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Robert Daniels: ‘Getting punched with bare knuckles was shocking. I was done fighting’

Robert Daniels
Robert Daniels turned pro at 15, won a major belt at 21, but couldn’t avoid the inevitable, writes Oliver Fennell

THERE were plenty of things Robert Daniels wasn’t allowed to do in March 1984. He couldn’t vote, or drive a car. He couldn’t legally drink a beer, or buy cigarettes, or have sex. He wasn’t allowed to work full-time. This was because he was just 15 years old. But one thing he was allowed to do was get punched in the head for pay.

It may sound immoral, but don’t blame the adults. This absurdly early debut in this hardest of professions was at Daniels’ own insistence – and thanks to a little forgery. “I’d already had more than 100 amateur fights. I started boxing when I was eight years old, so by then I was well advanced and I wasn’t going to wait for the [1988] Olympics,” he says. “I wanted to turn pro right away, but nobody would let me fight. They said you’re too young, come back in two years, but no way I was going to wait that long, so I faked my ID.

“There’s a local street festival in Miami, Calle Ocho, that runs every year and that year they did a boxing event. I can’t remember who promoted it, but I took my school ID and changed the date of birth on it, upped my age by a couple of years, and they let me fight.”

Anyone squeamish at the thought of a 15-year-old punching for pay needn’t have worried. He knocked out a grown man called James Roper in the first round.

For the next year or so, Daniels juggled boxing and school, and ultimately would graduate from both – with a high school diploma In 1985 followed by a WBA belt four years later.

“It was very difficult, studying and boxing, I’m not gonna lie,” says Daniels, “but I was able to stay focused because I didn’t want to be a boxer with no education behind me. I didn’t like how boxers were stereotyped as illiterate or not worthy of anything else, so I made sure to get my education.”

That Daniels possesses intelligence is evident not just in his academic achievements – he also earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Management in 2016 from the University of Phoenix, as well as “many other educational certificates in my youthful days” – nor just in his crafty, patient, box-punching ring style, but also in the cunning he employed in those early days to fight pro as an underage competitor. He outwitted not only the promoters but his parents, too.

“My mom and dad found out I was boxing and they tried to stop me,” he says. “It’s good that they always protected me; they were just very scared and nervous I’d get hurt. So, basically, I just had to sneak out of the house to go to the gym or to fight.”

Given he made such an early start, it’s no surprise Daniels’ rise was meteoric. He won 17 of his first 18 bouts, earning a shot at the vacant WBA cruiserweight belt, against a formidable veteran in Dwight Muhammad Qawi in Paris in November 1989.

They went to war – few people avoided doing so against Qawi – as the aptly named “Camden Buzzsaw” sought to drag the younger man into the trenches. Daniels, though, rose to the occasion in what he called his “going to school fight”, emerging a split-decision victor. The win also made him, at 21 years, two months and 28 days, the youngest boxer to win a major cruiserweight belt – an accolade he still holds.

“I really, really worked hard for that fight, to win that title,” says Daniels. “I really prepared myself and I was determined that nobody was going to beat me.

“It was a great fight, and it was pretty rough, but the fight went really well. Everybody thought Qawi would be too much for me, because he was a veteran, been champion twice before, and had that experience of fighting at the highest level. Bear in mind I was just 21 and had just 18 fights. I’d never fought anyone of that calibre, it was the first time I went 12 rounds, so he really pushed me to another level.”

World-conquering feats often resonate most at home. This was certainly the case with Daniels, who returned to Miami a hero as the city’s first major boxing titlist. He was awarded the key to the city by Mayor Stephen P Clark, and last year he was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame. It was also a satisfying rebuke to his local doubters.

“It felt great coming back to Miami with the WBA belt, because a lot of people expected me to lose,” he says. “They said ‘ah man, that kid ain’t ready’. They doubted me even since before I won the Florida State title [in April 1988]. I beat a guy [Michael Johnson] that a lot of people in Miami wouldn’t even fight.”

While most boxers claim they’ll fight anyone, in Daniels’ case it is truer than most. He’s mixed with legends, local heroes, world-class heavyweights, bareknuckle boxers – and even a man with one leg.

Daniels is perhaps best known for the first defence of his WBA belt, a unanimous decision over an amputee called Craig Bodzianowski in July 1990.

It’s remarkable enough that Bodzianowski was boxing at all, much less challenging for a title six years after a motorcycle accident that cost him his right leg, but he’d defied the doctors’ prognosis that he’d never again walk unaided. Instead, he walked all the way back to the ring on a prosthetic limb and boxed a further 24 times – most famously in a spirited challenge to Daniels.

“Honestly, it really made no difference,” says Daniels of Bodzianowski’s handicap. “Man, the guy could punch! Regardless of what people may think, he could really punch.

“I didn’t feel it [the media coverage focusing on Bodzianowski as an amputee] overshadowed me at all. I respect every man I get in the ring with. I didn’t care if the guy had an amputated leg, I didn’t underestimate him. I still trained hard like it was my most dangerous fight. That was a good win for me.”

It would, however, be Daniels’ last win for a major belt. Next up was a draw against Taoufik Belbouli in Spain and then he lost the belt in another away-day, with Bobby Czyz taking a split decision in Atlantic City in March 1991.

Although an ex-champ, Daniels was still just 22, and you’d think his best days would have still been ahead of him. Maybe they were, but we never got to find out, because despite winning 20 of his next 22 bouts (one no-contest), Daniels would never again challenge for major honours.

“I don’t know why it didn’t happen,” he says. “I kept asking my manager [Luis De Cubas] ‘why can’t I fight for a title again? The guy [Czyz] only beat me by a split decision. But he made all kinds of excuses.

“It was just one of those things, it never quite happened. That’s boxing. But I can’t say anything bad about Luis because after all he did get me a title fight [vs Qawi].

“Later, [heavyweight contender] Razor Ruddock’s brother Delroy managed me, but he was more focused on his brother, of course. I get it. Razor was making millions, whereas I’d only make thousands. It makes sense. I’m still cool with Delroy; we still talk.”

The lure of heavyweight millions, and the failure to secure another cruiserweight title shot, saw Daniels step up to boxing’s glamour division too.
“I wasn’t struggling to make cruiserweight, I was just looking for opportunities,” he says.

Despite standing just 5ft 9ins and weighing “210lbs soaking wet”, Daniels beat a good number of moderate heavyweights but came unstuck at world level, first on a decision to Lawrence Clay-Bey in January 2000 and then, six months later, in a crushing third-round KO to a David Tua at his absolute peak.

“That was my big heavyweight test,” recalls Daniels. “I let the excitement get to me. I wanted to give the crowd something to remember, so basically I went in there and fought him when I should have boxed. Yeah, he punched pretty good. Hey, the guy was a fully-fledged heavyweight. You win some, you lose some.”

Indeed you do, and for most boxers it becomes more likely to lose some as they get older. Daniels, now in his 30s, was more gatekeeper than contender. He never stopped believing he could regain the glory days, but struggled to find his niche, flitting between cruiserweight and heavyweight – and even a stint in the short-lived “super-cruiserweight” division recognised by a couple of minor sanctioning bodies whose titles he won.

There were three retirements, and three comebacks. Ultimately, though, it finished the way so many once-proud careers do, with Daniels cashing in his name value and losing to young pros who couldn’t hope to match the accomplishments of his prime. By the time he last laced up the gloves, in March 2012, he’d compiled a 49-10-1-1 (41) record and was 43 years old – but he still wasn’t done fighting.

In June 2018, two months shy of his 50th birthday, Daniels was lured by a combination of money and pride into the brutal world of bareknuckle boxing.

“They [Bare Knuckle Fight Club] offered me a good deal of money, and when you’re a gladiator, you’ll do just about anything,” he says. “But I should never have done it.”

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t end well. Daniels slumped to an ignominious two-round defeat against Tyler Canning, a portly brawler 23 years his junior. It convinced him, finally, to call it a day.

“It’s not my style, my profession. It’s not for me. It’s a big difference, getting punched with bare knuckles. The pain is shocking. It was the first time in my entire career I got cut. I came to the conclusion that was it, I was done fighting.”

Daniels, now 53 and living in Lincoln, Kansas, where he works in building maintenance and as a freelance boxing coach, had come to that conclusion several times before, but kept coming back. What’s different now?

“Oh, I’ve been tempted [to box again],” he says. “I’m a fighter, and fighters never stop thinking about fighting. But my kids don’t want me to fight anymore, so I stepped back.”

As he has stepped back, one of those five kids has stepped into the ring himself. Twenty-eight-year-old Robert Daniels Jnr is a 6-0 light-heavyweight prospect.

“I didn’t want him to take up boxing but he said there’s really nothing much I could do to stop him, so I started working with him [as a coach]. I didn’t want him to box, but if he was going to do it anyway, better with me than someone I don’t trust. I understand boxing.”

As a boxer who turned pro as a boy and retired 34 years later as a grandpa, there are few who understand boxing better than Robert Daniels.

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