Today’s next big thing doesn’t always pan out by tomorrow.
In the waning days of the reign of Larry Holmes, even before Holmes lost his crown to light heavyweight king Michael Spinks, eyes were already turning in search of his successor. Many an eye settled on Pinklon Thomas.
It wasn’t hard to wonder why.
Thomas had size, speed, and a weapon that stood out from the whole of his arsenal. Writing in the aftermath of his WBC title victory over Tim Witherspoon in 1984, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam quoted Thomas’s trainer prophetically:
Thomas is a flat-footed, stand-up boxer with amazing reflexes and a jab that could batter down doors. "It's as close to a Sonny Liston jab as I've ever seen," said trainer Angelo Dundee, who trained Liston's conqueror, Ali, and who was brought in to work with Thomas against Witherspoon. "It's a hard jab, and he's going to win the title with it."
Dundee was right. Thomas’s jab got him past one of the best in the game and then in his first defense he won a forgotten classic battling former titlist Mike Weaver. Thomas had shown enough to make one wonder if he could be the next torch carrier for the division.
His second defense hushed any such speculation. In a rugged March 1986 affair, Thomas was outworked by longtime contender Trevor Berbick at the dawn of HBO’s heavyweight championship unification tournament. Before the year was out, the next-next big thing was in full swing.
Mike Tyson decimated Berbick in two rounds and followed it with a forgettable but still significant decision win over James “Boncrusher” Smith in March 1987 to add the WBA belt to his mantle. Before Tyson could attempt to add the IBF belt to complete the trifecta, his WBC mandatory required squaring.
Thomas, 3-0 with 3 stoppages since the loss to Berbick, had an opportunity to regain what he’d lost plus one. What developed that May night in 1987 was one of the most interesting and overlooked of the early Tyson title fights.
Heading Into the Fight
Titles: WBC heavyweight (1986-87, 1 Defense); WBA heavyweight (1987, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 218 ¾ lbs.
Hailed from: Brooklyn, New York
Record: 29-0, 26 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #1
Record in Title Fights: 2-0, 1 KO
Previous Five Opponents: 109-16-2 (.866)
Previous Titles: WBC heavyweight (1984-86, 1 Defense) IBO heavyweight (1992)
Weight: 217 ¾ lb.
Hails from: Pontiac, Michigan
Record: 29-1-1, 24 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #2
Record in Major Title Fights: 2-1, 1 KO
Last Five Opponents: 101-33-3 (.748)
Venue: Las Vegas Hilton - Las Vegas, Nevada
Attendance: 12,706 (Ring Magazine, September 1987)
Gate: $2.9 million
Purses: Tyson $2.5 million; Thomas $650,000
Referee: Carlos Padilla
Recapping the Action
Tyson bolts from the corner, targeting Thomas with right hands before landing a left hook. A Tyson jab opens up a combination to the head and more left hooks follow. Thomas clutches on but takes heavy leather when the men are separated. Thomas tries to get the jab going and is firing when he can but it’s a big job to keep Tyson’s combinations contained. Just before the bell, Thomas lands a firm right but eats an uppercut near his corner. Thomas turns to rest for sixty seconds after a bruising first three minutes.
Dundee curses the ring doctor out as he goes to work on his man, wanting every second. Thomas starts the second bouncing on his toes just a bit, flashing his jab and then going inside to clinch and trade tapping body shots with Tyson. Thomas tries a jab and right cross and takes a Tyson combination. They return to the trenches for a spell. Thomas has a good closing thirty seconds, jabbing well and catching Tyson with a long right.
The long jab of Thomas is working well at long and mid-range, making Tyson miss in spots and guarding against the Tyson left hook with a well placed, high right glove. Thomas lands some nice right hands but takes the worst of a clash of heads. The third round ends with both men grappling and looking for room to club to the flanks.
Thomas flashes a combination to the head of a crouching Tyson and Tyson responds with a flurry to the ribs. Thomas continues to have some luck landing the right behind the jab when Tyson comes forward but the rushes of Tyson don’t leave a window to turn the shots all the way over. In the final thirty seconds, Tyson clips Thomas with an uppercut but the challenger fires back three lefts of his own.
On the HBO broadcast between rounds, Larry Merchant announces he has the fight at two rounds apiece giving the third and fourth to Thomas while unofficial ringside scorer Harold Lederman has given Thomas just the fourth. Shortly after the bell, Tyson walks into a Thomas right hand. The jab of Thomas continues to trouble Tyson whenever there is space between them. Tyson finally gets in a big right hand shortly before the bell but it’s few and far between in another tough three minutes.
Thomas, sporting a damaged left glove, gets an extended rest as it is replaced between rounds. The moment is reminiscent of Dundee’s famous glove splitting pause after a young Muhammad Ali was dropped by Henry Cooper. When they resume, the extra air seems more rejuvenating for Tyson who is working his jab and firing with more suddenness than he has since the second. Both men again go to close quarters; Tyson is landing harder and then rockets in an uppercut that jolts Thomas upwards. Tyson lands a massive right to the body and a few seconds later he adds a vicious lead left hook to hurt Thomas.
Smelling blood, Tyson lands two right hands, has several shots blocked, and then gets in a right uppercut and left hook. He lands the same combination again and then another left hook glances off the brow of Thomas. One more right and then a crushing left sends Thomas to the floor. Thomas, his face a mask of weariness and agony, stirs to rise but can’t get his glove off the floor before the toll hits ten.
After the Bell
Thomas would never challenge for a title again, losing four of his next five fights, three of them inside the distance to Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Tommy Morrison. One can wonder what the Tyson fight took out of him. The shots he took in the first and final rounds of the contest bookended a gutsy effort. Thomas officially won only single rounds on two of the official cards but he made Tyson work. There were plenty of men who fought Tyson scared over the years. Thomas wasn’t one of them.
Thomas lasted long enough for SI’s Ralph Wiley to note some wondered if they were seeing some weaknesses in the victorious young phenom:
By the sixth round some in the audience were convinced Tyson's flaws—a mushy jab, an inability to escape from a clinch—were being systematically exposed. "No balance," observed one. And Richie Giachetti, who is training the lackluster Tony Tubbs and obviously has nothing better to do than scoff at Tyson, said, "You think Tyson doesn't know all the dirty tricks in the book?" Meanwhile, even with a 2½-minute rest before the sixth round because of a torn Thomas glove—reminding ringsiders of the Dundee ploy that helped Muhammad Ali beat Henry Cooper in 1963—the challenger was in no shape to process new information.
Tyson’s explosive attack left Thomas in no shape to go on minutes later. Thomas’s professional career would continue on until 1993 when he retired with a solid mark of 43-7-1.
As hinted previously, what developed between Tyson and Thomas is one of the more interesting and entertaining battles of Tyson’s career, particularly in the early years. It is a glimpse of a talent still being refined. Some of the weaknesses that would haunt him were on display; he wasn’t hard for Thomas to find and was often willing to ride out clinches rather without much activity.
The strengths were glowing too. Tyson’s hand speed, combination punching, uppercut, and pulverizing power were all on vicious display. There can be a tendency to underrate Tyson as time passes. The man Thomas spent six rounds with was nothing to play with.
As a footnote, the undercard that night featured two men who would feature prominently in the future of Tyson. Battling for the vacant IBF belt, Tony Tucker would stop Buster Douglas in the tenth round.
Tyson would defeat Tucker in his very next fight, winning a twelve round decision.
That would be a legend all its own a couple years down the road.
Tyson’s well documented career would last until 2005, ending at a mark of 50-6. Tyson entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
While the sport is largely postponed, boxing has a rich library of classic fights, films, and books to pass the time. In terms of fights, readers are welcome to get involved. Feel free to email, comment in the forum, or tweet @roldboxing with classic title fight suggestions. If they are widely available on YouTube, and this scribe has never seen them or simply wants to see them again, the suggestion will be credited while the fight is reviewed in a future chapter of Boxing Without Boxing.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]