In the late 70’s and early 80’s, professional prizefighting enjoyed a serious resurgence with major stars such as Hearns, Hagler, Mancini, Duran, Arguello and Holmes inspiring keen interest from American sports fans. Boxing was mainstream, frequent and popular fare on free national television, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with the biggest matches huge blockbuster events that rivaled the SuperBowl and the World Series.
But the brightest star of them all was Sugar Ray Leonard, the Olympic hero and the conqueror of Duran and Hearns. No one generated bigger gates or richer paydays than the all-American darling of network television, he with the bright smile and big endorsements from 7-Up and Nabisco. So imagine the shock and consternation when, due to a detached retina, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, at the age of only 26, abruptly announced his retirement.
Immediately, the prevailing “alphabet” organizations, the WBC and WBA, declared their 147 pound titles vacant. The WBA would decide a champion between Donald Curry and Jun-Suk Hwang, while the WBC mandated Detroit’s Milton “Ice Man” McCrory take on Colin “The Punch” Jones of Wales. The favored Curry dispatched Hwang by lopsided decision but McCrory vs Jones proved a very different type of match-up.
A showdown between a long and lanky boxer in McCrory and a stalking power-puncher in Jones, the bout inspired minimal excitement, though it was broadcast on national television. The simple fact was few outside of the British Isles knew anything about Jones, while McCrory, who fought out of the renowned Kronk Gym in Detroit, was seen as a poorer man’s version of “Hit Man” Hearns. Like Tommy, McCrory was trained by Emanuel Steward and was unusually tall for a welterweight. But unlike Tommy, the power in his right hand was of the unreliable kind. After racking up a long streak of stoppage wins, he has been forced to settle for decision wins over Pete Ranzany and Roger Stafford.
But McCrory vs Jones was significant not only because it sought to help fill the void created by Leonard’s departure, but also because it was the first welterweight world title match in fifty years or more to be scheduled for twelve rounds instead of fifteen. Just four months previous, Ray Mancini had fought South Korean challenger Duk Koo Kim on national television, a fight with a most tragic outcome. Kim collapsed in the ring after being stopped in round fourteen and he never regained consciousness. His death sparked renewed calls for boxing’s abolition and moved the WBC to reduce their championship distance to twelve rounds. And, as it happened, this change would have a serious impact on the outcome of McCrory vs Jones.
The early rounds saw McCrory up on his bicycle, sticking and moving and throwing punches in bunches, albeit with little power behind them. If anyone was looking for the fighter from Detroit to stalk Jones and try to out-gun the Welshman, they were sorely disappointed. Instead the strategy was to keep Jones at the end of Milton’s long arms, but in fact it was the smaller man’s jabs which were more telling and brought a trickle of crimson from McCrory’s nose. Still, the Detroit fighter’s boxing skills and constant movement allowed him to carry the first half of the bout, even if he failed to land anything remotely hard enough to discourage his opponent.
But things changed in a hurry starting in round six. Heavy body shots slowed McCrory down and suddenly it was Jones who took charge and put the American on the run. By round eight McCrory was in full survival mode, skittering about the ring and doing all he could to avoid further exchanges or anymore of Colin’s painful body blows. What early on had looked to be McCrory’s fight to lose was now anything but.
Things only got rougher for “The Ice Man” in round nine. More body punches got home, forcing McCrory to lower his guard and at the end of the round Jones landed a series of power shots to the head. In the tenth a desperate McCrory found himself on the ropes and hanging on to Jones to slow down the Welshman’s attack. Briefly it appeared Milton might not survive the fury of Colin’s onslaught, but not a moment too soon he sucked it up and got on his bicycle again and started snapping that long left.
“The Ice Man” somehow found the strength to stand his ground more in round eleven, the first round since the fifth that went to McCrory’s side of the ledger. Still, the more powerful blows were coming from Jones and he refused to surrender his momentum. Then came the final round and it saw McCrory put his bicycle in the garage as the fans at the Reno Convention Center were treated to three thrilling minutes of non-stop action. It was toe-to-toe for the finale of a duel that proved more entertaining than anyone really had a right to expect and the crowd gave both fighters a standing ovation at bout’s end.
However, the twelve round distance clearly hurt Jones here as anyone could see that an exhausted McCrory would have been very hard pressed to survive three more rounds; it took all he had to make it to the final bell. Minutes later the decision was announced and considering the fact that the whole point of the affair was to decide a new champion in the wake of Leonard’s departure, the end result could not have been more unsatisfying: a draw. While one judge saw Jones the winner by two points, another scored it for McCrory by three, and the third judge’s card read 115 to 115.
Make no mistake, McCrory vs Jones I was a legitimately close fight and in terms of unjust draw verdicts it’s not even in the same conversation as say Chavez vs Whitaker, Antuofermo vs Hagler or Holyfield vs Lewis. But even so, the crowd booed the decision and many felt that if anyone had gotten a raw deal, it was Jones. He had clearly landed the harder blows and put McCrory on the defensive for lengthy stretches. Indeed, many at ringside were dismayed with the American’s impersonation of a long-distance runner.
At least Jones had the comfort of knowing a rematch would be coming his way. The WBC wasted no time in ordering one and the following August fight fans had McCrory vs Jones II, this time in a largely empty outdoor stadium at the Dunes in Vegas. Amazingly, the bout was almost a carbon copy of the first fight with the taller American getting off to a fast start and Jones coming on in the later rounds. But there were two key differences which likely decided the outcome. One was the fact the iron-tough Jones suffered the first knockdown of his career in the opening stanza, courtesy of a perfectly timed one-two combination. The second big difference was that this time McCrory finished the match strongly and won the final round with a gutsy effort; thus a split decision verdict went Milton’s way.
But in the end the McCrory vs Jones diptych was merely a prelude to the crowning of the real new king of the welterweights, for soon enough both men were put in their rightful place by Donald “The Cobra” Curry. In 1985 Curry defended his WBA belt against Jones in Birmingham, England, stopping the Welshman by TKO in four bloody rounds. Later the same year, Curry and McCrory threw down in Las Vegas in a unification match that conjured up memories of when Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns battled for the undisputed crown. But instead of a dramatic and action-packed battle, Curry demolished McCrory with seeming ease and in short order, knocking him out in round two. Jones and McCrory had nothing to be ashamed of, but “The Cobra” was the true king. At least for now. — Robert Portis