It’s somewhat ironic that, in the career of Tim Witherspoon, his finest performance came in his first big fight; a fight plenty of people felt he was, at just 15-0, not ready or equipped for. A massive underdog going into his title challenge of the great Larry Holmes, already a long-reigning champ, Witherspoon surprised everyone with a great effort; a smart approach and a gutsy performance.
Holmes, by now aged 33 and sporting a 42-0 record, was made to look a tired, hurt fighter by Witherspoon quite a few times throughout the exciting 12 round battle that took place in Las Vegas 38 years ago today. Holmes, who was making the fifteenth defence of the WBC crown, later said he had come in at a too-low 213 pounds; that his strength was not what it should have been.
Witherspoon, possessing a good left jab of his own, a “can-opener” of a right hand, great stamina, a solid chin and unquenchable desire, pushed the champ hard. In fact, it could be argued how Holmes had not before been pushed so hard and for so long since his title-winning effort against Ken Norton in 1978.
The ninth round was special – for the fans and for the challenger. Witherspoon cracked Holmes with plenty of leather and he seemed to have the champion on the brink of going down, of being stopped. But Holmes, as we all know, was no ordinary fighter. Able to dig deep at a time when it was most needed, Holmes’ greatness allowed him to avoid disaster in a number of fights. And Larry got his shovel out again in the Witherspoon fight, during that rough, tough and memorable Round of the Year in particular.
Holmes was swollen around the eyes at the end of the 12 rounds, looking every inch his 43 fights and 33 years. It was a split decision in the end – one judge having it for Witherspoon at 115-114, the second official having it 115-113 for Holmes, and the final judge somehow having it a ghastly 118-111 for Holmes.
In time, “Terrible Tim” managed to become a two-time belt-holder, yet it could indeed be argued how Witherspoon boxed his career-best fight that May evening in 1983. For Holmes’ part, though the decision was controversial, Larry had proven once again that it would take a herculean effort if anyone was going to take the man’s title.
We saw two great heavyweights in action on this day 38 years ago. Holmes of course showed his greatness many times (see his epic fights with Norton, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney, Mike Weaver, and Renaldo Snipes). Witherspoon only really and truly put it all together on one night, this taking into account his title fight wins over Tony Tubbs; Greg Page and Frank Bruno.