“Forgotten? Not A Chance!”
Fame can be fleeting – especially in sports. Athletes are treated a bit like horses sadly; used by all at their peak, then, as their ability to win wanes, gradually put out to pasture until they are little more than an asterisk on a sports page; a note in Wikipedia.
Former WBO World Middleweight Champion, Doug DeWitt, is a happy exception to this phenomenon. This beloved boxer of the ’80s and very early ’90s was different; special. He made an indelible impression on those who saw him box and even more so on those fortunate to call him “friend.” So much so in fact, that one of his friends, Anthony Colarossi, encouraged me to write a little something about Doug. I’m only too happy to oblige.
Doug “Cobra” DeWitt was born in Youngstown, Ohio in August of 1961. He moved to Yonkers, New York at an early age and began boxing there when he was 15-years-old. He had an excellent amateur career, amassing a record of 35-4 before turning professional at age 18, in 1980. He enjoyed instant success, losing only 1 of his first 29 fights.
His next loss was to the half-brother of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the outstanding Robbie Sims – a loss he would go on to avenge years later in a world title fight. Doug would win his next 2 fights before losing 2 in a row to a couple of Hall of Fame fighters, Milton “Ice Man” McCrory followed by Tommy Hearns.
The thing about boxing though is that every now and again, a loss can be as good as a win. That’s what it was for DeWitt in his loss to Hearns. Doug gave as good as he got for the entire fight. It was an all-out war. The scores were very misleading.
Yes, Doug lost unanimously and by a wide margin, but the reader needs to picture a fight where nearly every single round was close, a series of razor-thin 10-9’s with Hearns just barely on the winning edge of each round. DeWitt made such an impression on Hearns that at the end of the bout, Hearns said to Doug, “You are definitely going to be a world champion one day soon.” As it turned out, Hearns was right.
But what made DeWitt’s success in the ring so remarkable was that he was accomplishing all of this, while his personal life was in absolute turmoil. He was in the midst of a long-term relationship with a woman some 14 years older than him.
They had little in common except an inexplicable but strong attraction that caused Doug to throw away all reason and perspective. He had only been a very inexperienced 20-year-old when he took up with this then 34-year-old woman. As Doug has said many times over, “She was a good woman. She just couldn’t understand or accept the demands placed on me by boxing.”
As it turned out, she never did come around to accepting them but that didn’t deter Doug from carrying on the relationship. He was blinded to the toxicity of what was happening to him and carried his strained emotions and mental well-being into every fight.
In a sense, every bout he fought was “two on one”…he was fighting his opponent – and his partner.
DeWitt carried on after the Hearns fight earning a world title shot against the ever-dangerous Sumbu Kalambay, in 1988.
Doug himself admitted that his mind was anywhere but in that fight and he found himself stopped halfway through Round 7. At this point, DeWitt wasn’t even sure if he wanted to carry on boxing. And then, the fledgeling WBO governing body offered him a shot at their middleweight crown against, of all people, the aforementioned Robbie Sims.
If ever there was a “2 for 1” opportunity for a boxer, this was it. He was being offered a chance to avenge one of his defeats AND a chance to finally be crowned a world champion; all in the same fight.
The fight was close, but DeWitt had found a way to turn the clock back. Maybe it was because he was comfortable fighting a known opponent, maybe it was because his relationship with his partner was finally drawing to a close; whatever it was, Doug fought brilliantly and 12 close rounds later, he had won his world championship in a split-decision victory.
But Doug wasn’t done there. In the first defense of his title, DeWitt fought the excellent Canadian, Matthew Hilton of the Hilton brothers boxing family. Hilton’s pedigree ran deep. His brothers, Alex and Davey were world champions. His other brothers were successful boxers in their own right.
Doug recalls being very wary of the fight. But, as is typical of great fighters, Doug delivered the performance of his life at exactly the right moment. His movement and speed gave Hilton fits. Doug couldn’t miss and by the end of the 11th round, Hilton could no longer see out of his bloodied and damaged eyes. The fight was stopped and DeWitt had a career-defining victory.
Doug would fight four more times in his career, winning one, losing to Nigel Benn and, in his career finale, James Toney. After retiring, Doug tried his hand at acting with a help up from his friend, Mickey Rourke. He showed up in several movies and appeared in over two dozen stage plays.
Like a lot of ex-boxers, Doug also tried the gym thing, establishing a program for executives down at the famous Gleason’s gym. He quickly tired of that though and quit to spend more time with his son, whom he had fathered from a prior relationship.
Unlike most fighters, Doug DeWitt didn’t need the hat passed around for him at any gym. He didn’t need any roasts or benefit dinners either. He was really good with his money and actually became quite handy at playing the stock market. He made a bundle, bought some real estate, and finally retired for good.
It would be nice if the story ended there but boxing isn’t famous for its fairy-tale endings. Doug’s health began to show the signs of a championship, 42-fight career. First came the tremors in his hands, then the slowed speech, then the gaps in time. Doug, aware of what was happening to him, and self-conscious about his appearance, even disappeared for a time. He seemed headed for boxing’s trash heap – until his friends entered the picture.
Doug had always treated everyone in his life with the respect they deserved. He was as honest as the day is long and as generous as they came – not just with money, but with things far more important; his time, his words of encouragement to younger fighters, his unselfish interest in others.
He may not have realized it while it was happening, but Doug DeWitt’s life was about writing a cheque he would cash later on when he most needed it, a cheque made out to. human decency and true friendship. His friends didn’t forget him. They couldn’t. They found Doug, rallied around him and gave him that unconditional respect and love he had given everyone else.
Now, Doug DeWitt is enjoying his life after boxing, surrounded by good friends and great people. He’s become something more valuable and lasting than a boxing champion. Doug DeWitt is the champion of his own circle.