Bowe, Riddick 1967–
Riddick Bowe 1967–
Riddick Bowe overcame adversity of every sort to become professional boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world—a title he held from 1992 to 1993. A good-natured man who likes to joke and clown, Bowe surmounted a childhood of poverty and a checkered amateur career to reach the very pinnacle of his sport. Skeptics claimed Bowe lacked heart, that he would never develop the seriousness and drive required to be a championship contender. Bowe silenced his critics in November of 1992, and for the year that he kept his title, he proved that the championship belts could be worn with grace, good humor, and humility.
After Bowe claimed the heavyweight title in ’92, New York Newsday correspondent Wallace Matthews asked: “Is the world ready for a heavyweight champion who says his wife is his best friend and that his marriage has been ‘the happiest years of my life?’ Who says that he only took up boxing to be different from everyone else? Who admits he stayed out of trouble as a kid because he was afraid to go to jail like his brothers had? Who can look back on a childhood in a New York neighborhood that makes downtown Beirut look like a vacation spot and say, ‘I had it pretty good growing up?’.…Well, ready or not, Riddick Bowe is here, and for as long as he remains…heavyweight champion of the world, he means to shake up the way people look at him and the position he holds.”
Despite its ups and downs, Bowe’s career reads like a page out of a storybook. Born and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn—the same neighborhood that produced boxer Mike Tyson—he boxed his way onto the United States Olympic Team in 1988. There, instead of reaping the benefits of amateur boxing’s most publicized event, he earned a reputation for laziness, indifference, and frivolity. Returning home to an uncertain future, he was courted by manager Rock Newman, who somehow persuaded legendary trainer Eddie Futch to give the young man a chance. Soon diet guru Dick Gregory appeared and slimmed Bowe down with a vegetable-and-multi-vitamin drink that the fighter quickly dubbed “maggot juice.” Hard work and determination led to Bowe’s victory by unanimous decision over Evander Holyfield on November 13, 1992—a memorable boxing match that made Bowe the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Riddick Lamont Bowe grew up in a housing project known as “Gunsmoke City.” He was a younger child in a family of 13, raised singlehandedly by his mother, Dorothy Bowe.
Born Riddick Lamont Bowe in 1967 in Brooklyn, NY; son of Dorothy Bowe (a factory worker); married in April 1986; wife’s name, Judy; children: Riddick, Jr., Ridicia, Brenda. Education: Graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School (Brooklyn, NY), 1986.
Amateur boxer, C. 1982-89; became professional boxer, March 6, 1989, and compiled record of 31-0 before meeting Evander Holyfield for undisputed heavyweight championship fight on November 13, 1992; won undisputed heavyweight championship crown in a 12-round decision over Holyfield; lost unified title in a dispute with the World Boxing Council; lost heavyweight crown in a rematch with Holyfield, November 6, 1993. Made acting debut on television comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Awards: Four-time Golden Gloves champion; holder of World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation heavyweight championships, 1992-93; Jim Thorpe Pro Sports Award, 1993.
Addresses: Office —c/o International Boxing Federation, 134 Evergreen Pl., 9th floor, East Orange, NJ 07018. Manager —c/o Rock Newman Enterprises, 36 Channing St. N.W., Washington, DC 20001.
“My mother was my father, my sister and my brother,” Bowe told the Los Angeles Times. Although he harbors some hard feelings for his father, who deserted the family while Bowe was still a youngster, the fighter offers few complaints about the neighborhood he called home until 1989. He remembered in Sports Illustrated that he knew many nice people there. Several of his siblings fell victim to the ravages of crack abuse and its associated crimes, but Bowe said of his family: “Oh, we had a lot of fun. If I could just go back to being between 10 and 16, I’d never grow up.”
Surrounded by an environment of casual violence and drug abuse, Bowe decided not to conform. “I always tried to be different from everyone else,” he told Matthews. “Then I found out about boxing. That was the way I could be different from everyone else. I always went against the crowd.” That “crowd” included several of his brothers who were jailed for criminal activity. “I ain’t never been in a jailhouse, not even to visit my brothers,” he said. “I was always afraid of jail. That’s probably why I always stayed out of trouble. That must be a horrible feeling when the doors clang shut behind you.”
As he gained confidence from his boxing, Bowe learned to assert himself without the aid of guns or other weapons. In that respect he was somewhat luckier than Tyson, who was a few years ahead of him in the same public school. Bowe told the Los Angeles Times: “All I remember about Tyson from those days was that he was big for his age, very tough, and always carried a bag of cookies around with him.”
The teenaged Bowe trained at the New Bedford-Stuyvesant Boxing Club in Brooklyn. A close friend introduced him to a young woman named Judy who lived near the club. Riddick and Judy became friends after they discovered that they shared a distaste for the unlawful behavior so common in their neighborhood. “He was so different from the other guys,” Judy Bowe told Sports Illustrated. “He cared about me, not what he could get from me. He said in the beginning how he felt about me, but he realized that I wasn’t into relationships. He was a true friend. If I needed him, he was there. If I didn’t need him, he was still there.”
After a three-year friendship, the pair began to date. They were married in 1986, just before Bowe graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School. A son, Riddick Jr., was born shortly thereafter. Bowe admits that he and Judy got married after the pregnancy occurred, but he quickly added that he feels enormous love and responsibility for his son and two daughters. “I laid down and made these babies,” he told Sports Illustrated, “and I figured it was my responsibility to take care of them. Having these kids gave me a reason to live. In my neighborhood people are always telling you that you are no good, that you can’t do this, that you can’t do that. But having these kids and knowing they need me, well, that helped me. They are the reason I get up and run in the morning.”
In Bowe’s case, the challenge of marriage and fatherhood gave added seriousness to his boxing career. He was still a teenager, though, and he indulged his sense of humor to the utmost. Having won an opportunity to train for the United States Olympic Team at a 1987 camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he took such a flippant attitude toward the coaching that he was sent back home to New York. During the 1988 Olympic Trials, he narrowly defeated U.S. Army boxer Robert Salters in order to qualify for the Olympic Team. Bowe’s critics would long remember that qualifying fight, during which a cocky Bowe was distracted by well-wishers in the crowd when he should have been heeding the advice of his ringmen.
Bowe went to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, as the United States’ super-heavyweight contender. Once again he clowned for reporters and seemed to be everywhere at once. He breezed through the early rounds of the competition but was met in the finals by Lennox Lewis, the English-born entrant from Canada. As Earl Gustkey put it in the Los Angeles Times, Bowe “fought listlessly and seemingly without much desire. An East German referee gave Bowe two standing eight-counts in the second round and stopped the match, even though Bowe didn’t seem to be in any major difficulty.” Heavily favored to win the gold medal, Bowe settled for a silver—and found himself saddled with a reputation for laziness and heartless fighting.
Several months before the 1988 Olympics, however, Bowe endured some traumatic turns in his personal life: his brother Henry was diagnosed with AIDS, and his sister Brenda died from injuries sustained in a mugging. Some critics have suggested that these events adversely affected his performance in Seoul. The boxer told the Los Angeles Times that his Olympic experience has been a burden to bear ever since the summer of 1988. “The talk that I don’t have any heart, I have to take that,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Lewis fight did take place and it’ll follow me around even if I become champion, and long after that.”
Instead of the hero’s welcome he had envisioned at home in New York City, Bowe found only his wife and mother waiting for him at the airport. Worse, he quickly discovered that boxing’s big-time promoters and managers were not at all interested in him as a professional prospect. He was just about to enlist in the U.S. Army when he met Rock Newman, a radio commentator-turned-boxing manager from the Washington D.C. area. Newman was looking for a heavyweight to manage, so on a hunch he visited Bowe in Gunsmoke City. “I wasn’t prepared for it, I’d never seen anything like it anywhere,” Newman recalled in the Los Angeles Times of his first encounter with Bowe’s neighborhood. “The building Riddick lived in…was a dilapidated, six-story building with broken-out windows. It was awful. I saw young kids on the rooftops with Uzis [semiautomatic machine guns], working as lookouts for drug dealers. On the first floor of Riddick’s building, there was a line of people. I thought at first it was a soup kitchen. It wasn’t. They were lined up for crack. The elevator was broken, so I started walking up the stairs. At every other landing there was a kid with an automatic weapon. It was unbelievable.” Newman said he sat down with Bowe and told him that “for having survived that neighborhood, he was already a champion.”
Newman invested his own money in Bowe’s future, finding a suburban Washington D.C. home for Bowe’s family and placing Bowe on an allowance. Summoning all the courage he could muster, Newman telephoned Eddie Futch, trainer of 15 world champion boxers, and convinced Futch to give Bowe a tryout. Futch had heard about Bowe’s performance at the Olympics, of course, and was reluctant to waste his old age—Futch is in his 80s—on a heartless fighter. Newman pleaded, so Futch agreed to take a look.
Bowe flew to Futch’s training camp near Reno, Nevada, and began to work out there. His professional training began in the dead of winter, 1989, in the Nevada mountains. Futch demanded that Bowe rise before dawn and run three miles—all uphill—for starters. After a few days of watching his protege like a hawk, Futch announced that he would be away on business for a day or two. The announcement was a trick. Futch wanted to see if Bowe would continue to train on his own. Early the next morning, Futch stood at the top of the three-mile hill, as before, waiting for Bowe. “I looked down that road, and there he was—trudging up that hill by himself, on a very cold, dark morning,” Futch told the Los Angeles Times. “I knew at that moment the kid had what it took inside. I knew he had the tools. When he got to the top of that hill, he was surprised to see me.”
Futch and Newman groomed Bowe slowly, allowing him to take fights against questionable opponents in order to improve his record and enhance his durability in the ring. Sports Illustrated reporter Pat Putnam noted that in the first two years of his professional career, Bowe earned a 21-0 record (20 knockouts) “against nonentities.” That situation changed, however, when Bowe began to meet other legitimate heavyweight contenders from the so-called “second tier” of fighters. A March 1991 eighth-round technical knockout of Tyrell Biggs established Bowe as a prospect for the heavyweight crown. After Biggs, the knockouts continued: Bruce Seldon in August of 1991 and South African Pierre Coetzer the following July among them. The Coetzer fight, which Bowe won in a seventh-round technical knockout, was the most important victory. Then-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield had agreed to fight the winner of that match and had openly rooted for Bowe.
Futch thought Bowe had the skills to beat Holyfield, but Bowe’s weight and endurance were still sources of concern. The fighter hired former comic Dick Gregory—now renowned for his diet regimes—as a nutritionist. Gregory filled Bowe with vitamin tablets and concocted a brew of beets, asparagus, garlic, onion, green and red cabbage, kelp, chlorophyll, liquid vitamins, olive oil, and a banana. The drink tasted as bad as it sounds. Bowe called it “maggot juice,” but he consumed it, and he lost weight and improved his stamina. “Every time Riddick saw me coming he frowned,” Gregory acknowledged in the Los Angeles Times. “But it’s like I told him.… I don’t know anything about boxing, but I can overhaul and clean out his motor. I told him if he got into a long fight with Holyfield, the full benefits of his diet would kick in and make him stronger at the finish, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Bowe met Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight championship on November 13, 1992, before the largest cable television pay-per-view audience ever to see a sporting event. The fight was vintage heavyweight boxing. As Pat Putnam described it in Sports Illustrated, “[legendary war correspondent] Ernie Pyle should have covered this war from ringside. Neither man danced, and neither took a voluntary step backward. Each man waded fearlessly into the guns of the other, no quarter asked, none given. Through 12 rounds Bowe and Holyfield painted a portrait of courage that will hang forever in the memories of those who watched.”
The tenth round was particularly memorable. Bowe peppered Holyfield with punishing shots, throwing 40 punches in one minute. Dazed and reeling, Holyfield somehow mustered the strength to battle back. For what must have seemed like an eternity, the two slugged each other brutally, neither willing to give an inch of ground. Putnam concluded: “No heavyweight champion and challenger have ever fought a more heroic round. Other boxers have been linked in three-minute essays in raw courage—Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler—but none can claim to have been in a round fought more ferociously.”
The match went the distance, and Bowe won it by unanimous decision. With one eye swollen shut, he still managed to issue a verbal challenge to Lennox Lewis, his ’88 Olympics nemesis, who was doing television commentary from the sidelines. Later, when asked what being champion of the world meant to him, he quipped, “it means I won’t have to drink any more maggot juice.”
Bowe celebrated his victory by undertaking a whirlwind tour of the talk shows and the publicity circuit. He rode a float in the 1992 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and appeared at rallies against drug abuse. He praised his wife and three children for their support and encouragement. “I want to be the people’s champion—warm and intelligent,” he told the Los Angeles Times. He announced plans to attend Washington’s Howard University to earn a college degree and admitted that he does not want to fight past his 28th birthday.
By 1993, Bowe had already become a wealthy man, with earnings in the millions from his boxing and from product endorsements. He and his family now live in a splendid mansion near Washington D.C. His mother has her own home nearby. Fame and fortune have not altered Bowe’s outlook on life, however. When asked in the Los Angeles Times what he wanted to do as heavyweight champion of the world, he said: “I want to set up drug awareness programs. Plus I want to try to do something about world hunger and Apartheid [—the South African system of racial segregation]. There’s more to life than boxing and there’s a lot I can do to help. I feel like I’ve been blessed my whole life. I think it’s my calling to help people.” Bowe added that his status as a top sports figure will not keep him away from his former home in Brooklyn. “It’s a pretty rough neighborhood,” he said, “but there are some very nice people there. It was an honor to represent them [in the title fight].”
On November 6, 1993, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Bowe faced Holyfield in a rematch for the heavyweight crown. At 246 pounds, Bowe seemed to some observers to have lost his edge. Furthermore, he was battling against an opponent with something to prove. In a surprise-filled fight that included a 20-minute interruption in the seventh round after a daredevil parachutist crashed into the ring, Holyfield emerged the victor. Bowe, apparently shaken after the delay in the fight, couldn’t hold off his redemption-seeking rival. According to Sports Illustrated, when the fight was over, Bowe hugged Holyfield and admitted that “he had been beaten that night by a better man.”
The ascent of Riddick Bowe brought new interest in boxing’s heavyweight division, long the public’s favorite aspect of the sport. Late in 1992, Newman negotiated a six-fight deal for the boxer with Time-Warner Sports. After both Bowe and Holyfield meet at least one contender apiece in 1994, a third match between the two heavyweights will take place.
Associated Press reports, November 6, 1993; November 7, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1992; November 15, 1992; November 29, 1992; December 21, 1992.
Newsday (New York), November 13, 1992.
Sports Illustrated, December 10, 1990; March 11, 1991; August 19, 1991; July 27, 1992; November 23, 1992, pp. 19-25; November 30, 1992, pp. 54-56; May 31, 1993; October 11, 1993; November 15, 1993, pp. 22-27; November 22, 1993, pp. 48-51.
Time, November 8, 1993, pp. 72-74.
Vibe, November 1993, p. 96.
Washington Post, November 14, 1992; November 15, 1992; November 29, 1992; December 18, 1992.
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