The whole thing began to take on a bizarre aspect from the start when the champion, Michael Spinks, set up his training camp in L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, the plush namesake of Pierre L'Enfant himself.
Never before had such fancy premises been associated with the snorting and the sweat and other malodorous byproducts signifying boxers at work. L'Enfant lobbies had always been reserved for mostly dignified guests, high personages and heads of state and such, but now they were being overrun by boxing's groupies, trainers, fighters and pals.
Whaddyaknow, Washington was going to have its first title fight since 1959. Spinks and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, the challenger who stayed in the hotel but trained in Hyattsville, were swept up to their appointed floors on paneled elevators.
This was class, but the scene was a bit diverting to a mind that remembered Billy Edwards' well-used gym in Northeast Washington some years back when it was typical of boxing gyms. Functional, with big and little bags in a decent ring, jump ropes on hooks and sparse otherwise.
Ex-fighter Billy Edwards was proud of his lease on the old place over a busy produce market. A sign at the top of the stairs warned everybody, in Billy's scrawl, "Anybody caught stealing the vegetables will be denied the use of the gym."
The L'Enfant Plaza scene was telling everybody, perhaps, that boxing had come a long way. Except at the finish of all the workouts and the hype, there was no fight. Muhammad flunked the 175-pound light heavyweight limit by 2 1/2 pounds and blithely went upstairs to eat a hefty breakfast and say fatuous things like "the scales were wrong . . . I know my body." So, no fight.
There is no evidence otherwise that the scales were wrong, but ample evidence of other messups all along the way, none of them Spinks' fault. It was, firstly, a case of Mayor Marion Barry, in his eagerness to get his feet wet in the boxing business, getting them burned.
The mayor embraced the fight and promoter Butch Lewis with an enthusiasm born of a desire to make Washington the new fight capital of the world, or some such. He gave the promoter a sweetheart deal on the use of the D.C. Armory, and tried to whip up enthusiasm to match his own.
Barry called a gathering of 150 Washington businessmen at which his aide, Joseph P. Yeldell, attempted to peddle tickets in the mode of a carnival barker . . . "Okay, who's going to buy a big block? . . . Do I hear 100, do I hear 101?" Barry's fight was a hard sell. His 150 businessmen bought a total of 400 tickets, or less than three each. Washington wasn't Las Vegas, where the casinos underwrite the fights and get it all back. "You want three tickets," they tell their guests, "here, take four." They know there will be a nice cash flow at the gaming tables all week.
Barry became infected with the boxing scene when he attended the Sugar Ray Leonard-Tommy Hearns fight. That one was an epic, high excitement, but the mayor would learn that all fights were not equally attractive. Particularly he had to be scary of going after any fight involving the undisciplined Muhammad, who had previous weight problems and a history of life in the fat lane.
The mayor said, "I'd be embarrassed if we had a live championship bout in Washington and the place was half empty with the TV cameras panning around and seeing empty seats." What he got eventually was the TV cameras panning to the outside of an empty D.C. Armory after the public had been told at 6 p.m. that Spinks wouldn't take a 50 percent cut in his purse to fight a carelessly overweight Muhammad.
With Muhammad it had happened before, against the same fighter on July 18, 1981 in their previous fight in Las Vegas. He blew the limit at the weigh-in by nearly two pounds and was forced to sweat it off to make the 175 limit, finally. Spinks closed his right eye in the eighth, knocked him down and nearly out and won the 15-round fight easily. It was to be a rematch in Washington until it was aborted.
It was earlier in 1981 when Muhammad ventured into the heavyweight class to fight Renaldo Snipes that he displaced his arrogance, telling New York Times writer Michael Katz that after he beat Snipes he would fight the 225-pound Gerry Cooney. Asked how he would fare against Cooney, Muhammad said, "I'd hit him on the chin, and step back." Incidentally, Snipes licked Muhammad.
Butch Lewis--who was part of the emotional circus after the fight was called off, appearing in his white Great Gatsby vestments to cry out his apologies to all concerned--should have pointed a finger inward.
He blew it.
Lewis did not get to Washington for the Friday fight he was promoting until Wednesday, to make certain that problem guy Muhammad would make the weight.
In Muhammad's case that is a promoter's first duty, to stay on that fighter's neck every day, bearing scales, to make certain the fighter was making a decent effort to make the weight. Butch Lewis Productions won no honors.
It is historic that all promoters are nervous about every fight until the checks can be taken to the bank.
Dr. Ferdinand Pacheco, an old hand among Muhammad Ali's strategists and now director of boxing for NBC Sports, has ventured that promoter Don King would never let a fight be defaulted. Pacheco said, "King would get a reluctant fighter into a room and when King was through talking to him he'd be willing to fight his mother."
Significantly, Lewis said after Washington's nonfight that "Muhammad hasn't come close to making the 175-pound limit in two years."
The greater his obligation, then, to have been more wary of what Muhammad was doing with his time before the fight. Butch Lewis didn't deliver the fight he promised. Mayor Barry may be embarrassed by the city's boxing blight, but he will recover. And others will agree that never was it necessary that Washington be the boxing capital of the world.