It wasn't the first time Riddick Bowe had paid more attention to someone in the crowd than to the business at hand in the ring, but at least this once he waited until the fight was over. There was Bowe, his hand being raised in triumph by the referee, spotting Bill Cosby and jiggling his head like a dashboard dog, a trademark Cos gesture. Here Bowe had gotten the biggest win of his young life, a two-round knockout of Bert Cooper, and this mugging was all he could think to do. "Good old Bert," as Bowe had called him, had yet to be gathered from the canvas, and Bowe was on to the entertainment portion of the program. Ladies and gentlemen: the Clown Bomber.
This is an article from the Dec. 10, 1990 issue
Is this the future of the heavyweight division, a boxer whose idea of a fight plan is to shtick and move? Could be. Bowe is quickly emerging as the class of an exciting second echelon of heavies—several notches below Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock—which also includes Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and Bruce Seldon, undefeated prospects waiting for the smoke to clear at the top. Bowe, a remarkable physical phenomenon—he is 6'5", weighs 230 pounds and has the limber moves of a middleweight—may be the most gifted of the bunch, and he's now being hailed as much for his Muhammad Ali imitation in the ring as for his Eddie Murphy imitation outside it.
His success has served only to confuse Bowe, a self-styled comic genius with a repertoire of celebrity impressions, who suddenly finds himself being taken seriously as a fighter, the dashboard-dog bit notwithstanding. At 23, Bowe is 20-0, with 18 KOs. His jab has been compared to the one Larry Holmes used in his 24 title fights, and his footwork has invoked memories of Ali. What's more, his trainer, Eddie Futch, has armed Bowe with a right hand, a destructive tool that has gotten him out of the ring in an average of less than three rounds in his pro career. Futch has more teaching to do, but even Bowe's critics, who once dismissed him as a buffoon, concede that he may finally be capable of exercising his talent in the ring instead of at the Improv. "He's really grown up," says Ken Adams, the U.S. Olympic coach who baby-sat Bowe at the 1988 Games. "He says things that make sense sometimes."
You can't imagine the turnaround this statement represents. In Seoul, Bowe offered a brand of postfight whimsy that had reporters begging for more and his coaches smacking their foreheads. He advised the scribes after one of his bouts that they had just seen his "ghetto whopper." He suggested that an opponent might think to bring his pension plan along, "because I'm going to retire him." After twice being dropped for an eight count by the Soviet Union's Aleksandr Miroshnichenko, Bowe modestly said, "It was quite embarrassing for the great one to be on the canvas." Bowe won a decision.
Anyone with a sense of history and a sense of humor understood that Bowe was emulating Ali, a big enough influence on his life that Bowe timed his first appearance in a boxing gym 10 years ago to coincide with Ali's birthday. And as long as Bowe won, he was surely entertaining. A slow day in Seoul? Bowe informed reporters that the U.S. boxers had a betting pool going on the quickest knockout. "It ain't kosher!" yelped Adams, in his role of beleaguered coach.
But as Bowe attracted fans, he also acquired skeptics. They tended to remember an Olympic bout during which Bowe sat in his corner, supposedly listening to frantic instructions from assistant coach Tom Coulter. A voice rang out in the crowd: "Hey, Riddick!" Bowe swiveled mightily, and Coulter had to take Bowe's head between his hands and turn it back toward him. Or they recalled the time Bowe was kicked out of the U.S. team camp for arguing with Adams. "He told me to take the first thing smoking," says Bowe, as if still surprised.
"Spaceship Bowe," said Ferdie Pacheco as NBC's fight commentator in Seoul. "An enormous talent, but no mental stability whatsoever." It wasn't hard to line up with the Fight Doctor after Bowe walked through his gold medal match, a loss to Canada's Lennox Lewis. Who knew Bowe's family was dying all about him? Who cared to guess at this clown's torment? Nobody, really. So Bowe, who believed that all the world is a stage, got the hook.
For many boxers the Olympics represent a terrific send-off. Bowe remembered the attention that Mark Breland, who trained in the same Brooklyn gym at which Bowe worked out, got after winning the gold at 147 pounds in the 1984 Games. Before the 1988 Games, Bowe had said, "Perhaps they'll give me a parade, like the Mets. I'll get a ride home from the airport on top of a fire truck."
But he had miscalculated. His wife, Judy, and two children, Riddick Jr. and Ridicia, were the only ones looking for him at the gate when he got back from Seoul. It was a lonely ride back to the Brooklyn housing project and the growing wreckage of his family.
Bowe's performance at the Games had been so disappointing that even promoter Butch Lewis, once an avid pursuer, washed his hands of him. "I had Greg Page flashbacks," says Lewis, referring to another failed heavyweight prospect. So diminished were Bowe's prospects that he considered joining the Army.
The Army would have been a significant improvement over his life in Brooklyn. The forces of his Brownsville neighborhood were undeniably corrupting. He, almost alone in Dorothy Bowe's brood of 13, had escaped drugs. An older brother, Henry, had lain dying as Bowe struggled in Seoul. Of what? "Good question," says Bowe mysteriously. "He was just sick." Only months before the Olympics, a sister, Brenda, had been stabbed to death while resisting a crack addict's attempt to steal her welfare money. Another brother is, says Bowe, "in and out of jail." Another sister "just can't leave that crack alone."
Most people cannot imagine what that silver medal condemned him to, not even Rock Newman, one of Lewis's assistants. He maintained an interest in Bowe, though Lewis warned him, "That boy will break your heart." Newman believed that a hand injury sustained before the Olympics—Bowe had had surgery on it the preceding April—was the explanation for his defeat at the Games. Newman also knew that Bowe had been shattered by his sister's death and that, for all his wisecracking, all he wanted to do while in Seoul was return home and repair his family. "We were just so tight, Brenda and me," he told Newman. So Newman visited Bowe, on a kind of character-finding tour.
Newman had managed Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a hardened product of the ghettos of Camden, N.J., and was familiar with America's version of ground zero. However, while walking up to the housing project where Bowe, Judy and their children still lived with his mother, Dorothy, even Newman became unnerved. "He meets me outside the building like I'm some kind of tenderfoot," says Newman. " 'Believe me,' I tell him, 'I've seen my share of city life.' There's this long line of people coming out of the building. I'm thinking it's a soup kitchen. 'What's this?' I ask. He says they're standing in line to buy crack. They were 50 to 60 deep. And it's cold. I say, 'Can't be.' So he shrugs and takes me upstairs. He lives on the sixth floor, and the elevator, of course, is broken. He points out people sitting on the landings with automatic weapons. He mentions, like an aside, that people around here really don't respond too well when things happen. I say, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'A guy got shot out here the other day, like at four in the afternoon, and they never moved his body out of the hall until the next morning.'
"So we go into the apartment where he lives. Small living room, got all his trophies, the tapes from his amateur career. I look into this tiny bedroom, where he, his wife and two kids are living, and it struck me there. If he could have survived here, there must be something special about him."
What in the world was Bowe laughing about all those years? His family was breaking down. The world he knew was in magnificent disrepair. Yet he reconstructed his childhood to resemble something torn from a Saturday Evening Post cover. "Oh, we had a lot of fun," he says. "If I could just go back to being between 10 and 16, I'd never grow up."
Still, he did not completely deny the reality of his environment. If conversation flags, he will perk things up with some horrible and violent reminiscence. "I was once standing this close to a guy, and he got his head blown right off," he will say casually. But everything is presented as mostly normal and innocent. Even the lurking menace of Tyson, ahead of Bowe at Public School 396 and a bully, is recalled gently. Says Bowe, "About all I remember is that he was big for his age, and he always had a bag of cookies with him." He pauses. "Good old Mike."
There is a softness to Bowe that belies his background and his profession. He is a kid who walked his mother to her job at a plastic-housewares factory, 1½ miles every night. Bowe would pour out his dreams to her, how he wanted to be somebody, be different. He would like to be champion, he told her. He would enable her to retire. He would buy them a house. Dorothy, who is given to wearing shirts with BIG DOT on the back, didn't much go for this mush. Just don't go to jail, she told him, because that's one place she would never visit.
Newman, hearing all this, couldn't wait to get into his own pockets and sign this kid. He was supposed to be a quitter? Newman dished out $50,000 and began the reclamation program. He knew that Bowe needed something more than money, though. He needed a trainer who could push the right buttons. There was only one, really—Futch, then 78, trainer of 15 world champions. Of course, Futch wasn't about to take on Bowe. "I'd heard the stories," Futch says. "And I saw the Olympic final, which was kind of puzzling." Maybe you can take chances on mystery fighters when you're young, but darned if Futch was going to spend his 80's with a nut case.
Newman was determined. He picked up the phone a dozen times to call Futch, then put it back down to jot down even more persuasive arguments. "By the time I called him, I had three pages of notes," says Newman. "I was more nervous than when I asked my wife to marry me."
Several months after the Olympics, Futch finally agreed to work with Bowe. Bowe didn't know how fragile the arrangement was. Once, while training Bowe near Reno, Futch said that he was leaving on other business but that Bowe should get his running in anyway. Do it on his own. It was-6°, there were two feet of snow on the ground, and up over a hill came Bowe, plodding along. Good thing. Futch, who had been hiding on the roadside, was at last satisfied. "Good old Papa Smurf," says Bowe.
Meanwhile, at Newman's urging, Bowe moved his family into a modest house in comfortable Fort Washington, Md., outside of Washington, D.C. Oh, there was one thing, Bowe told Newman. The yard had to have a fence so that his children (there is a third now, Brenda Joyce) wouldn't get lost in the bewildering vast-ness of suburbia. They must be safe. A house with a fence having been chosen, Bowe went back to Brownsville, walked the 1½ miles to the housewares factory to take his mother her lunch, and told her supervisor he was giving two weeks' notice for Dorothy. She was going to move in with him. It was his dream—a desperate one—to make his family whole. Today, on top of his TV, as a kind of shrine, are pictures of Brenda and Henry.
Newman has run a calculated campaign on behalf of Bowe. Seeing how Sugar Ray Leonard has benefited from not being tied to one promoter, Newman has kept Bowe from Don King and the rest. Nobody holds options on him. That has proved costly. Until Newman put together a limited partnership of investors, he had to shell out $250,000 of his own money to keep Bowe going. Why so much? You would hate to call it a conspiracy, but Newman discovered that to get Bowe on certain cards, he had to pay not just his own boxer's purse but the opponent's and some promotional overhead as well. Bowe wasn't even fighting for free; he was paying for the opportunity.
Newman brought Bowe along slowly, matching him with confidence-builders before allowing him to face Pinklon Thomas and Cooper. Newman hopes the payoff is at hand, perhaps in 18 months. Even before that, he thinks, Bowe's marquee value could force a $25 million non-title fight, something like the unsanctioned Michael Spinks-Gerry Cooney bout of 3½ years ago. Bowe's widely watched two-round knockout of Cooper, on the Holyfield-Buster Douglas card, was more of a promotional tool than a victory. The crispness of the knockout—"Look, here's Bert trying to double-jab, and here's my right [Bowe is chuckling as he watches a tape of his fight with Cooper]. Good old Bert"—is a credential the WBC can't provide.
In the meantime Bowe's life as a contender is pleasant enough. Five months ago Newman allowed Bowe to use part of the $60,000 purse he received for beating Art Tucker to splurge on a Jeep Cherokee, which has been customized into a convertible. Bowe tools around Maryland in it, calling up friends on his car phone as he passes by their houses—"Can you see the Sunoco station from your window? O.K., I'm in the right lane.... "—and then going home to wash it or to play with his kids or to talk to his mother, safely ensconced in a basement bedroom.
However, he still has much to do. He wants to buy a BMW 735i and his own apartment complex back in Brownsville. "How many apartments you think are in a complex?" he says. "Well, let's figure it out. Six floors to a building, 12 apartments to a floor and four buildings—288 apartments. I remember back in '87, walking through a complex just like that, thinking, If they ever sold that complex, I'd like to buy it for my family. Put all my brothers and sisters, relatives and friends in it, everybody close to me, put 'em right there. Like a big happy family."
Good old Bowe.