager of the rising Johnny Boudreaux, "are as unpredictable as some 3-year-old horses—and they eat a lot more." He adds, "They can break your heart. They can frustrate you to pieces, and you have to have the patience of a saint. You never know what's comin' next. One punch and it can be all over. You never know what's going to happen to their hands, never know when the eyes will go. They rip open easier—heavyweights. And they are much more difficult to handle than, say, a middleweight or lightweight. The lightweight champ can walk down the street, and nobody will even turn a head. But with a big, young heavyweight, he begins to get noticed after five lights. Their egos build real fast, so fast that they start talkin' before their talent isn't nearly in full bloom."
There are roughly 300 heavyweights working at their trade now, most of them journeymen or what they call opponents—that is, fighters who aren't in there to win. Their paydays seldom are above $3,000 and often are as low as $500. Out of this 300, a handful will briefly achieve minor celebrity and then become modestly successful "victims," meaning that they will not bore the audience with their work, yet are no serious threat to a kid on the way up. If a fighter is a "spoiler," there is a long time between meals, unless he works at another job. "Who needs a spoiler?" says Al Braverman, manager of John (Dino) Dennis, another up and coming heavyweight. "Spoilers keep you awake all night. You run into one of 'em and it can be all over. You keep a kid away from 'em when he's on his way to being ranked."
Call that protection of one's property, a standard policy in the ring. "You got to make sure your kid has an edge going into each fight," says Braverman. "You can't get him knocked off, or get his confidence destroyed. When he becomes a name fighter, then it all changes. You still look for the edge, but sooner or later in the heavyweight division you got to put up or shut up." Even if they have the property, few managers are able to direct good young heavyweights as well as Braverman and Flood. From the old school, with coarse language and thin wallets, they have survived in the ring on their wits, and now at last they have come up with two of the top five stars of the future. Among those, the ranking might look something like this: 1. Larry Holmes, 2. Dino Dennis, 3. Johnny Boudreaux, 4. Duane Bobick, 5. Stan Ward.
By all standards, Holmes is the class of the young heavyweights and is currently listed as eighth in The Ring ratings. He is 26, stands 6'3" and weighs 210. He has a record of 22 straight victories, 17 by knockout. Up until he fought big Roy Williams, renowned for his meanness, it was difficult to fault Holmes. His jab was a singing arrow, the kind that can keep a big man away, and his hook off that jab was without equal. His hand speed was excellent, his legs were those of a ballroom dancer; he seemed to be the best prospect to come along since Joe Frazier. He still is, but there was something lacking in his work against Williams. It was a nice snappy job, but it was mostly "point" work done from far out of range. It suggested that he had been somewhat intimidated by big Roy. It also gave his critics more evidence of his "lack of heart."
That, of course, is an old slam in boxing, usually made when a detractor does not know what else to say. "I got more heart than's good for me," says Holmes. "I go up against a mountain slide." His manager Richie Giachetti, an old Cleveland hand, winces at Holmes' puerile comment; he does not want Holmes to go out and try to prove his bravery. "That's how you end up as an opponent," he says, thinking of the $30,000 tied up in Holmes. "Listen, all young fighters get wary now and then. It comes from inexperience. When the time comes, Larry will be there. Now, you got to be careful. The stakes are high." Holmes says he is ready for Foreman or Norton, but first wants a couple of good rugged bouts. The fighter he wants most is Bobick. "He's made to order for me. I want that bad boy."
Behind Holmes is the best heavyweight to come out of New England since Marciano. The 6'3", 210-pound Dennis is undefeated in 28 fights and has 14 knockouts. Born in Trieste and raised in Attleboro, Mass., Dennis, 23, is the perfect young heavyweight—mentally. He listens carefully, absorbs instructions and has an even temperament. "Young heavyweights become head cases quickly," says Braverman, "but with Dino, never a problem. The only thing we got to teach him is not to lose his cool."
Co-manager Eddie Imondi, an auto dealer, has sunk roughly $25,000 into Dennis, and he appears to be a bargain so far. Dennis has the instincts of a fighter. He knows how to go to war and he has the special quality of reaching back for the last reserve when he is hurt or tired. Technically, he is still deep into the learning process, but he has much promise. He will have to learn to punch better, to work on his combinations, as well as gain better control of his upper body movement. "Right now," Dennis says, "I haven't filled out physically. That will come, and when it does, I'll be ready." Ranked 10th in the U.S. by The Ring, Dennis says he is "a year or so away."
Johnny Boudreaux, 22, of Houston, appears to be the best boxer of the group. Few heavyweights in recent memory have his hand speed. He has not been beaten in 21 fights (nine knockouts) and he has beaten some tough opposition. In his 11th fight, he whipped Scrap Iron Johnson, a rugged veteran. Standing 6'3" and weighing 211, Boudreaux is rated sixth by The Ring. Before turning pro, Boudreaux was a two-time National AAU finalist. His trouble has been a dearth of good sparring partners and a lack of aggressiveness. He seldom makes a fight. "He needs to become meaner," says co-manager Flood, "and he slaps too much with his punches. All these guys, including Holmes, have the same problem. They don't step in to punch. But you can learn that in time. There is an old saying: step in, and step out of trouble; step back, step into trouble. But Johnny's smart. And he knows how to use a ring."
Boudreaux's other manager, Robert Bish, has had him since Boudreaux was 14. A Sears Roebuck salesman, Bish has poured $30,000 into Boudreaux's career. "I'll tell ya," says Flood, who was just brought in to move Boudreaux, "the ring gets into your blood, and it's worse than horses. It takes money and time. And all these guys don't have the money behind them like Duane Bobick."
Bobick, the golden boy from Minnesota, the Olympic star who fell, is the best known young heavyweight. His contract was purchased by Joe Frazier, and he was given a $20,000 bonus to sign. He has money behind him as well as one of the best teachers in the business, Eddie Futch. The result has been 35 straight wins, with 30 knockouts. But Bobick has obvious weaknesses: he is a plodder who has all the signs of becoming a catcher; he tries to fight too much like Joe Frazier, which is not natural to him; he cannot jab at all, has a mediocre left hook and only a fair right hand; his punching, too wide and slow, can be picked up from a block away.
Another top prospect is Ward, of Sacramento, Calif., who is working toward his master's in psychology at Sacramento State College. He is 25, 6'3" and weighs 228. He has had seven fights, won five and had draws with Boudreaux and the foxy Pat Duncan; Mac Foster, a fairly recent contender, is among those he has beaten. He is a hard hitter with promise.
If one heavyweight could have all their assets and none of their shortcomings, he would be truly a rare and wondrous find. As it is, since they are young, uncertain and still not physically mature—the big men always seem to mature late—who really knows what the future holds for these five. Ahead of them could be a woman, or lots of women who will turn their minds, or their bodies might float off to the sound of too many night songs. "Maybe," says Paddy Flood, "none of these guys will make it. Maybe there's some ape out there in the woods somewhere dropping big trees with an ax."
After having seen Holmes and most of the others, one still comes away feeling much like Rocky Graziano did when he was training in the woods. The fresh air, the scent of wild flowers would drive Rocky to mad silence. And as each morning dawned he would become wild when being awakened by the sound of one bird.
"I hate to put the knock on anybody without seeing him," Rocky would say, "but I think it is a bluebird."