There’s an old axiom about prize fighters. It goes that you should never get too attached to them, never invest too much hope in them or get too caught-up in their careers, for in the end they’ll break your heart almost every time out.
In a way the year 1986 seems only just like yesterday but in fact it was a lifetime ago. My first recollection of Donovan “Razor” Ruddock was down at Toronto’s famed St. Lawrence Market fighting a prelim match on an old Remo Di Carlo headliner. Back then I didn’t really know who this tall and imposing heavyweight was, and at the time his record was a mere 8-1-1, but the aggression he demonstrated, and with the explosive suddenness of his attack, I took note of his name for future reference. I remember asking the person seated next to me who this “Razor” Ruddock was. The response I got was a shrug. Somebody behind me heard the question and responded with “One of George Chuvalo’s fighters, some big Jamaican from the west end”. I made a mental note to keep track of him from that point on certain he would make waves on the local scene.
Standing a well sculpted 6’3 and having a coveted reach of 82’ Ruddock seemed to have been assembled for the sheer purpose of ascending the heavyweight ranks of the day. His long left jab looked to be a weapon of control, and his right hand, when thrown off of that snapping jab, was quick, formidable and sharp. He moved around the ring on spry legs and his punches, when thrown with the necessary discretion, seemed to flow with a notable level of fluidity. Clearly the fundamentals were there, his amateur pedigree belied by his movement and composure, measured and timed as though well practiced under the watchful eye of nobody over the course of years.
Perusing the Toronto Sun sports section not long after having seen Ruddock in action, I raised an eyebrow when reading of former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes’ account of “The Razor”, the young man that had been giving him considerable difficulty in sparring while prepping for his much anticipated pivotal rematch with IBF heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. The article explained that Holmes was sufficiently impressed by the skills and hunger of the upstart Ruddock, praising him via complaint, that the Canadian’s movement and left jab were forcing him to shift into high gear over the course of several competitive sessions. I knew then that in fact I really had seen something on that fateful winter night and that Ruddock had quite a future in front of him.
My next recollection of Ruddock came some months later. This time he had greatly stepped up the level of his competition and was facing former WBA heavyweight champion Mike “Hercules” Weaver. Admittedly Weaver was in marked decline at that point, but the year before he had still been good enough to compete for the WBC heavyweight title, having succumbed to then champion Pinklon Thomas in round eight. With a record of 11-1-1 to Weaver’s well traveled 28-12-1, it occurred to me that they may have thrown “Razor” in too deep at that stage of his career despite my previous impression of him being a destructive talent to watch out for.
The bout with Weaver can now be looked back upon as a brilliant progressive step in Ruddock’s career development. In it Ruddock fought with periodic caution, using mobility and what appeared to be a fine spearing left jab. The bout itself was between a talented upstart looking to impose his considerable attributes against the caginess and experience of a veteran known for playing spoiler when least expected; dropping the hammer when the opportunity presented itself. Ruddock declined to hand Weaver such moments of opportunity taking a well-earned hard-fought split ten-round decision.
I followed Ruddock through to his next bout of note, his explosive first round destruction of the venerable Ken Lakusta for the vacant Canadian heavyweight title. Keen to the fact that being King of the Canuck heavyweight landscape didn’t hold the weight it had commanded in the past relative to the world stage, Razor’s explosive and abbreviated win over a complicated and game journeyman signaled his ascension to the world stage. The question was now who would he prove himself against to claim a spot among the elite heavyweights of the time?
In December 1988 I excitedly arrived home to watch Ruddock’s bout with James Broad. Rewinding my VCR furiously, I overshot the mark of the bout on my first three attempts, realizing that with all of the commercials there had obviously been a very quick bout, more than likely a complete early blowout. When I located the first bell on my screen it wasn’t too long before it was all over and Razor’s arm was being raised in victory. Long gone was the feeling out of a foe in favor of a safety-first approach or the garnering of points over rounds with a systematic surge towards victory. Donovan was intent to remove the fight judges from the equation end matters on his own terms.
Over early 1989 I eagerly awaited Razor Ruddock’s next appearance, keeping my heavyweight appetite satiated watching Mike Tyson’s surprising struggle with England’s Frank Bruno and Evander Holyfield’s baptism of fire into the heavyweight ranks with his underrated battle against the rejuvenated Michael Dokes. Others on the radar such as the undefeated knockout artist Alex Stewart, the short and cagey stylist Orlin Norris as well as the returning George Foreman also kept me occupied, but in truth I pined for something big from “The Razor” believing that he had a future date with ring destiny.
On Canada Day 1989 my wish came true. Ruddock was up at bat and the opponent was the well travelled former WBA champ James “Bonecrusher” Smith. I remember the hoopla surrounding this bout. Our local newspapers each did a noteworthy feature on “The Razor”, acknowledging him as a world-class talent beyond his status as a Canadian, and more to the point, a talented fighter from Toronto. It was viewed as a “coming out” of sorts against a man that had faced both Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, dominant heavyweight champions, among others. Getting past “Bonecrusher” would put Ruddock and Canada at the forefront of a very colorful heavyweight division filled with fighters looking to win what was known back in the day as “the Tyson Sweepstakes”.
Both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had been brought in during the build-up as noteworthy names backing the popular “Bonecrusher”, but the hard and fast reality was that Smith had been inactive for a year and his record going into the bout was a sketchy 0-2-1 dating back to the Tyson title unification non-event where he had relinquished his WBA title in one of the most dismal modern-day championship bouts pre-Klitschko.
In the bout itself, Ruddock fought with more reserve than had been the case in his previous three bouts. He moved about the ring cautiously after an initial first half minute of bouncing around off of an occasional long left jab. I remember thinking that he was being mindful of Smith as a dangerous force, but not boxing methodically as if to slowly accumulate points while working any weakness in his opponent. As the round wore down, Ruddock was positioning himself as if trying to line-up a marksman’s shot….to the point of posing. It was a dangerous ploy that all but cost him early in the next stanza.
Early in round two Ruddock found himself sprawled along the canvas off of a well delivered Smith counter-punch. I recall the playful expression of jubilance on Razor’s face as the realization that he had been decked hit him. He got up, took the referee’s count and quickly shifted gears into survival mode, clinching and grappling the onrushing 249lb Goliath that was looking to re-establish himself in a division of ever-present paydays. Before long Ruddock’s approach had been tuned-up; he was now carefully using mobility and timing the increasingly slow offerings from the aging “Bonecrusher”, countering beautifully, with his blows repeatedly finding the mark.
By the 7th round “Bonecrusher” had not only been reduced to throwing one punch at a time, he was now in reverse, the effect of Ruddock’s counters and steady stream of aggression having taken the steam out of his game. A series of stiff right hands mixed with a hybrid left uppercut/hook that would later come to be known affectionately as “The Smash” deposited Smith for the count along the ropes. “The Razor” had established himself against a well known and dangerous opponent whilst showing his grit and character by staving off certain early doom. All that was left was a shot at somebody in the top ten of the heavyweight division to make the world take notice, and what was to come was more than what most had bargained for.