With one more bout to go in the national AAU boxing championships, Greg Page is lounging in his motel room at Biloxi, Miss. Page is a 19-year-old high school senior. He is also a heavyweight, with 212 pounds on a 6'2½" frame. He hammers a few punches into the pillow on his bed and allows, "I don't like to say nothing"—thud, thud—"that I can't live up to." Whack.
The statement is intriguing. Perhaps Page is a modest fighter, something usually considered a contradiction in terms. If that's the case, how would Page candidly assess his abilities?
"I got Sugar Ray Robinson's smartness," he says. Wham. "I got Jersey Joe Walcott's moves, Joe Louis' jab—and Muhammad Ali's style." Thwack.
Is there anything that Greg Page might possibly be lacking?
"Not that I can think of." Thud. And modesty, always wobbly in the boxing world, is down for the count again.
There are some critics who don't have as much trouble as Page has thinking of things that he might, indeed, lack. Defense tops everybody's list. Some folks also wonder if his moves are as good as his mouth, and there is concern that he might go too quickly for professional dollars when more amateur medals and experience might serve him better for a few years.
Still, nobody disputes the fact that Page is the class of amateur boxing this season, the charismatic figure, the one who is trailed by kids with pencils raised and by grown men with pride lowered who are honored to act as go-fers. Page blitzed the field of 36 heavyweights last week, even though his road to the title was smoothed when both his quarterfinal and semifinal opponents were stricken at the last moment with physical problems and forced to withdraw. "I understand," says Page. "I wouldn't want to fight me, either."
Dr. Edwin Campbell reported that quarterfinalist Steve Zouski of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. had a swollen hand and a bruised, possibly broken, nose. Semifinalist Ed Gregg of New York was suffering from a swollen left shoulder. There were unofficial suggestions that both fighters had contracted a new malady in the division, Pageitis.
A clue that this year's tournament belonged to Greg Page came when he failed to report early in the week for the required physical exam. Officials bent the rules—he could have been automatically disqualified—and Robert J. Surkein, AAU boxing chairman, said, "We're going to give him his first second chance."
Page didn't need any more breaks, although his final match against Cincinnati's Tony Tubbs Saturday night was no laugher. It was the fifth time in seven meetings over the years that Page has whipped Tubbs. Four of the judges awarded Page all three rounds, the fifth gave one round to Tubbs.
All through the bout Page was dancing, dancing, dancing, just like you know who. His dancing was indeed terrific; his punching was not. By the second round, although Page was established as the one who looked like the better fighter, Tubbs was landing all the punches. Page did score with a few jabs, but his right hands, with one notable exception, were short when he failed to step into his punches. He also showed a marked inability to put combinations together.
"Neither one of' em did nothin'," said Pappy Gault, the 1968 U.S. Olympic boxing coach. Another critic of Page had a similar view: "If his fighting correlated with his eminence, he would have been great."
Predictably. Page, whose speed and reflexes are excellent, found nothing lacking in his performance. His opponent's punches were deficient in power, he said, and he told his trainer, LeRoy Edmerson, "If I'd had another minute, he was going, honest."
Having thus won his second straight AAU title ("Naw, it's not exciting, since I've done it before"), Page promptly began giving AAU officials the jitters by pointing out that the World Championships May 6 to 20 in Belgrade conflict with his high school prom and graduation in Louisville and that, well, he just might stay home. Nobody took him seriously, but he said it seriously. Page knows that everybody is looking at him and it is clear that he doesn't know how to react. He professes to love the public, but during the AAUs he avoided most interviews. He would roam the new Biloxi coliseum as if in search of autograph seekers and, in a broader sense, as if he were in search of an identity.
Page looks like Ali, shuffles like Ali, drops his hands like Ali, is a sucker for kids like Ali, comes from Louisville like Ali, attends Central High as Ali did—and yet has been known to take offense when somebody has the nerve to suggest that there seem to be similarities with Ali. "I feel I'm better than he is," Page says.
It is true that much of the professional heavyweight picture is not particularly inspiring. "The proof," says Surkein, "is that Scott LeDoux is ranked in the U.S." Still, there is a great disparity in opinions about Page's ability. Surkein says there are five or six pro heavyweights who could mop up Greg today. Roily Schwartz, the 1976 Olympic coach whose blood is colored AAU, says he thinks that Page is the No. 1 heavyweight in the world and he doesn't even list a professional until his No. 6 choice, Leon Spinks.
Colonel Don Hull, longtime AAU kingpin, is asked if he thinks Page is ready to turn pro. "In the eyes of the promoters he is." Greg's uncle, Dennis Page, insists that decision is up to Greg. "He'll know when it's time." Uncle Dennis says that Page was offered $60,000 to turn pro when he was 15. That was one year after a prominent Louisville coach looked at Page and said, "He's the world's worst. He's clumsy and awkward." Retorted trainer Edmerson. "Gee, he's only a kid." And while Page is still a kid in many ways, Dennis says that offers have risen to $3.5 million and beyond—to "I'll top any offer." Top Rank is hot on the trail; Boston sportsman and boxing figure Peter Fuller has made calls. "Money don't move us," says Dennis. What does move them? "That's for all of them to figure out."
When people say it's not the money, it usually is. But Uncle Dennis persists, "Peace of mind is better than a piece of money anytime. We don't want to be possessed by money. What we want is to create an overall atmosphere so Greg will say, 'Hey, this is exactly what I want to do.' "
Surkein suggests that Page, with an 81-11 record, doesn't yet have a national rep that can be marketed. "I'm all for him turning pro when the time is right," Surkein says. A nice time, he thinks, would be one day after the 1980 Olympics. "Win the gold," says Surkein, "and he can walk into a contract that will net him $10 million over two or three years." But Dennis, the emerging majordomo in the Page entourage, is not starstruck by the thought of Olympic gold. "Before then," he says, "we can get more than any medal can get us. Besides, if we are forced or pushed to do things we don't want to do as amateurs, why not at least do it for money?" The lingering hope harbored by amateur fans is that Greg may conclude that with only a couple of years until Moscow, he might as well stand to one side and let the current ranking pro heavyweights bang each other around for a while, and he will then step in to add some real gold to his Olympic gold in the fall of 1980.
Back in the motel room, a visitor accepts Page's offer of a soft drink. "That will be 50 cents," says Page solemnly. Money is never far from anybody's mind in the Page camp.
Ironically, the feeling that Page may turn in his amateur card sooner than some would like has been brought on by the AAU, which ended up getting about $500,000 from ABC in exchange for recent telecasts of 11 boxing shows. Page ended up getting exposure. Surkein says the AAU boxing fund had $22,000 in it a year ago; today it has $280,000. The general fund has been enriched by about $150,000. "We made Page," says Surkein. "Without all we've done, he'd be just another nobody."
But while attention focused on Page during the tournament, which attracted 452 boxers from around the country, eyes did drift toward Clinton Jackson, 23, the light-middleweight deputy sheriff from Nashville with the fast-draw fists. Jackson is coach of the Sheriffs Department Boxing Club, and it was thought that Clint and his posse (eight members of the Nashville club competed in Biloxi) might round themselves up a trunkload of awards. Instead, it was the posse that got ambushed, and when Jackson was left alone to guard the door he, too, was done in. All this just when it looked as if Jackson would annex his fifth straight AAU title.
The perpetrator of the crime was Roger Leonard, brother of ex-Olympian Sugar Ray. Roger, who had lost five previous fights to Jackson, had boasted before the fight, "Clinton Jackson wants to kill me, so I'm gonna burn him." That was filed by experts under idle boasts, since Leonard was not impressive in his earlier bouts, while Jackson was building on his solid reputation as a boxer's boxer, maybe the best amateur in the country. By the second round, Leonard clearly was avoiding the menacing Jackson right hook and was beating Clint to the punch. By the third round, Leonard had neutralized Jackson's power. Later, Jackson disagreed with the decision ("I won the fight and I know it") while Leonard's analysis was stuck at one phrase: "I beat him, man. I beat him. I beat Clinton Jackson." And while moments after a fight are not the best time for decision-making, Jackson said he was through as an amateur and would only fight again as a pro—if that.
Now the winners prepare to go to Belgrade. At least most of them do. Three are only 16, one year too young for international bouts. Thus, replacements have been selected for James Cullins, 106 pounds; Jackie Beard, 119; and Donald Curry, 139.
But back at Greg Page's weight (Colonel Hull thinks the public fixes on the heavies because "they make the most noise when they fall down"), hope is in full bloom. And Page is confident that he is the boss. "Nobody tells me what to do," says Greg. Uncle Dennis agrees: "If he decides to give up boxing, that's fine. After all, his basic interest is laying bricks." Thud.