For One Moment, Tucker Had It All : Boxing: He came closest to beating Tyson in 1987 and now yearns for another shot at title.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The punch, a left uppercut, begins low, near the middle rope. It comes up quickly, savagely, and catches the fighter, head down, under his chin.

His head snaps back and sweat sprays upward. His entire body flinches briefly and his upper body begins to sag backward. His feet perform a brief, confused shuffle.

For a split second, the fighter in the black trunks appears to be going over backward, but his feet find his center of gravity, and what appeared to be a pivotal moment in boxing's history passes like a gentle breeze.

The boxer who was hurt was Mike Tyson, and the boxer who hurt him was a 10-1 shot, Tony Tucker. It happened in the first minute of the first round, on the night of Aug. 1, 1987, at the Las Vegas Hilton.

To this day, that's the closest anyone has come to beating Mike Tyson. He had to go the distance to get a decision over Tucker, easily the toughest victory of Tyson's 37-0 career. Over a huge platter of bacon and eggs in his training camp at Big Oaks Lodge in Saugus, Tucker watches that left uppercut on videotape for maybe the thousandth time. He watches Tyson's feet search frantically for his center of gravity, then watches himself, passively watching opportunity evaporate.

"If I could have followed up right there," he says, pointing with his fork, "I might be the heavyweight champ today."

Instead, Mike Tyson fights Buster Douglas in Tokyo next month for about $8 million, and Tony Tucker fights Calvin Jones Monday night at the Forum for $15,000.

All, Tucker says, because of a painful hand.

"I couldn't follow up when I hurt him because my right hand was broken," he says. "I wanted to, I knew he was hurt, but subconsciously I held back because of the hand.

"Any other time, I'd have been on his butt with both feet, but my hand made me hesitate."

After the fight, X-rays did indeed show Tucker had four fracture fragments on the side of his right hand, that he fought in great pain. Tucker carries with him a doctor's letter describing the injury.

Fast forward to Round 12. Tyson is clearly ahead on points by now, but Tucker is still very active in the fight. Tyson fights furiously but can't connect with a finishing punch. Instead, Tucker cracks Tyson several times with left hooks to the head.

Tucker is very busy in the final round but only with his left hand. With two minutes gone in the round, he has thrown just one right hand. In the last minute, with everything on the line, he throws five right hands.

"I think I broke the hand in training; it was sore 10 days before the fight," he says. "But people kept telling me it was 'strained tendons.' I thought the fight should have been postponed, but it got back to me if I pulled out I'd be blackballed forever."

"I'm not naming names, but there was big economics involved," says Robert Tucker, Tony's father and manager. "We were all pressured to go through with the fight."

The videotape shows the ring announcer reading off the judges' scores--119-111, 118-113, 116-112--as the TV announcers gush about Tucker's unexpectedly strong effort.

Stop. Rewind. Stop. Play.

Round 1 begins again.

"OK, let's see it again," Tucker says, and there is a tone of sadness in his voice.

There is a body of opinion in boxing that the best athlete among world-class heavyweights is Tony Tucker. There is also a body of opinion that he lacks the long-term commitment required to be a champion.

Cited repeatedly are his long absence from boxing since the loss to Tyson 29 months ago, and terms in drug rehabilitation clinics in West Hampton, N.J., and Tucson.

"Tony went through a long period of depression," says Ed Bell, a Los Angeles businessman who is now Tucker's promoter. "He had some personal problems, and his money from the Tyson fight was tied up for a long time in a couple of lawsuits."

Tucker, 31, is 6-feet-5, 235 pounds, has an 82-inch reach, hits with authority and is quick afoot.

"Physically and talent-wise, he's the best all-around heavyweight in boxing, including Mike Tyson," says Manny Steward, his one-time Detroit trainer.

"I wish I still had him, but one of Tony's problems is he listens to too many people and he gets pulled in too many directions. I still feel he should have beaten Tyson that night. And if he'd used his jab with more authority, he might have. He has the heart and the right mental attitude to be a champion; he just needs to get focused."

Coming into focus, Tucker's people hope, is Calvin Jones Monday night. It'll be the second appointment on Tucker's comeback calendar. He knocked out Dino Homsey last month at the Sports Arena.

The Tyson defeat was his first. He was the International Boxing Federation champion that night, and Tyson-Tucker was the final bout in Don King's heavyweight unification tournament. By beating Tucker, Tyson became the undisputed heavyweight champion.

If Tucker stops Jones, as expected, Bell will search out bigger game--for example, Michael Dokes, who also trains at Big Oaks Lodge. In fact, Tucker and Dokes may be in the Big Oaks outdoor ring within two weeks, sparring.

"If Tony shows us Monday he's ready for a top contender, then we'll get him one," Bell says.

Anger flashes occasionally, when Tucker talks about the aftermath of what he hopes will one day be known as Tyson-Tucker I.

"I fought the most dangerous fighter in the world to a standstill, with one hand, and I didn't get paid what I was supposed to get paid," he says.

"I signed for $1.1 million and wound up with less than half of that (he has told others he wound up with $250,000). That's a disgrace. I was an undefeated champion at the time."

Others, however, say Tucker himself was entirely responsible for his relatively small return, for having contracted himself out to too many managers and trainers.

Tucker says pain is the theme of his drive to a rematch with Tyson. "Welcome to the House of Pain," is his greeting to Big Oaks visitors.

The other morning, he ran from Bouquet Canyon Road near Big Oaks Lodge to nearly the top of a ridge, on a twisting dirt road. It was all uphill and the distance was about two miles. Clad in a running suit and combat boots, he finished impressively with a 100-yard sprint.

Then, back at Big Oaks, with 120 pounds of weights across his shoulders, he duckwalked across the ring. Before each drill, he shouts: "Get ready for pain!"

"Pain is what will beat Mike Tyson," he says. "The only thing he understands is pain. Give him pain, and all that ferocity is gone. He becomes an ordinary fighter then."

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