One evening in 1981, when Simon Brown was 17 years old and only months away from turning professional, he was pounding the heavy bag in a gym on Columbia Road in northwest Washington, D.C., when the door opened and all movement in the gym seemed to freeze.
Sugar Ray Leonard, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, the conqueror of Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, walked into the room, looking spiffy in slacks and a sweater. "I lit up," says Brown. "There he was. Wow! To see him there, it was unbelievable."
Brown turned back to the heavy bag and began whacking it again, throwing left hooks, when suddenly Leonard was standing next to him. "You're throwing the hook too wide," Leonard said. "Throw it this way." Facing the bag, Leonard raised his hands and threw a series of short, crisp hooks into the air, saying, "See, real snappy. Real short." Returning to the bag, Brown shortened his hook, ripping two or three into the bag.
"That's it," said Leonard. "Now you've got it. Keep them short, snappy."
That may have been the briefest boxing lesson in Brown's life, but it was also the most memorable. "Ray was my idol," Brown says. "That's how I got interested in boxing, watching the 1976 Olympics on TV when I was 12. I saw all those guys win gold medals—Howard Davis and Michael and Leon Spinks—but nobody was like Ray. I wanted to be like him so much!"
Eight years have passed since Leonard taught Brown how to throw the left hook, and Brown is still rattling around in an obscurity that Leonard has never known in his pro career. Certainly, Brown has used that left to wicked effect in his career as a pro—a career in which he has won 31 fights, 23 of them by knockout, while losing only one. On April 23, 1988, in a bout widely acclaimed as the fight of that year, Brown stopped Tyrone Trice in the 14th round to win the International Boxing Federation's vacant welterweight world championship. And after six successful defenses of that title, four by knockout, Brown is regarded by many as the best fighter in his division. He is better now, some say, than Marlon Starling, the World Boxing Council titleholder, who hung Brown's lone defeat on him—a 12-round split decision more than four years ago in Atlantic City, when Brown was an unpolished 21-year-old and Starling was an experienced 27-year-old. And better than the World Boxing Association's champ and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Mark Breland.
"Simon Brown is absolutely the finest welterweight in the world, bar none," says Mike Trainer, Leonard's longtime adviser. "That's why no one will fight him."
His problem, at bottom, is that for all his talents in the ring, for all the respect he commands among boxing people, Brown still lingers in the wings of his sport, a mere shadow among the chief marquee players out front. Even his nickname, Mantequilla, which means butter (as in "as smooth as") in Spanish, is an odd, confusing handle for a Jamaica-born, English-speaking, Washington-raised fighter whose chief constituency is not Latin. He fights as if representing the homeless. He won the title against Trice in Berck-sur-Mer, France, and he has since defended it in Kingston, Jamaica; Lausanne, Switzerland; Budapest; Washington, D.C.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Springfield, Mass. The Rochester bout, which drew fewer than 1,500 fans, cost his new manager, Allen Baboian, about $80,000 out-of-pocket to keep alive.
"He has never established a market," says Trainer, one of the most astute marketing men in the business. "Nowhere he can go and draw a crowd. Say you're Mark Breland's manager. You know in your heart of hearts that this is not a good fight for you. It's a dangerous fight for you. You've got a guy, Simon, who is terribly gifted. But he's not marquee, not well-known, and he doesn't sell tickets. So the money's not there. Why would you fight him, and probably lose? That's Brown's problem."
So Brown has waited endlessly, and fruitlessly, for his much-sought rematch with Starling, whose handlers were asking $1 million to fight Brown. Instead, Starling is getting less money and moving up in weight to fight the IBF middleweight champion, Michael Nunn, in Las Vegas on April 14. As for Breland, he did his duck-walk around Lloyd Honeyghan, the former welterweight champion, on March 3 with a third-round TKO. All this has left Brown treading water until his mandatory defense of his crown on April 1, in Washington, D.C., against Trice.
"I'm very frustrated, but I try not to let it bother me," says Brown, who often speaks of himself, in a lilting Jamaican accent, in the third person. "I want so bad to make money to help my mother and father that I could sit down and cry. But Simon has to go on. Simon has to be patient."
While Brown has been substantially underpaid for his skills, relative to what less-exciting fighters have been making, this fact would come as a surprise to his bankers. Brown says that he has made $400,000 in purses in the past two years, and Baboian expects him to make at least $200,000 for laying hands on Trice. Brown and his wife, Lisa, and their three-year-old daughter, India, recently moved to a five-bedroom house in Germantown, Md., about 20 miles northwest of the District of Columbia, and his shiny black Cherokee and Lisa's 1988 Mercedes 190 are often parked in the driveway. Only three years ago he was nearly penniless and so desperate that he actually considered quitting the ring altogether and getting a mundane job unrelated to sports.
It has been a long haul to German-town. Brown was born in Victoria, Jamaica, the fourth of six children of Isaac and Eva Brown, who earned their living growing yams, bananas and sugar cane. "My father used to give each of us our own little spot to plant," Simon says. "Beans, carrots, everything. Patience is what I learned. I learned there were different seasons for different things, and good things take time. When I got into boxing, I had a lot of problems that took time."
Brown's parents moved to Washington in 1974, leaving their children in the care of Simon's grandmother, and two years later Simon and his siblings joined them. He saw Leonard on TV during the 76 Olympics, and that sparked his interest in boxing. Eventually he made his way to the gym, where he came under the care of trainer Pepe Correa. Brown was an exceptional amateur—he was 63-3, with two regional and state Golden Gloves titles—and he was only 17 years old when he turned pro, in 1982. Brown won 17 fights in the next two years, 13 by knockout, but he got the boxing lessons of his young life in the spring of '84 when Leonard, training for a comeback fight against Kevin Howard, took him on as a sparring partner for eight weeks. Leonard taught him more than the left hook.
"No one could do anything to me after that," Brown says. "After I stepped into the ring with him, I knew I would never fear another man again. What could anyone do to me that he hadn't?" He won two fights that year and began 1985 by stopping Martin Rojas in the eighth round in Atlantic City. And that, to Brown's dismay, is when his problems began. Correa and the promoter he had found for Brown, Don Elbaum, had a falling out, with Elbaum suing Correa and Brown for breach of contract. As part of the out-of-court settlement, Elbaum was out as promoter, but Brown still found a piece of each of his purses going to Elbaum. Brown was never cut up in the ring the way that his purses were following his next four fights, which included his loss to Starling—"I was young and didn't have the experience," he says—and his electrifying third-round knockout of Shawn O'Sullivan of Canada, a hot prospect backed by Leonard and Trainer.
That was the last time Brown fought for 15 months. Angry with Correa for involving him in a lawsuit for which he was paying, Brown decided that he would sit out a year, until his contract with Correa expired. "I got caught in the middle of the situation," Brown says. "I didn't trust my career in his hands anymore."
So he went home to his wife, his child and his $350-a-month apartment in Hyattsville, Md., facing more than a year with no income at all, and stubbornly refused to fight. His clubbing of O'Sullivan had won him sudden acclaim, but he ruined whatever momentum it had given his career. Not that he sat on his hands. "I trained every day," he says. "Every day!"
When his savings ran out, he had nothing. "He was nearly destitute," says a former adviser, James Cooks. "He didn't have two nickels to rub together."
That was when the sharks came cruising. In the gym, on the streets of D.C., he was approached often by old acquaintances with big cars and fat bankrolls. The spiels were always the same: "You're not fighting, you're only training. You're crazy! Man, you can make money dealing. Or running. You can make a thousand dollars a day. I make three thousand a night. We can work something out. You can sell cocaine, everything."
Poor as he was, Brown thought about it. "It was tempting," he says. He even mentioned the offers to his wife, feeling her out. Recalls Lisa, "I told him, 'I love you a lot, but if you go that way, I won't be with you.' "
Brown had grown up in a close-knit household in which his mother, a deeply religious woman, read the Bible, did not spare the rod and imposed a 9 p.m. curfew at her front door even when Simon was 18 years old. "I was almost 19 when my momma whupped me the last time with her belt," he says. "If you were late, she'd grab the belt and whup you. Or she'd lock the door and you'd be out there knocking for an hour. She knew what was out there. A lot of my friends are dead now. Or in jail. Or on drugs. I'd never been arrested or locked up. It wasn't for me. I would rather starve to death."
In his months of self-exile from the ring, Brown struggled to make ends meet. His and Lisa's families supported them with what extra they had, enough for the groceries and the rent. In the end, Elbaum came calling with Baboian at his side. Baboian is the president of a large wholesale produce company. It handles 700 tons of bananas a week, so his friends call him the Banana King. He and Elbaum had been partners in packaging some fights for closed-circuit television. Even before Baboian met Brown, Elbaum had persuaded him to put up $200,000 to buy Brown out of his debts. When Baboian finally met with Brown, he liked him immediately. "He didn't drink or smoke," says Baboian. "He didn't even swear. Polite, a good family man."
At their very first meeting, the flat-broke Brown pulled a long face. The rent was coming due again.
"You have any money?" Baboian asked.
"Not really. I could use a couple of dollars." On the spot Baboian wrote a check to Brown for $5,000. "I could have jumped for joy," Brown says.
"You don't have to sign with me for this," Baboian told him. "If you decide you want to sign with someone else, fine. Life goes on. Just pay some of your bills. I want to make sure that your mind is clear."
More than that, it was made up. "He didn't know me or which way I was going in life," Brown says. "I could have been a maniac. He didn't know. He took a chance on me when I didn't have a dime."
Nor any credit. After their deal was made, Baboian helped the Browns buy a town house and also made a down payment on a new car for Simon. "No manager would have done for me what he did," Brown says. "Now everyone wants to get involved, since I became champion. Where were they when Simon really needed them?"
If Brown keeps winning, his big payday will come. If Starling should lose to Nunn, that would open the way for a rematch. Brown could also end up fighting Breland. Next fall, the reigning warrior of the junior welterweights, Julio Cèsar Chàvez, is expected to begin roaming among the welters. "Fighting Chavez would be a good challenge for Simon," Brown says.
For now, the only thing definite is the rematch with Trice, and he was no walk through the park when Brown beat him to win his title. Trice decked Brown early with a left hook, after Brown had dropped his right hand—it was the only time Brown has ever been down—but Simon survived and came back in the 14th round to stop Trice.
Brown worries not. "I'm not making a million dollars a fight, but I'm doing it the right way," he says. "I'm keeping busy. I'm a champion and I can't waste it. I'll make a million dollars some day. By god, I'm making it!"