Champion McCall put first dent in 'Iron Mike'

April 06, 1995|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- For pure shock value, nothing in the colorful history of heavyweight championship fights comes close to approaching Buster Douglas, as a 40-1 underdog, knocking out Mike Tyson in Tokyo five years ago.

Tyson had been portrayed as a Superman in ring trunks, much in the way Joe Louis was characterized before being flattened by Max Schmeling, and both Sonny Liston and George Foreman before their embarrassing spankings by Muhammad Ali.

But Oliver McCall, who makes the first defense of his World Boxing Council title against 45-year-old former champion Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace on Saturday night, had proved Tyson's vulnerability, knocking him down in a sparring session in Las Vegas before "Iron Mike" obliterated Michael Spinks in 40 seconds in 1988.

And McCall seems more proud of once having put Tyson on the seat of his pants than of winning the WBC crown as a 5-1 underdog with a second-round knockout of previously unbeaten Lennox Lewis in London last September.

"It happened a couple of weeks before Tyson was going to fight Spinks," McCall recalled. "I guess it woke Mike up. You saw what he did to Spinks.

"A lot of guys were intimidated by Tyson. You could see fear in their eyes, like a deer caught in the headlights. But I respected Mike. I never feared him.

"We must have sparred close to 350 rounds over a three-year span, and I learned a lot from the experience. The best way to fight him is that when he attacks, you attack right back and don't let him get focused. That's how Douglas beat him, keeping him off balance."

McCall's knockdown of Tyson became part of boxing's folklore. And now that Tyson has begun his quest to regain the heavyweight crown after spending three years in prison, McCall is eager to prove the sparring session knockout was no fluke.

"I know I'm good, because I'm a champion now, but I want to be great. If I beat Holmes, they'll say I just beat up a 45-year-old has-been. If I beat Tyson, they'll say, 'He's legit.'

"I know I could possibly split $100 million if I defend my title against Tyson. But I can't think about that now. I can't let it deter my mission against Holmes. If I beat Larry, the big-money fight with Tyson will only grow."

McCall, 29, is probably the least-celebrated heavyweight to win the title since Ingemar Johansson brought his "Big Thunder" right hand from Sweden 35 years ago to knock out Floyd Patterson.

"There's a lot of nobodies that can really be somebody," said McCall, trying to explain his unlikely rise.

No one discerned greatness in McCall as he labored in near anonymity on the undercards of Tyson's championship fights as one of promoter Don King's stable of heavyweight hopes. His 25-5 record over nine years as a pro includes losses to Joey Christjohn, Mike Hunter and Douglas, in his pre-championship days.

A father of six who was jailed for six months in 1988 and placed on five years probation for a burglary charge, McCall admits he got into boxing because it seemed less demanding than working as a common laborer or holding down a 9-to-5 job.

"Boxing gave me focus," he said.

But McCall remained a little known, poorly paid fighter who pondered quitting on several occasions.

"There was a time five years ago that I thought about becoming a rhythm and blues singer," he said. "I'd performed in some clubs in Canada and Mexico. But after my wife heard me sing, she told me to keep my regular job," he laughed.

"I might have quit, but I'd never taken a real butt-kicking. I always knew I could fight, but I just didn't have the right connections. My first manager, Elijah Thomas, didn't know how to deal with big-time promoters."

Last summer, he trained furiously under Emanuel Steward to prepare for Lewis, a slugger with a questionable chin. A left hook followed quickly by a driving right sent the champion crashing to the canvas. Lewis beat the 10 count, but referee Lupe Garcia signaled it was over.

It was one lightning punch by McCall that amounted to a thunderclap for King, who again owned a share of the coveted heavyweight title. The media envisioned McCall as merely a caretaker until Tyson returned, but the new champion is reveling in his new role.

"I like being champion," he said. "I'd rather have $10 million and a lot of glory than $100 million and no glory."

McCall insists he is also a better fighter since veteran George Benton took over his training regimen seven months ago. "I'm a different fighter now," he said. "I'm working on my defense and craftsmanship, not just looking to bang everyone out."

Said Benton, who guided Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker to world titles: "Some trainers are afraid to change natural punchers like McCall. But now he's showing a jab that is as good as Holmes', and he's learning to slip and move. He's using his head."

And McCall's head tells him there is a fortune to be made if he hangs onto his crown long enough to fight Tyson. "It's not when I fight Tyson," he said. "It's when he fights me. I'm the champ."

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