Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tex Cobb: Took a licking, kept on ticking

Randall "Tex" Cobb poses in the boxing ring of the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 8, 2008. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)
Randall "Tex" Cobb poses in the boxing ring of the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 8, 2008. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)
 
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    It has been called an axing, a bloodbath, a devastation, a mauling, a shelling, a mismatch of epic proportions often referred to as the most one-sided fight in professional boxing history.

    The thesaurus got quite a workout after the final bell in Houston on Nov. 26, 1982, when Easton's then-unbeaten champion Larry Holmes draped his arm over Randall "Tex" Cobb after pounding his face for 15 rounds in a World Boxing Council heavyweight title bout at the Astrodome.

    Reporters, columnists and commentators throughout the country simply couldn't find enough words to describe what Holmes, with his pistonlike jab, did to Cobb's big head that night. But it was the biggest mouth in sports, a man who could always pound a few more gems out of a thesaurus, who may have sealed the fight's fate with his ringside commentary in Houston.

    "This is brutalization," the legendary Howard Cosell said in Round 9. "It's a personal opinion, but I think the referee should think about stopping this fight, fast. I mean this is not right. And no, he won't go down. Courage of a lion, but why?"

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    Holmes was 33 years old but looked a decade younger in the ring, his legendary jab unstoppable, his punches laser-guided until the 15th round, when he took it easy, he said, out of fear for Cobb's life.

    "Man, I hit him a thousand times, early. I hit that bleeper, thinking I'm going to get you out of here. He said, 'I'm not going anywhere' He maybe hit me four or five times the entire fight," Holmes said in a recent interview with SportsWeek from his office overlooking the Delaware and Lehigh rivers in Easton. "After the seventh round, after the beating I put on him for the first five or six rounds, I didn't want to knock him out anymore. I didn't want that to be me. I didn't admire that beating he took."

    For fans too young to remember the fight, all 15 rounds are available on YouTube with Cosell's commentary. One creative fan condensed the fight down to a 2-minute, video-game-themed version of the highlights (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dzsv1Pi-dB0).

    Cobb's gap-toothed grin was still visible through all the blood and swollen flesh after the fight and by all accounts, he was his usual wisecracking self before, during and after. Cobb was an adopted son of Philadelphia by way of Texas and won the admiration of just about everyone else in the country who watched the fight that night.

    Cobb was a more realistic version of "Rocky" in Houston, the "club fighter" swinging wildly at the champ as he plodded forward, eating punch after punch but somehow never faltering. Even Cosell admired his guts.

    "Cobb is a tree trunk of man. He can take a punch," Cosell said in Round 4.

    Cosell emerged as the big story out of Houston, though, with his 15-round diatribe against referee Steve Crosson, the fans in the Astrodome and the sport of boxing itself. Cosell had covered the sweet science for ABC for 25 years and with Larry Holmes vs. Tex Cobb, he'd seen enough.

    It was the last fight he would ever work.

    It became clear that Cobb was overmatched early on, and Cosell soon focused his ire on the state of the sport, on the "laissez-faire attitudes of the apologists of boxing." As the closing bell approached, Cosell was suggesting that boxing itself was over.

    "I wonder if that referee understands that he is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he is a part of?" Cosell said at the end of the 14th round.

    The Holmes-Cobb bout came at a sensitive time in boxing's bloody history, just 13 days after a relatively unknown South Korean lightweight named Duk Koo Kim squared off against Ray Mancini in Las Vegas. The fight was a war, with Mancini winning by TKO in the 14th round.

    Kim went into a coma shortly after the fight and died on Nov. 17, 1982.

    The fight prompted many of boxing's sanctioning bodies to reduce bouts from 15 to 12 rounds and call for more stringent prefight medical checks, but not before the Holmes/Cobb fight took place.

    Biographer Mark Ribowsky, in his book "Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports," contends that Cosell had already grown weary of boxing before the Duk Koo Kim tragedy as he watched his dramatic foil, Muhammad Ali, wither away in the ring for years.

    The matchup between Larry Holmes, one of the best heavyweights of all time, and a journeyman like Tex Cobb was simply the mismatch Cosell needed, Ribowsky wrote, to hop up on a soapbox and create a narrative that would follow the fight forever.

    "He was never dazed nor close to going down," Ribowsky wrote. "Surely it would be folly to say the fight was the biggest mismatch of all time, as many would, because of how Cosell had called it."

    Holmes, when asked about Cosell's commentary that night, said he "wasn't about to get inside Howard's mind" but he truly did believe Tex was in trouble.

    "He took a mercenary beating that day and it was not necessary," he said.

    Referee Crosson recalls getting a phone call at home after the fight from his girlfriend, consoling him over Cosell's harsh criticism.

    "She said, 'Are you OK?' I had no idea what she was talking about. I was completely unaware of any controversy," he said during a recent interview from his office in Dallas.

    Crosson said he was keenly aware of the Duk Koo Kim tragedy and of Aaron Pryor's brutal, 14th-round TKO of the legendary Nicaraguan brawler Alexis Arguello in Miami, the day before that fight on Nov. 12.

    Cobb was also aware of the hysteria surrounding boxing on the night of the fight, Crosson said, and asked him not to stop the fight early because of it.

    "He was very aware of the pressure on a referee that night," Crosson said of Cobb. "He said, 'All I ask to let me be carried off on my sword.' "

    But Crosson said he didn't cut Cobb any breaks that night. The ringside doctor continuously checked on his cuts and swelling with no major concerns, Crosson said, and despite the barrage of Holmes combinations he took, Tex was never really injured.

    "He wasn't defending himself very effectively, but he was trying to defend himself," Crosson said. "I simply saw no place where I could logically stop the fight."

    Cobb wasn't the punching bag he appeared to be in Houston. He amassed a respectable 43-7-1 record, including wins over an older but still powerful Earnie Shavers and a split-decision loss to Ken Norton. He played football with Wilbert Montgomery at Abilene Christian, was a professional kickboxer, and once had his arm broken sticking up for his pal, former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, in a Grays Ferry brawl.

    Cobb worked as a bouncer at Doc Watson's and did odd construction jobs in the area while training at Joe Frazier's Gym on North Broad Street. His toughness was supernatural, his barroom philosophies a joy to behold, friends said, and Philadelphia was glad to call him an adopted son for about 20 years, although he also lived in South Jersey.

    "He was just a bad bleeper," said George Bochetto, a Center City attorney who represented Cobb in a libel case against Sports Illustrated. "I used to spar with him all the time, and all I can tell you is the man had a head like a slab of concrete."

    Both Bochetto and Holmes reached out to Cobb, but he did not return requests for interviews with SportsWeek for this story. Cobb graduated from Temple University in 2008 with a degree in sports management but moved out West in recent years, Bochetto said, and has kept a low profile.

    Cobb's unmistakable mug and brutish physique made him a natural fit to play an assortment of goons, thugs and tough guys on television and films. He appeared in hits like "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "The Golden Child" and "Liar Liar," and most memorably in the cult favorite "Raising Arizona," in which he played Leonard Smalls, the grime-covered, cigar chewing "lone biker of the apocalypse."

    According to his page on the International Movie Database, Cobb has not been in a film or television series in more than a decade.

    Cobb often joked about the Holmes fight, that the champion's fists couldn't handle a rematch. He should have been elected to the hall of fame, he joked, for forcing Cosell out of boxing. Cobb never took himself, his skills, or the sport as seriously as Cosell may have.

    "I'm a prostitute who sells his blood instead of his derriere," he told Inquirer in 1983. "But that comes with the sport."

    Cosell, once the fight was over, couldn't bring himself to talk to Holmes or Cobb or Crosson. He was done.

    "I'm not presumptuous enough to think I can kill boxing myself, but I've had it," he told the New York Times a few weeks after the fight.

    Boxing would live on, of course, to see a few more stellar heavyweights who captured the world's attention. Mike Tyson obliterated almost everyone who dared to step in the ring with him, including Holmes, but when his life went haywire, the heavyweight division lost a certain luster that it hasn't gotten back.

    In the bar he owns beneath his office, Holmes has pictures of heavyweights from his era and other brawlers in black-and-white from more than a century ago. Cobb's picture is up there, too, and Holmes said it deserves to be.

    "These guys today can't fight. They're boring," Holmes said. "Tex Cobb could kick all their bleeping asses and he sure as hell wasn't boring."

    " @JasonNark

    Jason Nark Daily News Staff Writer
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