January 1, 2014

KO Digest Interview: Mike Weaver - "I wasn't afraid to fight anybody"

Hercules Unleashed 
As time passes and the years overturn, many of the names we used to know blend into one, fading from an important fixture in boxing’s present to a distant memory in its rich past, often prompting us to ask “where did he go?” Although exorbitant amounts of money can be made in boxing, true superstars and cross-culture celebrities are few and far between. Some fighters shrivel up, in and out of the public eye, unable to cope with their fights in life outside the ring, be it a brawl with financial demons or their personal lives. Others, like former heavyweight champion Mike Weaver, carry on outside the ring quietly and privately, in stark contrast to the high powered and thrilling style that epitomized many of his fights in a professional career that spanned 28 years. Younger fans of the sport may only recognize Weaver as an aging aberration of a warrior, taking fights against future champions like Lennox Lewis at age 40, and against Larry Holmes in 2000 at 49 when the old foes’ combined age reached the century mark. But before his prime had passed, Weaver was a fighter with a fearsome Herculean physique, a powerful conqueror who sparred with the likes of Ken Norton and battled notable names such as Larry Holmes, Michael Dokes, and John Tate, holding the WBA heavyweight title from 1980-1983.

By his own admission, Weaver, who never considered boxing before a chance encounter in the Marines, didn't take the sport seriously when he was young, even in the professional ranks, until advice from influential figures like Norton spurred him to achieve his potential and capitalize on his freakish build and considerable skills. That, combined with decisions like a pair of fights against Dokes (controversial first round TKO loss and a draw) and a 14-8 record from June of 1985, may create the appearance to some that Weaver’s career was unfulfilled. However, as Weaver candidly proclaims, he was never afraid to take on anyone, and in an age where the fights that don’t happen in boxing are often more notable than those that do, Weaver’s outstanding career and championship personality are deserving of admiration.

KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: In the late 60's and early 70's, you served as a United States Marine. What were your experiences like in the Marines, and how have they shaped you in the years following your duty? Did your time in the Marines as a teen help contribute to your fantastic fighting physique that you maintained throughout your career?

The Marines made a man out of Mike
Mike Weaver: The Marine Corp toughened me up. I was called a lot of names in boot camp. There was a lot of physical work. But my physique didn’t come from the Marine Corps. That came from my father’s genes, he was well built. All my life, I was well built. The Marines helped, but it was in my genes. When I went into the Marine Corps at 17 years old, my goal was a career in the Marines. I was going to be there for twenty, thirty years.
I didn’t want to turn out like some of my friends. I wanted to be a positive image with the plan of staying in the Marines, but unfortunately—or fortunately, I got into boxing. I was always into sports, but boxing was a thing I hated growing up.

KOD: Why did you hate boxing and how did your outlook change on it?

MW: My father used to watch the fights at night, and we hated watching boxing and wrestling. Then I got into a fight in the Marines. I went to a club and tried to play a song on the jukebox. I got there before this other guy and he pushed me out of the way. I shoved him back and he swung at me and he missed. I swung back and knocked him out. Two days later, they asked me if I was interested in joining the boxing team. I said “I never boxed a day in my life. I don’t know the first thing about boxing.” He said, “the guy you knocked out in the club was the heavyweight champion of the Marine Corps.” So that’s the way it started.

KOD: Your ring nickname in boxing was “Hercules” and if the story is true, that wasn’t a nickname you gave yourself like many fighters do, but rather, it was bestowed upon you by the late great Fighting Marine Ken Norton. True?

Friend, mentor, and Marine Ken Norton 
MW: Correct. I was sparring with Ken back in 1972, and he used to say “Here comes Hercules!” or “Hercules unleashed!” and I'd think: “why does this guy call me Hercules? He’s bigger than I am.” I hadn’t seen Kenny for probably two years before he passed, but we stayed friends throughout the years. The nickname stayed with me.

KOD: The biggest test early in your career, at least in retrospect, was against Larry Holmes. You were a big underdog in 1979, but gave Holmes a battle from start to finish before succumbing to a TKO in the 12th round. 
Did being an underdog motivate you in that fight?

MW: Before Holmes, Norton once told me, “Mike, if you take fights more seriously, you can do something.” In the fight with Larry Holmes, I told everybody—I might not beat Larry Holmes—but I'll give him a good fight! I respect Holmes as a great champion, and as far as giving him a good fight, I believe that’s what I did.

KOD: Is taking fights seriously something you didn’t do before?

MW: I never took fights seriously. If I trained, I wouldn’t run. If I’d run, I wouldn’t train. I maybe went to the gym once a week. I was young. I never drank, smoked or did drugs, but I liked girls. I liked to toy with people I knew like my brothers, and I wouldn’t put my full stuff into training. My brothers started boxing after I came home from service in the Marine Corps. Next thing I know, they were following me, running around, and they were boxing.
They always followed me into everything that I did.

KOD: So let’s fast forward two decades. The 51-year-old Holmes and a 49-year-old Weaver fight a rematch 21 years after their first encounter. How did the second battle in 2000 compare to the first one all those years ago in 1979?

MW: Well, I was at work and I got a call from promoter Harold Smith, “you want to fight Larry Holmes again?” I said “man, I ain’t fought in who knows how long. I’m out of shape.” But, they said they’d give me $50,000, so I took it! It didn’t compare to the first fight. I was not in shape to take on anybody, but I took the fight for the payday at the time. After I was past my prime, I was just fighting because they asked me if I wanted to fight. At the end, it was nothing but a little chump change, but I was doing it because I could do it. I do regret that I didn’t take fighting seriously at the beginning of my career, but that’s gone and I can’t do anything about that now.

Weaver falls to Holmes in the 12th
KOD: How good was Holmes compared to other fighters you fought?

MW: Larry Holmes was the best fighter I fought. He’s one of the top five greatest heavyweights of all time. He’s better than anyone else I ever fought. There is no comparison. Holmes had that great left jab, a good right hand, and he was just a great all-around boxer and fighter.

KOD: Another fight towards the end of your career was Lennox Lewis. You were 40 when you fought the prospect in 1991 in his 16th pro fight, but how strong a foe was Lewis? Did you know he was destined for great things?

MW: Yes. After I fought Lennox, he called me to work with him and spar with him to prepare for Razor Ruddock. We went to London for eight or nine weeks, and I told him he would be champion one day. I was 40 and he was 25. I hadn’t fought in a while and I trained only a week or two for the fight. One possibility was that I could knock him out, but if somebody asked me about how I would do against Lennox, I would say “I’ll do my best,” but deep down inside, I knew I wasn’t going to hang with him at that point in my life. I took the fight for money.

Tate was confident of victory but so was Weaver
KOD: As a young challenger in 1980, you were a 2-1 underdog against WBA heavyweight champion John Tate, and you were losing on points as the fight entered the 15th and final round. Take us through the fight, how you adjusted, and ultimately pulled out the victory by knockout to win the title.

MW: I always thought before the fight that I would beat Tate. I told everybody I would knock him out, but I didn’t know it would be in the last round. I was behind, and my manager said I needed to knock him out to win the fight. I said “that’s OK, I can knock him out,” and that’s what I did. I knew Tate was tired, more so than I was. All I needed was one shot. I still thought I was going to do that, and in the 14th round he was hurt. I never gave up. I knew I'd have a chance to knock him out sooner or later. Winning the title was very emotional for me because I wasn’t supposed to beat Tate. Tate had signed a fight with Muhammad Ali for five million dollars—it was already signed. They overlooked me. I was then in a position to fight Ali. He told me he would fight me, then he fought Larry Holmes instead.

The one that got away
KOD: There was a tentative agreement to meet Gerry Cooney in October 1981, a fight that almost materialized, but your next opponent wound up being James Tillis. Was this largely to do with keeping the title, something with the sanctioning body (the WBA), or something else? Would you have liked to have defended against Cooney?

MW: We had signed the fight, but the WBA came in and said they would strip me of my title. My manager said I should fight Cooney anyway, but I wasn’t going to fight him without the title. We offered Tillis more to step aside and let me and Cooney fight with the winner to fight him, but he wanted to fight me. I wish I could have fought Gerry Cooney. I never got in the ring without thinking I could beat somebody, I would have fought anybody. I wanted that fight and I thought it would have been a great fight.

KOD: You held the WBA title for a few years in the early 1980s. Back then, do you think that the heavyweight title and boxing titles as a whole meant more than they do in the present state of the sport, where it seems like there's a belt for everything at every level?

MW: Back in my day, there were less belts, but I’m not going to say today’s fighters are less than they used to be. I won’t put a fighter down. They have a belt, they won the belt, so I think it’s the same thing. I don’t really know any of the heavyweights today other than the Klitschkos, because we don’t follow the heavyweights anymore. It's sad. Somewhere along the line, the American heavyweights just dropped out of the picture. I’m not going to say anything negative about that, because I can't but sometimes I wish I was around today because of the money.  

KOD: In 1982 and 1983, you fought a pair of battles against Michael Dokes. The first fight ended in a controversial first round stoppage and cost you your WBA title. The second fight resulted in a disputed 15-round draw which allowed Dokes to hold onto the title. Looking back on those fights, is there anything you would have done differently?

Weaver got a raw deal in the loss to Dokes
MW: I knew the odds were against me. Don King, the judges, the referee was against me—I wasn’t going to win that first fight anyway. I remember a guy told me before the fight that they’re going to stop the fight with Dokes the first chance they get. The referee that refereed that fight, Joe Curtis, bet on the fight for Dokes to win in the first round, so that's why we got a rematch. That fight was all politics. The referee actually bet on Dokes to win the fight! A lot of people don’t know that.

KOD: You mentioned referee Joe Curtis. One of the interesting anecdotes about the fight in his comments afterwards was in regards to the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s pre-fight meeting. The first Dokes fight was about one month after Duk Koo Kim’s fatal fight against Ray Mancini, and Curtis claims that the NSAC stressed that fight so much that he believes he may have overreacted by stopping your fight with that recent tragedy in the back of his mind. Now, based off incidents like that and the deterioration of fighters following their careers like Muhammad Ali, title fights have been reduced from fifteen rounds to twelve. What’s your take on the length of championship fights?

MW: I liked fifteen rounds. Those were the championship rounds. The heavyweight championship of the world should be fifteen rounds. The referee talked about the Duk Koo Kim fight, but I really felt that was just an excuse.

Weaver today at 62
KOD: Regardless of circumstances, which fighter that you never stepped into the ring with would you have most liked to have gotten the chance to fight, but didn't?

MW: It didn’t matter who I was fighting. There was nobody I wouldn’t fight or that I was afraid to fight. If people came to me and said “will you fight this guy?” I would say “yes!” There were fights I never fought that just didn't come through, like Renaldo Snipes or Tim Witherspoon, and fighters I was never asked about fighting, but there was nobody out there in particular that I wanted to fight.

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli 

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio. Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.  

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli