Riddick Bowe: a fallen idol still searching for inner peace
Former heavyweight champion is fighting back after bankruptcy and doing jail time
Riddick Bowe, the two-time world heavyweight champion, meets fans at in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, in New York. Photograph: Christopher Lee/The New York Times
Three men stood on a street in Harlem, handing out fliers and pointing to a big man sitting alone inside a small restaurant with four tables called Bowe’s. He looked around, eager for company.
“That’s the two-time heavyweight champion of the world,” they told pedestrians on West 116th Street. “That’s Riddick Bowe. ” “Say hello to the champ,” one of them said. “Go inside.”
Riddick ‘Big Daddy’ Bowe, as booming ringside announcers once introduced him at fights, towered above Harlemites entering to meet him. He signed autographs on takeout menus. He posed for photos. He threw jabs into the air.
A woman applied lip gloss with a pocket mirror while waiting to take a selfie with him. She was shocked when he stood up. “Damn,” she said. “Big Daddy.”
“That’s what they say,” he said. Kitchen workers prepared rotisserie chickens, and juice blenders rattled as screens in the small seating area flashed decades-old images of Bowe devastating his opponents.
His dismantling uppercut into Evander Holyfield’s chin, in Las Vegas in 1992, appeared several times. A punching bag hung in a corner for decoration. The sign outside displayed a muscular and glistening Bowe in his prime with a title belt draped over his shoulder, and the name of his place, Bowe’s.
A visitor to the restaurant asked Bowe, who is now 47, to see the big ring glistening on his hand. He received it in June when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “I don’t take it off much,” he said, squeezing it down his finger. A store manager jostled him. “You showed it to me this morning, Bowe.” Bowe smiled. “I guess I did.”
Bowe’s is a narrow establishment on 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard that sells rotisserie chicken and fresh juices. It is discreet enough that you could walk right past it. It is also the latest stop for Bowe, who has struggled with life after boxing since he retired in 1996.
He is the restaurant’s face, its theme and one of its owners. Meals are named after him, and he stops by at least twice a month for meet-and-greet sessions. He owns the restaurant with his fast-talking manager, Ashley Khan, and they hope the Harlem storefront, which opened in March, will be the foundation for a chain. Another location is planned farther uptown, as well as one in the Bronx.
“We have big plans,” Khan said. “I’m hoping he can dress up like Santa Claus for Christmas and hand out turkeys. I want to make a special Bowe juicer. It could be like the George Foreman grill.”
If starting a hole-in-the-wall juice-and-rotisserie-chicken franchise seems like a comedown for a boxer who earned more than $80 million, then Bowe’s last decade is worth considering: a vortex of misfortune that included bankruptcy, failed comebacks and incarceration. The restaurant is a welcome turn of events.
“I’m hoping it will take off,” Bowe said. The post-career path of boxing’s champions is frequently distant from the glories of the ring, and Bowe’s life has been a sequence of detours since his pinnacle as one of the heavyweight division’s titans in the early 1990s. He secured his place in boxing history in 1992, when he was 25, by beating the heavyweight titleholder, Holyfield, in a violent tug-of-war that lasted 12 rounds. It commenced an epic trilogy of bouts between the men that became one of boxing’s famed rivalries.
When Bowe first held his title belt aloft, his bleak childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, must have felt incomprehensibly far away. He had grown up with 12 siblings, down the street from Mike Tyson, in an infamous housing complex where, he said, finding dead bodies on the street in the morning was commonplace. He escaped by finding a vocation at a boxing gym and soon emerged as one of New York’s finest fighters, winning four Golden Gloves tournaments. He represented the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, losing to Lennox Lewis and taking home the silver medal.
Some believed that Bowe, who fought in a golden era of heavyweights, had the potential to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of fighter: an heir to Muhammad Ali. Eddie Futch, the famed trainer who instructed Joe Louis and Larry Holmes, took on Bowe, seeing such promise.
“With his natural tools,” Futch said of Bowe in the early ’90s, “he could be the best heavyweight I’ve ever had.” But Bowe’s legacy has become emblematic of how cruel boxing can be and how far its champions can fall. His career after he defeated Holyfield is remembered as a descent into the trappings of wealth and a crumbling of discipline. “Bowe had a curse,” said Ron Borges, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald. “And that was he had no second dream. When he won the title, he had nothing else he wanted to do. He wanted to be the heavyweight champion, and he got it.” Boxing fans awaited another masterpiece like the Holyfield bout but were treated to a procession of lesser opponents. The most anticipated fight, against Lewis, never happened – some blaming fear on Bowe’s part, others mismanagement.
After defeating Andrew Golota, a Pole who won the bronze medal in Seoul, in two fights best remembered for their brutality and Golota’s disqualification for low blows, Bowe quit boxing at 29. When he retired, Bowe was worth $15 million, he has said, and he spent it amply: on 10 houses, 26 cars, furs and diamonds, and monthly allowances for his large family.
The millennium, however, would bring bankruptcy, an expensive divorce, a comeback attempt and 18 months in prison for abduction and domestic violence. His physique also left him, as did his smooth voice, warped into slur, probably as a result of blows in the ring. “I hate hearing my voice on the radio,” he recently said.
Since filing for bankruptcy in 2005, Bowe has tried becoming a trucker, taught exercise classes, sold signed memorabilia at conventions and reinvented himself as a Muay Thai kickboxer. He lost his one match. “I don’t have as much money as I used to, but I’m fine,” he said. “If people want to help, they can send money to the Riddick Bowe Better Life Foundation,” he said wryly. Although his fortune has dissipated, Bowe said he earns enough from public appearances and has three homes: one in New York, one in New Jersey and one in Florida, where he spends most of his time with his wife and daughter. But he enjoys going to Harlem and says he has been seriously considering moving back to New York. When examined at its roots, Bowe’s legacy as one of boxing’s casualties can seem unfair. He was born Riddick Lamonte Bowe in 1968 in East New York, Brooklyn, the 12th of 13 children, to Dorothy Bowe. His father was practically invisible. His mother moved her children across the borough in a constant search for cheaper rent – Coney Island, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant – but Bowe would spend his formative years in Brownsville, at 250 Lott Avenue in a bleak housing complex nicknamed Gunsmoke City for the frequency of gunfights.
The teenage Riddick didn’t slide into vice and dwelled instead within walls of discipline. He trained at a gym in Bedford-Stuyvesant after school every day. He was only the second child in his family to graduate from high school. With his imposing size, he protected his mother, walking her to her job at a plastics factory every night.
But while Bowe managed to avoid being swallowed by neighbourhood violence, his siblings did not. His sister Brenda was murdered when he was 18. His brother Darryl was stabbed in the chest in front of a fruit stand near their high school. Another brother, Henry, was in and out of jail and later died of Aids.
“It was survival of the fittest,” Bowe said. Being virtually the last in line in such a large family, he said, influenced him as a boxer as much as anything else. “I had to fight to put my socks on,” he said. “That’s why I’m a great fighter. My brothers and sisters didn’t realise they were creating a monster. And then that monster made it to the Hall of Fame.
“You need to have that killer instinct,” he added. “It can’t be taught. Where does it come from? A couple slaps. A couple things you had denied to you.” He doesn’t speak with his family anymore, however, and partly blames them for his financial woes. He carried them out of Brownsville, he said, and bought houses for them near his own home at the time in Fort Washington, Maryland. He paid their taxes and provided allowances, but he believes that he came to be perceived as little more than a breathing bank account.
Cried many a day
“They tore those houses up,” he said. “They don’t love me. They can’t love me.” “I don’t speak with my mother,” he said. “Whenever I wanted to talk about my problems, she would just ask me when I was going to send her more money.
“I’ve cried many a day and many a night,” he concluded, “but things happen how they happen.”
During Bowe’s recent stay in New York, he agreed to take me on a tour of his old neighbourhood. He hadn’t visited East New York or Brownsville in more than 10 years. The last time he entered Thomas Jefferson High School was in 1992, after wresting the title from Holyfield. He pulled up in a limousine to show off his belt, give a speech and hug his favourite teachers. This time, he arrived via Uber, and summer hours were in session. But as he lumbered toward the sleepy school, two men in a van noticed him and yelled out from their window: “It’s the champ!”
His celebrity grew inside. Security guards rushed to take photos. “That’s right,” said Bowe. “The champ is here.” “You look different,” said a guard. “You’re saying I look fat in a nice way,” he replied.
Bowe was disappointed to learn that the school had not erected a plaque in his honour, but perhaps none was needed. He was stopped constantly during walks around the area. Within four hours, at least 50 people had taken selfies with him. He was swarmed again at his old gym, now called the New Bed-Stuy Boxing Centre, and was pleased to discover a mural of him was painted on a wall. People asked how things were going. “I’m just rolling with the punches,” he said. “You know how the old fighters do.”
We stopped earlier at his old housing project, the notorious Gunsmoke City. Initially, he was reluctant to leave the car. “I’m not getting out,” he said. “I thought we were just going to pass by.” We approached its entrance, which was patrolled by police officers, and entered a desolate courtyard. Slim, shirtless men with sagging pants perched against handrails and watched him. Groups of women smoking turned their heads. One lone man, a bit unsteady and drinking from a plastic cup, called out his name first.
“It’s Riddick Bowe!” Bowe again became a centre of attention. People spoke of how he once purchased cable for them, how they had helped him with homework and how they had not seen him in so long. “Remember all we used to eat was rib tips and fried rice?” asked Keefe Nimmons, an old friend. Acquaintances eventually began asking Bowe why they had not heard from him; a few men asked if he could lend them money. Bowe left the courtyard, but about a dozen people followed him outside. “You’ve got a lot of people venting here,” Nimmons told me. “They think they’re owed something.” As Bowe waited for a car, one woman who had pursued him grew agitated. “My mom took care of him!” she yelled. “He didn’t give us nothing! I’m going to get some publicity off of this. I’m going to tell the real story!” She screamed after him when a car finally arrived: “Give me some damn money this time!” Bowe was reflective during the ride. “Everybody wants to get paid,” he said. “They hate you,” he mused. “You come and go, and they’re still here. They’re frustrated you made something of yourself. But I don’t hold it against them.”
It must have gnawed at him. He called me the next day to vent. “I still can’t believe that one guy,” he said. “He asked me where his money was. I did the hard work. I made something of myself. I deserve what I made. That’s why I don’t like going back to Brownsville.” When Bowe is at his juice shop, however, he is treated as nothing less than the champ, and the other day his most pressing concern was the preparation of his chicken wrap.
A woman asked if she could eat with him. “Share a table with the champ?” he said. “Sure.” “Want to go a couple of rounds?” he asked one man. “You got a nice smile. Let’s get rid of it.” More admirers appeared soon enough, and they didn’t ask prickly questions, or ask for money as repayment for homework help three decades ago, but inquired instead about what it was like wearing the heavyweight crown. And Bowe seemed content to relive the moments they asked about rather than dwell on the jagged turns of his past.
Perhaps conclusions about his boxing legacy were best left to his fans. Dirk Eduardo Bobbit, who could recall Bowe’s fights by date, refused to accept the narrative of the fallen prizefighter. “The future is going to be bright for him here,” Bobbit said. “Riddick Bowe has found peace in Harlem.” William Ponder, who had pointed Bowe out to his daughter with excitement, said history was harsh to the boxer. “The problem is that people are only judged by their failures,” he said. “We only look at what went wrong. But Mr Bowe is a winner. And his chicken is good.” New York Times News Service