In a split decision that drew chanted obscenities from the crowd, Larry Holmes retained his World Boxing Council heavyweight championship for the 15th time by surviving a near-disastrous ninth round and hanging on to beat young Tim Witherspoon, who shouted into the night when he heard the decision, "He's nothing, man, nothing."
The World Boxing Association half of the title still belongs to Michael Dokes, thanks to a majority-decision draw tonight with Mike Weaver, and No. 1-ranked Greg Page made himself the next WBC title contender with a unanimous decision over No. 2 Renaldo Snipes.
One judge made Witherspoon the winner, 115-114, in the 12-round bout. But the other two scored it for Holmes, 118-111 and 115-113, giving the undefeated champion his 43rd--and most controversial--victory.
"I definitely won," said Witherspoon, a 25-year-old Philadelphian who hadn't lost in 15 previous fights and was so sure of victory tonight that he did Ali-esque dancing/clowning/taunting near the end. "Larry Holmes is the champion, he's 42-0, and it's hard for the judges to judge the fight. But I know I won.
"Larry Holmes is a great champion, but I think I'm better. He was hurt in every round, but he came back. I wasn't hurt, I wasn't tired. He was the one who was hurt. I'm the uncrowned champion.
"To tell the truth, I had fun. I wish he would give me a rematch before he retires."
"I'm not going to get into dispute with Tim Witherspoon," said Holmes, who sat beside the challenger at a press conference after the fight. "I feel the young man put on a good fight. I admit Tim Witherspoon gave me more than I anticipated. He was a little stronger, and maybe I'm going down a litttle.
"A couple years ago, a couple fights ago, this man wouldn't have worn my socks.
"My corner, my friends, my trainer, my brother wouldn't lie to me. They all told me I won the decision. Witherspoon gave his best, I gave my best, and it was up to the judges to decide."
Tonight, maybe not the socks, but Witherspoon nearly wore Holmes' crown. Always a good defensive fighter, Witherspoon came to work with a peek-a-boo defense that confounded Holmes. The former all-Philadelphia tight end carried his right hand high against his left cheek, reducing the target area for Holmes' best weapon, the jab.
Whether it is the gathering darkness of age--Holmes is 33, a pro for a decade--or whether Witherspoon was inspired to the performance of a lifetime, Holmes couldn't hurt his opponent.
Of Witherspoon's 15 victories, 11 came by knockout. The 12th was there for the taking tonight in the ninth round when Witherspoon pinned Holmes on the ropes with a strong right. He followed with a left hook and another right that sent Holmes wobbling sideways across the ring.
Holmes, seeking safety, turned his back on Witherspoon. Chasing him, Witherspoon again caught the champion with a right. Holmes seemed to be one punch away from dreamland, but he lashed out with a right of his own that staggered Witherspoon and bought respite from the storm.
They traded so many withering punches that, with a minute left in the round, they could throw no more. A strange calm settled in. The fighters literally leaned against each other, neither moving for five seconds, each waiting for the other to take up the combat again.
"Larry Holmes is a slick champion," Witherspoon said, explaining why he couldn't knock out the veteran though he clearly was in desperate straits. "He knows how to use his hands. He holds. He's expert in tieing up. He holds with his elbows. He lays on you. He's experienced, and he taught me a lot tonight."
The fight figured to be such a mismatch that Las Vegas bookmakers made Holmes a 6-1 favorite. Maybe 18,000 customers came to a ring set up in a parking lot behind a hotel to see how easily Holmes would extend his reign, now the second-longest in heavyweight history behind that of Joe Louis.
It was anything but easy. Holmes' jab was rendered ineffective, just as Witherspoon said it would be. The challenger's announced strategy going in was to put pressure on Holmes so the jab could not be stretched to its full, damaging length. That, Witherspoon did.
Not only that, Witherspoon came with a veteran's cool. He never varied from his cautious, stalking style--until, in the last three rounds, he began to dance on his toes, flying around the ring, flicking jabs at the spinning champion.
"I danced like that because I thought I was ahead," Witherspoon said, "and I thought I had no problems."
In the Dokes-Weaver bout, two judges scored the 15-round fight even, which under Nevada rules makes it a majority-decision draw. The third judge had Dokes the winner by points, 145-141.
Dokes, now 26-0-2, took the WBA title from Weaver last December in a controversial, 63-second knockout. Though Weaver never went down that night, the referee, perhaps overreacting to the recent death here of Duk Koo Kim, stopped the fight. The WBA ordered a rematch.
"Did you think it was a fair decision?" Dokes asked newsmen tonight. "Look at Weaver's face, the lacerations, the cuts, the swelling. Then think about that question again."
Weaver, his eyes puffed nearly closed behind shaded glasses, said, "I thought I won in my heart . . . The first fight was a controversy, and this one is, too."