“I prefer not to be called a trainer, I like the world ambassador”. – “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon
It’s been a quarter of a century since “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon regained the heavyweight title. He did it the old fashioned way; gutting it out over fifteen rounds with a talented top contender as opposed to a carefully positioned overmatched foe. The 80’s was a strange and oft-misrepresented period for the heavyweight division. It was often chastised for not being what it had been in the 70’s and so often the fighters were cast in a dim light next to names such as George Foreman, Joe Frazier and of course Muhammad Ali.
But time has a way of brushing away the mire and providing clarity. The 80’s was in fact an exciting period for the heavyweights. Talented big men fought more and postured less. Titles were passed around and the fair haired guy on the block, great fighter that he was, recognized the threat and changed hats after getting better than he bargained for. In the middle of it all, and in many ways, Tim Witherspoon is the poster boy for heavyweights of that period.
It seems like so very long ago that it all went down, but having the opportunity to sit down and speak with the former two-time heavyweight champion, a man who once possessed the spirit, grit and talent to edge his contemporaries and push an all-timer to the very brink proved to be a once in a lifetime opportunity come true for this follower of the sport. I found Tim Witherspoon to be anything but terrible. He’s morphed from the young up and comer of a lifetime ago into an echo of the old school, passing along his wisdom, experience and humanity to those blessed enough and smart enough to listen. If only we had more around like him today, both in the ring and in the background, bringing up the next generation of fighters and ensuring the continued success of boxing.
MP: It’s been said that you had just a handful of amateur bouts before making the jump to the pro ranks. How did you first become involved with boxing and why did you move on from the amateurs so quickly?
First of all I’d like to say Hi to everybody and all that. I was just an athlete when I was young; playing baseball, football and basketball, and I thought I was going to be a professional football player but came home from university, I got hurt playing and came home. I went to university and came home and all of my friends were fighting.
Everybody was boxing in the neighborhood, everybody had their little sparring sessions; everybody was fighting. So when I came home and reached the level of amateur and all that, fighting professionally was another thing. People took on other sports also, but boxing was one of the main ones. Boxing was always in all of our lives, whether you were good or bad, everybody used to have those little sparring sessions.
Earl Hargrove, he was almost the junior middleweight champ, Buster Drayton, a junior middleweight champ, you had Kenny Rees. You’re talking Philadelphia here. You had a whole lot of other guys…James Shuler, and later Bernard Hopkins of course. So I just got into the game and just filled in my slot.
MP: Your first professional match was on October 30th 1979. You stopped one Joe Adams in the 1st round. What do you remember of that win and of your opponent?
I was sparring a lot with Muhammad Ali and Matthew Saad Muhammad and that was my first fight. In the beginning I wasn’t really nervous but then it became the walkout bout, it was the last bout of the night at the 69th Street Arena, the Upper 69th street in Philadelphia, Upper Darby. All of the fights went on and I was the walkout bout and I was nervous. I was fighting a guy who was 265lbs and I was only 198 but I was about his height; he may have been a little bit taller than me. Then Tyrell Biggs who later went to the Olympics walked in. He had to walk in at the end of the night and it made me a little nervous. He shook my hand and stuff and said hi to everybody and then my bout came up.
So I’m in the ring with this guy, Joey Adams. At first I was nervous but when I got going, I was confident. I knocked him out in the 1st round and from there we went on just getting fight after fight. It was a great experience but it was a nervous one, but I knew I was gonna win, just not in the 1st round.
MP: You quickly displayed aptitude for the fight game, just two years into your career stopping future WBC cruiserweight champion Alfonso Ratliff and later a breakout win over top ten heavyweight contender Renaldo Snipes. By that point did you feel that a heavyweight championship was within your grasp?
No because what was different about me, I don’t know if a lot of boxers are the same, I was just going forward not knowing what the future would hold or what the next step was. I’m serious. I didn’t even realize the money that I could have made or the fame. Even though a lot of people knew me and the level of my fame and my name at the time, I could have really done a whole lot more. I was just in it to box and make money, but I never really looked at the future.
I knew I had a manager who was picking my fights, his name was Mark Stewart. I had a guy who was really hard on promoters but really elegant and really smooth, and I really liked him; he looked out for me. Later he got into trouble and that’s how I got involved with Don King, through that.
MP: You had a come forward style with that cross-armed defense. Did you consciously pattern yourself after anybody?
No, my trainer Slim Jim Robinson, who was a very good trainer, he taught me. I didn’t look at Archie Moore, Joe Frazier or George Foreman or any of those guys, Slim taught me. He knew it. He knew the defense and he knew the counters off of the defense; how to catch a punch and throw back. There’s some stuff I learned from Joe Frazier. I really couldn’t learn that much watching George Foreman, but Ali, I learned some things like his quick jab. I watched a lot of others guys from my day; Matthew Saad Muhammad, Eddie Gregory, little things that I saw that helped me mold myself, but Slim Jim Robinson was the main proprietor to all the stuff I know.
There I was fighting Larry Holmes with just fifteen fights, and I really didn’t know completely what I was doing but I had the courage from my trainer to go on into battle with the little bit of stuff that he taught me, so Slim knew I could beat him, we had enough to beat him. Larry Holmes was exciting; had a hell of a jab, was really determined and took the best punch, but we had the tools to beat him. We had the tools and the know how to do it, and I think we executed it pretty good. Most people in the world said that I beat him.
MP: May 20th 1983, you came within a heartbeat of winning the WBC heavyweight title, losing by a twelve-round split decision. Do you think you beat Larry Holmes?
Yeah, I felt I won it and more so today when I look at the tapes. I’m really convinced that I beat him. When I fought him I thought that I beat him but now when I look at it, I did beat him.
MP: He didn’t seem interested in a rematch.
What happened was Don King was setting him up with young guys like me, David Bey and Carl “The Truth” Williams. Carl “The Truth” and me really put it on Holmes and I think that really convinced him not to go that way. He wanted to reach Rocky Marciano’s record, so therefore he went over to the IBF and he chose and picked who he wanted to fight instead of being forced into fighting young guys like us, which I think was the legit
thing to do if he wanted to be the guy to conquer the throne of the great Rocky Marciano.
I know Rocky Marciano fought the tough guys but I heard that he also had blemishes on his record, a few of the guys he fought. But that’s in the past. They (Holmes and Marciano) are both great guys and that’s the way it turned out.
MP: I’m going to play a name game. Give our readers your impressions.
MP: Greg Page. You edged him by twelve-round majority decision for the vacant WBC heavyweight title in March 1984.
A real nice guy, we used to spar all the time. He was supposed to be the next Muhammad Ali. When I came onto the scene I just wanted to reach the top, and I just wanted to keep on pushing. We’d spar and it was competition from day one, back and forth. The only thing I got to say about him was he was a great guy. He was one of the guys fighting for his future in this boxing industry, so he was a fellow brother fighter that I really respected. Even though we had to fight each other, I think he was a hell of a guy.
MP: Pinklon Thomas. You lost the WBC heavyweight to him by twelve-round majority decision in August 1984.
I really hadn’t interacted with Pinklon Thomas too much. He had a good jab, determined just like me, a young man at the time just like me. He wanted to win the heavyweight championship of the world. I don’t know too much of his business. I knew that we did have the same manager, I mean promoter, but I really didn’t interact with him too much back then. I just fought him and talked to him several times over the phone before I fought him, I just don’t really remember too much about him personally. He was a good fighter. We did become friends after the fight but before the fight we had to bump heads. He’s a really nice guy.
MP: Tony Tubbs. You won a fifteen-round majority decision over him for the WBA heavyweight title in January 1986.
The same as Greg Page, but me and Tony were even more tight. I loved Greg, but me and Tony were really tight. Me and Greg were tight, but me and Tony, like after our fight, I met Tony out in California. When he went to Cincinnati, I’d call to see where he was and go out and meet with him. Tony was real cool; he wanted to be around me. When he was living in L.A., we hung out together. Me and Tony was real cool.
MP: Frank Bruno.
I fought him. I got ready for the fight but I didn’t really know how big it was. I got ready for this fight. I didn’t really know how big it was until I got over there in England. I was gonna fight a guy that I was determined to beat whether they said I was heavy, looked heavy or was fat. I was determined. In the States I did a lot of everything, we did a lot of working out. We went over there and we won. It was amazing.
MP: James “Bonecrusher” Smith. He stopped you in the 1st round to take the WBA heavyweight title in December 1986.
I fought him twice and he’s a hell of a guy. Nice guy deep down inside; he’s a preacher now. The first time I fought him I won almost every round. I thought I was the best out of the young guys back then, and I’m sure each one of those guys felt the same way, and each guy was capable of winning the heavyweight championship of the world, whereas today there are not too many that are capable. Each of the top ten guys, when I was fighting, could have won the heavyweight championship of the world. And the belt changed fast because of the competition back in the 80’s. I had it shortly two times. I was the third man in boxing to actually do it. Greg Page had it, lost it to me. Tony lost it to me. They later went and fought each other for it, because there was just so much competition whereas today there’s just not really competition.
James got a present the second time because after I defended my championship in England (against Bruno) I was supposed to give Tony Tubbs a rematch, but Tony got hurt in training, so my promoter wanted me to fight Bonecrusher. I told him that I didn’t want to fight him again because I had set him out and almost knocked him out for the NABF title the year before. I wasn’t in good enough shape to fight him the second time; there was a lot of controversy going on two, three weeks before that second Bonecrusher fight, so I kind of like gave-in in the fight. I had no fight in me. I just wanted to get away from that negative situation I was in. If you look up history, what happened that night in New York, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I gave it to him.
I saw him at a WBC convention in England when I was already over there participating in a lot of different things, and James said “you weren’t even ready for that fight”. He knew that and his team told him to jump on me. He could have had it anytime he wanted it. It ended in the 1st round and afterwards a lot of legal stuff happened, so….that was Bonecrusher
MP: Don King
Me and Don were friends but his ego got in the way. We would still be friends if he wanted to be, that’s the type of person I am. I always wanted to show him that I was a loyal person. I always wanted to be cool with him, but he has his own way of doing things. He has and was on his own quest; me and Don were cool. When I went to his office and we had conversations when other people weren’t around, we were really cool. When other people were around, that was a different story. But I stood up to him and he should respect me for that. I wasn’t gonna back off. But when we were one on one together he liked me. When we talked he liked me and I liked him. I don’t want to get into all the details about all of the negative things that happened.
As far as me and him, after all that happened, he tried to act mean even though he knew that I liked him. To me that makes me bigger because I know he couldn’t beat me, but I was willing to say those things shouldn’t have happened and we should be cool. It shouldn’t have gotten to the point that it did.
MP: You seemed to get your career back on track in the early 90’s. At one point it was rumored you were supposed to have faced Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, a compelling top contender of that period. What happened to that fight and what did you see in Ruddock’s game that you felt you could exploit?
That was quick, that was some quick thing that happened in the blink of an eye. Murad Muhammad was trying to arrange that but it never came off. I don’t think they really wanted to fight me. They knew I really didn’t care about fighting him.
He would probably have been the first guy to beat Tyson if he had connected with that left uppercut. He was really the one that was supposed to do it. I’m not saying that Buster Douglas didn’t do it right, but Razor was the one that really was supposed to do it first.
MP: In 1996 you posted solid wins over IBF cruiserweight champion Alfred “Ice” Cole and heavyweight contender Jorge Luis Gonzalez, beating Gonzalez more impressively than former heavyweight world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe had done the year previous. You looked to have regained the timing and form you had in your heyday back in the 80’s. Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer all held world titles during this period. Given your style, which one do you think you would have matched-up best with?
Styles make fights. Riddick was a hard hitter, a tall puncher who boxed good; a young strong guy. He had that drive from Brooklyn. He’s from Brooklyn and I’m from Philly. He had that drive. My overhand right would have hit him but I guarantee you he would have tried to fight to the last. I think he would have put it up. With Tyson, he was quick, strong and he could punch. Mike Tyson just came right at you, and it was just a hell of a fight with him. All three were capable guys, capable of giving a guy trouble. All three would have been hard.
Michael Moorer was a southpaw, he wouldn’t give up. I would have had to have been in shape with a good defense for Moorer. I think that his chin was a little less than the other two. When I first started boxing and I went to a south Philly gym I sparred with a southpaw named Randall Bailey, I sparred with him every couple of days and I learned how to fight a southpaw.
At that stage I would have probably picked Michael Moorer, even though he was a southpaw, and he did throw that left hand pretty good and he put his punches together well. I would take my chances with Michael Moorer. All three of them would have been hard but I would have taken Michael Moorer first.
MP: Later it looked as though you had beaten former WBO heavyweight champion Ray Mercer, only to lose a questionable decision. After that came a year of inactivity and then a string of losses to contenders such as Larry Donald, Andrew Golota and former WBC heavyweight champion and old foe Greg Page. What was going on?
As a fighter you are on a quest for the title and sometimes they make it harder for you, you gotta fight a lot of different guys before you get there. I had it twice, and at that time my personal life wasn’t really going great and I’ve been a single parent for fifteen years, raising my three kids, it was just survival going on at that time. Some of the fights were close enough for me to get but they were trying to live off of my name so that they could get better opportunities.
I went to Poland to face Golota, the Polish people were brilliant. They were nice people. I lost the decision; I didn’t really train that hard, I believe if I did I could have knocked him out or clearly won. Lou Savarese, they stopped it but I didn’t care; they stopped the fight without him really hitting me or anything. Later, the referee thought I was upset with him but I said no. You had Brian Nix who had been a sparring partner of mine, and I beat him, I think, but they gave him the fight. I tried but mentally I was in another place for a couple of those fights.
MP: You walked away from active ring duty in 2003 but continued your involvement with boxing as a respected Philadelphia trainer. What are the similarities and differences between being a fighter and being a trainer?
As a trainer you have to be able to teach people and teach them what you’ve learned over the years. I prefer to not be called a trainer because I give more than that to my fighters. I find out how they are living, how their family is doing, help them make decisions and be involved with them as people so they will trust me and so that they don’t feel like it’s the old way where they might get ripped off. They have somebody who they know will not steer them in the wrong direction. I prefer not to be called a trainer, I like the world ambassador.
I know I can train people but a lot of people look at trainers with only a certain level of respect in this industry. They don’t get a lot of respect unless they got a lot of money. They look at Emanuel Steward, because he’s got a lot of money, I like Emanuel but I can prove that there are some things that he could have shown his guys that would have benefitted them, and they missed out on it. I will say that. I would like to be called an ambassador. I like to be in the boxer’s life; to direct them, introduce them to important people and be involved with them as people. Boxers gotta have a trainer but I’d rather be an ambassador.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s the trainers and the way the younger guys are being handled. It’s like anybody can get in there and get a fighter and teach and train them and wear a robe as a corner guy. And, a lot of fighters are being misled. Now to some, being a boxer or a fighter just means getting out there and beating each other up, but I like to go a little bit further. I like my fighters to learn, to not get hit, hit a guy and knock him out, but its two different things. When I see a guy hitting somebody but getting hit, then I’m looking at who is teaching them. My trainer Slim taught me a lot of things, so when I see these things I say this guys needs this or that guy needs that. Back then I didn’t realize that I had that capability. When I travel, like to England or around the States, when I travel around to various gyms, I see kids that are good but they need somebody to show them how to do this or that, they could probably go a lot further.
MP: Tell our readers about Timothy Witherspoon JR, an up and coming lightweight.
I’m in his corner but he has a management team. I’m an advisor on his team but I am his trainer so I teach him everything. I want him to learn about the business part of boxing just like I would like my other boxers and fighters to be treated, trained the same way.
He’s 6ft and about 140lbs. He boxes real good and he just has to stay in really good shape. I would feel sorry for a lot of guys if he was in the shape Manny Pacquiao was in because he can box. He can punch and he can box. It’s hard to hard hit him, so if he can get in Mayweather or Pacquiao shape he could be one of the top guys out there. He only has five wins, one loss and one draw. He should be undefeated. He’s a nice guy and he’s fighting January 28th in Philadelphia at the National Guard Armory.
MP: How do you rate today’s current crop of heavyweights with the fighters back in your day?
They are behind. You really don’t get to see too many except the Klitschko’s and who they fight and maybe a couple of other ones. I think that boxing needs more television involvement, at least have one of the networks putting shows on and you would see more of the talent and it would draw sponsors. Right now there’s a lot of guys out there, like I say again, I’m not gonna say that there’s not a lot of good trainers but they could use some of the older guys that have been in boxing who know what they are doing. I think today they lack the exposure and the trainers we had in the 80’s; George Benton, Slim Jim, and Eddie Futch.
People need to see some of the old names back so that there would be interest. They need to hear about Tim Witherspoon or Joe Frazier, Pee Wee Whitaker; bring them guys around and try to do something because boxing isn’t rising like it should.
MP: Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
I appreciate the fans because them watching us, paying for the tickets and without them coming out and supporting fighters by watching or going to the fights, fighters wouldn’t be driving brand new cars, living in brand new houses, sending their kids college. They contribute to the welfare of the boxer by coming to the fights, and I would just like to say thank you. Thank you to my fans for supporting me and being a part of boxing.
Professional Record: 55-13-1, 38 KO’s
Date Opponent Location Result
1979-10-30 Joe Adams Upper Darby, US W TKO 1
1980-04-26 Robert Ritchie Lynchburg, US W KO 1
1980-05-09 Robert Evans Commack, US W UD 6
1980-07-20 Charles Cox McAfee, US W KO 5
1980-10-24 Oliver Wright Philadelphia, US W TKO 2
1980-12-11 James Reid Philadelphia, US W KO 6
1981-01-24 Ed Bednarik Philadelphia, US W KO 1
1981-02-07 Marvin Stinson Atlantic City, US W PTS 10
1981-04-11 Dave Johnson Kiamesha Lake, US W UD 8
1981-06-17 Bobby Jordan Philadelphia, US W KO 4
1981-07-30 Jerry Williams Philadelphia, US W TKO 7
1981-11-07 Curtis Gaskins Atlantic City, US W KO 2
1981-12-05 Alfonzo Ratliff Atlantic City, US W TKO 7
1982-03-20 Luis Acosta Atlantic City, US W KO 2
1982-06-05 Renaldo Snipes Las Vegas, US W MD 10
1983-05-20 Larry Holmes Las Vegas, US L SD 12
WBC Heavyweight Title
1983-07-16 Floyd Cummings Las Vegas, US W UD 10
1983-09-23 James Tillis Richfield, US W TKO 1
vacant NABF Heavyweight Title
1984-03-09 Greg Page Las Vegas, US W MD 12
vacant WBC Heavyweight Title
1984-08-31 Pinklon Thomas Las Vegas, US L MD 12
WBC Heavyweight Title
1985-03-25 Mark Wills Inglewood, US W TKO 9
1985-04-29 James Broad Buffalo, US W KO 2
NABF Heavyweight Title
1985-06-15 James Smith Las Vegas, US W UD 12
NABF Heavyweight Title
1985-09-06 Larry Beilfuss Miami, US W TKO 1
1985-10-12 Sammy Scaff Birmingham, UK W TKO 4
1986-01-17 Tony Tubbs Atlanta, US W MD 15
WBA World Heavyweight Title
1986-07-19 Frank Bruno Wembley, UK W TKO 11
WBA World Heavyweight Title
1986-12-12 James Smith New York, US L KO 1
WBA World Heavyweight Title
1987-08-04 Mark Wills Atlantic City, US W TKO 1
1987-10-14 Mike Williams Atlantic City, US W SD 10
1988-02-17 Mauricio Villegas Bethnal Green, UK W TKO 9
1989-01-27 Larry Alexander Las Vegas, US W SD 10
1989-10-19 Anders Eklund Atlantic City, US W KO 1
1990-01-11 Jeff Sims Atlantic City, US W RTD 5
1990-03-12 Greg Gorrell Jakarta, ID W TKO 3
1990-07-19 Jose Ribalta Seattle, US W MD 10
1991-03-08 Carl Williams Atlantic City, US W SD 12
USBA Heavyweight Title
1991-09-10 Art Tucker Philadelphia, US W TKO 3
USBA Heavyweight Title
1992-02-04 Jimmy Lee Smith Atlantic City, US W KO 1
1992-03-23 James Pritchard Atlantic City, US W UD 10
1992-07-21 Everett Martin Auburn Hills, US L SD 10
1992-08-25 Tony Willis Atlantic City, US W UD 10
1994-08-12 Sherman Griffin South Padre Island, US W TKO 3
1994-12-17 Nathaniel Fitch Atlantic City, US W TKO 6
1995-03-24 Jesse Shelby Philadelphia, US W TKO 1
1995-10-31 Everton Davis Phoenix, US W TKO 7
1995-11-14 Tim Puller Bay Saint Louis, US W TKO 2
1996-01-12 Alfred Cole New York, US W UD 10
1996-05-10 Jorge Luis Gonzalez New York, US W TKO 5
1996-12-14 Ray Mercer Atlantic City, US L UD 10
1997-11-04 Levi Billups Tunica, US W TKO 1
1997-12-13 Larry Donald Mashantucket, US L UD 12
WBC Continental Americas Heavyweight Title
1998-04-07 Jimmy Thunder Cherokee, US L UD 10
1998-10-02 Andrew Golota Wroclaw, PL L UD 10
1999-04-16 Brian Nielsen Copenhagen, DK L TKO 4
1999-06-18 Greg Page Fayetteville, US L RTD 7
2000-02-25 Joe Ballard Philadelphia, US W KO 1
2000-04-29 Mike Sedillo St. John’s, AG D PTS 12
2000-07-08 David Smith Monroe, US W TKO 2
2001-02-22 David Bostice Harrisburg, US W TKO 1
2001-03-31 Elieser Castillo Atlantic City, US W MD 10
2001-04-13 Danny Wofford Hampton, US W TKO 3
2001-06-08 Monte Barrett Verona, US L SD 10
2001-07-29 Cleveland Woods Lemoore, US W KO 1
2002-01-18 Ed White Raleigh, US W TKO 1
2002-03-10 Darroll Wilson Las Vegas, US W KO 2
2002-05-18 Ahmed Abdin Choctaw, US W UD 10
2002-09-22 Lou Savarese Friant, US L TKO 5
vacant WBO Inter-Continental Heavyweight Title
2003-03-15 Brian Nix Gulfport, US L SD 10