Four nights had passed since Riddick Bowe took the heavyweight title from Evander Holyfield before 18,000 fans in Las Vegas and another 5 million TV viewers around the country. On this evening Bowe's audience was considerably smaller. He lay stripped on a table in the basement of his Fort Washington, Md., home, where a masseur worked him over.
Around him was domestic pandemonium. On one side of the basement family room, six-year-old Riddick Jr. squealed while hanging upside down from a Universal weight machine. Riddicia, the new champion's four-year-old daughter, was running in circles. Brenda Joyce, the youngest, at two, had found a pen and was on a couch, scribbling. Turning onto his back, Bowe told the children to quiet down so that he could recite his latest poem: "Riddick Bowe made a promise as a kid/ He would do what Ali did."
While growing up in the mean Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the 12th of Dorothy Bowe's 13 sons and daughters, Riddick fell under Muhammad Ali's spell. "He saw himself as Ali," says Bowe's wife, Judy. "He put Ali on a pedestal and strived to get there also."
Ali was 22 years old, 210 pounds and lightning fast when he first won the heavyweight crown, in 1964. At 25, Bowe is 25 pounds heavier and displays none of the ring artistry of his idol. But his easy, spontaneous humor is like Ali's. Indeed, after his right hand, humor is Bowe's best weapon, and he used both to good effect with Holyfield. While taping an ESPN special two nights before the Nov. 13 bout, Bowe leaned over to Holyfield during a commercial break and whispered to the champion. Holyfield, who had been trying to keep his game face on, broke out laughing and told Bowe, "Keep the good stuff for when we're on the air."
Bowe was in fine form again the next day when he spotted a boxing glove with his likeness painted on it in the window of a Caesars Palace store. "You got a picture of the future world champion in the window, and you're only selling it for $225?" he said to a sales clerk. "I'm coming back tomorrow, and it better be more."
As he works to define his image, Bowe is at his best when he shakes off Ali and is his own, entourage-free self. "Can you believe this?" he said last week, standing next to his Jeep Cherokee at a Maryland filling station. "The heavyweight champion of the world pumping his own gas?"
Can you believe it when Bowe says that he has never taken a drink, never done drugs and never fooled around with other women? Don't you want to laugh at this man who laughs so easily, because in sports these days—all right, in life—such a declaration seems utterly ridiculous? Except that you can find no one who takes issue with it. Further, there is no evidence that becoming the possessor of the grandest title in sport is working any changes on Bowe. "What are you blushing at?" says Judy when four teenage girls spot her husband and begin wooing him with a collective "Ohhhh, Bowe."
Here's something else you can believe: Bowe is financially secure for the rest of his life, even if he never fights again. His earnings have been channeled into a variety of conservative investments, and his children already have trust funds to pay for college, which is precisely where Riddick and Judy plan to head this winter when both will enroll as freshmen at Howard University. Judy will concentrate on health services, and Riddick will study business administration and drama. "I've got to practice what I preach," he says. "If a big dummy like me can go to school, then anyone can."
Anyone who knows Big Daddy—who is most definitely not Big Dummy—knows you can question his stamina, you can question his weight, and you can even question his decision to wear ordinary white briefs at his televised weigh-in on Nov. 11 ("You got a problem with my Fruit of the Looms?" he said). But the one thing you don't question is what Lennox Lewis, the Briton who is the WBC's top contender, questioned after Bowe's loss to him at the 1988 Olympics: his heart. Don't ever, ever question Bowe's heart. When he sits on his pedestal these days and swings around for a look at his world, above all else the champ knows exactly where his heart lies.
Right after they wrapped the three championship belts around Bowe in the ring at the Thomas and Mack Center, Judy wrapped herself around Riddick. He bent down and whispered in her ear, "We did it." Judy looked up at her husband and said, "When you get hit, I can feel it."
Riddick first met Judy in Brownsville in the summer of 1982 while he was walking down Christopher Avenue with one of her cousins. Riddick saw her sitting on the stoop of the two-family brownstone where she lived. He asked her cousin to introduce them. "So we walked across the street, and I met my wife," says Bowe.
Riddick used to catch a bus to the New Bed-Stuy Boxing club on the corner where Judy lived, and he would often stop by her house just to talk. "He was so different from the other guys," says Judy. "He cared about me, not what he could get from me. He said in the beginning how he felt about me, but he realized that I wasn't into relationships. He was a true friend. If I needed him, he was there. If I didn't need him, he was still there."
Three years passed before Judy and Riddick began to date. They would sneak nights together at Bowe's house while his mother worked. When Judy couldn't get out, they would do the same thing at her house. "He was never at my house past 12 o'clock," says Mildred Gordon, Judy's mother. "At midnight he was right out the front door."
"I was out the front door and right back in through the back," says Bowe, winking. "That's how Junior came about."
Riddick and Judy were married in April 1986, and Riddick graduated from Thomas Jefferson High that June. Judy gave birth to Riddick Jr. a month later. Teenagers becoming parents is not unusual in Brownsville. What is unusual, Judy offers, is that Bowe did not leave for some other girl. He stayed put through a difficult pregnancy for Judy, during which she suffered fainting spells. Once while she was slipping in and out of consciousness, Judy heard Riddick ask her mother, "What's wrong with her?" and start crying.
"After that, I knew he was in for the long haul," she says.
Riddicia was born in '88, and Brenda Joyce arrived in '90. "I laid down and made these babies, and I figured it was my responsibility to take care of them," said Bowe, still on the massage table. "Having these kids gave me a reason to live. In my neighborhood people are always telling you that you are no good, that you can't do this, that you can't do that. But having these kids and knowing they need me, well, that helped me. They are the reason I get up and run in the morning."
With his eyes closed Bowe winced as the masseur went to work on his sore right knuckles. "I know there is a God and he loves me, believe it or not," Bowe said. "Because there were certainly a number of times I could have gone the other way."
Bowe remembers the time a friend named Bugsy stuck a loaded .38 in Bowe's hand and told him it was the best way to take care of a neighborhood enemy headed their way. "I realized then that whatever revenge I might get on this guy wasn't worth 25 years in prison," said Bowe. "So I handed the gun back to Bugsy and decided he wasn't my friend after all."
Today Bugsy is in jail, and Bowe is in the comfortable suburb of Fort Washington, in a modest two-story house he bought after his manager, Rock Newman, a Washington, D.C., native, insisted that Bowe move to the capital area in 1989. The first item a visitor to the house sees is a framed evaluation from Riddick Jr.'s school that reads: "J.R. had a very good day at school today. When he gets home from school give him a big hug."
The Bowes are now designing a new house that will be built in Fort Washington. It will feature a big RB on its iron front gate, an indoor swimming pool, a boxing ring, a 25-seat movie theater and a 10-car garage. Says attorney Jeff Fried, Bowe's financial adviser, "What Riddick always says is that he wants to take care of his responsibilities first, and then he can have some fun with the money."
Of course, he is still getting accustomed to his wealth, just as the public is getting used to a new heavyweight champion. Back home after his triumph in Las Vegas, Bowe sat in a van, traveling from one TV interview to the next. Through the darkness he spotted something familiar. "Look," he said, "there's Popeyes. See it? Pull over."
Hopping out of the van, he ran to the counter as though the bell had just sounded. "I'll have the chicken, two biscuits, corn...," he said, standing between an elderly man and woman, both of whom looked up at him with vague expressions of recognition.
"You recognize me?" he asked the woman.
"I think I saw you on TV, but I can't think of your name," she replied. "You're a champion or something, right?"
"That's right, ma'am. I'm Riddick Bowe, and I'm heavyweight champion of the world."