Some stories require context – lots and lots of context. The story you are about to read originally was to be about a one-off event, the night that Randall “Tex” Cobb, the heavyweight contender whose greatest asset was a sponge-like ability to absorb pain, soaked up as much punishment as WBC champion Larry Holmes was able to dish out, which was considerable, and referee Steve Crosson declined to step in and award the “Easton Assassin” a technical-knockout victory because, well, the never-say-die Tex was fighting back, as always, seemingly unflustered by the bludgeoning he was taking or the hopelessness of his situation. The date was Nov. 26, 1982, in the Astrodome in Houston, and where Crosson was prepared to passively observe the full 15 rounds of mostly one-sided violence, ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell, who throughout the beatdown pleaded into his microphone for a mercy stoppage, was not.
Toward the end, as Cosell’s impatience with Crosson’s patience reached critical mass, the acerbic commentator posed a rhetorical question to his audience: “I wonder if that referee is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?” Although he never admitted as much, the suspicion is that a disgusted Cosell – who never called another fight for ABC after Holmes-Cobb – was already mentally prepared to step away from boxing as the result of the Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini-Duk Koo Kim death bout which had taken place 13 days earlier and was televised by CBS.
When the decision in the Astrodome was announced, perhaps the only surprise was that Tex, a character’s character in a sport brimming with, um, unique personalities, somehow had managed to win one of the 15 rounds on judge Chuck Hassett’s scorecard. The other two judges, Chuck Minker and Arlen Bynum, each had Holmes pitching 150-135 shutouts. None of those rounds received a 10-8 tally, although several could have, because Tex never went down and, I suspect, the guys with the pencils admired the challenger’s cojones enough to refrain from further deductions to his point totals.
Thirty-five years have passed since that fight, which, rightly or wrongly, continues to stand as the most enduring footnote to Tex Cobb’s better-than-many-would-suspect boxing career, in which he posted a 42-7-1 record with 35 knockouts and just one loss inside the distance. That outlier, a one-round KO against an otherwise undistinguished Dee Collier on Oct. 29, 1985, in Reseda, Calif., gave rise to rumors that Tex, who had taken the best shots of Holmes, Earnie Shavers and other big boppers while barely flinching, had gone into the tank, a stinging slap to the pride of a man whose remarkable life deserved so much more than to be the butt of jokes from those who knew nothing more about him than the bloody waltz with Holmes. Worse yet, that defeat might have contributed to the overturning of a $10.7 million jury judgment for Tex in his libel suit against Sports Illustrated.
I do not claim to know him well enough to understand just how much those rebukes affected Tex, who turns 64 on Dec. 10 and has become something of a recluse in recent years. He did not respond to my interview request made through his attorney and friend, George Bochetto. What I do know is that he is a lot smarter and funnier than his rough-hewn visage and take-three-to-land-one style would suggest, his keen sense of humor able to convert any mean-spirited putdown into a joke that had people laughing with him instead of at him, and led to a long career as a character actor in movies and television, in which he invariably was cast as a villain or a comic foil. He always referred to his part in driving Cosell from ringside as “my gift to the sport of boxing,” adding that “if it gets him to stop broadcasting NFL games, I’ll play football for a week, too.”
That football reference is legit; born in Bridge City, Texas, and raised in Abilene, Texas, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder was a fullback at Abilene Christian University, serving as a lead blocker for future Philadelphia Eagles star running back Wilbert Montgomery. But Tex left school at 19, perhaps because he understood that he wasn’t NFL material or perhaps because he was a bit of a hell-raiser back then. Switching his athletic aspirations from the gridiron to kick boxing, he put together a 9-0 record, with nine knockouts, whereupon matchmaker Paul Clinite suggested he go to the great fight town of Philadelphia to try his hand at boxing, where the recognition and paydays were bigger for those with the right stuff to rise above the crowd.
It is upon his arrival at the Joe Frazier Gym in North Philly that the story of Tex Cobb – make that the legend of Tex Cobb – began to take firmer root. In time he befriended Philadelphia Daily News general-interest columnist Pete Dexter, whose gift was – and still is, although he now lives in the state of Washington — an uncanny ability to wring compelling tales of everyday life from those he met, often in rough neighborhoods with Tex in tow. Dexter’s feistiness as a writer sometimes rubbed his subjects or their buddies the wrong way, a trait that would eventually cast a shadow upon his large and steadfast companion.
Not surprisingly, Dexter’s columns sometimes focused on Tex’s bruised and bumpy ride up the rankings. Dexter was in the house in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1980, when Tex – then 16-0, with 15 KOs – took on Earnie Shavers, whom many believe is the most devastating puncher in heavyweight history. It was rock ’em, sock ’em robots from the opening bell until the eighth round, when Tex connected with a left uppercut that broke Shavers’ jaw and gave Dexter’s friend a particularly brutal TKO win.
Dexter’s column described Tex thusly:
His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night … His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”
“I absolutely promise,” he said.
All those epic ring wars, of course, did not go Tex’s way. He lost decisions to past or future world champions Ken Norton, Michael Dokes (twice) and Buster Douglas, but all came away with the sense that the guy they had just beaten had a chin of granite, considerable power in his punches and an iron will that was leavened with a wink and a smile. In scoring a seventh-round stoppage of Jeff Shelburg on April 19, 1982, in Atlantic City, Tex told Shelburg, whom he had battered to a fare-thee-well in the fourth round, “Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk.”
Even after Holmes had unloaded his entire arsenal in a futile attempt to put him down and out, or at least to get Crosson to step in, Tex remained upbeat and jovial. He impishly said he simply had run out of rounds, that his fight plan had been to beat up Holmes’ hands with his face, and that he’d be open to a do-over. “Hey, baby, that was fun,” Tex told a disbelieving Holmes as they embraced after the final bell. “Let’s do it again – in a phone booth.”
In many ways, the fighter to whom Tex Cobb can be most likened is another large (6-foot-5, 225), not particularly stylish heavyweight of better than modest accomplishment who came to be known as the “Bayonne Bleeder.” Chuck Wepner (35-14-2, 17 KOs), now 78, also became something of a sensation in losing a doomed bid for the world title, flooring WBA/WBC champion Muhammad Ali in the ninth round of their March 24, 1975, bout in Richfield, Ohio, although Ali always maintained that he went to the canvas because the courageous but outclassed Wepner had stepped on his foot. But Ali arose and went back to carving up the notoriously cut-prone Wepner like a Thanksgiving turkey, finally stopping him in the 15th and final round.
Decide for yourself whose path to notoriety is the more compelling saga. Wepner, who had served in the Marines, became something of a folk hero in North Jersey and beyond, and he has largely been given a pass by the public despite having served three years in prison for possession of cocaine. His brush with fame against Ali was depicted, with Liev Schreiber in the lead role, in the 2016 biopic Chuck, as is his serving as the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s creation of the Rocky Balboa character.
Compare that to Cobb, who went the distance with Holmes; stopped Shavers; played college football; resumed his studies and graduated magna cum laude from Temple University, at 57, with a bachelor’s degree in sport and recreation management; won a $10.7 million libel judgment ($8.5 in compensatory damages, $2.2 million in punitive damages) against Sports Illustrated in 1999 which was overturned in 2002 by a federal appeals court, which concluded the article was not published with “actual malice”; and appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, generating goodwill all along the way.
In a story that appeared in the September 2001 issue of Texas Monthly which detailed Tex’s appearance in the series finale of Walker, Texas Ranger, writer John Spong noted that Cobb “had barely 20 words of scripted dialogue, but wherever he went, a segment of the mongrel pack of extras went with him. Small children, pretty girls, one-eyed drunks – all kinds were drawn to the deliberate, pug-faced lug with a laugh that shook the Old West movie set like a series of cannon shots.”
But if there is one event from Tex’s life that is worthy of cinematic treatment, it might be the night that he saved Pete Dexter’s life, and arguably damaged his own boxing career, a tale even more unlikely than the suicide mission he undertook against Holmes. It was played out on a tapestry of dubious judgment and of courage that surpasses anything Tex Cobb ever demonstrated inside the ropes against a single opponent wearing padded gloves.
In a Dec. 9, 1981, column detailing another senseless death, of a young man named Buddy Lego from a blue-collar, Irish Catholic section of Philadelphia known as Grays Ferry, Dexter wrote that Lego “was from the neighborhood, a good athlete, a nice kid. Stoned all the time. The kind of kid you think could be saved.”
After the column came out, Lego’s brother, Tommy, a bartender in Grays Ferry, angrily called Dexter at his office and demanded a retraction of the passage that depicted Buddy as a habitual drug abuser. Dexter said he’d drop by the bar to talk it over with Tommy. The conversation did not go well; Dexter said there would be no retraction, that his information was solid. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor, having been sucker-punched by someone who came up alongside him, knocking out several teeth.
Instead of driving himself to a hospital, Dexter showed up at Tex’s residence, where the fighter was hosting a party, and told him of the reason he suddenly needed extensive dental work. Tex said the incident required retribution of some sort, so he, Dexter and a couple of party guests hopped into a car and drove back to the bar to settle the score. Not long only after their arrival, a bar patron slipped out a side door to summon reinforcements. Within minutes, 25 to 30 neighborhood guys brandishing tire irons and bats showed up.
“I hope that’s the softball team,” Tex told his outnumbered crew before everyone went outside, ostensibly to calm things down. But the tension only ratcheted higher, and soon Dexter was attacked on all sides by angry objectors to his column clearly intent on beating him to within an inch of his life, or worse. That’s when Cobb – armed with nothing but his fists – stepped in. “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too,” he announced to the mob.
No one died that bitterly cold night, but Dexter suffered a broken pelvis, cracked femur, nerve damage to his hands, a concussion, brain bleed, spine fractured in two places and a lacerated scalp that required 90 stitches. Cobb got off relatively easy with just a broken arm, but the injury knocked him out of a proposed bout with Muhammad Ali.
Tex fought only once, the win over Shelburg, between the near-tragic confrontation in Grays Ferry and his challenge of Holmes. There are those who insist Cobb was never the same boxer after that night. Maybe they’re right, maybe they aren’t, but consider this: If you found yourself surrounded by a group of armed thugs, who would you want watching your back more than the boxer-turned-actor with the raucous laugh, deep and abiding sense of loyalty to his friends and the determination to never, ever give up?
Sorry I didn’t get another chance to speak to you, Tex. But wherever you are or whatever you’re doing, you were and are one of a kind, someone who might have lost fights but never considered himself defeated.
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