The lager rain came down hard in Birmingham, England last Saturday night. The shower from flying cups was harmless, but the bottles full of brew fired by angry Welsh miners weren't. As the missiles bounced off the blue canvas, already spattered with the blood of a badly beaten Colin Jones, WBA welterweight champion Donald Curry ran for his life.
Birmingham is in the Midlands of England, but it was to there that thousands of Southern Welsh migrated 100 miles or so after the general strike of 1926. And thousands more followed in search of wages during the Great Depression. The soil is English, but much of the loyalty is unwaveringly Red Dragon.
Thousands more fans poured in from Wales on Saturday, by train and by bus, carrying with them a nationalistic hope for Jones, a 25-year-old from Gorseinon in Glamorgan, and as much beer as they could stow. They'll sing Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) until you are deaf, Curry was told. "I'm not fighting the Welsh people," Curry, who is from Fort Worth, replied, laughing. "Thousands may sing, but the rules say only one of them can hit me."
The one who got to try, of course, was Jones, an ex-gravedigger who was being paid $115,000 for his third title shot. In 1983 Jones twice fought Detroit's Milton McCrory for the WBC welterweight championship, which had been vacated when Sugar Ray Leonard retired. The first bout ended in a draw; McCrory won the second on a split decision.
"I won them both, the second one for sure," Jones said a few days before facing Curry. "This time I don't think I'll leave it up to the judges."
Amateur and pro, Jones has been fighting for 17 years. He may have been handsome once, but now his nose begins at the top with a large hump and gradually wends its way downward in the direction of his left shoulder. There is scar tissue, still pink and tender, over his right eye, a campaign ribbon from his previous fight, a 10th-round TKO of Great Britain's Billy Parks last June 13. The wound never properly healed and not too long ago was opened, cleaned and restitched by a plastic surgeon, although the Jones people deny it.
Curry's problem wasn't scar tissue but cold weather. To make the welterweight limit, he had to drop some 12 pounds to get down to 147, and he needed to train where it was warm. For this, his fifth title defense, Curry first set up camp in Palm Springs. When a cold wave hit, he fled to Miami Beach.
By the time he arrived in Birmingham, 11 days before the fight, Europe was under siege by winds out of Siberia. "I hate cold weather," said the champion, who, bundled up, huddled in his room except when he ran (indoors) or trained. His first workouts were in the Amateur Boxing Club Gym, where 23 high rectangular windows kept out more light than wind. He at last gave up even the trips to the drafty old gym. He chose to work the last five days in a meeting room at the Holiday Inn—with no ring in sight.
Curry kept a scale in his room, and four days before the fight his weight had leveled off at a comfortable 149. He loses two pounds just in a night's sleep. But on Thursday, after his workout, his weight had unexpectedly soared to 151.
Friday became a day of fasting. He drank one cup of hot tea after a light workout. And then that night, while watching television and playing gin rummy with Doug Jackson, a friend from childhood, he chewed Wrigley's gum and sucked on a few Life Savers to help him spit.
On Saturday Curry weighed in at 147—Jones was 146—and not long afterward he was working on a huge plate of spaghetti cooked especially for him by the Holiday Inn chef. He washed it down with tall glasses of water and orange juice. At 5 p.m., after a nap, he ate a small steak.
"How do you feel now?" his trainer, Paul Reyes, asked him.
Curry grinned. "I haven't felt this good since I fought Roger Stafford," he said.
Stafford was Curry's opponent in his first title defense, on Sept. 3, 1983. Curry knocked Stafford down three times in the first round before the referee stopped the fight. "That's good," said Reyes. "Now I want to tell you that McCrory has picked Jones to win. He says he wants to fight him a third time to unify the title."
The smile left Curry's face. "That bowwow," he snapped. "He's hoping Jones wins so that he doesn't have to fight me. Did he really say that? I think I'll talk to him when we get home."
"Talk to Jones first," said Reyes, a twinkle in his eye.
No one would ever deny a Welsh miner his dream, especially one whose union has been on strike for 10 months. But Jones came in with only a puncher's chance, which meant he had little chance at all. "I don't bother with strategy and all that nonsense," said Jones. "I just go in, whack the other man in the head and see if he stands up."
With a record of 26-2-1, and all but three of his wins inside the distance, it seemed a reasonable approach. His other loss occurred in 1981, when he was disqualified for whacking Curtis Ramsey in the head after having whacked him onto the floor.
"If he thinks he's going to hit Don, he's in for a shock," said Curry's manager, Dave Gorman. "Don fools a lot of people on film. They watch him and they think, 'Hey, he can be hit.' Then they get in there and find out they can't. It can be frustrating."
Going up the steps to the ring, Curry still wasn't sure which plan he would use. He had two: Stay outside and bust up and back up Jones; or move to the center of the ring and challenge him.
"He starts so slowly," Curry said. "Maybe I'll just go in there and clip him early with something heavy."
It took the champion only a moment in the ring to realize how he must earn his $375,000. The matting was soft. "I knew I couldn't use a lot of lateral movement with that kind of floor," Curry said later. "I decided I'd just have to go out and take it to him."
For the first two rounds, Curry bemused Jones with a hard, snapping jab. At odd moments, he tested his hook, his right cross and his uppercut, but they were single shots. Gorman and Reyes wanted him to get his timing in order before trying combinations.
After the second round, while Jones's corner was trying to stanch a nosebleed, Curry was told to open up with his combinations. "Let's stop all that singing," said Gorman.
During the second round Curry had twice forced Jones back against the ropes. He hadn't expected it to be that easy. In the third, he fired a three-punch combination to the head, a right to the body, two more punches to the head—and the fight turned very red. Jones had a deep rip across the bridge of his nose, just above the hump.
"I ripped his nose open with a left uppercut," said Curry. "Then I used my jab to open it wider."
As blood gushed from their man, there was consternation in Jones's corner. Finally, manager Eddie Thomas said, "Take him out or we're going home."
Jones tried, but he ran into a flurry of perfectly placed punches. Just 36 seconds into the fourth round, after a consultation with the two ring doctors, referee Ismael Wiso stopped the fight, and Jones, who knew it was his last shot at a title, wept openly.
Then the beer came, mostly because many of the fans were unaware of the wicked ditch that had been sliced across Jones's nose and thought their man had been disqualified, for reasons not apparent to them.
After sprinting for his dressing quarters, Curry sat down and laughed. "You know," he said, "just getting back here through all that mess was more tiring than the fight."