James “Quick” Tillis - The First Man To Take Tyson The Distance

17.07.06 - By James Slater: Although he is best known today as a fighter who was one of boxing’s most prominent trial horses/journeymen, there was a time when James Tillis was a highly tipped prospect. He was a mobile and fast heavyweight boxer who, with Angelo Dundee training him, was given an excellent chance of winning at least a portion of the heavyweight championship. His chance came against Mike Weaver - for the WBA version of the title. Going into the fight, Tillis was an unbeaten fighter with a 20-0 record. Weaver - nicknamed Hercules because of his fantastic physique - had a less impressive record. With nine losses to his name, Mike suffered in terms of respect from the general boxing public. His stats were misleading, however..

Most of his defeats had come very early in his career and he had been in with good fighters too, including the great Larry Holmes. In this fight, for the “real” heavyweight championship (Holmes was the genuine successor to Muhammad Ali) Weaver had acquitted himself very well. He had hurt Larry in the fight, only to lose - all guns blazing - in the twelfth round. Going into his 1981 fight with Tillis, it was clear who the more experienced fighter was. Weaver, a vastly improved fighter from the man he had been at the beginning of his career, knew too much and had better stamina than James, and won a unanimous decision. Dundee, for one, had been unhappy with Tillis’ performance. He had been expected to win beforehand, yet now it was back to the drawing board.

He was still years away from being the trial horse he would become, but - although he didn’t know it - he’d boxed his one and only world title fight. And despite a decent win over a faded Earnie Shavers, it was pretty much all downhill for “Quick” after the Weaver bout. He was stopped by both Pinklon Thomas and Greg page in 1982 and from then on won only sporadically, as a pattern developed. He would defeat a man like Leroy Boone okay, but then lose to Tim Witherspoon, Carl Williams and Marvis Frazier - the Frazier fight being the first of four consecutive losses. James was destined to be a nearly man.

In the promising period of his career - a time in his life that saw him KO capable fighters like Harry Terrell, Al Jones and Ron Stander - Archie Moore, the aforementioned Angelo Dundee and Drew “Bundini” Brown had shown interest in him. Yet now, four years on, it was obvious to all he had gone as far as he could go. He was still a talented fighter, it was just that something was missing - that extra quality needed to become a champion. With his once blemish-free record now sporting eight defeats, James was about to enter the ring for the fight for which he is best known today. A young destroyer by the name of Mike Tyson was to be taken the distance for the very first time as a result.

By now very much in the role of (high quality) trial horse, Tillis gave a performance that proved just how ring-wise he was. He possessed a fine chin, had good hand speed and was able to execute moves that would raise a smile from James Toney. Mike Tyson, a fighter who had previously annihilated everything in his path, found himself having to work extremely hard. With Tillis showing his adeptness at frustrating an opponent, Mike’s game plan - of knocking his man flat - was very much spoilt. James was tying him up and using his still quick hands to good effect. Jabs and uppercuts were on display from the man Bundini Brown had once dubbed “The Fighting Cowboy” and the crowd, who had expected another speedy demolition job from the heavyweight division’s newest attraction, began to boo.

Where they booing Mike, or James? Looking back , they had no real cause to jeer either man - a good fight was unfolding. In the fourth round, Tyson at last broke through with a hard punch. Tillis lunged in with a shot and Tyson countered it perfectly, sending him to the canvas. James jumped up straight away, however, and fought back. The fight went into the late rounds and at the final bell both men were trading. The ten round bout had been more than interesting. The judges sided with Tyson and awarded him a unanimous verdict. But according to James, in his autobiography, at the end of the fight Mike told him “You beat me, you beat me.”

Although such a claim is very much open to debate, what is a fact is the soreness Mike Tyson admitted to feeling for days after the bout. He had been in a hard one and, years later, didn’t mind saying so. It had been a valuable learning experience for the future world champ. Tillis managed a couple of wins afterwards, but soon slipped back into his job of Journeyman. Thanks to his extending Tyson, all heavyweight up and comers sought him out as a test. In many different countries, James boxed a number of heavyweight hopefuls. Both Frank Bruno and Gary Mason, for example, had him come over to England and used his name as a means of padding their records. But despite the feat he had managed in taking everything Tyson had to offer, he was stopped more often than not now.

Bruno, Mason, Johhny DuPlooy, Evander Holyfield and Adilson Rodrigues all used him as a punching bag for a few rounds before despatching him. Tillis literally fought EVERYONE in the heavyweight division. He wasn’t afraid of a single fighter and his courage, if not his skill level, was as high as ever.

By the time of his fight with Tommy Morrison, however, it was clear James was a shot fighter. With ambition, even of taking his opponent the distance now gone, he really should have retired. Since the Tyson fight in 1986, James had been beaten ten times. And in the 1991 Morrison fight he’d been KO’d in a single round. He had nothing left to offer. Despite the obvious, James battled on for another eight years. Which in itself is staggering.

That he actually racked up three more wins is even more so. But after his win over Craig Payne, in 1995, he lost two in a row - to Keith Couser and then Tim Hammer. Small conciliation it may have been, but he at least took both guys into the late rounds - as he had done with Tyson. An achievement, which, whether he likes it or not, is what he is best known for today.

James “Quick” Tillis - heavyweight boxing’s ultimate trial horse!

Article posted on 18.07.2006

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