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."