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BGS: An Advanced Game of Tag

And so, here is the fourth of Pete Dexter’s columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight. It appears here with the author’s permission.

(Click here for Part One, Two and Three.)

“An Advanced Game of Tag”

By Pete Dexter

Monday, November 29, 1982

HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.

The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.

I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.

Yes, Randall took a pounding.

No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”

I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.

“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.

“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.

I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”

He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”

“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.

“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.

“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”

There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.

“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.

“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘

“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.

“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”

He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.

At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.

“Are you hurt?” I said.

He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.

He said, “Damn, I wish he’d wanted to fight.”

BGS: Randall’s Serious

Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Randall’s Serious”

By Pete Dexter

Friday, November 26, 1982

HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.

The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.

Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”

That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”

Randall is serious.

He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.

And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.

As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.

The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.

There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.

His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.

Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.

And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.

Yes, he is serious.

And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.

Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.

He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.

And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.

And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.

The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.

And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.

And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.

He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.

[Photo Credit: Marco Rubio Jr.]

BGS: Gifts Aren’t Everything

Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…

Dig in.

“Gifts Aren’t Everything”

By Pete Dexter

Wednesday, November 24, 1982

HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.

I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.

As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”

But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”

For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.

Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.

But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.

And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.

Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.

So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.

“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.

“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”

The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.

Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.

And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.

Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.

Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.

He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.

And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.

And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.

BGS: Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind

We’ve got a special week of Dexter for you–four columns he wrote about his friend Randall “Tex” Cobb when Cobb fought against Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. Each day for the rest of the week we’ll feature a column and next Monday there’ll be a long Q&A with Pete to celebrate the paperback edition of his non-fiction collection, Paper Trails.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News this piece appears here with the author’s permission.

Enjoy.

“Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind”

By Pete Dexter

Tuesday, November 23, 1982

 

The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He’d broken Shavers’s jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn’t see them.

We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.

The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.

He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, “You feeling better now?” And, while I’m admitting here that it wasn’t Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn’t Randall who had to watch the fight.

His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”

“I absolutely promise,” he said.

But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, ” I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can’t watch it, then don’t.”

I took that the wrong way, of course. I’d only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. “I know it isn’t easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers,” he said.

I said, “It’d be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up.”

And that’s as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He’d taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight – if Cooney hadn’t backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.

And a lot of people didn’t.

In the bars, they told me Randall couldn’t fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn’t do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.

I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn’t care.

The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I’ve ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.

I can close my eyes and still see Randall’s face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.

Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, “You beat the bleep out of me, man.” Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He’d been braver and stronger than he’d been in four years.

It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I’ve ever seen.

We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, “You know, you’re giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can’t hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they’re sure you’re not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You’re taking away their fear. ”

“It’s a bad habit, all right,” he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year – a round in which he landed at least 100 punches – I heard him say this: ” Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk. ”

Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.

I was already unconscious – hit five or six times square in the head – and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he’d left me. And it doesn’t matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you’ve got to think about leaving.

When I woke up he was shouting, “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too.” And it must have scared them off – it scared me – because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.

He said, “Pete?”

I said, “Any time you’re ready to leave . . .” They’d broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn’t move. I said, “Randall, this leg won’t move.”

He said, “We don’t have time for that leg not to move.” And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.

On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, “You know, we could of planned this better.”

He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.

There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.

He leaned over to me and said, “I hope that’s the softball team.”

He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.

And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.

Tate’s eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn’t interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that’s what he would have done.

And that’s what he’ll do against Holmes. He’ll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he’ll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.

And Randall probably will be cut, and I’ll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can’t fight.

I guess it doesn’t need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.

I don’t want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I’ll be there. Not because he didn’t leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there – he doesn’t.

I’ll be there because it can’t be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.

[Photo Via: The Minimalisto]

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb

Another sure shot from Pete Dexter. From the May 31, 181 issue of Inside Sports.

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb: The Late-Booming Karate Fighter From Abilene Wants to Be The Baddest Ass In Boxing

By Pete Dexter

The face suggests more than 21 fights, but that’s how many there have been. Counting the two as an amateur. There is a scar over the left eye, a missing tooth. The nose is flat and soft, without cartilage.

Apart from that, it’s a face that’s been hurt.

On March 22, a 26-year-old fighter named Randall Cobb lost a majority decision on national television to Michael Dokes. Two of the judges gave the fight to Dokes, one called it a draw.

Dokes was supposed to win. He is the fastest fighter in the division, maybe the most talented. He was schooled through a long amateur career and brought carefully through 20 fights as a professional. The only problem Dokes ever had was a lack of size, and in the last year he has grown two inches to 6-2 and filled out to 218 pounds, and there is a feeling among some people that after Larry Holmes retires, Dokes doesn’t have any problems at all.

Given all that, there are people who like the other guy’s chances.

At 22 years old—a long time after most professionals were polished fighters—Randall Cobb had his first amateur fight. He had a second and then turned professional, saying he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was the champion then. Cobb would have had trouble naming five other men in the division.

He spent three years knocking out people like Chebo Hernandez (the former heavyweight champion of Mexico) and then, with 18 lifetime fights and 18 days to get ready, he crawled into the ring with Earnie Shavers and won on a TKO in the eighth.

He lost a split decision to Ken Norton and then dropped the fight to Dokes. In each of the fights he got better, and he is still just learning. He has the best chin in boxing and in the Dokes fight—when he caught much of what Dokes threw on his gloves and arms—the people who have watched Cobb got their first sign that he wasn’t going to be proving it the rest of his life.

After the fight Cobb sat with ABC’s Keith Jackson, who asked if he had been surprised Dokes hadn’t run more. Cobb said, “I don’t know how it looked from here, but to me it looked like I was running my ass all over the ring trying to catch him.”

As he said that Dokes dropped into the chair next to him. Cobb smiled. “We’ll have to do this again, Mike.”

Dokes shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to go back and start all over,” Cobb said later. “I’ll do whatever I got to do and I’m going to keep doin’ it until it’s right.”

His mother heard that and nodded. “Some day that dog’s going to lie in the sun,” she said.

Randall Cobb is my friend. I know him, he won’t cheat himself. And after it’s over—it doesn’t matter how many times he’s hit in the face—he’ll be able to look in the mirror and not be afraid of what he sees.

(more…)

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver