In the event that you understandably fell asleep during HBO's telecast of last Friday night's WBC "heavyweight championship" fight in Las Vegas, the whale in the white trunks playing pat-a-cake didn't win. The guy in the black trunks, who looked like Captain Ahab slinging harpoons from a foundering rowboat, did—by two overly zealous votes and one abstention. Yawn! And the heavyweight champion of the world is still Larry Holmes, who went 12 rounds at ringside wearing a dark-blue suit and an expression of disdain.
Now that he has turned his broad back on the WBC and promoter Don King, Holmes has been training in Reno, where on April 6 he'll, so to speak, defend his latest "world" title, this one sanctioned by the International Boxing Federation, against John Tate, a fight that no network has the gall to televise. All week Holmes seemed uninterested in the battle between the whale, a.k.a. Greg Page, and Tim Witherspoon for the title Holmes had vacated last December. But at the last moment Holmes flew down to see who'd claim the crown he'd won in 1978 and successfully defended 17 times.
"I knew I should've stayed home," Holmes said after watching Witherspoon plod to a majority decision over Page. "I'd have seen more action watching some old lady play the slot machines at the MGM Grand. At least she might have hit something once in a while."
The interest in this fight, such as it was, stemmed from the fact that the 34-year-old Holmes late last year had refused King's offer to fight the No. 1-ranked Page "for only $2.55 million," which led Holmes to surrender his WBC title rather than make the mandatory defense. And only 10 months ago Holmes had to rally to win a split decision over the relatively unknown Witherspoon.
"I beat him," Witherspoon said last week.
"I would've beat him," said Page.
"We beat him," the WBC and King seemed to be saying when, after a lengthy prefight roll call of the boxing celebrities on hand in the Convention Center, it became apparent they were studiously ignoring Holmes's presence by not introducing him to the crowd of 3,000.
Ring announcer Chuck Hall said he was first told to introduce Holmes as the retired WBC champion, subsequently not to introduce him at all. "Then," Hall said, "I was told to introduce him after the fight as the former champ. I guess they figured they'd have a new champion by then and that would make him a former one. It was embarrassing. Afterward I went to Larry and apologized."
As Holmes looked serenely on, the 25-year-old Page entered the ring. He'd weighed in at a blubbery 239½ pounds nearly 30 hours earlier, and it was apparent that he hadn't skipped any meals since then. Page's appetite for ice cream, sodas and junk food is legendary. Somewhere under all that jiggling suet there may be one hell of a tall middleweight.
The 6'3" Page doesn't take kindly to remarks about his girth. "I don't care about my weight," he said Thursday, biting off each word. "I'm not going to let a couple of pounds worry me. I can carry it. I don't have a V-shaped body. So what? I may look puffy, but I'm physically in excellent condition."
Leroy Edmerson, one of Page's trainers, said his fighter really didn't weigh that much. "We slipped seven pounds of lead into a pouch and hid it in his trunks," the trainer confided. "We were trying to psych Witherspoon."
If so, it didn't work. In fact, Aaron Snowell, Witherspoon's 24-year-old trainer, almost fell down from laughing. "Seven pounds of lead? You tell me where they put it without anyone noticing it."
A pleasant young man of considerable talents, Page has been something of an enigma. He's the purest of boxers and has taken a page from the stylebook of his hometown Louisville idol, the swift and graceful Muhammad Ali. But there had been times during some of his 23 victories in 24 fights before meeting Witherspoon when he'd looked dull and sloppy. Still, his only loss, by a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick in 1982, came after Page had fractured his right thumb in the second round.
"All my career, people have been second-guessing me," Page said. "That used to bother me, but not anymore. People don't understand boxing. It's an art. They think of it as a brutal sport. The object of boxing isn't to hurt people; the object is to win by scoring the most points. But I think I'm going to hurt Witherspoon. He's said things he didn't have to say. He's written a check with his mouth that his behind can't cash."
There was little doubt about the way Witherspoon, a 26-year-old product of the South Philadelphia gyms, would fight. He goes at only one speed—slow—but he always goes straight ahead and with grim purpose. His best punch is a crackling right, thrown behind a seemingly lazy left hook. His strategy was to go early to Page's soft body to slow him down. Then, in the late rounds, he'd search for the elusive head.
"Greg's got a big head, just like me," Witherspoon said, grinning, "and us big-headed dudes always have strong chins. This one may go all the way to the three guys with the pencils again. I just hope they give me a better deal than they gave me against Holmes. Only one guy saw that fight right."
Witherspoon, who came into the ring at 220¼ pounds, is a real pro. So too, apparently, is the guy who was breaking into Witherspoon's suite on the 10th floor of the Riviera Hotel about the time the fight began. The burglar got away with $30,000 worth of jewelry. Still, Witherspoon figured he'd have to chase Page, but Page, employing the sort of strategy that made General Custer famous, chose not to run but to stand and fight. Well, sort of fight. For the most part, he allowed himself to be backed into a corner or against the ropes, where he was content to take two or three solid whacks while pit-a-patting Witherspoon in flurries.
"He was using a sissy technique," Witherspoon said afterward. "He does a lot of amateur things. He kept grabbing one of my arms and then slapping me with his other hand. I guess he was trying to con the judges."
They weren't conned. Judge Chuck Minker scored it as though he didn't think either fighter deserved to be a world champion: 114-114. Judges Lou Tabat and Jerry Roth both voted 117-111 for Witherspoon.
"He may have been more aggressive," Page said bitterly, "but he sure didn't score the most points. The hardest punches don't make the difference. Scoring does. I don't want to comment on the decision. Ask the judges. Ask Don King. I've been going through hell like this my whole career. This is my retirement. I've had enough of this bull."
A champion after only his 19th pro fight, Witherspoon thanked God and King, in that order. And he said, "Nobody can beat me. I'll fight anybody."
Then he went back to his hotel and discovered that he'd been had.