In the last minute of the last round of Saturday's WBC welterweight championship bout at Las Vegas, Colin Jones of Wales, nearly blinded by sweat in the 106° desert heat, showed his teeth in a rabid wolf's grin at Milton McCrory's corner, then closed again with McCrory in a slamming, toe-to-toe exchange that had started with the bell for the round.
And the bell that ended it was a signal for chaos as the ring filled with the red T shirts of Jones's men, the red and yellow of McCrory's, and both boxers were lifted high in victory. Was it conceivable—and, yes, it was more than conceivable—that the draw the two had fought to in March as they went after the title Sugar Ray Leonard had vacated was going to be repeated?
For long minutes, both bands of partisans roared in triumph. Then another bell and the verdict: a split decision for McCrory. The Detroit fighter had won by virtue of the courage he displayed against Jones's onslaught in the 12th, an attack that could not compensate for Jones's curiously lackluster eighth round.
Back at winter's end, on March 19, Jones had come to Reno as an unknown outsider—you could have bet 6-1 against his beating McCrory. It is boxing history now, how after a slow, bewildered start, Jones reversed the tide in mid-fight and, but for a strange lack of concentration in the last round, might have taken the title outright instead of coming away with a draw.
No such generous odds prevailed around the Dunes Hotel this time, even though Jones was still a 2-1 underdog. McCrory, 21, belongs to that extraordinary seminary of fighters that goes by the name of the Kronk Boxing Team, and it seemed almost all of Kronk's 25 frontline boxers were in Las Vegas last week. They worked out each day along with McCrory in a makeshift gym at the Dunes. There was no shouting, and no music, only controlled, modulated instructions by assistants of the Kronk's director and McCrory's manager, Emanuel Steward. In Steward's suite one day, he was running yet again a videotape of the first Jones-McCrory fight. At the start of Round 2, Steward leaned forward. "Watch now," he said. "Just about a minute after the bell. There! You see it?"
One could detect a slight pulling back, a flinching by McCrory as he delivered a right. To McCrory and Steward, this was the moment when Jones-McCrory I had gone wrong. McCrory's first 17 pro fights had ended in KOs, but the last four had gone the distance.
"I had to move away in those four fights," McCrory said. "Fight one-handed. Usually it was in the sixth or seventh the hand would go, but with Jones it went in the second. I kept throwing it, but never with full power. Even blocking shots was hurting my right wrist. But the power is back now."
McCrory was confident of this because of the therapy he has been receiving from Dr. Anthony Daly of Los Angeles, who diagnosed the problem in the wrist as tendinitis. "This fight won't go the distance, man," McCrory predicted. "McCrory won't just be a jabber and a runner in this fight. McCrory's Force is with him." Steward was even more positive. "He'll knock this kid out in five," he said. "I have no major concern over this fight."
Nor did any of McCrory's fans show concern in the first four rounds. Although McCrory failed to show the early zip he had in the first match, suddenly, only seconds before the end of the first round, Jones was wide open and McCrory put him down with a classic left and right to the chin. It was the first time in his pro career that Jones had been knocked down, and it was not serious enough to keep the Welshman from winking at his corner as he rose at once. But a loud chant of "Iceman! Iceman!" went up. "Iceman gonna be crowned!"
However, Iceman McCrory (as his fans like to call him) was not entirely fulfilling his promise to refrain from jabbing and running. When he did come forward, Jones slipped many of the left jabs and hooks that McCrory was throwing at his head and body while at the same time plainly trying to get inside to negate McCrory's two-inch-reach and five-inch-height advantage.
Toward the middle of Round 4, Jones hurt McCrory with a heavy left hook. Yet there was no follow-up, McCrory again running out of trouble, scoring on the retreat with light lefts. It seemed, though, that this time Jones was going to come into the fight a good deal earlier than he had in Reno, which was just what his manager, Eddie Thomas, had planned.
"Colin's going to start in on him early, then McCrory's going to run," Thomas had said. "And if he runs, he'll burn up. You can't run away from the sun." The remark had seemed not without an element of wishful thinking, since it was logical to assume that, coming from cool Wales, Jones might have to struggle to overcome that factor himself. "Thank God for the 12-round rule in a place like this," Thomas had added, "though it would have been our fight if it had gone 15 in Reno. I'm told the Kronk [he made it sound like an entity from Star Wars IV] keeps their gym heated to 100 degrees."
Jones had worked out in the Nevada heat for four weeks, but instead of having Jones spar up to nine rounds a day, as he would have at home, Thomas kept him to a maximum of seven.
Last week a 200-strong contingent of Welsh supporters showed up in Vegas and promptly took over the bar at the Dunes. Jones dropped by each night, protectively flanked by his father, Raymond, and brother, Ken, and was relaxed and happy—until two days before the fight.
That was when Promoter Don King, having found a fiscal mess at the financially pressured Dunes, caused some anxious moments. On Thursday morning Jones sat bleak-faced in his manager's room, staring at an open magazine without reading it, still trying to absorb what he understood to be King's suggestion that Jones take a one-third cut in the purse he had been promised before he left Wales—$300,000, that is, instead of $450,000, a record sum for a British boxer. "A little naughty, isn't it? Two days before the fight," said Thomas. "Look what it's doing to my fighter."
Lawyers moved in. By day's end the matter was settled, and King dropped the issue. But it was still uncertain how the business had affected Jones, though an answer might have been found when it came to Round 7 against McCrory.
The fifth had been the first round the Welshman clearly won. In the sixth it was obvious that McCrory was losing confidence. He was lying on Jones to smother the punches and looking anxiously at his corner.
It was in the seventh that Jones unleashed an attack of such fury that he might have been seeing King, not McCrory, in front of him. He started early with a jolting right hook to McCrory's jaw, followed it with a left hook to the body, and from then on it was barely possible to count the punches that had McCrory rolling back.
The Iceman, in fact, looked to be melting. Indeed, the name has always been a puzzling one. In reality, it is tempting to mark a big "N" ahead of the "ice" because it would be difficult to find a milder-mannered fighter than McCrory. At the end of what appeared to be a disastrous round for McCrory, one reflected on the curiously passionless attitude he had displayed about his boxing. "This is a job to me," he had said earlier. "When this fight's over, I'll stay away from boxing as long as I can. I don't want to read about it, talk about it. Baseball is what I love. My sports hero is Al Kaline...."
But some patron saint of baseball lovers must have been looking down because, extraordinarily, in the eighth, Jones let McCrory rest, recover, did just enough to keep McCrory from winning the round; stood there and let the Detroiter off the hook. Not until late in the ninth did Jones chase McCrory in earnest again, catching him with a left hook to the temple, then with a combination. But it was too late.
"There's a crown out there, Iceman," McCrory's fans yelled, sensing that he could make it on his left jab and his boxing skill. And so he did, though that wild and bloody last round showed that to both fighters the issue was still open.
Afterward, Thomas said he had told Jones to take it easy in the eighth. He was worried about the heat, he said. Had Jones followed that advice too faithfully? It was in the eighth, after all, that he had lost the fight.
"Milton controlled the tempo all through," said Steward at a postfight press conference, but he didn't sound as if he had even convinced himself. McCrory said nothing. Jones stood up as seriously as if he were addressing a formal meeting, then burst into tears. Then the fighters embraced.
"It could be the beginning of another Ali-Frazier series," Steward said, and maybe he meant it. "But I don't want to see Jones again for at least a year."
"But next time in Wales," said Thomas, counterpunching.
And over there, should they ever get to see a fight like McCrory-Jones I or II, it might even wean them off rugby.