Usually they land airplanes on the deck of this aircraft carrier. Today it was a runway for dreams.
The halt and lame of America's boxing subculture - the lightweight pugs who never made more than $150 in a fight, the ancient managers with few teeth, the once promising youngsters suddenly old and still unknown - came here today when the King crocked his finger. Don King, that is.
The millionaire fight promoter, who claims the Ohio penitentiary at Marion for his "alma mater," sat in regal repose today, decked in red satin shoes, a white satin tuxedo and a snowwhite mink coat, and watched the first halting steps of his brainchild, "The U.S. Boxing Tournament of Champions."
For Larry Holmes, Irish Bobby Cassidy, Mike (King Cobra) Colbert, Randy Shields, Johnny Sullivan and Walt (The Fighting Leprechaun) Seely - the guys who won here today and advanced to the semifinals of the hunt for King's U.S. pro titles, it was a red-letter day. For all six it was the biggest payday of their hard, bruised lives.
Sullivan said it best after outpointing Paddy Dolan in a completely styleless, blood-and-guts lightweight pier nine brawl: "Six months ago I was ready to fight this guy for $200. Today I win $7,500.
"Hey, I'd have done this for nothin' just to be on national TV," said Sullivan, wiping the blood from nose and mouth with a taped right hand that doctors tell him was broken six weeks ago. "I'm a telephone repairman. Dolan's a garbageman. This is our hobby. I broke my hand in a tougher fight back home in Monahan's bar."
For the people of Pensacola, Fla., a town whose life blood is this naval base and this carrier, the day was a civic triumph, a flawless show on a brilliant sunny afternoon with the old gray Lex gleaming.
For the 3,000 Navy men and their families who watched the 48 rounds of fighting over four hours, it was a gripping day. Three of the bouts were unpolished donnybrooks that one ensign decreed were "better than anything we get into down at Trader John's topless place on Seville Street."
Two other fights were complete mismatches, yet the battered underdogs - heavyweight Tom Prater and middleweight Jackie Smith - got the only standing ovations of the day - for lasting the full eight rounds in gory defiance of Holmes and Colbert, the only two potential world-class fighters on display here today.
Perhaps the best battle was a card-opening featherweight scrap that Seely won from Hilbert Stevenson before many folks had found their seats.
For Seely, the battered veteran whose age is somewhere in excess of 32, it was the "proudest day of my life . . . I did 600 miles of roadwork since last July. I knew I had to be in the shape of my career 'cause this tournament's got some helluva fighters. I did my homework and I had my day."
ABC-TV paid $1.5 million for the rights to televise this six-month elimination tournament. Despite all the summoning up of courage and anger on this flight deck today, there was not a single knockdown, much less a knockout in any of the six bouts. "And you know that's what the people want to see," said ABC producer Chet Forte. "But I thought it was a good show anyway."
Many wise old heads here wondered if television could capsulize the heart and soul that these retreads displayed in a mere one-hour digest. In fact, Joe Louis decreed five of the fights "not really much." He liked Holmes, the heavyweight many thought was the disappointment of the day, but called Holmes' victim - Prater - his favorite. "He's got the heart," said the former heavyweight champion. "He just can't fight."
For the dozen fighters today, greatness was not the question. Each in his own heart gave up the hope of greatness long ago or he would not be in this tournament. They merely wanted to be a credit to themselves.
"You always think of yourself as small," said featherweight Seely. "The other guy in the ring always looks huge. He sure did today."
The practical-looking Sullivan won a split decision from the choir-boyish Dolan. The one woman judge here, Eve Shane, scored the fight 6-2 (very onesided) for Dolan. "I think," said Sullivan, "she voted for him 'cause she liked his pretty trunks."
Sullivan, who had fought for only one purse over $150 in his life, was the most jubilant and unexpected winner. "I broke my hand six weeks ago," he said. "The day before I found out about this fight. I was tending bar in Monahan's and this guy tried to hit me with a pool stick.
"We went outside but when I was on the step above him he was still taller than me, so I sucker-punched him. Didn't think he'd get up, so I didn't kick him. Shoulda. Boy did he have a hard head when he got up.
"Second time I grabbed him by his pony tail and kicked him a few times. When he came to, he came in and bought me a drink and gave me $2 tip. It's tough being a small fighter, like bein' a gunfighter."
Shields' decision over Juan Cantres was distinguished only by a unique experience - the first match in boxing history to be stopped momentarily in mid-round by an aircraft carrier chiming "One bell."
Manager Paddy Flood even told his 5-foot-1 lefty to "fake it for two rounds, then come out to win." And Seely did, jumping back, them jumping in with flurrying combos to get the unaminous decision.
Cassidy-vs.-Willie Taylor was a classic match between two determined journeymen. Taylor was a bull, while Cassidy obeyed the 6-foot high sign pointed on the Lex's hull: "Think."
Cassidy, a bluebird tattooed on his biceps, proved early on that he was a man who could miss with either hand, but gradually he built up points by bouncing combos off Taylor's ever-approaching forehead.
"I didn't have time to worry about zip - the wind or nothin' - with that beast in front of me. Strongest guy I ever fought. He walked right through my jab. Did I ever even stagger him? Jeez, he loosened my bridge work," said the 32-year-old lefty whose life would be a fair real-life approximation of the new movie "Rocky."
"But he's a gentleman. A lotta black fighters try, to intimidate you before the fight. But when he heard the decision he said, 'I think I won, but I wish you luck.'"
Middleweight Colbert and Holmes were bitterly disappointed with their victories.
They were to be the showstoppers, the stars of the future, the people who made this show a hit. Colbert, with a physique worthy of anyone, swarmed all over 22-year-old Rickie Smith, hitting him at will for two rounds.The Pensacola paper's prediction that "Smith's college degree will only mean that when Colbert knocks his brains out they'll be twice as much to sweep up" seemed a certainty.
But Smith wouldn't drop. The crowd roared, "Where are the strings? What's holdin' him up," "get the nets. This boy's gotta get knocked overboard." But by the eight-round the mob was standing for Smith, rooting for him to go the distance with the undeteated buzz saw Colbert.
Holmes, 23-0, had an even bigger edge over Prater - in size, reach and power. But Holmes once again proved that he was given a warrior's body but a civilian's heart.
"He's a nice jab, but he won't follow it up," said Louis. "His uppercut is mean, but he don't throw that enough either."
By the sixth round, Holmes, who hadn't fought in nine months, was languishing on the ropes for breath, letting the short-armed Prater, who should never have penetrated Holmes' jab, poured to the body.
Holmes' corner bellowed "Dance, Larry, you big ape. Dance . . . Time to close the show up." But Holmes couldn't. Television was cheated of the one knockout Forte thought it was sure of.
Yet, like all these underdogs here this day, the men who have never found the limelight they sought before and perhaps never will again, Prater somehow thought he should have won. "I got a lotta work to do," he said. "I want to be champion so bad." And then he cried. CAPTION:
Picture 1, The USS Lexington is tied up at the pier at Pensacola, Fla., for boxing matches being held in a ring on the flight deck. The Don King production drew 3,000 fans. AP; Picture 2, Johnny Sullivan and Paddy Dolan, UPI; Picture 3, Walt Seely attacks Hilbert Stevenson. AP