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The three calves were standing single file in the narrow chute at one end of the paddock, eyeing the cowboy who sat high astride his cutting horse, a 15-year-old sorrel gelding named Dolamite. It was late one morning last week, and the sun was lifting in a blaze over Tulsa. James (Quick) Tillis wiped the sweat from his forehead and snapped down the brim of his big straw hat.
"Turn on a dime, this horse," Tillis said. "Big little horse, that's what I like. He knows all the tricks and everything, this horse does." Tillis picked up the reins and lasso with his left hand, clamped a shorter, thinner piece of line between his teeth and twirled the noose end of the lariat with his right hand. Rancher Reuben Hura waited at the door of the chute.
"Open it, Reuben," said Tillis.
The first calf sprinted from the chute, veering left toward a wire fence. Tillis spurred the sorrel after him, twirling the lasso quickly over his head three times and letting it fly. It dropped over the calf's head, snapping the animal to a halt while Dolamite planted his back feet and skidded to a stop. Tillis leaped off his horse and raced to the calf's left side. The rope went slack. "Make the horse go back!" Hura shouted. "The rope's got to be tight before you can throw the calf down."
Tillis jerked the line, and Dolamite backed up, tightening it. The white-faced Hereford weighed about 400 pounds, at least 100 too much for competitive calf-roping, but Tillis has built himself up practicing for the rodeo on such outsized animals. He reached over the calf's back, heaved mightily three or four times and flipped the calf on its side. He snatched the tie-string from his mouth, looped the noose around the calf's right front hoof, then crossed both its hind legs over that and wrapped them all together with the string, twice quickly, tying it off with a flourishing half hitch and raising his hands triumphantly in the air.
"I'm a fightin' cowboy," Tillis says. "Something new. Fastest heavyweight in the world. I ain't no city slicker. I'm a boots-and-hats guy. A real live fightin' cowboy, a black cowboy. I'm Quick Tillis, the next heavyweight champion of the world. When I fight Mike Weaver you'll see."
At age 24, with a pro record of 20-0 and 16 knockouts, Tillis finds himself emerging from the obscurity of a career spent almost exclusively in Chicago, one of the game's ghost towns, and living a dream he has had since he was a boy of 15 growing up in Oklahoma and fighting in smokers as an amateur. On Oct. 3, in the Horizon, an arena in the village of Rosemont outside Chicago, Tillis is scheduled to meet Weaver for the WBA version of the heavyweight title, which Weaver won by knocking John Tate unconscious on March 31, 1980.
The fight is still three months away, but Tillis has already been the object of a lot of controversy and comment. Weaver had signed in April to fight No. 1 contender Gerry Cooney this fall, but the WBA quashed that bout by ruling that the third-ranked Tillis was the leading available contender on March 31, the deadline by which Weaver was supposed to sign under WBA rules for his first mandatory defense. At the time Cooney was preparing to fight Ken Norton on May 11, and Leon Spinks, ranked second, was training to fight Larry Holmes, the WBC champion, on June 12. So both were unavailable. That left the 6'2", 219-pound Tillis, largely unknown and untested, to have at Weaver for a purse of $250,000.
But money was not the object here. In fact, Tillis turned down a bigger offer to step aside and let Cooney-Weaver happen. Jim Kaulentis, the 35-year-old Chicago pork-belly trader who manages Tillis, says that Sam Glass, who has promoted a number of Cooney's fights, offered Tillis $250,000 in cash, a $150,000 purse to fight on the Cooney-Weaver undercard and a shot at the Cooney-Weaver winner, perhaps for as much as $500,000, as inducement to step aside. Kaulentis called Tillis to relay Glass' offer. "What do you want, the money or the championship belt?" Kaulentis asked.
"The belt," Tillis said.