Don King Productions held a press conference today at the DCU Center in Worcester to officially announce its April 2 show, headlined by World Boxing Council champion Wayne “Big Truck” Braithwaite against World Boxing Association champion Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight world title unification, featuring local star and WBA welterweight champion Jose Antonio Rivera, of Worcester, in his first world title defense against undefeated No. 1 mandatory contender Thomas “Lionheart” Damgaard.
Worcester, Massachusetts might not make anybody’s Top 100 list of the nation’s top fight towns, but during a six-week stretch in the early 1980s it was temporarily the epicenter of the boxing world, with Marvin Hagler’s middleweight title defense against England’s Tony Sibson sandwiched between a pair of Top Rank Boxing ESPN cards all taking place at the brand-new arena then known as The Centrum.
A year later the same venue would host Ray Leonard’s abortive comeback fight against Kevin Howard, but in the last two decades big-time boxing has given the building a wide berth. King’s April 2 title fight doubleheader will mark the first visit since for big-time boxing to return what is now called the DCU Center.
After winning the undisputed middleweight title by stopping Alan Minter in London in 1980, Marvelous Marvin’s first two defenses had taken place at the Boston Garden, but exorbitant rents and rising labor costs at the old Causeway Street arena had sent Hagler’s promoter Bob Arum and his Boston point man, Signor Rip Valenti, in search of greener pastures, and the management at Worcester’s new civic center was only too happy to oblige.
A week before the Hagler-Sibson fight, Rip and Arum tried to tease the HBO show by staging an ESPN card in the same building. The main event matched Hagler’s brother Robbie Sims against the Scottish veteran Murray Sutherland, while the co-feature was a New England middleweight title bout-cum-Boston turf war between South Boston’s Danny Long and the late Mark Mainero of East Boston.
Sims was a promising middleweight who often doubled as a Hagler sparring partner, meaning that when Marvin was ready to fight, Robbie usually was, too. Arum and Valenti were anxious to move Sims, but Goody Petronelli had a policy against putting him on Hagler’s undercards because he didn’t want Marvin’s focus disturbed by worrying about his kid brother, so the prospect of putting him on national television a week earlier appeared to offer the best of both worlds.
A week or two before the ESPN card Rip hosted a press luncheon in Worcester. The promoter had other business to attend to afterward, and asked if I could ferry a couple of the fighters back to Boston with me. Sutherland, Long and I drove back on the Massachusetts Turnpike, with the ancient Capri I was driving clunking along until it finally heaved and sputtered to a halt.
Fortunately Sutherland (who would later gain prominence both as a super-middleweight champion and as the trainer for Eric “Butterbean” Esch) apparently had some training as a mechanic back in Glasgow. Throwing the hood up, he managed to breathe life back into the engine, and we made it back to the city. I dropped Danny off at the gym and Murray at the airport.
On Feb. 4, 1983, Sutherland and Sims fought to a draw in their fight, while Long scored the first of what would be back-to-back wins over Mainero. A year or two later I ran into Murray Sutherland and informed him that the Capri had finally died.
“Good” he said.
Although he had fought exclusively across the water, Sibson wasn’t a total stranger to the Hagler camp. An hour or two before Hagler won the title by stopping Alan Minter at Wembley back in 1980, Sibson had knocked out a highly-regarded American middleweight, Bobby Coolidge, on the undercard. He had KO’d Minter himself in a subsequent European title defense, and in 1982 had outpointed Dwight Davidson in a WBC eliminator that made him the mandatory challenger.
“We were actually responsible for Sibson fighting Hagler,” recalled Don King matchmaker Bobby Goodman. “Davidson was our middleweight. He’d already beaten Curtis Parker and Wilford Scypion before we sent him to England to fight Sibson. I guess he didn’t like hitting white guys.”
A wonderfully engaging young lad from Leicester, Sibson had even traveled to San Remo to watch Hagler’s October 1982 defense against Fulgencio Obelmejias, and we’d spent some time with him there. Like many big left-hookers, Sibson was a lefthander who boxed out of an orthodox stance. (Hagler, by contrast, was right-handed in everything save boxing.)
Hagler’s modus operandi as he prepared for a fight involved persuading himself that he bore genuine animosity toward his opponent. Since Sibson was a nice kid without an enemy in the world, this was more difficult than usual, but Marvin somehow managed to temporarily convince himself that he actually hated Tony.
Naturally, Juan Domingo Roldan was on the show as well. The Argentine had worked his way up to a mandatory position with the WBA. Arum wasn’t sure he could sell a Hagler-Roldan fight, so he kept putting him on Marvin’s cards in the hope that either somebody would get rid or him or, alternatively, if the boxing public saw enough of him he might eventually become a semi-draw. The Worcester show was the second of four straight Hagler undercards on which Roldan appeared: A hard-hitting if somewhat clumsy middleweight, he beat Reggie Ford underneath Hagler-Obelmejias II in San Remo, Wilbur Henderson as a supporting act in Worcester, and Teddy Mann on the Hagler-Scypion card in Providence. After he knocked out Frank “The Animal” Fletcher on the Hagler-Roberto Duran card at Caesars Palace, Hagler didn’t have much choice. He stopped Roldan in 10 at the Riviera the following spring, but not before “El Martillo” became the first and only man credited with knocking Marvelous Marvin off his feet.
On Friday, Feb. 11, 1983, Hagler made short work of Sibson, administering a brutal, one-sided beating on the way to a sixth-round KO. Once we filed our stories and headed back to the hotel, we discovered that nearly two feet of snow had fallen while the card was in progress. Although it was only a few hundred yards to what was then the Worcester Marriott, we might as well have been in Antarctica. I had to lead the way through the white-out for the late Newsday boxing scribe Bob Waters, lugging his teleram and mine — telerams being the ancient precursors of portable computers, cumbersome, oversized devices roughly the size of a Volkswagen.
When we reached the hotel it looked like the last days of Saigon. Hundreds of homeless fight fans trapped by the snowstorm were wandering through the lobby and hallways, and worse, the bar had just closed when Waters and I stumbled in, looking like the Abominable Snowman and his somewhat larger and slightly more abominable brother. We ran across a couple of former world champions, Tony DeMarco and Vito Antoufermo, sitting on the floor propped up against the wall, and invited them back to the room for a drink.
Vito, who had taken a job as a representative for a liquor distributor, remembered that he had a case of beer in the trunk of his car. An intrepid outdoorsman was dispatched to fetch it, and soon the party was underway. It lasted until the booze was gone, at which point most of the guests nodded off right where they were.
By the following morning it was apparent that nobody was getting out of Worcester to drive anywhere, so we extended our stay for another night. Kevin Finnegan, the former Commonwealth middleweight champion who had fought both Sibson and Hagler, and I set off on an excursion through the snow, managed to find an open liquor store, and returned with provisions to resume the party. By Sunday night the roads had sufficiently cleared to make the drive to Boston. Finnegan and another esteemed British boxer who’d come over for the fight, Maurice Hope, drove back with us. They were ostensibly headed to the airport, but we wound up in the Black Rose, an Irish saloon just off Quincy Market. The band introduced Finnegan and Hope to the crowd and invited them up onto the stage for a singsong. They eventually did get back to London, but it was about a week late.
A month later Rip staged another Top Rank ESPN card at the Centrum. In March of that year Robbie fought Tony Chiaverini in the main event. A useful middleweight who’d been a legitimate contender in his day, Tony was only 29 but already nearing the end of the road. He’d already lost to Bennie Briscoe, Sugar Ray Leonard, Wilfred Benetiz, and even Mike Baker by the time he fought Sims. Robbie knocked him out in five that night, and Chiaverini never fought again.
A year would elapse before the Centrum hosted another big fight, Leonard’s “comeback” bout against Kevin Howard. Ray had spent a lot of time around New England during his retirement, since his retina had been repaired at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, and it was a Mass General doctor who cleared him to box again.
There was nothing accidental about the venue. Leonard and his lawyer Mike Trainer were plainly calling out Hagler, and figured that they might expedite the process by fighting a southpaw in Marvin’s own back yard.
The day we arrived in Worcester a few days before the fight, we ran into Leonard and Trainer. A few days earlier my baby daughter, who is now a 21-year-old woman but was then just a few months old, had been a spectator at her first newspaper softball game. Somebody had lofted a soft foul ball over the backstop and into the seats, and Darcy had taken it right in the face. X-rays revealed no permanent damage, but she was sporting her first black eye. Ray immediately took her into his arms, looked into her face, and cooed “I had one of those once.”
A concomitant event had resulted in a squeeze on hotel rooms in Worcester that week. We’d managed to get into the Marriott, but most of the press was quartered in some dreadful bare-bones motel so devoid of amenities that scribes had to walk several blocks just to get a cup of coffee, and even further for a drink.
The one thing that did work in the hostelry was the fire alarm. Two nights before the fight the scribes were rousted from their best for a 4 am fire drill, which forced them to evacuate their rooms and assemble, in various stages of dishevelment, on the street outside.
No one knew for sure whether there actually was a fire or not, but Colin Hart of the London Sun accurately observed “I can tell you this much: It didn’t start in the kitchen.”
Howard hadn’t been the first choice for the opponent’s role. Trainer initially wanted Sean Mannion, a Boston-based Irishman, to be the stalking horse for Hagler, but insisted that any opponent be free of promotional entanglements. Mannion qualified, since his promotional contract with Top Rank had expired with his last fight, but before negotiations could be concluded, Mannion’s cash-strapped manager Jimmy Connelly slipped the Galway Gouger off to New York and consummated an extension with Top Rank matchmaker Teddy Brenner. Mannion got a quick $10,000 signing bonus, and in the process eliminated himself from a $75,000 payday. Trainer settled on Howard, who had a decent 20-4-1 record but, like Mannion, wasn’t much of a banger.
Midway through the fight, however, Howard caught Leonard with a punch and knocked him right on his backside. More embarrassed than hurt, Leonard got back up and by the ninth was on the verge of knocking out Howard when referee Dick Flaherty stopped it. Hagler was at the fight, and was in attendance at the press conference afterward when Leonard announced that he was retiring again. Marvin looked like he was ready to punch holes in the walls.
Hagler-Leonard would have to wait three more years. And the Centrum, now the DCU Center, would have to wait 21 years for its next world title bout. There have been fight cards in the building since, but in the smaller Exhibition Hall, not in the Main Arena, and ten years ago Don King put on a pair of title fights (Julian Jackson-Augusto Cardamone and Orlin Norris-Adolpho Washington) at the venerable Worcester Auditorium.
King’s principal purpose for putting that card in Worcester was that, with Mike Tyson’s release from prison growing imminent, he was trying to prime the pump for a Tyson-Peter McNeeley fight, but he wasn’t taking many chances. McNeeley fought and disposed of the immortal Danny Wofford in a round that night, in a fight so awful that Showtime refused to put it on the telecast. For other reasons best known to themselves, the network has decided against airing the Rivera-Damgaard co-main event, and will confine its telecast to the cruiserweight bout – a wrong-headed decision, if you ask me. Nobody knows how many asses will be in the seats on April 2, but we do know this much: Jose Rivera will have been the guy responsible for putting them there.