Still, without opponents, without these knocked-out artists, where would boxing get its heroes? "These guys are potential stumbling blocks," says matchmaker Bruce Tram-pier. "They're trial horses. If you can't lick the trial horses, then you don't figure to go too far."
A lot of 21-0 contenders on ESPN are 21-0 because they have fought nothing but opponents. In the era of the mega-bout, television wants boxers with gorgeous records, and the only way to get a gorgeous record is to rearrange the faces of some dependably ugly rivals. New Jersey State Athletic Commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr. calls it "the sophisticated fix": A boxer with potential is spoon-fed wins until his record is sparkling enough to sign for a big-money bout. If he then goes out and gets clobbered, so what? He has made his score.
The New York State Athletic Commission is just down the hall from the Division of Cemeteries. "It's a standing joke around here," says Randy Gordon, the commission's chairman, "that that's where some local promoters are digging up their opponents."
But these are real people. Omaha's Jesse Abram once believed he could be champion; now, says Citro, he's 4-31-2 (Abram swears he has won "at least 10 or 12 times"). Either way, Abram hangs on, working at National Car Rental, punching a heavy bag in his basement, running three miles every morning, driving himself to a fight once a month, hiring a free-lance cutman, blocking a few punches with his head, taking his $200 and driving home.
Why does he stay with it? "I guess because it feels good to hit somebody and it feels good to be hit," says Abram, 31. To an opponent, the only thing worse than boxing is not boxing at all.
In New Jersey, Hazzard suspended 35 fighters for "poor performance" in 1986 and persuaded other state commissioners to ban them too. New York now has a rule that requires a boxer to appear at the commission for a medical evaluation if he accumulates six straight losses. Most states suspend fighters for 90 days after a knockout. However, because boxing is so disorganized—it has no national governing office, no central computer, no fighter-identification system—these rules are toothless. In recent years, several states have made efforts to coordinate their record-keeping, but much more remains to be done. "I suspended guys," says former New York commissioner Jose Torres, "but they went and fought in another state." Or they change their names, which is a way of life for a lot of opponents.
Besides, it's hard to ban a fighter if there's no way of knowing his record. Take Torrence. He says he's "thirty-two and twelve, something like that." Taylor has him at "about 15-19," not including at least a dozen unreported overseas bouts, all of which Torrence lost, Taylor says. Jim O'Hara, the executive secretary of the Minnesota boxing commission, has him listed at 17-27-1. As of Sept. 1, Citro had him at 10-30, and at the end of last year Texas had him listed at 6-17. New York has gotten wise to Torrence. "T never want to see him in New York again," says Gordon, who suspended Torrence last July after the fighter concealed a hand injury and then quit in his corner after the fifth round of a fight at the Felt Forum. Not that any of this matters. After all, the last thing an opponent wants in the ring with him is the truth.
Fighting as Mark French, Walter Cowans has a record of 9-2. As Big Jeff May, he's 4-9. As Walter Cowans and/or Raheem Muhammud, he's 14-52-1, says Citro. As Stan Johnson, he's 0-2. As Darrel Green, he's 4-2. As Johnny Bos, he's 0-2. All in all, Cowans figures his record is about 63-72-9, if you include the "seventy-five or 80" fights he knows were never turned in or were fought overseas or were fought under still other names. Truth is, Cowans would fight as Charles Lindbergh if it kept him in the ring. Banned in many states, including New Jersey and Illinois, Cowans uses phony names to keep the paychecks coming. Besides, says Cowans, "Mark French retired, so I figured he didn't need the name no more."
Even opponents have dreams. Cowans wants "to have more fights than any pro fighter in the history of boxing," though he has a long way to go. Len Wickwar, who fought from 1928 to '47, is credited with 463 fights. Cowans just turned 26, and he figures he already has 144 fights. He says he fought 46 times in 1986 and almost that many times over the next two years. Since Wickwar's daunting achievement is Cowans's primary goal, he has counted only the fights themselves, not wins and losses. "The more fights I lost, the more fights I got," he says.
A promoter, he says, once offered him $1,000 to fight a guy and another $1,500 not to beat him. That was in 1987. Cowans turned that one down, but he has had dozens of paydays for fights that neither he nor anyone else involved in the matchmaking ever expected him to win. This was especially true during a time when Cowans was addicted to crack and going through money faster than he could earn it. I said to myself, 'Man, I got to pay rent, keep the lights on. I'm facing reality here.' It depressed me."