SI Vault
Richard Hoffer
December 10, 1990
...though Riddick Bowe may be a funny man, he's no joke as a heavyweight
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December 10, 1990

But Seriously, Folks,...

...though Riddick Bowe may be a funny man, he's no joke as a heavyweight

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The Army would have been a significant improvement over his life in Brooklyn. The forces of his Brownsville neighborhood were undeniably corrupting. He, almost alone in Dorothy Bowe's brood of 13, had escaped drugs. An older brother, Henry, had lain dying as Bowe struggled in Seoul. Of what? "Good question," says Bowe mysteriously. "He was just sick." Only months before the Olympics, a sister, Brenda, had been stabbed to death while resisting a crack addict's attempt to steal her welfare money. Another brother is, says Bowe, "in and out of jail." Another sister "just can't leave that crack alone."

Most people cannot imagine what that silver medal condemned him to, not even Rock Newman, one of Lewis's assistants. He maintained an interest in Bowe, though Lewis warned him, "That boy will break your heart." Newman believed that a hand injury sustained before the Olympics—Bowe had had surgery on it the preceding April—was the explanation for his defeat at the Games. Newman also knew that Bowe had been shattered by his sister's death and that, for all his wisecracking, all he wanted to do while in Seoul was return home and repair his family. "We were just so tight, Brenda and me," he told Newman. So Newman visited Bowe, on a kind of character-finding tour.

Newman had managed Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a hardened product of the ghettos of Camden, N.J., and was familiar with America's version of ground zero. However, while walking up to the housing project where Bowe, Judy and their children still lived with his mother, Dorothy, even Newman became unnerved. "He meets me outside the building like I'm some kind of tenderfoot," says Newman. " 'Believe me,' I tell him, 'I've seen my share of city life.' There's this long line of people coming out of the building. I'm thinking it's a soup kitchen. 'What's this?' I ask. He says they're standing in line to buy crack. They were 50 to 60 deep. And it's cold. I say, 'Can't be.' So he shrugs and takes me upstairs. He lives on the sixth floor, and the elevator, of course, is broken. He points out people sitting on the landings with automatic weapons. He mentions, like an aside, that people around here really don't respond too well when things happen. I say, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'A guy got shot out here the other day, like at four in the afternoon, and they never moved his body out of the hall until the next morning.'

"So we go into the apartment where he lives. Small living room, got all his trophies, the tapes from his amateur career. I look into this tiny bedroom, where he, his wife and two kids are living, and it struck me there. If he could have survived here, there must be something special about him."

What in the world was Bowe laughing about all those years? His family was breaking down. The world he knew was in magnificent disrepair. Yet he reconstructed his childhood to resemble something torn from a Saturday Evening Post cover. "Oh, we had a lot of fun," he says. "If I could just go back to being between 10 and 16, I'd never grow up."

Still, he did not completely deny the reality of his environment. If conversation flags, he will perk things up with some horrible and violent reminiscence. "I was once standing this close to a guy, and he got his head blown right off," he will say casually. But everything is presented as mostly normal and innocent. Even the lurking menace of Tyson, ahead of Bowe at Public School 396 and a bully, is recalled gently. Says Bowe, "About all I remember is that he was big for his age, and he always had a bag of cookies with him." He pauses. "Good old Mike."

There is a softness to Bowe that belies his background and his profession. He is a kid who walked his mother to her job at a plastic-housewares factory, 1½ miles every night. Bowe would pour out his dreams to her, how he wanted to be somebody, be different. He would like to be champion, he told her. He would enable her to retire. He would buy them a house. Dorothy, who is given to wearing shirts with BIG DOT on the back, didn't much go for this mush. Just don't go to jail, she told him, because that's one place she would never visit.

Newman, hearing all this, couldn't wait to get into his own pockets and sign this kid. He was supposed to be a quitter? Newman dished out $50,000 and began the reclamation program. He knew that Bowe needed something more than money, though. He needed a trainer who could push the right buttons. There was only one, really—Futch, then 78, trainer of 15 world champions. Of course, Futch wasn't about to take on Bowe. "I'd heard the stories," Futch says. "And I saw the Olympic final, which was kind of puzzling." Maybe you can take chances on mystery fighters when you're young, but darned if Futch was going to spend his 80's with a nut case.

Newman was determined. He picked up the phone a dozen times to call Futch, then put it back down to jot down even more persuasive arguments. "By the time I called him, I had three pages of notes," says Newman. "I was more nervous than when I asked my wife to marry me."

Several months after the Olympics, Futch finally agreed to work with Bowe. Bowe didn't know how fragile the arrangement was. Once, while training Bowe near Reno, Futch said that he was leaving on other business but that Bowe should get his running in anyway. Do it on his own. It was-6°, there were two feet of snow on the ground, and up over a hill came Bowe, plodding along. Good thing. Futch, who had been hiding on the roadside, was at last satisfied. "Good old Papa Smurf," says Bowe.

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