He came up from Louisiana, the Cajun prairie in the southwestern part of the state, unused to the shot of winter air that hit him as he stepped out a front door of BWI airport. A big man, he hunched his shoulders as if that would make him warmer.
His name: Yul Witherspoon, a heavyweight boxer. No one recognized him, nor should they have. Although he was not young, his professional career consisted of only one fight and he had been flown in to face a much-touted "up-and-comer" in a four-round preliminary bout the next day in Glen Burnie. If there were odds to have been found on such a match, they would have been maybe 50-1, or more, against Witherspoon. The first thing he did on this late afternoon was wait near the curb at the airport, and an hour passed before a gray van that was to pick him up finally arrived. In boxing, headliners never wait.
Of course there are fewer and fewer boxing headliners. Yet boxing has never run short of boxers despite the enormous odds against their success. Even the most promising talents are unlikely to become champions. As for those expected to serve as their steppingstones, known merely as "opponents," boxing is unfathomably more difficult. The "opponent" has always been a staple of boxing. Enter Yul Witherspoon, into the van at BWI.
He was accompanied by his trainer, Scott Daley, 37, and his 11-year-old son Philip, and another heavyweight, the perfectly Louisiana-named Royphy Soileau, who was also on the card. The group was whisked along roads banked by snow in an area where nothing looked reassuring to them. They were headed to a nearby eye doctor's office so the fighters could be examined. Despite the unfamiliar landscape, Daley, in a sense, knew where they were. "They're not flying us to Maryland to beat up their guy," he said. "They're flying us here to be the 'opponent.' But then they didn't bring Yul to Houston to beat [Roberto] Flores, but he did. Flores even had his own mariachi band. I knew we were coming as sacrificial lambs when I saw the mariachi band."
Trainers often speak effusively about their fighters' chances, it being no risk to them, and Daley was no exception. As trainers do sometimes, he even used the plural pronoun when only Witherspoon would do the fighting, as in, "We're going to win." Witherspoon himself sounded confident, but more realistic. "I'm going to put on a good show," he said. "I got no quit in me. You never know, you might land that right shot."
He was said to be 36 years old. In high school in San Jose, he competed in football, wrestling and track and field. He played football briefly at Washington State, when the future Redskin Mark Rypien was the quarterback. "My problem was," Witherspoon said with regret, "I majored in partying."
That changed. He spent four years in the Marines, he said, serving in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. "It made me miss home a lot," he said. He also boxed in the Marines, experience enough to dispel any notion that he might freeze at the sound of the bell.
The "up-and-comer" he would face, ironically, also was named Witherspoon. But Chazz Witherspoon, 23, of Philadelphia, whose record also was 1-0, has prominent backers and is being treated as a future adornment in the heavyweight division. He is a cousin of a former heavyweight champion, and is close to getting a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical marketing from Saint Joseph's University. Borrowing part of Jack Dempsey's moniker, a publicist has dubbed Chazz Witherspoon "The Mensa Mauler."
Even way down in Louisiana, Yul Witherspoon heard about him. "I know his career," he said. But his own goal, modest as it was, reprised the kind of approach that often came in handy even for some famous fighters, notably old Archie Moore, the incomparable light heavyweight, who many times found himself in strange towns under difficult circumstances. "Some guys set these real high goals," Yul Witherspoon said. "I just want to leave Baltimore 2-0."
Blurry-eyed from the ophthalmologist's, Witherspoon and Soileau were driven to a nearby fitness center where they were to fill out paperwork, take physicals and weigh in. They kept blinking, trying to focus. An array of people filled a large room: a dozen or more boxers, all their handlers, doctors, Maryland boxing commission officials, relatives of the fighters. Chazz Witherspoon was down the hall, giving an interview to a Baltimore TV station. He was tall and had a beard and, with his shirt off, a sculpted body.
Denise Witherspoon, Chazz's mother, sized up Yul Witherspoon. "He looks like a Witherspoon. His shoulders, his neck. I guess before this is over, we're going to find out."
With Chazz in the room, the two Witherspoon fighters began a dance of the heavyweights that would last for the next 24 hours, the purpose of which was to avoid each other. Yul made light of it. "Most times you meet somebody and you might get into a fight with them," he said. "In our case we fight and then we meet."
Chris Middendorf, who was working at a table, was responsible for Yul being there. As the matchmaker, it was Middendorf's job to keep everyone involved happy: the commission, both fighters and their camps (especially the favorite, but not disrespecting the "opponent" and his people so as to cut off relations with them) and the majority of fans (there's always some who want blood). Middendorf, 53, who lives in Kensington, had done business before with Scott Daley's father, Phil, proprietor of Daley's Boxing Studio in Lake Charles, La. "I knew the gym seems to specialize in heavyweights," Middendorf said. Not long ago he got a lightly regarded heavyweight from Daley and matched him in Vegas with Nigerian Olympian Duncan Dokiwari. What happened shocked a whole lot of people, Middendorf included. "The kid knocked out Dokiwari in the first round," Middendorf said. "Out cold."
Sometimes a meteorite hits the earth; sometimes the "opponent" wins.
When Middendorf called Lake Charles this time, the elder Daley's description of Yul as an ex-Marine who had been away from boxing for some time, but was both big and strong, seemed about right. "He knows the odds are stacked against him," Daley said later by phone.
Now came one of the first moments of truth. The fighters were called to the scale.
Chazz Witherspoon . . . 2211/2 pounds. He posed and flexed his muscles.
Yul Witherspoon . . . The man at the scale kept sliding the bar. A shirtless Yul revealed a thick midsection. Assorted analysts of the fights leaned forward . . . 260!
Boxing publicist Fred Sternburg rolled his eyes.
To dinner. It was almost eight o'clock by then and the Louisiana visitors had had nothing but airline peanuts all day. Each fighter had a $25 voucher to eat at the Rose, a restaurant next door to the Sleep Inn where the fighters stayed. When asked his age during the walk across to the Rose, Yul said he was 37 -- which was one more year than advertised. He was cold, he was hungry, but at least his vision had cleared.
For dinner he had bread, then chicken and spaghetti. And he told the following stories.
He had grown up in San Jose, moving to Louisiana about four years ago. He was divorced, the father of three, and there were two older children his wife had brought to the marriage. "I don't like to call them stepchildren," he said, because he loved them all the same. They were on the West Coast, but he expected at least his 12- and 11-year-old sons to visit him this summer at his home in Eunice, La., where he had settled because his grandmother had lived there before she died. "I'll put the gloves on them," he said of his boys. He had built a small boxing room behind his house, and trains people there. He gave out his card: "Spoon's Amateur Boxing Club, Coach Yul L. Witherspoon, personal trainer."
He told a harrowing tale of what originally was to have been his first professional fight. He was in a certain town when there was a knock on his hotel room door. He answered it, and a man with a wad of hundreds stepped in. "A wad this thick," he said, his hands wide apart. The man wanted Witherspoon to lose the fight. Witherspoon talked him out of the room, notified someone in authority and high-tailed it home to Eunice.
Witherspoon spent time in the Army as well as the four years in the Marines.
He has worked as a certified nursing assistant.
He is studying automotive technology at a technical college.
Last year he showed up at Phil Daley's gym and told him, "I want to get back to boxing."
So how old was he, really?
"Do you have to ask?" he said, amiably.
At 1 p.m. on fight day, Witherspoon sat at a desk in his room and ate meat and mashed potatoes from a Styrofoam box that he had carried back from the Rose. He shared the room with Soileau, who was under the covers and watching "ElimiDate" on TV. Occasionally Soileau would express disagreement about someone who had been eliminated, detailing attributes of the ousted party.
Witherspoon was talking about home and trying to keep calm. He had kept waking up during the night.
"Louisiana is crazy," he said.
"Louisiana is crazy," Soileau agreed, "but you can get good crayfish."
"I don't want to get anxious too soon," Witherspoon said. "I'm wondering if I'm going to be toward the end [of the card] or the beginning. I like to go later, get a feeling for it."
Most boxers like to talk, and most have no trouble relating what kind of damage they intend to inflict. Not Witherspoon. "I've got to make up something I don't like about this guy [Chazz Witherspoon]," he said. "We keep seeing each other; I'm waiting for him to bump into me. I've got to have a little animosity toward him."
Soileau: "Beat his [butt] like a big brother."
At home, Witherspoon and Soileau spar together.
Soileau: "Yul hits like a mule. I can't get inside because he keeps jabbing. He's 'Yul the Mule.' "
Witherspoon: "The mule is very slow and not too smart. I don't like the name."
Soileau: "But if it kicks . . . "
Witherspoon: "I don't want to be 'Yul the Mule.' "
That evening, the van delivered the Louisiana group to Michaels Eighth Avenue for the latest in the series called "Ballroom Boxing." There was no dressing room; a hallway was partitioned for privacy by green curtains. One section was given to Witherspoon, Soileau and Mario Lacey, a 132-pounder out of Mobile, Ala., with a 7-7 record. They changed in a rest room, had their hands wrapped and waited, three men in a small space, more anxious than astronauts bound for the moon.
"We came down here with what we got on and what we got in our pockets," Daley said. "You've got to want to do this miserable [stuff] to do it."
Soileau would open the card, four rounds or less against Mike Dietrich of Dundalk, the local favorite. Witherspoon, who had been alternately pacing and sitting on a straight-backed chair, looked out from behind the curtain to see how Soileau was doing. The place was crowded, about 1,200 people, one of the countless fight nights that continue to take place in small towns across America. The low ceiling and rows of chairs extending far back on two sides of the ring gave the room the horizontal look of an old movie in Cinemascope. It was a panorama of ring card girls, cocktail waitresses, big south Baltimore guys, old Colt Lenny Moore, women who had come in wearing large, warm coats on the arms of finely dressed men. George Bellows could have painted this.
Soileau could not seem to fire his punches. The problem might have been that he didn't know until the opening bell that his adversary was a southpaw. Soileau saw jabs and power punches coming at him from reverse angles. The fight went the four rounds, the judges' decision foregone.
"It's all you, man. It's all you," Daley said to Witherspoon, back behind the curtain. He was in the third fight.
In the hall, boxing manager Shelly Finkel could see beyond this night in Glen Burnie when his man Chazz would have his name in lights. "If he could go all the way," Finkel said, "the heavyweight division would have someone people would be very proud of, who would set a great example."
Yul Witherspoon had to wait in the ring until someone decided that anticipation for the heroic Chazz had grown sufficiently. Yul wore orange trunks and punched at the air a little to keep warm. Chazz, dressed in a gloriously embroidered black robe, bounded down the aisle to cheering. He danced in his corner as the robe was removed. He wore black trunks and white shoes and appeared utterly at ease.
The crowd sent up a hum of favorable impression when Yul was introduced as a "former two-time Marine champion." But there was no question who the fans liked. Chazz's father hugged his son, which Yul noticed, causing him to wish his own father, who died in 1989, were there. "It kind of touched me, the family thing," he said later.
At the bell, Yul rushed the favorite and backed him up with stiff punching. Yul tried to lean his 260 pounds on Chazz. Chazz bent to his right, pointing his head toward the ropes to avoid part of the attack. Yul dominated the first minute and a half. But suddenly, like a dramatic pass interception or a bases-clearing hit, events turned. He took a combination to the body that hurt him, really hurt him. He needed several seconds to get squared up again. But he was not the same. His punches fell short. Chazz landed hard, again and again. As the bell ended the round, the fight clearly was going Chazz's way.
Round two. Chazz landed a thunderous right hand to Yul's left ear in the opening seconds. It was the quintessential haymaker, but somehow Yul stayed upright. Wobbly, but upright. Punches and shoves sent Yul down, but the referee, Bill Holmes, waved the fighters to their corners, then told each of the three judges that he had ruled a slip, not a knockdown. The delay wasn't long enough for Yul to recover.
After the action resumed, Chazz connected repeatedly, with Yul unable to counter, until Holmes jumped between the two, raised his arms and waved the fight over. It was 1 minute 26 seconds of the second round, reality had trumped romance.
One thing, though: Yul Witherspoon had finished on his feet, dignity intact.
A few minutes later, he went to see the doctor on the second floor and learned that he would be taking home a perforated eardrum in addition to the modest sum of $1,500 -- minus $500 for his trainer. "The thousand will come in handy," he said, without complaint.
He sat on the chair behind the curtain and talked in bursts.
"I'm sorry about that. I really wanted to do good. . . .
"Not too bad for a grandpa, I guess."
"I'm 40," he said. "I was born in 1964, August 19."
His older stepchild has two sons.
"I want to say, this might be it, I really think so. Boxing has kept me feeling young, you know what I mean? I was fighting for my grandchildren; no, it was for me, I was fighting for me. But this was a different level. This is like going-to-the-hospital kind of pain. It's not worth it . . .
"My ear hurts and my feelings hurt. It's like a kid falls down and you say, 'Oh, you're all right.' Your feelings are hurt."
Witherspoon and Soileau took a long time getting changed and cramming all their stuff back into duffel bags. They could hear the crowd but whatever was happening was of no concern to them. Witherspoon began moving around, as if trying to walk off the experience. Not an hour had passed when he said: "The more time goes by, I'm thinking I want to get back in there. I'm a glutton for punishment."
Much later, the fights were done. He stood waiting at the front door, for the van.
He'd be back home in Louisiana the next afternoon, and that was good. There certainly was no promise in what was left of this day. It was approaching midnight and, as he looked around, almost everyone had gone.