The world's nattiest prizefighter has just walked through the door of a Tampa bistro, and no one seems to have noticed. Antonio Tarver lopes along, graceful and good-looking. There's no Tysonesque menace about the WBC light-heavyweight champion; no tattoo etched defiantly on his cheek. Nor is there a Hopkinsian swagger; no endless jabber or blunt opinions. The 35-year-old Tarver cultivated his image in the shadows. But having launched the most devastating punch of the year--a short, sneaky left that knocked out the supposedly invincible Roy Jones Jr. in Round 2 of their May rematch--the southpaw is in the spotlight now, and he's cutting an imposing figure. He's impeccably dressed in a windowpane-check suit that wants to be Armani and, no doubt, soon will be. "I call him Dark Gable," says Buddy McGirt, his trainer.
Tarver began dressing for success long before he had any in the ring. At 10 he started boxing at the Southwest Boys Club in Orlando. Though he says he won "tons of trophies," by 14 he had quit. "Mom says our neighborhood wasn't safe," he says. "We moved across town."
He struggled with fatherhood, debts and a cocaine habit, and didn't lace up another pair of gloves until 1990, when he was 21. Except for a loss in a 1992 Olympic qualifier, his ascent through the amateur ranks was meteoric. In '95 he went undefeated and became the first fighter to win the Pan Am Games title, the U.S. Championship and the World Championship. On the theory that Olympic glory would make him a headliner, he spurned the pros to compete in the 1996 Atlanta Games. At the seemingly overripe age of 27 he was touted as America's best hope for a gold medal. But Tarver lacked focus, was unimpressive in early-round wins and lost in the semifinals, settling for bronze. "I'd been an entertainer and, at times, a showstopper," recalls Tarver, who won 158 of 166 amateur bouts. "The defeat was a bittersweet pill."
Tarver's pro prospects looked bleak indeed. Veteran trainer Gil Clancy dismissed him as a weak puncher with a boring style. "Guys like that are poison," Clancy said. Tarver signed with Philadelphia promoter Russell Peltz for a measly $2,500 and fought four-rounders at that city's rough-and-tumble Blue Horizon.
He'd enter the ring twirling a cane and wearing a top hat and a faux tuxedo. But the sometime showstopper didn't stop any shows. "Antonio was a Fancy Dan who wouldn't take chances," Peltz says. "He'd always knock out his less-than-mediocre opponents, but the fans razzed him terribly."
Tarver was 16-0 but also 31-years-old when he faced Eric Harding in 2000 with a title shot against Jones on the line. The unheralded Harding broke Tarver's jaw in Round 9 and cracked two of his ribs. Tarver lost a 12-round decision. "That broken jaw was a blessing," he says. "A light clicked on in my head. I realized I had to reinvent myself."
He fired his longtime trainer, Jimmy Williams, and hired McGirt, a former two-time world champion. "Everybody told me Antonio was lazy and uncoachable," McGirt says. "Everybody was wrong." Training hard and sitting down more on his punches, Tarver won his next five fights, including a fifth-round TKO of Harding in July 2002 and a lopsided decision over Montell Griffin for the IBF and WBC titles in April 2003.
He finally met the great Jones seven months later, barely losing on points. For the rematch McGirt advised him to bait Jones and set him up for a left down the middle. Tarver executed the plan to perfection, and much earlier than even McGirt had expected. At 35 Tarver was an overnight sensation.
His next fight will be in December in Los Angeles against IBF champ Glen Johnson, who knocked Jones cold two months ago in Memphis. After that bout, Tarver's plans are unclear, except that he doesn't envision moving up to heavyweight if it will jeopardize his postboxing dreams of Hollywood. "To give Denzel a run for his money, I need my looks intact," he says, his tongue as sharp as his clothes. "We can't tamper with that."