The Caesars Palace jet taking us from Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles had just reached cruising altitude when the heavyweight champion of the world looked around and smiled at his good fortune.
A few months earlier he had visited the Pope at the Vatican and presented him the gloves he used to beat Evander Holyfield. Now, Riddick Bowe settled into his breakfast as he jetted south for a day that would end with an appearance with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show.
It was October 1993, and life was as good as it gets for the man who held the only title that really mattered. I was tagging along for the day as he promoted the rematch with Holyfield that will live in boxing infamy.
Bowe had fought his way out of the mean streets of Brownsville in Brooklyn, N.Y. to places he never imagined, traveling in the kind of style he never thought possible.
“In the ghetto we didn’t even know there was such a thing as a private jet,” he said.
Fifteen years later, Bowe doesn’t ride in private jets anymore. His entourage is gone, and he slurs his words from getting hit in the head too much.
And now he’s going to fight again.
It’s crazy, of course, made even crazier by the fact Bowe is 41 and weighed close to 300 pounds the last time he entered the ring three years ago. But he’s already in Germany getting ready to fight Dec. 13 against an opponent yet to be named only because they haven’t found a big enough stiff he can beat.
There’s more, though. A week later in Switzerland, of all places, the man he won the heavyweight title from will fight for a piece of it in a freak show bout against 7-footer Nikolai Valuev.
Holyfield is 46 and nothing more than a human punching bag. But he’s got a mortgage to pay and a bunch of kids and ex-wives to support.
He’s also got delusions about what he can still do, 24 years after he first threw a punch for money.
“My goal is to be undisputed champion not just to win one title,” Holyfield said the other day.
Unfortunately, this is boxing today, a sport so desperate for stars that it’s recycling two from the past. Both Bowe and Holyfield would have trouble getting licensed in any place that regulates the sport, so they’ve gone overseas in search of what they once had.
In Holyfield’s case it’s easy enough to read into his motivation. Besides the obvious need for money – he was called into court last month for not paying child-support for a 10-year-old son – he actually believes he has enough skills left and the heavyweight division is so bad that he can become the undisputed champion once again.
He’s wrong, of course, because those skills vanished along with his reflexes years ago, and there are two Klitschko brothers with titles who would destroy him. But Holyfield fights on, mostly because he’s still got his name and there are promoters willing to pay him.
But it’s Bowe who is one of the saddest and strangest stories in a sport full of sadness and strangeness.
His reign as heavyweight champion ended in bizarre fashion a few weeks after I went with him to Los Angeles, when the Fan Man flew into the ring and disrupted his fight with Holyfield. Bowe was winning the fight up to that point but ended up losing a close decision. To this day, he believes it was all part of a conspiracy to take the title from him.
Then there was the riot that broke out at Madison Square Garden after Bowe beat Andrew Golota by disqualification after Golota kept hitting him below the belt. They met in a rematch, and Bowe won the same way. But it was his slurred speech after the fight that attracted the most attention.
A few weeks later he joined the Marines but didn’t last long in boot camp. Then, in 1999, he was arrested for kidnapping his wife and children at gunpoint in what he said was an effort to get his family back together. A psychiatrist told a federal judge who sent him to prison that Bowe had “frontal lobe brain damage” from fighting.
Now, he’s going to fight again.
It’s hardly a surprise, because even fighters without brain damage never know when to stop. The money’s too good, they crave the attention, and most have no idea what else to do.
About the only surprise is Bowe and Holyfield aren’t fighting each other.
Sadly, that could be next.