By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Forget James “Quick” Tillis.
And while you’re at it, forget his other moniker – “The Fighting Cowboy” – too.
Because when you think about the affable Oklahoman’s place in a loaded heavyweight division in the early and middle 1980s, neither handle really does him justice.
Instead, how about James “Almost” Tillis?
Or James “Near Miss” Tillis?
Upon reviewing a prolonged stay at the epicenter of the sport’s most vital weight class, nicknames depicting the reed-thin margins by which he fell short seem far more appropriate.
“I fought ’em all, and can’t nobody take that away from me,” said the now 53-year-old, more than nine years removed from his professional swan song and another decade past his last spotlight appearance. “I just wish I’d have known what kind of business it was back then, because I had no idea.
“It’s such a dirty game. And unless you get along with the right people, you’ll never go anywhere.”
Dubious relationships or not, the 6-foot-1 Tillis – who weighed just a shade more than 200 pounds in his prime – was rarely more than a few rounds in some cases, or a few seconds in others, from having a drastically different take on a career that began with a one-round KO of Ron Stephany in 1978.
Nineteen more wins and 15 more stoppages followed over the subsequent three years, pushing the Angelo Dundee-trained speedster into his first crack at the big time – a 15-rounder with defending WBA champion Mike Weaver on an HBO card from the Rosemont Horizon in suburban Chicago.
Depending on whose account you prefer, the result of the Hagler-Hamsho co-feature that night was either old-fashioned cowboy justice… or straight-up robbery.
Judges Ismael Fernandez, Stanley Christodoulou and Rogelio Perez saw Weaver the winner by slightly more decisive margins, allowing the then 30-year-old incumbent to retain his belt by scores of 145-143, 146-142 and 147-142.
Not surprisingly, Tillis claims theft.
“I know I won 11 rounds that night,” he said. “I know I was hitting him with all kinds of combinations. But I didn’t know about the other things that go on, and they gave him the fight.”
Still, it was hardly artistic by anyone’s measure, running under the headline “One Goring, One Boring,” in a follow-up story by Pat Putnam in the Oct. 12, 1981 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Putnam, who labeled Tillis “a light hitter,” claimed the No. 3 WBA contender “came out in full retreat. Rather than jotting down points after each round, the officials should have recorded his splits. All he needed in his corner was starting blocks.”
While Weaver lost the title to Michael Dokes in his next fight, Tillis topped trial horse Jerry Williams and veteran slugger Earnie Shavers to get to 22-1 before he was upended by previously anonymous Pinklon Thomas via eighth-round TKO at Stouffers Ballroom in Cleveland.
That loss began a gradual tumble from the upper echelon, including an eighth-round loss to Greg Page and one-round blowout by Tim Witherspoon, which were followed by decision losses to Carl Williams, Marvis Frazier, Gerrie Coetzee and Tyrell Biggs over 15 months through January 1986.
But it was another points verdict – to young knockout artist Mike Tyson – that still leaves a sour taste stretching back 24 years to Glens Falls, N.Y.
One judge saw Tyson superior in eight of 10 rounds, while two others, Bernie Friedkin and Al Reid, awarded the decision by much narrower 6-4 scores to the then 19-year-old who’d never before been pushed to the final bell.
Said Sports Illustrated’s Ralph Wiley, “At times Tillis made Tyson look awkward, but mainly ‘Quick’ merely survived. The battered and bloodied Tillis lost in a 10-round unanimous decision, though he became the first fighter to go the distance with the man-child. That accomplishment just might be worth an asterisk one day.”
Predictably again, the cowboy sees it a bit differently.
“I beat Mike Tyson. I was the first,” Tillis said.
“He didn’t know what to do with me after the first couple rounds. I know I beat him. Mike knows I beat him. But we were in New York and he wasn’t going to lose there.”
An 8-8-1 record – including losses to future champs Evander Holyfield and Frank Bruno – took Tillis through his next 17 fights, before he was blitzed in a single round by muscle-bound novelty act Tommy Morrison on Jan. 11, 1991 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
From there, it was Illinois, Ohio, Colorado, Washington and Missouri as venues before the road finally ended with a TKO loss to Rob Calloway in 2001, leaving Tillis’ final record at 42-22-1 with 31 KOs.
The post-ring career, aside from memories of his star turn alongside Oprah Winfrey in “The Color Purple,” has meant less notoriety and less financial reward, though the father of four – while seeking to drum up interest in an already-published book and an as-yet unproduced documentary – remains content with his accomplishments.
“I had a good career,” he said. “You can look back at things now that you’d do differently, but based on what I knew then and the way things were, I’m happy. I did the best I could.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
Vacant WBA minimumweight title – Bangkok, Thailand
Kwanthai Sithmorseng (No. 1 contender) vs. Pigmy Kokietgym (No. 2 contender)
Sithmorseng (30-0-1, 17 KO): First title fight; Thirty wins since draw in pro debut (2005)
Kokietgym (42-5-2, 18 KO): First title fight; Unbeaten since 2002 (30-0-1, 10 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “More experience on higher levels tips scales in Thai battle.” Kokietgym by decision
IBO super middleweight title – Kempton Park, South Africa
Isaac Chilemba (champion) vs. Thomas Oosthuizen (No. 34 contender )
Chilemba (15-1, 8 KO): First title defense; Four straight wins by unanimous 12-round decisions
Oosthuizen (11-0, 8 KO): First title fight; One of 15 fights beyond 10 rounds
Fitzbitz says: “Coming-out party for lanky southpaw slugger.” Oosthuizen in 9
WBC light flyweight title – Merida, Mexico
Omar Nino Romero (champion) vs. Gilberto Keb Baas (No. 12 contender)
Romero (30-3-2, 12 KO): Second title defense; Six-fight unbeaten streak (5-0-1, 1 KO)
Baas (33-20-4, 21 KO): Third title fight; Six-fight unbeaten streak (5-0-1, 5 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “Romero closer to prime in battle of Mexican veterans.” Romero by decision
WBO featherweight title – Las Vegas, Nev.
Juan Manuel Lopez (champion) vs. Rafael Marquez (No. 2 contender)
Lopez (29-0, 26 KO): Second title defense; Seven of eight title-fight wins by stoppage
Marquez (39-5, 35 KO): Twelfth title fight; Held IBF/IBO titles at 118 pounds, WBC title at 122
Fitzbitz says: “Young Puerto Rican ready for decisive win over name foe.” Lopez in 7
Last week’s picks: 1-0
Overall picks record: 148-49 (75.1 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at www.twitter.com/fitzbitz .