INSIDE a gym in Hackensack, New Jersey, I watch Monte Barrett look out the window and wonder where it is he imagines himself going. It’s sunny outside, perfect weather for an actual stroll, yet the former heavyweight contender, a free man at 48, voluntarily stays inside, doing this, pacing on a treadmill, content to pretend. He remains in the gym, his comfort zone, five years after his last fight, and it’s hard to fathom why.
In the end, as his walk becomes a sprint, I contemplate not where Barrett is going but who or what he is running from. Perhaps it’s temptation. Perhaps that’s the opponent these days.
“I’m fighting every day,” Barrett explains, catching his breath. “I’m fighting to be better than I was yesterday.
“I run every year on my birthday, long, like 10 miles. This year, on May 26, I didn’t prepare myself for it but did it anyway just to keep me connected.
“I have a young wife, young kids and I feel youthful. I want to keep up. I work out three or four times a week and keep my weight down. I blew up to almost 260 pounds at one point and now I’m 239. I just keep myself as balanced as I can. I don’t have a six-pack; I have a three-pack.”
All around him are Hackensack kids on their summer holidays doing circuits with one of the Savage Boxing & Fitness gym’s coaches. To them, this next generation, Monte Barrett is no different to the other large black men who huff and puff their way through a workout in a gym so hot it’s constantly described as a sauna. They wouldn’t be able to identify Wladimir Klitschko, Hasim Rahman or David Haye in a lineup, let alone the man who pushed them but ultimately came up short.
The rest of us, meanwhile, would guess ‘Two Gunz’ was getting ready to fire again. You would assume he was training for a fight. The intensity’s lacking, and the hot air comes from outside rather than coaches, but Barrett still sweats like a fighter, struts like a fighter and soon shadowboxes and hits pads like one.
Watching on, I hope it’s all for show. Yet, because I am aware of his thirst for fighting and his thirst for money and know he is partial to toying with trouble, I can’t be sure. Monte Barrett doesn’t go in search of it, not anymore, but trouble has always had a way of finding him.
In August 2017, Barrett had his back turned, a strict no-no on the streets, at four o’clock in the morning. Though in prison, having his back turned was no less dangerous and being grabbed from behind no less surprising.
Caught unaware, that morning a grab quickly became a bearhug and all Barrett could ascertain was that the man instigating it was smaller than him and must not know him. “Nobody,” he says, “was grabbing me in a bearhug in that place. I was already comfortable in the space I was in.”
Unbeknown to Barrett, the hug belonged to Zab Judah, a friend, fellow fighter and new arrival at the Manhattan Detention Center, the jail in which Barrett had spent the past three weeks. In for the same child support offences, Barrett had cell 16 and Judah took 17.
“How ironic is that?” says Monte, who began his stint on July 14. “When he came in, we had the chance to reconnect and be there to support each other. We played basketball, worked out, studied, prayed and went to church together.
“This was our chance to spend two and a half months kicking it. When you’re going through traumatic things, you need that support. We were that for each other.”
Their bromance stretches back to November 1993, when Barrett, competing in his first amateur bout, shared a fight card with Judah. From there they shared the same streets, got up to the same mischief, and Barrett spent most of his time trying to avoid the wrath of Yoel Judah, Zab’s father.
“His father and I didn’t like each other because my crew and his crew didn’t get along,” Barrett explains. “It’s called a construction collision. We were supplying jobs for our community and there was a lot of violence and extortion. When that was going on, in ’94 and ’95, it was war. There were shootouts, people were getting jumped, bottles were cracked over heads. There were baseball bats and golf clubs. It was crazy in those days, but we talked it out and came to a truce.
“Judah was an OG (Original Gangster) and a ruthless guy. Everybody was scared of him because he was a 10th-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu. He was doing all that on a street level and hurting a lot of people. The rumour was, if you see Judah come by, shoot first and ask questions later. He was that type of guy. He had that Steven Seagal stuff down pat.”
Barrett survived. He survived a car accident in 1986, which saw him enter a coma and learn he may never walk again, and he survived the streets of South Jamaica, Queens, streets paved with traps, temptation and fast-tracks to jail.
“I’d never been locked up before,” he says, not so much with pride but surprise. “That’s not to say I’ve never done anything worth being locked up for, but I always had an angel looking over me. I thought at first it was because I was smarter than everybody. But I was just luckier than everybody and blessed. When you’re in the jungle, man, anything can pop off and you’ve got to kill or be killed. The strongest survive.
“I was on the streets in ’85, ’86 and ’87, prime crack era, but walked out of that. I graduated high school. I went to college. I had my own business at 21. Next thing you know I’m boxing and travelling the world.”
It didn’t feel that way at the time, but the three months Barrett spent in prison would prove valuable. It gave him a taste of something he had long avoided and something he never wanted to sample again. More than that, though, it kept him away from boxing at a time when the comeback, even in his mid-forties, still carried appeal.
“I stayed three months, got my mind right and got to a better place with Christ,” he says. “I prayed and meditated and took some time to reflect.
“God put me in that space to work in me, for me and through me and to mould me because I was getting off track. I was getting ready to divorce my wife and things were getting rough on the financial side. It was getting hard. But when I came home, things changed. It’s a process but a great one.”
The process continues.
The next time I catch up with Barrett it’s a Wednesday morning and he’s taking his daughter, Gabrielle, to school. They’re running late, he tells me, but it’s all good. Not being late, you suspect, but being on dad duty. To be needed. To have a purpose. That’s what’s good.
“I love it,” he confirms. “I’ve got seven kids, and this is my last one. I get to make up for all the times I wasn’t there for the other ones and all the disappointments and failures. I get to push all that into this one little girl and it’s amazing.”
Gabrielle is four years of age. The other children Barrett has fathered are 26, 23, 20, 17, 15 and 10. Some have remained in contact with him. Some haven’t. Some, he says, are “mad” at him, while one or two aren’t allowed to make contact on the say-so of their mother. One daughter he hasn’t seen since New Year’s Eve 2012, which saddens him, but it’s a battle he can no longer fight.
“This is the road God put me on and I’ve got to handle it and keep pushing,” he says. “My peace is the most important thing to me. If I ain’t going to take care of me, ain’t nobody else going to do it. It’s like Don King said: ‘The best thing you can do for anybody is to take care of yourself first.’ It’s true.”
By virtue of the fact Barrett was still fighting world-class heavyweights at 42 years of age, it’s safe to say nobody was taking care of him nor all that interested in protecting him towards the tail-end of his boxing career. In fact, when Cuban Luis Ortiz pummelled him to the canvas in the fourth round of a fight in April 2014, Barrett, realising enough was enough, took matters into his own hands. Grounded, he took care of himself.
“My wife was pregnant at the time,” Monte says, “and I was thinking, Damn, she’s about to have a baby and nothing’s guaranteed in boxing, especially as you get older.
“The ref jumped in real quick but he probably saved me from an ass-whupping. A bigger ass-whupping. I said, ‘You know what? I have all my faculties still. Let me just walk away now.’
“As soon as I got knocked down, I was like, Yeah, it’s over for me. I already knew. I was in training camp with Tomasz Adamek and Travis Kauffman and doing good. I was getting busy. But Ortiz was a different level. It was more of a physical level I haven’t been able to get to. Physically, I was outmatched. I felt inferior, overpowered.
“I got up when I got knocked down, but I knew it was over. I only got up because that’s all I know how to do – get up when you get knocked down.”
It’s true. Few heavyweights are as familiar with knockdowns as Monte Barrett. He’s suffered plenty of them in the ring and at home and only his durability and determination have ensured knockdowns were rarely knockouts. He was physically tough but mentally tougher. He was hardened not by boxing but by life.
“I was going through so many trials at one point,” he says. “I was my own worst enemy and it cost me by best years because I was strung out with drama and being indecisive, being a womaniser, mistreating women, lying, cheating, and doing whatever I had to do. You can’t be preaching God and then be fornicating and having girlfriends on the side and concubines and all that c**p. All that stuff catches up with you.
“I discovered the value of repenting and forgiveness later in life. I didn’t become an adult until I hit my mid-30s. When you’re self-absorbed you don’t realise what’s going on.”
In 18 years, Barrett accumulated 48 pro fights while having children, wives, girlfriends, breakups and divorces, and often the headaches would start before a punch had even been thrown. The night he boxed Hasim Rahman, for instance, Barrett’s mind was not on his opponent, a former world heavyweight champion, but instead on the possibility of being arrested.
“I made that fight hard because I was emotional from arguing with my baby mama and her trying to have me arrested the day of the fight,” he explains. “I brought another girl to the fight and she wanted to have me arrested for that.
“I was going through a lot, but I was my own worst enemy. I was an asshole for even bringing her to the fights. I bought her an engagement ring for $12,000 just to keep her quiet because she was a whole bunch of drama. I really just wanted to control and manipulate her. I didn’t want to be with her but didn’t want anyone else to be with her, either. I bought her that ring to give her false hope.
“I was doing all this negative stuff and expecting positivity. But it doesn’t work that way. You can’t serve two masters. It ricocheted back on me during that fight because her spirit and my spirit wasn’t good to begin with.”
When spirits were high, Barrett was good. Too good for prospects whose hype trumped their ability, that’s for sure. Prospects like Joe Mesi, whom Barrett pushed all the way and somewhat exposed in 2003, and Dominick Guinn and Owen Beck, whom he defeated in subsequent fights. That trio’s combined record was 75-0 at the time yet Barrett alone switched the zero to a two.
“I had only three weeks to prepare for the fight,” he says of the Beck win, a thrilling ninth-round stoppage. “The day after Don King gave me the fight, we were off to training camp. I trained like a dog. I was in the Catskill Mountains and it was like 15 below zero. I was running with icicles on my beard. I was running with boots on for four or five miles in ice and snow. It was hard.”
Hard like most things in Monte Barrett’s life.
“After all I’ve been through, I’m very conscious of my mental health now,” he says. “That’s something in the black community that needs addressing but people overlook it. Mental health is very important. If you don’t acknowledge it or take care of yourself, you can get caught in a slump.”
The first time Barrett was molested by his aunt he was four years old. He was too young to know it was wrong and too young to know molestation was even a word. He was still a boy, too, when the abuse stopped at 10, and when he sold drugs on the streets at 12 and when he watched his mother get raped at gunpoint by one of many controlling boyfriends.
“I’ve been through a lot, man,” is the version Barrett tells children and strangers. “My mother was a country girl who came to the city from down south and was very naïve and promiscuous.
“When she came out here my stepfather started beating the crap out of me and her. She was young, running around trying to find herself, dealing with different men, and a lot of them were doing the same thing my father was doing. They didn’t care about me or her. That’s just life, man. Or my life at least.”
Monte would grow up to make his money fighting men, yet the greater fight was always with women. They were his toughest opponents because he couldn’t read or trust them and because he couldn’t deal with them the way he could deal with men. Beyond his control, Barrett believed women were not only thriving in a rigged game but out to get him.
“My mother never protected me from my aunt, and I felt a way about women after that,” he says. “I had a lot of aunts and cousins – over 20 altogether – and they all bashed me and told me I wasn’t going to be nothing. That leaves an impression on your psyche. I had a warped view of females.
“Where I come from, the hood, girls act like n*****s. They act like men. They’ll be walking around with a jockstrap. It’s not good.
“My first wife used to slap the crap out of me. She would throw wonton soup in my face and try to choke me. I thought it was cute. I thought it was love. But it wasn’t. It was just chaos. I never guarded myself to it and she didn’t protect me. She didn’t know everything about me, but she knew enough to know I’m damaged goods and was working out of it.”
In 1994, Barrett met legendary trainer Teddy Atlas and spent the best part of an hour talking to him about his upbringing, his mindset and his dream of becoming a pro boxer. Atlas, himself no stranger to strife, didn’t receive the full Monte that day but heard enough to get a grasp of the New Yorker’s character and drive. “This is what led you to boxing,” he told Barrett. “You were always meant to box. You’re a fighter. It’s in your nature, fighting.”
Though a natural fighter, Monte Barrett, 35-11-2 (20), can’t fight anymore. He’s too old, too sensible and too preoccupied being the doting father he was too preoccupied to be in years gone by. He now also has other projects on the go, projects designed to distract from the fact he can no longer fight for a living.
“I’m very optimistic about life and have always been a dreamer,” he says. “In the beginning I was a little scared but then I just embraced the change.
“When I first retired, I was training Wall Street guys and working at the UFC gym. Then I started doing Uber a year later and was doing bodyguard work for Wendy Williams. I was training her son and husband and a couple of his friends. I was doing good numbers in the beginning.”
Before being locked up in 2017, Barrett took some of Wall Street’s big spenders to big fights. He was paid to hang out with them, have dinner with them, introduce them to boxing royalty and show them a good time. It was more than just easy money. It spawned an idea.
In time, once released from jail, Barrett gathered the troops – specifically, Zab Judah and Joe Murray, a former police officer, lawyer and Barrett opponent – and created Barrett VIP Group (BVG), a fight night concierge service.
“If (Jarrell) Miller hadn’t failed his drug test, I would have got six figures to bring Goldman Sachs employees along to that fight against Anthony Joshua,” he says, ruefully. “You do six to 10 of those a year and you’re making seven figures.”
That’s the sort of money Barrett and other heavyweight contenders would aim to generate in one night when active. And an awareness of this is what keeps them close, even when nearing 50.
“I’ve had the wrong temptation,” Monte concedes. “I’ve had the feeling that I’m tired of being without and I want to make some more money and make a run for it not for the love but for the stability of it, financially.
“At one point I was talking to Sam Watson and different matchmakers and promoters and went from 252 pounds to 225. I was running 80 to 90 miles a week and boxing 100-plus rounds. I was on a roll. But then my wife said, ‘Did you ever ask God what he has in store for you?’ I said, ‘No.’
“I prayed and prayed and then, while I was doing Uber, I met this gentleman and he offered me a job working construction for his company. We knew a lot of the same people on Wall Street, so it was cool. I started working there.
“God wanted me to realise boxing was no longer for me on that level. If I had come back, I probably would have got hurt. I wanted to do it for the wrong reasons and whenever you do something for the wrong reasons it never works out.”
These days it’s hard for Monte Barrett to stop working out. Or maybe, as one of life’s damaged late bloomers, he’s not so much working out as working things out. Working it all out. Still.