“Terrible” Times: A Life of Tim Witherspoon

By Brian D'Ambrosio on July 23, 2013
“Terrible” Times: A Life of Tim Witherspoon
“I've got nothing to hide,” says Tim Witherspoon. “You can’t hurt me for telling the truth.”

“King’s objective was to make Tyson the youngest champion of the world. He didn’t care about me, Bonecrusher, or Tubbs; we were just in his way…”

South Philly in the 1970s.

Pungent, sweaty gyms, and the whiff of leathery blood. Coldness of the corner stool. Ring wars of thwacking punches, aggressive moves, as well as some fancy ones.

Born in 1957, Tim Witherspoon grew up in the hub of Philadelphia’s distinct boxing pedigree.

A prohibitive underdog, Witherspoon, one of eleven siblings, learned early that to struggle in life was normal—that much seemed a given. His was an upbringing rife with all those Hollywood-variety plotlines: mob assassinations and rub outs; gunshots and gang violence; racial lines of demarcation.

“I was born as South Philly as South Philly gets,” says Witherspoon. “We had the Irish on one side, the Italians on the other, and the blacks in the middle. It was a unique place. From grades one through nine, I was sent to school with the Irish, and from grades ten through twelve, with the Italians. It was a tough life back then. If you were black and out walking around without a crowd, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, you could end up dead.”

Strong, vulnerable, caught in a place which sometimes felt like Purgatory, Witherspoon had limited options to chase greatness. He didn’t see a future in gangs—the idea of belonging to one scared him. He needed structure, a special grace and humanity to carry him. He found discipline in high school and college football, as a tight end. But when he got hurt, his prospects for professional ball evaporated.

His father was more of a bare knuckle street fighter than a boxer, but some of his brothers took to the sport. The weight of the large gloves on his fists provided comfort. Up until boxing all else was indistinctness.

“My buddies were boxing, too,” says Witherspoon. “I went to the gym and liked it. Pretty soon a lot of the guys were fading off, but I kept with it.”

After eight and a half amateur bouts, Witherspoon, weighing 198 pounds, made his professional debut on October 30, 1979, with a first-round hatchet job of Joe Adams, who tipped the scales at 265. The fight was as much about preparation and anticipation as it was about the event itself.

“At the 69th Street Theatre, and I was nervous as hell before it started,” says Witherspoon. “I had my momentum building for that. Tyrell Biggs came in to say hello before the fight—and that made me more nervous. It was over in thirty seconds. It was the beginning of my career. I was strong and determined.” 

If the height of boxing achievement is glory, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon has achieved more than most. In a career marked by two world heavyweight championships, he is often most associated with the close decisions he lost and not those notable gains.

And there was nothing more glorious than the twenty-five-year old Witherspoon’s clash with undefeated thirty-three-year-old world champion Larry Holmes, at the outdoor arena at the Dunes Hotel, on May 20, 1983. Holmes was making his 15th title defense.  Witherspoon fought the champion toe-to-toe through 12 rounds—staggering Holmes in the ninth—and won on one of the three judges’ scorecards and also in the minds of many fans, some of whom chanted obscenities at the decision.

“I was in another world in that round,” says Witherspoon. “I was pushing the champion of the world around, with the crowd screaming. I didn’t even know where I was at the time.”

Mindful of Larry Holmes’ unblemished 42-0 record, Witherspoon says he wasn’t surprised that he dropped a split decision.

“Everybody said I won,” says Witherspoon. “After the fight, they picked me up. I wanted to be put back down, because I knew they weren’t going to give it to me. I had to knock him out and I didn’t. Who am I, with fifteen fights, coming along and beating this guy? I had to knock him out.”

Witherspoon says he had been dismissed by Holmes leading into the fight, and that the champion’s awkward style and lack of real defense made the fight a right fit for him.

“There was conflict before the fight,” Witherspoon adds. “But we are really good friends, Larry and I. We cool. It’s all boxing.”

The cover of the following week’s Sports Illustrated showed a puffy-eyed Larry Holmes and the caption, “Battered But Still Champion.”

“If I had done the training that Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson did, and maybe got more focused at times in my career, I’d just be retiring five years ago, and be really wealthy. I got in good shape, but they further with their talent. They do ten miles of running and you do five, they win.”

Somewhere around the Holmes fight—Witherspoon says he can’t recall for certain—he became involved with fight promoter Don King. He says it was probably at the time of Witherspoon’s final bout before Holmes, in which he outpointed Renaldo Snipes over 10 rounds.

“It’s a long story as to how I got with him,” says Witherspoon. “I didn’t know I was fighting for Don King until Larry Holmes. I knew how King was before that, knew that he was ripping people off.”

It would be a relationship that would sow serious repercussions.

Witherspoon showed his mettle by shrugging off the Holmes fight and two fights later he had a NABF subtitle bout with James “Quick” Tillis. Witherspoon won by a first round knockout.

When Larry Holmes relinquished his WBC title rather than defend against Greg Page, Witherspoon and Page met for the vacant position on March 9, 1984. Witherspoon proved that boxing commands thorough preparation—veneer isn’t worth anything. He trained harder than at any point in his life.

“I fought my heart out. I trained hard and I knew if it was close, more than likely they would give it to me. The reason I says is because Greg Page was causing a commotion with Don King before the fight.”

For defeating Page, Tim Witherspoon says he took home $43,000.

Witherspoon’s reign ended on August 31, 1984, when he was outpointed by Pinklon Thomas via majority decision. Witherspoon’s troubles with King exacerbated. He says Don King signed a contract stipulating that Witherspoon was supposed to receive $450,000 for defending his belt against Thomas, plus $50,000 expenses. But on another sheet of paper, King inserted a clause stating that Carl King, his son, was to get 50 percent of Tim Witherspoon’s earnings.

Here is when Witherspoon started to air grievances with King publicly, and even threatened not to step into the ring to fight Pinklon Thomas. He talked agitatedly of needing the money to buy a home in suburbia so that he and his kids could lead a quieter life.

“I wanted for them to be away from the noise, you know, and a place to help keep my mind on things, focused.”

In 1985, Witherspoon regained his NABF belt by dismantling Olympic tough James Broad in two rounds, and retained it with a twelve-round decision over James “Bonecrusher” Smith.

He earned a WBA title bout against Tony Tubbs, on January 17, 1986, and earned a thin majority decision in his first and only full 15-rounder.

“I did lots of sparring to get to fifteen,” says Witherspoon. “Tony is a good friend. I love Tony. We went head to head in training camp, we was cool then, we even cooler now. He wasn’t going to quit.”

Witherspoon’s first title defense in his second reign as a heavyweight champion took him to London, England against Frank Bruno. In front of more than 60,000 attendees, Witherspoon stopped Frank Bruno in the eleventh round. For this showing, Witherspoon received far less than the $2 million purse he had agreed to.

Witherspoon agreed to defend the WBA heavyweight championship against James “Bonecrusher” Smith, whom he had already beaten one year earlier. One week of controversy put the fight in doubt. Problems erupted because of the substitution of Smith for Tony Tubbs, who withdrew one week before the fight with a shoulder injury. Witherspoon questioned whether or not Carl King was to serve as his manager.

Witherspoon and his trainer, Slim Robinson, raised further questions about the contract; Don King charged that Witherspoon was trying to get more money for the fight. Witherspoon says he was threatened that if he didn’t fight, that his New York license would be suspended and his WBA title stripped.

The weigh-in for the fight went on despite the threats. Witherspoon stood reticent at the weigh-in, except to acknowledge greetings. King elected not to attend.

Then, on the night of December 12, 1986, he says he did something that boxing fans have speculated about for quite some time. Frustrated, unfocused, and eager to be finished with Don King, he says he threw the fight. Not only was he dropped three times, he projected the added indignity of not looking like a fighter even before the beginning bell. 

“I asked for the three knockdown rule,” says Witherspoon. “Bonecrusher knows I didn’t fight him. I made it look okay, but I needed to get away from King as far away as I could. Nobody knew I was going to do it. I was fed up with King and being interrogated like a criminal by King and the guys in power then.

“I was not going to go 15 rounds. Bonecrusher won a championship when an opponent didn’t try to win. I never said anything directly to him about it. I felt bad that the people who supported me for years, I let them down. I just had to get away. King’s objective was to make Mike Tyson the youngest champion of the world. I was in the way. He didn’t care about me, Bonecrusher, or Tubbs; we were just in his way. If we was perfectly treated, it wouldn’t be boxing,”

James “Bonecrusher” Smith says that Witherspoon’s reasoning simply doesn’t make sense. He says that he and thousands of other boxers have all dealt with Don King, and his favoritism, and his, at times, questionable promotional tactics. “The fight speaks for itself,” says Smith. “After the first punch, he was going down. There are things you can explain your way out of and there are things you can’t explain your way out of. He got an ass-whuppin’ in front of the whole world. If nobody saw the fight, he could narrate it the way he wants. You can’t trick HBO.”

Unlike a great many fighters who have griped about Don King stealing their money, following the loss to Smith, Tim Witherspoon, putting his future on the line, dragged King to court. Suing for $25 million on the grounds of fraud, Witherspoon won approximately one million in the settlement, which dragged on interminably, until 1993, when King finally relented.

Witherspoon’s post-Don King court battle career included a win-loss record that fluctuated similar to his poundage and conditioning. There were impressive wins over guys like Al Cole, a hotly disputed loss to Ray Mercer, and competitions for subtitle belts against opponents such as Lou Savarese. Desired as a notable springboard, he lost bouts to second-tier heavies and traveled to Poland in 1998 to drop a decision to Andrew Golota.

“As far as all that goes,” says Witherspoon, “Yeah, the later fights I was a different guy. As far as Ray Mercer goes, he keeps telling me that I won. I see him and he says, ‘You won that fight, I keep watching it over again.’ He had fights taken from him, too. It was his turn to win. We are friends. In Poland versus Golota, the people were beautiful to me.”

He fought up until 2003, calling it quits at 55-13-1.

Achievement brings its own and ebb flow of climax and anticlimax. Tim Witherspoon is testament to that. Fifty-five years old, he resides near his birthplace stomping grounds, not too far from the grit and guts of South Philadelphia. He trains fighters, including his son, Tim Witherspoon Jr. He has a book in the works, too. He hopes to lend his help to the risky street-toughs with nothing to lose and nowhere to go except up. 

“Conflict in the neighborhoods still exists,” says Witherspoon. “We blacks are still killing each other. I want to help save these kids and make the world a better place.”

There are no regrets in Tim Witherspoon’s life, just valuable lessons. He has no misgivings, and certainly no fears of publicly detailing how he handed over the second fight with “Bonecrusher.”

“I’ve got nothing to hide,” says Witherspoon. “You can’t hurt me for telling the truth. Bottom line is that I’m not worried about that.”

Boxing circles are notoriously close-knit, and Witherspoon occasionally bumps into Don King at events. In fact, he recently had a warm exchange with the 81-year-old luminary in Las Vegas.

“I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me,” says Witherspoon. “I like Don King. I do. I can’t go around saying he is a no good bastard. What I’m trying to say, he could have still been the greatest promoter without doing all the stuff he did to people.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Larry Holmes vs Tim Witherspoon



Tim Witherspoon vs Greg Page - 1/4



Tim Witherspoon vs Greg Page - 2/4



Tim Witherspoon vs Greg Page - 3/4



Tim Witherspoon vs Greg Page - 4/4



Pinklon Thomas vs Tim Witherspoon



Tim Witherspoon vs Tony Tubbs



Tim Witherspoon vs Frank Bruno (Highlights)



Bonecrusher vs Witherspoon II



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  1. Paul in TO 09:39am, 07/24/2013

    I certainly acknowledge that Bonecrusher was throwing bombs, but there was nothing sharp about any of it—there was a bustling down aspect to the knockdowns and the blows tended to be clubbing.  It looks better on youtube than I remember it, but I was sitting facing directly the part of the ropes where Witherspoon kept going down.  He was never a chinny fighter and I remember there was nothing dazed about his look at anytime.  He actually faced me directly just after it was waved off and the only expression I got from him was resignation.  He didn’t look hurt or shaky.  But that’s not memory per se, but rather how I felt at the time and what I expressed to the person I was with.  It’s also not the only fight involving Witherspoon where I question the result—see Brian Neilson for a similar story.

  2. George Thomas Clark 08:59am, 07/24/2013

    Paul - We may have to defer to your vantage point, but please take a look again at the first knockdown on Youtube.  I watched last night and it looked good.  Let’s us know what you think in review.

  3. Paul in TO 06:54am, 07/24/2013

    I was in Madison Square Garden the night Bonecrusher stopped Witherspoon.  I was in the 3rd row, not far from where Muhammad Ali sat, already showing the signs of Parkinson’s.  Even with Chavez v Laporte as the semi, there were only about 3,000 people in the whole arena.  I liked Bonecrusher and thought he was pretty good, but it’s just not correct that he laid on a beating that night.  The punches and the knock-downs never looked legitimate to me and I’ve seen thousands of fights.

  4. Ted 06:11am, 07/24/2013

    My fondest memory of Tim was when he had Darroll Wilson helpless on the ropes and had a free shot, but declined to take it. That simple scene spoke volumes about Tim’s character.

  5. George Thomas Clark 09:17pm, 07/23/2013

    It’s shocking that Witherspoon, after all of King’s rancor and thievery, says he loves the unscrupulous promoter.  Witherspoon’s comment, however, does underscore the formidable charm and charisma of Don King.

  6. George Thomas Clark 09:12pm, 07/23/2013

    When young and in shape Tim Witherspoon had one of the most devastating right hooks in history.  He was also one of the best in the world for a long time.  Most of his losses occurred in his late 30s to mid-40s.  As noted in the article above, he would’ve been even better had he been more disciplined.  Bonecrusher Smith hammered Witherspoon, who got beat rather than took a dive, but the latter was flabby and therefore asking for defeat.

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