Surrounded by Champions
By Ken Hissner, DoghouseBoxing (April 1, 2009)  
In preparing for his 1992 world title bout with IBF champion James Toney, Dave Tiberi had “a little help from his friends” in the “Champs gym” 10 days before the fight. As a matter of fact the gym wars in Philly are legendary and could be harder than the bouts.

The setting was in Philadelphia, and the sparring partners were #2 contender Bernard Hopkins (16-1, 13 KO) who two years later would win the IBF middleweight title, #7 contender Steve Little (19-13-1)
from upstate Reading who was two years away from defeating Michael Nunn for his WBA super middleweight title. Little had just fought a draw with Merqui Sosa (19-2-1). The third sparring partner was “Prince” Charles Williams who was the IBF light heavyweight champion. Williams was trained by Tiberi’s trainer Marty Feldman. Feldman was known for training most of the tough Upper Darby (just outside of Philly) fighters. Rob “Bam Bam” Hines the then retired former IBF light middleweight champion was also available but being a southpaw would only be used early in camp. “Dave was very good, strong, could move or slug. Wasn’t what you wanted, but what he wanted to do with you,” said Hines. This is a story how fellow fighters in the same gym helped one of their own to be ready for the biggest fight in his ring career which would become even a bigger battle outside the ring!

To get away from Philly a camp that was chosen was at Split Rock Lodge in the Pocono’s where the hopes in the making of a champion would be formed each day through the grind that only a boxer knows. Mark Kondrath, Tiberi’s manager, arranged through Dennis Rappaport a deal since he had heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon up there. As mentioned earlier they would return to Champs gym prior to the fight. There Ed Mack (16-4-1) retired super middleweight (1990) and Vaughn Hook (16-0) a light heavyweight would be added as sparring partners.

Six months before the Toney fight Tiberi was quoted “One of the most important parts of my program was sparring with the best of the lot, such as Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins was there to put pressure on me and that’s exactly what he did. I also put the gloves on with IBF light heavyweight champ “Prince” Charles Williams.”

Andy Ercole, along with Jim Mulvena of All Occasion Video Productions, made the trip to Champs to film an interview with Tiberi for Ercole’s program. Mulvena later remarked “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. He looks like a machine in perpetual motion. Doesn’t he ever let up?” Ercole was also the personal manager for Tiberi since 1985.

“There is no better way to get fine-tuned for a match than to go into sparring sessions with the best. When you train around champions, I believe, you lose all your bad habits” added Tiberi. Tiberi would go from one practice session to another: jumping rope, hitting the light bag, into the ring for a few rounds of sparring, and immediately upstairs, to the third floor, to do his calisthenics. “I’d rather get hit in the gym training, than in the ring at fight time,” said Tiberi.

Hopkins and Little were there to put pressure on Tiberi like he could expect from Toney. “They weren’t there for socializing,” said Tiberi “The two of them, both friends and fellow boxers whom I respect greatly, were there to push me. No one held back. It was a full workout, all the time. Some people don’t understand that if your sparring partner is too easy on you, it will hurt you instead of help prepare you for the fight. These boxers were all professionals, well known and well respected. I put my faith and trust in them and they played a major role in preparing me for the championship,” he added.

Tiberi would be questioned in the camp about his slim chances of defeating Toney. He was asked “what does he have to defeat Toney”? “I have God. I have stamina, and I have the will to win,” said Tiberi. Friends would stop up and see Tiberi and know there was a change in him. “Dave looks so different. I’ve never seen him look this way before. Is he all right?” Others would know. “Dave seemed “locked in,” totally focused on what he had to do. He was a picture of meditation and concentration. He was a rock that Toney would not be able to penetrate. “It’s Dave’s destiny to become a champion. See the look in his eyes. That’s the look of a champion.” These were some of the comments people had when they saw him at the camp. “For the first time in his career, Dave Tiberi was not smiling.” “But he was always smiling. What’s wrong with him?”

Hopkins announced, “Dave is going to win.” Little added, “I’ve never seen Dave look so good. He’s ready to win the title.” The time without his wife Angela and his one year old daughter Alexis was more than Tiberi could stand. He knew having the support of both would make him even stronger. It was decided there would be a one day visit from them and then after 17 days he would return to Champs gym 10 days before the fight.

At champs Williams, Hooks and Mack would help with the sparring. Tiberi knew Toney could not hit as hard as Hooks and Mack or have the skills of Williams. “All the years I’ve sparred with Dave, I’ve never seen him so fast and strong,” said Mack.

The headline in the Wilmington Sunday News Journal read “Devout Christian has mean streak in ring.” He was billed as “Mr. Nice Guy. Toney’s promoter Bob Arum was telling people how this former drug dealer was voted “Fighter of the Year” in 1991 and how he loves to fight so much “That’s why I fight him so often,” said Arum. Toney told his manager Jackie Kallen, “If you don’t make a fight for me I’m going to go out in the street and pick one.”

After the brutal camp and back to Champs gym was over it was time for the weigh-in. “It’s ass-kicking time tomorrow, fool,” Toney barked as Tiberi got on the scale. 158¼ was the weight of Tiberi as he lifted his hands over his head and said “the new IBF champ”. “Where is he at? We can go fight now. We don’t have to wait until tomorrow,” said Toney. Toney played the intimidation game but Tiberi was not impressed. Tiberi’s brother, Mario in defense of his brother, said” “Don’t worry, Dave, I’ll go outside with him and straighten all this out,” he said. Tiberi knew that if Mario got in a fight with Toney there would be no fight tomorrow. “I don’t know if he thinks he’s scaring me, but these kind of tactics really inspire fighters like me,” said Tiberi. “I am so sick of his talking. The only thing he is doing is giving me a headache,” added Tiberi.

J. Russell Peltz, the former Philadelphia promoter of Tiberi’s didn’t think Tiberi had much of a chance on paper. “But you don’t fight on paper. That’s why they have what they call upsets,” said Peltz. Danny Sheridan, of the USA Today, called the fight “a virtual mismatch. Steve Farhood, then editor-in-chief of the Ring magazine said the fight could be “a pretty easy one for James Toney. They just stick him in the ratings this month. I’d be surprised if there’d be any odds on this fight at all,” said Farhood. Damon Feldman, a pro middleweight, and son of Marty, and a sometimes sparring partner of Tiberi’s said “Dave’s going to take Toney apart. Dave’s going to be too strong and too conditioned for him.” Little chimed in, “I think if the fight goes six rounds, Dave will be victorious. Conditioning is the key in this fight.” Hopkins put his two cents in. “Look for it to be a surprising fight, and boxing is unpredictable. Toney might just be sitting around now, just going through the basics, like Mike Tyson did before he fought Buster Douglas. I think Tiberi will do OK with Toney, but he’ll have to be careful, at least for the first five or six rounds. Toney’s really strong.”

“Mario was always motivational and positive before a fight,” said Tiberi. “Having been in the ring himself, he knew what I felt like, what I needed at that particular time. He told me that not everybody gets the opportunity that I had. That I was in good shape and when I beat Toney I would be set,” said Tiberi. “He said as long as I did what I had done in training camp Toney was not going to be able to keep up with me,” Tiberi added.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am really living 4:13 (Philippians), and I really can do all things. People think I was joking when I said I have a two-to-one advantage because I have the Lord with me when I go in that ring. They laughed, but I seriously meant it. I didn’t say it to tickle everybody’s ear,” said Tiberi.

Jackie Kallen, Toney’s manager was being shadowed by Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers. According to his article she spots Frank Garza, a judge for the fight, from Michigan. “Hey, it’s great seeing you again,” she says, schmoozing as she switches to her manager’s hat. “I hope you won’t need to catch our fight. But if you do, I know you’ll see it our way.”

In the hotel room Team Tiberi sat quietly. “Let’s do it”, said Tiberi. The five walked toward the elevator heading down from the 5th floor. Marty (Feldman) was telling Dave to do what he had to do to win. “You’re in the best condition ever. This guy won’t be able to hang with you,” said Feldman. Mario (Tiberi) and Mark Kondrath (manager) reminded Dave how well he sparred with Little, Hopkins and Williams. “This guy couldn’t stand in there with them,” said Mario. Last but not least was Eddie (Aliano) the world’s best cut man.

It was the Michigan bad boy, “Lights Out” Toney against Delaware’s “Punching Preacher,” Dave Tiberi. The bout was held at the Taj Mahal’s Mark G. Etess Arena, in Atlantic City and would be viewed by millions of ABC-TV viewers. The commentators Alex Wallau and Dan Dierdorf were building up Toney like it was going to be a walk in the park for the IBF champion. Hundreds of TNT Tiberi fans had taken their seats. Fan club president Janet Hubbs sold out the Tiberi T-shirts within minutes of her arrival. Tiberi’s parents Helen and Mario, Sr. were in the 3rd row of the bleachers among the many TNT fans.

Rev. Steve Hare sat with Tiberi as they bowed their heads in prayer. As the boxer and spiritual adviser hugged each other it was now “fight time”. The Rocky theme was blaring as they entered the arena. Tiberi was accompanied by 7 of his 11 brothers, Mario, Nick, Gene, Poncho, Phil, John, and Joe. The Lucky 7! The fans jumped up from their seats shouting “TNT”, TNT”! In came Toney with rap music that was drowned out by the many Tiberi fans. Tiberi’s white trunks bore a small red cross. Toney’s black trunks bore a Star of David in tribute to his manager.

Toney danced over to get in the face of Tiberi. Already you knew the referee would have his hands full. Michael Buffer did the introducing of the fighters. “Let’s get ready to rumble”. After the referee’s instructions the bell rang to start the battle for the belt. Tiberi was aggressive wanting to make Toney work knowing he couldn’t keep up with him. Just before the bell Toney rocked Tiberi who was against the ropes. Toney knew how to steal a round. In the 2nd round, Toney who likes to fight in spurts was not allowed any breathing room by Tiberi. This round was close with Toney again finishing with a flurry. Once again he probably won the judges over though Wallau felt Tiberi may have won the round. “This is another Philly gym war for Tiberi,” said Wallau.

In the 3rd round with about a minute to go Tiberi caught Toney. “He was definitely wobbled there by a man with absolutely no power,” said Wallau. “Toney remarkably looks tired. There’s no other way to describe it,” said Dierdorf. Had Toney figured he could pull this fight off in a couple of rounds? Had he taken Tiberi too lightly? In the 4th round the tide was turning as Tiberi continued pressure was more than Toney could keep up with. To Toney’s surprise Tiberi could take a punch and was much faster than he ever visualized.

In the 5th round whenever Toney would put a couple of punches together and stop, Tiberi was all over him. It was another good round by Tiberi as he was closing the gap. In the 6th round as Tiberi had Toney out on his feet when it appeared there was a problem with his gloves. The referee sent him to his corner due to a rip in a glove for replacement. To the surprise of all Toney was allowed to sit on his stool. Where was the New Jersey commissioner Larry Hazzard? Why did referee Palmer allow this? Everyone knows the opposing fighter has to take a neutral corner. “Though we didn’t stop him, in reality we did in the 6th round,” said Feldman. Due to a hip operation Feldman couldn’t climb the steps. After a delay the referee insisted on the other glove being changed as well. What was going on here? Toney was getting a needed five minute rest sitting down and even getting water. Right on national television one of the basic rules was being broken. The fans were going nuts!

In the 6th round the referee again stopped the action and suddenly without a warning took a point away from Tiberi for low blows. The fans let him know how out and out wrong this call was against Tiberi. This would give Toney the edge at the halfway point. It was the referee’s first title bout and it showed. In the 7th round it was all Tiberi with Toney being driven to the ropes by a head shot. It was anyone’s fight on the scorecards but Tiberi certainly had the fight under control at this point.

Going into the 8th round Wallau commented “I’ve got him (Tiberi) 4 points ahead. It looks like Toney’s body is betraying him”. Both fighters were trading punches at the bell. As the round had ended and as the referee stepped in between the fighters he was caught by a Toney punch and though wobbled didn’t go down. Could he hurt Tiberi if he couldn’t put the referee down? It looked like Tiberi had forged ahead on the scoring of this fight from a fan’s viewpoint. He had continued the pressure and Toney was having all he could do just to keep up with Tiberi. In the 9th round Wallu commented “we are getting to a point where Toney needs a knockout to win”. This round was more of the same with Tiberi simply outworking Toney.

In the 10th round Tiberi continued to stay inside Toney not giving him any punching room. Toney was just glad to have someone to lean on. Before the start of the 11th round Kondrath told Tiberi “Dave, two more rounds and you’re world champion.” It was more of Tiberi getting over on Toney with the thought of knockout going through his mind. This is one sport where there is no scoreboard and you don’t know what’s going through the judges minds. Normally in an IBF title bout the officials are all from New Jersey. For this one a judge from Toney’s state of Michigan and one from Illinois were allowed.

The two boxers came into the center of the ring for the final round, with the customary touching of the gloves. Toney instead reached over and tried to sucker punch Tiberi. If a point should have been deducted this was the time. “A real act of desperation by a man who, by our account here at ringside, is three minutes away from having his IBF middleweight title take away,” said Dierdorf. Tiberi again was in control with just over a minute left in the fight when the referee stepped in to again checking Tiberi’s gloves. While the referee was checking the gloves, Toney walked to his corner seemingly dragging his one leg. Did he think the fight was over or just looking for a seat? Was this another sign of an inexperience referee or from where the Tiberi fans were looking was the referee allowing Toney to finish the fight on his feet? In the final 15 seconds the fighters were toe to toe at the bell.

The Tiberi fans were causing bedlam as they were hugging each other and celebrating for their fighter who just seemed to have pulled off one of the biggest upsets in boxing. This writer had given Tiberi the last nine rounds with the 6th round even due to the point deduction putting it into Tiberi’s favor 116-111. Even though having experienced the worst decision I had ever seen in November of 1976 having Tyrone Everett ahead by eleven points only to hear “we have a split decision” as Alfredo Escalera stole the win right in Everett’s hometown of Philly, it never prepared me for what I was about to hear.

“When we were celebrating in the ring before the decision, Ron Katz, the matchmaker came over to me and said just take the rematch,” said Kondrath. “I asked him what he was talking about. How did he know ahead of time the decision,” added Kondrath.

The announcer Buffer read off New Jersey judge Frank Brunette’s score of 117-11 in favor of Tiberi. The entire arena went crazy. “When Buffer hesitated, after reading my name, I started to get concerned,” said Tiberi. Then Buffer read the score of the Illinois judge Bill Lerch, of 115-112 in favor of Toney. The place erupted with boos and curses. This meant it came down to Michigan’s judge Frank Garza from Toney’s home state. “I suddenly was in a fog. I couldn’t believe it,” said Tiberi. The Buffer says “Frank Garza scores the bout 115-111 (later changed to 115-112), for the winner by a split decision and still IBF middleweight champion of the world, James “Lights Out“ Toney.” “TNT, TNT” the arena started chanting. There were no cheers for Toney. The two judges who sold out to Toney were no where to be found. They probably left before the scores were announced. The words “fix” was going through the crowd! Donald Trump was at ringside and reaching up to tell Tiberi he had been robbed. His Taj Mahal switchboard operators were starting to receive callers by the thousands. “We knew we got screwed,” said Feldman. “He got robbed”, said Hines.

In the ring the commentator Wallau stated “we’re back in the ring, after what has to be, in my opinion, one of the most disgusting decisions I’ve ever seen.” He turned to Toney asked him if he honestly thought he won. Quite annoyed at the question, Toney said “yeah, I did. I don’t know what the hell you were looking at. All you guys out there, you gotta be a bunch of fools.” Wallau then turned to Tiberi for his comment. “I thought it was a great fight,” said Tiberi. “James is a great fighter. I thought I pulled it out. I did my best. It was a lot of hard work. I did everything I could to be a world champion…,.” said Tiberi. “I agree with you,” said Wallau. “I think I was deprived,” added Tiberi.

At the press conference many of the Tiberi people were there. Kallen, was representing Toney who was nowhere to be found. Arum was upset when Kondrath wouldn’t agree to an immediate rematch. Bob Lee, IBF president was asked about who won the fight. “I don’t know, I wasn’t watching,” said Lee. Maybe that’s why he was later investigated and no longer in boxing. Tiberi’s many fans in the hallway were still yelling when Kallen was trying to speak. Tiberi had to calm them down in order for her to be heard.

Kallen claimed Toney had been suffering from dehydration because he had gained too much weight during a holiday cruise. She added he had to starve himself days before the fight. “I give a 100% to your man. He fought a great fight,” said Kallen. “If anybody gained from tonight it was the Dave Tiberi camp. He showed the country the kind of heart and stamina he really has,” added Kallen. Toney had just fought two months earlier and had two more title defenses scheduled so that excuse of Toney not being in shape was weak at best. (Toney fought two months later in April and then in May)

Trump was heard saying “there’ll be no more boxing in Atlantic City until this decision is rectified.” All boxing people know how solid a statement that was. It wouldn’t be long before that was all forgotten by Trump and boxing continued.

“I will never, ever forget the look on Dave Tiberi’s face when the decision was announced that he had lost to James Toney. Tiberi smothered Toney against the ropes and kicked his butt throughout the fight. The utter disbelief which swept through the Taj Mahal that evening reverberated throughout the boxing world. Ultimately, this investigation, aided by Tiberi, led to the Boxing Safety Act in 1997. Because of the values, dignity and principals of Dave Tiberi, boxing is a much better sport today. Indeed, he retired after that fight in total disgust. This was an article from Ted Sares who added “I’ll never forget it as one of the most shameful moments in boxing history”.

Tiberi was talking with his brother-in-law Joe Tucci, who had married his sister Theresa. “I felt like my heart was taken out of me when they did that tonight,” said Tiberi. “It was the only reference to how bad he felt,” said Tucci. Tiberi spent the entire night being very gracious to the many family members and fans. He was the perfect gentleman, not cutting anyone off. The pain and internal anger he must have felt never came to the surface. Tiberi is a person who walked the talk. It may never be known if he knew that night he would never fight again. The first offer from Arum of $250,000 fell on deaf ears. By April it was $500,000. “I just want justice, not your money,” said Tiberi.

Hazzard would claim the boxing people were split with the decision. U.S.A. Boxing News had it 114-113 Toney. They would show three pictures of the fight and in each one Toney was hitting Tiberi. Like Trump, Hazzard soon changed his tune and proclaimed the Tiberi camp had sour grapes. Wide World of Sports refused to replay the fight.

“If he doesn’t fight another fight, I’ll be happy,” said Angela. “What disturbed me was how a few people wouldn’t give him the credit he was due. He proves them wrong and he still doesn’t get his due. She was asked if he decided to fight again would she support his decision. “I’d support him, but I would have a hard time if he wanted to fight in a rematch. It’s nerve-racking being married to a fighter, but Dave is a good and wonderful, God-fearing man,” she added.

Always supporting the Tiberi’s would be their personal manager since 1985, Andy Ercole. Numerous quotes in this story came from the book that Ercole and Ed Okonowicz wrote called “TIBERI - The Uncrowned Champion,” published by the Jared Company, Wilmington, Delaware in 1992. It is an excellent read.

“The Bible doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. It says “the love of money is the root of all evil,” said Tiberi. “In every area of our lives we need accountability,” he added.

Tiberi’s next battle was through Delaware’s U.S. Senator William V. Roth. The influential member of Congress and ranking minority member of the U.S. Senate permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was disturbed by what he saw on live telecast. This would open up a can of worms. Senator John McCain of Arizona would also give his support for what was named the Muhammad Ali Act. It ended up a water downed version of the original when Senator Harry Reid of Nevada put a stop to it. Years later Reid would be reprimanded for taking free tickets from the Nevada promoters. There is quite a bit to cover but that is for another story and another time.

On May 17th being inducted into the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame will be Philadelphia’s former IBF light middleweight champion Rob “Bam Bam” Hines, Eddie “Clot” Aliano, world renowned cut man, and Dave “TNT” Tiberi, the pride of New Castle, Delaware!

It would not surprise me if Bernard Hopkins and “Prince” Charles Williams along with Marty Feldman were in attendance. Oh, by the way, there will be a ticket at the door for James “Lights Out” Toney. Maybe he’ll bring “Daves” belt.

Ken at:

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