Historians will never rank James “Quick” Tillis among the top heavyweight boxers of all time. Although the potential was there, fate had other ideas for the three-time Golden Gloves title winner from Tulsa.
“He had the heart of a champion and all of the tools to be among the best ever,” said legendary cornerman Angelo Dundee, who worked with Tillis early in his professional career. “Unfortunately, James was never able to put it all together, and part of that was out of his control.”
The part Dundee alludes to dealt with stamina problems Tillis struggled with during the formative years of his career, which included late-round losses in key fights against Mike Weaver, Carl Williams, Greg Page and Marvis Frazier. Tests later revealed that Tillis was allergic to eggs and milk ” key diet staples that affected his breathing during extended periods of physical exertion.
Tillis enjoyed more than two decades as a pro, winning his first 21 fights and eventually going toe-to-toe with seven world champions en route to a 42-22-1 record. Had he been diagnosed earlier, who knows how things might have turned out?
“I feel it would have been much different if we would have discovered the allergy thing earlier in my career. It really affected me in the late stages of a lot of big fights,” said Tillis, who earned the nickname “Fighting Cowboy” from his childhood idol, Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali.
But Tillis doesn’t dwell on what might have been. These days, he’s living comfortably back in his hometown of Tulsa and working on a number of projects, including on a documentary and possible movie script about his life in boxing. In 2000, he wrote his autobiography, “Thinkin’ Big.”
On Thursday night at Remington Park, Tillis will be honored with the inaugural lifetime achievement award given by catBOX Entertainment, the largest fight promotion outfit in Oklahoma. The presentation will be part of the evening’s fight card, which includes world-ranked cruiserweight Eric Fields and state lightweight champion Noah Zuhdi.
“Throughout Mr. Tillis’ extensive career in boxing, he has exhibited exceptional qualities that made him a perfect candidate to receive the Lifetime Boxing Achievement Award from catBOX,” said Darla Zuhdi, catBOX president. “The criteria for receiving this award is to recognize achievement in the sport of boxing, coupled with achievements as an individual in helping others and being a role model.”
While Tillis never was able to reach the pinnacle of his profession, he managed to carve out a name for himself with a number of memorable performances. He defeated one-time heavyweight champion Ernie Shavers in 1982 and became the first fighter to go the distance with future champion Mike Tyson.
“I’m honored to received this lifetime achievement award. My boxing career is something I’m proud of and to be recognized like this is always special,” Tillis said.
Now 52, he credits his first trainer” the late Edward Duncan ” with his successful fight career. It was under Duncan’s tutelage at Tulsa’s Chamberlain Park gym that Tillis also earned his original nickname, “Quick.” Tillis initially took an interest in boxing at age 7 after listening to the 1964 fight between Clay and Sonny Liston on the radio. He followed Clay’s career closely and eventually made his own debut on April 15, 1973. Tillis would go on to forge a 92-8 mark as an amateur, which including winning four state AAU titles to go along with his three Golden Glove crowns.
“I tried to imitate everything Cassius Clay did in the ring. He was like a hero to me. He inspired me to become a fighter,” he said.
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