It was like the difference between December and May. When Michael Dokes lifted Mike Weaver's WBA heavyweight title five months ago at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, the consensus was that Referee Joey Curtis had prematurely stopped the fight after only 63 seconds. True, Weaver had been knocked down, but otherwise he seemed O.K. That night Dokes bathed in champagne, but not praise.
After last Friday night's WBA-ordered rematch across the street at the Dunes Hotel, the right side of the 24-year-old Dokes's head was swollen and his left thumb looked as if it had tangled with a snake. And Weaver had to go to Desert Springs Hospital to repair a two-inch cut in his left eyebrow and a smaller gash next to his right eye. The action was virtually nonstop, but the ending was almost as controversial as the last time these two fought: Dokes kept the title with a 15-round majority-decision draw—the first heavyweight title draw since Jack Johnson vs. Battling Jim Johnson in 1913.
Going into the rematch it was generally assumed that Dokes (26-0-1) was the superior fighter. When he weighed in at 223 pounds—seven more than for the first fight and a reported 15 more than he had weighed a month before the bout—it was clear that Dokes was also a champion chowhound.
Weaver has been something of a titlist among enigmas: Since the night three years ago when he took Big John Tate's WBA crown with a 15th-round knockout, Weaver has seemed unwilling to fight. He'd had only those 63 seconds against Dokes in the last 594 days, not much action for a 30-year-old in a trade that demands steady work of its masters.
To be sure, Weaver's manager, Don Manuel, had demanded a rescheduling from the WBA immediately after the Dec. 10 debacle. "I told them we'd give Dokes the first round, and we could restart the fight," Manuel said. Weaver, who came in at 218½ with a 24-10 record, had a strategy, something he had been unable to implement in December. "If he runs at me," Weaver said, "I'll have my left waiting for him." But that jab would come later, because the fight opened with Weaver, a notoriously slow starter, delivering a solid roundhouse left, high on Dokes's head.
For the next 45 seconds, they went for broke. "That round was like three. We were both caught up in it," said Dokes. "We were playing king of the hill." Weaver threw circling haymakers, only a few of which landed. Dokes launched crisper, straight inside shots that scored more frequently than Weaver's. Dokes then backed off, winded. He punched effectively off a backpedal until he jammed his thumb against Weaver's head late in the third round. Dokes's jab then lost its snap, and Weaver kept advancing—every round saw him begin the action in the quarter of the ring nearest Dokes's corner—behind his own left jab. Weaver led, countered Dokes's jab and double-jabbed. Dokes would hold his own for an exchange and then clinch at every opportunity. Dokes had never been past 10 rounds; it was hot (86° at fight time), and the younger—but flabbier—fighter was retreating with a damaged lead hand. Weaver, it seemed, was in control.
"Dokes shot his wad after the first three rounds," said Judge Larry Hazzard. "Dokes would throw two shots and hold," said Ray Barnes, Weaver's trainer. "All Mike had to do was turn away and Dokes would have fallen on his face." The weight, which seemed to be helping to do Dokes in, had been written off by his camp as one of the natural processes of growth. When a reporter asked Dokes, "Isn't this the biggest you've ever been?" he responded by saying, "Yeah, and it's the oldest I've ever been, too."
Dokes got a warning for low blows in the fourth from Referee Richard Steele. "You could tell that Dokes was tired, that he couldn't get his punches up," said Hazzard. "If Steele had taken away a point for those blows, it would have been Weaver's fight."
Dokes's diminishing power encouraged Weaver to wade in, picking off Dokes's jabs and going righthand crazy. In the ninth Weaver hurt Dokes with a wicked left hook and came back with a right to the head along the ropes. Dokes held on, but a Weaver left hook to the jaw with five seconds left in the round twisted Dokes away. In the 10th, Dokes smashed a short right square on Weaver's eye. What had been a small cut sliced open. Then in Round 11, Dokes somehow found a second wind.
"Maybe in the end the extra weight helped Dokes," said former heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, who once employed Weaver as a sparring partner. "He had some liquids left." Judge Harold Letterman, who scored the bout 143-143, and Judge Jerry Roth, who had it 145-141 for Dokes, gave the 11th and 12th to Dokes; Hazzard (144-144) gave him the 12th. That was the cushion he needed to go with his early success. "Dokes could have won it easy, by two points, if he'd come out and won the 15th," Hazzard said. "But he didn't. Or couldn't."
Weaver was the more damaged participant, though Dokes was cut in the left eyelid as well. "This was the toughest fight I ever had," Dokes said with a sigh. "He hurt me with that body shot in the ninth.
"I'll fight anybody, as long as it isn't Weaver. They'll have to strip my title first."
Which is the one thing neither Weaver nor two of the judges could do last week. Perhaps the most accurate assessment came from one of many amateur ringside officials in attendance, Muhammad Ali. "Still Dokes," he said, "but so close."