The occasion did not produce what would be called a glittering fight crowd. Instead, it drew some 2,000 bloodthirsty, mostly beery, wise guys packed shoulder to shoulder in a produce market down by the docks in Toronto. But the name—the first "So You Think You're Tough Amateur Heavyweight Championship"—was certainly appealing, and the event featured 20 of maybe the meanest men in town. Most of them had never been in a ring before, if you didn't count the ones they left in the bathtub.
The tournament was promoted last week by cigar-chomping Irv Ungerman—who obviously stepped right out of Central Casting—and his partner, Vince Bagnato. When he is not promoting fights, Ungerman manages the family chicken-plucking business in Toronto. Before the tournament, he allowed that "We got dock workers, bartenders, bouncers, maybe an ex-con or two, a truck driver, a few loonies and God knows what else. But each of 'em gets $200 in expense money if they fight tonight. And the winner, mind you, the winner gets $1,000—if he wants to turn professional. I hope a real prospect wins here, because I want to promote him. I guess we're all really hoping for another Chuvalo."
George Chuvalo, the Canadian heavyweight champion who lost a 15-round decision to Muhammad Ali, then better known as Cassius Clay, in 1966, was "discovered" in 1956 in' a similar contest called "The Jack Dempsey Tournament."
At the weigh-in, however, there didn't seem to be many budding George Chuvalos in sight. The evening's format called for a series of elimination bouts, each of them for three two-minute rounds, with the fighters wearing 10-ounce gloves. Bottom weight was set at 174 pounds. It was clear that only a few of the entrants were in any kind of fighting shape.
January 29, 1979
"Does that thing go past 300?" said truck driver Danny Sullivan, 26, when he stepped on the scales. The scales did indeed—and so did the gigantic (6'5") barrel-stomached Sullivan. He weighed in at 325 pounds.
"I've never had boxing gloves on before," said Sullivan, examining his knuckles. "All my fights have been in the streets and in bars. But hell, I've got nothing to lose. I'll do a couple off-loads from the truck this afternoon and then go and have a few beers and I'll be ready to fight tonight."
Des McLelland, owner of a construction firm who had had a "few" amateur fights—contestants were allowed up to 10 previous matches—was more serious, and in what seemed to be excellent shape. "I want to win it; this could be a big breakthrough for me," he said. "But I'll be gracious about it. I'll carry my opponent for a round before I dump him. I don't want anybody to look bad."
And there in the parade of tattoos, biceps and paunches was Roosevelt Joseph, 26, a 230-pound welder. At 5'8", Joseph resembled a large and very dangerous toad. He watched the proceedings placidly, saying nothing. As it turned out, he didn't have to. An old fighter named "Saxophone" looked at Roosevelt Joseph and said it for him: "Most of these other boys got no sense."
That night the drawing for the first bouts produced what could only be called odd pairings, some with 100-pound weight differences. Most of the fighters adopted Muhammad Ali-like expressions and boxing styles that ranged from rope-a-dope to snarl-a-dope and shuffle-a-dope. They also tended to favor bolo punches and taunts. The problem was that most of the bravado lasted only a few seconds and most of the combatants were exhausted within a minute after the round began.
Happily, the officials running the show somehow conspired to keep the tournament almost free of injuries. The evening's carnage added up to one sprained hand, one torn shoulder ligament and a few cases of well-rung chimes. There were three knockouts in the 18 matches, seven TKOs, six decisions, one disqualification for lack of interest and one fight called on account of pain.
The crowd, which included the inspirational Chuvalo, cheered lustily, applauding displays of heart as well as boxing talent. There was only one tense moment; the spectators turned surly when the vendors ran out of beer.
Danny Sullivan entered the ring late for his bout because of delay in borrowing a protective cup. His outfit of bathing trunks, running shoes and a beach towel sporting pink flamingos was typical of the evening. But, alas, Sullivan learned that street fighting is different from boxing—he got a stitch in his side and couldn't continue after 1:58 of the first round.
Des McLelland, true to his prediction, outboxed his man in the first round and took him out with a TKO in the second. Perhaps the best boxer of the night, 170-pound John Scott—who was allowed to enter the tournament because Ungerman had seen him fight before—winningly pasted one James Chard with well-thrown combinations.
And, finally, the impassive, keg-shaped Roosevelt Joseph showed everybody why he had been so relaxed.
Joseph came shuffling out throwing monstrous jabs and long, loopy hooks of considerable power to produce the first knockout of the night, blasting Brian Hardman into the ropes at 1:06 of the first round. In fact, Joseph worked only about 10 minutes in four bouts, collecting two knockouts and two TKOs.
In their semifinal match, McLelland simply refused to come off the ropes in the third round to face more battering by Joseph. Instead, smiling gamely, he tried coaxing Joseph to come to him. But Joseph stood solidly in the center of the ring, shrugging wearily and gazing into the far distance. The referee finally determined that McLelland would assuredly be out of his mind to step out and take more punishment, and declared Joseph the winner by a TKO. All of which brought up Scott, the aforementioned classy boxer.
Unhappily, Scott had absorbed something of a brutal walloping in winning his semifinal on a decision, and after a scowling Joseph connected with two haymaker lefts, Scott simply shook his head. When it wouldn't clear, he sat down quietly in a corner and spat out his mouthpiece. The fight was scored as a knockout and Toronto's new champ was crowned.
Joseph, wearing the kind of bathrobe somebody's mom might give him for Christmas, said afterward, "I'll turn professional. I'm a welder, mon, and I need the money." Born in Aruba, raised in Grenada and England, Joseph moved to Toronto two years ago and took up boxing, "to lose a little weight, you know. I belong to a club now and I like to work with kids. But I got really interested in the sport, and I guess I'm good at it. My welding work is heavy, so I have much power in my punches."
All of which brought up the title of the competition. Did Joseph, indeed, think he was the toughest of them all? "Oh, my goodness, no," he said. And then he fell silent and stared off into the distance again.
The crowd probably would not have agreed with Joseph's self-assessment. But the crowd had left. Something about getting out of there and going someplace where a guy could get a beer.