Back to Formula

By Ted Spoon on August 19, 2012
Back to Formula
Riddick wolfed down decades of knowhow and referred to his master as “Papa Smurf.”

Knowing his pupil’s weakness was key and to stop him from getting distracted, Futch devised a foolproof plan—keep Bowe busy…

Size isn’t everything at heavyweight, but it doesn’t hurt.

The bigger man has the option to take in his surroundings while he goes about his work. Small movements and a steady jab are enough to discourage most. Up close all that added weight can be heaped on the opponents shoulders, and for the brave few a stiff uppercut is sure to scald aggression.   

And that’s on average. If these advantages are properly focused it can make for a truly dangerous individual.   

At 6-foot-5 and a trim 220 lbs. Riddick Bowe had natural assets which demand a good grooming. An austere childhood made the streetlights shine on the local boxing gym that much brighter, and when family tragedy struck the young man from Brooklyn didn’t need any more incentive to keep punching.

An amateur career of 104-18 hinted at accolades a little more prestigious than “Best Newcomer.” A total of four New York Golden Gloves titles were won, a Bronze medal was collected at the 1987 Pan-American games and a Silver medal came with the ’88 Seoul Olympics.       

While Riddick limbered up for national glory there was already this reputation for laziness floating about. Old Eddie Futch had been offered the chance to train the aspiring giant but wasn’t too hot on the idea; “If you don’t care about yourself, why should I care about you?” he would later say during a prickly moment in the gym. Unbeknownst Riddick was his future pupil, Futch was already having that dilemma dear to tutors; charmed by potential but resentful of idleness. 

Victory over Alex Miroshnichenko guaranteed Bowe a spot in the final. Canadian Lennox Lewis was the only thing that stood between him and the ultimate in the land of head gear. A more athletically built big man, Lewis got the worst of it in the first. In the second he slammed Bowe with his right hand and the referee began a standing eight-count. Another right stung but ending the contest was a little raw. 

In a wink Bowe’s professional prospects were seriously winded. 

Looking for inspiration the big man didn’t bother with a phone call and approached Futch. He pledged to do as he said and the maestro accepted the challenge.

One thing was certain about their relationship; Riddick had nothing but respect for his withered mentor. That docile expression of Bowe’s looked upon Futch expectantly, and as he wolfed down decades of knowhow he began to affectionately refer to his master as “Papa Smurf.”

Like any veteran Futch’s outlook was tempered with a pinch of scepticism. Knowing his pupil’s weakness was key and to stop him from getting distracted, Futch devised a foolproof plan—keep Bowe busy.

Turning professional in March of 1989, Bowe would cram 13 fights into the remainder of the year, sometimes fighting three times in one month. His weight didn’t venture much over the 230 lb. mark and with each successive bout another Futch special began to flower.       

For the longest time the “skilled big man” had proved an elusive phenomenon.

Jess Willard was a solid giant, but undeniably basic. Fred Fulton had the offensive capabilities minus the whiskers. Primo Carnera possessed decent fundamentals but lacked coordination. Buddy Baer, Abe Simon, Ron Lyle—all decent, but none were inspiring.

Muhammad Ali was splendid, but at six-two and a conditioned 215 lbs. he did not fit the mould for what we would come to term “super heavyweights.” Bowe’s alias of “Big Daddy” said it all, but instead of the bumbling brute we got a real craftsman; smooth and punishing.

Early victories didn’t suggest much outside of a slugger. With a looping right Bowe used his strength to crush the first wave, but as he marched on a natural ability to shorten his punches became apparent. Inside fighting, a concept relatively alien to the big men (officially extinct amongst today’s crop), was Riddick’s undisputed forte. 

A reach of 81” suggested a commanding jab, but Bowe did not use his left to establish distance. A flicking jab was designed to fluster, not damage. He often doubled it up to get close, and while the opponent got their hands up Riddick closed in. Hooks, uppercuts and body shots were linked with amazing fluidity, tight elbows made him tough to tie up, and there was a hint of Smokin’ Joe the way he dipped and used his shoulders.             

“He seems to want to please me,” observed Futch.

Old Pinklon Thomas was a measured opponent for bout number 19, a boxer who could teach you a few things without posing much danger. An impressive work rate revealed itself and Thomas was retired before the ninth in a career that had become famous for receiving beatings. Michael Dokes and Tyrell Biggs marked two more contenders whose best days were behind them, and then came Tony Tubbs.

Scores of 96-94, 96-94 and 97-94 concluded a less than convincing performance, but try to name one heavyweight who didn’t have a tough bout during their ascent…

Monitoring Riddick’s burger intake was not the only problem. The boxing world would soon find out that “Big Daddy” had something of a temper which created a few unsightly incidents. Elijah Tillery got disqualified after the first round for kicking. Bowe may not have started the ruckus but he sure as hell finished it, swatting Elijah out of the ring to for an ugly coup de grace.

It was back to business after clearing things up in a rematch. Pierre Coetzer marked one more opponent of moderate distinction before “The Real Deal” strapped himself in for what was set to be a turbulent experience, even by his standards.

Height, reach and a 30-lb. weight differential looked awfully nice on paper, but there was one little detail that couldn’t be ignored: this was a BIG step up in class for the challenger.

What followed was very arguably the greatest heavyweight bout since the Thrilla. A heroic 10th round was the jewel in a high-quality brawl. Less noticeable but no less impressive was the manner in which Bowe coolly dominated.

There is that old notion about “coming of age,” when all the lessons and heartache culminate into a terrific end product. In boxing some require more time to walk before they can run, and others simply aren’t good enough, but when it came to the main event, Bowe reacted like an Emperor foiling an ambush.       

Holyfield wholeheartedly brought the fight, and his stinging left hook landed on Bowe’s head plenty. Each time it didn’t have the desired effect while Riddick went one better than chip the paint work. His ability to find space was a little bit special. The jab was more frequent but inside-warring was obligatory, and it was those short uppercuts that convinced Evander he was on an ice rink.

Floored, bruised, exhausted, but still standing, Holyfield lost his title via fairly wide scoring.

Following Michael Buffer’s announcement the new champion found his professor and engulfed him with a cuddle.

Tomorrow’s print entailed a mountain’s worth of praise. The jubilation of victory used to mean everything, but it didn’t hold Futch like it used to. The 81-year-old guru had seen it all before and was only interested in one thing—making his “baby” better. 

“He’s at least three years away from full development physically. And in that time I hope to have improved his techniques and tactics.” What remained Bowe’s vintage performance was merely another opportunity for Eddie to scrutinize. 

“You’re walking in without the jab…you gotta be busier.” Things weren’t picture-perfect from where Futch was sitting, and his comments between rounds said as much. Uncorking Bowe’s true capabilities was going to be interesting; possibly fun.

“I don’t think anybody can beat him. Except himself.” Sadly, the last part was put to the test.

It certainly wasn’t dull in the coming years, but never again would Bowe treat the ring with the same respect. When a bulkier Holyfield managed to outpoint him it had more to with the champion’s conditioning, or lack thereof; and possibly a fan-propelled moron.

Concerning Riddick’s title victory, a lot of people would have you believe that it was simply a case of a good big man beating a good small man, but don’t be sucked in.

Very few big heavyweights would have defeated Evander that night. Size is one thing, but without the necessary chemistry, size doesn’t evolve from a statistic. And a modern giant like Wladimir Klitskcho may know how to use his size, but there’s good reason to believe Evander would get close and chop him down.     

The sin for which Bowe continually serves penance is plonking the WBC strap in the bin rather than face Lennox Lewis.

Only Riddick knows the truth behind that decision, but his actions went on to have people believe in a fear of physical equality, though this can’t be entirely accurate. Whatever may be said of Jorge Luis Gonzalez, he was big, undefeated and had provided one of those 18 smudges to Bowe’s amateur career. Andrew Golota was no midget either, and even though the Polish boxer was getting the better of things Bowe showed tremendous heart on both occasions. 

“From the opening bell this guy has not been in shape,” observed big George; a connoisseur on the topic of spare flesh.

Bowe had expressed a desire to face a post-prison Mike Tyson but reflected, ITALIC“At this point, I don’t think he wants to fight anybody who can fight.” After having his balls treated like a speed ball Bowe didn’t want to fight period.

Before Lewis’ undisputed claim he had stated that he was “on a mission.” Slowly but surely his great strength was cultured by Manny Steward, helping him flatten every “misfit.”

Bowe was never so firm in his wording. He didn’t know where he would end up after Seoul, and the impression was often given that he didn’t care. Brilliantly and briefly he flashed his talent. Following the triumph against Holyfield it looked like a new breed of heavyweight had come to rule, but it proved to be more an exhibition of his powers.

Kevin Rooney once famously chimed that Mike Tyson had revealed only 50% of what he was capable of. It’d be interesting to know what percentage Futch thought the man had reached whose horizons he claimed were “unlimited.” Had Lewis got his wish in 1993 it’s difficult to picture the underdeveloped aspirant repeating the job he did on Ruddock. Bowe wouldn’t have taken the fight without training; couple that with a sound game plan from Futch and that “chicken” would have been poised to win back all kinds of respect.

Agreed, Joe Louis isn’t remembered as one of the greatest because he couldn’t resist the local golf club, but this idea of a bully who fled from his acid test says nothing of a candidate for the biggest waste of talent over 16-stone.   

Outside of ugly scenes like thumping Larry Donald there was a fun personality, one renowned for a catalogue of impressions that included Ali, Eddie Murphy and Stevie Wonder. It wasn’t all bluster with Bowe, and he humbly bowed down to history, happily referring to himself as “the latest,” not the other one.   

A late return to the ring highlighted nothing except an inability to resemble what could be termed a “conditioned” fighter. Bowe’s final outing rests in 2008, but recent news has spoken of a third bout with fellow has-been Andrew Golota…in a cage. It’s enough to send you into deep depression.

Eleven years ago Eddie checked out at the impressive age of 90. Teaching had kept him young, and what a roster he had taught.

In a life that had included sparring with Joe Louis one instance will do well to be forgotten. During a gym session the former trainer of Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes struck his Brooklyn pupil with that warm gaze, bringing about a hush.

No feedback was given.

This time “Papa Smurf” relayed in a sincere tone: 

“You have the potential to be the greatest heavyweight I ever had.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Jethro's Flute 07:12am, 08/24/2012

    Interesting comments about Bowe’s background and family.

    Strangely enough, it’s hard to imagine Lennox Lewis’s mum giving him those kind of bad lessons.

  2. STRONGMAN 05:00am, 08/24/2012

    Bowe was the first of the super heavyweights. His inside fighting was only next to Foreman in my view . Bowe had heart and determination once he was in the ring, but he had problems getting inspired for fights and hated to train. Bowe would admit he came from a welfare family where no one had ambition. His mom would tell him hard work is for fools and mules and even let him oversleep where he almost missed the plane to the Olympics saying the boy is tired let him sleep.

  3. Jethro's Flute 04:28am, 08/21/2012

    Interesting article.

    It’s worth remembering that Lewis picked up some very bad habits after beating Ruddock and those led to his defeat to Oliver McCall so Bowe had the best chance of beating him at the time he was avoiding him.

    As it is, Bowe is remembered for one really good performance against a genuine great and sadly became Buster Douglas with a harder chin.

    BTW, there was no need to have a shot at Wladimir Klitschko, that was below the belt and had nothing to do with the rest of the article.

  4. the thresher 02:31pm, 08/20/2012

    Nice work here, Ted

  5. the thresher 05:50am, 08/20/2012

    Best tall inside fighter who ever lved.

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