Four nights had passed since Riddick Bowe took the heavyweight title from Evander Holyfield before 18,000 fans in Las Vegas and another 5 million TV viewers around the country. On this evening Bowe's audience was considerably smaller. He lay stripped on a table in the basement of his Fort Washington, Md., home, where a masseur worked him over.
Around him was domestic pandemonium. On one side of the basement family room, six-year-old Riddick Jr. squealed while hanging upside down from a Universal weight machine. Riddicia, the new champion's four-year-old daughter, was running in circles. Brenda Joyce, the youngest, at two, had found a pen and was on a couch, scribbling. Turning onto his back, Bowe told the children to quiet down so that he could recite his latest poem: "Riddick Bowe made a promise as a kid/ He would do what Ali did."
While growing up in the mean Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the 12th of Dorothy Bowe's 13 sons and daughters, Riddick fell under Muhammad Ali's spell. "He saw himself as Ali," says Bowe's wife, Judy. "He put Ali on a pedestal and strived to get there also."
Ali was 22 years old, 210 pounds and lightning fast when he first won the heavyweight crown, in 1964. At 25, Bowe is 25 pounds heavier and displays none of the ring artistry of his idol. But his easy, spontaneous humor is like Ali's. Indeed, after his right hand, humor is Bowe's best weapon, and he used both to good effect with Holyfield. While taping an ESPN special two nights before the Nov. 13 bout, Bowe leaned over to Holyfield during a commercial break and whispered to the champion. Holyfield, who had been trying to keep his game face on, broke out laughing and told Bowe, "Keep the good stuff for when we're on the air."
Bowe was in fine form again the next day when he spotted a boxing glove with his likeness painted on it in the window of a Caesars Palace store. "You got a picture of the future world champion in the window, and you're only selling it for $225?" he said to a sales clerk. "I'm coming back tomorrow, and it better be more."
As he works to define his image, Bowe is at his best when he shakes off Ali and is his own, entourage-free self. "Can you believe this?" he said last week, standing next to his Jeep Cherokee at a Maryland filling station. "The heavyweight champion of the world pumping his own gas?"
Can you believe it when Bowe says that he has never taken a drink, never done drugs and never fooled around with other women? Don't you want to laugh at this man who laughs so easily, because in sports these days—all right, in life—such a declaration seems utterly ridiculous? Except that you can find no one who takes issue with it. Further, there is no evidence that becoming the possessor of the grandest title in sport is working any changes on Bowe. "What are you blushing at?" says Judy when four teenage girls spot her husband and begin wooing him with a collective "Ohhhh, Bowe."
Here's something else you can believe: Bowe is financially secure for the rest of his life, even if he never fights again. His earnings have been channeled into a variety of conservative investments, and his children already have trust funds to pay for college, which is precisely where Riddick and Judy plan to head this winter when both will enroll as freshmen at Howard University. Judy will concentrate on health services, and Riddick will study business administration and drama. "I've got to practice what I preach," he says. "If a big dummy like me can go to school, then anyone can."
Anyone who knows Big Daddy—who is most definitely not Big Dummy—knows you can question his stamina, you can question his weight, and you can even question his decision to wear ordinary white briefs at his televised weigh-in on Nov. 11 ("You got a problem with my Fruit of the Looms?" he said). But the one thing you don't question is what Lennox Lewis, the Briton who is the WBC's top contender, questioned after Bowe's loss to him at the 1988 Olympics: his heart. Don't ever, ever question Bowe's heart. When he sits on his pedestal these days and swings around for a look at his world, above all else the champ knows exactly where his heart lies.
Right after they wrapped the three championship belts around Bowe in the ring at the Thomas and Mack Center, Judy wrapped herself around Riddick. He bent down and whispered in her ear, "We did it." Judy looked up at her husband and said, "When you get hit, I can feel it."