By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Whaddya know, my favorite day of the year rolled around again over the weekend.
Well, OK, maybe it’s fourth behind my birthday, my son’s birthday and Christmas – but still, it’s pretty big.
The date when, over the course of seven years back in the 1980s, my life changed forever.
First, it was Sept. 16, 1981. Tommy Hearns. Ray Leonard. The “Showdown” at 147 pounds. Any fight fan in my age group remembers it like it was yesterday. And as I glance at the calendar and realize it’s now been 37 years (this past Sunday) since it happened … I’m amazed.
It was that fight more than any other that got me revved-up. I was a gigantic Tommy fan. I was sure he’d win. I couldn’t wait until the next day, when I’d go to Edward Town Junior High School and lord it over all the “Sugar Ray” fans while collecting on a bevy of lunch money bets.
A quarter here. Fifty cents there. Enough funds to keep the Pac Man machine going for hours while I wolfed down a belly full of ice cream sandwiches.
Yes, indeed … those were the days.
Needless to say, it didn’t go how I wanted. Tommy is ahead, then in trouble, then ahead again, then stopped in what’s still as dramatic a late rally as you’ll ever see, featuring as compelling a message from trainer to fighter as has ever been delivered in any corner.
“You’re blowin’ it now, son. You’re blowin’ it.”
Thinking about it gives me goose bumps even now.
Thank you, Angelo Dundee.
But it wasn’t over for me come Sept. 17. Not by a long shot.
Instead, a few weeks later, as part of the seventh-grade English class that occupied seventh period every day, our teacher – Thomas J. Rycombel – gave us an assignment. Take one of the pre-determined titles that he’d scribbled on the board and write something. Short story. Poem. Fictional tale. Whatever.
I chose news story. And armed with his title – “It happened that day” – I was off.
Six pages later, Mr. Rycombel had as thorough a wrap-up of the Leonard-Hearns fight as was possible from a 12-year-old pre-Internet kid whose fight-bereft hometown – Niagara Falls, N.Y. – was every bit of 2,290 miles away from the Caesars Palace parking lot where the action actually took place.
And a day or two later, when I picked up the graded paper, saw the A-plus and the accompanying note – “You ought to do this as a career, buddy” – I was hooked.
Seems only fitting that seven years later (and 30 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1988) I walked upstairs to the Niagara Gazette newsroom for my first day as a part-timer with my hometown paper, surrounded by the guys who – known to me but unknown to them – had essentially taught me to read with years of box scores, columns and game stories.
Bill McGrath. Bill Wolcott. Tom McDonough. My small-town journalism heroes.
I remember them all as if it were yesterday, too.
And when I clicked “return” on my first story – the nightly recap of that year’s Lake Ontario Fishing Derby – I got the rush of adrenaline I still get today, each and every time I send one off to the editors and later to the dozens, hundreds or thousands who take the time to read.
To say I’ve been lucky since would be an understatement.
I’ve covered fights in Las Vegas, New York, Atlantic City and two foreign countries. I’ve interviewed Leonard and Dundee. I was ringside for Hearns’ last in-ring appearance at Cobo Arena in Detroit in 2005. And I’ve been recognized for my work by an association I’d dreamed of joining long before I ever did.
It’s been a great ride. And I’ve got Sept. 16, 1981 to thank for all of it.
Because for me anyway, “It happened that day.”
Belated happy anniversary, guys.
And thanks again, Mr. Rycombel. I owe you one.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO heavyweight titles – London, United Kingdom
Anthony Joshua (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Alexander Povetkin (No. 1 IBO/No. 2 IWBR)
Joshua (21-0, 20 KO): Sixth IBF title defense; Third fight at Wembley Stadium (2-0, 2 KO)
Povetkin (34-1, 24 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Second fight in United Kingdom (1-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Povetkin is a legit commodity who’s essentially cleared out the second tier of the heavyweight division. But Joshua is younger, stronger and more athletic. He’ll win. Joshua in 7 (80/20)
WBO flyweight title – Nagoya, Japan
Sho Kimura (champion/No. 13 IWBR) vs. Kosei Tanaka (No. 1 WBO/No. 1 IWBR)
Kimura (17-1-2, 10 KO): Third title defense; Four straight wins by KO/TKO (28 total rounds)
Tanaka (11-0, 7 KO): Sixth title fight (5-0); Held WBO titles at 105 and 108 pounds (three defenses)
Fitzbitz says: Kimura is a worthwhile enough fighter and Tanaka has never actually beaten a reigning champ to win a belt, but it’s hard to imagine him not winning here. He’s that good. Tanaka in 10 (75/25)
Last week’s picks: 2-1 (WIN: Ramirez, Munguia; LOSS: Golovkin)
2018 picks record: 60-28 (68.1 percent)
Overall picks record: 981-332 (74.7 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body’s full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
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 [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.