On the April morning that opened the last day of shooting the Walker, Texas Ranger series finale, the center of attention was not the all-American star of the show but a retired heavyweight boxer who played a bloodthirsty galoot. Randall “Tex” Cobb had barely twenty words of scripted dialogue, but wherever he went, a segment of the mongrel pack of extras went with him. Small children, pretty girls, one-eyed drunks—all kinds were drawn to the deliberate, pug-faced lug with a laugh that shook the Old West movie set like a series of cannon shots.
“I am most appreciative of the fact that Chuck Norris saw fit to include me in this project,” he said in his low, droning, contemplative drawl during a quiet moment. “He is the real deal, the only thing that’s real in this whole business. Van Damme? He got his ass handed to him in a beer-and-boob joint in New York City. And you know who had to bail him out? Mickey Rourke.” He spat out the name with appropriate disgust. “Steven Seagal? I can put my hands right now on a 67-year-old man named Judo Gene LeBell who choked him out so quick that Seagal relieved his bladder before he went unconscious. And that’s no rumor, brother.” Could Cobb have taken Norris in their respective primes? “Son, that’s the reason God created weight divisions.”
But the real thrill came when I asked if Texas Monthly had ever done a story on him. The 47-year-old Bridge City native said no. “Let me give you something to think about, son: Tex Cobb … Tex-as Monthly. Does that sound like a story to you?” Hell, yes, it did, and the realization of a boyhood dream. A chance to drink a beer with Tex Cobb and ask him who hit harder, Earnie Shavers or Ken Norton? No way I could pass on that. But making it happen proved tougher than expected. Cobb wouldn’t give me a home number, and calls to his people went unanswered.
There was a time when such difficulty would have made sense. It lasted about three weeks in the fall of 1982. That would be the period immediately before and after Larry Holmes produced his famously brutal, methodical drubbing of Cobb in the Houston Astrodome, winning a unanimous decision that is still regarded as the greatest mismatch in championship boxing history. Ringside announcer Howard Cosell was so sickened that he vowed never to call another professional fight, and he didn’t.
Afterward, though, Cobb’s celebrity hovered somewhere between cult hero and the answer to bar bets. He played variants of his highly quotable, doomed warrior self on film, coining the phrase “can of whup-ass” before meeting his reward in 1983’s Uncommon Valor and giving brief life to Leonard Smalls, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, in 1987’s Raising Arizona. He entered into legend, but only with guys who grew up in the eighties. As one of those guys, a keeper of the flame, I figured he had to talk to me.
Cobb thought differently. After a couple weeks of phone calls and faxes, all I knew was that he was living somewhere in Philadelphia. Then one morning he called me. I wasn’t in, so he spoke with my boss. He talked about the Holmes fight, how he’d thrown a heavy arm over Holmes afterward and said, “Hey, baby, that was fun. Let’s do it again—in a phone booth.” He did his best Cosell. And he concluded their conversation with, “Tell your boy I’m not interested in any press right now—and remember to keep your hands up, white boy.”
Cobb was so funny, it just made things worse. In desperation, I wrote an eleventh-hour plea, playing the only card left: I got religious with him. Every article about Cobb mentions his spirituality, his daily prayer, his religious studies at Abilene Christian University in the seventies and at Temple University in the nineties. He claims a personal blend of Zen, Taoism, and Christ—not Christianity—that gives him