It wasn't the first time Riddick Bowe had paid more attention to someone in the crowd than to the business at hand in the ring, but at least this once he waited until the fight was over. There was Bowe, his hand being raised in triumph by the referee, spotting Bill Cosby and jiggling his head like a dashboard dog, a trademark Cos gesture. Here Bowe had gotten the biggest win of his young life, a two-round knockout of Bert Cooper, and this mugging was all he could think to do. "Good old Bert," as Bowe had called him, had yet to be gathered from the canvas, and Bowe was on to the entertainment portion of the program. Ladies and gentlemen: the Clown Bomber.
Is this the future of the heavyweight division, a boxer whose idea of a fight plan is to shtick and move? Could be. Bowe is quickly emerging as the class of an exciting second echelon of heavies—several notches below Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock—which also includes Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison and Bruce Seldon, undefeated prospects waiting for the smoke to clear at the top. Bowe, a remarkable physical phenomenon—he is 6'5", weighs 230 pounds and has the limber moves of a middleweight—may be the most gifted of the bunch, and he's now being hailed as much for his Muhammad Ali imitation in the ring as for his Eddie Murphy imitation outside it.
His success has served only to confuse Bowe, a self-styled comic genius with a repertoire of celebrity impressions, who suddenly finds himself being taken seriously as a fighter, the dashboard-dog bit notwithstanding. At 23, Bowe is 20-0, with 18 KOs. His jab has been compared to the one Larry Holmes used in his 24 title fights, and his footwork has invoked memories of Ali. What's more, his trainer, Eddie Futch, has armed Bowe with a right hand, a destructive tool that has gotten him out of the ring in an average of less than three rounds in his pro career. Futch has more teaching to do, but even Bowe's critics, who once dismissed him as a buffoon, concede that he may finally be capable of exercising his talent in the ring instead of at the Improv. "He's really grown up," says Ken Adams, the U.S. Olympic coach who baby-sat Bowe at the 1988 Games. "He says things that make sense sometimes."
You can't imagine the turnaround this statement represents. In Seoul, Bowe offered a brand of postfight whimsy that had reporters begging for more and his coaches smacking their foreheads. He advised the scribes after one of his bouts that they had just seen his "ghetto whopper." He suggested that an opponent might think to bring his pension plan along, "because I'm going to retire him." After twice being dropped for an eight count by the Soviet Union's Aleksandr Miroshnichenko, Bowe modestly said, "It was quite embarrassing for the great one to be on the canvas." Bowe won a decision.
Anyone with a sense of history and a sense of humor understood that Bowe was emulating Ali, a big enough influence on his life that Bowe timed his first appearance in a boxing gym 10 years ago to coincide with Ali's birthday. And as long as Bowe won, he was surely entertaining. A slow day in Seoul? Bowe informed reporters that the U.S. boxers had a betting pool going on the quickest knockout. "It ain't kosher!" yelped Adams, in his role of beleaguered coach.
But as Bowe attracted fans, he also acquired skeptics. They tended to remember an Olympic bout during which Bowe sat in his corner, supposedly listening to frantic instructions from assistant coach Tom Coulter. A voice rang out in the crowd: "Hey, Riddick!" Bowe swiveled mightily, and Coulter had to take Bowe's head between his hands and turn it back toward him. Or they recalled the time Bowe was kicked out of the U.S. team camp for arguing with Adams. "He told me to take the first thing smoking," says Bowe, as if still surprised.
"Spaceship Bowe," said Ferdie Pacheco as NBC's fight commentator in Seoul. "An enormous talent, but no mental stability whatsoever." It wasn't hard to line up with the Fight Doctor after Bowe walked through his gold medal match, a loss to Canada's Lennox Lewis. Who knew Bowe's family was dying all about him? Who cared to guess at this clown's torment? Nobody, really. So Bowe, who believed that all the world is a stage, got the hook.
For many boxers the Olympics represent a terrific send-off. Bowe remembered the attention that Mark Breland, who trained in the same Brooklyn gym at which Bowe worked out, got after winning the gold at 147 pounds in the 1984 Games. Before the 1988 Games, Bowe had said, "Perhaps they'll give me a parade, like the Mets. I'll get a ride home from the airport on top of a fire truck."
But he had miscalculated. His wife, Judy, and two children, Riddick Jr. and Ridicia, were the only ones looking for him at the gate when he got back from Seoul. It was a lonely ride back to the Brooklyn housing project and the growing wreckage of his family.
Bowe's performance at the Games had been so disappointing that even promoter Butch Lewis, once an avid pursuer, washed his hands of him. "I had Greg Page flashbacks," says Lewis, referring to another failed heavyweight prospect. So diminished were Bowe's prospects that he considered joining the Army.