By Thomas Gerbasi
Imagine a world where 40-year old Tony Thompson is THE heavyweight champion of the world, the man who defeated Wladimir Klitschko and brought the most glamorous title in boxing back to the United States.
Would it be Buster Douglas-esque to see such a thing happen this Saturday in Berne, Switzerland? Maybe to boxing diehards, and maybe to those outside of the US, but not to the general sporting public that treats the heavyweight championship of the world as something that disappeared along with Ali, Tyson, and Holyfield.
But who cares what those who don’t care about boxing think about what happens in our insular little community? For me, Saturday holds the possibility that something special may occur in a sport that could use all the special moments it can get, one not tainted by performance enhancing drugs, jail sentences being served by the best boxer in the world, or all the other distractions that have a habit of taking away from what happens in the ring.
And maybe Tony Thompson is that guy, the one who can take what has been a decent 12 plus year career and make it special in the space of 12 rounds.
I’ll admit, I never was much of a Thompson fan. It’s not that I didn’t like him personally or professionally, but being a 6-foot-5 heavyweight southpaw who fought, well, like a 6-foot-5 heavyweight southpaw, didn’t exactly endear him to me or to many fight fans who like their big men to have more of a visceral, dangerous appeal. When I spoke to him in 2008, the likeable contender admitted as much, saying “I’m a tall, lanky, unorthodox, left-handed fighter. Anytime they can keep somebody like that out of the loop, they’re gonna do what they can do to do that.”
It’s why it took 32 fights for Thompson to finally get a world title shot against Klitschko on July 12, 2008, and on that night in Hamburg, “The Tiger” showed up to fight. Yes, he got knocked out in the 11th round, the ninth victim in Dr. Steelhammer’s current 15 fight winning streak, but he didn’t collect a paycheck and didn’t fall down in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t exactly the feel good story of that summer, but you did appreciate the effort and smiled a little knowing that Thompson got his shot.
Four years later, almost to the day, Thompson, now 40, is back to face the same man who last defeated him. It’s not a fight anyone demanded, but in the heavyweight division these days, staying around long enough to put together a decent winning streak against the right people is enough to get a shot at the gold. And that’s what Thompson did. He went 5-0 with five knockouts, beating Adnan Serin, Chazz Witherspoon, Owen Beck, Paul Marinaccio, and Maurice Harris. If you’re not impressed by that Fab Five, you’re not alone.
Even Klitschko didn’t exactly jump for joy when the rematch was announced, telling the media on a recent conference call “I'm going to be pretty honest and open here. I would rather take some fighters that I hadn't fought. Someone new. But I had no choice. So I have to defend my titles, and I think that to fight Tony Thompson is definitely not an easy job, so it's not going to be a vacation fight for me. It's going to be challenging and tough, but on the other hand, as I said, if you ask me would I choose Tony Thompson or fight someone else, I probably would go for some new names and the fighters that I haven't fought.”
Pickings are slim though, and among those who are in the title picture, excitement is even slimmer. The most charismatic in the group are currently up and comers Seth Mitchell and Tyson Fury, yet both are still at least a few fights away from being serious contenders, and while the return of David Haye injects life into the weight class once again, his first performance against Klitschko doesn’t exactly get the drums beating for an immediate rematch should he get by Dereck Chisora on July 14th. The rest? Bleh.
So instead, Klitschko gets Thompson, a bout that is likely to do great business in Europe, but that has been virtually ignored everywhere else. Yet what has emerged from this sea of apathy is the fact that Thompson has slowly become someone fight fans can get behind and root for, if not for his fighting style, then at least for his honesty and persistence.
“I realize not a lot of TV channels want to put me on - every channel for whatever reason.,” Thompson told the media on June 28th. “Doesn't matter why. It's just a reality of the situation. The only way I can change that is to win. Obviously, I've beaten the guys that are B talents. I've beaten those guys. And it's up to me to prove that I belong on an A talent level. And that's what this fight is about. I want to know and be on that level myself. I don't want to continue to be known as the best American heavyweight or a good B challenger, or anything like that. I want to take the next step to the championship level.”
Long story short, Tony Thompson has become boxing’s real-life Rocky. He’s the underdog of underdogs, a married father of seven children, no one gives him a chance to dethrone a dominant champion, and he knows the odds against him going in and he really doesn’t care. He’s not delusional, as he pointed out that “It's not a little bit of chance, it's my last chance,” but he’s confident. He claims that a torn meniscus in his knee hampered him in the first fight with Klitschko, and that with a slimmed down physique, a good training camp, and two good wheels, he can make history. How can you look down on that, especially when his self-effacing humor comes along with it?
“I realize I don't have the support of a lot of the United States fans,” he said. “They haven't been given somebody they can get behind wholeheartedly for a long time, and I am hoping after this fight they will. I might not have, you know, the biggest punch of fighters out there, and I don't have the greatest Holyfield body. Matter of fact, I've got the early 1990s Larry Holmes body. (Laughs) So, you know, I got the radio face, not the pretty face, and I understand their unwillingness not to come to this right now. But what they will see is a guy who is going to give an honest effort up in there every time. I’m coming in there to win every time, make no mistake of that. And for the United States to see a guy like that willing to go into the heat of the battle and actually fight this guy who's been a great champ for so long, I think that's going to convince a lot of 'em to come on inside, especially after they see the great victory I'm going to pull off.”
It’s the talk and confident swagger shared by each of the last 14 men to face the best heavyweight of this era. The difference with the 15th, Tony Thompson, is that he’s walked through fire with Klitschko before. He knows what that jab and right hand taste like, he’s traveled across the sea to fight in his opponent’s backyard, and he wasn’t discouraged enough by the entire experience to not try again. For him, July 7th is his last chance and a life changing opportunity. No sport offers opportunities like this for the underdog, and that alone makes this bout compelling.
So could you imagine a world where 40-year old Tony Thompson is THE heavyweight champion of the world? Maybe not, but it sure would be a lot of fun seeing things get shook up, wouldn’t it?
(The fight will be televised live to the U.S. exclusively on EPIX and streamed live, with a free two-week trial, on EpixHD.com, beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET.)