A new fighting adventure for ex-champ Riddick Bowe
For years, Riddick Bowe dreamed of getting back into the ring - just not this ring and this sport, in this country.
Next week in Thailand, the former world heavyweight boxing champion will step out of retirement to make his debut as a Muay Thai fighter - the brutal martial art that makes boxing look gentlemanly.
“I’m just rolling with the punches, baby,” says Bowe, during a training session at a rundown Bangkok gym that has no air-conditioning, a few practice rings and a lot of mosquitoes. Stitched across the backside of his shorts is the nickname from his glory years: “BIG DADDY.”
At 6-foot-5 and weighing 300 pounds Bowe towers over his sparring partners who say he’s learning how to kick. The 45-year-old still has a ferocious punch but his prize fighter physique is gone along with the millions he made from boxing. Bowe says that friends and former foes, including Evander Holyfield, have told him he’s “crazy” to try Thai kickboxing. His wife compares it with street fighting.
Bowe shrugs off the risks. Thai boxing, he says, “has brought me back to life”.
“I’ve been sitting at home bored to death, twiddling my thumbs, trying to figure out what to do.” And this is what he came up with.
During a series of interviews at his gym and Bangkok hotel, the fighter spoke openly about the loneliness of retirement, his fondest memories and some of his regrets from a career that has been described as triumphant and tragic.
“I don’t think a kid should have as much fun as I had,” Bowe said, thinking back. “It wasn’t a job, it was an adventure for me.”
During his heyday in the 1990s, Bowe was an American sports hero, known as one of boxing’s charismatic personalities in an era of titans like Holyfield and two heavyweights he never fought as a pro: Lenox Lewis and Mike Tyson. He met the pope at the Vatican and three American presidents - he still does a convincing Ronald Reagan imitation. He appeared with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Bowe took on occasional fights after retirement in 1996, but had trouble getting licensed due to allegations of brain damage that he denies and says have been disproven by medical tests and MRIs. He went overseas in search of what he once had and fought his last bout in Germany in 2008.
That’s one of the reasons he came to Thailand: “Nobody will fight me in boxing,” he said. “Muay Thai will accept me.”
Another reason is cash: He dodges, ducks and weaves questions on his finances, but says he’s getting by on savings.
“I’m OK. I’m not rich like I used to be,” says Bowe, who filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005 listing more than US$4.1 million in claims against him. “I ain’t got my hat in my hands, so I’m doing pretty good for myself.”
Win or lose, Bowe walks away from his June 14 bout against 30-year-old Russian fighter Levgen Golovin with US$150,000.
“Show me the money, baby. Show me the money. I will fight if the price is right,” says Bowe, admitting he’d never heard of Muay Thai until a few months ago when a promoter in Thailand called with the offer. “I said, ‘Muay Thai, what’s that?’ Ah, what the hell, a fight’s a fight!”
Money is also the motivation for the promoter, Somphop Singhasiri, who has been shuttling Bowe around to photo shoots and hopes to draw 20,000 fans to the fight at an outdoor venue in the beach town of Pattaya.
“Does Bowe have a chance to win? I’m not sure, but he has the heart of a champion,” says Somphop. “I’m not trying to kill an old man. I think it’ll be a good show.”
Twenty years after losing his title, Bowe’s speech is slurred from getting hit in the head too much. But his wit and humour are intact and he gets a good laugh out of his own one-liners.
Asked if he likes Thai food, he shrugs: “It’s OK. But I don’t know how they eat it all the time.”
On the hot, humid weather here: “It’s terrible. You sweat more walking around Thailand than in the boxing ring.”
He jokes about his weight - “The last time I stepped on a scale it said, ‘To be continued!”‘
But on a serious note, he’s glad to be getting back into shape after ballooning last year to 420 pounds nearly double the 225 he weighed as champ. He blames the weight on eating too much takeaway food and spending the past few years doing “absolutely nothing.”
Since getting to Thailand a month ago, he’s been training with two former Muay Thai champions, and working out six days a week. He does 3-mile runs in the morning and spars in the afternoon at the gym, a regimen that has left his knees aching and his back sore.
Muay Thai is known as the combat sport with eight attacking tools: fists for punching, legs for kicking, knees and elbows. Fighters are typically lean, quick and agile with abs of steel to withstand roundhouse kicks that strike like a baseball bat.
Bowe traveLled to Thailand with his wife, Terri, whose name is tattooed on his ring finger. They’ll be married 13 years on August 10, which is also his birthday. They’re raising their 7-year-old daughter in Maryland, where Bowe has lived for decades. He calls Terri his best friend and “the best move I ever made,” and she calls him “a big teddy bear.”
When Bowe talks about his past, there are good memories and darker ones. He grew up poor, one of 13 kids, he never knew his father and is proud to have made something of himself.
He fought his way out of Brooklyn’s mean streets to the height of boxing stardom. He won an Olympic silver medal in 1988 and a few years later beat Holyfield to become the undisputed world heavyweight champion in 1992. His 44-bout career included 33 knockouts wins and just one loss.
After leaving the sport, Bowe’s fame turned to notoriety. He joined the Marine Corps reserves, but quit after a few days. He spent 17 months in prison for kidnapping his first wife, Judy, and their five children, threatening them with a knife and pepper spray. He does not have kind words for his first wife, whom he married young and refers to as one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
Over a ribeye steak and a plate of fries at his Bangkok hotel, Bowe talked about the things he misses from the past. He misses the attention and the crowds and people saying, “Hey Champ!” Seated at a window table, Bowe went entirely unnoticed during a busy lunchtime and remarked that in the old days fans would have swarmed his table.
He keeps in touch with other boxers, and recently did a fundraiser with Holyfield before coming to Thailand.
“We had a ball. We talked about the old times,” Bowe said, adding that he told him about the upcoming Muay Thai match and claims Holyfield responded: “Man, you’re crazy.”
That sentiment is shared by Bowe’s wife, Terri. She sat ringside at the 13 Coins Gym cheering him on at practice while quietly sharing her concerns.
“At first, I was terrified,” said Terri. “All this stuff scares me. When it’s your spouse it’s never easy. But it took away a lot of my fears when I saw him train.”
“I’m just happy he’s doing something he enjoys,” she said.
As she spoke, Bowe delivered a right jab to his trainer’s head that banged the former Muay Thai champion into the ropes and onto the ground.
“He’s very, very strong,” said the trainer, Krongsak Boranrat, as he staggered to his feet. “It was just a little touch for him. And all of a sudden I’m seeing stars.”
Fans have started trekking out to the gym to snap pictures, ask for autographs and offer encouragement, which Bowe loves. In answer to the question that keeps coming up, he’s got a quick comeback.
“Why does Muay Thai appeal to me? I have 12 sisters and brothers and this is how we used to fight,” Bowe says. “We just never knew it was a sport.”