Al (Potato Pie) Boulden cackles when asked to recall the day in 1993 that Alonzo Highsmith, an NFL running back whose six-year career was ended by knee injuries, sauntered into Houston's Main Street Gym and announced that he wanted to try his hand at boxing. "Every former athlete thinks he's a tough guy and can be a boxer," says Boulden, a man who has trained fighters, including Iran Barkley, for more than 40 years. "So when Alonzo came in here, I put him through a rough workout and figured I had chased him out of the sport. Well, he came back the next morning with a few hundred dollars' worth of equipment, and he hasn't missed a day in the gym since."
Today Highsmith is becoming a genuine challenger in the heavyweight division, a 6'1" 225-pounder with a record of 20-0. Highsmith says his body, which looks as if it were carved from marble by an Athenian sculptor, is in the best shape it has ever been. Boxing analysts say his left jab is among the 10 best in the division, and his punches don't take long to find their range: Seventeen of his fights have ended by knockout. Not bad for a converted southpaw who didn't know a right cross from a crossbar until he was 28 years old.
But the question still arises: Why would an easygoing, financially stable family man venture into such a brutal and unforgiving arena? Highsmith, normally a straight shooter, bobs and weaves around this one. "When I went to the gym for the first time, I never imagined this," says the fighter, who lives in the Houston suburb of Missouri City with his wife, Denise, and their two children, A.J., 6, and Jordan, 3. "I figured boxing would be a good way to stay in shape after football, but I just fell in love with the sport. In football I relied on the quarterback to give me the ball and then on my teammates to block. Here it's just me. Also, I think this sport is much less violent [than football]."
Highsmith is not, of course, the first NFL alumnus to stray into the ring. Mark Gastineau and Ed (Too Tall) Jones laced up the leather, only to discredit themselves with a few embarrassing performances. "I constantly have to deal with distancing myself from those guys," says Highsmith, now 32. "I think they were trying to use their status as football players and weren't ready to become professionals. I trained every day for 18 months before my first fight." In hopes of finally putting the comparisons to rest, High-smith reluctantly agreed to meet Gastineau, a vastly inferior fighter, on the undercard of a George Foreman bout in Japan last fall. Highsmith pummeled the former New York Jet until the fight was stopped 20 seconds into the second round.
Since then Highsmith has won four more fights, including a four-round TKO of Scott Lindecker on Feb. 16 that was televised on ESPN2. His next fight is planned for May.
"In the beginning of my boxing career I was going too hard for the early knockout, but now I'm happy to get in the rounds and work on my other skills," says Highsmith, who has sparred with Andrew Golota, Frank Tate and Lou Savarese. "The most important thing is that I'm learning to relax," he says. "I'm a natural worrier, but playing football in front of 90,000 fans is nothing compared to stepping into the ring. Now I feel I'm ready to take that next step up."
Yet when talk turns to Highsmith's being a contender, he is quick to raise a hand. "The guys who come in here and say I want a piece of Tyson' are the ones who don't last long. I still have a long way to go, but I feel I have time. Luckily the switch from football to boxing wasn't all that hard for me."
It's not the first transition that Highsmith has made. As a child he spent several years in French-speaking Quebec, where his father, Walter, played as an offensive lineman for the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League. Then, when Alonzo was 16, the family moved to Miami. As a senior defensive end for Columbus High School, he earned All-America honors and a scholarship to the University of Miami. But in 1983, when he arrived on campus in Coral Gables, coach Howard Schnellenberger decided to switch him to fullback.
Highsmith took the reassignment in stride and put in overtime on the practice field to learn his new position. In his sophomore season he rushed for more than 900 yards and became one o( the cornerstones of the Hurricanes' dynasty in the mid-1980s. He also completed a degree in business administration.
After finishing second to Ottis Anderson on the Hurricanes' career rushing list and then posting jaw-dropping numbers at pre-draft workouts, Highsmith was the third player chosen in the 1987 NFL draft. He had three solid seasons in the Houston Oilers' backfield, but a series of injuries to his left knee curtailed a promising career. Highsmith stuck around for three more seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but says he was a shadow of his former self. "At the end of my career I was sitting on the bench in Tampa Bay," he says, grinning. "That's when you know it's time to give it up."