Michael Grant wears a diamond in his left ear and a stubble on
his chin that makes him look like he's been on a two-day
stakeout. His shoulders slope away from his size 18 1/2 neck,
which seems nearly as broad as his head. The hottest young
heavyweight in boxing is a colossal presence, erect and
energetic, with a disarming smile and a disintegrating jab. "As
tough as Michael looks, he's very respectful, considerate and
tenderhearted," says his mother, Otha Mae. "He plays piano and
sings in his church choir. Just because he's six-seven and 250
pounds doesn't mean he's not sensitive."
Last Saturday night at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention
Center, Grant sensitively stiffened his former sparring partner
Ahmad Abdin with a barrage of superbly timed belts to the body.
After dropping Abdin with a right uppercut in Round 9, Grant
floored him twice in the 10th. Abdin rose at eight, after the
bell, but referee Eddie Cotton stopped the fight, thereby
raising Grant's record to 29-0, with 21 knockouts.
If there is greatness in Grant, it's of the sort exemplified by
his friend WBA champ Evander Holyfield. "Most top young
heavyweights today are inconsistent," says Emanuel Steward,
trainer of WBC champ Lennox Lewis. "They take one step back for
every step forward. Michael shows steady progress from bout to
bout. What impresses me most is how relaxed he is. For a
26-year-old who learned to box at age 20 and had just 12 amateur
bouts, he shows amazing composure."
Though untested, Grant impressed HBO enough to merit a
five-fight deal. The network is touting him as the "heavyweight
of the new millennium." Grant is too saintly sweet to be a
heavyweight of the old millennium. When he touches gloves before
the opening bell, he tells his opponent, "God bless you." When
he speaks of longtime trainer Don Turner, he calls him "the
second-most-important person, next to God." When he collects his
purses, he tithes to his Philadelphia church. "Michael doesn't
drink or smoke or curse or bite," says Lou DiBella, senior vice
president of HBO Sports. "Not only is he the most talented and
physically imposing young heavyweight out there, but he looks
like he could actually engage you in conversation."
The youngest of nine children, Grant grew up on the South Side of
Chicago, where he was known to hang out on the corner--but only
hang out. "Michael never got in fights," says Otha Mae. "He
didn't like to fight."
He still doesn't. "Boxing is not a passion for me," Grant says.
"It's a business: Clock in, click. The bell rings. Clock out,
click. I'm outta there."
His steelworker father died of a blood clot in the brain when
Michael was 12. Otha Mae supported her brood by working the
assembly line at the Curtis candy factory. Every other Thursday
she would bring home a free box of candy, and every Saturday she
would bring Michael to choir practice at the Holy Miracle
Pentacostal Church. "He sings like Sam Cooke," says Turner. "You
should hear the music he plays on the piano."
In high school Grant played baseball, basketball and football.
His 90-mph heater earned him an invitation to try out with the
Kansas City Royals, which he turned down because his foot speed
(4.6 in the 40) had earned him a football scholarship to Mount
San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. A year later he enrolled at
Southwestern, a junior college in Chula Vista, Calif., only to
transfer to Cal State-Fullerton, where he was a swingman on the
basketball team. Alas, Grant cracked more backboards than books
and flunked out. "I drank, I partied, I did foul things," he
says. Boxing changed all that. "The sport's clear-cut," he says.
"You either shape up or get knocked out."
Grant found his way into the ring by chance--a game of chance. In
1993 Las Vegas referee Richard Steele spotted him at a blackjack
table at the Golden Nugget. Struck by the young man's size,
Steele asked if he'd ever tried boxing. The next day Grant was
pounding the bag in the Top Rank gym, and a year later Steele
sent him to Turner. "I was as green as green could be," Grant
says. "I didn't know a left hook from a fishhook."
Turner offered both counsel and shelter. "Don became my father
figure," says Grant. "He said if I lived with him, he could keep
better surveillance on me and help me study my craft." Among
those providing advanced course work was Holyfield. "I learned a
lot sparring with Evander," says Grant. "Mainly to be humble."
Grant has almost as much humility as ability. "My toughest fight
has been with me, just trying to do the right thing," he says.
"If I was in a fight with eight gorillas, it wouldn't be as tough
a fight as it is with myself."
To prepare for his two external foes of 1998 (David Izon and
Obed Sullivan), Grant sparred with Abdin. The pair became fast
friends. "We hung out in malls, went to films, window-shopped,
whatever," says Grant. But just because they were pals doesn't
mean Grant went easy on Abdin. "Business is business," Grant
says. "If you told me my grandma was coming to fight me, I'd
tell her, 'Grandma, you're gonna get decked.'"
That was pretty much the fate to which Abdin resigned himself
last Saturday. At 6'3" and 243 pounds, the stolid Syrian emigre
is not a fighter of impressive skills. Working cautiously from a
cocoon of arms and shoulders, Abdin, 26, had built a 25-1-3
record--the lone setback a 12-round decision in 1997 to perennial
contender Larry Donald. Yet he entered the Convention Center ring
a 30-to-1 underdog.
Early on Abdin looked somewhat eager to buck the odds. Chin
shielded behind both gloves, he advanced in lunges that brought
him inside Grant's guard. In Round 2 Abdin caught Grant on the
ropes and tagged him with a right-left combination to the head.
But those who carry the fight to Grant do so at their own peril.
"He fights inside better than outside, which is unusual for a
guy so large," says Roy Jones, the WBA and WBC light heavyweight
champ. Then again, Grant's inside game could be a liability
against a stumpy slugger like Mike Tyson. "Instead of standing
beyond Tyson's reach," Jones says, "Grant would risk drawing
within Tyson's range."
Grant has no intention of drawing anywhere near Tyson. "Iron
Mike's a buffoon," says Iron Michael. "He's already been
destroyed three times. I'm younger, bigger, stronger. Beat him,
and people would say I beat a nobody. Money may have motivated
Evander to fight Tyson, but not me."
For his part Holyfield is reluctant to anoint Grant his
successor. "Everything boils down to how Michael handles the
pressure of a big fight," Holyfield says. "Nobody knows how
he'll deal with it but him." The big fight won't be with
Holyfield, who squares off with Lewis on March 13. "Forget a
Grant-Holyfield match," says Turner, who trains both. "It will
never happen. Evander's one of the alltime greats. His time is
nearing its end. It's Michael's time now, or it will be very
Turner sketches out a scenario in which the triumphant Holyfield
retires by year's end, and the Heavyweight of the New Millennium
gets a title shot in 2000. Grant isn't banking on it. "Hey, a
patient spirit is a good spirit," he says. "I'm in no rush. In
the meantime, I'll fight anybody. If I have to, I'll fight nine