What Keeps Tony Thompson Ticking

By Daniel Kravetz on October 29, 2015
What Keeps Tony Thompson Ticking
But even with a 44-year-old body and a bad knee, Tony has not yet retired from his sport.

Like Sixto Rodriguez flying to South Africa, Tony was a man who saw a regular guy in the mirror, then found that, in another world, he had been made famous…

There is a quiet charm to the season’s first high school football scrimmage, one that eludes the sport during its normal fervor. This was the atmosphere on an August morning at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, a prep school tucked amid the forested cul-de-sacs of Alexandria, Virginia, where the varsity team was wetting its feet against an opponent from Maryland. Play was haphazard and rules were laxly enforced, and aside from the irregular cycle of grunts, whistles, and commands, the scene was subdued. Families clustered in the metal bleachers spanning one sideline, loosened by the steadfast summer weather.

From a sunny spot in a bottom corner of the bleachers, Tony and Sydnee Thompson searched out their son Charles, a new freshman, among his teammates on the opposite sideline. “I see two number 57s.” Tony said. “They’re not even wearing the right numbers.” Tony was dressed in an athlete’s tee, running shorts, and a silver watch. Beyond his conspicuous size and youth, his choice of attire distinguished him from the other football dads, most of whom wore some combination of polo, khakis, and logoed hat.

“We got to get our paraphernalia,” Sydnee observed to her husband at one point. “I told you,” Tony replied. “We’re at a professional school now. We got to be in collars.”

When the coach sent Charles on to pressure the visiting passer, Tony rose and walked the length of the bleachers to situate himself closer to play. His step had a noticeable hitch, some type of damage to his right leg. Watching him pass, fellow parents may have registered this and the other cues and wondered if the newest member of their community was a former professional athlete.

Of course, they would have been wrong on one count. Tony is a pro athlete, and an accomplished one. But even with a 44-year-old body and a bad knee, Tony has not yet retired from his sport. In fact, as a heavyweight fighter, he is still competitive with most of the world’s best talents in his division.

For most of the scrimmage, I sat behind Tony and Sydnee, struck by the apparent anonymity of a man who has fought for the heavyweight title in front of crowds of tens of thousands overseas. I had the notion that these folks ought to know his story, which is truly among the more remarkable in sports.

Or perhaps some of them had heard through their children that Charles’ dad was a boxer, and the others would learn over time. And they might then wonder: what the hell is this guy still doing fighting?

                                                                * * *

When Tony and Keith Thompson were of preschool age, they were taken out of an orphanage and placed into a foster home. Every night, the brothers slept face to face, so that if something happened to one of them in the night, the other would wake up and could make sure they would not be separated.

The brothers, who are just 10 months apart, are the only two of 11 siblings who share the same parents. Their mother and father were both drug addicts, and they spent their earliest years neglected, bouncing from relative to relative in Southeast D.C. and eating off of the shelves of the nearest grocery store. One day, a stranger found them at a local McDonald’s sharing a cheeseburger. The man took them to his home, gave them food and clothes, and brought them back to one of their aunts. The next day, someone from Child and Family Services arrived and took them to the orphanage.

“My mom visited us there once or twice,” Keith tells me. “After that, we knew things were going to be okay. I guess we kind of held on to that.” As it turns out, they did not see their mother again until Keith was 14. She died of an HIV infection 12 years later. Their father has spent most of their lives in jail.

When Tony and Keith were in first grade, they were legally adopted by their paternal grandmother and again became immersed in family. Their lives stabilized, but only for so long. One day four years later, their grandmother left for work and never came home. Several days passed. By the time they learned that she had suffered a heart attack at just 54 years of age, she was already on her deathbed.

After their grandmother died, Tony and Keith returned to foster care, then went to live with another aunt and her two sons in D.C. public housing. They eventually had a falling out with their aunt, and Tony moved in with a girlfriend. He was a father by age 17, and he and Keith never finished high school.

Keith is certain that if their grandmother had not passed away so young, they would have avoided many of the hindrances they faced in their teen years. I mentioned that, if that had been the case, I would not be writing about Tony today. “Maybe just a different kind of story,” he responded.

                                                              * * *

In a childhood dictated by instability, Tony and Keith survived on two constants. The first was each other. The second was law abidance, which was essential to the first.

Their discipline kept them together until they reached their 20s, when Keith joined the army. It also kept alive a dream Tony held from youth into early adulthood, which was to become a police officer. By age 23, he had passed the physical tests and completed the necessary paperwork to join the force.

If not for a fluke altercation, Tony would probably be patrolling a D.C. beat on this very day. Instead, he ended up on the other end of the law, spending almost a year of his life in and out of D.C. courtrooms. He left with his record tarnished. The case for the date of April 7, 1995 reads as follows:

“The complaining witness, an off duty police officer, was giving a seminar on crime prevention and home safety to approximately a dozen residents of the apartment complex where he lived. The seminar was being given in the apartment of a woman who was the girlfriend of Thompson…A disagreement arose between the complaining witness and Thompson, which resulted in Thompson shoving the officer, causing an injury to the officer’s ankle.”

“It was a fight about a girl,” Sydnee tells me, “and the other guy happened to be a cop. It was so petty.”

“I always found myself telling my brother about his temper,” says Keith. “I guess after a whole life of being taken advantage of, once he became a young adult, every obstacle was met with aggression.”

Tony has a clear recollection of the incident. “He put his hand in my face,” Tony says. “At the time I was about 275 pounds. I was a really big youngin. I picked him off his feet, and I threw him out the door.”

Even after living a life sculpted by trauma, this one stands out to Tony. The last time I had him recount the incident, I was taken aback to see his eyes moisten. “That was one of the lowest points of my life, man,” he says. “I was absolutely destroyed. I always considered myself a good person to the core, and I always stayed out of trouble. At that time I felt he ruined my life.”

In search of a fresh start, Tony relocated as far away as he could from home, which was the Maryland suburbs. He eventually found work as a counselor at the National Children’s Center. In the ensuing years, two chance encounters remade his life. The first was meeting Sydnee, which occurred at a company-sponsored baseball game. The second was buying car insurance.

                                                              * * *

Gene Molovinsky is probably the only insurance agent who ever decided to put a boxing gym in the back of his office. “Sound stupid, right?” he says. “But it’s true.” Starting in the 1970s, as soon as Gene locked up his office each evening, young fighters in the D.C. area converged on Keystone Insurance to train.

Gene recalls the evening that Tony Thompson walked into his office. “He didn’t even know there was a boxing gym in the back,” Gene says. “He was referred to me for insurance only. But I saw this big six-foot-six, 250-pund guy. I figured, man—this is the heavyweight I’ve been waiting for.”

Tony was already 27 then, and he had put on boxing gloves just once or twice in his life. But when Gene showed him the gym, something clicked. “Let me try some boxing,” Tony recalls telling himself. “Even if you’re not heavyweight champion, you still get paid.” He turned pro after 13 amateur fights

By then, he and Sydnee were married. “We were just happy to have a little extra spending cash,” she says. “He was going to box on the side and keep a regular job.” He earned $300 for his first fight. That money more than covered the Thompson household electric bill that month. And that is when Tony first told Keith that he was going to become heavyweight champion of the world.

Tony never did give up the 9-to-5. Still, it was not long before boxing became more than a side gig. “I won a couple of fights, but I knew I could be a lot better,” he says.

When you ask people to describe Tony’s style, they tend to use unflattering words: awkward; clumsy; not pretty. They are not wrong. Tony’s left cross often looks like a hook. His right hook often looks like a hammer driving a nail into a floorboard. His defense is strong, but his maneuvers seem inspired by zui quan, the martial arts style of drunken fist. But Tony did get better, and he chopped, lumbered, and lurched his way to 31 wins in his first 32 fights.

Sydnee remembers a turning point after Tony’s ESPN-televised 2006 decision win over Dominick Guinn, a two-time national golden gloves champion and one-time prospect. Sydnee was standing outside the dressing room after the fight, and Guinn was nearby, talking to his trainer, Joe Goossen. “He’s nothing like the videos we watched.” She remembers Guinn saying of Tony. “This guy is good.”

After three more wins, Tony had earned a mandatory shot against Wladimir Klitschko. Suddenly, the heavyweight championship that once seemed so farfetched was one victory away.

Imagine that a man first encounters an oblong brown ball at age 27, and that by 36, the same man is on your TV, throwing completions on Monday Night Football. Tony’s evolution is no less improbable. “God gives everybody a gift,” Tony told me when I first met him, shortly after he upset then-rising British star David Price for the second time. “One of my gifts is that I read people.” He explained this gift, then went on. “I also feel that I have a great gift for inflicting pain on a motherfucker. It’s been like that since I was a kid. Fights that I probably shouldn’t have won, I won. I’m still doing the same thing.”

                                                              * * *

A bit of foreshadowing could be found in a promotional event in Britain for Tony’s first bout with David Price, in early 2013. The two fighters face each other on stage, posing for photos, Price a half-a-head taller. Price wears a tan sweater, Tony a black t-shirt that reads “I’m Broke!” Both hold up the fist that is closer to the press: the right for Price and the left for Tony. With his free hand, Tony mischievously swats down Price’s fist, drawing laughs. Price chuckles and lifts his hand again, and they crane their necks towards the cameras. Then Tony deliberately lowers his left hand and raises his right.

Price chose to fight Tony for one reason: Tony had twice fought Klitschko, first in 2008 and again in 2012, and though he had been knocked out in both fights, the first had been one of Klitschko’s tougher tests—Tony had nicked the first two rounds and outlanded the Ukrainian over 10. Price, meanwhile, had clobbered all of his opponents, gaining a huge local following and inspiring the conceit that he could be the one to end Klitschko’s eight-year reign of the division. Tony was a public yardstick.

By midway through round two of their fight, Price had already landed a couple of powerful right hands, sending Tony back and inciting the Liverpool crowd. With a minute left, the British commentator said to his partner, “You can bet your money, Paul, that somewhere the Klitschko brothers will be watching this!” Just a moment later, Tony wove under a Price cross, threw a quick right uppercut, and then redeployed the right to the side of Price’s head. Price dropped to the mat like dirt from an excavator. “Oh, goodness me!” the play-by-play man exclaimed. “Well there is the disaster scenario!”

When the referee waived off the fight, Tony prowled along the ropes, yelling out to the stunned crowd. “I told you he was gonna fall for the tricks! I told you he was gonna fall for the tricks!”

In real time, the decisive cuff seemed too ungainly to do damage, but on replay, its torque had knocked Price’s head almost flat to his right shoulder. Ask Tony about the knockout, and he will tell you it was in his blueprints. “Everybody said it’s a lucky punch,” Tony posed. “But if you ask my coaches, I had already told them what punch was gonna knock him out. My coaches kept telling me to throw an up, and then a left hand. I said ‘no, it’s an up and a right hook.’ And what knocks him out? Right hook.”

When Tony returned to his hotel that night, a long carpet and rope had been arranged in the lobby, and dozens of fans were waiting for his autograph. Like Sixto Rodriguez flying to South Africa, Tony was a man who saw a regular guy in the mirror, then found that, in another world, he had been made famous.

                                                                  * * *

Starting from when Klitschko stopped him in Switzerland in 2012, the locations of Tony’s last seven fights look like stops on a continental sightseeing tour. Tony stopped Price twice in England, and beat Solis twice in Turkey. In between, he lost decisions to Pulev in Germany and Takam in France.

For Tony, traveling to Europe had its advantages. Paydays were bigger, and he could savor another few ticks of his 15 minutes. Sure, the long flights and time adjustments were obstacles on top of the ones he already faced: the absence of a promoter; the disruption of his day job; his belated introduction to the sport. But for Tony, obstacles were par for the course. Most importantly, the fights he was taking were ones that would get him closer to a third title shot.

Many months after Tony’s second defeat of Price, in which he rose from the canvas to wear down the Brit in the fifth, he faced a new hurdle: he tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a substance banned for its potential use as a masking agent, and did not receive a timely exemption. This led to a 12-month ban in Britain and a minor swell of bad press in July, when the ban was publicized. Tony’s case for himself was hurt by his ill-advised advocacy for the legalization of banned substances in boxing, which he had suggested would level the playing field in a sport where so many get away with so much.

Tony takes hydrochlorothiazide to control his blood pressure, and he had disclosed his use of the medication to the British Boxing Board of Control prior to each of his fights with Price. Sydnee, who serves as Tony’s manager, says the issue was one of delayed paperwork.

The Board agreed. Their ruling read:

“[United Kingdom Anti-Doping] accepted as did the Tribunal the medical evidence supporting Mr. Thompson’s assertion that his use of hydrochlorothiazide was purely therapeutic, and was not intended to enhance his performance. The Tribunal was also satisfied on this issue from the evidence set out in the correspondence from Alexandria Healthcare Centre dated 23 September 2013 and 11 November 2013, and the disclosure by Mr. Thompson of ‘high blood pressure.’”

The ruling went on to note that, while Tony’s attitude towards anti-doping measures was “lackadaisical at best,” he “made a credible effort to comply with UKAD requests,” but that his doctor “failed to provide this detailed blood pressure information.”

Whatever the case, the ruling diminished Tony’s options in Europe. But when I asked him if he ever considered hanging up the gloves altogether, he was incredulous at the thought. He has not won his heavyweight title yet. “My mindset is to go as long as I can,” he says. “I have to make this happen.”

                                                                  * * *

On the drive to Tony’s first fight back in the winter of 2000, Keith remembers telling a bad joke, to ease his big brother’s nerves and his own. The joke goes like this: a fighter gets knocked down, and his corner tells him, “Don’t get up until 8.” The fighter replies, “Well, what time is it now?”

Tony’s boxing career has passed 8. But for most fighters his age, it would be well past 10, which would signal either the termination of a fight or a middle-aged man’s bedtime, depending on how you see it. So what does keep Tony ticking along? Tony’s own answer changes depending on when you ask him.

At one moment, he’ll tell you he is still feeding his family, ensuring each of his seven kids have the security and opportunity he never had as a child. More often, though, he seems driven by a competitive spirit and self-belief that at times verges on fantasy. “I can live peacefully with my job,” he told me once, before he had left it, “but Klitschko beat me twice and I just don’t think he’s a better fighter than me. If I can be healthy, and get one more fight, I know I can beat him. And that’s pressing me on.”

If Klitschko doesn’t want to give him a third fight? He’ll work his way up the rankings and force his way into it. Or he’ll just have to first get to Deontay Wilder, the powerful young WBC champion, so he can bring more to Klitschko’s table. If doing so takes him until he’s 50? He’ll just have to keep going and keep winning. Can his body hold up? “It does what I tell it to do,” he says.

Boxers, Gene Molovinsky reminded me, don’t think like normal people. Then again, back when Tony was an amateur, what observer would have ever dreamed that he would go on to fight for a world title?

It was the ticking of the clock that finally convinced Tony to leave his longtime security gig to focus exclusively on his boxing for the first time in his life. The move coincided with his recent signing with Al Haymon’s powerful Premier Boxing Champions outfit. These developments fuel Tony’s last hope.

However, if he does suffer one too many losses, or if his knee finally gives out, or even if he wins and has a change of heart, he can leave the sport in comfort. Even amid a lingering competitive zeal, Tony can envision life after boxing, filled with golf, bowling, cookouts, and time with his children.

In fact, maybe to count down Tony’s boxing career is to use the entirely wrong clock. Though he fights on, maybe the last of his stardust belongs across the Atlantic. And maybe my notion that the other parents at Charles’ first scrimmage should know his story is mistaken. After all, they were busy watching their kids. Which pleased Tony, because all he wanted to do that day was to watch Charles.

“Boxing is a part of our life, but it’s not our life,” Sydnee tells me. “I’m not making light of the big fights, because who wouldn’t want the money? But we’re already comfortable. We’re really content with where we are as a couple, in our marriage and with our family. Life is good.”

Does Sydnee wish more people knew her husband’s story—all he overcame and all he achieved? “Yes, I wish they would know. But the people that need to know are his kids. They need to know so they know they can accomplish something.

“And they know,” she said. “They know.”

Friday night at The Venue at UCF in Orlando, Florida, in a fight televised live on Bounce TV (9 PM ET/6 PM PT), Tony Thompson (40-5) fights Malik Scott (37-2-1).

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  1. Lee 03:20am, 11/02/2015

    Great story,beautifully told.What a hero the Tiger is!

  2. GlennR 08:12pm, 10/29/2015

    I agree as well, total pleasure to read about big Tony. Wonderfully written piece.

  3. KB 06:59pm, 10/29/2015

    I agree with Bob

  4. Bob 06:27pm, 10/29/2015

    What a wonderful story! Thompson seems like a class act. This piece really explored what makes him tick. What a pleasure to get to know him as more than just a guy that fights regularly in Europe.  Thompson is a fighter, and a noble and talented one at that. Great intro, Mr. Kravetz, to a fine man.

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