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BOXING at the beginning was fourth choice for me. I bet you all hear of guys saying that boxing was in their blood or that they were born to be boxers? Not me. I was in college playing basketball, baseball and [American] football, but because my performance in the classroom was so poor, the college stopped me from participating in those sports until I got my grades up. That was going to be a challenge for me.
I met Richard Steele in Las Vegas. The famous referee. He told me to give boxing a go, and with his support, I was able to spend a lot of time in the various gyms around Vegas. Richard helped me out a lot with money and transport, but I had to give him two hours of my time every single day so I could learn about boxing. I was a big athletic dude with energy to burn, and Richard saw something in me that made him want to invest his time and money. It didn’t stand out as a potential career choice, but it sure beat going back to school.
I decided to give it a real go. I needed the money, and people who I’d met in the gyms such as Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jnr passed on real sound words of advice. Evander was always there for me, and guess what? He was my best man when I got married in 1998. How messed up is that? Boxing was just this new experience for me, and then I go end up with the heavyweight champion of the world as my best man on my wedding day. Boxing does that.
My early days were crazy. Eddie Futch was the first trainer that I got to work with, but I ended up going to Freddie Roach shortly afterwards. That was just a change that came about because it felt right at the time, and Freddie had done a lot of work with Eddie anyway. Freddie and me only lasted a short time, and then it was onto Ron Lyle – the great heavyweight from the 1970s. Ron is the guy who had that war with George Foreman. Man, did you see that fight? Ron helped me a lot, but I couldn’t stop but think that he was motivated by money, having been used to the spotlight a lot more than others. It was Don Turner where I finally settled. I went over to Philadelphia and that was it for a very long time for me.
Whatever you’ve heard about gyms in Philly, it’s all true. You turn up there with nothing and they want to show you how hard it is. You go there and you’re a somebody who’s got a reputation then they’re coming for you. Those gyms in Philly taught me everything I needed to know about going far in this sport. No one is your friend at first, so it takes a while to settle there. You question yourself on whether you’ve made the right choice, but it’s all about how strong the mind is, and how bad you want to succeed.
My first spar out in Philadelphia was with a good prospect who was about 13 or 14-0; I can’t recall his name, but the whole gym knew how good this guy was. I was in there feeling him out, seeing how strong he was. He gets close to me, and I’ve moved off to the side, threw this feint that I’d been taught on the bag, and threw the right hand square on this guy’s chin. He was out flat on his face. The whole gym was in silence just looking up at the ring, and I was saying to myself, ‘What should I do?’ Don got in the ring and told me to go work on the bag, and when I was working away, I could hear him on the phone to his wife explaining to her that he had the next heavyweight champion of the world and that they’d hit the jackpot.
But when the chance came to hit that jackpot in 2000, against the champion Lennox Lewis, it was a really poor career choice by me. I was young and hungry thinking I was ready for anyone, but there’s people in my team that persuaded me it was the right fight. I did think I could beat him, but I needed two or three more fights against taller opponents to get used to what Lennox could bring. Shannon Briggs would’ve been a good fight for me then, instead of Lewis. The team had looked at Lennox against Holyfield the previous year, and although he probably deserved to win both contests, there were signs of a long career catching up with him. It wasn’t the monster we’d seen in other fights because he was quite reserved against Evander, without letting any of his big right hands go. We saw that and thought it was a good time to attack. My fight before Lennox against Andrew Golota was a fight where I had a real crisis, and because I passed such a test, winning in the 10th round, I thought I was ready for anyone.
That Golota battle was two good big heavyweights going at a ridiculous pace. My fitness in that fight was something else. The Golota that turned up against me was one of the best versions of him you’ll ever see, but by the time the fight was over, it’s probably the Golota you’re used to seeing. The best and worst of Andrew Golota in one fight. He dropped me really bad in the opening round, but I got up and barely survived the round. That should’ve been enough to tell me I needed more in me to face Lewis, but I went a different way because I thought I would always get up because of how athletic I was. I believed I was the fittest heavyweight out there. I had to really dig it in during those early rounds with Golota because he was relentless following that first round until he realised that I wasn’t going anywhere. The fight became my fight, and I finally made him say “that’s enough” in round 10.
I expected a tough fight early on from Lewis, and that’s exactly what I got. That first round was a long three minutes. Lewis had the fight won outside the boxing ring as well because he basically took every heavyweight who measured 6ft 5ins and put them all in his camp. Some of these guys weren’t even getting work off him, but it meant I couldn’t use them as sparring partners myself. What a move that was. That showed me just how serious people took this sport because to use tactics like that, even in preparation, takes a lot of thought and skill. The sparring may not have made a difference because I realised straight away just how good he was. I wanted to make him fight from the first bell, but that went wrong straight away. It was a miracle I got out of that first round, but I had enough conditioning to keep getting up. He hit me with a shot in round two that there was no getting up from, and it was all over. It was a lesson for me, one that I believed I’d learn from.
I made changes with my training, and in came Teddy Atlas. It wasn’t the best of moves if I’m totally honest. I lost in the first round to Jameel McCline because my ankle was bad all the way through camp, and it was like Teddy didn’t believe what I was telling him about my ankle. I’d been bounced around by both Golota and Lewis, and I kept getting back up in both fights. Would I really make an excuse about my ankle just because I didn’t want to fight? Say what you want about me now, but I don’t think my heart can ever be questioned. The ankle going in the McCline fight was a blessing though as it made me feel okay knowing that I wasn’t 100 per cent. I got a few more wins, but after the loss to Dominick Guinn in 2003, that was pretty much it for me and my world heavyweight title dreams.
I needed help against Guinn because he was more than what I expected. I was in the corner begging Teddy to give me tactics, give me the right move to get me back in the fight, but instead of giving me instructions, he thought he’d hand out life lessons. I didn’t need motivating. I was in the ring with some guy trying to destroy me; I had all the motivation I needed. I just wanted to know what shots to throw, and those instructions never came. Guinn knocked me out, and that was that. I realised my dream of becoming heavyweight champion was over.
It was a good journey overall. I fought a few more times, fights I won, fights I lost, and there’s still that competitor in me that wants to have maybe one more. I’m not sure how I want to be remembered, as I’ve never really thought about it, but I almost got to the top of the heavyweight division when it was still a division that had so many good fighters. Today I’ve got my family, my wife, my daughter, and I’m in good health. I slur my words a little bit, but I can’t blame boxing for that. Who knows what my life would be like now if it wasn’t for boxing. I’m tempted to say I’d be far worse off.