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Henry Tillman: RSR Talks with the Olympic Gold Medalist and Former NABF Cruiserweight Champion

Interview by Mike “Rubber Warrior” Plunkett

“I made it on talent, determination and will.”–Henry Tillman

It seems like a lifetime ago that I canoed down the Trent-Severn waterway with the intent to meet-up with a group of friends at a popular beach situated at the most southern tip of Washago, Ontario. I remember the voyage well. It was to be a sunny and fun day of beach activities, swimming, barbeque and most importantly, time with the ladies of the moment. As strange as it may now seem, my focus wasn’t on all of the beautiful tanning women we passed as we made our slow decent down that scenic canal, but rather the periodic updates on the 1984 Summer Olympics that would interrupt what was playing over my boom box. As we eased past the numerous yachts on that journey, and as I listened intently to some of the results for what was sizing up to be perhaps the most talented and glorious boxing team ever to represent the United States, I couldn’t help but wish I was in front of the television.

Henry Tillman was an integral part of that great 1984 Summer Olympics boxing team. Representing his country at the highest possible level in competition, he took home the Heavyweight Gold Medal, having bested Willie De Witt, a talented countryman of mine, in the finals. Getting to that point is a story in itself, having to overcome the key obstacle of doubt from those around him, if not the fists of a ferocious amateur named Mike Tyson. But after having the unique opportunity of speaking with Henry Tillman, it quickly became clear that this was a man unfazed by the obstacles that life would present, and that his determination to succeed was at the core of who he was as a competitor in the toughest and most brutal of sports and in life itself .

MP: You had a highly successful amateur career which culminated in a Gold Medal in 1984 Summer Olympics at Heavyweight. Looking back, how do you remember that moment?

That was almost like an out of body experience I think for the whole team because the moments were very magical. People say that the Cubans or whatever weren’t there, but I truly believe in my heart that we were so prepared and so close knit, because we travelled a couple of years together, fighting internationally, and nationally, leading up to the Olympics, we had a camaraderie that made it really more like a family than a team. Everybody really cared and pulled for one another even though we had our little inside quirks just like any family would. Other than that, we came together and it was truly great how we supported one another. I’m telling you it was a magical moment. It was like the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. It was one of those magical moments that you don’t see but once in a lifetime and if you see more than that it’s a long time in between until you see it again. When you do, it reminds you of that first magical incident or situation.

MP: There hasn’t been an Olympic boxing team like that since.

No. That says a lot right there, or before that. Now the ‘76 team was a great team. They were a great team. They fought the competition that showed up and fought them back. And that’s what we did. We fought the competition that showed up. We showed up.

MP: It’s well known that long before you faced him as a pro, you out boxed Mike Tyson as an amateur in the Olympic trials. What are your recollections of that experience?

Mike and I were friends then and we’re friends now. We never stopped being friends even with those two fights and even with the match we had after he turned pro. It was the kind of experience where nobody really thought I could win or believed that I could accomplish something, and I just knew in my mind, and in my body and soul, that I was about to do it. On the inside you are screaming at people “I’m going to win”, but they don’t hear you. They are just walking by like you are saying nothing.

I was told I didn’t have enough experience to fight internationally. I didn’t have that many amateur fights.

MP: You had some 40 amateur fights.

Something like that. Yeah. I had only been fighting for maybe two years. They were getting a little particular. I made it on talent, determination and will. A boxing match is like a chess match; it is two people imposing their will upon each other. You try to break them or make them make a mistake. That’s what it’s about. It’s physical but it’s more mental than anything else, and that’s how Tyson beat, 99, 98 or 95% of the guys he fought. He beat them with intimidation and reputation.

MP: You turned pro with a knockout over future world champion Uriah Grant in December 1984. What do you recall of the moments just after that first win and was the transition from amateur to professional difficult?

No it wasn’t. I used to work with a lot of heavyweight, very well known and great heavyweights. I worked with Michael Dokes, Tony Tubbs, big Mark Wills, and a host of others such as David Bey who trained here in L.A. California. So as an amateur I got to box and move around with those guys so I learned professional tricks of the boxing trade at an early age in my life with boxing. So that set me up rather early compared to others that started off at the same time as I did. So it actually set me apart.

MP: After going 9-0 you won the NABF cruiserweight title with a first-round blowout of Bash Ali. You looked poised for greater success but you lost that title to the streaking Bert Cooper in your next bout. What happened?

I went out there and Bert Cooper was talking, telling me I had to run to beat him, because I couldn’t fight him and beat him, because he’s a slugger. Bert was a big-time puncher, so I went in there and started trading with him. I wanted to show him something, but by the time I figured he could hit like they all said he could I had been on the floor twice already. That was the hardest fight I ever had right there. Inside my mouth it looked like I chewed up a whole box of brand new razor blades. At the time I didn’t have enough sense to get the double mouthpiece. Some of the punches I was taking cut into the sides of my jaw. Afterwards we both had to go and get checked.

One commentator said he didn’t know how I got up after being put down. He hit me with a left hook on that second knockdown. He floored my ass. It was for my title and my recovery was so good and there maybe 30 or 40 seconds left in that round, so I danced around, grabbed him and tied him up. I was holding both he and the referee a couple of times – at the same time. I was just trying to buy time. Bert said he never threw that many punches, but he had too because of how fast and determined I was.

MP: Having regrouped with a series of wins, you challenged Evander Holyfield for the WBA Cruiserweight Title on Valentine Day in 1987, ultimately losing by 7th round TKO. What are your recollections of the bout?

I lost too much weight. Can you see me at hundred and ninety pounds? It was a brutal fight until fatigue set in from all of the weight loss. If we could have done it at 195lbs I think I would have been ever better and stronger. But 190lbs. was just too much. My mother told me when she saw me, “Boy you look peaked. You look like you need something to eat.”

MP: Looking back, did you think that Evander Holyfield would one day gone on to become what he is today, as respected all-time great?

Yes, without question. Holyfield is one of the most talented men I’ve ever met in my life. Evander and I were and still are friends today. I was talking to him just after the Manny Pacquiao/Miguel Cotto fight. I talk to him three or four times a week. I’ll be seeing him here in L.A. in the next few weeks. He’s in training right now. He says he has a fight coming up at the beginning of the New Year. So I’ll talk to him, hang out with him and see where his head is at. In my heart, I’m not saying that he can’t fight I’m just saying is it worth it? Just think of all the fights and wars he’s been through.

MP: In June 1990 you were brought in as Mike Tyson’s first comeback foe after he had lost the unified heavyweight title to James “Buster” Douglas. You were stopped in round one. What are your recollections of the moments just before and during the bout?

I was trying to make history and stop Mike in the first round (laughing).

MP: Was there much improvement in Tyson relative to when you defeated him as an amateur?

By that time he was a little more patient. He was still coming at you, but he was coming at you with a more controlled and calculated aggression as opposed to a wild and loose aggression. He had a more controlled aggression which to me made him more dangerous.

MP: Compare the power of Bert Cooper and Mike Tyson.

Power-wise, Bert Cooper was as strong as Mike if not a little stronger. Mike was just so fast and he hit hard. People often don’t give him credit for his hand speed when he hit you. Mike could hit your ass with three hard as board and bone punches, in quick-assed succession, if you didn’t have enough damn sense to get out of there. He broke my ribs in our first amateur fight in Houston at the Convention Center, and knocked me on my ass with a body shot. He hit me so hard my damn leg went up by itself. My mind didn’t tell me to lift it; my leg went up like I was trying to start a motorcycle.

MP: Your record indicates that your last bout was a 7th-round loss to Terry Davis in September 1992. Why did you leave the sport and what did you do after having walked away?

I was ready to retire. My heart just wasn’t into it anymore. I quit and went out and got my business degree, my GED, a computer degree and got an education in computers in Word, Power Point and Excel. I wanted to learn about the cyber world because everything as you know is there right now. People my age or older are typically naïve of computers and the cyber world, especially if they figure they don’t have the smarts to learn it. I wanted to be educated in cyberspace.

MP: The year 1996 proved to be a life-altering turning point for you. What happened?

I can’t really talk about that right now because I have a book coming out next year, so that’s something I wish to save for it. I can tell you that it was a turning point in my life and for my family and my friends, so on and so forth. Today I am doing just fine.

Until just recently I was involved with a program, which doesn’t have the funds at the moment, but they are looking to pick it back up early next year. It’s a program called ReadySetGo which works through the Olympic committee where athletes and Olympians go to different L.A. unified school districts. It’s a Southern California program. It educates teens and children in school on child and teen nutrition; how to eat correctly, diet correctly and have balanced nutrition.

MP: Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans in closing?

Just that I appreciate my fans in and around the world that over the years have supported and stuck with me through the good and not so good times. Anything that I accomplished or did well, I give it all back to my parents, to God, my family, my trainers and to the people around me who helped get me to the point in my life where I became successful and where I am today.

(Interviewer’s note: About fifteen minutes after we had concluded the interview, Henry Tillman took the liberty of calling me back to introduce me to one of the NFL’s all-time top linebackers and a close personal friend, Rod Martin. Both Rod and Henry were enjoying Monday Night Football at a place called Poncho’s in Manhattan Beach where Rod plays host with the rest of the Monday night crew. Having been presented with the unlikely opportunity to speak to a 12-year NFL veteran who played for the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders, and who over the course of that period earned two Super Bowl rings, I could not help but marvel at the situation and how in effect it underlined what a great inspiration Henry Tillman is to those around him. Mr. Martin spoke his mind about the great athlete he knew Tillman to be, openly mentioning that he had long been friends with Henry and that he admired the way he had persevered through the trials and difficult periods of his notable life, and that God worked in strange ways.

It was clear that Henry Tillman had long since made a significant impact on a man who had made it to the pinnacle in his own sport on two separate occasions, underlining the unique and extraordinary character the 1984 Heavyweight Gold Medalist really is. For the chance to spend a few moments with #53 Rod Martin, I thank Henry Tillman.)

Henry Tillman
Division: Cruiserweight
Professional Record: 25-6, 16 KO’s

Date Opponent Location Result

1984-12-07 Uriah Grant Houston, USA W TKO 2

1985-03-05 Mickey Pryor Dallas, USA W TKO 4
1985-04-18 Andre Crowder Atlantic City, USA W TKO 1
1985-05-12 John Williams Tyler, USA W TKO 1
1985-06-30 Leroy Caldwell Las Vegas, USA W PTS 6
1985-08-11 Larry Phelps Hollywood, USA W TKO 2
1985-09-18 Richard Scott Atlantic City, USA W UD 6

1986-02-02 Sylvester Lee Hollywood, USA W TKO 1
1986-03-04 Reggie Gross Atlantic City, USA W UD 10
1986-04-22 Bash Ali Las Vegas, USA W TKO 1
NABF Cruiserweight Title
1986-06-15 Bert Cooper Atlantic City, USA L PTS 12
NABF Cruiserweight Title
1986-08-19 Cedric Parsons Las Vegas, USA W KO 1
1986-09-24 Oscar Holman Las Vegas, USA W TKO 6
1986-10-17 Tyrone Booze Las Vegas, USA W UD 10
1986-12-26 Stanley Ross Las Vegas, USA W TKO 4

1987-02-14 Evander Holyfield Reno, USA L TKO 7
WBA World Cruiserweight Title
1987-06-07 Woody Clark Providence, USA W TKO 7
1987-07-11 Kevin P Porter Atlantic City, USA W UD 10
1987-08-22 Danny Sutton Columbia, USA W KO 7
1987-11-20 Dwain Bonds Las Vegas, USA L TKO 8

1988-03-29 Willie DeWitt Edmonton, Canada L PTS 10

1989-12-09 Danny Wofford Daytona Beach, USA W PTS 10

1990-01-30 Gerardo Valero Reseda, USA W KO 2
1990-02-17 Tim Morrison Edmonton, Canada W TKO 2
1990-06-16 Mike Tyson Las Vegas, USA L KO 1
1990-08-30 Danny Blake Daytona Beach, USA W UD 10
1990-10-26 Lynwood Jones Daytona Beach, USA W UD 10
1990-11-29 Rick Kellar Kalamazoo, USA W TKO 4

1992-03-26 Mark Lee Irvine, USA W UD 10
1992-04-21 Young Joe Louis Tampa, USA W TKO 6
1992-09-15 Terry Davis Fort Lauderdale, USA L KO 7

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