A strange twist to boxing tragedy

In opposite corners, two unite for Botha

January 13, 1999|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- "Murder, Plain and Simple," read the headline on an editorial by Randy Gordon in the June 1984 issue of the Ring magazine.

It was a poignant recapitulation of the sordid events that took place in the ring at Madison Square Garden a year earlier, leading to the death of promising junior middleweight Billy Ray Collins Jr.

That night, Collins, 21, a crowd-pleasing fighter with a 14-0 record who was being hailed as a title contender, took a fearful beating from journeyman Luis Resto on the undercard of Roberto Duran's championship bout with Davey Moore.

Collins suffered damage to his right eye and severe facial cuts from the usually light-punching Resto.

Suspicion led Collins' father, a former pro boxer, to grab Resto's gloves before they were removed from his hands following the bout.

"All I felt were knuckles and fingers," Billy Sr., said.

An investigation determined that half of the two-ounce horsehair padding from each of the eight-ounce gloves had been removed through a hole in the lining. No one from the commission had bothered to check the gloves before the fight, as required.

Collins would never recover from the beating. Advised by doctors not to fight again, he became depressed and was drinking heavily before the night he drove his car off a country road near his home in Antioch, Tenn. Medics on the scene said he died instantly.

"He didn't die in that accident," his father later told the New York Times. "He was killed in New York City. He thought he was a failure. His life fell apart. He couldn't cope. His young mind couldn't stand it."

In his article, Gordon was careful not to name the culprit, but wrote: "I know who did it," adding, "as for the man I think to be his killer, the Grim Reaper will come calling one day and send him to burn in the fires of hell."

The New York Boxing Commission was more specific. It found both Resto and his principal trainer, Carlos "Panama" Lewis, guilty of tampering with the gloves. Their boxing licenses were revoked.

Subsequently, the New York Supreme Court sentenced Lewis to two to six years in jail and Resto to one to three years for second-degree assault, conspiracy and fourth-degree possession of a weapon (the unpadded gloves).

Lewis would serve 2 1/2 years in prison before resuming his training duties with several well-known boxers. But he has been barred in the state from receiving a license to work a corner the night of a fight.

Gordon, who became chairman of the New York commission, vowed he would never license Lewis as long as he had jurisdiction.

Now, fate has reunited Gordon and Lewis, both of whom are working here with Francois Botha, the South African heavyweight who will serve as Mike Tyson's opponent in his comeback bout here Saturday night. Gordon is serving as Botha's media adviser, while Lewis is plotting the pre-fight strategy.

Although boxing has always made for strange bedfellows, it has been a painful experience for Gordon to reportedly explain to reporters why he is now willing to work with a man he once branded a devil. But time has given him a different perspective.

"To do this, I knew I'd be called the biggest hypocrite who ever lived," Gordon said, "but I can live with it. My personal battle is over. I don't know if Lewis did it or not, but I believe he's sorry.

"I really did some soul-searching. I talked with my family, a rabbi and a priest about this situation. But after I saw the entire transcript of Lewis' trial, I no longer thought it was clear-cut. There were two other people in Resto's corner that night -- Artie Curley [now dead] and Pedro Alvarado.

"But in the courtroom, Lewis showed no remorse, even while he said he didn't do it. The jury saw pictures of Collins' face, and that was enough to convince them. I've confronted Lewis and he'll only say: `It doesn't matter now. Billy Collins is dead.' We all have to die, but Billy was so young."

Sterling McPherson, who manages Botha, has known Lewis since the days 20 years ago when McPherson was campaigning as a lightweight.

"Panama is my friend," said McPherson, "and I don't think he was capable of doing what he was accused of. I think someone set him up. I know if he'd been rich and had a lawyer, he would have never gone to jail for two years on a misdemeanor.

"He paid the price, and now he deserves a chance to have a job and and feed his family, just like [Mike] Tyson. "I brought Gordon and Lewis together. I want them to sit down to talk and have some common ground. Whatever it takes."

The Resto case was not the first time Lewis was suspected of impropriety in a fighter's corner. He was working in the corner of Aaron Pryor in November 1982 when Pryor fought Alexis Arguello for the junior welterweight title in Miami's Orange Bowl.

Arguello appeared to be winning the fight when ring microphones picked up a conversation in Pryor's corner. Rejecting a water bottle, Lewis told fellow cornerman Curley: "Give me the special bottle I mixed."

Pryor took a drink, got a sudden burst of energy and knocked out Arguello in the 14th round. The bottle disappeared after the fight, but Curley said it was filled with peppermint schnapps.

Lewis, 52, has not applied for a license in Nevada. Commission executive director Marc Ratner said: "We wouldn't license him until he is granted a license in New York, where he was originally banned."

McPherson has requested a license application for Lewis from New York, but expects a long and tedious process.

If Lewis is ever reinstated, it will be a bitter blow to Billy Collins Sr.

"We had a dream for Billy Jr., since he was 13, and they stole it from him," the father said. He wanted to be a fighter, a somebody."

The inscription on his gravestone reads simply: "Irish Billy Collins, a great fighter."

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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