The following is an excerpt from Todd D. Snyder’s critically-acclaimed book, Bundini: Don’t Believe The Hype. The following passage is from chapter 11, “The Fighting Cowboy.”
The life of James Theodore Tillis is best described as a contradiction. Born and raised in a small neighborhood in North Tulsa, Oklahoma, the predominately Black section of town, his is a story both typical of its surroundings and extraordinary just the same. Like many Oklahoma boys, Tillis was the product of the prairies, riding horses at the tender age of eight, eventually competing in local rodeos. His grandfather, Peter Hawkins, was a Black cowboy who made his living breaking horses. Lassoing calves would later become his grandson’s specialty. While cowboying was Tillis’s first love, the young wrangler also excelled at organized sports. In high school, Tillis was a standout fullback, also played baseball, and was a member of the wrestling team. For the man who would one day come to be known as “The Fighting Cowboy,” it was a dubious path to challenging for the heavyweight championship of the world.
The seed was planted the night Cassius Clay shocked the world by lifting the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston.
“Oh, Mama, I want to be just like him!” the seven-year-old version of James Tillis called to his mother.
“You can be anything you want to be, James,” Rose answered. “But, shut up now . . . we trying to listen to the fight,” she added, adjusting the volume on the radio.
The roots began to form at O’Brien Park Recreation Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Under the tutelage of trainer Ed Duncan, Tillis amassed an impressive amateur record of ninety-eight wins to only eight losses, winning three state Golden Gloves and four AAU titles. Tillis would, of course, have to leave the Oklahoma prairie to pursue his career in professional boxing.
The flower began to grow and eventually bloom in Chicago, under the direction of manager Jim Kaulentis and promoter Ernie Terrell. In the Windy City, Tillis quickly earned a reputation as one of the top heavyweight prospects in the sport, garnering the collective attention of the boxing world, including Muhammad Ali.
The “Fighting Cowboy’s” first face-to-face encounter with “The Greatest” was, in typical Ali fashion, teasing and playful.
“I was getting ready for my fourth pro fight at DePaul University in Chicago [February 28, 1979]. Ali came into the dressing room before the fight. Ali was my idol. I wanted to be like him. I was awestruck,” Tillis recalled.
“Is you a champ or a chump?” Ali shouted upon approaching Tillis, playfully slap-boxing with the twenty two-year-old as he attempted to tie the laces of his boxing shoes.
“You got a baby face. But I know the truth. Us baby-face boys can fight,” Ali teased after the impromptu slap-boxing match had ended.
Later that night, Tillis would knock out a journeyman from Cleveland, Ohio. Seated ringside, Ali must have liked what he saw in the slick boxer. After the bout, Ali invited Tillis to train at his secluded boxing wonderland in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania.
“We became friends right from the start. From then on, we were tight. They brought me to Deer Lake. I sparred with Ali five times. Went ten rounds with him. He was very helpful to me in my early career. Because of Ali, I became close with Bundini and Angelo,” Tillis reflected.
During his time at Deer Lake, Tillis was able to witness, firsthand, the complex relationship Ali shared with his personal motivator. The young boxer instantly gained an appreciation for Bundini’s unique approach. Listening to Tillis relive those memories, I was struck by the manner in which he described the experience, something akin to being the pupil of a spiritual guru. Tillis clearly viewed Bundini as the catalyst to Ali’s mental strength, a teacher who removed spiritual and mental darkness from the minds of his pupils. For Tillis, Bundini was more than a boxing trainer.
“When Bundini would get to talking like that, he’d make the hairs on your arms stand up. Wasn’t one time that I was around them that it didn’t give me a thrill. He was Ali’s spirit man. He really loved Ali. You could see it. Ain’t nobody else in the game was like him. Bundini focused on the spirit,” Tillis suggested.
In our conversations, Tillis went out of his way to highlight the authority in which Bundini spoke to the Champ. Bundini did not mince words when he felt Ali was not giving his best effort in the gym.
“[Bundini] would cuss Ali out. You better believe it. He kept Ali grounded,” Tillis argued.
Early into his time at Deer Lake, Tillis formed a strong bond with Ali’s entourage, a deep admiration for the way in which the unit conducted business.
Befriending Ali and Bundini changed the young professional in more ways than one. Until visiting Deer Lake, the boxer had been known in the media as James “Quick” Tillis, a nickname that had followed him around since 1973. The moniker “The Fighting Cowboy,” on the other hand, first began with a poem crafted by Ali and Bundini, something of a parting gift. The poem went as follows:
He don’t float like a butterfly or sting like a bee
Cause he ain’t Ali
He’s the fighting cowboy
He rides ’em, ropes ’em, brands ’em, and corrals ’em
He’s the fighting cowboy, ol’ dude!!! Yahweee!!
Watching Ali and Bundini perform the poem, just as they had done in their rendition of “float like a butterfly,” was one of the true high points of Tillis’s young life. The greatest fighter–trainer duo of all time, at least by Tillis’s estimation, had given him an original battle cry, with a moniker to match. The young fighter felt he was destined to become the next heavyweight champion of the world.
It would be a career rife with both flashes of promise and moments of befuddling disappointment, a seismograph chart of ups and downs. Tillis would win the first twenty bouts of his professional career, fighting mostly in the Chicago area, before losing a controversial decision to Mike Weaver in his first heavyweight title fight.
For the biggest fight of his career, Tillis would employ the services of Angelo Dundee. Before the Weaver fight, when Tillis had mentioned the possibility of adding Bundini to the mix, Dundee had advised his fighter against the move.
“I think Drew’s drinking problems were beginning to get out of hand at that point. It was nothing against Drew, but I think he was in a bad place at the time. That’s all that was. I remember my father trying everything in the book to motivate Tillis. He even pulled a hair out of his chest in the corner,” Jim Dundee said to me.
In hindsight, Tillis expressed regret for acquiescing to Dundee’s advice. For Tillis, having Bundini in his corner might have made the difference in what became a close decision loss.
“I wish I would have had Bundini when I fought Mike Weaver for the championship. Angelo was in my corner for that fight. Angelo was a good fitness man. I like Angelo. I ain’t putting Angelo down or nothing. But he didn’t have soul. I wish Bundini would have been there,” Tillis told me.
The controversial loss to Weaver was followed up by bounce-back wins against Jerry Williams and Earnie Shavers, those victories followed up by back-to-back technical knockout losses to Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page. Even in defeat, Tillis showed flashes of greatness. In the Page fight, for example, Tills dropped Page in the second but gradually faded and was stopped in the eighth. While some boxing pundits continued to view the twenty-seven-year-old fighter as a legitimate contender, others wrote him off as nothing more than a pugilistic litmus test for young prospects.
When “The Fighting Cowboy” and Angelo Dundee mutually decided to part ways after the loss to Page, Tillis began to mull over the possibility of bringing Bundini on board as his head trainer. In the fall of 1984, at a crossroads in his career, faced with the opportunity to square off against undefeated heavyweight prospect Carl “The Truth” Williams, Tillis finally made the call. Bundini had not stepped into a boxing ring since Ali’s humiliating loss to Trevor Berbick.
“Since Ali had retired, my father was left unemployed with no real options, even though Daddy was only fifty-two years old,” Drew Brown III reflected.
Bundini accepted the challenge of revitalizing Tillis’s boxing career. Tillis, above all else, was his friend. Life had taught both men the importance of getting back on the horse.