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Pinklon Thomas: The Real Deal
By Ted Kluck
The first thing one notices is how out of place he looks: A champion, here, in suburban Orlando of all places. Among the play-it-safers, men who buy sports magazines to read about mountaintops.
He moved with the panache of someone who had done something significant and was used to being talked to, talked about, and gawked at by the fan or curious neighbor. His jokes flowed easily and laughter followed from his small audience. He still had the appearance of athletic prowess: he could have been an NFL linebacker, a power forward, or even a sprinter. Besides a few flecks of gray in his hair, I would have guessed him 10 years younger. His hands were heavy, leathery anvils. When I shook them I remember being glad that they weren't crashing into my temples. He was an attraction while simply sweeping his own sidewalk.
On a random afternoon Pinklon Thomas captivated an engineer, a housewife, a schoolteacher, and two grandparents - people who had never been in or dreamed of a fight. Yet they were anchored by their proximity to a modern day gladiator.
In our minds eye we all want to be heroes. We want to wear the Red Cape. We want to Vanquish Foes. We want to emerge victorious. Because of this we are attracted to the specter of two men, naked to the waist, with the objective of beating the other to the point of physical collapse. We watch because we can't help it, and we react in our minds and on paper.
"Come over later on," he said to me, "I'll show you a tape of that Tyson fight (in 1987), I'll show you the real deal."
What he didn't realize was that I was already seeing it. With that, Pinklon Thomas turned and walked into his home, and back into his life outside the ring.
TK - Your last pro fight was in 1993. Do you miss making your living as a professional boxer? If so, what do you miss?
I'll always be a boxer. I'll always train like a boxer and an athlete - from a physical standpoint it's all I know. I eat, sleep and drink the physical aspect of boxing. I enjoyed being a gladiator; being a champion and the feeling of walking into a diner I had visited six years earlier and still seeing my photo on the wall. It's things like that that are special and stay with you. In terms of the politics and all of the peripheral stuff though, I really don't miss it. But like they say, thereís no game like the fight game.
TK - Are you still involved in boxing at all?
Yes, very much. I started a program in 1994 in which I meet with and train people from corporations in the basic elements of boxing. I teach them to move, punch and protect themselves. I allow them to spar with each other and with me. I hit the bags with them, run with them, and basically answer all of their questions about the sport. They're all older like me and it's obviously a lot of fun. Plus it keeps me from getting antsy about wanting to jump back into the ring.
I definitely enjoyed my fill of the fight game over the years and dabbled a little bit in training and management of fighters. But when people in the office ask me "did you see the fight last night?" I usually have to say no. Half the names I don't even know any more. I really don't follow the sport as a fan.
TK - You mentioned management, what was your experience in dealing with managers as a fighter?
I think there will always be some discrepancy between managers and fighters, and it was no different with me. I actually managed myself for a while through Main Event Promotions and Don King Productions.
I used a manager named Dick Fleming for my second comeback from May of 1992 to January of 1993. During that time I had 14 fights in 7 months and won the IBO title. Dick was a good man and a great manager.
TK - Many of your contemporaries are still active or have attempted comebacks. Were there any moments since your retirement in Ď93 when you were tempted to get back in the ring?
I really stepped up my training in 1996 in hopes of fighting again. I felt like I had some fight left in me and I was ready to make my move. After a few months of hard training I ended up injuring my hand. It was a real setback for me because I felt like I was ready to compete.
There was some talk about me fighting in the "Legends Tournament" a couple of years ago too, but we just couldn't work out the details. The promoters wanted me to fight (Tim) Witherspoon first, but wouldn't guarantee me a fight against Holmes if I beat him. We came up with figures and planned out two fights, but they would never guarantee me a championship with Holmes. I had to decline the offer.
TK - Were there any fighters, over the course of your career, that you wish you would have had a chance to fight, but didn't?
I would fight Larry Holmes tomorrow. (Smiling) For nothing.
TK - Weren't you supposed to fight him in 1982 after your win over James "Quick" Tillis?
I was a fill-in for the Tillis fight and I was working with Lou Duva at the time. It was a Don King promotion that took place in Cleveland. The winner of the fight was supposed to get a shot at Holmes. I stopped Tillis in the 8th and expected to get the fight with Holmes. Instead, Holmes got on his bike and rode it far away from me.
TK - What impact did Angelo Dundee have on you as a fighter and as a person?
Angelo played a big part in me winning the championship. I started training at Frazier's gym in Philadelphia and hired him 3 weeks before fight when I got down to Las Vegas. I hired him because he was "the man." This guy kept me so loose. He is so down to earth and he is real. I didn't need a phony, some guy who was just in it for the bucks. I mean, he wanted to get paid and I wanted to pay him because of the job I knew he could do. Plus we just really hit it off as people and he introduced me to Muhammad (Ali) who became a close friend. If there are two people on this earth that I idolize, it's Angelo and Muhammad.
TK - Tell me about your relationship with Ali...
Muhammad is magic, pure joy. He is one of the most genuine, humble, down to earth people I have ever known. I've been in airports with Muhammad where he is surrounded by security and other people who are trying to get him moving. But he will stand there for two hours signing autographs, posing for pictures, hugging children. I took that to heart. I idolized it and idolized him so much that I did it myself. I closed out arenas signing match stubs and programs when other champions were trying to beat the crowd out the door.
TK - Did you enjoy interacting with the fans?
Definitely. In fact, I signed a matchbook for a guy in a restaurant in Billings, Montana in like 1979. About 5 or 6 years later when I was driving through, the guy that I had signed the matchbook for came up to me and said "Pinklon Thomas?" He shook my hand and pulled the match stub out of his wallet. That's magic. I love it. I never turned down an autograph.
TK - Most fight fans will remember your 1987 fight with Mike Tyson. Did you feel confident going into the fight?
Absolutely. A short time before the fight I found out I had separated my right shoulder, which pretty much made it impossible for me to unload with my right hand. I still felt like I needed to take the fight and not postpone it because you just don't know how many of those opportunities you are going to get. I wasn't intimidated at all by Mike - I had been around and seen a lot in my career and he was still a pretty young kid. I honestly felt like I could beat him with my left hand and had him pretty frustrated up until my glove split in the sixth round.
TK - Talk me through what you were thinking during the nine-minute stoppage.
They had to go back into the dressing room area to find me a new glove, because the tab that attaches the thumb to the rest of the glove had split. I felt like all of my momentum was slipping away, it gave Tyson time to rest and obviously it was a different fight after that. Later, on Larry King Live, Tyson said it was the toughest fight of his career.
TK - Describe your work now.
I'm working for the Center for Drug-Free living with habitual juvenile criminals and kids from targeted areas. They come from broken homes with one parent raising them or a grandparent raising them. Most of them were introduced to drugs at very young ages.
TK - What would you say is the most rewarding thing about your work?
When I get through to them. When I see a change. When they come in hard with abusive language and street slang saying, "you're not going to change me." And then after a few months their personality changes and their actions change. But it's a long process and doesn't happen overnight. We start each morning with an assembly meeting outside where the kids set goals for each day. It's really gratifying to see that the tone of all of their goals is spiritual and biblical growth.
One of the best things for me is to get all 92 (kids) together in the dining hall, hook up two nice TV's, serve them dinner, show them a nice movie and then just enjoy it with them and talk to them afterwards. I feel like I'm able to give them an experience they wouldn't normally have.
TK - How has your family helped you transition out of life in the ring?
My four girls and my son are my best friends in the world; they really bring me joy. They are all I need. In fact, my son Pinklon is playing professional indoor football as a wide receiver for the Sioux City Bandits. I'm really proud of him, he's a great athlete.
Overall I'm just more focused on my kids now. I've learned a lot about family values and about parenting and being a good parent. Right now, I'm just sitting here with my dog waiting for my two youngest (daughters) to get home. When they get here my evening will be complete. Until then, I guess Iíll walk alone.
Pinklon Thomas fought to a record of 43-7-1, collecting 33 knockouts in a career that lasted from 1978 to 1993. Thomas fought monsters; both inside the ring out, and has emerged scarred but very alive. His life story will be told in a biography that will be completed and released in 2002. For more information on the book project, and to be put on a release date mailing list, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.