How Great Was Tim Witherspoon?

A two-time ruler at heavyweight, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon (the nickname given to him by the one and only Muhammad Ali) today celebrates his 63rd birthday. Arguably the king of the so-called “lost generation of heavyweights,” Witherspoon escaped the decade that proved so cruel for a number of his contemporaries – guys like John Tate, who fell into drugs when his once-promising career turned sour on him, Greg Page, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tubbs, and on and on goes the list of casualties.

But Witherspoon, who looks a whole lot younger than his 63 years, managed to get out with his health, with some of his money (famously, Don King took quite a large amount of the rest) and with his dignity. How great was Tim Witherspoon? How near-great was Tim Witherspoon might be a better question. Because there is no doubt Witherspoon fell short, he didn’t do as much as he should have done, he didn’t achieve as much as his talents could have done.

Witherspoon made his mark, no doubt. Yet in far too many fights for a man with his ability and talents, the Philly fighter turned up less than motivated, having done far too little work in the gym. When he was on form and on fire Witherspoon was a superb heavyweight, with power, stamina, a good chin, ring smarts and desire seeing him put on some fine performances. It was perhaps the 1983 challenge of the great Larry Holmes (great as in no doubt) when the world saw the best Tim Witherspoon. In just his 16th pro fight, a 25 year old “Terrible Tim” pushed Holmes all the way. Eventually losing a close, debatable 12 round decision, the still inexperienced Witherspoon had nonetheless made his mark on the world stage.

But while Witherspoon matured, his didn’t really get any better. At least, Witherspoon never again fought with such tenacity, grit, such desperate determination. There were some good fights to come, with ‘Spoon beating good men in, Jumbo Cummings, James Tillis, Greg Page (to win the vacant WBC title), Bonecrusher Smith, Tony Tubbs (to become WBA champ) and Frank Bruno. But amongst these good displays were out of shape defeats to Pinklon Thomas and, in a rematch, Bonecrusher.

One Crazy Boxing Summer

Having lost the WBA strap to Smith in late 1986, Witherspoon was free from the clutches of King and he would mount a number of comebacks. Here too, Tim would look good: beating Anders Eklund by devastating KO, and bad: looking flabby in picking up laboured decision wins over Jose Ribalta and Carl Williams. While against amazing journeyman Everett “Bigfoot” Martin, a poorly conditioned Witherspoon dropped the decision in 1992.

Overall, Witherspoon was stopped just four times and he was battling big names right at the end of his career – a forty-something Witherspoon going in with the likes of Andrew Golota (L10), Monte Barrett (L10) and Lou Savarese (TKO by 5). But there are far more losses on Witherspoon’s record than there should be (13).

How great was Tim Witherspoon? For a while in the 1980s, the man from the great fighting city of Philadelphia certainly did look to be on his way.

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