Al (Potato Pie) Boulden cackles when asked to recall the day in
1993 that Alonzo Highsmith, an NFL running back whose six-year
career was ended by knee injuries, sauntered into Houston's Main
Street Gym and announced that he wanted to try his hand at
boxing. "Every former athlete thinks he's a tough guy and can be
a boxer," says Boulden, a man who has trained fighters,
including Iran Barkley, for more than 40 years. "So when Alonzo
came in here, I put him through a rough workout and figured I
had chased him out of the sport. Well, he came back the next
morning with a few hundred dollars' worth of equipment, and he
hasn't missed a day in the gym since."
Today Highsmith is becoming a genuine challenger in the
heavyweight division, a 6'1" 225-pounder with a record of 20-0.
Highsmith says his body, which looks as if it were carved from
marble by an Athenian sculptor, is in the best shape it has ever
been. Boxing analysts say his left jab is among the 10 best in
the division, and his punches don't take long to find their
range: Seventeen of his fights have ended by knockout. Not bad
for a converted southpaw who didn't know a right cross from a
crossbar until he was 28 years old.
But the question still arises: Why would an easygoing,
financially stable family man venture into such a brutal and
unforgiving arena? Highsmith, normally a straight shooter, bobs
and weaves around this one. "When I went to the gym for the
first time, I never imagined this," says the fighter, who lives
in the Houston suburb of Missouri City with his wife, Denise,
and their two children, A.J., 6, and Jordan, 3. "I figured
boxing would be a good way to stay in shape after football, but
I just fell in love with the sport. In football I relied on the
quarterback to give me the ball and then on my teammates to
block. Here it's just me. Also, I think this sport is much less
violent [than football]."
Highsmith is not, of course, the first NFL alumnus to stray into
the ring. Mark Gastineau and Ed (Too Tall) Jones laced up the
leather, only to discredit themselves with a few embarrassing
performances. "I constantly have to deal with distancing myself
from those guys," says Highsmith, now 32. "I think they were
trying to use their status as football players and weren't ready
to become professionals. I trained every day for 18 months
before my first fight." In hopes of finally putting the
comparisons to rest, Highsmith reluctantly agreed to meet
Gastineau, a vastly inferior fighter, on the undercard of a
George Foreman bout in Japan last fall. Highsmith pummeled the
former New York Jet until the fight was stopped 20 seconds into
the second round.
Since then Highsmith has won four more fights, including a
four-round TKO of Scott Lindecker on Feb. 16 that was televised
on ESPN2. His next fight is planned for May.
"In the beginning of my boxing career I was going too hard for
the early knockout, but now I'm happy to get in the rounds and
work on my other skills," says Highsmith, who has sparred with
Andrew Golota, Frank Tate and Lou Savarese. "The most important
thing is that I'm learning to relax," he says. "I'm a natural
worrier, but playing football in front of 90,000 fans is nothing
compared to stepping into the ring. Now I feel I'm ready to take
that next step up."
Yet when talk turns to Highsmith's being a contender, he is
quick to raise a hand. "The guys who come in here and say 'I
want a piece of Tyson' are the ones who don't last long. I still
have a long way to go, but I feel I have time. Luckily the
switch from football to boxing wasn't all that hard for me."
It's not the first transition that Highsmith has made. As a
child he spent several years in French-speaking Quebec, where
his father, Walter, played as an offensive lineman for the
Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. Then, when
Alonzo was 16, the family moved to Miami. As a senior defensive
end for Columbus High School, he earned All-America honors and a
scholarship to the University of Miami. But in 1983, when he
arrived on campus in Coral Gables, coach Howard Schnellenberger
decided to switch him to fullback.
Highsmith took the reassignment in stride and put in overtime on
the practice field to learn his new position. In his sophomore
season he rushed for more than 900 yards and became one of the
cornerstones of the Hurricanes' dynasty in the mid-1980s. He
also completed a degree in business administration.
After finishing second to Ottis Anderson on the Hurricanes'
career rushing list and then posting jaw-dropping numbers at
predraft workouts, Highsmith was the third player chosen in the
1987 NFL draft. He had three solid seasons in the Houston
Oilers' backfield, but a series of injuries to his left knee
curtailed a promising career. Highsmith stuck around for three
more seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers but says he was a shadow of his former self. "At the
end of my career I was sitting on the bench in Tampa Bay," he
says, grinning. "That's when you know it's time to give it up."
He had his knee operated on in 1992, though, with thoughts of
continuing in the NFL. Although the Chiefs said they wanted him
for the '93 season, he knew that his knee would not be ready
and his career in pro football was over, so he took to the gym
that August just to stay in shape.
He found immediate gratification at the Main Street Gym, a
no-frills biff house located across the street from a noodle
factory. These days, with the rhythmic rat-a-tat of the speed
bags for background noise, he climbs into the ring with an
assortment of sparring partners while Boulden, now Highsmith's
full-time trainer, shouts at him: "Work that jab. It's the key
to the city, baby."
Highsmith's midcourse correction has not exactly been met with
unqualified enthusiasm from his friends and family. His wife and
mother "watch my fights with their eyes closed, but they've been
real supportive," he says. He has received, however,
encouragement from his football mentors.
"I see his fights whenever they're on television and think he's
doing great so far," says Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson,
who coached Highsmith for three years in college and then
briefly with the Cowboys. "Alonzo has to be one of the
hardest-working players I've ever coached, and he's a great
athlete, so I know he'll be successful."
Highsmith's career has gotten a boost from his high profile. He
has an arrangement with Thomas Vaughan & Associates, a Houston
management firm, that allows him to concentrate on his boxing in
exchange for a percentage of future boxing earnings. He has
clothes provided by Big Dog, and ESPN2 and USA Network seem
eager to feature a former football player. Highsmith is surely
the only heavyweight who has fought on undercards for as little
as $3,000 a bout and yet lives in a lovely home on a golf course
down the road from the house he built for his parents. But he
claims the financial security he achieved as a football player
does nothing to blunt his intensity. "I'm just as hungry as the
other guy, and if anything, the fact that I'm [financially
stable] lets me relax a little bit more. Also, I know that
because I'm a former football player, if I lose, it's going to
make all the highlights."
So far, he is pleased with the direction of his boxing career.
He says, "I feel like I'm improving with each fight." And he
already has the entourage of a champion. Bubba McDowell, Cris
Dishman, Broderick Thomas and Reggie Cobb are a few of the
friends and former teammates who sit ringside and howl
encouragement at Highsmith. "At first they were saying, 'If
you're so tough, when are you going to have a pro fight?'"
Highsmith says. "Then they came to my first fight and said,
'When are you going to win by knocking the guy out?'
"Now they just want to know when they're getting their comp
tickets. I guess that's progress."