By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Cape Coral, FL (SportsNetwork.com) – Whaddya know, I almost forgot my favorite day of the year last week.
Well, OK, maybe it’s fourth behind my birthday, my son’s birthday and Christmas — but still, it’s pretty big: Sept. 16. The date when, over the course of seven years back in the 1980s, my life changed forever.
First, it was Sept. 16, 1981. Tommy Hearns. Ray Leonard. The “Showdown” at 147 pounds. Any fight fan in my age group remembers it like it was yesterday. And as I glance at the calendar and realize it’s now been 33 years (last Tuesday) since it happened… I’m amazed.
It was that fight more than any other that got me revved-up. I was a gigantic Tommy fan. I was sure he’d win. I couldn’t wait until the next day, when I’d go to Edward Town Junior High School and lord it over all the “Sugar Ray” fans while collecting on a bevy of lunch money bets.
A quarter here. Fifty cents there. Enough funds to keep the Pac Man machine going for hours with a belly full of ice cream sandwiches.
Yes, indeed … those were the days.
Needless to say, it didn’t go how I wanted. Tommy is ahead, then in trouble, then ahead again, then stopped in what’s still as dramatic a late rally as you’ll ever see, featuring as compelling a message from trainer to fighter as has ever been delivered in any corner.
“You’re blowin’ it now, son. You’re blowin’ it.”
Thinking about it gives me goose bumps even now.
Thank you, Angelo Dundee.
But it wasn’t over for me on Sept. 17. Not by a long shot.
Instead, a few weeks later, as part of the seventh-grade English class that occupied seventh period every day, our teacher — Thomas J. Rycombel — gave us an assignment. Take one of the pre-determined titles that he’d scribbled on the board and write something. Short story. Poem. Fictional tale. Whatever.
I chose news story. And armed with his title — “It happened that day” — I was off.
Six pages later, Mr. Rycombel had as thorough a wrap-up of the Leonard-Hearns fight as was possible from a 12-year-old pre-Internet kid whose fight-bereft hometown — Niagara Falls, N.Y. — was every bit of 2,290 miles away from the Caesars Palace parking lot where the action actually took place.
And a day or two later, when I picked up the graded paper, saw the A-plus and the accompanying note — “You ought to do this as a career, buddy” — I was hooked.
Seems only fitting that seven years later (Sept. 16, 1988) I walked up the stairs at the Niagara Gazette for my first day as a part-timer with my hometown paper, surrounded by the guys who — known to me but unknown to them — had taught me to read with years of box scores, columns and game stories.
Bill McGrath. Bill Wolcott. Tom McDonough. My small-town journalism heroes.
I remember them all as if it were yesterday, too.
And when I clicked “return” on my first story — the nightly recap of that year’s Lake Ontario Fishing Derby — I got the rush of adrenaline I still get today, each and every time I send one off to the editors and later to the dozens, hundreds or thousands who take the time to read.
To say I’ve been lucky since would be an understatement.
I’ve covered multiple fights in Las Vegas, New York, Atlantic City and two foreign countries. I’ve interviewed Leonard and Dundee. I was ringside for Hearns’ last in-ring appearance at Cobo Arena in Detroit in 2005. And I’ve been recognized for my work by an association I’d dreamed of joining long before I ever did.
It’s been a great ride. And I’ve got Sept. 16, 1981 to thank for all of it.
Because for me anyway, “It happened that day.”
Belated happy anniversary, guys.
And thanks again, Mr. Rycombel. I owe you one.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title fight schedule:
SATURDAY WBA cruiserweight title — Moscow, Russia Denis Lebedev (champion/No. 11) vs. Pawel Kolodziej (No. 4 contender/No. 12 IWBR) Lebedev (25-2, 19 KO): Third title defense; Last in-ring win came 21 months ago Kolodziej (33-0, 18 KO): First title fight; Seventh fight outside Poland (6-0, 4 KO) Fitzbitz says: Even now, every time I look at images of Lebedev’s right eye after his Guillermo Jones fight, I cringe. But I don’t think it’ll get that bad for him this time around. Lebedev by decision
WBC cruiserweight title — Moscow, Russia Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Grigory Drozd (No. 4 contender/No. 9 IWBR) Wlodarczyk (49-2-1, 35 KO): Seventh title defense; Held IBF title at 200 (2006-07, zero defenses) Drozd (38-1, 27 KO): First title fight; Unbeaten since 2006 (13-0, 8 KO) Fitzbitz says: Native Russian is a big puncher and hasn’t lost on home turf, but he’s also not fought anyone of Wlodarczyk’s pedigree. Gimme “Diablo” until there’s a reason not to. Wlodarczyk in 10
WBO super middleweight title — Kiel, Germany Arthur Abraham (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Paul Smith (No. 5 contender/No. 49 IWBR) Abraham (40-4, 28 KO): Second title defense (second reign); Held IBF title at 160 (2005-09, 10 defenses) Smith (35-3, 20 KO): First title fight; Second fight outside United Kingdom (1-0, 0 KO) Fitzbitz says: Abraham has been proven no better than third-best at 168 pounds, but he should be just fine against an Englishman who’s been stopped twice in his own home country. Abraham in 9
Last week’s picks: 1-2 (WIN: Abril; LOSE: Narvaez, Mendoza) 2014 picks record: 66-21 (75.8 percent) Overall picks record: 613-215 (74.0 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body’s full- fledged title-holder — no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who has written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @fitzbitz.