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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Bowe's return to boxing a risky proposition

Posted: Tuesday October 12, 2004 12:08PM; Updated: Tuesday October 12, 2004 12:19PM
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Seeing a long-lost ex-champ climb back in the ring often isn't a pretty sight. George Foreman may have reinvented himself as a likeable, larger-than-life heavyweight pug -- but he didn't retire from the sport with his speech slurred and medical evidence of brain damage, like Riddick Bowe did eight years ago.

Unfortunately, Bowe -- "Big Daddy" -- has come back. He's talking boldly of grabbing another title and he's fighting every month or so to burn off the layers of fat and rust. Bowe was on an Indian reservation in the middle of the Oklahoma plains last month. In a couple weeks, he plans to be in Louisville, Ky., the home of Muhammad Ali.

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The 37-year-old Bowe is again the buzz of the fight game. Not because anyone fancies him a title contender, but because there are legitimate questions about whether he even belongs in the ring. Some suggest his return is risky business. That the next flurry of shots to his head could leave him in the same state as former world champ Meldrick Taylor, who slurred his words when I sat down with him a couple years ago and had water rolling down his chin after taking a swig from a bottle.

Bowe's former manager, Rock Newman, doesn't want to see him hurt. Newman and a lot of folks who care about Bowe would rather see this road show end. They worry despite the fighter's pleas not to. State boxing officials wrestle with what to do should Bowe come knocking on their door for a license to fight.

"Everyone deserves a chance to make a living, but I think Bowe is one who really needs to hang it up,'' said Dan Kelly, an administrator for the boxing board in Tennessee. "I don't want anybody hurt in the sport. The sport has a black eye as it is.''

Bowe's new manager, Jimmy Adams, a small-time operator with Tennessee roots, hasn't approached his home-state officials yet -- perhaps because Kelly has made it known that there are significant questions about Bowe's physical condition.

But Adams is weighing potential sites in other states. And after watching Bowe dispose of an overmatched Marcus Rhode (who had been KO'd in three of his four previous fights) in the second round of his comeback fight, Adams predicted better days and more fights.

"He is not the Riddick Bowe of old yet,'' Adams said. "He's got some more weight to lose, and he has to get his swagger together. I think he proved to everybody that he can fight and that he has power. He had an eight-year layoff and is just getting everything back together.''

Only this isn't your normal layoff. Few have fallen faster or harder than Big Daddy.

I remember first meeting Bowe prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Four years later, before his epic first title fight with Evander Holyfield, I spent a few days at Bowe's training camp outside Bend, Ore. He proved to be animated and engaging.

Bowe went on to shock the experts by going toe-to-toe with Holyfield, boxing's ultimate warrior, and out-punching him. Both fighters absorbed a bevy of headshots in the first of their three bouts. Bowe retired in 1996 after a second bout with Polish heavyweight Andrew Golota. Though he won both fights on disqualification, Bowe took heavy punishment -- especially in the final duel -- after which his speech was noticeably slurred.

In retirement, Bowe's life became confused and bewildering. He joined the Marine Corps two months after the second Golota fight, only to quit 11 days into boot camp. His marriage fell apart. And on a frightful day in February 1998, Bowe sunk to kidnapping his first wife and their five children.

The champion who enjoyed audiences with the Pope and Nelson Mandela was convicted of interstate domestic violence and served 15 months in a federal prison before his release last April. During the trial, his lawyers brought forth experts testifying that he had suffered a frontal-lobe brain injury during his career. Bowe has suggested the testimony was a ploy to reduce his sentence, but it remains troubling with boxing officials.

"My feeling is that it is unquestionable that in the past he has shown evidence that is compatible with the type of brain damage that you would get from head trauma,'' said Dr. Flip Homansky, a long-time member of the Nevada Athletic Commission. "When he was in a court of law under oath, he and his attorneys stated that his aberrant actions were due to head injuries he sustained in boxing. Those two issues alone would seem to exclude someone from re-entering the ring.''

Nor was Homansky moved to hear that Bowe's speech has improved, saying that isn't unusual after a long layoff.

"The question is, does a little bit more trauma cause a lot more damage?'' he said. "That is the issue.''

Here's hoping we don't find out.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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