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This was the evening for which Craig Bodzianowski had been waiting 18 months, the end of a long and tortuous road back to the prize ring.
On May 31, 1984, the promising young heavyweight (13-0, 11 KOs) had mangled his right foot in a motorcycle accident near his home in the southwestern Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, and nine days later, with his consent, doctors cut off the leg nine inches below the knee. To get back to the ring he had pedaled thousands of miles on a bike and pumped tons of iron. He had sparred dozens of rounds in the gym and done so much roadwork that he had whittled his time for the mile down to a remarkable 6:13.
By the night of Dec. 14, Bodzianowski (pronounced boh-jah-NOW-ski), now a 186-pound cruiserweight, had arrived. As the 24-year-old fighter stepped into the ring at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Ill., accenting his entrance with a fancy shuffle to the tune of Bad to the Bone, his theme song, the mostly white crowd of 2,750 roared. The entrance of his opponent, Francis Sargent, a black highway maintenance worker from Peoria, III. drew little attention. In his last fight before the accident, Bodzianowski had won a 10-round decision over Sargent (8-11).
The tumult ended abruptly at the opening bell, when a curious silence fell over the arena, as if the crowd was holding its collective breath. "Everyone was looking at Craig's foot," says his manager, Jerry Lenza. Sargent appeared to be looking only for a place to run. Bodzianowski, a plodder all his career, stalked Sargent from post to post.
Finally, from a distant seat, a voice bellowed: "Come on, ya big Polack, hit him!"
At that moment, the crowd got back into the fight, and Bodzianowski quickly picked up the pursuit, moving stolidly if not gracefully forward and planting the artificial foot to throw the right. After a few inconsequential flurries, with less than a minute gone in the second round, Bodzianowski caught Sargent against the ropes, hit him with a right hand that grazed his left eye, then hit him with two quick hooks. Sargent dropped to the canvas, holding his left eye.
Referee Stanley Berg counted him out at 1:05. As Sargent rose at the completion of the count, he was crying to Berg, "Stanley, my eye! My eye!" Dr. Michael Treister, the ringside doctor, examined the eye and found it watering, its cornea scratched. "It was all red," Treister says. "He had his eye open and the leather glove skidded across the front of it." Whatever, Bodzianowski had come back from the operating table, hitched up his seven-pound prosthesis and had won his 14th straight fight, and his first as a one-legged boxer. He was, and is, a ring curiosity, an eminently marketable commodity. And although he hasn't fought since, largely as a result of extensive oral surgery, he hopes to make a bout this month.
If the whole episode smacked of a kind of made-for-TV movie—in fact, Bodzianowski has signed on with the William Morris Agency, which is aiming for just that, among other things—what ensued was a twist quite as bizarre but a lot less uplifting. Five days later, after returning from New York, where Sargent had appeared with Bodzianowski on Good Morning America, Sargent told Lacy J. Banks, the boxing writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, that he had thrown the fight. He claimed that he had felt intimidated at the arena, and out of fear for himself, his wife and friends in the audience, had gone into the water.
"I threw the fight," Sargent was quoted as saying, adding, "He did not hit me hard enough to knock me out. I quit. From early in the fight, I was looking for a reason to fall down." Sargent told Banks that during the week before the fight, he had received threatening phone calls with messages such as, "Nigger, you better not win." When he walked into the high school arena, Sargent said, "I was made to feel very uncomfortable by the fans."
No sooner had Sargent made that splash than he began backstroking. Sargent recanted his story, saying that he was misunderstood, that he really meant to say he "blew" the fight, not "threw" it. He offered no further rhymes to explain what he had meant when he told Banks, in the tape-recorded interview, that he had been looking for a reason to lie down early in the fight, that he had gone down willingly, that he had let Berg count him out and that he was ashamed of what he had done.