Rewind to October of 1981, and there were two heavyweight champions – Larry Holmes, the WBC ruler as well as the lineal boss, and Mike Weaver, who held the WBA belt (the IBF would not come into existence until 1983, this further muddying the waters). But it could be argued that the biggest name out there, the biggest sensation, was a towering Irish-American with a mean left hook named Gerry Cooney. Oh, and Cooney was white; this a big deal for a heavyweight who could fight back then.
Cooney was a fan-favourite who had blitzed former champ Ken Norton in a round, and “Gentleman Gerry” was closing in on a world title shot. As we know, this shot came against Holmes, in June of 1982, yet things could have played out differently. Weaver actually had a tentative deal in place to defend against Cooney on October 22 of 1981. Yet the WBA stepped in and ordered “Hercules,” as the magnificently built ex-marine was known (the nickname given to him by fellow body-beautiful Norton) to defend against an unbeaten kid named James “Quick” Tillis.
Cooney was the #1 contender with the WBA, while Tillis was ranked third, yet the reasoning behind the WBA command was the fact that Tillis has been the highest ranked contender when Weaver was due to make a mandatory defence in March of that year. So Cooney was out and Tillis was in. As a result, the fans were given what turned out to be a forgettable fight when they could have witnessed a heavyweight explosion. All these years later, and fans wonder whether Cooney would have been able to beat Weaver and make good on his goal of becoming heavyweight champion (or half a champ if you, like most everyone, looked at Holmes as the true champion).
Cooney, with his left hook, against Weaver, who had a crippling left hook of his own (see his stunning, come-from-behind knockout of John Tate in March of 1980), might have been a slugfest. Weaver was often a slow starter, while Cooney could fade late. This one may well have come down to who had the better start, and that may indeed have been Cooney. Or maybe Cooney, with his self-confessed lack of experience, would have come up short against Weaver the way he did against Holmes. We will never know.
Weaver instead fought Tillis on October 3 in Rosemont, Illinois, this in his sole fight of 1981. Weaver appeared to win wide against the Angelo Dundee-trained Tillis, yet the judges had it somewhat close after 15 rounds that had Dundee screaming with frustration due to the negativity shown by his 24 year old fighter. After 15 dull sessions, Weaver was awarded a unanimous decision, the scores being 145-143, 146-142, 147-142.
Amazingly, Tillis felt he had won the fight. Dundee, hoarse from screaming at his guy to throw some punches, was exasperated. “I don’t know if he was hearing right, but nobody in our corner told him he was ahead,” Dundee said after the fight. “I’m gonna take an axe and open his head to see if there’s some little bird in there telling him things. He must have been hearing things.”
Tillis, a good fighter who was more than capable of blowing hot and cold, never got another world title shot. Weaver, with talk of that Cooney fight still ringing in his ears, instead went on to fight Michael Dokes in his next defence, this some 14 months after the Tillis win. Dokes controversially stopped Weaver in a little over a minute of the opening round, this as Weaver had been knocked down fast and was then stuck on the ropes. To this day, Weaver insists he was robbed of his title, and plenty of people agree with him.
We fans were also robbed – of seeing a Weaver-Cooney fight. Who knows, such a match-up might have given us something special?