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The Drunken Master: Emanuel Augustus, Floyd Mayweather’s toughest opponent, survived a bullet to the head

In 2014, a shooting changed Emanuel Augustus' life forever. Now he spends his days trying to remember how to survive, Thomas Gerbasi discovers

EMANUEL AUGUSTUS is having a good day. He’s less than a week removed from a trip to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he reunited with an old rival, Micky Ward, to celebrate their 2001 bout, one that earned Fight of the Year honours from around the boxing world.

He’s still buzzing about the event as he settles into the passenger seat for his daily trip with longtime friend LJ Morvant to the Beat 2 Sleep gym in his hometown of Baton Rouge.

“I’m still getting over our field trip to go and see Micky Ward,” Augustus said. “It was outstanding, it was shocking. You talk about missing your brother. It was just that serious. We weren’t raised together, but it’s just like we were.”

If Augustus and Ward were indeed brothers from another mother, they were Cain and Abel on July 13, 2001, throwing punch after punch at each other at a hellacious pace for 10 rounds. When it was over, Ward left with a fairly wide unanimous decision, with the scores punctuated by a ninth-round knockdown. But this was no blowout.

“It was two hardheads in there trying to get it,” said Augustus. “I could have said something about the knockdown, but hey, that was my rest period. That little body shot knockdown, I took a little breath. I ain’t gonna lie – I felt bad because it put more on his scorecard. That’s the only thing bad about it. But sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t have took that knee, would it be a draw.”

Even without the knockdown, Ward would have a win, and two fights later he would begin a trilogy with Arturo Gatti that earned him a spot in boxing history no one could take away.

Emanuel Augustus would go back to doing what he had always done, fighting anyone, anywhere, at anytime. There weren’t any premium cable slots or title shots for the man affectionately called “The Drunken Master” by diehard fight fans, only disappointments as he lost fights he seemingly won, battling the judges and referee as much as the men in the opposite corner.

He remembers a lot about his career, but not everything. At the age of 43 and with 78 fights under his belt, it would be safe to chalk a lot of that up to the craft he dedicated his life to, but there is also plenty of blame to go to the stray bullet that passed through his head in October 2014 and nearly killed him.

Augustus fought as hard for his life as he did in the ring, eventually emerging from a two-week long coma, but having to learn how to walk and talk again. He did both, and while he’s not the same man he was before the random shooting, he is in the gym, showing a new generation what he learned in the ring. That has never left him, even while so much has.

“He remembers the reunion with Micky Ward, so he is able to create new memories,” said Morvant. “But his short-term memory is tough. The shooting did everything. His quality of life has definitely been challenged by the shooting.”

Charges were filed against Christopher Stills, but were dropped in March 2016 after the lone witness died, leaving Augustus without justice.

At least the gym is still there for him.

“That’s it,” said Morvant. “Other than that, he doesn’t have much of a life. It’s not like he can make a living on his own. He can’t necessarily work a job and hold a schedule. Even at the gym, he’ll forget where the restroom is. So his ability to go out and make a living would be impossible at this point.”

Morvant wants to find a way to bring in some money for his friend, even if only to cover medical expenses still piling up, but as in so many situations like this, when the topic is broached, “friends” and “family” who have never raised a finger for Augustus miraculously appear.

“Everyone wants to be involved when it comes to the money,” said Morvant, “and I’ve always been so protective of him, so I’ve shut it down.”

***

While in New Hampshire for the USA vs. Ireland amateur boxing tour that was the backdrop for Augustus’ reunion with Ward, the two met up at a local bar while their fight played on television sets. Morvant was amazed at how immediate their bond was.

“You can definitely see the brotherhood with him and Micky,” he said. “That right there is different from the rest of them. Micky had two dance partners that took it to that level and that was Emanuel and, rest in peace, Arturo Gatti. You can tell that Micky has a special place for Emanuel and the moment he saw Emanuel, the way they embraced, you could feel it. The fight was being played in the bar, but they were so busy talking, they didn’t even look up at it.”

“To be honest with you, it was really amazing,” adds Augustus. “Wow, they really did like the way we fought. But it took two. They didn’t just like me, they didn’t just like him. They liked us. They liked the overall outcome of the fight, the entertainment value of it. And that’s what we are – we’re entertainers.”

Few were as entertaining as Augustus, with his style in the ring almost defying description. It could be simply explained by saying he was dancing to the beat of his own drummer. But more accurately, think of someone dancing to that beat while swaying to a saxophone or guitar solo and thumping to a throbbing bass line. All at the same time. That was Emanuel Augustus in the ring. And no one has managed to repeat what he did in the ring since his last bout in 2011.

“It’s hard to explain legacy to Emanuel because he doesn’t live by that,” said Morvant. “He doesn’t understand what he did in boxing. I try and tell him all the time that you’ve got guys out there with world titles people can’t name, but the moment you mention Emanuel Augustus, people say, ‘Drunken Master.’ He transcended the sport too because I’ve got some guys at the gym who do MMA, and everybody in the sport of MMA knows who Emanuel is.”

Morvant has posted videos of Augustus working in the gym with UFC veteran Shawn Jordan, and even working on some wrestling moves with Morvant’s son, Luke.

“Wait, wait, wait – what?” Augustus laughs. “You recorded that?”

I joke about a move to MMA for him.
“I’ve never been taught how to wrestle,” he said. “Everything about wrestling I know is streetwise. I’d street wrestle. We’d just go on the grass.”

Augustus knew something about street fights. A Chicago native, he came up tough in group homes in Louisiana as Emanuel Burton (he would later take his father’s name in 2001 when his parents married). And while he wasn’t the biggest kid around at 5-7, 135 pounds, he never shied away from a scrap. That extended into his boxing career, which began in 1994 with a six-round decision win over Jamie Cooper. And from the start, he did things his way.

“I didn’t want to fight like nobody,” Augustus said. “I didn’t start boxing to be like anybody. I just started boxing to make money. That’s really it. I didn’t have no favorites before boxing. I will say this, though. The only boxer that I ever knew existed was [Mike] Tyson. And that’s only because he was a small heavyweight knocking out big heavyweights. And me and him had that in common. I wasn’t knocking guys out, but I was putting them on their back and making them quit. Every time I had a street fight, they were taller than me. I might have been a Chihuahua, but I was a Chihuahua taking on Great Danes. And I was making them get it.”

Those Chihuahuas are mean, I offer.

“I was a lot worse than mean, believe that.”

There could be a mean streak to Augustus in the ring if an opponent tried to test him, like Norwich’s Jon Thaxton discovered during a seven-round stoppage defeat in 1998. But if they didn’t, the Louisianan was often content to let his foes stay in a fight. That led to countless close decisions going against him. As for the other decisions he lost, most were grand larceny.

That didn’t stop him from signing on the dotted line over and over, though, even when he knew he was behind the eight ball before the bell even sounded. Or maybe he didn’t know, because while he was a genius at times in the ring, outside it, he was far from a student of the game.

“I don’t know who nobody is when I’m fightin’ them,” he said. “All I do is sign the contract, and that’s a wrap. I don’t pay attention to that. I’m not being rude. But this is a form of business that I’m not really with. I don’t dissect my opponents. [Floyd] Mayweather dissected his opponents. When me and Mayweather fought, he did so much damn background checking on me.”

Augustus laughs when the topic of perhaps his second most notable fight comes up. In October 2000, Floyd Mayweather Jnr was 23-0 and a win away from a title shot. Augustus was 22-16-4 and on his way to somewhere, but nowhere with a gold belt involved. What happened over eight rounds and 66 seconds shocked most observers. Mayweather left Cobo Hall in Detroit with a ninth-round stoppage victory, but Augustus went home with the respect of the boxing world and the realisation that he gave the future pound-for-pound king one of his toughest – if not the toughest – fight of his career.

“How would you fight a guy like I fight?” Augustus asks me as we begin to verbally spar about the Mayweather bout.

“I wouldn’t take the fight,” I respond.

“I gotta say bulls**t to that,” he said. “You know why? Because if you were gonna fight me, fight me like Floyd Mayweather.”

“Floyd has said you were his toughest fight.”

“But he still won,” counters Augustus. “That’s like an ant telling a bird, ‘Boy you’re bad,’ but he’s already in the bird’s mouth going down the stomach.”

“I didn’t see him giving you a rematch.”

“I never asked for a rematch, though.”

“But he didn’t even really bring up your name until after you were retired.”

“Really? You’re a bad guy, bro.”

He laughs, then wonders why I’m laughing too.

“In this world, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”

“Well, I’m crying because considering the situation and the hand that I was dealt, what else can I do?”

I try to tell him that he’s got good people around him and to just stay positive.

“I love the way you said that and I thank you for that,” said Augustus. “But to me, the only way things are gonna look up is if they allow me to get in the ring again. And for me to do that, I have to be 100 per cent healed, and right now, it don’t look like that’s gonna happen no time soon.”

Augustus, then Burton, celebrates win over Jon Thaxton (Alex Morton / Action Images )

***

Emanuel Augustus compiled a 38-34-6 record with 20 wins by knockout during his pro career. That’s 614 rounds worth of prizefighting, and as he won more of those rounds than he lost, whether the judges agreed or not. But towards the end of his career, the magic of his prime years was fading fast. A punishing TKO loss to unbeaten Wale Omotoso in 2009 appears to be the one defeat he never recovered from, yet he still fought three more times in 2010-11, losing to Ruslan Provodnikov, Charles Hatley and Vernon Paris, a trio that sported a combined record of 51-0 when they fought Augustus.
Not that he ever cared about records or what his opponent would be bringing to the ring on fight night.

“I didn’t have the luxury of knowing every detail about who I’m getting in there with,” Augustus said. “All I gotta do is make sure I got me together. I gotta make sure I’m in shape, so no matter what he do, at least I’m prepared for it. I train hard, I run hard, I spar hard. I’d spar with three or four different kind of guys – different size, different ability, quick hands, counterpunchers. I’d get in there with someone big and muscle bound, just so I could have a little fun. Those guys that are big like that, they’re slow. But when they hit you, that’s a wrap. Woo-ee. He’ll hit you and make your ancestors feel it.”

Now you know how he developed the ducking, dodging and swaying style that became his trademark.

“It’s not really dodging them, but not getting hit by them,” he corrects. “Some shots you couldn’t dodge, so you’d just have to roll with it. If he throws the hook, you gotta go the same way the hook is going just to take some of the steam off of the punch. Like a matador does the bull. Take it, but at the same time, go with it.”

A YouTube search will show Augustus displaying such moves, and there are enough highlight packages of him to fill a good part of an evening. I ask if he ever watches his old fights.

“For what?” he said. “Right now, you call them great, but way back when, I used them to enhance my fighting ability. Now that I’m not fighting no more, if I keep looking at it, I’m just really gonna feel some kinda way. I already miss fighting as it is, and I can’t really do it like I was doing it.”

“But isn’t it satisfying to know that a new generation of fans are starting to enjoy what you did?” I wonder.

“I’ve learned to take it. That’s what I did, and I may be whatever, whatever, but at least a part of me lives on.”

And so does his “Drunken Master” fighting style.

“I don’t believe that,” Augustus replies. “The problem that I have is that I lack vision. I don’t see what everybody else sees. So when you tell me about fighting, I don’t understand what you’re saying. I really don’t.”

I try to explain, letting Augustus know that he saw things in the ring other people didn’t see. It was like a great musician following his own music and improvising on the fly.

“I never looked about it quite that way,” Augustus said.

Morvant pulls out his phone again, showing a video of WBC super-welterweight champion Jermell Charlo channeling his “Inner Augustus” during a session on the heavy bag.

“Really?” said Augustus. “I gotta see that. That’s him?”

He watches the video.

“I think you might be giving me too much credit, bro.”

Maybe the world hasn’t given him enough. But Emanuel Augustus isn’t looking for praise or recognition from a sport that didn’t treat him right. That’s not his style and it never was. And through it all – the good, the bad and the ugly – he still loves the game.

“I just liked to fight,” he said. “Just being able to get in there and do it. I didn’t need to be motivated. I was already motivated just to do it. I liked to fight and I like fighting. That’s probably a bad thing to say and it’s probably even worse to feel good about it, but it is what it is. I am a fighter. I was born to fight. And when I die, I’m gonna die with boxing gloves on and a mouthpiece in. That’s my frame of mind. Every time I turn around, I’m fighting for something.”

But today, it’s a good day. He’s at the gym and it’s time to work, where he will tell amateurs and pros at Beat 2 Sleep, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”

As for me, Augustus has five words.

“I appreciate everything you said.”

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