RIDDICK BOWE HAS BEEN TALKING ALL MORNING, He started at 8 with radio provocateur Don Imus, worked his way through Regis and Kathy Lee, and is just now, at noon, emerging from a session with PBS interviewer Charlie Rose. Most fighters let their fists do their talking. But the gregarious heavyweight champion is clearly energized by the morning’s chatfest. “Hey,” he says to a young woman, ferrying her lunch from the PBS cafeteria. “What you eatin’?”
“Turkey sandwich. You want it?”
“Noooo. Know why?”
The woman shakes her head.
“Cause I believe you are what you eat. And I ain’t no turkey.”
Actually, until recently, that’s exactly what people were calling him. Turkey. Loser. And, especially, quitter—ever since he seemed to nonchalant his way through an embarrassing loss to Canada’s Lennox Lewis at the 1988 Olympics. “Yeah, I know,” says Bowe, 25. “People said I had no heart. But you know what? All (hey did was motivate me.”
On the night of Nov. 13, the 6’5″, 235-lb. Bowe was motivated to separate the heavyweight title in stirring fashion from Evander Holyfield. Now this Saturday (Feb. 6) Bowe is set for his first defense—against former World Boxing Association champion Michael Dokes in Madison Square Garden. Dokes is part of a six-fight package with HBO and TVKO, Time Warner’s pay-per-view network, which could earn Bowe $100 million. His manager, Rock Newman, 40, calls it potentially “the most lucrative deal” in TV boxing history.
Newman believed in Bowe at a time when the young fighter, for all his charming bluster, had almost stopped believing in himself. Coming back from Seoul, South Korea, a silver medalist, Riddick had expected to have his pick of managers. But no one would touch him. It wasn’t just the Lewis fight. Bowe had been tossed out of the Olympic training camp for disdaining coach Ken Adams’s instructions and generally exhibiting more attitude than your local rap group. “Spaceship Bowe,” NBC-TV boxing analyst Ferdie Pacheco called him—an “enormous talent but no mental stability whatsoever.”
But as Newman learned after some research, Bowe had shown amazing fortitude just to have survived the trials of childhood. Newman learned that Riddick had grown up without a father and that he was the 12th of 13 kids reared by Dorothy Bowe, who supported them all by working the midnight shift at a plastics factory in the raw Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He discovered that a couple of Rid-dick’s brothers had done time for car theft and, as he told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, at least one sister “can’t leave that crack alone.”
Only months before the Olympics, another sister, Brenda, was stabbed to death in Brooklyn during a scuffle with a crack addict who wanted her welfare check, and even as Riddick was fighting in Seoul, his brother I Henry lay dying of pneumonia. It was no wonder, thought New man, that the kid acted so erratically.
Then Newman got a glimpse of the project—the locals call it Gunsmoke City—where Bowe lived with his mother, his wife, Judy, now 26, and their two kids, Riddick Jr., 6, and Riddicia, 5. “I’d never seen anything like it,” says Newman. “On the first floor there was this long line of people. I thought it was a soup kitchen. But, no, Bowe told me they were lining up to buy crack. Then he took me up to the sixth floor, where he lived. There were kids with automatic weapons on the landings.
“We went into his mother’s apartment, then into this tiny bedroom, where he and his wife and his two kids stayed—and it hit me. If he could have survived here, there had to be something special about him.”
There was something special about Bowe, and pretty soon Eddie Futch, 81, the elfin eminence who’d trained Joe Frazier, was on to it too—especially after pulling the lighter to a test. “We were in Reno,” says Bowe, “and he told me he was leaving town but to continue with my roadwork. The next morning, I get to the top of the hill, and who’s sitting there in a Jeep? Papa Smurf. He put me through a lot of tests.”
The final exam was Holy field. The fight was Bowe’s vindication. “At the end,” he says, “when I heard the announcer say, ‘And the new…,’ my heart fluttered. Judy, me, Rock, my mother, we was like big babies up there crying.”
Even now, Judy, whom Riddick met through a cousin in I 982 and married in 1986, says she has to pinch herself to make sure she’s awake. Bowe has no such difficulty, perhaps because he always saw himself at the top. On those cold winter nights when he would walk his mother to the plastics factory, Bowe would tell Dorothy his dreams. How he knew he was cut out for something “different”—to be a champion like his idol, Muhammad Ali.
Ali is written all over him. Bowe, who won four New York Golden Gloves titles en route to the Olympics, used to box like Ali—until Futch made him come down off his toes. Now he merely comports himself like Ali outside the ring. Instead of magic tricks, he does impressions—of Ronald Reagan, Slevie Wonder, Ali himself. On CNN before the big fight, when asked to do Holyfield, Bowe simply got up from his chair and lay down on the door.
Yet where Ali had his entourage, Bowe, nicknamed Big Daddy, has his family. He is using some of his loot to build a $3.5 million mansion in Fort Washington, Md., just outside the nation’s capital, to house Judy and their three kids. (Daughter Brenda Joyce joined the fold in 1991.) But family, for Bowe, will always include the woman who shared his dreams on those midnight walks. “All those years,” says Bowe, “I saw my mother sacrificing. I wanted to make it up to her.” Just before Christmas, he moved Dorothy into a six-bedroom house just two lots away from the site of his own pleasure-dome-to-be. Then he went back up to Brooklyn and collected his slain sister Brenda’s four kids and moved them in with her.
Bowe has some things he’d like to . get done in the next few years. He’d like to go to college to study business, and he’d like to tangle with Lewis again and maybe even Mike Tyson. Most of all, he’d like to bring his brothers and sisters—all of them—down to Maryland. “Yeah, I think, when I get enough money, I’m going to have a complex built,” he says. But there’s no rush, says Big Daddy. “I’m going to be champion for as long as I like.”