Olympic Boxer Henry Tillman Faces Prison


The storybook tale of Henry Tillman--the Los Angeles street tough who boxed his way out of jail and to an Olympic gold medal--took a sharp turn back to reality Monday when Tillman pleaded guilty to a credit card forgery charge that is expected to send him to state prison for nearly three years.

Tillman admitted in a brief appearance in Torrance Superior Court that he passed a fake Discover card in attempting to obtain $800 last September at Hollywood Park Casino. Several other charges--including falsifying a driver’s license and using an illegal “cloned” cellular phone--were dropped under a plea agreement that will lock Tillman up for the minimum term of 32 months.

The 34-year-old Tillman declined to comment after the proceeding, but his lawyer said the onetime heavyweight boxer decided it was too risky to fight the charges and face up to six years in prison. “Losing could be horrendous,” said attorney H. David Schmerin. “So you make a deal.”


Formal sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 14.

Tillman’s downfall surprised many acquaintances, who thought he seemed destined to escape a rough-and-tumble youth in South-Central Los Angeles.

The teen-age Tillman served short jail terms for drug use, grand theft and battery before he landed his first serious time, for armed robbery. That conviction had a silver lining, though, when Tillman was placed at a California Youth Authority facility in Chino, where he met a pugnacious boxing coach named Mercer (Smitty) Smith.

In a little more than two years, Smith had his lightning-fast pupil boxing for the 1984 Olympic championship. Only current heavyweight champion George Foreman, in the history of American boxing, made a faster ascent from novice to Olympic champion.

Tillman’s victory was all the sweeter because it occurred in his hometown and was followed shortly by his marriage to Gina Hemphill, an Olympic staff member and granddaughter of track star Jesse Owens.

Even when his boxing career foundered, the glib and amiable athlete seemed to make the transition to community work smoothly. Among his activities, he organized neighborhood meetings for RLA, the riot recovery agency.

But in 1994, he received probation after pleading guilty to passing a bad credit card at a Gardena card club. Just a few months later, he turned up at Hollywood Park. There, authorities said the fact that he was carrying a credit card under a fake name was made obvious because a hostess knew him and because Tillman was stitched across the back of his jacket.

In the eyes of the law, it turned out, Tillman had never entirely escaped his troublesome youth. Under the state’s tightened sentencing laws, prosecutors were able to seek double the prison term, because of the boxer’s 14-year-old armed robbery conviction. Those laws also require that he serve at least 85% of his term.