Michael Grant wears a diamond in his left ear and a stubble on his chin that makes him look like he's been on a two-day stakeout. His shoulders slope away from his size 18½ neck, which seems nearly as broad as his head. The hottest young heavyweight in boxing is a colossal presence, erect and energetic, with a disarming smile and a disintegrating jab. "As tough as Michael looks, he's very respectful, considerate and tenderhearted," says his mother, Otha Mae. "He plays piano and sings in his church choir. Just because he's six-seven and 250 pounds doesn't mean he's not sensitive."
Last Saturday night at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention Center, Grant sensitively stiffened his former sparring partner Ahmad Abdin with a barrage of superbly timed belts to the body. After dropping Abdin with a right uppercut in Round 9, Grant floored him twice in the 10th. Abdin rose at eight, after the bell, but referee Eddie Cotton stopped the fight, thereby raising Grant's record to 29-0, with 21 knockouts.
If there is greatness in Grant, it's of the sort exemplified by his friend WBA champ Evander Holyfield. "Most top young heavyweights today are inconsistent," says Emanuel Steward, trainer of WBC champ Lennox Lewis. "They take one step back for every step forward. Michael shows steady progress from bout to bout. What impresses me most is how relaxed he is. For a 26-year-old who learned to box at age 20 and had just 12 amateur bouts, he shows amazing composure."
Though untested, Grant impressed HBO enough to merit a five-fight deal. The network is touting him as the "heavyweight of the new millennium." Grant is too saintly sweet to be a heavyweight of the old millennium. When he touches gloves before the opening bell, he tells his opponent, "God bless you." When he speaks of longtime trainer Don Turner, he calls him "the second-most-important person, next to God." When he collects his purses, he tithes to his Philadelphia church. "Michael doesn't drink or smoke or curse or bite," says Lou DiBella, senior vice president of HBO Sports. "Not only is he the most talented and physically imposing young heavyweight out there, but he looks like he could actually engage you in conversation."
The youngest of nine children, Grant grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he was known to hang out on the corner—but only hang out. "Michael never got in fights," says Otha Mae. "He didn't like to fight."
He still doesn't. "Boxing is not a passion for me," Grant says. "It's a business: Clock in, click. The bell rings. Clock out, click. I'm outta there."
His steelworker father died of a blood clot in the brain when Michael was 12. Otha Mae supported her brood by working the assembly line at the Curtis candy factory. Every other Thursday she would bring home a free box of candy, and every Saturday she would bring Michael to choir practice at the Holy Miracle Pentacostal Church. "He sings like Sam Cooke," says Turner. "You should hear the music he plays on the piano."
In high school Grant played baseball, basketball and football. His 90-mph heater earned him an invitation to try out with the Kansas City Royals, which he turned down because his foot speed (4.6 in the 40) had earned him a football scholarship to Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. A year later he enrolled at Southwestern, a junior college in Chula Vista, Calif., only to transfer to Cal State—Fuller-ton, where he was a swingman on the basketball team. Alas, Grant cracked more backboards than books and flunked out. "I drank, I partied, I did foul things," he says. Boxing changed all that "The sport's clear-cut," he says. "You either shape up or get knocked out."
Grant found his way into the ring by chance—a game of chance. In 1993 Las Vegas referee Richard Steele spotted him at a blackjack table at the Golden Nugget. Struck by the young man's size, Steele asked if he'd ever tried boxing. The next day Grant was pounding the bag in the Top Rank gym, and a year later Steele sent him to Turner. "I was as green as green could be," Grant says. "I didn't know a left hook from a fishhook."
Turner offered both counsel and shelter. "Don became my father figure," says Grant. "He said if I lived with him, he could keep better surveillance on me and help me study my craft." Among those providing advanced course work was Holy-field. "I learned a lot sparring with Evander," says Grant. "Mainly to be humble."