(In the final pose, left to right: Chris Arreola; Tony Thompson; Maurice Harris; Kendrick Releford)
Tony Thompson has payback on the brain.
“Hell yeah,” the 39-year-old heavyweight said in a phone interview. “Anytime someone beats me, I want to get payback.”
On ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights this week in Reno, he’ll get a chance to avenge one of his losses, a three-round decision long ago against Maurice Harris that doesn’t even show up on his official record. Like most boxers, Thompson says he isn’t looking past his upcoming opponent. But for years, the payback Thompson has really wanted is against heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, whom Thompson gave his toughest fight since 2005 before suffering a stoppage loss.
And one good payback could lead to another. Owing to his position in the IBF rankings, a win over Harris could put Thompson one win away from the rematch with Klitschko that he craves. “You know, I’m fighting to be one step closer to the heavyweight championship of the world. Any time you’re in that position, you feel great. How could you not love that?” he said.
But that’s later. Right now, like he said, he’s focused on Harris. And Harris’ record of 24-10-2 is deceptive.
Harris, 35, was away from the ring in 2008 and 2009. Once he got back, the reviews improved. He’s not beaten any killers in a four-fight stretch, but in his last bout, he did knock off Nagy Aguilera a couple fights after Aguilera upset Oleg Maskaev. Harris also beat journeymen Julius Long and Robert Hawkins in his comeback. And he’s always been regarded as having good boxing skills, if not big power.
Harris also has fought a who’s who of heavyweight contenders. He lost to Larry Holmes back in 1997; to Chris Byrd in 2001; to Henry Akinwande, also in 2001; to Fres Oquendo in 2003; and to Tye Fields in 2006. The impression one gets from looking at his wins, though, is that he’s better than his worst losses. He knocked out Siarhei Liakhovich in 2002. And, of course, he decisioned Thompson in the “Thunderbox” tournament that same year to claim the tourney crown.
In a news release from his promoter, Boxing 360, Harris explained his mentality coming in to the Thompson fight, compared to the first.
“Things change,” Harris said, among them that he claims to be more focused now and has a promoter who believes in him. “I didn’t know Thompson then and I don’t know him now. I’m not going back nine years to that fight. This fight is now and that’s what counts. I know I’m a better fighter because with age comes wisdom. He’s gotten experience and fought in some big fights. I’ve been on my journey and he’s been on his.”
For his part, Thompson thinks of himself as a completely different fighter now.
“I’ve changed just from experience alone — the caliber of opponent I’ve been fighting, and beating,” Thompson said. “I know I’ve changed. I can’t really speak for ‘Moe.’ I know he won his last four fights, but I don’t know against who. Me, I feel good about the situation. That was a three-round fight. He’s not faced the best Tony Thompson.”
Thompson has fought and beaten some pretty good heavyweight contenders — Luan Krasniqi, Timur Ibragimov (who’s been working with Thompson in sparring for the Harris training camp, where Thompson said he’s been trying to sharpen up his technique first and foremost) and Chazz Witherspoon among them. But a little like Juan Manuel Marquez made his name in two fights he didn’t win against current pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, Thompson’s reputation is built a good deal on his loss to Klitschko.
Ever since Klitschko’s difficult win over Samuel Peter in 2005, Wlad has had a pretty easy time of it — except against Thompson. Thompson is a 6’5″ southpaw with speed, technique and more power than his record of 23 knockouts in 35 wins would suggest. And like the 6’6 1/2″ Klitschko, Thompson knows how to use his height. When they met in 2008, Thompson wasn’t beating Klitschko prior to an 11th round knockout; he was down on all the scorecards. But he was making Klitschko uncomfortable, with Thompson connecting on more punches than Klitschko wanted, especially since Klitschko’s style was overhauled to a more safety-conscious posture in the wake of a few disastrous knockouts that suggested he couldn’t take a punch. After the fight, Klitschko’s trainer, Manny Steward, said his pre-fight prediction proved correct: “I said Thompson would be one of the most difficult fights we will have.”
Thompson hurt his knee in the fight, and it took a while to heal and get back in the ring. Since, he has fought four times, winning all of the fights by knockout, most notably against Witherspoon. The last time a national television audience saw Thompson was on Friday Night Fights last spring against Owen Beck, a late replacement for Jason Estrada. Thompson’s performance got some good reviews, some bad. “I wanna look good in this fight for the fans and on television,” he said.
The knee, Thompson said, is now healthy — within reason. “I feel wonderful. It’s stronger and better every day,” he said. “It’s not ever going to be 100 percent again. It never can be after surgery. But it’s as good as I can get.”
Thompson probably belongs in the heavyweight top 10, despite Ring Magazine not placing him there. But his IBF ranking means that a win over Harris would put him in line to face Eddie Chambers, with the winner of that bout taking on Klitschko, assuming Klitschko retains his IBF title against David Haye — no sure bet. Thompson-Chambers would pit two Goossen-Tutor heavyweights against one another, with a third, Chris Arreola, headlining the Friday Night Fights card this week against Kendrick Releford.
At 39, Thompson has begun to lay the groundwork for life after boxing. He works in security for a company called Coastal International, to whom he was grateful for allowing him time off to train, and he’s going to school for massage therapy. But he has a goal he wants to reach first. He believes people have overlooked him, and he knows there’s only one way to fix that.
“People have done that my whole career. It’s nothing new. I’m beyond being insulted,” Thompson said. “I’m out to prove my point. Thery’e not talking about me until I beat Wlad. If I do that, I’ll be sitting on top and making a little noise.
“And I do plan to point fingers.”