In November 1982, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter went to Houston to watch his friend Randall "Tex" Cobb fight Larry Holmes for boxing's heavyweight championship. In the coming days, we'll republish Dexter's four columns from the event. Below, you'll find the first one, originally published on Nov. 23, 1982, as "Cobb Refused to be the Retiring Kind." In it, Dexter writes for the first time about the night Cobb saved his life. For more on Dexter, go here.
The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He'd broken Shavers's jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn't see them.
We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.
The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.
He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, "You feeling better now?" And, while I'm admitting here that it wasn't Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn't Randall who had to watch the fight.
His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, "I wish you wouldn't fight Earnie Shavers anymore."
"I absolutely promise," he said.
But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, "I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can't watch it, then don't."
I took that the wrong way, of course. I'd only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. "I know it isn't easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers," he said.
I said, "It'd be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up."
And that's as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He'd taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight—if Cooney hadn't backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.
And a lot of people didn't.
In the bars, they told me Randall couldn't fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn't do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.
I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn't care.
The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I've ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.
I can close my eyes and still see Randall's face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.
Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, "You beat the bleep out of me, man." Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He'd been braver and stronger than he'd been in four years.
It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I've ever seen.
We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, "You know, you're giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can't hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they're sure you're not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You're taking away their fear."
"It's a bad habit, all right," he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year—a round in which he landed at least 100 punches—I heard him say this: "Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we're going to go out and get drunk."
Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.
I was already unconscious—hit five or six times square in the head—and it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he'd left me. And it doesn't matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you've got to think about leaving.
When I woke up he was shouting, "If he's dead, every one of you is dead, too." And it must have scared them off—it scared me—because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.
He said, "Pete?"
I said, "Any time you're ready to leave . . .” They'd broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn't move. I said, "Randall, this leg won't move."
He said, "We don't have time for that leg not to move." And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.
On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, "You know, we could of planned this better."
He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.
There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.
He leaned over to me and said, "I hope that's the softball team."
He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.
And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.
Tate's eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn't interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that's what he would have done.
And that's what he'll do against Holmes. He'll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he'll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.
And Randall probably will be cut, and I'll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can't fight.
I guess it doesn't need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn't.
I don't want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.
I don't want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I'll be there. Not because he didn't leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there—he doesn't.
I'll be there because it can't be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.
Part 2: The Weight Of Tex Cobb's Belief
Part 4: A Violent Game Of Tag
Pete Dexter is the author of the National Book Award-winning novel Paris Trout and six other novels: God's Pocket, Deadwood, Brotherly Love, The Paperboy, Train, and Spooner. He is also the author of Paper Trails, a collection of his non-fiction writing. Dexter has been a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Sacramento Bee, and has contributed to many magazines, including Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy. His screenplays include Rush and Mulholland Falls. Dexter was born in Michigan and raised in Georgia, Ill., and eastern South Dakota. He lives on an island off the coast of Washington.