By 1992 Bowe was regarded as one of the finest physical specimens ever to come down boxing's pike. He was 6'5" and 235 pounds, the new earner class of heavyweight, and he could jab with the best of them, even fight inside. There had been questions about his desire, though, ever since his Olympic silver medal finish in '88, a loss to Lennox Lewis that seemed to suggest there was quit in him. And his Clown Bomber antics, while crowd-friendly, were not always reassuring. But mostly there was a sense that the heavyweight division was about to complete the transition from Muhammad Ali's era to Bowe's.
Trainer Emanuel Steward was agog at the completeness of Bowe's package. "I told him he was looking like the perfect, perfect heavyweight," Steward says. In addition to size and talent, Bowe had the advantage of Eddie Futch, an old school trainer who alone was able to inspire Bowe to resist the deadly sins of sloth and gluttony. Bowe called him Papa Smurf and would do just about anything for him—even, it was said at the time, roadwork.
Bowe's run-ins with the police over domestic abuse calls (once in the week before he went to jail) make it hard to characterize him as entirely happy-go-lucky. But at the time of his ascension, his goofy good nature was almost a national treasure. His wit was exaggerated in the press, but his playfulness was, if anything, underreported. Once, while the referee was trying to raise his hand after an important victory, Bowe spotted Bill Cosby at ringside. Immediately he began jiggling his head like a dashboard dog, the ol' Cos gesture.
And he had a way of reworking reality to fit his Pollyanna needs. Even though he grew up amid the violence of Brownsville—the same Brooklyn neighborhood that spawned Mike Tyson—he steadfastly recalled a Leave It to Beaver childhood. One of Bowe's brothers died of AIDS, a sister was a crack addict, another sister died when a junkie tried to steal her welfare check. Riddick was one of 13 siblings, and as a young amateur he lived in an apartment complex where anybody interested in visiting him had to negotiate stairways manned by guards with automatic weapons. There were such long lines of crack retailing that one of Bowe's prospective managers thought he had stumbled upon a soup kitchen. Bowe's recollection? "Oh, we had a lot of fun. If I could just go back to being between 10 and 16, I'd never grow up."
Bowe put a good face on everything; it was part of his charm. Tyson terrorized the neighborhood through which Bowe dutifully walked his mother, Big Dot, to her factory job every night. Yet when Bowe racks his brain for a picture of the fierce young hoodlum, he comes up with Huck Finn: "Good ol' Mike. Big for his age, and he always had a bag of cookies with him."
Everybody loved Bowe, even Holyfield, who used him as a sparring partner early in their careers. "Not a mean bone in his body," says Holyfield, "always clowning around, imitating Ali."
But then they met, both of them undefeated, for Holyfield's heavyweight tide in November 1992. Holyfield, an overachieving, pumped-up cruiserweight, had been cementing his reputation as a well-paid warrior with wins over Buster Douglas, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ben Cooper. The rewards had been such—$56 million for those four fights—that he began toying with the idea of building an estate, something grand. "As a kid, nothing was big enough," Holyfield says. "Everybody there, table not big enough, have to sit on the floor on newspapers just to eat." Holy-field, alone among his contemporaries, did not believe in debt (or manager's cuts or even high payrolls). He expected to fully fund, out of Bowe's demise, the construction of a truly compensatory home.
Bowe was hoping for similar rewards. He was not the miser Holy-field was, and he believed that his slightest sacrifice ought to be rewarded, usually with a new car. His manager, the combative Rock Newman, had to subvert many a retirement ("Riddick retired every single training camp, actually," says Newman, now estranged from Bowe) with promises of fresh wheels. Glossy pictures of a burgundy BMW decorated one camp. But what Bowe was toying with before the Holyfield fight, for which he'd get $8 million to the champ's minimum $15 million, was the purchase of his own apartment complex in Brownsville. "I remember back in '87, walking through a complex, thinking, If they ever sold it, I'd like to buy it for my family," he said. "Put all my brothers and sisters, everybody close to me, put 'em right there. Like a big happy family."
That fight would provide for all the dreams of both fighters. There would be championship belts and money, and their families would be secure and intact forever. And best of all—ask either man—the fight would be easy!
"I knew he could fight," Holyfield says now, reconsidering his complacency, "but I just knew he'd run out of gas. I mean, this is my sparring partner. I see a kid. And I'm all grown up. I was extremely confident. I didn't care how hard he worked, I worked harder."