By the end there'll be a 26-year-old champion going out into the Pensacola community relentlessly, appearing almost compulsively at charily events, high school banquets and grade school classrooms, reaching outward, perhaps, for what he cannot grasp close by.
There are virtually no good stories to tell in the history of boxing fathers and sons. There are the stories of Joe and Marvis Frazier, of Bill and Buster Douglas, of Bob and Tony Tucker. Stories of the Howard Davises, of the Tony Ayalas and of the Bob Czyzes, Srs. and Jrs. Tales of recklessness and overcaution, of jail terms and shattered promise. A great fighter is a man alone on a path. He must feel that he is the maker, not the made. He must feel that he fathered himself.
They begin arriving soon after Little Roy returns from Korea, offering themselves to take Big Roy's place. Leonard and his lawyer, Mike Trainer. Butch Lewis, Lou Duva and Emanuel Steward. Little Roy stares at the scar on his forearm from a childhood whipping, closes his eyes, draws a deep breath. He's ready to sign with Steward—a contract calling for $300,000, a car, a house and a horse for Roy Jr.; $60,000 for Roy Sr.; and a $25,000 trust fund for educating Roy's siblings—and then he goes to his mother. Carol knows what this will do to her husband. "Your father got you this far," she says. "Give him a chance." How can Little Roy say no? He remains beneath his father's thumb.
Big Roy's got a plan. He's not going to do this with city cats, with insiders, with boxing big shots—some of whom are the very same guys who threw him to the wolves for a few pieces of silver when he was a boxer 15 years before. He's going to take the country road. He's going to hit the jackpot without ever entering the casino. Square Ring Inc. is formed. Levin, the local lawyer, will arrange for the fight sites, handle the ticket sales and line up the undercards. His brother Fred, one of America's top trial attorneys in earnings, will negotiate with the sharks and help bankroll the operation till the big money rolls in. But Big Roy will call all the shots: Who Little Roy will fight, when, where and how, and what'll be served at the postfight party. He'll decide where Little Roy will live—in a trailer right next to Big Roy. Rather than risk a showdown, Little Roy won't even attend Square Ring meetings.
There's one immediate problem. Nobody in Square Ring has ever walked in the snake-infested swamp of big-time professional boxing. Big Roy looks around for a consultant, someone who knows the inside—but from the outside. He hires Harold Smith, a former boxing promoter fresh from five years in prison for embezzling $21.3 million from Wells Fargo Bank.
The arrangement goes smoothly for the first four fights. Two are nationally televised, NBC playing the story of the cheated Olympian like a Stradivarius. Little Roy TKO's all four opponents. People call him the next Sugar Ray Leonard. No outsider knows about the day he comes to the gym coughing, so feverish he's hot to touch, and Big Roy growls, "He's sparrin'. Glove him up!" No outsider sees Little Roy take out his anguish on three straight partners, pounding the third one to the floor, waiting for him to rise and continuing to pummel him even after Big Roy shouts, "Stop! That's enough!" No outsider hears Little Roy hiss, "Get him out of here if you want me to stop." No outsider sees him walk silently out of the ring and out of the gym as his father pulls the dazed sparring partner away.
What everyone sees is Roy's star quality, the way he shimmies into the ring wearing shiny costumes, leaps onto the ropes and pumps his fists. The way he dances around his opponents, watching, waiting for their vulnerability. The way they begin to stalk him, thinking they know his kind, and then are stunned to find themselves being hit with left hooks that no dancer should be throwing. Punches arriving from improbable angles, in preposterous sequences, blurring even in slomo: four left hooks in a row; no, that's five; or is it six? What are his hands doing down by his hips, why's he leading with hooks instead of jabs? Doesn't he know those things can get a boxer killed? But no, he's so blindingly quick, he gets away with murder—and commits it at the same time.
It's clear what Big Roy needs to do, and everyone tells him so. He needs to align with a big-name promoter like Bob Arum or Don King, needs to take fights in big cities, needs to fight better opponents to put the boy on track for a title fight. Whoops. That's the wrong word. Each time Big Roy hears need, his eyes cloud, and he takes another step back.
"Everybody expects us to keep going forward, but we're tricking them," he tells Fred Levin. "We're pulling back." Maybe it's because the son's about to eclipse the father. Maybe the father truly believes that lame and celebrity, if they come too young, will weaken his son. Maybe he can't bear risking the chance that one day he will find himself sitting in the corner, helpless, watching another man bludgeon his child's head. And maybe it's that word, that wrong word everyone keeps using. This is real life; it's probably all of those maybes together.
Suddenly, the man who chucked his son into the Gulf of Mexico won't let him near a puddle. Little Roy's next 11 fights, from the autumn of 1989 through the late summer of '91, last an average of 2½ rounds. Ten of them are in Pensacola, and all draw fewer than 2,500 fans. One opponent, Derwin Richards, turns out to be an impostor named Tony Waddles. Another opponent, Ricky Stackhouse, has lost five of his last 10 fights and is under medical suspension in New York. Then comes Lester Yarbrough, loser of seven of his previous 10.