|Mike Tyson’s conqueror Henry Tillman Was Gold Medal Winner! - Interview
Interview by Ken Hissner, Doghouse Boxing (Sept 9, 2009)
If you think growing up on the East Side of Los Angeles you had to be tough to walk the streets, how about getting into the ring twice with Mike Tyson in order to “qualify” for the 1984 Olympics? Then in the Olympic finals you had to beat Canada’s Willie DeWitt who you already lost to twice. This is exactly what Henry Tillman had to do.
“I fought a lot of tough amateur fights even though I only had 30-40 of them,” said Tillman. In 1983 he got to the finals of the Pan Am Games in Caracas before losing to the Cuban Aurelio Toyo to earn the Silver medal.
Upon turning professional Mercer Smith was still Tillman’s trainer while Donald Zuckerman took over as his manager. Tillman turned professional in December of 1984 in Houston. On the card were 1984 Olympian Frank Tate and from the 1976 team Chuck Walker. Tillman was not signed by Houston Boxing Association (HBA) but had a working agreement with them. The 1984 team had trained on owner Josephine Abercrombie’s ranch in Gonzales, Texas. He scored a 2nd round stoppage over future IBF cruiserweight champion Uriah Grant (1-0).
In Tillman’s fifth fight he defeated veteran Leroy Caldwell (27-29-5) in 6 rounds. Caldwell retired from boxing after this bout. In Tillman’s ninth fight he defeated cruiserweight contender Reggie Gross (17-3) over 10 rounds in Atlantic City. Gross had won his last three fights. In two of them he defeated two unbeaten fighters, Jimmy Clark (only pro loss) and “Smokin” Bert Cooper. “This was a good learning fight for me,” said Tillman.
Next up in April of 1986 was the Nigerian Bash Ali (29-9) for the NABF cruiserweight title in Las Vegas. Tillman stopped his opponent in the first round scoring one knockdown. Ali had gone the distance in a 1984 WBC title attempt and was on a 6 fight win streak prior to the Tillman bout. Two months later Tillman suffered his first defeat at the hands of Cooper (11-1) over 12 rounds and lost his NABF title. “I was down twice in the 2nd round. Cooper’s punches were like bullets,” said Tillman.
Tillman got right back in the ring two months later and won 4 straight, 3 by knockouts earning a title bout with fellow 1984 teammate Evander Holyfield (13-0) for his WBA cruiserweight title in Reno. He had a new trainer in Henry Grooms. “I’m not saying I would have beaten him but I had to lose too much weight,” said Tillman. Tillman was stopped in the 7th round. This would be his last cruiserweight fight.
Four months and 44 pounds later, Tillman stopped former top amateur Wood Clark (6-10-1) in the 7th round. Two more wins in the next two months and Tillman would meet the former 1974 AAU champion Dwain Bonds (13-14-2) in Las Vegas. Tillman found himself on the canvas in the 1st and 7th rounds and not able to come out for the 8th. “I wasn’t in proper shape for that fight,” said Tillman.
It would be four months before fighting again and to go to Canada to fight Willie DeWitt (19-1-1) didn’t seem to make a lot of sense but that’s what he did. “I knew I wasn’t going to beat him except by knockout,” said Tillman. This was the same DeWitt who Tillman lost to twice before defeating in 1984 for the Olympic Gold Medal. This would be DeWitt’s last fight though winning the decision. I understand he became a lawyer. The judges had it 2, 4 and 6 points with the advantage to DeWitt.
Tillman would be off for twenty-one months before coming back in December of 1989 and again posting three wins in three months. That seemed to be the pattern and then fight a top fighter. In this case it would be his old amateur foe, Mike Tyson (37-1). Even at 20-4 this was not the same Tillman that defeated Tyson twice in the amateurs. This was Tyson’s first fight back after losing his title to James “Buster” Douglas and he was looking to make a statement! Tyson stopped Tillman at 2:47 of the 1st round. “He was like a beast! People didn’t recognize his hand speed,” said Tillman.
Just two months later Tillman started another streak of 5 wins and he would later tell me that one of those wins was over probably the toughest guy he fought and it wasn’t Holyfield or Tyson. “I beat Mark Lee (29-16-1) who was a big tough guy. He lied (knocked down) on the canvas in the 6th round with his eyes open. I was ready to take my gloves off. I was tired and almost pissed myself when he got up,” said Tillman. He would go on to win a lopsided decision over Lee.
It was September of 1992 and Tillman was fighting Terry “Turbo” Davis, (28-3-2) for the NBA Continental Americas title. Three of Davis’ last four fights were in Florida with this one being held in Fort Lauderdale. Tillman was stopped in the 7th round ending his 8 year career at 25-6 (16). “I thought this is it,” said Tillman.
I asked Tillman to talk about his 1984 Olympic teammates. Tyrell Biggs would impersonate Rodney Dangerfield and Ali. Virgil Hill was a fighter that was never taken off his game plan. Frank Tate was cool and Motor City. Mark Breland was smooth and soft spoken. Pernell Whitaker was too cool with his hat tilted. Meldrick Taylor seemed so young (17). Robert Shannon was cool and a good puncher. Steve McCrory would say “get the shackles off my feet”. Some of his teammates had this to say about Tillman. Biggs: Very difficult to beat due to his style. Breland: Nice guy and a real hard worker. Shannon: I really liked him. Gonzales: Great guy. Like a brother from the hood. The trainer for the Pan American Games Tillman won the silver in, Joe Clough, said “I trained Lonnie Gray who was locked up with Tillman. Gray could fight but was a bad boy outside. Tillman was good people to me. I did a lot of coaching with him at the Olympic Training Center. He was good friends with Virgil Hill”.
“Ali and “Sugar” Ray Robinson were my favorite fighters,” said Tillman. During our interview we were interrupted once because “I have to now I’m on my Harley, talk to you later,” said Tillman. I can see him now on that Harley with his Olympic Gold Medal jacket on riding off into the sunset!
e-mail Ken at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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