By Guest Writer David Finger
It’s a story as old and as common as boxing itself. The heavyweight champion on the comeback trail stopping off in some smaller venue far from the lights of Vegas as he tries to build up some momentum for one more world title fight or at the very least one more big payday. Sometimes he’s in the top ten and his promoter just pays a local promoter to put him on a small show as a tune-up. Sometimes he is forced to fight for pocket change just to keep active and hopefully build some momentum. Michael Dokes, a former WBA world champion, once fought a guy named John Morton and was only paid $500 for that fight. But it led to a world title fight against Riddick Bowe so it was a good investment in the long run.
Over the course of boxing history these former heavyweight champions ended up in every imaginable venue all across the country. Larry Holmes was a regular in Bay St. Louis Mississippi in the 1990s but also fought in Hawaii during his comeback. Riddick Bowe started his comeback in Shawnee, Oklahoma in 2004. Evander Holyfield stopped by El Paso in 2007 and George Foreman once made a pit stop in Edmonton Alberta in 1990 to fight a guy named Ken Lakusta. And these are the more well known champions…it is even more prolific and common with the lesser known ex-champs.
Yeah, a former heavyweight champion fighting in your hometown is a story as old as boxing: it’s like seeing the 90s one hit wonder perform at your county fair.
But it’s never happened in New Mexico.
That’s right, there has never been a former heavyweight champion on the comeback trail who stopped off in New Mexico as part of his comeback tour.
In fact, our history with heavyweight champions is limited at best. We had two future heavyweight champions come to New Mexico on the way up. On August 7, 1982 a young undefeated heavyweight prospect named Tony Tubbs won a ten round decision over fellow undefeated prospect Clarence Hill in Albuquerque. Tubbs would go on to win a decision over Greg Page two year later to win the WBA title, holding onto it for seven months before dropping a decision to Tim Witherspoon in January of 1985. On April 1, 1995 future WBO heavyweight champion Corrie Sanders would crush former cruiserweight contender James Pritchard in the opening round at the Lujan Building in Albuquerque in a fight that was little more than a tune up.
Of course on July 4, 1912 we actually hosted a world title fight in Las Vegas, New Mexico which is a lot more than Bay St. Louis or Shawnee, Oklahoma can say. Jack Johnson defeated “Fireman” Jim Flynn in a fight that would give Johnson fans some ammunition in the “who was the greater champion” argument with Jack Dempsey fans. Flynn would be best remembered for destroying Jack Dempsey in the opening round five years after his fight with Johnson.
But despite hosting one world title fight in 1912 and witnessing two future champions on the way up, we never saw a former heavyweight champion in New Mexico…the closest we came was then Frans Botha stopped Steve Pannell in the opening round in Albuquerque on January 8, 2000. Botha initially won the IBF heavyweight title by way of split decision over German Axel Shultz on December 9, 1995. But that fight was later declared a no-contest and the title declared vacant after Both tested positive for steroids. So, yeah that doesn’t count.
But on April 27, 2019, the drought comes to an end. Former heavyweight champion Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall (58-14, 37 KOs) will be fighting on a School of Hard Knocks Boxing Promotions show scheduled to be held in Las Cruces at a venue to be announced at a later date.
This is really a rare opportunity for boxing fan in New Mexico and West Texas and I say this with all seriousness: we will get the chance to see the fighter with greatest chin in boxing history. That is correct, the best chin in boxing history will be in Las Cruces and he will be in the ring, even if it is at the tail end of his career. McCall turned pro in 1985 (yes, you read that correctly) and in a 72-fight career that saw him fight some of the greatest fighters of his generation he never hit the deck or even really was hurt. In the 1980s and 1990s he earned a reputation as Mike Tyson’s most trusted sparring partner because of his ability to stand in there with Iron Mike and never get dropped. I’ve heard tales of those legendary sparring sessions and the one thing everyone agreed upon was that McCall was so highly regarded by Tyson because of his ability to stand his ground and take the best Tyson had to offer without getting hurt.
Let that sink in for a minute. Oliver McCall sparred hundreds of rounds with a young Mike Tyson and never was hurt.
Now don’t get me wrong, the 53-year old McCall is well past his prime and I can’t see any scenario where he makes another run for a world title.
But although he may not be a world class fighter but he is still a competent fighter despite his advance age. He has only one fight in the last four years (a decision over a journeyman named Larry Knight) and really has never been in serious discussion for a world title fight after his historic meltdown against Lennox Lewis in 1997, when he stopped punching or even protecting himself as he openly cried in the ring.
But even with that bizarre performance in 1997 boxing fans were left in awe…
How many fighters could just drop their hands and let Lennox Lewis unload on them and not end up on the canvas?
McCall’s run as a contender ended in 2004 when he lost a decision to DaVarryl Williamson but he nonetheless remained one of the toughest gatekeepers in the heavyweight division in the 2000s. From 2010 to 2014 he amassed 17-6 record (with one no decision) which included decision wins over an undefeated prospect named Marcin Rekowski (12-0) in 2014, a win over a borderline contender named Damien Wills (30-2-1) in 2011, a win over Fres “next in line for a WBA heavyweight title fight” Oquendo in 2010, former contender Lance “Mount” Whittaker in 2009, former world ranked contender Frank Lawrence in 2009, former EBU Heavyweight champion and WBC International Champion Sinan Samil Sam (27-3) in 2007, and a win over Shannon Briggs conqueror Darroll Wilson in 2006 for the WBC FECARBOX heavyweight title. Even though all of these wins are quite a few years old, they were part of an interesting trend in the early part of the 21st century: boxing insiders waiting to see if Oliver McCall would finally show his age and if his legendary chin would finally show signs of cracking…and then left waiting.
And of course, there is also the fact that Oliver McCall was the former WBC heavyweight champion, having handed Hall of Famer Lennox Lewis his first loss in 1994 in London. Yes, that was almost 25-years ago…but he still remains one of only two men to defeat Lennox Lewis.
Even if we don’t see a prime Oliver McCall, this is still a fight worth checking out.
Will Oliver McCall finally show his age on April 27th? Will New Mexico fans be the first to see that iron chin finally crack? Hard to say, McCall has proved everyone who assumed he was washed up wrong in the past. But how long can he keep pushing this envelope? Although the opponent has not yet been formally announced, the names I heard being considered by promoter Isidro Castillo are of some very solid opponents. I can see any of these fighters giving McCall, and boxing fans, a tremendous fight on April 27th. Mark your calendars boxing fans…April 27th in Las Cruces will be a show you don’t want to miss.