Starting Over : Nearly Six Years After Squandering Chance Against Tyson, Tucker Has a Second Shot at Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The moment remains frozen in time . . . well, frozen on videotape, anyway.

It is Aug. 1, 1987, a hot night on the Las Vegas Hilton's parking lot. In the first minute of the first round, in a heavyweight championship boxing match, Tony Tucker comes off the ropes and launches a left uppercut.

It begins low, at his waist, comes up quickly and catches Mike Tyson on the tip of his chin.

For an instant, boxing trembles.

Tyson does a brief tap dance, trying to find his center of gravity. His hands drop. Stunned and vulnerable for perhaps a second, Tyson survives the moment. And Tony Tucker's opportunity to become Tyson's conqueror has passed, like a warm summer breeze.

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Tucker fought Tyson bravely and competently for 12 rounds that night--and lost a decision.

That was as close as anyone had come to beating Tyson. And it was 2 1/2 years before Buster Douglas flattened Tyson in Tokyo.

But it wasn't Tucker's last title fight. Saturday night, almost six years later, at Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center, Tucker gets a second chance. Now 33 but still with only that Tyson defeat marring his 48-1 record, he fights Lennox Lewis (22-0), who brings a paper-thin version of the heavyweight title to the fight.

After Riddick Bowe--who earned the undisputed heavyweight title by beating Evander Holyfield--dumped his World Boxing Council belt into a trash can during a London news conference, the WBC awarded its title to Lewis.

By all rights, Tucker should have grown tired of the question years ago: "How come you didn't follow up that uppercut that night with a straight right hand?"

Yet, he patiently replies that the top of his right hand that night carried four small bone fragments in it, a condition caused by a fracture not detected, he said, until 10 days before the fight. For years, he carried a doctor's letter in his wallet, describing the injury.

In the Tyson-Tucker video--Tucker lost his International Boxing Federation title that night and Tyson became the undisputed champion--Tucker throws very few rights, and none with authority . . . until the final 10 seconds. Then, you see Tucker throwing big right hands, knowing he is trailing on all judges' cards.

"I tried to get a postponement, but it got back to me that if I pulled out, I would be blackballed forever," he said.

"Powerful economic forces were at work."

He says he spent the next couple of years feeling sorry for himself.

This time, no excuses. And no pulled punches.

At a news conference Thursday, he said: "I am physically, mentally and spiritually ready for this fight."

There are boxing people who believe Tucker should have won the championship in about 1982 and should be defending his title Saturday for maybe the 50th time.

He is 6 feet 5, weights about 240 pounds, has never had a serious weight problem, has never shied away from hard training, can take a hard punch and can deliver one. He has a punishing jab that seems to zoom halfway across the ring, and for a big heavyweight has surprising mobility.

Alex Sherer, a Los Angeles trainer who worked at Detroit's Kronk Gym when Tucker was starting out in 1980, remembers a kid who couldn't miss.

"Even when he was 21, 22, he could strike hard from a distance and he could go inside on you and throw combinations that reminded you of Joe Louis," he said.

"The kid had everything going for him. Even now, over 10 years later, he's still a formidable heavyweight. I make Lewis the favorite against Tony, but I give Tony a very good chance in this fight.

"I see it this way: What has Lennox Lewis ever done? All he's done is knock out Razor Ruddock, and all Razor ever did was lose twice to Mike Tyson."

So, whatever happened to Tony Tucker, the kid from Grand Rapids, Mich., who couldn't miss?

First, there was cocaine. Lots of cocaine. Lots of rehabilitation clinics. He and his manager, Jack Cohen, say he has been clean for a year.

Second, there was his father, Robert Tucker.

"In the early days, Tony's major problem was his father," Sherer said. "Tony's father signed a lot of paper with a lot of people for up-front money and Tony was getting virtually nothing from his purses--all kinds of people had pieces of him."

Tucker acknowledges all this, and talked recently of the pain of telling his father he couldn't handle his career anymore.

"I told him three years ago, and it was very hard," he said, quietly.

"I still love my father. We still talk to each other. We respect each other. But the splitting up over boxing, that was a two-year process. And it still hurts."

Cohen, a Los Angeles real estate investor who has managed Tucker for the last three years, is blunt about Tucker's cocaine problems.

"Tony is a junkie," he said. "Tony knows this, and I know it. Once a junkie, always a junkie. I worry about him all the time. But I'm very happy he's been clean for a year.

"He's also had a psychological dependency on his father for most of his life. But right now I think he's over that. Tony's a bright guy, but his father has been right at his side for so long, making so many bad decisions for him . . . he just couldn't pull away, no matter how bad things were going for him.

"When I took over his career, I found he and his dad had signed paper with all kinds of people. Finally, with this fight (Tucker's purse is $1,050,000), everyone will have been taken care of."

So, new beginnings?

"All the crises in my life are behind me," Tucker said.

"I'm more positive about my life than I ever have been. I'm in great shape, I was ready to beat Lewis last week.

"I can tell by looking at that skinny neck of his that he can't take a punch. I'm really going to hit him. It won't be pretty.

"I have a building anger. This is a hurting business, you know. This is boxing, and boxing isn't nice."

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