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.