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 the strength to endure, among other things, unlimited punishment in the ring. He says it helps him get to what he calls the moment of “self-actualization,” the point where he knows he will either beat his opponent or outlast him. If Cobb is still standing at fight’s end, he’s won. Glory be to God. “As far as I’m concerned,” I wrote him, “Philadelphia is the mountaintop, and I’m coming to you for the Truth.”
And still no reply. All that was left was to go. On a red-eye flight to Philly, I read through an inch-thick stack of articles. That’s when a picture emerged that had considerably more depth than the cartoon I’d remembered. The fight with Holmes had been no joke. It came less than two weeks after the nationally televised fight in which Duk Koo Kim was killed. Cobb knew that boxing needed an even, artful fight but would probably not get one. Before the bout he asked referee Steve Crosson not to end it unless he absolutely had to. “I want to be carried out on my shield,” he had said. No matter how ineffective his continuing charges at Holmes may have been, his knees never buckled and his heart never wavered. He was a sight more honorable than Cosell’s tantrum implied.
Through the early nineties, Cobb drifted. He had a hard time with drugs and the IRS. For a while he wrote songs in Nashville, dubbing his publishing company “Heavyweight Titles.” His last boxing comeback ended in 1993, when a former opponent accused Cobb in Sports Illustrated of paying him to take a dive. The story killed his boxing career (with a fairly impressive record of 39-7-1), cut short an endorsement deal with Old El Paso hot sauce, and lessened his movie offers. Cobb sued, and in the summer of 1999 he won a $10.7 million jury verdict. But the case is still being appealed, meaning he has yet to see a dime. Word had it that he was in Central Philadelphia, taking long walks, waiting to get paid.
That’s where I looked for him, in a dressed-up section of downtown that offers the amenities of any big city but remains distinctly Philly. It smells like aftershave. Its denizens respond to any thought with a guttural “Yeah.” And they won’t betray one of their own, even a transplant like Cobb.
I found his gym on Sansom Street. His membership had lapsed in June, but the gym still lets him in. I found his pub, where he used to take his mail; his Starbuck’s, where he dumps a minimum of twenty packets of sweetener into his coffee; and his restaurants, where he brings his own tub of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! But no Cobb.
At his supermarket, a Fresh Fields near the Art Museum, a man behind the fish counter named Junior said, “Yeah, I know Tex Cobb. Did they give him his money yet?” Tony D., who runs the prepared-food section, said, “You know that white guy that was in the movie Proof of Life? Not Russell Crowe, the other guy.” David Caruso? David Morse? “Yeah, that guy. He comes in here and nobody knows who he is. But everybody knows Tex.” Of course they do. And they love him. That’s why everybody had a Tex story, yet nobody “knew” where he was. After three days and three nights, I went home empty-handed.
On Monday morning, when I got back to my office, I had a voice mail from Philadelphia. “John, this is Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb,” the voice said. “I am sorry to say, brother, that I was unavailable. I’m still unavailable. But asking me about the Truth, buddy, that’s a pretty high hurdle for anybody. Most assuredly, the Truth is tough to divine and more difficult to live. That would be something that I, as well as everybody else on the planet, have a very difficult time doing. So coming to me for an answer to the Truth”—he laughed—”I think you overestimate me. But I thank you for your consideration.”