For some boxing fans looking back 20 years ago means exploring history, the names and circumstances familiar as photography, classic video replays or references made by another generation. For others, just to consider the names of Marvin Hagler, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Alexis Arguello, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Barry McGuigan and Evander Holyfield evokes tangible and cascading emotions. To take any year in boxing for examination is to see the rise, the exhibition, the faulting of greatness and every possible permutation aspiring to athletic uniqueness encumbered, challenged or exposed. Sometimes a routine confirmation of ability distinguishes a fighter and we call it inevitability. Or we call such ascension luck or the process of elimination which boxing, especially in the championship ring, must always be. At essence, each boxing year is a beginning, middle and an ending, the layering of tutelage, mastery and expiration weaving dramatic tapestries.
In January 1986, heavyweight contender Tim Witherspoon went from being the heavyweight contender of menace to WBA heavyweight titleholder with his win over then undefeated, career underachiever, Tony Tubbs. Pinklon Thomas, who had upset Witherspoon back in July of 1984 during their WBC title box-off, lost his own ‘third’ of the heavyweight title in March, 1986 to the idiosyncratic Jamaican-Canadian Trevor Berbick by unanimous decision. The heavyweight championship, which had rested upon the magisterial ability of Larry Holmes for years, had been splintered and reassigned as much as fought and challenged for. Holmes had his seven year run as undefeated champion broken by a questionable decision loss to light-heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in September of 1985. Their IBF title – read universal recognition – rematch on April 19, 1986, at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, was tantamount to a travesty of justifying all the anti-Holmes sentiment that had accumulated in boxing circles during his title reign, or so Larry Holmes would preach for the rest of the decade. In any event, the constituent sovereignty of the heavyweight championship was fractured and publicly devalued as far as general sports fans were concerned. The mass identification of the public with the personality that bore the heavyweight championship had eroded over the period of Larry Holmes’ championship, despite the enormous respect conceded by those in and around boxing for his legendary quality as an exemplary boxer.
In the early months of 1986, boxing was still thought to be riding the wave of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran eras that had effectively sustained big time championship boxing in the post-Ali era. The supporting cast of Larry Holmes, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Wilfredo Benitez, Saad Muhammad, Hector Camacho had been able and popular supporting figures during the first half of the era of 1980s boxing that saw the institutionalizing of HBO boxing and the globalizing of boxing away from US-Olympian grassroots boxing development. But America remained the most lucrative and influential market in world boxing, with Las Vegas solidifying its moniker as the Mecca of championship boxing in the world. Notably, into the heavyweight title picture a two-fisted phenom of all-out fury from Brooklyn, New York, was emerging via the tutelage of Floyd Patterson’s former trainer Cus D’Amato.
Mike Tyson’s explosive arrival on the boxing scene was gathering credibility, with his fighting literally becoming the force of expectation personified pushing the heavyweight title picture, temporarily, to a secondary tier of sporting interest. A week after Witherspoon’s WBA title win, Tyson exhibited his method for fistic malice in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when he blistered a reluctantly sacrificial Mike Jameson to record his 17th straight knockout win, in 17 pro outings. The word was out on Tyson; according to half of the Tyson management team, namely Jim Jacobs, he was going to be a “once in a generation” heavyweight champion.
Ex-Olympian Henry Tillman was trying to position himself to look the part of the next significant heavyweight on the scene – with the Holmes Era foreclosed by Michael Spinks – but the fans were way ahead of the simple chronology of events. Team Tillman’s best public relations expressions couldn’t defend him against the marauding Bert Cooper in June; so much for the next major US heavyweight on the scene, bearer of an Olympic pedigree. In one of the lowlights of Muhammad Ali’s very public life, the ex-champ finally agreed to financially support an eleven-year-old daughter he’d fathered, after a drawn-out paternity suit put the ring legend on the canvas. The feel good story of the early boxing season, in 1986, came at the expense of Lou Duva-mentored, good guy Billy Costello. Boxing legend Alexis Arguello, in desperate need of money and a purpose to his addiction tending existence – determined to expunge the twin problems of association with the Sandinistas and cocaine – was looking to build off his comeback win over Pat Jefferson in October, 1985, in Alaska. The great Arguello needed a showcasing fight; he needed a name fighter to beat.
But could Arguello, after his being dismantled by Aaron Pryor three years before, beat a legit, world-class opponent? Few believed he would. After two and a half rounds of being spray waxed by Costello’s heavy jab, Arguello reminded boxing fans, Costello and his own corner just what had made him a legend. In the fourth round, after coming to life in the last minute of the third, his wheels greased for action, Arguello sent home those howitzer-like rights, behind a jab suddenly on target and his classic left hook to the body. A saturating right to the head led to a left hook to the body and the fight was all but over, with power redeeming Arguello’s mostly ordinary boxing mechanics. For that instant, it seemed to fans of the popular Arguello that the first nine minutes of discordant boxing hadn’t mattered. Arguello was still capable of producing something special, at least that was the illusion a climatic moment of exploited opportunity created. And boxing fans live to marry realism with fiction. If icon Robert Duran was no longer capable of providing performances that defied age and reason, perhaps Arguello was going to be, again, their man of exceptional means.