Tim Witherspoon, who was given the “Terrible” nickname by Muhammad Ali, with whom the young, aspiring Witherspoon sparred at Deer Lake as his pro career blossomed, could have been a great. As it is, the Philly warrior who was famous for a lot of things – his ‘Can Opener’ of a right hand, his problems with promoter Don King, his epic fight with Larry Holmes, his two-time reign as a heavyweight titlist – ranks as an also-ran.
It might seem unfair, and Witherspoon sure had some great qualities as a fighter, these being his left jab, his ever-reliable chin, his stamina, and ‘Spoon’s big overhand right. But Tim was often lacking where it matters most – in the gym. After being matched incredibly tough early on, with Witherspoon challenging Holmes for the world heavyweight title after just 14 pro outings, Tim found himself under the all-powerful clutches of King. Some good wins followed the split decision loss to Holmes, with Witherspoon beating Jumbo Cummings and James Tillis. Before Witherspoon won a version of the heavyweight crown by beating Greg Page in a pretty dull encounter.
Still, despite the lack of electricity that was generated in his big moment, Witherspoon was now a champion, and the big money would roll in. But it didn’t, and it is possible Tim became one of the most utterly demoralised of all fighters, this as his pay-cheques were routinely interfered with by King, who seemed hell-bent on swindling his fighter (with Carl King, Don’s son, acting as Witherspoon’s manager). As a result, Witherspoon slowly lost interest. Some big wins and some good performances still lay ahead; with Tim bouncing back after losing his WBC title to Pinklon Thomas, to beat guys like James Broad and James “Bonecrusher” Smith.
And, in January of 1986, ‘Spoon beat Tony Tubbs to become WBA heavyweight boss (this 15 round fight even duller than Tim’s fight with Page). Surely, NOW the big cash would come? Instead, after going to London to hammer British hero Frank Bruno in a title defence, Witherspoon was left more demoralized than ever. Famously, Tim got a $90 grand payday, while KO loser Bruno got ten times as much. Stories, never denied by the always truthful Witherspoon, say Tim was happy, relieved, when he was whacked out in a round by former loser to him, Smith, AKA Bonecrusher. It was a real shock when Smith took Witherspoon out in a round in December of 1986, but for Witherspoon it meant he was no longer a fighter of any real interest to King. Aside from in the courtroom, at least.
Witherspoon, skint and feeling it, was a castaway, and he soon took King to court. The fighter, the man who put his life on the line when entering the ring, won his case, but Tim wasn’t afforded the fortune he should have been handed back; this the one he had bled for in the ring.
Signing up with another promoter in the form of Dennis Rappaport, Witherspoon, now aged 30 and sporting a 25-3 record, strung together the odd good win (KO 1 Anders Eklund being a highlight), before he won in unimpressive fashion and also lost, mostly due to being out of shape (W12 Carl Williams, L10 Bigfoot Martin).
Witherspoon fought on well into veteran stage, with Tim looking good at times (KO5 Jorge Luis Gonzalez, L10 Ray Mercer, this a good fight where Tim should have been declared the winner), before he lost more than he won. Witherspoon fought on until March of 2003, this well over twenty years after he had turned pro. Finishing up with a 55-13-1(38) ledger, Tim’s legacy is perhaps that of being the ultimate member of ‘The Lost Generation of Heavyweights.’
But today, in great health and in high spirits, Tim celebrates his 66th birthday. Still looking for all the world like the man who was a real force in the heavyweight division, this in the mid-1980s, Tim doesn’t look to have aged. Of course, Witherspoon has aged, and he no doubt has a lot of regret, and then even more regret, on his broad shoulders (most of it put there by King and his, shall we say, unethical business methods). But Tim is still smiling, he is still upbeat.
Tim Witherspoon could have been a great. Instead, he is a great survivor. How many of Tim’s fellow ‘Lost Generation’ fighters have gone, a number of them having met a very cruel fate (Page, Trevor Berbick, John Tate, Williams, Broad, Cummings). But the man dubbed “Terrible” by the greatest of them all is still standing tall despite everything.