Meeting 8 Heavyweight Champions – Each With Different Personalities
By: Ken Hissner
I’ve visited the Philly gyms and others in New Jersey and Delaware over the past 50 years. I have gotten to meet eight world heavyweight champions and the following are some of my experiences:
TIM WITHERSPOON: I run into Tim on occasions at numerous boxing shows and he is always a fun guy even if just to say “hi” to him. He’s got a good outgoing personality. I only had one problem with him when he was about to fight Lou Savarese and we were in a gym in Bucks County, PA, and he made light of my weight. Can you imagine him talking about someone else’s weight problems? I told him “good luck with your upcoming fight with Lou Savarese for he is one heck of a puncher.” By the way Savarese kicked his butt. I did a story on him about how I felt he beat Larry Holmes and was robbed and what he told me how ignorant Holmes was to two of his family members prior to their fight in the hotel they were staying at. He was upset that I put that in the article and I said to him “you said it, didn’t you?” Seems boxers Holmes has fought get invited to a barbeque each year except Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks. You don’t have to figure out why two that beat him don’t attend do you?
PINKLON THOMAS: I met “Pinky” up at the Montgomery County Boy’s Club in Eagleville, PA, that Steve Traitz ran on several occasions. He was sparring with “Big” Joe Thomas one of Traitiz’s boxers. He was easy to talk to and I would do a story on him later over the phone. A real nice guy.
LEON SPINKS: When you meet Leon Spinks you usually would like to give him a hug. He is that loveable. With or without his front teeth. I’ve met him several times including at the IBHOF event when Mike Tyson was inducted. He just seems like a happy go lucky care free guy no matter what happens he’ll make the best of it.
MICHAEL SPINKS: Now Michael Spinks is more of a “stand offish” kind of person. Much quieter than his brother Leon. I‘ve talked to him about his sparring with fellow 1976 Olympic teammate Chuck Walker and he acknowledged he never looked forward to sparring with Walker due to his style of boxing. I also saw him at a boxing event and thanked him for winning the title from Holmes.
JOE FRAZIER: I had three run in’s with Joe Frazier. First was while I was taking a picture of another boxer when I heard this big voice say “hey, move or I’ll use you for a heavy bag”. I turned around and there was Frazier (with about 12 fights). I almost made the mistake of saying “if I was Sonny Liston you wouldn’t say that”. The next time was in his gym when he brother Tom approached me about doing matchmaking for the amateur team they were about to turn pro. I told him on one condition. Joe has nothing to do with it. He tells me to follow him up to the office steps and there’s Joe. He sees me and says “is this the guy?” That’s all I needed. I said to Tom “what did I tell you” and proceeded down the steps and out of the gym. The third time was when he had retired and was living in the same town I was in Lafayette Hill (Whitemarsh Twp.), PA. I asked a good friend and fellow motorcycle buddy of his who was a cop “why don’t we do something for Joe. He’s the ex-champ and I don’t think anyone has done anything for him here”. He replied “you don’t even like Joe.” We tried for six months to get through to his secretary to surprise him since he was on the road with “Joe Frazier & the Knockouts”.
Finally the cop who knew his wife Florence arranged for us to meet with her. She was thrilled. All of a sudden Joe comes through the front door and asks “what you guy’s doing here?” I proceeded to tell him what we had planned and he asked “who’s paying for this?” After explaining half the people like family would be for free and the rest pay like they do for the “Maxwell Club (football)”. He probably thought I meant Maxwell Coffee.He replied “I don’t think so”. I went on to tell him “maybe I’ll get a photographer from a local paper to take a picture of an empty chair with the above caption saying “Joe Couldn’t Make It!” He then proceeds to go out the back door when his wife asks “Joe, Joe where are you going?” He replied “I’ll be back when I’m back woman.” I felt bad for her but at least I know we tried. The fourth meeting was when his business manager Les Wolfe brought him to the Boy’s &Girl’s Club in Wilmington, DE, to talk to the kids and Joe was fine with them.
LARRY HOLMES: Being in sales at the time I would visit Larry Holmes gym in Easton knowing he was a “Jekyll & Hyde” kind of a guy that you didn’t know which one you would run into. I was promoting a boxing event at the Easton H.S. with 10% of the profits going to the St. Anthony’sgym where he was trained as an amateur by Ernie Butler. I saw his brother Mark in the parking lot (6-0 at the time) and asked if he would like to be in an exhibition on the show and he said he would but I would have to get Larry’s approval since he was his manager.
Larry’s reply was “I ain’t putting my brother on some rinky dink show.” By the way Mark didn’t fight in Easton until his 39th and last fight. I went to watch Larry train that day as usual and he stopped sparring and came over to the ropes and pointed to me sitting in a chair and said: “I ought to beat the shit out of you. Next time I tell you something don’t go to my brother. Of course he was wrong. Since then as a writer I’ve had the pleasure to rip him since as often as I can. He doesn’t ask you to do something, he tells you to do something.
MUHAMMAD ALI: First, this was one of the funniest person’s I have ever run into.I first met Ali in center city Philly after he lost to Norton and had his jaw broke. An old man was addressing him in a crowd and said “next time you fight Norton be a man, not a boy.” Ali asked him, ”did you call me Roy?” He loved to rhyme things. The man asked the same thing while the rest of us were laughing and Ali asked “play with him like a toy?” Even the old man laughed along with us on that one. Several weeks later I saw Ali’s old house in West Philly and his new one in Cherry Hill, NJ, and went to NJ. I knocked on the door and his second wife Belinda answered. I asked if I could speak to the champ. She asked me to wait and came back inviting me in. Ali was very gracious and asked me to take a seat. Several times at his Deer Lake, PA, training camp I visited and he was such a for real kind of a person who was some kind of an entertainer to the people who came there to see him by the bus loads. He was one of a kind!
Now let me explain. These were my experiences and others might have had different experiences than I did.