He was an Olympian who got trapped in a time warp between Olympics. He graduated with the forgotten class of '80, which won a gold medal in the boycott, a non-televised event. No big deal, Donald Ray Curry thought at the time. He was only 18 and he had been fighting for more than half his life, but Moscow seemed a long way to go to display the dazzling gifts he had discovered were his as a 68-pounder in Fort Worth. He had won 403 of 409 fights since then and was certainly ready to demonstrate why he was the world's best amateur welterweight, but he wasn't overly upset when Jimmy Carter said nyet.
"I didn't understand the magic of a gold medal," Curry reflected the other day in Palm Springs, while training to defend his WBA 147-pound title on Jan. 19 against Colin Jones in Birmingham, England. Now 23, Curry reads Money and The Wall Street Journal and has learned the hard way that, in boxing, an Olympic gold medal can mean instant big bucks.
For his first pro fight, Sugar Ray Leonard, a 1976 gold medal winner in the light welterweight division, earned $40,000. After his recent pro debut, Mark Breland, 1984's golden welterweight, banked $100,000. And on Dec. 26, 1980 Curry knocked out Marty Tineo in his first pro fight and earned $3,000. Leonard paid his sparring partners more than that.
Curry may own half of the title Leonard surrendered in 1982—the WBC part belongs to Milton McCrory—but only ardent boxing fans know it or are able to tell you that he won it by hammering on a helmet-headed Korean named Jun Sok Hwang in February of 1983 in a bout televised by ESPN. Or that he fought the last three rounds with a broken right wrist. Or that he has successfully defended his title four times—in Sicily and in Monte Carlo, among other places—or that his next port of call is an industrial town an hour and 30 minutes by train from London.
Curry's style is that of an artist: He fences deftly with the rapier and disdains the bold slashes of the saber. His moves are more poetic than pugilistic, gracefully deadly and, to some, deadly boring: And so, as a champion, even though the combined record of the five men he has beaten in title fights is 165-5-1, Curry seems to have fought all his fights under a flickering 50-watt bulb inside a closet. To the average fight fan, Curry is merely agate type.
"Most fans like to see fighters get hit, and Donald just doesn't get hit," says Paul Reyes, the only trainer Curry has ever had.
In the ring, Curry is a Van Gogh, and few would have paid to watch the Dutchman paint. To see him lop off his left ear, well, that might have filled a stadium or two. Curry's problem, if such is the term, is that his fights are brilliantly stroked masterpieces that end in sophisticated coups de grace, not explosive one-punch knockouts.
Curry resists any changes to his style—to lower his swift hands or to showboat with a flashy bolo—simply to satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd. He is a disciple of self-defense.
"The beauty of Curry," says veteran trainer Eddie Futch, who has trained Joe Frazier, Alexis Arguello and Larry Holmes, "is that he doesn't give away anything. Whatever you get from him, you gotta earn."
What Futch means is that if Curry gets married, he won't get hit by any rice.
"Some people seem to think that just because Donald doesn't get knocked down a couple of times and then get up to win, he's not a very dynamic champion," says Dave Gorman, a Fort Worth bricklayer who four years ago set down his trowel to manage Curry's incipient professional career.
Although Curry's style, the sweet science at its sweetest, is one reason for his anonymity, there are others. No. 1 is that gold medal he never had a chance to claim. "The Golden Gloves was going on when we found out that we weren't going to Moscow, so I never felt like I was involved anyway," says Curry, the liquid eyes in his handsome, boyish face still betraying bemusement and a trace of bitterness. "Even after I won the trials, it still didn't bother me too much. But now I think about Leonard and Breland and what the gold medal did for them, and it hurts. It hurts a lot."
Another reason few people have heard of Curry is his consuming shyness, an endearing trait he sheds when he enters a ring. "He's always been a quiet boy, never one to brag," says his mother, Hazel Sample, who raised Donald, his two brothers and three sisters after she and her husband, T.D., had separated. "But then, he never was home much. If he wasn't in school, he'd be out playing baseball or football, or doing his boxing. I'd go watch him play. He wasn't the one making all the noise; he was the one that was good."
He was eight years old and about as big as your average Dallas Cowboy's left leg when he followed his older brother, Bruce, to a gym on the south side of Fort Worth.
"He was just another little kid off the street," says Reyes, an assembler at the General Motors plant in Fort Worth. "But by the time he was 10 or 12, his natural talent was so apparent it was awesome. We had to put him in with guys three and four years older. When he fought, you winced for the other guy. The good God gave him talent, and he just got better and better."
Curry was 16 when he won his first of two national AAU championships. Then he won the National Golden Gloves 147-pound title and beat everybody his size in a World Cup in Kenya. As an amateur, his last victories came in the Olympic trials.
A few months later, Curry turned pro. His feet and fists were so quick that he was soon nicknamed the Cobra. That name reflected the speed with which he ended his first nine fights—none of them lasted more than six rounds. By then he was making the princely sum of $5,000 a fight, and all seemed right with the world.
But in 1982 his life turned sour. He sustained injuries: first to his ribs, later to a wrist. Viruses found a playground in his stomach. Because he was a natural junior middleweight and growing, he began shedding his excess pounds in the steam room the day of a fight, and that always left him weakened for battle.
Those problems were minor, compared with what was to follow. In January 1984 his brother Bruce, following a brief fling as the WBC junior welterweight champion, was arrested after firing a gun at his trainer, Jesse Reid. Reid escaped unscathed, and Bruce was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
During the period between Bruce's arrest and trial, Curry defended his title with a knockout of Elio Diaz and a decision over Marlon Starling, for the second time.
"I was afraid for my brother," says Curry. "But I knew he was all right physically and that I couldn't help him by not fighting. I had to blank it out from my mind until after each fight, and it wasn't until then that I could go home and help him."
Last August, Curry's mental toughness was sorely tested when his sister Angela, 18, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Angela left a 2-year-old son, Michael. Curry was left devastated. He had witnessed the accident, but at the time had not realized that his sister was on the motorcycle. He had driven his Mercedes convertible, his sole extravagance, to a club in Fort Worth to pick up a friend. "I saw the bike go down at an intersection," he remembers. "Then I saw a guy get up, and I thought everything was O.K. I went on into the club."
A few moments later, someone told him that his sister had been on the motorcycle.
"So I ran down there, and seeing her lying there, and not being able to do anything, my mind just shook me." Sadness softens his Texas drawl. "Then at the hospital before she died, seeing her with tubes and stuff in her, I couldn't do anything but pray. I'd have given every cent I had to have her get up out of that bed. It took so much out of me; I've never been that tired before. When she passed away, I didn't know how I was going to continue boxing. I didn't know if I'd ever get up in a ring again and fight and not think about her."
Curry shut himself up in his house after Angela's funeral. "It was hard for me because we were close," he says. "It hurt me so much, I would wake up crying. It was like the world had ended. I would just lie in bed. I couldn't eat. I was like that for about two weeks. Then I had to put my foot down. I had Michael to think about. I told myself, 'You've got to continue to live, to fight, not just for yourself, but for her and her child.' He is my responsibility now, and I want him to have the best."
Curry flew to Phoenix, where he began training for a fight with Nino La Rocca. "It's what she would have wanted me to do," he says now, quietly.
Then Curry traveled to Monaco and stopped La Rocca, who came in with a 57-1 record, in six rounds. That was Curry's 15th knockout in 20 professional fights, all victories.
"I don't know what the kid has to do to be recognized," says Bob Arum, who has promoted all of Curry's fights. "I'm ecstatic about him. He is such a superb craftsman, something very, very special. When I picture him fighting a Thomas Hearns or a Marvin Hagler, which are definite possibilities, I shudder. But then I remember Leonard and what he did to Hearns. Maybe that is what it will take to get him recognition, for him to beat a Hearns or a Hagler."
A long wait? Perhaps not. Curry is working on creating a more colorful image. To improve his chances for commercial opportunities, he has taken college courses in drama and speech, repeating each twice in case he might have missed something the first time.
"Just this morning I was thinking about role models," Curry says. "There weren't any in Fort Worth. If I had lived in Washington, D.C., I would have seen Ray Leonard grow from amateur to professional outside of the ring, with his big smile and all of that. I know it's good to smile, to use funny one-liners, but I know nothing about getting up in front of television or how I would react or how nervous I would be. I think if I had been able to watch Leonard I would have been smarter with the media. But I'd get up in front of a camera, and I'd be so shy I'd get to trembling, and I didn't know any better."
He has found some role models: John McEnroe, Eddie Murphy, 'Steve Martin—and Bill Cosby, whom he admires the most.
"I'm a big fan of them all," says Curry. "Murphy has a big mouth, and I just love to listen to people like that. And McEnroe, he's so aggressive. I picture myself being like that. I really do. His attitude, his arguing and stuff like that, that's really funny to me. But I'm so darn shy, although I'm getting better about that. Sometimes now, I get to talking to somebody, and the words just pour out so much I can't stop."
He laughs at himself, another of his delightful qualities. "Maybe I can be like McEnroe?" It's a question that he answers with a shake of his head. "No, 1 guess I'll just have to be myself."
Before he graduated from high school in 1980, Curry gave a small color photograph of himself to Reyes. On the back he had penned:
"To a very nice young man who I have been boxing for [for] 10 years, and I enjoyed every minute of it. And who has been like a father to me. If there is anybody in the world who I will never forget it will be you. Stay cool."
Hey, wait a minute, Donald Ray Curry, you might not be a bad role model yourself.