SEOUL, South Korea — As a general rule, boxers do not have much to say. In fact, unless it is Ali talking to Cosell, the sum total of a boxer’s vocabulary often can be listed as: “I hit him good. . . . I hurt him bad. .
. . Where’s my check?”
Riddick Bowe is an exception. Riddick Bowe has something to say. Unfortunately, it is not always something his coaches are eager to hear.
After his first fight at these Olympics, reporters asked Bowe, 21, a super-heavyweight, why he went for a knockout instead of boxing for points.
“Well, me and the fellows have this little pool going,” Bowe said. “We all put in $100, and whoever knocks out his guy first wins. So I was going for the money, and–“
Poor Riddick did not get to finish his story. The coach yanked the microphone away and said, heh-heh, what a kidder, of course there’s no pool, is there Riddick? The boxer shrugged. Not anymore.
Bowe’s second fight was equally entertaining. He began it much the way he did the first one. His coaches were furious. “BOX HIM!” they screamed over and over. “THE POOL IS OFF! BOX HIM!”
Bowe, who, at 6-feet-5, 220 pounds, resembles a young Wes Unseld, got a little tired of all this noise and dropped his gloves and stared at his corner in annoyance. His opponent took the opportunity to smack him with two blows to the face. Whereupon Bowe turned back slowly, glared at the man and said my favorite sentence so far, which, through his mouthpiece came out like this:
“Ahm onnna kee yu.”
And he knocked him flat.
In his third fight, Bowe found himself in a spot of trouble. A Soviet fighter named Alexandre Mirochnitchenko scored two standing eight counts, and Bowe hit the deck. But, alas, Bowe prevailed in the final round and won the bout on points. He advanced to the gold medal round, which he will box tonight.
Afterward, in his post-fight press conference, which no writer within five miles would miss anymore, Bowe was asked about the fall.
“Well, you know I consider myself the greatest,” he said, his voice a breathy tenor, “so needless to say it was quite embarrassing to have the greatest with his back on the canvas.”
“Did anything flash through your mind?”
“Yes,” he said, with a deep sigh. “Sirens. Police. Guys with machine guns
. . .
“Brownsville. And Lord knows I don’t want to go back there.” It was in Brownsville that Bowe found the hunger — and the humor — to become a fighter. Perhaps the toughest slice of New York City still standing, Brownsville, in Brooklyn, is a place that asks no questions and offers no witnesses. Bowe grew up there, one of 13 children, and went to grade school with a quiet kid named Mike Tyson.
“We called him ‘Bummy Ike,’ ” Bowe said. “He always used to carry a little bag of chocolate chip cookies.”
“Did you ever tease him about that?”
“No, by the time he was 10 or 11, he was beating up grown men. It was more like ‘Good morning Mr. Tyson. Let me get out of your way.’ ”
You walk around Brownsville, you see and hear everything. Gangs and drugs and violence and crime. So it was not long before Bowe was almost unshockable.
“What’s the worst thing you ever saw as a kid?” a reporter asked him.
“Well, you see how close you are to me? (Three feet). I was talking to a kid that close, and another kid came up to him and said, ‘Remember me?’ and shot him in the head.”
“My God. What for?”
“To be honest, I did not stick around to find out.”
This is a typical Bowe sentence, a cross between mock boarding school English and streetwise yack. He will say of an opponent, “I wanted to hurt the peasant.” He will also say, “I’m Brooklyn all the way, baby!”
It is hard to put that all together. But then, Riddick Bowe has never been easy to figure out. Blessed with natural strength and a ring anger that can make him frightening, he has nonetheless slacked off at times, shown irresponsibility and laziness when there should have been concentration. Once, said his brother, Aaron, Riddick lost a Golden Gloves championship when, on the day of the fight, he ate a big bowl of Frosted Flakes and a steak with mashed potatoes — even though his coaches had told him not to eat.
He was disqualified for failing to make the weight.
But that did not deter him. Nor did the death of his sister, Brenda, who was stabbed by crack dealers earlier this summer. Raised by a strong-willed mother — who calls her right hand “The African Soupbone” — Riddick has always learned how to roll with punches. And he has never stopped talking.
“My left is death and my right is dynamite,” he would say. “I guess you could say it’s a small nuclear explosion. . . . “
“When I feel the opportunity for a knockout, I go for it,” he would say,
“and as you can see, the opportunity has been presented 27 times.” Tonight Bowe fights Lennox Lewis, a tough Canadian, for the super-heavyweight gold medal. (“Bring him in now,” Bowe had said after his last fight. “Let’s get it over with now. Give him the silver medal so he can go home.”)
It is a division rich in tradition. Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Cuba’s remarkable Teofilo Stevenson (three times gold medalist) have held the golden honor before him.
Not that Bowe will be intimidated. This is a man who once went up to Tyson, by then the heavyweight champion, and asked him to be his sparring partner. Tyson was not amused. Perhaps he didn’t have his chocolate chip cookies that day.
Anyhow, a fight with Tyson is Bowe’s stated goal. In fact, he states it so often, I’m surprised HBO hasn’t listed it already. “I dream about it all day long,” Bowe said. “I’m thinking $25 million.”
Unfortunately, they have a schedule to follow here. And Bowe is up tonight. And we’ll see what happens. Personally, I hope he gets the gold medal. I really do. But if the Canadian wins, I ask only one thing:
Don’t hit Bowe in the mouth.
It would ruin the best act of the Olympics. CUTLINE Riddick Bowe celebrates his 5-0 victory over Alexandre Mirochnitchenko in super-heavyweight semifinal.