How Great Was Riddick Bowe?

Former heavyweight king Riddick Bowe celebrated his 50th birthday yesterday and it is to be hoped “Big Daddy,” who has endured his share of tough times quite recently – cash problems, the threat of jail time and slurred speech that indicates Bowe stuck around longer than he should have done in the ring – enjoyed himself. Very much a fan favorite in his day, the tall and naturally gifted big man seemingly had it all. For a while.

Just how great was Bowe? Maybe a better question is how great could he have become? The knock on Bowe, both when he was an amateur and again when he was a pro, was that he was lazy in the gym, that he was lacking heart and stomach for intense warfare; that he didn’t really ‘want’ it. This line of thinking was born out on the grandest of stages when, at the 1988 Olympics, Bowe seemingly capitulated in his fight with eventual gold medal winner Lennox Lewis.

But then, as a pro, with the great Eddie Futch training him (“Papa Smurf” as Bowe affectionately called the cerebral trainer and corner-man) Bowe seemed to have put it all together. Coming into most of his fights lean, mean and ready, Bowe really did put it all together on the night of November 13, 1992. Sporting a flawless 31-0 record as well as a well-conditioned 235 pound body, Bowe defeated Evander Holyfield, the man with the so-called biggest heart in all of boxing, in a truly great fight. Bowe was now The Man, and it seemed, for a time, that all his old bad habits had been dropped, that boxing greatness and a long, long title reign awaited.

We couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, but Bowe, at age 25, had peaked; his greatest fight had been fought. For this one night, Bowe – fast, fluid, accurate, powerful and as effective on the inside as he was on the outside, was indeed the best big man on the planet. What a shame this version of Bowe would never, ever be seen again. We saw glimpses of this version of Bowe in later fights, and even when he was overweight and had spent more time eating and sleeping in his luxury RV (one that had a fitted kitchen inside) than he had been in the gym, Bowe was able to become the first man to KO Holyfield.

This came in the rubber-match, after an overweight Bowe had been beaten in the rematch by “The Real Deal.” Around this time, Bowe picked up the WBO heavyweight strap and beat decent fighters like the too small Herbie Hide and the too big and lumbering Jorge Luis Gonzalez. Then came the two disastrous fights with “Foul Pole” Andrew Golota – these brutal fights actually proving disastrous for both men.

Belted low and repeatedly low by a seemingly crazed Golota, Bowe also shipped plenty of head shots. Despite the horrific nature of these two fights, the second one especially, with Bowe disintegrating before our very eyes, the man who once stood atop the entire boxing world displayed incredible heart, guts and raw courage. Bowe, also showing an astonishing chin and ability to take blows to the head, was amazingly not knocked out (Golota instead disqualified not once but twice for his demented low-blow attacks). If only the fully conditioned and prime version of Bowe had shown such fighting heart on a regular basis.

And that was it. Bowe retired. His life in tatters (kidnapping charges, that weird and short-lived venture into The US Marine Corp and, perhaps most alarmingly, the slurred speech). Of course a comeback followed (they always come back once again proving to the the most accurate adage in all of boxing), but a fleshy and slow-moving Bowe was not even 20-percent of the fighter he had once been. Three wins over so-so at best opposition later and Bowe’s fighting days had finally come to an end. In the boxing ring that is.

In many ways, Bowe is still fighting today – for inner peace. For one night only, Bowe was a superb fighting machine who could arguably have competed with ANY heavyweight in history. This it seems is how Bowe the boxer will always be remembered.