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Mike Weaver: A Champion With Class, Heart & Great Memories

Weaver Header (Copy)Exclusive Interview by Vinny “Glory Days” Lucci

“Let me put it this way, a month ago a guy asked me, “Michael what does it feel to be a legend?” I said to him if I ever become one I’ll let you know!”—Mike Weaver

In June of 1979 the immortal Larry Holmes took on challenger Mike Weaver in what he and the world perceived to be a glorified warm up bout not a gritty title defense. Larry’s resume was on a fast track to immortality sporting a 29 -0, 21 KO’s record going into the fight. Mike’s was an unimpressive 19-8, 13 KO’s and he was thought to be just a journeyman, who had a perfect granite body of ripped muscle, but lacking the ring generalship and fortitude to back up the sculpted Michelangelo physique. No one expected Mike to come out and out box the heavily favored champion and win rounds.

As the fight unfolded the Garden crowd sensed an upset in the air and chants of “Weaver” bellowed through the rafters. History has recorded it as a 12 round stoppage by Holmes. What isn’t documented on boxing ledgers is that on this night Weaver was baptized under fire against a ring legend and pronounced himself ready to finally take on the divisions best if not the world. The bout instantly made Mike a fan favorite as most believed he was not only winning, but was victim of an early stoppage after having had cleared the cobwebs between rounds from a vicious uppercut.

Mike’s journey was a bumpy existence through the college of hard knocks, but he was on the verge of graduating in high style after two winning comeback bouts including taking veteran Scott Ledoux to school. His title winning effort against heavily favored “Big” John Tate was nothing short of a “Rocky” movie come to life. Going into the fifteenth round and having only won the thirteenth Weaver needed a knockout and delivered it in stunning fashion with a perfect short 15 “Joe Louis type left hook.

“Big” John resembled a felled Oak tree as he crashed face first and a new champion was born. His time on the throne was brief, but he left us with some remarkable and truly memorable fights that have lost nothing as the decades eclipsed the retirement of the complicated man who perhaps was better suited to be a preacher as he is a very religious man who viewed his bouts as competition, not warfare. Mike has a kind word for everybody and regardless of the pitfalls of his chosen profession holds no grudges or ill will to any of those who entered the sanctuary where he earned a living.

Talking to Mike you get the feeling that he is the most grounded retired champ you’ll ever run across. He never takes himself too seriously, yet is proud of all his accomplishments. He fills in gaps of stories with matter of fact history notes not being overly judgmental of himself or his rivals. Mike has a good sense of humor and is a very anchored family man who thanks God for every sunrise and the blessings bestowed on him. You’ll never hear Mike making excuses for a loss or brag over a win, and while most retired heavyweight champs sadly look like they are courting a widow maker heart attack by the excess poundage they carry Mike looks like he could get in the ring tomorrow.

Mike is the kind of gent you want to talk life with veering off the subject of fisticuffs and get introspective on all the subjects that make us happy, sad and human. It was a pleasure talking up a brief recap of his career that held such relevance during the Holmes era.

VL: First off Mike, congrats on newest honor of being inducted into West Coast Hall of Fame. It is a terrific honor to be recognized as a legend who made his mark. Over the last few days as you prepared to go to the ceremony what were the recollections of your career that have come to mind?

Let me put it this way, a month ago a guy asked me, “Michael what does it feel to be a legend?” I said to him if I ever become one I’ll let you know!

VL: Then you said it’s a terrific honor to be recognized as a legend.

Well, the last five or six months when they told me we chose you to be the very first heavyweight to be inducted in the WBHOF, I was joyful as I began to recollect on what I had done to deserve this honor. I remember the first time I got on a knee and asked the Lord to give me the strength to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Well, starting off it was a tough go yet I still believed I was going to be champ despite what people thought or how my record looked. I remember one day sparring with Ken Norton. He told me if you take the game seriously and run and train like you’re supposed to, you can make noise in the heavyweight division.

Than I’m sparring Eddie “Bossman” Jones who was never knocked out in a professional fight. Word was that George Foreman had knocked him out in the gym. I was the next to accomplish the same feat. Next day in the gym an older guy kept a keen eye on me. And finally asked me who my manager was and how many fights did I have?

I told him and he said I see something special in you. His name was Don Manuel and the guy you knocked out was my fighter. I got a phone call from a friend at gym who told me to get down here because someone just knocked out the “Bossman”. Don tells me if your manager is not keeping you busy I can get you out of your contract. He then explained to me that nobody could knock out the “Bossman” except Foreman, and the guy got to have real punching power. The rest is history. All this ran across my mind waiting for date to receive this honor.

VL: You were a powerhouse Mike. The fans and writers have not forgotten you and some of the terrific fights you left us. Did you always feel from your start in the Marines that one day you would be champ? Did it feel like it was to be your destiny?

Thank you. When I came home for my father’s funeral I was talking to some friends that I had started boxing. I did tell them when I get out of service and turn pro and in about ten years I am going to be the champion. Well, I got out in 1971, and in 1980 I became champion. True story.

aliheader1VL: My mind is buzzing with a hundred questions but want to keep it down to the most relevant. What boxers inspired you back then?

Muhammad Ali inspired me, and I told him so.

VL: His passing was sad as was recently losing Ernie Terrell, Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton in last couple of years. Kenny had given you the nickname” Hercules.” You were sparring partners for a while weren’t you?

Yes, it was as well as the others. I did spar with Kenny for five or six years, and he started calling me by that name.

VL: A few years ago we were chatting up the game and you mentioned that Bernardo Mercado was the strongest puncher you ever faced. Any recollections from that fight and who else that you were matched with could really bang?

Yeah I remember when he came to Hoover Street Gym and he was either knocking everybody down If not out and finally one day I get asked to spar with him. He and his handlers would see me daily training with Norton. So we sparred when I believe I was about 25 or 26 and he was younger. I stood 6’1” and weighed between 200 and 205 pounds. Bernardo was 6’4” and weighing around 225. Anyway, I could feel his power, but I pretty much was able to do whatever I wanted to. In the fourth round the bell rung and I had dropped my hands and he sucker punched me.

I said let’s go another round, but his corner said no and he never worked with me again. A couple of years later he and I were paired for Nevada State title. He could really punch, but didn’t have that big of a heart. In the fourth round I had dropped my guard when the bell rang and he knocked me down. I’m good, and of course I’m upset and in fifth round came out bombing away. A left hook dropped him and he just barely beat the count, but refused to continue fighting claiming I thumbed him. (Officially tko in 5) They say he hit harder than anyone, but I was nearing my peak. Although James Smith and Lennox Lewis hit very hard I was 35 and 40 years old when we fought. Really after the Dokes fight I went from 100 percent to about 80 or lower even though I continued fighting it never got better. Yet, I continued to win some, lose some.

VL: I know you hit the gym and stay in marvelous shape. It’s sad to see so many of your contemporaries really let themselves go when they retired. You look like you could go ten rounds tomorrow. What’s your weekly workout like?

My weekly workout in morning starts with 300 crunches. Then take a thirty minute walk on the stair climber at gym before lifting weights and hitting the heavy bag for four or five rounds. Another three rounds on speed bag. Hit the weights three times a week, that’s about it.

VL: Sounds like you are going to get in ring tomorrow!

Oh yeah and three rounds of shadow boxing. That’s it. Five days a week.

VL: That’s awesome Mike, truly inspiring for not only your peers but the new generation that looks up to yesterday’s heroes. I also recall playing the piano was a passion of yours. Have you kept up on the ivories as well?

Thank you Vinny, and yes I still play it every day

VL: Before I get back to “must ask” questions are there any hobbies that take up your time?

I love to go to casino and play slot machines, but just the penny machine. I like to go to movies and pay one price and see all the movies by movie hopping. (Big Laugh)

VL: (Big Laugh) Been there, done that! OK, next question is to make you smile, not being personal…..Are you still looking for another future Mrs. Weaver?

Of course I am, I don’t like being alone, (Big Laugh)

VL: That “is” my wish for you…. Back to boxing, there are a few real stand out fights in your career. Holmes, Tate, Coetzee, and Dokes. (Just realizing both Tate and Dokes have sadly passed long before their time also) For the fans can you share some quick thoughts about each?

Well, when I was offered the Holmes fight I was running around telling everyone I am fighting for the world heavyweight championship. I would tell haters and jealous people that I am not scared of him and even though I might not beat him for as many rounds as it goes, Holmes will know he has been in a fight! Don King’s offer of 75,000 was later squashed because he said I was a nobody and no TV channel wanted the fight. He later came back with a 50,000 offer which he sold to HBO. I told him to fight for title I’d take fifty dollars. There was a press conference in New York to announce the fight set for just three weeks away on June 22.

We had to go back and pack our things and fly in a few days later. We had no place to train as nothing was arranged or set up yet. Bobby Goodman one of Don King’s people said he’d take us to Larry’s camp. We trained there one time and Larry heard about it and got mad at Bobby forlarry_holmes_vs_mike_weaver taking us there. They put up a bag in a hotel where we stayed and found some sparring partners up there. I remember at the weigh in, Larry telling Don Manuel “I’ll bet you a million dollars I knock your boy out in the fourth round!”

Don said to him, “Can I borrow it from you, I actually have a guy who jabs as good as you, if not better.” But because of short notice he will go to New York to work with me. Anyway fight time comes and my plan was to slip his jab, pressure him, and work the body and then hooks to the head. He didn’t punch that hard, but he put his combinations together quite well. He never really had me in trouble with his power, even in the fourth round he really tried to get me out of there because that was the round he said he was going to knock me out.

My corner asked if I was alright and I said “Yep.” He said this is the fifth you loosened up and ready to go. I start coming on strong in the fifth, but was tiring around the 7, 8 and 9th rounds. I told my trainer I was tired and hurting and he said to suck it up, that Larry was tired and hurting too and go out there and hop on him. I did, but in eleventh he dropped me in my corner and my trainer he is going to out hop you keep your hands up and wait for that opening, but it never came. Afterwards they had a celebration party I was invited to. I went up to Larry who was holding an ice pack to his face and said, “Thank you Larry for giving me a shot at your title you are going to be a great champion. If only I had more time to train……” I don’t know, he never really answered or said anything.

VL: What memories do the history making fight with John Tate conjure up?

Well, what I remember most of the Tate fight was training very hard and being hyped up every day in camp. On one particular day I had knocked out three sparring partners and dropped a fourth in last seconds of sparring a few rounds. I had seen John fight a few times taking note of his fight with Gerrie Coetzee. I was watching that title fight for Ali’s vacated belt at a friend’s house. He asked me, “Mike how would you do with either one of these guys?” I said, I’ll knock them both out. He asked “what round?” I said any time after the tenth!” ……

Tate was out boxing me and moving very well for a big man. After every round my manager kept asking “What are you doing? What are you waiting for?” I just couldn’t get a rhythm going. Finally in the fifteenth round, my manager reminded me I was telling everyone I knew that I was going to knock Tate out. He told me I was running out of time and it was now or never so you better do it! I sat in my corner and recited the 23rd psalms to myself and asked the Lord to give me the strength to knock him out. He gave me more than I needed. I always thought I could beat him even though they had high hopes on him. I remember my manager telling me they think they are going to walk over you. Tate already signed a five million dollar contract to fight Ali. I told him that’s not going to happen. If he does, it will be without the championship.

champion John TateVL: That Tate fight was perhaps “the” most significant KO in heavyweight history. I believe the judges had only given you the thirteenth round going into the 15th. When that explosive short hook took John out, what was it like knowing no ten count was needed as he landed face first?

Yes, you were right I had only won one round before the knockout. Ray my trainer told me to throw the right to the body and come back high with a left hook. When I got back to my corner I could hear so many people saying he’s out cold Mike, he’s out cold! I didn’t know why they were, but my Mom told me she was praying hard for me, but was so worried she started praying John wasn’t dead! I remember looking at him and thanking the Lord for answering my prayer, as I said to myself, “I am the champion.”

VL: I remember that night and post-fight people and media saying you did the “Rocky!” lol (reference to the popular Stallone movie sequel) Taking out the champ with less than a minute left. Coetzee was a bruiser when he let his hands go. That fight was a war. How did that win come about?

Yep, I did a “Rocky” on him. Lol ….Well, the Coetzee fight was going to be a much tougher fight than Tate in that he was a much harder puncher than John. When the fight with Ali fell apart then Coetzee came up as a possibility. My manager said Bob Arum can put this together for a two million dollar payday, but we have to go fight in South Africa. We all agreed we were going to hear a lot of negativity from all the Black leaders about going over there with apartheid and racism everywhere. I was getting a lot of calls over it. I went to see my pastor for guidance and she said “yes, go fight.” When I got there a trainer from Gerrie’s camp came by to film my training. I walked over to him and told him you can tell Gerrie he doesn’t have to send you here he can come by himself and watch, the workouts are open to the public. I brought three sparring partners along with me.

My main one, “Big Red” stood 6’6” and weighed 240. Our first day of sparring I broke one of his ribs, so he got a six week paid vacation. I than relied on another sparring partner from States named Walter Santemore. During the fight Coetzee was talking trash calling me a boy and sayingweaver-vs-gerrie you are getting tired. I kept telling him this boy is going to whip your behind. In the eighth round, he hit me with a right hand that made me see three of him. It hurt like hell, but I wasn’t in trouble of going down.

Back in my corner between rounds my trainer Ray Barnes asks how I felt after that shot? I said fine. He said ok, look it’s the second half of fight and he shot his best. Pick up the pace, he’s done. I said to Coetzee I am going to knock you out in your own backyard, but he continued running off at the mouth. In the 11 and 12th rounds he kept telling me, you are getting tired! I said “I am going to show you how tired I am.” Between rounds Ray asked if I was ready to go for the knockout as I got off my stool. I said, yep. He said go do it. My co-trainer said “Don’t forget to show him you have a right hand too.”…….and that 13th round right hand finished the job. Coetzee fought a good rough and tough fight. Before the fight the ref whispered to me “You are going to win this fight. I dreamed about it last night.”

I said, “I did too.” A day later Gerrie came to lobby of hotel I was staying at to congratulate me. He said I never been hit that hard before and body was filled with sore red spots from body shots. I told him you would have to kill me that night to beat me. Before the fight I was greeted by many people who said please win for us. I would tell them I promise I will win. I promise.

VL: I made a lot of money betting on you that day. I was driving in my car midafternoon listening to 1010 Wins radio when they announced you won by knockout in 13th. The fight wasn’t going to be showed on delayed broadcast at night in America on HBO. None of the neighborhood bookies was aware of that fact. Not to look greedy I waged small bets on you by KO. Every small time Bookie in the Queens and Bronx were taking my 25 and 50 dollar bets…. (Big Laugh)

Onto the Dokes debacle. This came on the heels of the Ray Mancini Vs Duk Koo Kim tragedy. It’s been said Joey Curtis was told by the boxing organization not to let another fighter get injured while this was fresh in everyone’s mind. (I believe if Kim wasn’t unfairly ranked number one as a sacrifice the unfortunate circumstance never would have happened. Kim would have been more than lucky to get ranked 10th.) The world thought Joey was incredibly gun shy that night for inexplicably halting action a minute into fight handing the championship over to the challenger. I’ll never forget that look on your face. All that hard earned work foolishly stolen away by an incompetent decision. Every fan and sports writer had been following your recent rise to prominence and your ability to soak up punishment. What was going through your mind just before and after the stoppage?

I had someone approach me from hearing a reliable source tell him that Dokes had planned to jump on me at opening bell since I was a slow starter and the ref was going to stop it. I think it was Stan Ward who I fought in Vegas for the USBA title and Curtis was the referee. The fight was stopped in the 9th round. When Joey would see me at a fight he would say, “I made you,” referring to the Ward stoppage. Dokes started like I knew he would hoping to catch me cold and knocked me down, but I wasn’t hurt at all. The ref asked me what day it was and I told him. He motioned the fight on and I just thought I’ll cover up blocking as many punches as I can waiting to land one big shot like I was practicing in the gym.

Then Joey looks in to see if I’m alright and I thought he was just separating us when out of nowhere he raises Dokes hand. I said, “What’s wrong with you man I’m not hurt!” He told the news media “He was taking too many shots and his eyes rolled up.” That was a lie. This same man who said that “he” made me had taken away in 93 seconds what I worked years for. My corner was outraged, so was my family. My sister grabbed the belt. Dokes hit my brother during the melee in the ring. The WBA investigated the fight and found Joey Curtis had bet the fight wouldn’t go past one round! Bet you didn’t know that! That’s why they ordered the rematch because there wasn’t one in our contract.

VL: Holy Shit! No that somehow escaped the attention of the press. What about the rematch? I thought you were robbed again with that draw.

After that fight when someone would mention a rubber match Dokes would respond, “Hell no, I’d rather fight my Mama!” Whatever he meant by that, is up for debate, but that’s what he said!

VL: Do you hold any bad feelings towards Joey Curtis?

No, I did forgive him, but it took many years.

VL: You have a big heart Mike. Knowing you for years you’re a very religious man. Were you raised to be very religious? It is a trait I always admired in you. Who inspired you most to become a boxer? Please name a few fighters you have admired most……

Well, no one inspired me to be a fighter because I grew up hating it because my father would be watching a match the same time the Flintstones were on. I got into a fight in the Marine club house over a song. I knocked the guy out. People who witnessed it asked me to join the Marine boxing team. I told them I don’t know a thing about boxing. The captain told me the guy you just knocked out was the Marines champion. So I need to thank Gladys Knight for making the song “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong,” because that is the song I was going to play before I was pushed by the bully who I had to put to sleep. After that the captain told me the fella was drunk, and I was like “Woo,” glad he told me.

VL: The Gerry Cooney fight was talked up as a possibility with a big paycheck. Where you disappointed, it didn’t materialize?

Was I? I wanted that fight badly, but James “Quick” Tillis was my mandatory. We offered him a million dollars for step aside fee and we’d fight him after Cooney. He refused. We got a promise from Cooney’s camp they would wait for the fight. A few days later Don King stole the fight from me by TILLIS-WEAVERWEIGHIN-Oct-1981offering 10 million to Larry Holmes to fight Gerry.

VL: That is some hard luck that has followed you around Mike. Any other fights that you wanted, but slipped off the radar?

No. That was the one fight I really wanted. A couple of years later when I was well past my prime the Cooney camp offered me 500,000. My manager said, but you can’t win. I said I know what you mean.

VL: Hate to ask this one, but what do you think of today’s heavyweight landscape?

Well, I like Anthony Joshua and a couple of others. I remember when Dominic Breazeale was getting ready to fight he was training at the gym I use to work out at. I saw the way he was being trained and didn’t like what I saw. I was asked what I thought? I told them he was being trained wrong and the fight wouldn’t go two rounds. I am sure they told him what I said, but I didn’t care I would have told him the same thing if they would have asked me.

VL: I like Joshua myself and have stated so here in recent articles. Although I think Ortiz is a beast also. Mike, what’s an average day for you like? I know you sometimes like downtime alone by the ocean.

Ortiz is the other one. Just couldn’t think of the name. Well I just don’t want to work with the people anymore. I really haven’t been doing too much. Usually just hang around the house, watch TV, and go to the movies. Yeah I like to go to the ocean and relax enjoying the scenery, but really haven’t done that for a while.

VL: One day I need to get down to Diamond Bar since I know you dislike Jets. You and I are long overdue for a tavern night, good steak and toast life. Anyway, let me wrap this up so you can get back to playing the piano. How would you like to be remembered by history and fans alike?

Just plain and simple. A man who did his best and a person that never said anything bad about his opponents. A man that made it when he wasn’t supposed to………………….something like that.

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