Jimmy Young is 6'2" and weighs 211 pounds, which figures. Mrs. Ruth Young has three sons and they're all men of size. Jimmy's older brother William weighs 300 pounds. Little John Young, only 15, has a 36-inch waist and wears a size-14 shoe, and the last time they put him on a scale he tipped 200 pounds. But if Jimmy Young comes by being a heavyweight naturally, he sure refuses to act like one.
Jimmy Young does not knock people down. This is mostly because he is too busy making sure that they do not knock him down. Young sees himself as an artist operating in a world of assassins, and for this he is often misunderstood. It is said that fans do not attend heavyweight fights to savor balletlike moves: they go to see blood. Well, says Jimmy Young, if they want to see blood, let them slash their wrists.
Young should be seen in an art gallery, not in a ring. As a boxing stylist he is closer to Tintoretto than Galento. Do not ask him to be anything else. He is a rapier among the broadswords, and all he does is win.
"I don't really fight to win, I fight to survive," Young said in Las Vegas last week as he prepared for next Saturday's 15-round fight against Ken Norton at Caesars Palace. "Survival means money. When I survive it means I move up, and when I move up I make more money. If I lose, it's back to the bottom of the pile, back to nothing. I don't ever want to go back. When you have been where I have been, you never want to go back."
October 31, 1977
To Young, going back is the meanest streets of Philadelphia where, one day when he was 14, three older boys relieved him of his transistor radio. "I worked nights in a laundry to buy that radio," he says. "The next day I went looking for those three guys. I had a butcher knife hidden up one sleeve and a fire hydrant wrench up the other." The memory dissolves in a smile. "Today I'm glad I didn't find them. Either way...," he says, his voice trailing off.
The following day his father, William, a welder, came up with a wiser solution. He took Jimmy to a Police Athletic League gym and started him as an amateur fighter, a light heavyweight. Jimmy needed just 21 fights, 14 of them victories, to convince himself that he wanted to be a professional.
Young became a hungry headhunter. In his first pro heavyweight fight in 1969 he knocked out Jimmy Jones in one round. A sledgehammer had more style. Young thought that this was the only way to fight—until nine bouts later when his manager, who has since been replaced, decided that his young slugger was ready for Earnie Shavers. That was in February of 1973. Shavers came in with 44 victories, 41 of them knockouts. Young hadn't fought since a loss to Randy Neumann a year earlier. Marie Antoinette had more of a chance against Robespierre's blade.
"You'd think I'd have known better," Young says, "but I've never lacked for confidence. I actually wanted that fight; I was eager. I thought I was going to win. I guess I was overmatched. That same night Ernie Terrell was fighting the main event against some stiff. I can't remember his name. I should have been fighting Terrell's guy, and he should have been fighting Shavers. His guy went out in one round; Shavers stopped me in three. It wasn't a knockout; they just stopped it. All he did was bloody my nose."
The loss sent Young to the movies. "I realized that standing there and letting the other guy pound me wasn't the answer. I had the brains; I decided to use them. I studied films of all the old stylists: Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Billy Conn. I idolized them all, mostly Sugar Ray. I still study the films every day; I'm still learning new tricks from the old masters of the sport."
Young's boxing style became that of a tumbleweed riding a hot summer wind: forever bounding. In his fights now he is usually in full retreat, pausing but briefly to throw sand in some pursuing bully's face before fleeing once more. He punches for points, not for pain. He fought three times in England, once in Venezuela, always a big underdog against hometown favorites. He didn't lose once. Even so, the ranked heavyweights refused to believe Young was for real.
The first non-believer in line was Ron Lyle. With nothing to do while waiting to fight Muhammad Ali for the title on May 16, 1975, he decided to use Young as a tune-up in Honolulu. "Some tune-up," says Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer. "I knew Lyle had goofed. I'd seen Jimmy work before; I knew who was going to get tuned up." Young won impressively.
Too impressively: no other top heavyweight wanted any part of him. While waiting for the big-money offers to pour in, he went back to work on the docks. Young is married, with four children, and until he fought Ali last April in Landover, Md. he hadn't earned enough from 23 fights to buy an automobile. After every fight it was back to the docks.
"People ask me why I didn't quit, why I didn't get discouraged," he says. "I wasn't making any money boxing; there were no paydays. After I beat Lyle I had a couple of small fights, and the purses were so small I'm too embarrassed to say how much they were. But think of quitting? Never. Not when the only alternative was to spend the rest of my life breaking my back for $4.30 an hour on the docks. Every time I picked up one of those sacks of cocoa beans I knew I was going to make it."
Fortunately, Ali ran out of opponents before Young ran out of determination. The night Ali fought Jean-Pierre Coopman in San Juan, Young won a very unimpressive decision over Joe (King) Roman in a preliminary. In fact, he was just unimpressive enough to impress Ali's people into giving him the title shot last April.
You remember that fight: the Blob against the Ostrich. Ali was a waddling 230 pounds. Young, when not piling up powder-puff points, kept ducking his head out of the ropes. Three guys thought Ali had won that night; everyone else in the crowd leaned toward Young. The problem, as Young saw it, was that the three guys who liked Ali were the referee and the two judges.
"I learned one very important thing from that fight," says Young.
What was that?
"To keep my head inside the ropes.
"It was just another of my tricks for Ali, something I thought would throw him off." Young says. "I figured the way to beat Ali was to upset his mental state. So I did it on purpose, not because I was scared or nervous. And it cost me points. I still think the referee should have warned me it was costing me points. He warned me about everything else, while letting Ali get away with murder. Next time I'll know better. Next time I'll have a different bag of tricks."
After Ali, Young went back to proving himself once more against boxing's biggest cannons. First came another decision over Lyle, then a stunning 12-round decision over George Foreman. And now he faces Ken Norton. Despite his record, many people still refuse to believe Young is for real. Always he is the underdog. Patiently, he explains why he will win. As he said before Lyle and before Foreman and as he was saying last week, "I've fought a lot of big hitters, but none of them were smart. None of them could think. Take this fight with Norton: I know I'm going to get out of the way of all that dumb stuff he is going to throw.
"The key to victory is to outthink the other man, no matter how big and how strong he is. When you go into combat the thing to do is outsmart your opponent; like playing cards, like shooting craps, like playing chess, being smarter is the key to victory. Every time I fight they say it is against the baddest man alive. Me, I can't see why Norton took the fight, I'm so sure he's going to lose. All he's thinking of is, can he beat me? Me, I know. All I'm thinking about is taking a nice vacation. Of buying a new camper, of maybe buying a Mercedes. Most guys say if they lose they'll hang up their gloves. If I let this mechanical man beat me I'll hang up my brains."
Young's confidence pours forth the way a stream rushes downhill in spring: fresh and vibrant, dancing around the rocks, pausing only a moment in a quiet pool before pushing madly on. But he stops just short of being cocky. He respects Norton as a demolition expert respects a time bomb. He knows what can happen if the bomb explodes.
"Norton is a good fighter." Young says. "I'm not taking anything away from him. With his own style, he is good. Believe me. I have to be in good shape. I can't hold back. I can't be vague. If I'm not 100% like I was for those other guys. I'll lose. I'm telling you I will lose if I am not on my P's and Q's. But he doesn't make me nervous, not like Lyle made me nervous. I wasn't nervous for Foreman. When I fought Foreman he was supposed to be Mighty Joe Young. But that Lyle, that is the guy you have to look out for. That is the only guy who ever made me nervous. I don't count Shavers. When I fought him I was immature and full of nonsense. I wasn't prepared for anything like Shavers. But Norton...I can see the fight now. I'll show you how the fight is going to go."
Young stands up. He begins circling slowly, dragging his right foot. "Norton is going to plod and drag his foot like this, keeping his right hand way back here, like this. I'll come out left-hooking, just waiting for him to move that right hand. Then I'm going to drop my right hand right in there. That's what will happen. He will give me a pretty good fight. He'll pressure me. But if he puts on too much pressure, I'll just tie him up until he stops. I'm not going to just stand there and let him lay punches on me all night. I've got to be careful, because he's awkward and wild. I'm going to tie him up until he gets tired of it, until he starts taking his time. Then I'm going to box him to death."
Young continues to circle, pantomiming the fight, first playing the role of Norton, dragging the right foot, right hand cocked high, looking puzzled, then playing himself, bobbing and weaving, in and out, hooking, a 28-year-old artist at work. Finally, laughing, he quits.
"When it's over, I'm going to go out and count the cash," he says. "I never worry about the cash until it's over. And after counting the cash, I'm going to look for old Ali. Old Ali is going to be surprised. I've got a whole new bag of tricks for old Ali."