This wasn't really happening, was it? Everyone was supposed to be in the club, surrounded by a boatload of babes, gin, and juice, big-chain millionaires paying tribute to the champ on yet another major display of his mad skillz. Instead, the Cincy Band Camp was huddled on a forlorn loading dock behind a crummy Texas stadium where the Spurs don't even play anymore, a thousand miles from home. Their leader, the 24-year-old welterweight champion, Adrien "the Problem" Broner, a.k.a. AB, as in "Always Ballin'," "About Big Shit," and "All Benjamins," wasn't basking in the glow of victory but rather lying in an ambulance waiting to go to the hospital, beer splashed onto his shiny robe by jeering fans, the internet already gloating over his defeat, family and friends in shock.
Only hours before, the Band Camp – B. Luck, G2x, 6-4, Dre-Day, E-bunny, Nuke, and the rest – were biding their time in the lobby of the San Antonio Rivercenter hotel. The harsh, monkish months of training were over. All that stood in the way of the expected post-bout blowout was "Madonna," i.e., Marcos René Maidana, the challenger from Argentina's Sante Fe Province, which is a long way from the Band Camp's English Woods and Mount Auburn stomping grounds in the Cincinnati hood.
It wasn't as if the grizzled, jailhouse-tattoo-festooned Maidana was a pushover. He had a well-earned reputation as a dangerous puncher with either hand, scoring 31 knockouts in his 37 fights, with wins over top guys; there was little doubt the Argentinian would be the hardest hitter Broner had ever faced, not that anyone in the Band Camp, least of all AB himself, seemed worried.
"I'm undefeated. Twenty-seven wins. Twenty-two knockouts. Young. Fast. Top five, pound for pound. Three-time champion," Broner declared, mantra-like, the night before the bout as he sat in the hotel restaurant wolfing down a burger and fries. "I'm the one everyone wants to see, the draw," he boasted, referring to the fact that his previous 2013 cable TV outings had attracted more aggregate "eyeballs" than any other fighter. He was already a millionaire, with a future prospectus that was sky's-the-limit.
"I'm the guy who be taking over boxing once Floyd Mayweather retires . . . heir apparent to the best in the world," Broner proclaimed at the fight weigh-in. Maidana was nothing but "a speed bump," "easy work," "a short day at the office." True, Maidana had beat some good fighters, but now he was facing "an elite" fighter. He was in with AB, "one hellacious Athletic Bastard," the Problem that could not be solved.
Asked if he'd watched tapes of Maidana to acquaint himself with the challenger's awkward rhythm and unorthodox chopping right hand, AB seemed insulted. "I'll think about the fight when I get in the ring," he sniffed. "See what he's got, make my adjustments, and then flatline him like I always do." It wasn't that Broner was taking his training lightly. A legendary gym rat, he worked out constantly, sparring as much as 18 straight rounds without a break. Tape-watching, however, was very time-consuming, and the champ was a busy man.
His ring nom de guerre, the Problem, easily the best nickname in the sport, describes only the boxing function of the Broner brand. Along with his homies in the Band Camp, the fighter is the centerpiece of an ever-expanding, rapidly diversifying entertainment complex, his white-leather-wearing, grille-popping AB persona churning out rap videos extolling the virtues of ghetto creature comforts such as Louis Vuitton, Versace, and overpriced booze, replete with requisite bouncing behinds and Masonic symbols. He'd toured with T.I., free-styled with Murda Mook and Meek Mill. In addition, there was the ongoing Web TV presentation About Billions, a bling-a-ding-ding "reality show" documenting the life and times of AB and the Band Camp – stuff like throwing up in the back of a limousine in the middle of a bad MDMA trip.
That was how it was for Adrien Broner before the San Antonio fight: a young man in a hurry, a rising star, living the dream.
Not everyone quite saw it that way, however. The venerable, deeply checkered history of the sweet science is full of pugs the fans have loved to hate. Many of the most charismatic fighters have been widely despised. This includes "the Greatest" himself, a.k.a. Cassius Clay, detested as much for his perceived lack of "Yes, sir," "No, sir" humility as his refusal to join the Army because he had "no quarrel with them Vietcong." There's also Mike Tyson, current teddy bear but once the ear-biting "baddest man on the planet." The fact that all of the above are African-Americans may not be coincidental. In his junior league, dumbed-down way, Adrien Broner is in this tradition; he's the heel-of-the-moment. Vegas had AB as a five-to-one favorite against Maidana, a near sure thing to successfully deploy his quick pinpoint counter rights and vaunted "Philly Shell" shoulder roll against the Argentine's kill-or-be-killed brawler style. Among a wide cross section of the sport's ever-dwindling fan base, however, the Problem was 100-to-1 to have his trap shut, the more dramatically the better.
Much of the enmity stems from Broner's relentless internet presence. Likely the most cyberized fighter in history, in a number of Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube posts Broner evinces a (vaguely) redeeming crude humor, such as the time he filmed himself taking a dump at a roadside Popeye's. "In Popeye's, taking a shit," AB deadpans as he gets up to reveal a pile of $20 bills in the bowl below. "I'm even shitting out money," he exclaims, flushing down the cash. Less amusing, however, are the videos that have regularly appeared on WorldStarHipHop, the hood Candid Camera-style website best known for posting humiliating street altercations. In one of these vids, Broner, the unmarried father of five, was filmed on a club stage throwing dollars into the crowd before pausing to go down on a stripper. After another posting showed the champ getting a blow job from "two bad b*tches," Broner offered a public apology for his seeming endorsement of unprotected sex. The show of remorse was necessary, AB said, because "kids look up to me. I'm a role model."
It isn't like any of this behavior truly upsets the fight fan. This is boxing, forever on the outward edge. Who really cares if AB (who was put out that Maidana's inability to "understand fucking English" cramped his trash-talking style) made such a big, gross show of allegedly snatching opponent Paulie Malinaggi's ex-girlfriend in the run-up to their June 2013 Brooklyn title fight, causing the usually streetwise Paulie to plead "don't brag about taking my sidepiece." Indeed, the fight fan is not even bothered by the Problem's not-inconsiderable rap sheet, which features arrests for armed robbery and purse snatching. Even immaculate samurais like Bernard Hopkins, still fighting and winning at age 49, served his apprenticeship at Graterford, the Pennsylvania state correctional facility.
No, what bugs the fight fan is when a champion fails to make weight (as Broner did in 2012) and then, instead of showing sportsmanlike contrition, tweets pictures of Twinkies, saying, "I'm addicted LOL." What bugs the fight fan about Adrien Broner is his endless sycophantic claptrap about being Floyd Mayweather's "lil bro" successor when the record shows he hasn't beaten anyone better than Paulie, and that was close. Boxing might be a sordid business, but once the bell rings, it can reach a kind of elemental purity rarely found elsewhere, MMA included. That was what the Maidana fight was about. Broner might be good, even as good as he claimed. But was he serious?
Broner, age 13, after winning the Silver Gloves Tournament.
It was something to think about in Broner's dressing room before the fight as the genial Cincinnati cut-man Levi Smith wrapped the Problem's hands. When boxing's press section was filled by such stalwarts as Norman Mailer, A.J. Leibling, and Budd Schulberg, the wrapping of a fighter's hands, the preparation of the warrior, was often described in terms of a solemn ritual. The wrapping of Adrien Broner's hands proved to be a more raucous affair, as the fighter swiveled around in his seat, singing along with a blasting version of his own rap, "Make Me." As per the rules, a member of the Maidana corner was present during the hand-wrapping, just in case Levi Smith had any big ideas of troweling a layer of plaster of paris in with the gauze.
"You're Mexican, right," Broner said to the Maidana man. "So you got to be for Maidana. I get that. But I know, down deep, you're really a Broner fan. I can tell a Broner fan, whether you know it or not."
"What?" answered the mystified trainer, who was wearing a shiny maroon satin jacket with Marcos "El Chino" Maidana emblazoned on the back.
Broner reached out to touch the Maidana man's arm. "I know this is difficult for you to admit. But we're all friends here. We won't rat you out. We just want you to confess what you feel in your heart: You want me to win. You want me to beat Maidana's ass."
"You're nuts," the trainer said.
Broner shook his head slowly. "I understand. It is hard to admit the truth. But knowing you're with us means a lot. So thanks. Thank you very much."
An hour later, accompanied by rapper Lil Durk, Broner entered the ring at the Alamodome. The venue was a bit of a disappointment since the fight was originally scheduled for Vegas, a locale more suited to AB's fast-lane style. Still, the champ made do, arriving in a $6,000 custom-made, Italian-silk robe and matching trunks that glistened with 25,000 individually hand-sewn Swarovski crystals, spelling out ab and about billions. In comparison, Maidana might have picked up his workmanlike togs at Goodwill. The mere sight of Broner brought a cascade of boos. As the champion pranced about the ring thumping his gloves against his chest, the booing grew louder, a rising crescendo of animus.
A few days before, in the Denny's across from the Rivercenter hotel, Broner had told me, "There always got to be a bad guy, right? People boo, but they don't know the real me. They never gonna know the real me. Who I really am. They boo because there's a lot of people who just can't stand to see a brother from the hood have a good time. It don't bother me because I love my haters. Each and every one of them."
On fight night, it was something to see: Broner in the middle of the ring, his arms upraised, so happy amid the hate.
Then the bell rang. Broner came out to meet Maidana, the supposed "speed bump" who, as so many had hoped, hit the Problem in the mouth. He hit him time and time again. Two hours later, after 12 rounds of getting pummeled in a way no one had thought possible, Broner was in the emergency vehicle on that forlorn loading dock behind the Alamodome, his mother sitting beside him, holding his hand. For a moment he seemed a little boy again. It was a touching tableau, until the EMTs slammed the ambulance door.
A couple months earlier, at the Punch House gym in the Avondale section of Cincinnati, Mike Stafford, a.k.a. Coach Mike, was talking about the first time he ever laid eyes on Adrien Broner. "I was working with some kids, teaching them the game," said the 57-year-old Stafford, a beloved mentor in the Cincinnati boxing world who has twice served as a coach of the United States Olympic boxing team. "This big guy, Pops, came in and said, 'I got two kids at home who could knock out everyone you got in here.' I thought it was a joke. The next day he comes back with these two little bitty eight-year-olds, like four feet tall, no more than 80 pounds. I said, 'Where's those kids who was gonna knock everybody out?' He points to the little kids and says, 'This is them.' "
"Turned out to be Adrien, and his twin brother Andre," recalled Coach Mike, a big smile crossing his dark, moon-shaped face as he leaned on the Punch House ring apron.
In the ring above, Broner, in Day-Glo yellow boxing shoes, a bright white oversize cup, blue headgear, and a World Star T-shirt, traded punches with Robert Easter Jr., another of Stafford's young charges. It was a typical Broner sparring session, the champ simultaneously talking and fighting, his patter syncopated with guttural grunts when he threw his shots: "Can't hit me ... ahhh! ... Can't hit me." Thrown into this mix were asides to those at ringside, such as when in the middle of a heated exchange, Broner called to his attractive girlfriend, Arie Gazaway, who hails from a well-to-do Cincy suburb. "Arie! ... ahhh! ... Make an appointment ... ahhh!" Broner shouted between grunts, "Need a manicure ... ahhh! ... Pedi, too."
For a trainer, it is "a lucky day" when "a natural" like Adrien Broner walks into your gym, Mike Stafford said. Yet, when asked if Broner was the most talented fighter he ever worked with, Coach Mike said no.
"That would be Ricardo Williams. Ricardo Williams was the best young fighter I ever saw. Ricardo Williams broke my heart."
Broner's parents, Dorothy and Thomas, at home in Cincinnati.
It was something I heard more than once in Queen City fight circles: Broner is doing good; just hope he doesn't end up like Ricardo Williams. A local amateur star, winner of the silver medal in the 139-pound class of the 2000 Olympics, Williams got a $1.4 million contract to turn pro and seemed destined to have a great career. By 2005, however, after an increasingly indifferent series of fights, Williams was found guilty of cocaine trafficking and sent to federal prison.
The Cincinnati Curse had struck again. It is a roster anyone in the Cincy fight world can recite with growing disappointment and despair. Tony Tubbs, from the west side, won the heavyweight title in 1985 but got flattened by Mike Tyson and wound up in jail for selling dope. Tim Austin, "the Cincinnati Kid," defended his bantamweight title ten times but later ran into a bevy of domestic violence charges. Wallace (Bud) Smith, a lightweight champion in the Fifties, was shot dead in Avondale. Aaron Pryor, the fabulous Hawk, the most exciting fighter of the late Seventies and Eighties, became a destitute dope fiend before resurfacing as a sometime church pastor. The greatest of all Cincy fighters, the dapper ring wizard Ezzard Charles, rated by many as the single best light-heavyweight of all time, scuffled to make a living before dying of Lou Gehrig's disease at age 53.
To be a Cincy fighter is to live with the Curse. The struggle with the dark shadow sets in early, as witnessed in a local TV news report on the youth boxing scene done in 2001, featuring the then 11-year-old Adrien Broner. "What do you think you guys would be doing if you weren't here in the gym boxing?" the blond reporter asks a bunch of preadolescent boxers, all of them black. "A lot of bad things," answers an as-cute-as-a-button Broner, even then seemingly well aware that his 1,000-watt smile just might be his most valuable survival tool. "Like trying to rob people, trying to break into cars." "Oh, come on," she says to the angelically grinning Broner, "you're joking with me. You wouldn't be doing that." Broner looks at her and tilts his head. "Probably," he says, a chilling assessment of the Cincy reality.
For a while it seemed likely that Adrien Broner's career would be done in by the Curse before it even began. A top national amateur prospect by his late teens, he missed making the 2008 Olympic team because, as Mike Stafford reports, "he was in jail. ... They had him facing, like, 20 years on robbery and gun charges." Broner was eventually acquitted but, as Stafford says, "of the 25 or so kids who came to me around Adrien's time, three or four are dead and most of the others are in jail or just in the street."
Not much had changed, at least of the scene in the tiny Punch House locker room, where the Problem, stripped down to his underwear and little pink-and-blue peds, was hanging with several Band Camp homies. Another fighter came in, let his cup drop to the floor, and said his girlfriend was due to give birth any day. "Yo, you really into that Daddy life, huh?" Broner said by way of congratulation, adding that only that day he'd persuaded a lady of his acquaintance to have an abortion.
"Five kids at 24; can't have more of that," the champ remarked as the TV blared a story about a youngster who had been shot dead in Broner's English Woods neighborhood. "That was like two blocks from my Mom's and Pop's house!" the Problem exclaimed. Informed that it took the cops 15 minutes to respond to the shooting and 15 more for the EMTs to arrive, Broner shook his head and said, "Fuck."
"Touch and go, that's the way it is, why Twin don't like to stay here much," said Giovanni Crawford, a.k.a. G Two Times (G2x), invoking Broner's "family" nickname, which distinguishes him from his brother, Andre, who most call Dre-Day. The stocky G2x, AB's boyhood pal, whose Band Camp nickname is "TD4W?," as in "Turn Down 4 What?," had been assigned to show me the local sights, hot spots that included where he and Broner got chased by the cops over on Dreman Avenue, the church where the preacher let them play basketball but only if they listened to the sermon first, along with various dice shooting spots on Harrison Street. We drove by the Fay – the fearsome housing project where even the boldest of Mount Auburn/English Woods gangstas feared to tread. "Only one way in and no way out; don't got the insurance for that," G2x said. After a stop at the Millvale gym, where AB spent untold hours banging on heavy bags, we drove to Knox and Scully, to the three-story, tan-shingled house where Broner grew up and his family still lives.
AB's mom, Dorothy, or Miz Dorothy, as she is usually called, made me a cup of tea as we sat in the lived-in kitchen talking about why she would rather stay on Knox Street than move into the new house in the suburbs her famous son wanted to buy for her. A striking-looking woman with café au lait-color skin and a ready, knowing smile, Miz Dorothy said, "We're down-to-earth people. This is where we raised our children. We know everyone. It's home, you know what I mean?"
One thing Miz Dorothy wanted to make clear was that even if Adrien was the only one of her children (there are 10 between her and Pops) reporters came over to talk to her about, she regarded all her kids as special and loved them equally. "Each one of them has their own brilliance, their particular talent. We teach them to stand up for themselves." That noted, the Problem's rise had been a lot of fun, Miz Dorothy said. "When he fights, the whole neighborhood comes over and tailgate like crazy. We can have a couple of hundred people out here."
Asked how it felt to be the mom of one of the most hated personalities in sports, Miz Dorothy laughed. "Adrien would come home and be upset about what someone said about him on the internet. 'They hate me, and they don't even know me,' he'd say, all upset. I'd just look at him and say, 'Well, son, you can't just say and do anything. . . .' But really, that's just him. Center of attention, 'Hey, everyone look at me'; he's always been like that."
Broner training at the Bald Eagle gym in Washington, D.C., in March.
Miz Dorothy got up and rummaged through some stuff on top of the refrigerator and pulled out a crumpled piece of orange construction paper. It was a project Broner had done while attending middle school. Alongside some cutout photos of fighters was a small essay titled "My Future Plans." Written in the Problem's neat, angular penmanship, it said, "In 10 years I will be a professional boxer. I will be living inside a mansion after I get famous. I won't have no kids. It will be me and my wife. My dream person is Roy Jones Jr." Young Adrien had gotten an A- for his work, Miz Dorothy pointed out.
I liked Miz Dorothy. I liked Pops, too, how he swung his enormous bulk around, demonstrating how he learned to lay sod in his lawn-care business.
I liked the way he described the origin of Broner's post-fight "hair brushing" shtick that so annoys many fight fans. "Twin's got this wavy scalp, and he's always brushing it. That boy never seen a mirror he didn't love," Pops said. "One day we was in a hurry and he's there brushing. So I said 'Hey, you win tonight, I'll brush your damn hair in the ring in front of everybody.' He won, and we kept it up. Now it's just part of the show. Every time he wins, he says, 'Pops! Brush my hair.' " Pops said his son's success is a "blessing from God" that makes him very proud. "Because when I see him in there, I see my work, everything we put in there with him."
I liked the guys from the Band Camp, too, what they stood for. Showing me around the hood, G2x spoke of the group's ethic, the unspoken understanding that if any of the circle of friends beat the rap of being young, black, and poor in Cincinnati, then the rest of them were in, along for the ride. "Could have been any of us, just turned out to be Twin," G2x said, telling how maybe AB seems hardheaded to outsiders, but if you're his friend, he'll "give you his last dollar." Last Thanksgiving, Broner paid for 25 or so Cincy people to fly to Colorado, where he was training for the Maidana fight. "That's how he is, the part no one sees," G2x said.
Truth be told, I even liked Broner himself, which was a whole other level of difficulty.
If there was one thing people didn't know about her famous son, said Miz Dorothy, it was that the noise and narcissism aside, the Problem was actually "a sometimes shy kid." Maybe that was true, or maybe AB was simply applying the dour Floyd Mayweather fortress strategy when approached by elderly white men bearing notebooks, but our Q&As were often reduced to questions like "Which people in and out of boxing do you admire?" – to which the Problem replied, "Adrien Broner." How about anyone besides Adrien Broner, like Nelson Mandela? AB chewed that one over like a Jeopardy! contestant before responding "Adrien Jerome Broner."
One of the few times Broner's interest was piqued was when he was asked if he dreamed at night. "Dream every night," came the answer. "I remember them all." What did the Problem dream about? "Boxing. All my dreams are about boxing. One time I dreamed I lost a fight. I cried."
"Really? Did you get knocked out?"
Broner scoffed. "Fuck, no. I beat the guy's ass. They stole the decision off me."
Given this history, I was surprised when Broner bade me to sit beside him in the hotel lobby the night before the Maidana battle. "Had a dream last night," the Problem said portentously, his head disappearing into recesses of his hoodie. We sat in silence together for a moment. On the eve of his biggest fight, would the young champion finally pull away the mask, reveal some innermost thought, a dread premonition?
"Actually it was a nightmare – Maidana's nightmare. He was thinking about what I'm going to do to him," Broner chortled, letting forth a "got you" laugh. But then, still texting, never making eye contact, Broner said, "What people don't get about this is, I ain't in this just for me. I'm doing it for all these guys. People say they live through me, but that's not true. We live through each other because we're from the same place. They believe in me, and I'm going to come through. That's what counts."The Broner-Maidana fight did not go as AB and the crew expected. In retrospect, perhaps the result was a combination of hubris, poor preparation, and the strong possibility that Broner will never be the next Floyd Mayweather. As currently constituted, he throws too few punches, gets hit too much, and doesn't move his feet (or head) enough to hang with the truly top guys at welterweight, let alone a hell-bent, single-minded marauder like Marcos Maidana. Knocked down in the second round, the Problem dragged himself up looking like a kid who had stuck his finger into an electric socket. If he'd forgotten where he was, the deliriously cheering crowd, overjoyed to see their bête noire on queer street, was there to remind him. It was only Maidana's inconsistency and his own sheer grit that enabled Broner to finish the fight on his feet.
Still, for the fight fan, the match, filled with mini-dramas and memorable vignettes, contained far more excitement value than your garden-variety unanimous decision. There was Broner's ill-considered dry humping of Maidana during a first-round clinch, a favor the Argentinian mockingly returned later in the fight. This paled, however, before the unprecedented reaction to the Broner loss from a suddenly highly energized boxing fan base. A single Broner Instagram self-portrait, titled "#fight time," posted right before the bout, got nearly 12,000 responses in 36 hours. Many comments were in line with those voiced by _120K ("lol, got your ass knocked out"). Chris_Valentine offered the popular "AB ... Already Beaten." Memes came hot and heavy, a mass bloom of tech schadenfreude. There were numerous pics of Broner in various states of distress with captions like "Where Floyd? They Jumped Me!," "About Bedtime," and "Woooorld Staaaar, Baby!" Another had photoshopped Pops reaching toward his fallen son and the inevitable "Pops! Brush My Hair." It went on and on, for days.
In the aftermath of the fight, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the Broner brand could survive the defeat. "You kidding? He's bigger than ever," said one Showtime executive. "Is there anyone who doesn't want to see this guy fight now? He's at a crossroads. We can continue to do big numbers with him."
Not that Broner needs Showtime to tell him that. A self-made man at 24, AB knows a fuck of a lot more about the marketing of Adrien Broner than any network executive. When I first met him in Cincy, he said that sure, he was a great fighter and a great rapper, too, but he really saw himself as "an entertainer," someone who "puts on show." Looking at it that way, it would be hard to argue that AB, the most hated man in boxing, did not give his audience what they wanted getting his Ass Beat by Marcos Maidana. After all, where was the fun in one more victory? How many different ways can a man preen? No, losing was better, much better. As the Showtime guy said, it added "narrative."
The question remained: What next? Would the Problem come back older, wiser, and more humble, rededicated to his craft? Or would he flame out, his confidence shattered for all time by his first, crushing defeat? Would Adrien Broner, the most recent Cincinnati Kid, holder of two honorary keys to the city, be the next victim of the Curse?
A few weeks after the fight, I called the Problem to gauge his state of mind. Dire reports of his demise were greatly overrated, he said. Taking an "all in the game of boxing" approach, he said, "Even the best lose, and I am certainly one of the best, so it figures I would lose every so often." As for the sadder, wiser aspect, AB said he was not down with "all that humble pie crap. I got to stay me because that's who I am." This didn't mean he wasn't taking the Maidana loss seriously. He says he thought about it all the time. Soon after the fight, he invoked his contractual right for a rematch. Better late than never, he even started watching tapes of Maidana "to see what I did wrong and how to fix it."
As it turned out, however, the laws of both the street and business would intervene. Broner's great hero, Floyd Mayweather, ever keen to a good deal, pulled rank to announce he, not Broner, would be fighting Maidana next. It was a typical Mayweather move, since it's hard to imagine the wizard of Grand Rapids running into any of Maidana's Hail Mary shots. As for Broner, aside from the dubious distinction of having his self-proclaimed "big brother" clean up his mess, he will be moving back to 140 pounds, where he probably should have been all along. Just to make sure no one mistakes the pecking order, AB will fight on the undercard (emphasis on the under) of Mayweather's May 3 fight with Maidana. All in all, it had been a rough little patch, AB allowed. The only time he perked up was when asked if he still loved his haters.
"More than ever," the former champion said. "The more they hate me, the more I love them." Then Broner mentioned the "welcome home" dinner people threw him when he returned from San Antonio. More than 500 people turned out. "They showed me a lot of love."
For the fight fan, and the however grudging Adrien Broner fan, this was good news. It's a world of hate out there, and if you're a Cincy fighter trying to beat the Curse, you can use all the love you can get.