• U.S.

Sport: At Sea in a Ring

3 minute read

One of the men usually launches jet planes from the flight deck of his ship. The other is best known for promoting fights involving Ali, Foreman and Frazier. Last week Captain Frank Rush, commander of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, and Don King, the flamboyant boxing promoter, got their acts together. They jointly presided over one of the odder events in boxing annals: six professional bouts, all fought off Pensacola, Fla., in a ring planted squarely on the Lexington’s 910-ft. flight deck.

It was all part of a new King promotion, the U.S. Boxing Tournament of Champions—a box-off that over the next six months will feature 60 largely unknown fighters in a series of ABC-televised matches. The purpose: to develop

American contenders for the championship of every weight classification, and particularly to spur interest in the lighter divisions (welterweight, lightweight and featherweight), long overlooked by the U.S. public. For most of the fighters, the tournament is an opportunity to take part in a real-life version of the film Rocky. Many of these “courageous warriors,” as King called them, have until now scratched out meager livings as garbage men, roofers or bar bouncers while they pursued dreams of championships. Until they performed in front of the 3,000 Navy men and women at ringside—and, more important, the network’s cameras—few of them had ever earned purses large enough to cover gym fees. Only once before, for example, had 13 5-lb. Lightweight Johnny Sullivan, from North

Arlington, N.J., earned more than a few hundred dollars in a bout. Fighters his size and smaller constitute the bottom of the cards—and paychecks—in the boxing world. He earned $7,500, virtually a fortune, for a brawling win over Paddy Dolan of Northport, N.Y. But the recognition meant almost as much to them as the money. Said Sullivan: “I’d probably have fought for free, just for the chance.”

The chance is bankrolled by ABC: it put up $1.5 million to stage the fights, which provided enthusiastic, if not technically superb boxing. There were no knockouts in the six-match card; some overmatched pugs clung desperately to the ropes and their opponents in an effort to stay on their feet and in contention for the next fight-off.

Title Dreams. Middleweight Mike Colbert, ranked first in his division by Ring magazine (all of the contenders were ranked among America’s best in their class by Ring), hammered for eight full rounds against Jackie Smith but was unable to put him away. Smith was singled out for attention because he has a college degree and hails from Rocky Marciano’s home town of Brockton, Mass. Neither distinction gave him any advantage over the stylish and strong Colbert; still, he won the crowd’s ovation and the admiration of his opponent. Heavyweight Larry Holmes, the card’s other big favorite, also drew a tenacious foe in Tom Prater, who stood up to Holmes’ barrage of punches. Prater was on his feet at the final bell, raising questions about Holmes’ recently broken right hand, responsible for 17 knockouts in 23 wins. Still, for Holmes and the other winners, the dream can continue. Said Light Heavyweight Winner Bobby Cassidy: “The winner of this gets to fight for the title. The title…”

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