Hosea, Scaff recall fast finishes vs. Tyson

They go by many labels. The polite terms are trial horses, stepping-stones, gatekeepers, B sides. Others would dare to call them palookas, bums, stiffs, pugs, cadavers, cannon fodder – though maybe not to their faces.

These are the sort of men, practically anonymous to all but the staunchest fight fans, who compose the early portion of every champion's career. They build up confidence. They build up a record. And then when their usefulness has been exhausted, they usually fade away.

Mike Tyson had the most prominent career launch of any non-Olympic fighter. The buzz generated by his early fights – the relentlessness, the explosive power, the don't-blink knockouts – made Kid Dynamite a crossover sensation.

Even so, a quick glance at those early bouts will conjure up memories of … well, not much. Most of the names won't register.

Who are these guys? Where are they now?

Some fighters, like Tyson's first professional foe, Hector Mercedes, are tough to locate. Some, like Mitch "Blood" Green, are easier. Joe Ribalta won't do interviews without getting paid. Reggie Gross was imprisoned on murder charges.

Tyson will try to patch up his sagging career against Kevin McBride Saturday night in Washington. This will mark Tyson's first appearance since losing to Danny Williams last summer.

So the time seems fitting – since McBride is about the same caliber of fighter upon which a 19-year-old Tyson feasted regularly back in the day – to track down some of those men who gamely stepped into the ring to face a skyrocketing phenom and helped create a legend.

Tyson Foils IV: William Hosea and Sammy Scaff
The name of the referee was longer than the fight. Tyson needed barely more than two minutes to beat William Hosea, who was counted out by Harry Papacharalambaugh on June 28, 1986.

"I had bad shoes, and I was slipping all over the canvas," Hosea said. "I went down and was waiting to get up, and then the ref had to stop counting to send Tyson to a neutral corner. I misjudged the timing of it, and when he got to 10, I wasn't up yet.

"I just wanted to get through that first round and get my shoes taped up. That was then."

This is now. Hosea's brush with greatness came when Tyson was considered a star. The sledgehammer-fisted prodigy was only five months and five victories away from becoming the youngest champ in heavyweight history when Hosea took the fight.

"For all of my fights, I got nervous just because of the unexpected," said Hosea, who easily could be the guy next door in Small Town, U.S.A. "You can get hurt. Anything can happen. But I wasn't really thinking about Tyson as a heavy hitter. I just knew he could fight, and I had been training hard because of that.

"The thought of beating him was great. It definitely would have changed my life."

Hosea estimated his share of the purse was about $10,000. The money didn't last long, but the recognition sure did, especially in Bloomington, Ill., a city of about 65,000 people, where he's a jack-of-all-trades for the Western Avenue Community Center.

"It gave me fame around here," said the twice-married father of five sons and five daughters, ranging in age from 5 to 31. "A lot of people come to the center to meet me. Most of the time when I'm out, if I go to a show with my friends or something, I'll hear people say 'That's William Hosea. He fought Mike Tyson.' It feels kinda nice to be remembered."

In Hosea's next match, former WBC champion Pinklon Thomas sent him into retirement with a seventh-round stoppage. But Hosea returned to the ring more than five years later as a favor to his cousin, a local club fighter who was putting together a card and needed help generating attention. Lyle McDowell topped Hosea on a six-round decision, while his cousin's opponent didn't even show up.

Hosea (11-7, 10 KOs) never fought again, and knows he will forever be linked with Tyson, as another mere notch toward a world title belt. But Hosea's thankful he at least had the chance.

"Most of the fighters from my generation are on bad times, but I'm doing pretty good," Hosea said. "I'm still in good shape. I'm thankful I had the opportunity I did, coming out of a little town like Bloomington. I feel blessed I got to do what I did. Sometimes I think I'd like to turn back time and do things differently, but I'm happy."

For a brief spell, Sammy Scaff lived with Tyson at Cus D'Amato's compound in the Catskills. Slammin' Sammy had been rung up a couple months earlier as victim No. 14 when he was invited to help Tyson prepare for Jesse Ferguson at $500 a week.

Scaff remembers the routine and the chores that were required around the house. But nothing really sticks out in his mind when he recalls the man-child who was four months away from his 20th birthday and just nine months shy of claiming the world title.

"At that time, he was pretty quiet and kept to himself," Scaff said.

They said the same things about Jeffrey Dahmer.

The December 1985 Scaff-Tyson match lasted a grand total of 79 seconds. Tyson didn't record a knockdown, but a wicked double left hook shattered Scaff's face.

"I met him more than halfway across the ring to get an early jump on him," Scaff said from his home in Flatwoods, Ky., where he lives comfortably with his third wife, two dogs and three cats. "He didn't knock me out, but he broke my nose. I was really gushing blood."

Scaff was the quintessential cannon fodder opponent for young prospects.

He took fights on short notice and was willing to travel. In between, he fattened up his record in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. He never trained full-time. He said he was 75-5 as an amateur and once lost to Greg Page in the finals of the Louisville Golden Gloves, but he left the ring to complete a four-year apprenticeship to become a pipe fitter and welder, a job he still does today.

"That was always my handicap," said Scaff, who also lost to Tim Witherspoon and Mitch Green. "I had a family, so I had to work. I went to work tired, and I trained tired. I just wish I had gone straight from amateurs to the pros."

He went on to win the West Virginia state heavyweight title, but retired with a record of 21-14 after losing three straight matches, including a first-round knockout by Adilson Rodrigues in Brazil, for which Scaff earned a career-high $11,000 in 1988.

Scaff judged fights in Kentucky and West Virginia for a while, but hasn't paid much attention to the sport lately. He had to ask who Tyson was fighting and when.

"I'm getting just about burnt out on boxing," Scaff said, with a hint of resignation. "Everyone I fought is either retired or dead. I'm just not as excited to follow it as I used to be."

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.