Much like the proverbial rose, a toughman contest by any other name is still a toughman contest. Last Friday night in a tent beside the Casino Magic gambling complex in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in a single-elimination, 15-bout slugfest billed as The People's Choice World Heavyweight Superfights, a mixed bag that included two former world champions, three ex-convicts, an ex-cop from Romania, at least one recovering drug addict and an 18-year-old Canadian who didn't know he was fighting until 35 minutes before he put on the gloves, rewrote the script of Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Before the fat lady sang, 3,799 pounds of the good, the bad and the ugly battled for more than four hours in three-round shifts—or less. They were fighting for a top prize of $1 million, although the actual sum turned out to be $830,000 less than that because, promoters said, the original financial backers had pulled out.
Still, it wasn't bad money for Tony Tubbs, the 35-year-old former WBA champion who won the requisite four fights, defeating Daniel Dancuta, the aforementioned Romanian cop, in a slow-motion final. In his last legitimate outing before this tournament, Tubbs had been knocked out in one round last August in Boise, Idaho, by Jimmy Ellis, a mediocre club fighter.
To a purist, the tournament was not boxing, but where else could you see 40-year-old Bonecrusher Smith, an ex-WBA champ and erstwhile prison guard, battle Lester Jackson, a 278-pound former inmate at Sing Sing? After that bout, Smith defeated Marshall Tillman, an alumnus of Angola (La.) State Prison, who had just beaten Jason Williams, who was two months out of a California prison.
Smith's downfall came against the 22-year-old Dancuta, who confided that he hoped to remain in the U.S. "I've waited a long time for my freedom," he said.
"A lot of guys in this tournament can say the same thing," someone suggested.
A swarming fighter with an 8-1 pro record, Dancuta had first mugged Derrick Roddy, a 17-0 boxer out of Kansas City, who was selected via a 900 number. Tournament promoters gave fans a choice of seven boxers, with the winner rounding out the 16-man field. From that slate of nonentities, Roddy emerged as the People's Choice. Unimpressed, Dancuta stopped the PC in the first round.
After that, Dancuta got a walkover when Craig Petersen, an Australian, was medically disqualified following his first-round victory over veteran Smokin' Bert Cooper. "I can't remember anything after the first round," Petersen told his mother, Alana, back in the dressing room.
"Where are you?" asked Mom.
"Australia," Petersen replied.
"That's all for you, son," said Dr. Lance Barnes of the Mississippi Athletic Commission.
Cooper, one of the favorites, blamed his early loss on his former promoter, Rick Parker, who arrived in the company of a process server just before the 27-year-old was scheduled to enter the ring. Parker was engaged in a dispute over promotional rights to Cooper and had won an injunction barring him from fighting. Not even that went right.
"Are you Bert?" asked the process server.
"Yes," said Smokin' Bert Sugar, the 56-year-old editor and publisher of Boxing Illustrated, who was doing color commentary for the $24.95 pay-per-view show.
The man served Sugar with the papers. "Damn it," snarled Sugar from behind a cloud of cigar smoke. "I'm in the best shape of my career, and now they won't let me fight."
Hurried negotiations between Parker and promoters ensued, and Cooper was permitted to fight. But he lost a split decision, which he summed up by saying, "Everything was beautiful until Rick Parker messed it up. I felt strong before the fight, but he made me brain-tired."
Not far away, in a holding area for the fighters, young Shane Sutcliffe wondered what he was doing there. One minute he had been one of 5,283 spectators, the next he was enlisted to fight Rocky Ray Phillips, a chunky cruiserweight out of Covington, Ky. Sutcliffe had been brought in to do what he usually does—fight a preliminary bout—then was told to forget it.
"No one had given me any expense money, so I hadn't even trained," said Sutcliffe. "Then they called me out of the stands and said I was going to replace Leonsio Bueno. In about a half hour."
Hourly reports to the promoters had Bueno leaving the Dominican Republic, arriving in Newark, N.J., to meet his manager, arriving in New Orleans with his manager and driving to Bay St. Louis. At 8:30 p.m. his manager showed up.
"Leonsio is still in the Dominican Republic," said the manager. "He had a problem with his visa, and they wouldn't let him leave. I came down to let you know. I tried to call, but nobody answered the phone. Too bad he isn't here. He'd beat all these bums."
Sutcliffe, a 6'3", 205-pounder who had won 17 of 21 toughman contests in his native British Columbia, instantly became the new People's Choice. Snarling, he tore into Phillips, who in the third round spit out his mouthpiece for the fifth time and was disqualified.
Next up for the slender tiger they call Kid Thunder in Canada was Tyrell Biggs, the 6'5" Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist from 1984 and once a top pro contender. Now 32, Biggs, like the others, has been fighting for short money. "But I trained as hard for this as I ever did in my life," he said. "I won't embarrass myself, and I certainly can use the money."
For two rounds Sutcliffe gave Biggs all he could handle. Then the young Canadian told his corner he had nothing left. "I'm not even sure I can stand up," he said. When it was announced that Sutcliffe had retired, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Biggs applauded as hard as anyone, then went out and lost to Tubbs in the best fight of the night.
Scarcely had Tubbs won a decision over Biggs than he had to meet Dancuta in the final. Groaning, he was helped off a chair in his dressing quarters. His back was stiff, his hands throbbed. "I'm getting old," he told a friend. "This——ain't easy."
Dancuta had won two fights with fury. Against Tubbs he tried to fight cute. "I figured if I attacked him, he'd trick me," said Dancuta. "I decided to box him."
Tubbs, who had as much pure talent as any heavyweight of the '80s, was grateful for that strategy and did nothing to anger Dancuta. He won an easy decision by using his smarts, which he had never lost. Exhausted, he took his check—for $170,000. "If I don't get the rest of the million," he said, shrugging, "so be it."