Talk about an early Christmas present. On this day back in 1986, at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden, late replacement WBA heavyweight title challenger James “Bonecrusher” Smith took out Tim Witherspoon in just one round to snatch the belt. Witherspoon, who had beaten Smith with relative ease in a previous fight, “Terrible Tim” picking up a wide decision victory, was supposed to fight Tony Tubbs in a whole different rematch. But at the last minute, Smith – who was in training to fight Mitch Green – stepped in when Tubbs pulled his shoulder.
What followed might have changed heavyweight history. The ongoing HBO heavyweight title fight unification tournament was expected to reach its conclusion with a Mike Tyson fight. Tyson, who had won the WBC crown the month before and was looked at by many as the next great, as well as the next great superstar, was the betting favorite to win all three belts. But one of his toughest fights might be one with Witherspoon, so the thinking went. Instead, Tyson ended up facing Bonecrusher in his next fight. On the night of December 12, Tyson was a spectator inside Madison Square Garden. And what Tyson saw was the demolition of the man who, had he been ready to rumble against Smith (again, Smith a man ‘Spoon had previously sent home with a loss), might have given him one of his hardest fights.
But Bonecrusher made the most of his big opportunity, while Witherspoon didn’t even want to fight. It was Don King who brought in Smith after Tubbs suffered his injury, and Witherspoon did not want to fight Smith, having focused on the tricky, slick and fast-handed approach and style of Tubbs whilst in training camp. But Don King got what Don King wanted and Witherspoon-Smith II was on. The fight, the rematch, was over in a flash.
Smith, like Witherspoon a loser to the great Larry Holmes (although Witherspoon gave Larry a far greater, tougher fight than his rival managed), came out smoking. Witherspoon, looking sluggish and not at all interested in going to war, was soon in trouble. Bonecrusher was getting home with his vaunted right hand, his left hook to the head also serving him well. Witherspoon was soon down, for the first time in his pro career, and he never recovered. Three times the defending WBA champ went down, Tim losing his belt on the three knockdown rule. It was all over after a little over two-minutes. Tyson said later he was much impressed by Smith’s punching display. And why not? The second knockdown scored by Smith saw the rising Witherspoon spit out a tooth. The tooth, along with its root, had been knocked clean out (later, Witherspoon presented the tooth to a friend, to keep as a souvenir!)
Witherspoon found relief in the defeat due to the way he was now free from King, who had, famously, been short-changing him. Smith could enjoy his Christmas but he also knew he wouldn’t have long before having to get in there with Tyson in the next stage of the tourney. As we all know, the Tyson-Smith fight, which took place in March of 1987, was a monumental bore, with Smith merely looking to survive (until, in the dying seconds of the fight, he at last let loose with some punches, briefly wobbling Tyson).
Smith had had his one great, shining night. The first college graduate to go on to become a world heavyweight champion, Bonecrusher made a little piece of history of his own to keep forever. If only Smith had come out with the same desire, the same devil may care attitude when fighting Tyson. Who knows what might have happened if he had done so. Maybe Bonecrusher would have dislodged one of “Iron Mike’s” pearly whites!