Amid all the items to be discovered at the Meadowlands Flea Market on Saturday, past the kettle corn and between the US$2 leather belts and the US$1 bottles of shampoo, was a two-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Riddick Bowe sat on a folding chair behind a card table that straddled two parking spaces, labeled in chalk as No. 264 and No. 265. Most people sauntered past, holding bargains in a bag or grilled meat on a stick, not recognizing the large man who waited for someone to come see him.
“The champ is here!” Darren Antola, who set up the autograph session, called out, like a carnival barker. “He beat Evander Holyfield two out of three times!”
Two women approached. Bowe always was boxing’s approachable heavyweight, the anti-Mike Tyson, witty and disarming. He called each of the women “sweetheart.”
One asked if he was still fighting. Bowe said he was, a reply based more in hope than reality. He beat a “crash dummy” named Gene Pukall in Germany last December, and has no other fights planned. He weighs about 136kg.
“Guess who I’m going to fight next?” he asked, excitedly. “You’ll never believe it.”
“Who?” the woman asked.
“Somebody I can whoop,” Bowe said.
He smiled. She laughed. Then she bought an autographed picture for US$35 that she intended to frame for someone named Pete. And Bowe, who said he had US$15 million when he retired in 1996, thanked her.
A man working a stall behind Bowe watched.
“All those millions of dollars, and they’re gone,” the man said. “It’s a sad story.”
Bowe does not argue that. He is 41 — according to public records and news reports, although he insisted on Saturday that he was born on Aug. 10, 1968, not 1967 — and signed autographs because he has little money. He wants to fight again because he knows little else.
“What would I do without boxing? That’s the question, isn’t it?” he asked during a quiet moment under the canopy where he sat.
He searched for the answer inside his head, which his own lawyers once argued was damaged from all the blows it absorbed.
“Boxing’s all I know,” he said finally. “At 40, what else am I going to do?”
Bowe’s version of the cliched story of a heavyweight champion going from riches to rags is layered with bizarre episodes.
Bowe beat Holyfield twice, the loss in the middle of their trilogy coming after a parachutist landed beside the ring at Caesar’s Palace in 1993. Bowe had two strange 1996 victories over Andrew Golota, who was disqualified both times for low blows. The first, at Madison Square Garden, set off a riot in the ring.
Bowe retired and things got even stranger.
He joined the Marine Corps Reserves and quit a few days into basic training. He spent 18 months in prison for interstate domestic violence after going to North Carolina to haul his now-former wife and their five children back home with him to Maryland. He filed for bankruptcy.
But Bowe was relentlessly optimistic as afternoon rain washed out the flea market and ended the signing early. His cellphone displayed a photo of his wife, Terri — they married in 2000 — and their daughter, Morgan, who will be four in August. His mind saw a rainbow with more paydays at the end.
Twice someone said something about Muhammad Ali, and Bowe said that Ali was the greatest, “but I am the latest.”
Most of the time, there was no one talking to Bowe. But whenever a few people gathered, they multiplied in a hurry.
A signing in Manhattan last week earned Bowe “US$2,000 or US$3,000,” he said. The take on Saturday was far less.
“Now you see why I’ve got to fight,” Bowe said. “Put the word out that Big Daddy’s got to do what he do.”
Bowe said he made US$30,000 for December’s fight, when he weighed 123kg. Offers followed, all for less money. Bowe found them insulting. Calls stopped coming and Bowe stopped training.
Now he dreams of a string of 10 fights, in quick succession, against more crash dummies to bolster his record (43-1, with 33 knockouts) and rebuild his reputation. Then he envisions a title bout. George Foreman, after all, was 45 when he won a heavyweight championship, and Bowe considers himself both “younger” and “prettier.”
The more Bowe thought about it, the more he decided that the best approach may be to get in shape now so that people see that he is serious. He said he might start training this week.
A man told Bowe that he felt sorry for Tyson, having had so much potential, so much money, only to waste it. It was an awkward few moments. The man did not realize he was describing the person in front of him. Bowe did.
“No matter what, God is on my side,” Bowe said later. “I’m not perfect, but I’m not the worst, either. God brought me this far. He’s not done with me yet.”
Before leaving, Bowe wanted something else to be known. He loves his wife and their little girl more than anything, he said. And he said thank you.
Thirty minutes later, Bowe was on the phone. One more thing.
“Any promoter who wants to put me on their card, I’m willing to fight,” Bowe said.
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