If I watch my fights I start to believe I can do it all over again
RIDDICK BOWE ambles into the Green Room at Input Media, the West London home of BoxNation, and smiles.
“Are you my friend?” he asks.
Unsure of how to respond, I indicate that I’d like to be.
“Well give me some money,” he demands, straightening his mouth.
I briefly consider handing Bowe all the cash I have in my wallet, the handsome sum of £10, before he notices my unease and smiles again.
“Relax,” he instructs. “I’m only kidding.”
The 45-year-old is here to be interviewed by Steve Bunce, journalist and anchor of the channel. As he waits to be called into the studio, Bowe sits down on the sofa and watches the boxing that is playing on the television at the back of the room. He lifts his gargantuan right hand, clamps his fingers together, and scoops away the sweat that has gathered in his brow.
“Man, it’s hot today,” he says quietly.
It really is stifling. Despite the absurd heat, the New Yorker is coping with the rigours of a tour around Britain. According to his team – that sit alongside him and include former British heavyweight title challenger Mark Potter – “Big Daddy” has been chirpy throughout, his sense of humour lifting the mood during laborious car journeys.
But Bowe doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in his own skin. Maybe it’s an impression created because the former millionaire asked for money. Perhaps it’s because he’s clearly deteriorated from the supreme fighting machine who briefly ruled the heavyweight division in the 1990s.
During his pomp, Bowe was brilliant. When he beat Evander Holyfield in 1992 to claim the title after one of history’s best heavyweight slugfests, and then embarked on two quick fire defences – knocking out undeserving duo Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson – an air of invincibility gathered around him. His fights were huge events. Although his fluid style differed to that of Mike Tyson he was developing a similar indestructible reputation. He was tough and quick. His jab was a potent weapon. His right hand was lethal. Punches came in bunches. Charisma dripped off his every word. He was a heavyweight champion on the brink of transcending his trade.
“Nobody could have beaten me back then,” Bowe says. “Muhammad Ali is my idol and I love him but if we’d fought at that time I think I would have beaten him. I think I should be rated up there with the likes of Larry Holmes. But I’m not sure and it’s not for me to decide. It’s up for the people to decide but I hope they regard me highly. I know I’m better than Evander Holyfield – I whupped him two times – and I know I’m better than Lennox Lewis.”
Of course, he didn’t fight Lennox Lewis. Not as a professional, anyway. The pair collided in the 1988 Olympic super-heavyweight final and, after enjoying a good opening round, Bowe was stopped – prematurely some might argue – in the second. Riddick beat his rival to the unvested gold, though, with that victory over Holyfield. But under the instructions of his then-manager Rock Newman, Bowe dumped the WBC belt in a bin rather than hand Lewis a shot.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Bowe whispers. “I was ill-advised. But I’d still have fought Lewis. He knew he couldn’t beat me and that’s why he wouldn’t fight me.”
Whoever was to blame, the last great heavyweight era suffered in the superfight’s absence. Instead, Bowe turned up overweight for a rematch with Holyfield, the infamous Fan Man crashed into the ring midway through, and revenge was served on the cards. Bowe had lost his titles, his unbeaten record, and his form. Everyone presumed it would be an aberration. He was only 25 years old. But Bowe never rescaled his peak.
“I don’t like to look back,” Bowe says. “I don’t watch the fights back and do you know why? I’ve been there and I’ve done it. If I watch them I want to do it all over again. If I watch them I start to believe I can do it all over again and I don’t want to tease myself like that.”
It’s time for Bowe to ruffle more memories as he’s called to be interviewed by Bunce. He immediately comes alive. The pair engage in lively chat; both interviewer and interviewee are on form. When Riddick was champion of the world, he was a media darling. He hasn’t lost the knack. Questions are effortlessly converted into answers. It’s a smooth and engrossing spectacle. And when it’s over, Bowe cheerfully heads back into the Green Room where the 30-minute interview is being replayed.
“How was that?” he asks.
Everyone around him tells him how good he was. It’s not lip service. Bowe was a joy. But he seems disappointed now. His focus has switched from the compliments, to his own image on the screen. He tilts his head to listen.
“I hate my voice,” Bowe says. “I hate the way it sounds. It sounds bad.”
Again, his team attempt to reassure him. But he’s only listening to himself. He’s focusing on the slurred edges that cause his words to dissolve into each other.
“I never used to sound like that.”
He’s right. He didn’t used to sound like that.
After the November 1993 rematch loss to Holyfield, Bowe entered stage two of his career. It was littered with controversy and disappointment. But he found time to win the WBO title – dropping Britain’s Herbie Hide seven times en-route to claiming the belt – and win a rubber match with Holyfield. But he was taking more punishment than in his earlier years. The world didn’t know it at the time, but the heavyweight was in decline. His long term trainer – the great Eddie Futch – begged him to retire in 1996, after he emerged from a harrowing Andrew Golota scrap with a disqualification win. The pair engaged in a rematch – another gruelling dogfight – that Bowe again won by default. The first signs of his violent career were heard in interviews after the fight. He did not box at the top level again. He put on weight, fell on the wrong side of the law, lost his money. All the time promises were uttered about ruling the world once more. But the young man had grown old.
Comebacks in 2004, 2005, and 2008, added three more victories to his record but they were hard to watch. He was shot. Only this year, he experimented in Muay Thai boxing and was knocked out. He still refuses to announce his retirement.
“I’m not saying my career is over,” he says. “I could still do it if I wanted to. Look, if you got me into training camp and I lose, say, 100lbs [laughs], and I get in decent shape, and you give me a really, really good pay day, then I’ll make a comeback.”
Thankfully Bowe’s tongue seems to be in his cheek. He starts to smile again as conversation moves to today and beyond. Only a few years ago he spoke of taking on the Klitschko brothers but now he compliments them. He refuses to bemoan heavyweight boxing’s new European home.
“They’re both good fighters, good champions,” he explains about Vitali and Wladimir. “It is not a problem that these guys are Ukrainian, and that they fight in Germany. The world is a big place and if you’re champion of it, you have the right to fight wherever you want. It doesn’t bother me that America hasn’t had a champion for a while. In boxing, we have circles and phases. We [America] held the title for a long, long time. Let somebody else have their turn.”
Bowe is not convinced that his nation – starved of a heavyweight titlist since Shannon Briggs held the WBO belt in 2007 – will regain their place at the front of the queue in the near future. He believes young athletes are seduced by other sports, like basketball, like baseball, like football. Boxing does not provide the necessary returns.
“Most guys want rewards early,” he reasons. “It took me 11 years to become a champion. But now you’ve got guys who start boxing and they want a championship belt by tomorrow. It doesn’t work like that. I won the Golden Gloves, countless tournaments around America, then I went to the Olympics. It was a long journey. But now guys want that instant gratification and boxing doesn’t work like that. They’re not being patient, and they’re not being taught to be patient. In boxing you have to realise that the rewards will come if you set aside the time to learn. If you expect to conquer everything straight away, forget it.”
Despite his displeasure at how he sounds, and the implied precarious finances, Bowe is grateful to be sitting here today. He thrives in front of a camera or an audience. There is nothing wrong with his mind. It’s as sharp as the punches he used to fire. Deep down he knows his gloves are yesterday’s tools. The experience they provided is his new weapon.
“I’m constantly thankful for what boxing gave to me and now it’s my time to give something back,” he explains about his work today, training kids and nurturing tender minds. “Let me help these kids, talk to them, see what they have. Too many of these people run around stabbing each other. Listen, put the knives down and pick up the boxing gloves and see what you can do with your life.
“Just look at me. I was very fortunate as a teenager. I had people around me who really cared for me. Whatever I needed, boxing shoes, trunks, cups, the people around me believed in me and they would get it for me. They knew it was something I wanted to do so they looked out for me. I was a given chance. I could stay ahead of the game which means I wasn’t on the street robbing people, I was in the gym doing something productive. If I didn’t have the right guys around me God knows what I would have been doing.”
Insightful, wise, and a pleasure to be around, Bowe is trying to find the peace of mind that eludes so many. His ‘give me some money’ introduction might need some work, but the impression he leaves is a good one.