JTBy “Bad” Brad Berkwitt

(June 26, 2013) The date was August 14, 1982. A first-class stamp cost just 20 cents. Prestigious Yale University has announced they will offer a 14-week course on mastering the Rubik’s Cube. I think to this day, many didn’t master that thing. But if you did, then I want to hear from you.

For all you diehard Trivial Pursuit players, the game this year sells twenty-two million copies. In fashion, Leg Warmers are the craze thanks to Jane Fonda, and for all of you guys and gals out there including myself, it was heartbreaking to hear our Sergio Valente Jeans were no longer cool.

The music world is talking about Michael Jackson’s just released Thriller album which sells more than 25 million copies. Finally, for all you die hard fans of Ozzy Osbourne’s music and MTV TV show, this is the year he bites the head off of a bat that to this day is talked about.

In the boxing world, heavyweight prospects were plying their trade to become world champions in the post Muhammad Ali era in the heavyweight division.

One big fight pitted the WBC number six and WBA number three contender for the heavyweight belt, James “Quick” Tillis, 22-1, 17 KOs against rising prospect, but not yet ranked Pinklon “Pinky” Thomas, 19-0, 16 KOs.

Originally, Tillis was supposed to face top heavyweight contender “Terrible” Tim Witherspon, but “Spoon” as he was called, pulled out with an injury. The doctors checked him out, but they felt it was not legit, so the Cleveland Boxing Commission at the time suspended Witherspoon indefinitely. At the last minute, Thomas was brought into face Tillis and was thought of as an easy opponent by Tillis’ camp.

ABC was the network televising the match, and Sal Marchiano had the mic that day calling the fight solo.

Tillis, the Angelo Dundee protégé, came into this fight with one shot already at the World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Title when he faced then champion, Mike Weaver on October 3, 1981. In a fight that Tillis had within his grasp, an early lead slipped away when “Quick” faded badly in the last half of the fight, to end up the loser by unanimous decision. Other than his less than par performance for the title, Tillis had wins over the usual suspects Harry Terrell KO1, Ron Stander KO4, Walter Santemore, W10, Domingo D’Elia KO4, and a past his prime Earnie Shavers, W10.

Going into this fight, Tillis had the experience over rising contender Pinklon Thomas. Thomas had wins over other usual suspects Roger Braxton, TKO7, Leroy Caldwell W10, and Luis Acosta, TKO2. Thomas was untested for the most part, but there was a buzz in the boxing world that he might have a jab that was just as good as or maybe even better than WBC Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes.

Thomas, who actually was on his way to Atlantic City to face Jeff Shelburg, took the Tillis fight on very short notice. “Pinky” knew what a big TV win against a top ten contender would do to shoot him up in the rankings along with making him a household name amongst boxing fans.

In the first round, Tillis, who seemed to always start out strong, worked behind a fast jab followed by solid right hands. Thomas started out slow, but kept coming forward throughout what was a feeling out round for both. Round 1: Tillis, 10-9

Round two had both fighters coming out dancing, with “Quick” as the aggressor. Tillis was controlling the fight behind his jab and solid combos. Thomas is starting to close the distance, but Tillis is outworking him. Round 2: Tillis 10-9

Rounds 3-5, were close with both fighters landing decent shots, but with Thomas clearly coming on. Going into the fifth round, it appeared Tillis had the edge on the scorecards, but that would change quickly for “Quick”. Thomas now found his strong jab, and busted Tillis almost every time he threw it.

From rounds 5-7, the fight momentum clearly turned in favor of Thomas. He now was closing the show, and looked like he would have his name called when the decision was announced if it went the distance. Distance in boxing is defined as going till the final bell, and Tillis on this day, was a little confused of boxing’s definition.

In round 8, Tillis went southpaw and actually had some success with it landing some strong left hands behind his right jab very early in the round. But Thomas at this point, showed why many in the boxing world were comparing his hard jab to that of Larry Holmes. “Pinky” was nailing Tillis badly with just a jab, but within the first minute of the round, he caught James with a very hard jab followed by a strong right hand. Just as soon as he had “Quick” hurt, Thomas jumped on him. After a couple more shots, the referee stepped in with Tillis still on his feet, but clearly if “Quick” went any further, he would have been knocked out on his back.

Thomas shot his hands up as the winner, knowing just how important this fight meant in the winning column on his fight record.

In an interview I conducted some years back, I asked Pinklon about this particular fight, and this is what he had to say:

“It was funny because at that time, I was training at Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia. At that time, I was training to fight Jeff Shelburg in Atlantic City. Two days before the Shelburg fight, I get a call from Cleveland that Witherspoon had pulled out of the fight against “Quick” for some reason I can’t recall. Georgie Benton knew I was in great shape and had really been training. We took the fight with them thinking I was a pushover.

“‘Quick’ didn’t hurt me in the fight and I was ready to face someone in the top ten so I could make a name for myself on the boxing scene. Once I had a big win like this over a top ten guy, I made a concerted effort to get out and meet the boxing fans. Since I wasn’t known, I would stay after the big guys would leave out, signing match boxes to toilet paper, as long as it made the fans happy. I wanted the boxing folks to know me and enjoyed every bit of meeting with them,” said Thomas.

Tillis after the Thomas fight…

Tillis, between 1982-1986, faced many tough opponents in the heavyweight division such as – Greg Page TKO8, Tim Witherspoon, TKO1, Carl “The Truth” Williams, L10, Gerrie Coetzee, L10, and Tyrell Biggs, L8. But unfortunately all of these fights were losses for the former contender.

One ray of light did shine brightly on him in a televised fight back on May 3, 1986, when he faced a young and seemingly invincible Mike Tyson. Tillis not only was the first man to go the distance with Tyson, but won several rounds and gave Mike a solid boxing lesson. “Quick” may have never looked better in the ring than on that day against “Iron” Mike.

Tillis would continue to fight on, but with nothing left in the tank. His last fight came against journeyman Rob Calloway on April 14, 2001, when Calloway stopped him in the ninth round.

I interviewed Tillis back in 2000, for my book Boxing Interviews of a Lifetime. The following Q & A discussed why he tired out so quickly in fights that he was ahead in.

Copyrighted: 2002, By “Bad” Brad Berkwitt, Boxing Interviews of a Lifetime.

I always heard you had a breathing problem which was at the root of your getting so tired in many fights where you were ahead. Can you clarify this? “

Brad it wasn’t a breathing problem, but a problem I had with citric acid that was making me very tired in the majority of my fights. I went to a doctor and he diagnosed me, and I didn’t believe it. However, I changed my diet and it sure worked”, said Tillis.

This might explain why “Quick” faded and it’s too bad it wasn’t discovered earlier in his boxing career because he was a highly touted prospect. Boxing people would get so frustrated with him because he showed flashes of brilliance in the ring, but never could maintain it.

Today, James “Quick” Tillis has a biography out on his life titled, “Thinkin Big”, and from all accounts, has retired from the boxing ring.

Thomas after the Tillis fight…

As Tillis was declining after this fight, the opposite was the case for Thomas. In his next fight, he would face another top ten heavyweight contender when he met South African Gerrie Coetzee. The fight went the entire 10 round distance and ended up in a draw that many thought Thomas had actually won. Thomas would go 4-0-1 in his five fights since the big win over “Quick” Tillis which led him to his first attempt at the Heavyweight Championship of the World.

On August 31, 1984, the opponent who actually gave Thomas his big break by dropping out of the Tillis fight, was now the World Boxing Council (WBC) Heavyweight Champion of the World, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon. After 12 rounds, Pontiac, Michigan native, Pinklon “Pinky” Thomas was now in the record books as the new WBC Heavyweight Champion of the World.

In Thomas’ next defense he faced former World Boxing Association (WBA) Heavyweight Champion, Mike Weaver. Unlike Tillis, who was beating Weaver years before, but lost by decision when he faded, Thomas did not fade and brutally knocked Weaver out in the eighth round.

Thomas’ reign as the WBC Heavyweight Champion would only last a little over 19 months, when he defended his title for the second time against Canadian Trevor Berbick on March 22, 1986. After 12 rounds, Berbick was the new WBC Heavyweight Champion via a decision win.

Pinklon was at his peak in the Weaver fight, but started his decline quickly after the win. Thomas fought on for the next seven years, but could not beat the top level opponents which paralleled Tillis’ career in the ring as well. On January 29, 1993, Thomas would face journeyman at best, Lawrence “Pancho” Carter who stopped “Pinky” in the seventh round. This would be Thomas’ last fight.

Outside of boxing, Thomas had a well documented drug problem that he faced head on, and as of this article, he has beaten his demons. Pinklon currently works for the Center for Drug Free Living in Orlando, Florida as a youth specialist and counselor. On several occasions his community has recognized and embraced him for his outstanding work with these young adults.

By Actor