Not even the BBC, the masters of high drama in England, could have come up with a better final scene. It wouldn't have dared. The whole event lacked understatement and reserve, two national treasures, and that would never do. But on Sunday in, of all places, Las Vegas, the famed British sangfroid disappeared.
First there was the closing melee in the 15th round, with the world middleweight champion, Vito Antuofermo, and English challenger Alan Minter slugging it out. And then the bell ringing and the handlers scrambling into the ring and hoisting their fighters on their shoulders. Each thinking he had won, the fighters held their hands aloft, making the traditional "V" for victory sign. Then came the announcer's voice, almost drowned out by the noisy crowd, proclaiming that Minter, by a split decision, was the new undisputed middleweight champion of the world. And there was Minter, momentarily overwhelmed, dropping to his knees and bursting into tears. As a final touch, at least 1.000 Englishmen stood in the Sports Pavilion at Caesars Palace—5,200 miles from the pubs of London and Liverpool—some singing "Alan Meen-tah, Alan Meen-tah, we'll support you evermore. ..." Others were waving Union Jacks and chanting the name of their light-foot lad from Crawley, in Sussex—"Meen-tah! Meen-tah! Meen-tah!"
Alan Minter thus became only the third Englishman ever to hold the middleweight crown (Randy Turpin beat Sugar Ray Robinson for the title in 1951 and Terry Downes stopped Paul Pender in the ninth round in 1961).
Minter and his cornermen used two code terms to remind themselves of their strategy for beating Antuofermo—"CB" for clever boxing and "CA" for controlled aggression. And that, in broadest terms, is what Minter used to defeat Antuofermo, who was making the second defense of his title. Through guile and grit and using his skills as a boxer to decisive effect, the 28-year-old southpaw took charge early, kept the champion off balance, controlled most of the fight and recaptured the initiative when it seemed that Antuofermo had seized it from him in the middle rounds.
Although the thousand-odd Englishmen were in an uproar when the decision was announced, Antuofermo was stunned and silent—"What can I say?"—and many others were at least mildly surprised and arguing into the wee hours over who the real winner was and why. The official scoring was no help. In fact, it only fueled the dispute. The three judges, presumably observing the same fight, came to conclusions so sharply divergent that they might as well have judged it sitting under the ring, listening to footsteps.
Antuofermo, 28, is a survivor, an infighting body puncher who pressures and pursues an opponent, and he is not a man whose work can be easily judged. He won the title last June 30 on a split decision, beating Hugo Corro in Monte Carlo, and in the first defense of his title in Las Vegas last November, he just gained a draw against Marvin Hagler, a decision widely and hotly disputed.
So the fight on Sunday had familiar echoes, though Antuofermo was beaten this time. For most of the early rounds, throwing a left off his right jab, Minter kept Antuofermo at bay. The champion charged and bulled, trying to get inside, where he does his best work, but there the attacks would end. Repeatedly the two men wound up in a lurching embrace, with Referee Carlos Padilla, who had no vote in the decision under Nevada rules, stepping in to break them.
"The referee wouldn't let me fight," Antuofermo complained. "Any time I got on top of him, the referee grabbed me. With Hagler I was able to fight on top because the referee let me fight."
"I had to break them," Padilla said. "There should be no holding, no clinching, only hitting. What they were doing was not infighting. Infighting is not holding." With his inside attack weakened, and Minter sticking with the jab and popping hard lefts, Antuofermo had trouble getting off effective combinations.
Both men bleed easily and freely, but this was not the bloodbath many had expected. And neither man was ever in serious trouble. Antuofermo dropped Minter—the only knockdown in the fight, in the 14th round—with one of his infrequent left-right combinations, but it appeared as much a slip as a decking, and the embarrassed Minter was quickly on his feet, unhurt.
Under the 10-point-must system. Judge Charles Minker of Las Vegas scored the fight 144-141 for Minter, giving him nine rounds with one a draw. Ladaslad Sanchez of Venezuela scored it for Antuofermo, 145-143, with four rounds even, while Judge Roland Dakin of England had it 149-137, giving all but one round, the 14th, to his countryman, with one round even. It was Dakin's scoring that caused the most furor.
Dakin himself took the fuss calmly. "Nonsense," he said, adding, "If it hadn't been for my scorecard in Monte Carlo, Antuofermo would not have been the champion. I was the deciding judge when he beat Corro. Didn't argue about that one, did he?"
The scoring gave rise to an age-old issue in boxing, with the head of the World Boxing Council, Josè Sulaimàn, jumping into the fray and calling for closer scrutiny in picking officials and clearer guidelines in the judging of fights.
None of this perturbed Minter, however. "It was a hell of a fight," he told Antuofermo when they met outside the ring. "You're a great fighter."
For the moment, Minter basked in his new celebrity, though he seemed curiously subdued. He sensed a winding down. What he had done was just beginning to dawn on him. "You dream of this day, and after it's all happened it's like an ordinary fight, isn't it?" he said. "I'm happy, so happy. I can't put it into words. But I don't show it, do I? I will."
With his wife Lorraine clutching Minter's new belt—his championship belt—he left the arena and strolled through the hotel lobby to the cheers of his countrymen. They had come from all over England, some of them friends and acquaintances, many of them not, and during the days before the fight they had gambled at the tables, lined up three deep at the bars, trooped through the casino wearing top hats papered with the Union Jack and sang their pub songs. Now they were reveling in the victory, reaching out to shake Minter's hand—"You've done us proud, lad!"—and patting him on the back. He had heard their cries and shouts between each round, heard the chant of "Meen-tah!"
"When you're tired and have to dig down to find some more, the boost helps you dig," he said. "And rise. Know what I mean?"
He rose high enough on Sunday, higher than he ever had since the time his father first took him to an amateur boxing club in Crawley, when he was 11. "From the day I took him there, that was it," said his father, Sid Minter, a bear-sized man who runs the Linden Club, an afternoon drinking spot, in the town of Brighton. "First fight he got a hammerin'. But he learned."
Minter learned chiefly from the owner of the amateur club, Doug Bidwell, for whom he has fought all his life. Not only is he Minter's trainer/manager, but his father-in-law as well; Minter married Bidwell's daughter five years ago. And together they own a restuarant, called Minter's, in Crawley, a town of about 67.500 some 30 miles south of London. The restaurant is something of a historic landmark. It was built as a Jesuit abbey in 1150, and until 18 years ago it still housed some of the secrets and riches of the order. "They tore off the roof one day to restrengthen it," says Minter. "They looked down and found chapels behind the fireplace. They also found money, pots and drinking goblets." But it was boxing, not business, that first brought Minter and Bidwell together and has kept them together through the years.
Bidwell trained Minter through a distinguished amateur career, in which he won 90 of 112 fights, 16 of the victories while representing England in international competition. It culminated when he won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Since turning pro in October 1972 he has won 38 of 44 fights, 22 by knockout, and lost five. One ended in a "no contest" in the second round. "I got disqualified for not giving my best," he says. That was in 1974 against Jan Magdziarz.
"There have been some ups and downs," Minter says. "Some people wrote me off after that. I was also beginning to get hurt in fights. But I carried on and I carried on." And he brought himself back up. A year after the disqualification, Minter fulfilled an old dream by winning the British middleweight title, beating Kevin Finnegan over 15 rounds. He won the European title three years ago when he knocked out Germano Valescchi in Milan in five. "My ambition after turning professional was to win the British title," he says. "I did that. Then it was to win the European title. I did that." And then, by simple elimination, it was to win the world title. The quest left him a saddening legacy to live with. On July 19, 1978, he knocked out Angelo Jacopucci in the 12th round of their European title fight; the next day Jacopucci died as a result of a brain injury. But Minter came back from that, too. He has fought hard to stay ranked and to be regarded as one of the best middleweights in the world. He had been among the best for several years—a tough, wily boxer with sharp, crisp punches—when he got his shot at Antuofermo. It was what he had been fighting for. "Not so much the money," he says. "Basically, to me, it's the glory. Know what I mean? It's being recognized. You're somebody."
This somebody knew his day had come when, while in Las Vegas to see the Antuofermo-Hagler fight, he got a chance to sit and talk with Vito. "I think you'll beat Hagler," Minter told him. Antuofermo looked at him and smiled. "That means there'll be me and you," he said.
For an hour on Sunday, it was just those two in the Sports Pavilion at Caesars. But in the final scene, to lusty chants and song and the waving of the Union Jack, there was just one.