UPDATE: This story is written by Solomon Crenshaw Jr. from Alabama NewsCenter. Learn more at: http://alabamanewscenter.com/
Boxing history will be made at Birmingham’s Bartow Arena Saturday night when Tuscaloosa’s Deontay Wilder makes the first defense of his World Boxing Council heavyweight title against Eric Molina.
Wilder, 29, is not the state’s first native son to be a heavyweight boxing champion. Atmore native Evander Holyfield and Joe Louis Barrow each won title belts. Holyfield, who moved to Atlanta when he was 4, recently joined the LaFayette product known to all as Joe Louis in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Saturday’s heavyweight title bout will be the first fought on Alabama soil. But the Yellowhammer State has a much longer reach when it comes to boxing history, one that dates at least to the 1920s and ’30s.
For the love of the ring
That’s when Mobile’s Eugene Tillman Sr. laced up his gloves and stepped into the ring about 125 times. In those days, there was little money and no ratings for pro boxers, according to his son Jack Tillman.
“I drew big crowds,” said Jack Tillman, who fought crime as Mobile County Sheriff years after he, too, threw jabs and uppercuts. He added that his father made $150 a fight during the Depression.
“I was making $8,000, $10,000, $12,000,” he continued. “Back then, even to the ‘60s and ‘70s, ringside seats were only $6 a seat. If I was fighting today I’d be a millionaire.”
The former lawman and his brothers learned the “sweet science” from their father. Jack Tillman wasn’t supposed to become a professional boxer as he had signed to play baseball at the University of South Alabama.
That changed when he went from being a sparring partner for his brother Joe to being a fill-in for a pro bout in Pensacola.
“I took the fight and won and that pretty much did away with my amateur status,” he said. “I fought a good boy, a boy who had 20-something fights. Before I knew it, I had won 20 fights in a row. That’s basically how I got started.”
He rose to being a top 10 welterweight.
Promoting the sport
Gardendale native Eddie Surrett turns 73 in October. Nearly four and a half decades ago, he promoted Mobile boxing shows involving his son, Ronnie, and continued promoting boxing events until about a year ago.
“We had several boxers in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “Jack Tillman was ranked No. 3 in the world. Guy Sumlin also ranked in the top five.”
Jay Deas is Wilder’s trainer and manager. He and his brother, Tommy, started Skyy Boxing Gym in Tuscaloosa in 1995.
Deas said boxing picked up as an active sport in the ’60s and ’70s. Birmingham and Tuscaloosa fell off in the ’80s, he said, but Mobile took the lead in the state going into the ’90s. Then Tuscaloosa came back more strongly as the new century began.
The Alabama Boxing Commission governed professional boxing until then-Gov. Fob James disbanded it in the 1970s. The boxing commissions of other states came to regulate Alabama events.
“Even Illinois came in and regulated a show,” Deas said.
That changed in 2005 when the Association of Boxing Commissions passed a bill that said each state had to have its own commission due to liability concerns.
Boxing supporters in Alabama lobbied the Legislature for years to re-establish a boxing commission. Their pleas fell on deaf ears until Wilder gave them an Iwo Jima marketing moment.
A turn of events
Soldiers hoisting a flag on the battlefield galvanized America during World War II. Wilder’s Olympic bronze medal had a similar effect on the campaign for a boxing commission.
“We came out with literature with a picture of Deontay that said, ‘He can fight for his country but he can’t fight in his home state,’” Deas said. “That did the trick. All of a sudden, that galvanized the support that we needed.”
Wilder has chiseled his name into Alabama boxing history. He won the national championship as an amateur, the USA Boxing national championship, the Golden Gloves national championship and the Olympic Trials. His bronze medal was the USA ’s only boxing prize from the 2008 Games in Beijing.
The Bronze Bomber, as Wilder calls himself, is now among the boxing greats the state has produced. Those greats include:
- Earnie Shavers, the Garland-born heavyweight who came within an eyelash of a championship as he lost on a unanimous decision to Muhammad Ali. Ali later said Shavers was the hardest puncher he ever faced, famously saying, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”
- James Hughes, another Mobile boxer who was about to get a world title shot in the 1980s and ’90s. He captured the USBA welterweight championship belt and he appeared headed toward a big payday before he was murdered. His body was found with bullet holes face down in a swamp near his home shortly after his fight with Nick Rupa in 1995.
- Pete Taliaferro, who won featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight world titles. He won 34 of his 42 pro bouts in the 1990s.
- Randal Yonker, a cruiserweight who fought out of Mobile. He won a North American title and lost in a world title fight.
- Byron Mitchell, who began boxing out of Johnny Trawick’s Wolfpack Boxing Gym in Ozark. Mitchell won the World Boxing Association super middleweight title in 1999 and lost the title the next year. He recaptured the belt the following year.
Alabama has about 100 Silver Glove and Golden Glove boxers in its amateur ranks. There are 25 to 30 active professional boxers in the state and Deas said that number is building.
“It’s not as high as it’s ever been but it’s climbing,” he said. “Deontay’s success has sparked a lot of people who are either interested in reviving their careers or starting professional careers.”
The 12-round bout will mark the first time a professional boxing championship of any weight division has occurred in Alabama. It will be the main event of Showtime Championship Boxing on Saturday, June 13, live on Showtime at 8 pm Central. To get ready, Showtime Sports released an All Access episode behind Deontay Wilder, enjoy below!