2002.A cramped airless gym in Cincinnati. A CBS news crew is filming a segment for The Early Show on a promising crop of fighters from the city's Mount Auburn neighborhood who are using boxing, as the porcelain-blonde correspondent words it, "as a vaccine against the hazards of ghetto life."
The hero of the story is Ricardo Williams, the native son who went from top-ranked amateur to coveted prospect after winning silver at the Sydney Olympics and received a $1.4 million bonus from the promoter Lou DiBella to turn professional. "Five cars," he tells the reporter he owns. "Two Benz, a Lexus, a Lamborghini." Gym rats and hangers-on creep into the shot. Williams is the exemplar, the local kid who fought his way out of the inner city to a better life.
Later the camera finds the next generation in a baby-faced pugilist with corn rows, a white tank top and purple matching trunks, taping his own hands and shadowboxing. There is a small welt under his right eye. The chyron will identify him as: ADRIEN BRONER, 12-YEAR-OLD. He answers the reporter's questions with bare honesty and a touch of amusement. His voice hasn't broken yet.
BRONER: I want to be a boxer.
CORRESPONDENT: What do you think you guys would be doing if you weren't here in the gym boxing?
BRONER: A lot of bad things.
CORRESPONDENT: Like what?
BRONER: Like trying to rob people, trying to break into cars.
CORRESPONDENT: Oh, come on. You're joking with me. You wouldn't be doing that.
CORRESPONDENT: You think?
BRONER: Probably. If you hang around some of the people like that, you probably will.
CORRESPONDENT: Do you ever worry that you're going to get punched in the head too many times and not be able to do it?
CORRESPONDENT: Yeah? Tell me about that. What are you worried about?
BRONER: Being like Ali.
The walls of the Cincinnati Golden Gloves Gym are lined with photos of the Queen City's great champions. Ezzard Charles, Aaron Pryor, Tim Austin. Yet Broner can see Ricardo Williams. He can touch him. He dreams of following Williams' route to the top.
Twenty-six months later, Williams will be serving a three-year sentence at a federal prison in Ashland, Ky.
2012. A conference room on the 14th floor of HBO's headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Adrien Broner, 23 years old and the presupposed future of big-time boxing, undefeated in 24 pro bouts with 20 knockouts, one of the most promising young American athletes in any sport, is here to discuss his forthcoming fight with WBC lightweight champion Antonio DeMarco on Nov. 17 in Atlantic City. He is impeccably dressed, sporting a powder blue San Diego Chargers flat brim and matching leather jacket that reads: MR. HBO and RETAAAHDED. Over the past year Broner has become the sport's youngest American champion (winning the super featherweight title with a third-round knockout of Martin Rodriguez) and its youngest American ex-champion (coming in three-and-a-half pounds overweight for a July fight with Vicente Escobedo and losing his belt on the scale).
No one is more thrilled about Broner's rise than HBO, which announced the fight hours earlier and has invested millions in the brash, quirky youngster. He comes along at a time when boxing needs fresh stars, with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao squarely in the third acts of their careers. The DeMarco fight will mark Broner's seventh fight on the network, but his first time headlining the flagship "World Championship Boxing" franchise, the final step before the pay-per-view platform that makes top boxers the world's consistently highest-paid athletes.
He's proven himself as a ratings draw: He attracted a 3.4 share and 1.4 million live viewers for the Escobedo fight, in the middle of the summer against an unknown opponent, for HBO's top-rated "Boxing After Dark" telecast of 2012. Millions of people are tuning in to watch him register concussive knockouts against no-hopers.
"The viewers told us it was time for him to headline, but [Broner] told us with his performances that he was ready," says Mark Taffet, who runs HBO's pay-per-view department. "He's making the progression that great fighters make. He's on the path. For a 23-year-old man, he's exactly where he needs to be."
Broner, nicknamed "The Problem," is for the network anything but. He has shown unmistakable power, blinding speed and preternatural ring instincts, but it's come against opponents of, shall we say, questionable vintage. The talent is obvious and spectacular -- he's fought just 12 rounds in his past three fights -- but critics remain hung up on the level of competition and question whether it's for real. Skeptics note Broner's career has been guided by Al Haymon, the enigmatic manager whose growing stable of some of the world's best fighters (including Mayweather) has given him an influence so powerful that darker humorists around the sport have mockingly called HBO the "Haymon Boxing Organization." So while Broner may have come from modest origins, he's regarded as a child of privilege within the industry.
Yet who can deny his value as an attraction? Broner is perhaps boxing's most polarizing fighter, even more so than Mayweather, the pound-for-pound king to which Broner is likened both stylistically and commercially. He is an athlete for Generation Z. Already a legendary troll, Broner can be profane. ("Critics are like buttholes: I don't listen to them," he crows. "If I wanted to listen to a butthole I'll pass gas.) He is cocksure and unapologetic. He's done ringwalks with Waka Flocka Flame. He's live-tweeted bowel movements (more than once) and mid-coitus (maybe). His peppy trash talk has made him a viral sensation. He's always dreamed, but now he dreams in Technicolor.
"I want to be the first boxer to generate a billion dollars," Broner says, serious as cancer.
His next fight will go a long way towards revealing just how quixotic a goal it is.
It's two days before the fight and Broner is stumping for the media in the Tiberius Room at Caesars Atlantic City, recycling familiar talking points. DeMarco is "a world-class fighter" with "the talent to bring something out of Adrien Broner that the world hasn't seen yet." The kid from Cincinnati, whose dream is to one day headline a fight at the Reds' Great American Ball Park, has created a stratospheric level of expectations for himself and now it's time to deliver.
Yet there's something new about Broner as he readies for his star turn. He is showing, like all the most interesting athletes, there are contradictions within. Microscopic faults in his veneer of bravado have revealed a vulnerability that's human and even endearing. In private settings he recalls his humble background, memories of waking up in the middle of the night and quelling hunger pangs with syrup and bread sandwiches. He remembers when sports were the only reasonable alternative to selling drugs. "I train like I never had nothing 'cause I ain't never had nothing," he says. "I always felt boxing. It always came back to boxing."
He remembers his mistakes.
In 2008, Broner was released from jail after serving more than a year while awaiting trail on a robbery and assault rap. A lot of bad things. Wrong place and wrong time, he says, but he "beat the charges like Rocky." He doesn't like to talk about a misstep that cost him a likely trip to the Olympics, but admits it forced him to recommit himself to a sport where there are no shortcuts, where the truth will be exposed no matter how powerful or influential a manager you have. "I told myself if God lets me out of this hole I'm in, I'm really going to do this boxing thing," he says. "First day out I came to the gym."
And he remembers his childhood hero, Ricardo Williams, whose legacy is one of squandered talent and regret. Dogged by weight problems and a dubious work ethic, the Olympic medalist was upset by a journeyman in his 10th pro fight and his career never recovered. The entire Cincinnati sports community was wounded when he was sentenced in 2005 to three years for trying to ship cocaine via FedEx, no one worse than Broner.
"It hurt me," Broner says. "I seen it happen right in front of my face. Ricardo Williams had 30 guys with him every time he went out, driving his cars, doing this and doing that. It hurt me because he was somebody who I'd seen who really had a chance to be one of the biggest, biggest guys in the sport."
Broner promises he won't be a cautionary tale. He's stripped down his entourage, spending time almost exclusively with his girlfriend, his protégé and his twin brother. He says he's learned from the mistakes of others. He says he's 23 going on 45. "I've got so much to lose now," he says. "I just learn from other people's mistakes."
When he climbs through the ropes Saturday against DeMarco (10 p.m. ET, HBO), it will be Broner's first fight against an A-level opponent -- the first opportunity to show the public he's more than just a Haymon creation, worthy of the outsized expectations he's set for himself. DeMarco is a hard-hitting southpaw with a three-inch height advantage and a pro ledger of 28-2-1, whose humility stands in stark contrast with the slick, flashy Broner. He's coming off a 44-second knockout of John Molina in September. The stakes are high for the American: not just to win, but to please the crowd doing it. "I'm in a position where I can be the top guy in boxing in the next one, two, three fights depending on how I look," he says.
"You have people that know they have the talent, but sometimes they get scared when success is in their face," he says. "I'm ready."