After Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis had their prefab blowup at a press conference in New York last month, various boxing commissioners around the country stated that they wanted no part of any pairing of the pugs. That means the two fighters may not be under the same roof until September, when they’re scheduled to be together in Woodley Park.
Locals have no reason to fear such a meeting, promises York Van Nixon.
“Those guys will be fine when they’re here,” Nixon says with a laugh. “All that stuff [at the press conference] was staged anyway.”
Nixon knows both fighters, and the fight game, well enough to make such judgments. He’s also the main reason Tyson and Lewis will be in town this fall. The onetime chairman of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission now serves as vice president of the World Boxing Association (WBA), the oldest international sanctioning body in the much-abused sport of kings. This weekend, Nixon will take off to Caracas, Venezuela, where the WBA is now headquartered, to present the organization with his plan to bring Tyson, Lewis, and every other living ex-heavyweight champ and fighter of note to Washington.
They won’t be coming here to box, however. Instead, the fighters will be expected to show up for the WBA’s 81st annual convention, a gig that Nixon landed for his hometown after extended lobbying with boxing bigwigs. Last week, he finalized a deal with the Marriott Wardman Park to house guests during the four-day gathering and host the gala dinner.
If past is prologue, the WBA soiree will have slightly more glitz than the typical Amway get-together. And a lot more lime-green crushed-velvet jumpsuits, too.
“York Van Nixon is to be commended. This is like landing a Super Bowl for Washington,” says Nat Williams, a local boxing organizer and promoter, whose Boxing Information Center will help produce the WBA convention. “It’s going to be a party.”
The WBA last held its convention in D.C. in 1976. Nixon, who was with the boxing commission at the time, has the keepsakes to prove just what a powerhouse party the event really was. Among them is a plaque with the autographs of Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, MC Howard Cosell, and even Watergate Judge John Sirica (“Judge Sirica was a huge boxing fan and a great man,” Nixon says. “He told me the white Nixon was the one causing all the problems for him”), along with dozens of other ring luminaries who attended the bicentennial bash.
The return of the WBA convention to the city should give a shot in the arm to local boxing, which has gone down the toidy, from an organizational standpoint, in the quarter-century since the event was here. Current D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission head Arnold McKnight, for example, splits his time between running Cora Masters Barry’s Southeast Tennis & Learning Center in Anacostia and bringing fights to the city.
“I really don’t know what the commission does anymore. They don’t bring in any fights,” Nixon says.
Nixon left his post atop the commission in the mid-’80s, shortly after then-Mayor Marion Barry appointed the then-Cora Masters to the board. Barry’s action knocked noted sportsman and Hall of Fame running back Bobby Mitchell off the commission. Mitchell, during his tenure, had actively supported amateur boxing in the District, while all these years later it appears Masters’ only qualification was that she was the mayor’s future wife.
His dealings with Barry and Masters weren’t the first disappointments Nixon experienced in boxing. A champion bodybuilder in the mid-’50s, Nixon says he took more punches than he gave during his own ring career, despite the tutelage of longtime friend and former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott. He hung up the gloves after a no-name California heavyweight left him in stitches. Fourteen stitches above the eye, to be exact.
After a stint as a referee, Nixon became a boxing administrator with the D.C. commission and later the WBA—positions that put him ringside at some of the sweet science’s all-time classic matchups.
The 1975 Thrilla in Manila, generally regarded as the most brutal heavyweight title fight of all time, sticks out in Nixon’s memory.
I’ll never forget the sound of the punches Ali and Frazier were throwing,” he says. “It was like they were using baseball bats on each other.”
Pictures of Ali can be found all over Nixon’s living quarters. Ali gave Nixon the trunks he wore on Sept. 15, 1978, the night he beat Leon Spinks to capture the heavyweight title for the last time. He keeps the garment, something the typical sports historian would drool over, in a simple plastic bag.
“I should probably figure out how to keep these in some way that will preserve them,” Nixon tells me, as he throws the white-and-black trunks, still discolored by the fighters’ fluids from that momentous night more than two decades ago, on a table.
Perhaps the most important bout Nixon ever took part in occurred in October 1979, when he went to Pretoria, South Africa, to supervise the John Tate/Gerrie Coetzee fight for the WBA title vacated by Ali. That was the first fight in the history of South Africa where blacks were allowed to sit anywhere in the arena where they could afford a ticket. Tate, the American, was clearly the crowd’s favorite as he pounded out a 15-round decision over native son Coetzee, a former policeman in the repressive pre-Mandela regime.
Nixon has seen the dark side of boxing, too. He remembers dining with Ken Norton just before that former champ’s May 1981 bout with Gerry Cooney. During the meal, Nixon asked Norton why, so late in what had been a glorious career, he’d get in the ring with a much younger, stronger man.
“He just said, “Where else am I going to get that kind of money?’” Nixon recalls. “I just shook my head. I knew what was coming.”
What was coming was perhaps the most one-sided one-round beating in boxing’s modern era. Shortly after the opening bell, Norton got caught in the ropes and couldn’t even fall as Cooney, who wouldn’t have touched him in Norton’s prime, delivered haymaker after haymaker to the head of the washed-up opponent. Norton retired after the “fight,” but the damage was done.
“Ken Norton can barely even form a sentence anymore,” he says.
Pension plans and improved medical coverage for boxers will be among the topics covered at the WBA convention in September, Nixon promises. There’s also a plan to present an honorary title belt to President George W. Bush.
Tyson’s behavior won’t be officially discussed, however.
“Mike’s OK. Really,” Nixon says. “I’ve been with him a lot, and I’ve only seen him angry twice.” —Dave McKenna