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One evening in 1981, when Simon Brown was 17 years old and only months away from turning professional, he was pounding the heavy bag in a gym on Columbia Road in northwest Washington, D.C., when the door opened and all movement in the gym seemed to freeze.
Sugar Ray Leonard, the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, the conqueror of Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns, walked into the room, looking spiffy in slacks and a sweater. "I lit up," says Brown. "There he was. Wow! To see him there, it was unbelievable."
Brown turned back to the heavy bag and began whacking it again, throwing left hooks, when suddenly Leonard was standing next to him. "You're throwing the hook too wide," Leonard said. "Throw it this way." Facing the bag, Leonard raised his hands and threw a series of short, crisp hooks into the air, saying, "See, real snappy. Real short." Returning to the bag, Brown shortened his hook, ripping two or three into the bag.
"That's it," said Leonard. "Now you've got it. Keep them short, snappy."
That may have been the briefest boxing lesson in Brown's life, but it was also the most memorable. "Ray was my idol," Brown says. "That's how I got interested in boxing, watching the 1976 Olympics on TV when I was 12. I saw all those guys win gold medals—Howard Davis and Michael and Leon Spinks—but nobody was like Ray. I wanted to be like him so much!"
Eight years have passed since Leonard taught Brown how to throw the left hook, and Brown is still rattling around in an obscurity that Leonard has never known in his pro career. Certainly, Brown has used that left to wicked effect in his career as a pro—a career in which he has won 31 fights, 23 of them by knockout, while losing only one. On April 23, 1988, in a bout widely acclaimed as the fight of that year, Brown stopped Tyrone Trice in the 14th round to win the International Boxing Federation's vacant welterweight world championship. And after six successful defenses of that title, four by knockout, Brown is regarded by many as the best fighter in his division. He is better now, some say, than Marlon Starling, the World Boxing Council titleholder, who hung Brown's lone defeat on him—a 12-round split decision more than four years ago in Atlantic City, when Brown was an unpolished 21-year-old and Starling was an experienced 27-year-old. And better than the World Boxing Association's champ and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Mark Breland.
His problem, at bottom, is that for all his talents in the ring, for all the respect he commands among boxing people, Brown still lingers in the wings of his sport, a mere shadow among the chief marquee players out front. Even his nickname, Mantequilla, which means butter (as in "as smooth as") in Spanish, is an odd, confusing handle for a Jamaica-born, English-speaking, Washington-raised fighter whose chief constituency is not Latin. He fights as if representing the homeless. He won the title against Trice in Berck-sur-Mer, France, and he has since defended it in Kingston, Jamaica; Lausanne, Switzerland; Budapest; Washington, D.C.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Springfield, Mass. The Rochester bout, which drew fewer than 1,500 fans, cost his new manager, Allen Baboian, about $80,000 out-of-pocket to keep alive.
"He has never established a market," says Trainer, one of the most astute marketing men in the business. "Nowhere he can go and draw a crowd. Say you're Mark Breland's manager. You know in your heart of hearts that this is not a good fight for you. It's a dangerous fight for you. You've got a guy, Simon, who is terribly gifted. But he's not marquee, not well-known, and he doesn't sell tickets. So the money's not there. Why would you fight him, and probably lose? That's Brown's problem."
So Brown has waited endlessly, and fruitlessly, for his much-sought rematch with Starling, whose handlers were asking $1 million to fight Brown. Instead, Starling is getting less money and moving up in weight to fight the IBF middleweight champion, Michael Nunn, in Las Vegas on April 14. As for Breland, he did his duck-walk around Lloyd Honeyghan, the former welterweight champion, on March 3 with a third-round TKO. All this has left Brown treading water until his mandatory defense of his crown on April 1, in Washington, D.C., against Trice.