Despite being a veteran of more than 90 professional fights against a veritable who’s who of prominent heavyweights, Bobby “The Fighting Hillbilly” Crabtree’s face is not layered with scar tissue, he has no ambling gait, his memory is sharp, and his voice is rich and erudite, even with his thick Arkansas drawl.
At 6-foot-2 and a lean 202 pounds, the southpaw Crabtree, now 61, is still blonde and buff and looks more like an aging lifeguard or surfer than a boxer. He is as quick on his feet as he is with a joke or an anecdote about his career, which lasted from 1982 to 2002.
During that time, the heavy-handed Crabtree, who fought out of and still lives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, traveled throughout the United States and abroad in compiling an old-school record of 56-35-1 (51 KOs).
Among the champions and contenders that he faced are George Foreman, Michael Dokes, Tony Tucker, Trevor Berbick, Michael Moorer, Mike Weaver, Kenny Keene, Tyrell Biggs, Alex Garcia, Lee Roy Murphy, Andrew Golota, Renaldo Snipes, James Broad, Ricky Parkey, and James “Quick” Tillis.
“Nearly all of my losses were to world class fighters,” Crabtree said during a 2019 interview at Crabtree Paint and Body Shop on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith, a business he has owned since 1990.
When asked who the hardest hitter he ever faced was, he was a bit circumspect.
“Anyone who throws a punch can hurt you, especially at the higher levels,” he said.
When pushed a bit, he singled out former cruiserweight belt holder Kenny Keene as one of his most memorable opponents. They fought three times in 28 months, with Keene stopping Crabtree in four rounds in Keene’s home state of Idaho in their first encounter, Crabtree winning a split 12-round decision in a rematch in Fort Smith, and Crabtree being stopped in nine rounds in their rubber match.
Among the spectators at the sold-out Fort Smith Civic Center for the second fight were actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Laurence Fishburne, who were filming the movie “The Tuskegee Airmen” in the area.
“Kenny was small, but what a tough guy,” said Crabtree. “He was not a real good boxer, but he was tough, and he kept coming – and punching. All you heard was bang, bang, bang. The actors were treated to a real good fight.”
The third bout, at the same arena, resulted in Crabtree receiving his career-high purse of $10,000.
“Kenny was a tough hombre and we beat the hell of each other for a lot of rounds,” recounted Crabtree. “In the third fight, I switched to righty and Kenny cold-cocked me.”
Crabtree turned pro with very little ring experience. He had won a local Toughman contest and was 7-0 as a karate competitor, but he believed greener pastures awaited him as a pro boxer.
He won 16 of his first 18 fights, fourteen by knockout, when he was matched against Quick Tillis in April 1984. Tillis had already gone the distance with WBA champion Mike Weaver and had a win over Earnie Shavers. Tillis stopped Crabtree in the third round, but they later became good friends.
“Tillis knew what he was doing in the ring,” said Crabtree. “He had a lot more experience than me, but I gave him a run for his money. The ref called for a break and he waylaid me.”
Leading up to Tillis, Crabtree said most of his fights were easy. Once the level of competition got higher, things got increasingly tougher.
“In the beginning, I had a lot of knockouts, so I had a lot of confidence,” he recalled. “Things changed after fighting Tillis. He was very smart, and he showed me this was a tougher game than I thought.”
Tillis was smart enough to be the first man to take Mike Tyson the distance two years later in a fight that Crabtree, and others, thought he won.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Crabtree was a very busy traveling man.
He trekked to Italy in January 1986 to take on 1984 Olympic silver medalist Francesco Damiani.
“I didn’t think he was tough because he looked soft all over,” recalled Crabtree.
“He was the first fighter to break my nose. He hit me with an uppercut, and it felt like my nose was in the back of my head.”
When Crabtree fought Foreman in Springfield, Missouri, in September 1987, in the early days of Big George’s comeback, he received a good lesson on Foreman’s well-chronicled mind games.
At the press conference Foreman could not have been more friendly, and even asked Crabtree how the fishing was in Arkansas. When they were receiving instructions in the ring, however, Foreman was staring at Crabtree with a malevolent glare that unnerved him.
“I said, ‘George, it’s me,'” laughed Crabtree.
Despite being stopped in the sixth round, Crabtree managed to land several of his vaunted left hooks on Foreman, resulting in Foreman praising “that hillbilly from Arkansas” for his powerful punch.
Crabtree believes that Foreman earned $25,000 for the bout, while he took home only $900 of his $1,500 purse.
Crabtree said Tucker and Snipes were big and powerful men, but he caught their attention several times before running out of gas.
The colorful Jerry “Wimpy” Halstead was the dirtiest fighter he ever faced, Berbick was the strongest, and Moorer, a fellow southpaw, was perhaps the most dangerous.
“He hit me in the left eye and shut it down,” he said of his first-round knockout loss to Moorer in November 1991.
“He would have gotten to me anyway.”
When Crabtree fought Michael Dokes at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in July 1989, he was hit with a kidney punch that toppled him in the first round.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Crabtree. “Joe Frazier later told me no one can take a punch like that.” (Frazier was a television commentator for the bout).
Crabtree’s biggest win came against King Ipitan, a highly-touted Nigerian who was promoted by Don King and was 13-0 (8 KOs) when they squared off in Mexico in December 1994. (Note: Julio Cesar Chavez topped the card, defending his junior welter crown against Tony Lopez.)
Ipitan was talking smack before the fight, resulting in Crabtree, the heaviest of underdogs, knocking him out with one punch in the first round. Ipitan broke his leg when he went down.
The next day a member of Crabtree’s team taunted Ipitan, who was in a wheelchair. He made a comment about this being payback for his boorish pre-fight comments.
Crabtree put an immediate halt to the comments, telling his corner man, “You don’t kick a man when he’s down.”
Crabtree was training with the late Tommy Morrison in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1996, when it was revealed that Morrison tested positive for the HIV virus.
“We did a lot of hard work in the gym, but thankfully no one ever got cut so there was no blood exchanged,” said Crabtree. “I had to get tested, but I wasn’t worried. Tommy was a nice guy and a helluva puncher.”
Crabtree believes that with a bit more experience and the ability to train full-time, he could have left a greater mark on the sport.
One of seven children, Crabtree said his family resolved all their disputes by fighting. One time, when he and some siblings were too young to know better, they were going to hang another brother for some childhood hijinks. They went so far as to put a rope around his body.
Thankfully that was broken up, but Crabtree fought anyone and everyone, which resulted in him being expelled from school in the eighth grade. At about the same time his parents were getting divorced. Crabtree found solace at the gym and developed his lifelong affinity for physical fitness.
He began doing auto body work with his late father and eventually opened his own business, which still exists, in 1990.
He also fought on short notice, whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself.
Despite battling a slew of obstacles and challenges, Crabtree said he “got out at the right time” because, unlike many of his opponents, his faculties are intact.
Crabtree’s daughter Destiny, now 35, is as much of a fighter as her father. As a youngster, she endured numerous surgeries after being diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare childhood condition that affects the hip.
As an adult she became Destiny Brown, a local singer of much renown.
Crabtree’s pride and love for her is as apparent and immeasurable as his feelings for his granddaughter, Journey.
Crabtree, who is happily married to his second wife Jo, an instructor at River Valley Fitness, seems like a man at peace who has his priorities in order. He fixes just enough cars to make a good living without being overwhelmed and he is in the shop at 7:30 am and out by 2:00 pm, when he heads straight to the gym.
He and Jo love to spend weekends hiking on trails or traveling to Branson, Missouri, or Memphis to listen to country music. His favorite artist is Conway Twitty.
Crabtree is a fun-loving man who is not averse to getting a laugh – even if it is at his own expense. Several years ago, at a local pro wrestling show, he donned skinny panties to get in the ring with a headliner named The Sheik.
They got into a verbal altercation and Crabtree knocked him down with a punch, which resulted in him being carted away by the police while the audience angrily protested.
“People went crazy, they were mad that I got arrested,” said Crabtree. “When I came back 20 minutes later, they realized it had been planned – it was all part of the show.”
Crabtree has also engaged in wild cow milking competition, where participants use a rope to corral a cow and squeeze their milk into beer bottles. During one episode, an angry cow shattered several of Crabtree’s teeth and caused a facial injury that required 12 stitches.
“I went back the next day, but I wore a motorcycle helmet,” he said.
Crabtree is currently being treated for nerve damage to his eyes, which sometimes causes him to have double vision, as well as trouble gauging distances such as when he steps off a curb. Other than that, he is in excellent physical condition.
In April 2018, the Eagles Club, a local civic organization, hosted what they called a Living Legend Award Ceremony, replete with live music for Crabtree, who is a revered local icon.
The modest Crabtree was very grateful for the attention but seemed to genuinely not understand what the hoopla was all about.
“I’m still living, but I ain’t no legend,” he said.
—Mladinich is an author, and of late has been diving deeper into film work. He is co-writer of the new feature film “Mott Haven.”