Antonio Tarver was first drawn to boxing in 1979 when he saw what kids were getting at their little tournaments, just for putting on gloves the size of their heads and windmilling for a round or two. "Beautiful trophies and medals," he remembers. He was just 10, one more fatherless kid bused across Orlando to the Southwest Boys Club, and he was overwhelmed by the sport's ritual ornamentation, the small glamour of it all. "The uniforms, the pretty robes they had," he says. "And all those trophies." For a kid from the inner city, it was nearly breathtaking.
Tarver resolved to win some himself, and his resolve, even at that age, was impressive. His three sisters and his mother, in fact, had been calling him Man almost since he was born, not just because he was the only male in the house (he was) or because Antonio was a lot of vowels to wrap your mouth around (it was), but because he also was headstrong and willful. "He was so tough as a baby," says his mother, Gwendolyn, "that's why he was called Man." So it was no surprise, once he set his mind to it, that the trophies began piling up, entire shelves of them.
The effect was gratifying. Tarver still remembers the smile on Gwendolyn's face when he brought the first one home. She gloried in those trophies, and he basked in her happiness. But in time, being willful and headstrong, he began to understand that he might be able to use his mother's pride in those trophies to some better purpose. Trading desserts to his sisters for a week's worth of dishwashing or bathroom cleanup had become an unreliable negotiation, and he all too often found himself getting hauled home from the club early and being pressed into some horrible duty he had tried to pass off. His mother's determination to be two parents in one—caregiver and punishment-giver—was exasperating, and there really was only one thing he could see to do. "I'd break my trophies for spite," he says, "bury them in the yard in pieces. I knew it would hurt my mom. I knew how she cherished those trophies. I don't know how many more I gave to friends, all because I didn't get my way."
Gwendolyn would close her bedroom door, cry, then return composed, telling her son he'd be sorry someday and might even hate himself. But he still had to take out the trash. "She was right about me being sorry," Antonio says. "I go in friends' houses today, see my trophies, and I think about asking for them back, except that wouldn't be right." Today, as the U.S.'s best hope for a gold medal in boxing at this summer's Olympics, he is amazed at how willful and headstrong that boy called Man was. Why, just for spite, he nearly buried his Olympic career along with those trophies. Hard to imagine.
Hard to imagine that Antonio Tarver, at the advanced age of 27, is finally getting around to finishing something he started when he was 10. Years of self-pity (when he didn't get his way) delayed this Olympic career. Months of drug abuse (when he didn't get his way) nearly aborted it altogether. Hard to imagine that he has survived to become the world's best amateur light heavyweight. In 1995 he went undefeated and won the Pan Am Games title, the U.S. Championship and the World Championship. There hasn't been a year like that, ever, in American amateur boxing. "It's an American dream coming true," says Tarver. "With all that adversity, all those ups and downs, and to pursue one goal with every ounce of energy you have, that's how I sum up the American dream."
Certainly that dream was a faint one a decade ago. He had given up boxing at 14 when his mother, fearing for her children's safety in a worsening neighborhood, moved the family across town, as far from the crime—and the Southwest Boys Club—as she could. Tarver plunged into the more traditional sports of football and basketball, and played the latter well enough that he felt sure he would win a scholarship. "You might say I banked on it," he says now.
Indeed, his future was mortgaged to the hilt. During his senior year at Boone High he had fathered a son and, determined to support the boy, took on a series of part-time jobs. It was a kind of bridge loan until he could get that scholarship and assume the kind of upwardly mobile life that would take care of his responsibilities. But the scholarship never came—he wasn't as good as he thought—and Tarver, like any 18-year-old might, came undone. "My whole world crashed in," he says. "I hadn't prepared for anything else. What was I going to do, take a trade? Suddenly I was stuck, trapped, no future at all."
Small-time jobs, like restocking the employees' break room at a Holiday Inn, were all he could muster. "I stayed strong for a long time," he says. "But as soon as school and sports weren't there for me, I succumbed to the pressures of the world. I lay in my self-pity."
He is vague about the period that followed, except to say that a year or so out of high school he began "experiencing drugs." He "experienced" them for 5� months, reportedly developing a cocaine habit strong enough that he needed to steal from his mother to support it. "It's not important what it was," he says cagily, "but let's just say I really abused myself. It was definitely a problem."
He is equally vague about a drug bust in 1990 that finally halted his headlong descent into the life of the streets. Being a first-time offender, he was offered the chance to keep his record clean if he entered a six-month residential drug program, Phoenix South, in Orlando. Tarver embraced the program, not only as a way to keep his rap sheet clean but also as a way to get back to where he once was. "We went back in time in this program," he says, "back to where the problem really started." Tarver came to understand that his disappointment in not getting a scholarship, the self-pity that followed—which he calls "going into my nutshell"—and the normal pressures of too much responsibility for a boy who was not quite a man, contributed to his downfall. "It was a checkpoint for me, all right."