You want to know what the world has come to? Well, we now have a heavyweight champion who wears pink boxing trunks. O.K., it's only the world according to the World Boxing Council. That world doesn't encompass Larry Holmes, who fights in good old-fashioned black and white. The undefeated Holmes gave up the WBC title in December 1983 rather than endure the indignity of fighting No. 1-ranked Greg Page for a measly $2.55 million. No fears and no tears—Holmes thereupon became the heavyweight champion of the International Boxing Federation, which was more or less slapped together as a home for wayward champions. Neither the WBC nor the IBF recognizes Gerrie Coetzee, who's the heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Association, but then that bunch doesn't recognize Holmes. So there. Coetzee may or may not fight Holmes on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas, and if he does, he may get stripped of his WBA title. The last time the world had one champ was 1978, when Muhammad Ali reigned supreme. In retrospect, it must have been a very good year.
Anyway, if Prince wants to wear purple he wears purple, and if Pinklon Thomas, who dethroned Tim Witherspoon in Las Vegas last Friday night, wants to wear pink, at least he's got his name to justify it. As for Witherspoon, he wore black, which was his mood before the fight. What was teeing him off was that he was only going to get $400,000 (plus $50,000 in expenses) for fighting Thomas, a 2-to-1 underdog. "By the time everybody gets through chopping me up," he groaned, "I'll be lucky if I have $100,000 left. I'm not greedy, I'd just like to have enough to buy a home." After huddling with promoter Don King and IRS agents, Witherspoon was assuaged. But his mind seemed more on the money than on Thomas.
Thomas's purse was only $100,000, an amount he didn't dispute. For Thomas, a 26-year-old high school dropout who first tried heroin at 12, it was enough to know he had turned his life around. Now he was fighting for something other than his next fix.
A child of the meanest streets of Pontiac, Mich., Thomas had a $150-a-day heroin habit when he was 14. "When you have habits," he says, "you have ways of getting the money. I won't say how, but most of the guys I ran with are either dead or in prison."
His life was a nightmare of drugs, pills, alcohol and street fights. "I was always the youngest, but I was as big or bigger than anybody else," he says with a sad smile. "People were pushing me to see if I'd fight. When I was 15 a big 34-year-old guy named Geronimo rapped me with a cue stick in a pool hall. He was high on downers. I took him out and hit him nine times and put him in a hospital."
He was 17 when he married Kathy Jones. "She's a gift," he says. A few months later, Kathy enlisted in the Army. Pinklon joined her at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Then they moved to Fort Lewis, Wash., near Seattle. Thomas had put his habit aside—cold turkey—at Fort Jackson, but it followed him and Kathy on the 3,000-mile bus trip to Fort Lewis, and took over his life again.
"Then one day a friend sent me to a gym to see a trainer named Joe West. I used to tell people I had 15 fights back in Detroit. Then West used me for meat. He put me in the ring with a guy named Big Ben. I was high on heroin and speed. For two rounds I outjabbed him. Then I got tired, and he almost killed me."
Thomas, who was then 19, wanted revenge. He began to run in the morning. "I'd run and I'd throw up. Then I'd run some more and I'd throw up some more. I stopped the drugs. Six months later I ran that Big Ben out of the gym."
After three amateur fights, Thomas turned pro. He was 15-0 when he, Kathy and Pinklon Thomas III moved to Philadelphia in 1981. His biggest fight came in January 1983 when he held Coetzee to a draw. "I thought I'd won," he said. "But I wasn't bitter. I thought, 'If I can beat a guy like that, the No. 1 contender, I can beat anybody.' They told me not to stand in front of him, that he'd kill me with that big right hand. I don't like people to tell me things like that. I stood in front of him and he never hit me."
Thomas won four more fights and was ranked No. 3 when King offered him the fight against Witherspoon. "Saturday is young Pink's eighth birthday," Thomas said the afternoon before the bout. "I asked him what he wanted. He asked me for the championship belt. I'm going to give it to him."
Thomas is a flat-footed, stand-up boxer with amazing reflexes and a jab that could batter down doors. "It's as close to a Sonny Liston jab as I've ever seen," said trainer Angelo Dundee, who trained Liston's conqueror, Ali, and who was brought in to work with Thomas against Witherspoon. "It's a hard jab, and he's going to win the title with it."
That proved one of Dundee's better predictions. After one round of testing, Thomas, who came in at 216 pounds, drilled the jab into Witherspoon's face and left it there for the next eight rounds; by the second round, the 217-pound Witherspoon was blinking furiously. "He's thumbing me," the champion complained to referee Richard Steele, who saw no wrongdoing. Three rounds later, Steele took a point away from Witherspoon for backhanding.
After building an overwhelming lead, Thomas coasted through the last three rounds. He has an almost nonchalant defense. He can study a punch coming at him and then, at the last instant, casually pull his head out of harm's way.
The scoring should have been academic. It wasn't. One judge, Hal Miller, who must have arrived around the 11th round, scored it even. The other two, Dalby Shirley (115-112) and Duane Ford (116-112), both had it for Thomas. Half an hour later, Thomas, holding an ice bag to his left eye, slumped in a chair in his large and silent dressing room. Nearby, Kathy, dressed in pink, talked quietly with a friend. Across the room young Pink leaned against a wall, the WBC belt draped across one shoulder. Lifting his head, the new champion studied his son. Then, with a small grin, he raised a fist and said, very softly, "Can you believe it? The championship belt."