I didn't believe it when I saw the announcement. Finally, the two archest of archrivals would clash in a WBC-sanctioned event, to be held in luxurious Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had been waiting for this event for years. As soon as I saw the number on the screen, I was fumbling with the cordless phone and my wallet, searching for the newly granted VISA card that would be my passport to a world of crotchety grudge matches.
I had my plane tickets reserved and my tickets to the fight secured within hours. I was paying a ridiculous amount of money, but what do you expect? I'd been a follower of this feud ever since I discovered CSpan2. Okay, maybe feud isn't the best choice of words, but still, this type of Winchester vs. Wake Forest, North Carolina Vs. South Carolina action doesn't happen all the time. I was addicted, and I needed a fix.
Fight day came soon. I was so giddy. When the usher at the arena asked me what row I was in, it was all I could do to keep from shouting,
"Row five, seat P, Motherfucker! Let's get it on!"
I was 3 hours early for the fight. The prefights were good, some state senators and lieutenant governor candidates going at it. They were heated, but none would hold the crowd's attention like the main event. I impatiently chomped my fifth box of popcorn waiting for the lights to dim, signaling the entrance of the competitors.
I nearly pissed my pants when it happened. I wasn't even listening to the announcer when he touted Thurmond's exploits, from the filibuster record to his being elected on write-in ballots, all I could hear was the Battle Hymn of the Republic reaching a crescendo as his ever-virile frame sauntered into the ring, surrounded by security guards and senate aids. He was a vision in blue and white, his dyed (obviously) brown hair still slicked back on his head. You could tell he new that his age would be a disadvantage, but he had the endurance to outlast his flash-in-the-pan competitor.
Then, while I was still admiring the politician/pugilist, I heard the strains of Onward Christian Soldiers, and looked to the opposite entrance. The challenger Jesse Helms, looking spry at just 80 years to Thurmond's 99, had a spring in his step and a hatred in his eye. He couldn't have wanted to end Thurmond more if he were a commie. The tension in the dome was thickening by the second. This 33rd degree mason was ready to drop his signature bomb of fury on his opponent.
The bell rang while I was still in a daze. Their arms, previously hanging limply at their sides, akin to former senator Bob Dole, now were taut springs, ready to knock their rival's dentures through the back of their head. Helms was giving test jabs, obviously trying to take control early. It wasn't until about 2 minutes in to the first round that the first real contact was made. After not taking one of his jabs seriously enough, Thurmond paid the price. He caught a strong right hook on the base of his neck, and reeled for a fraction of a second, before countering with an uppercut that would have knocked out his grandson, had it connected. It didn't seem like much, but Helms had tasted blood, and he wanted more.
The second round was rife with contact. Thurmond needed to get back into it, so he was looking at every opportunity. After missing on a few jabs of his own, he connected to Helm's left temple with a hook one minute in. Helms came back quick, however, and delivered some good body shots before Strom wrapped him up and they were separated.
During the third round, all hell broke loose. Helms's trainer had told his fighter that Thurmond was thinking about promoting Darwinist theory in South Carolina high schools, and he had a new fire in his eye. Helms unleashed a barrage of combos - right jab, left hook, right uppercut - that left the old man staggering. Thurmond was able to get a few good hooks and jabs, but it was no match. Helms had obviously won that round.
The fourth round was a travesty. Both of the senators were showing obvious signs of fatigue. Their punches lacked snap (except for the sounds their elbows made), and they shuffled around the ring like the octogenarians they were. Apparently, life in Congress doesn't allow for much in the way of physical training for a twelve-round boxing match. This fight would come down to who wanted it more. But not until the fifth.
Helms came out swinging. Thurmond had a bleeding lip and nose within seconds, thanks to an avalanche of labored crosses. It looked as if he would collapse at any second. But I knew it wouldn't end like this. It couldn't. Strom, though he appeared weak and frail, had a hidden store in him. He immediately countered with blow after blow, to Helms's face and chest. Helms tried to back off, but he just kept getting beaten. After nearly 45 seconds of being pulverized, Helms collapsed, and refused to get up.
The crowd was insane. Wayne Newton was sitting five rows in front of me, and he was jumping up and down like a three year-old. I couldn't believe that the former Airborne division member had come through, beating a man nearly 20 years younger than he.
The referee had to strain to lift Senator Thurmond's right hand, but when that limb of loose skin and varicose veins was shining under the lights of Caesar's, I nearly cried. I lost $20 on that bastard.