"Wasn't the ideal way to raise a kid," says Little Roy's mother, Carol. "But I can't say it was bad." Can't say because there was so much closeness in Carol that it balanced Big Roy's distance. "Any other boy," says Tiffany, "would've run away." One thing holds Little Roy to the fire. He senses that it's baking something hard and lasting. He knows that if he runs, he'll be an average man. Average like the opponents wilting in front of him just when he's beginning to feel that terrifying surge come through his arms and wrists. "I prayed to God, just don't let me be average," he says. "Let me be great at something." Because? "Because I knew if I was average, he'd dominate me all my life."
So he doesn't run away. He doesn't argue. He just carries a switchblade. A switchblade and a dread, growing each day as he draws nearer to manhood, that he's going to have to use the blade against his father. "He'd keep screamin' in my face in front of people, tryin' to pick a fight with me, just to prove he could still beat me," says Little Roy. "But I wasn't gonna fight him. I had too much respect to fight him. I'd just kill him. Or he'd kill me. That's the fear I had in my heart."
Here's his chance. The shadow's gone. Little Roy's in a dorm in Seoul, Korea, a million miles from his father's house. No Big Roy in his corner. No Big Roy in the gym. Can't even hear Big Roy hollering from the stands when Little Roy enters the ring in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
"Finally in my own world, by myself, like any other man," Little Roy says. It's an amphetamine, this freedom. He can't sit still. Can't sit with his teammates in the chow room, can't sit with them in the TV room, can't ride the bus with them to functions. It seems strange to the others, especially since, at 19, he's the youngest member of the team. "Where's Roy?" they keep asking. He's hurrying to the gym to do what his father wouldn't let him do before fights: play hoops. He's talking to girls. He's doing roadwork two or three times a day, dashing into the boxing gym at 11 p.m. to squeeze in extra workouts—because he has chosen to. He senses what's at stake. To win a boxing gold medal, you must be a man. Your own man.
He makes a new friend, an assistant coach on the U.S. team named Alton Merkerson. Smart as hell, a Vietnam vet, with the oddest notion Little Roy's ever heard from a boxing trainer. Having noticed that Roy doesn't turn over his fist as he's finishing his left hook—the classic way a hook is delivered—Merkerson doesn't try to change Roy's punch. Instead he suggests that Roy consider adding the turned-over hook to his arsenal. No ultimatums. No PVC pipes. A "democratic" trainer, Merk calls himself. Roy files it away. That's two people he can turn to if he ever gathers the guts for the showdown with his father. There'll be Coach Merk to train him...and Stanley Levin, the affectionate, curly-haired Pensacola lawyer whose money and sweat have helped keep the Boys Club boxing program alive, to help Little Roy financially and to hug him like a father.... He catches himself. No time for daydreaming now. There's business to be done.
He's awesome in the preliminary rounds. "You're different from the other American boxers," a member of the U.S. women's basketball team tells him. "They all look like they're in a war. You don't get hit. It's like you're floating in and out." There, but not there—just what his teammates have noticed about him outside the ring. During meetings they notice something else. Even though he's the youngest, the kid from the sticks, it's as if he's the oldest. As if he has been through a furnace even hotter than the ghetto fighters have. They start turning to him for advice. Little Roy becomes the leader.
In his second bout he devastates a Czechoslovakian fighter, scoring two standing eight counts, winning a 5-0 decision. The U.S. boxers spill out of the locker room to greet friends and relatives. There's Big Roy. "You're not throwin' enough punches!" he shouts at his son. Little Roy wants to crawl down a hole.
"He's been too quiet, there hasn't been any ionization," Big Roy tells a reporter. "You touch him, you don't get that spark coming off. I'm going to get him some electricity."
It's humming through Little Roy—it's just not Big Roy's juice. He cruises to the final, where he's brilliant once more. He takes apart South Korea's Park Si Hun, scores a standing eight count, out punches Park 86 to 32...and loses the gold-medal decision 3-2. What? It's incomprehensible. The judges who voted against him will be banned from officiating international amateur matches for two years, 50 Korean monks will come to Roy to express their shame, and he'll be voted the outstanding boxer of the Games—but the decision stands. Little Roy's chance is gone. Big Roy consoles his son. Sympathy is power too.
By the end of this story Little Roy will have taken a dozen young men under his wing, kids from all over, kids from trouble, just as his father had done before him. He and his company, Square Ring, will have bought an old house in Pensacola and converted it into a clubhouse, with a gym and a billiards room and a big kitchen and with bedrooms upstairs to lodge boxers. It'll be his dad's dream, what he hammered and nailed and begged for all those years, but his dad won't be there.