Antonio Tarver was first drawn to boxing in 1979 when he saw
what kids were getting at their little tournaments, just for
putting on gloves the size of their heads and windmilling for a
round or two. "Beautiful trophies and medals," he remembers. He
was just 10, one more fatherless kid bused across Orlando to the
Southwest Boys Club, and he was overwhelmed by the sport's
ritual ornamentation, the small glamour of it all. "The
uniforms, the pretty robes they had," he says. "And all those
trophies." For a kid from the inner city, it was nearly
Tarver resolved to win some himself, and his resolve, even at
that age, was impressive. His three sisters and his mother, in
fact, had been calling him Man almost since he was born, not
just because he was the only male in the house (he was) or
because Antonio was a lot of vowels to wrap your mouth around
(it was), but because he also was headstrong and willful. "He
was so tough as a baby," says his mother, Gwendolyn, "that's why
he was called Man." So it was no surprise, once he set his mind
to it, that the trophies began piling up, entire shelves of them.
The effect was gratifying. Tarver still remembers the smile on
Gwendolyn's face when he brought the first one home. She gloried
in those trophies, and he basked in her happiness. But in time,
being willful and headstrong, he began to understand that he
might be able to use his mother's pride in those trophies to
some better purpose. Trading desserts to his sisters for a
week's worth of dishwashing or bathroom cleanup had become an
unreliable negotiation, and he all too often found himself
getting hauled home from the club early and being pressed into
some horrible duty he had tried to pass off. His mother's
determination to be two parents in one--caregiver and
punishment-giver--was exasperating, and there really was only one
thing he could see to do. "I'd break my trophies for spite," he
says, "bury them in the yard in pieces. I knew it would hurt my
mom. I knew how she cherished those trophies. I don't know how
many more I gave to friends, all because I didn't get my way."
Gwendolyn would close her bedroom door, cry, then return
composed, telling her son he'd be sorry someday and might even
hate himself. But he still had to take out the trash. "She was
right about me being sorry," Antonio says. "I go in friends'
houses today, see my trophies, and I think about asking for them
back, except that wouldn't be right." Today, as the U.S.'s best
hope for a gold medal in boxing at this summer's Olympics, he is
amazed at how willful and headstrong that boy called Man was.
Why, just for spite, he nearly buried his Olympic career along
with those trophies. Hard to imagine.
Hard to imagine that Antonio Tarver, at the advanced age of 27,
is finally getting around to finishing something he started when
he was 10. Years of self-pity (when he didn't get his way)
delayed this Olympic career. Months of drug abuse (when he
didn't get his way) nearly aborted it altogether. Hard to
imagine that he has survived to become the world's best amateur
light heavyweight. In 1995 he went undefeated and won the Pan Am
Games title, the U.S. Championship and the World Championship.
There hasn't been a year like that, ever, in American amateur
boxing. "It's an American dream coming true," says Tarver. "With
all that adversity, all those ups and downs, and to pursue one
goal with every ounce of energy you have, that's how I sum up
the American dream."
Certainly that dream was a faint one a decade ago. He had given
up boxing at 14 when his mother, fearing for her children's
safety in a worsening neighborhood, moved the family across
town, as far from the crime--and the Southwest Boys Club--as she
could. Tarver plunged into the more traditional sports of
football and basketball, and played the latter well enough that
he felt sure he would win a scholarship. "You might say I banked
on it," he says now.
Indeed, his future was mortgaged to the hilt. During his senior
year at Boone High he had fathered a son and, determined to
support the boy, took on a series of part-time jobs. It was a
kind of bridge loan until he could get that scholarship and
assume the kind of upwardly mobile life that would take care of
his responsibilities. But the scholarship never came--he wasn't
as good as he thought--and Tarver, like any 18-year-old might,
came undone. "My whole world crashed in," he says. "I hadn't
prepared for anything else. What was I going to do, take a
trade? Suddenly I was stuck, trapped, no future at all."
Small-time jobs, like restocking the employees' break room at a
Holiday Inn, were all he could muster. "I stayed strong for a
long time," he says. "But as soon as school and sports weren't
there for me, I succumbed to the pressures of the world. I lay
in my self-pity."
He is vague about the period that followed, except to say that a
year or so out of high school he began "experiencing drugs." He
"experienced" them for 5 1/2 months, reportedly developing a
cocaine habit strong enough that he needed to steal from his
mother to support it. "It's not important what it was," he says
cagily, "but let's just say I really abused myself. It was
definitely a problem."
He is equally vague about a drug bust in 1990 that finally
halted his headlong descent into the life of the streets. Being
a first-time offender, he was offered the chance to keep his
record clean if he entered a six-month residential drug program,
Phoenix South, in Orlando. Tarver embraced the program, not only
as a way to keep his rap sheet clean but also as a way to get
back to where he once was. "We went back in time in this
program," he says, "back to where the problem really started."
Tarver came to understand that his disappointment in not getting
a scholarship, the self-pity that followed--which he calls "going
into my nutshell"--and the normal pressures of too much
responsibility for a boy who was not quite a man, contributed to
his downfall. "It was a checkpoint for me, all right."
So he was dealing well with his past, but he still didn't have a
future. What gave him one was the appearance of former
heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas, himself a former drug
abuser, who came to address the participants in the Phoenix
South program. Tarver approached Thomas after his speech and,
out of the blue, announced that he intended to resume his boxing
career. Thomas, who might have heard hundreds of such
revelations after his motivational talks, must have sensed a
special desperation and sincerity, and he gave Tarver his card.
The two got together after Tarver completed the drug program
and, beginning in late 1990, started following a full-blown
training regimen. Out of the chute Tarver won the Florida light
heavyweight championship. However, after just that one
tournament, it was clear Thomas and Tarver had different goals.
The former wanted the latter to turn pro; Tarver, perhaps
remembering those shelves of glittering trophies, wanted the
granddaddy of all glitter--an Olympic gold medal. "The one thing
I knew, even at the age of 20, 21, is that you ain't going
anywhere as a pro after winning some state championship," Tarver
says. "If you planned on being successful in this sport, you
better have gone through these Olympic steps. In the end, I got
rid of Pinklon Thomas. He couldn't see my dream."
He next turned to coach Lou Harris--"the great Lou Harris,"
Tarver calls him--at the Frontline Outreach Boxing Club, part of
a larger complex in West Orlando that had been founded by a
recovering drug addict as a place for troubled kids to channel
their aggression. Harris recognized Tarver as a talent but does
not, even in hindsight, tell you he recognized a future
Olympian. The thing that most impressed Harris was that Tarver
was always the first one at the gym, waiting for the doors to
open. "Sometimes it's enough," Harris says, "if a kid just keeps
hanging out at a place."
Tarver progressed so rapidly that the 1992 Games were a distinct
possibility. However, he lost twice to a fighter named Richard
Bonds, in the nationals and at an Olympic qualifier. And
although he believes he thrashed Bonds at the Eastern Olympic
Trials (the videotape shows Tarver collapsing in disbelief at
the decision), he was equally sure that he was done with amateur
boxing after the loss. "I went into that nutshell," he says.
"I'm thinking about quitting. I'm thinking of my little boy, how
to support myself. Thinking about my age. Thinking about how the
U.S. boxing association must not like me because I'm from
Florida. I had all kinds of reasons, believe me." He also was
still trying to support Antonio Jr. (who is now eight years old
and lives with his mother, Sharlease Banks, in Daytona Beach,
but he is very much a part of Tarver's life). A familiar and
helpless despair set in.
But rather than return to drugs, he returned to the gym. Harris
teased him out of his nutshell, telling him the 1996 Olympics
were "right around the corner." Tarver bought it. He kept
boxing, and by '93, after he had won the national championship
for the first time, an amateur career again made sense. The
prize money from tournaments kicked in, Operation Gold
sponsorship helped, and Tarver even hooked up with an Olympic
sponsor, Home Depot, which also employs him as a part-time
cashier. His money worries evaporated, and there was no longer
any excuse to even think about fighting for $100 a round while
trying to work up the pro ranks.
It hasn't been completely smooth sailing since. Tarver lost his
national championship in 1994, when he was defeated by Anthony
Stewart and, wouldn't you know it, went "back into my nutshell."
But he didn't stay long, returning to beat Stewart at the '94
Olympic Festival and two more times after that, including the
Olympic Box-offs last weekend in Augusta, Ga. Tarver hasn't lost
to anyone since '94.
Tarver's international experience is so solid that he views the
missteps that delayed his Olympic appearance by four years as a
gift. In the 1995 Pan Am Games, to name one memorable bout, he
opened a 6-1 lead over Diosvany Vega, got dropped by a hook,
shook it off and spent the next two rounds in what The
Washington Post called a "barroom brawl" before winning an 11-10
decision, the first U.S. victory over a Cuban boxer in the Pan
Am Games since '87. "I'm seasoned mentally and physically," he
says. "And as far as being old at 27, well, maybe it's time we
didn't send boys to do a man's job."
He will appreciate the Games more than he could ever have as a
headstrong and willful lad of 23 when, to spite someone, he
might have dropped his gold medal in a backyard hole. "If I win
a gold medal," he says, "I won't bury it, except deep in my