Emanuel Augustus, and boxing’s tale of unrequited love
Emanuel Augustus stands against a wall in the entrance tunnel of the Pontiac Silverdome. He is wearing an ivy cap, reminiscent of the style of the 1920s, a khaki jacket, and blue jeans. He carries a backpack with all of his ring gear, suggesting that he’s travelled a bit before, and knows all about carry-on luggage and convenience.
His face is bruised, cheeks reddened like a China doll, and his hands, when they aren’t tucked into his denim, are larger than usual.
An hour earlier, he had been in the ring with junior welterweight contender Vernon Paris in what was the non-televised co-feature of the Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander title unification bout in the same weight division.
Days before, he had announced it would be his final fight. After four straight losses, including a stoppage at the hands of Ruslan Provodnikov on ESPN, this was likely the biggest stage he was going to reach at this point, and seemed like the most suitable swan song.
Knowing it might be the last time he’d ply his craft, I had been speaking with him throughout the week for a story on The Queensberry Rules. Seemingly every story published that week was either about how fights like Bradley-Alexander would save boxing, or how ill-advised promotions in abandoned football stadiums would ruin boxing.
Neither the tall talk, nor the sadism interested me much.
That one of the sport’s most colorful characters, one who had traveled the hardest of roads, was finally pulling into the lot for good was far more intriguing. It seemed that he had gone through every possible hardship throughout his careerÔÇöhorrible decisions, fights on short notice, promotional difficultiesÔÇöso what was the trigger that made him walk away now?
“How are you gonna stay in something when there’s no respect in it?” Augustus said earlier that week. “You’re only gonna take so much of it before you finally act on it. And now I’m tired of it. I’m 36 years old, and nobody did nothing to respect me in boxing. All this time that I’ve been in boxing, they’ve been dropping the hints, I just haven’t been taking the hints.”
If he hadn’t heard the hints of disrespect by then, he heard them loud and clear in Pontiac, Michigan the following weekend.
As a late-notice opponent, he also received late transportation to the weigh-in, arriving well after the main event and all other undercard competitors had stepped on the scale. He burst through the door, already unbuttoning his coat just as the commission representative was repeating “EMANUEL BURTON?”
Of course, he hadn’t gone by that name since 2001.
Regardless, he was there, later registered under the correct moniker, and set to take part in his 78th and final professional boxing match.
Even though in his mind it was the last time he’d ever fight, he still broke out something new, giving himself another nickname that night, “The Outlaw,” and even had a few t-shirts made sporting the gimmick.
Outlaws ride off into the sunset at the end of the movie, after all.
“Honestly, I want there to be a knockout. I don’t care, I just want there to be a knockout so it can be definitive who wins,” The Outlaw said to me, defiantly and almost solemnly declaring he was ready to go out the hard way.
In the early rounds he hardly looked like himself, or even like someone who would finish the match. His trademark wild hair was cut short and neat, and his fleet feet were grounded, as he stood and tried to outjab Paris behind the shield of only upper body movement.
Then, in the fourth round, it was as if he saw the finish line. The crowd began to boo their hometown fighter, who despite building a lead on the scorecards, was not doing anything thrilling. So “The Drunken Master” answered the fourth opening bell, and began stomping, dancing, and marching toward Paris with awkward spontaneity for the remainder of the night.
Augustus may have ultimately lost a legitimate points decision based on the rules (Paris won on scores of 76-73 and 77-72), however he once again lost a point on an unusual hitting on the break call, and was admonished more than once for using his famous “drunken” routine.
When the final bell rang, he hoisted his arms, surely knowing that he wouldn’t get the decision, as he hadn’t 39 times before.
It was a perfect literary ending, in a way, even if he didn’t think so.
The fighter who never got a break and constantly had to fight on the road in opponents’ hometowns to make a living still didn’t get anything from the judges, but still somehow managed to steal the Motown crowd from Paris.
In the tunnel where the Detroit Lions once walked through, Augustus stands and waits, anonymous amidst a crowd of working media, and resourceful fans trying to get into the post-fight press conference set up for Bradley and Alexander.
Yesterday, I had told him I would find him after the fight, win or lose. If he wasn’t going to get a proper farewell parade, there should at least be someone there to sit and chat with to reminisce about 17 years on the job.
I spot him on my way to the press conference, his cap and bag might have given him some anonymity, but at the same time might as well have been a uniform that read “journeyman” across the chest. He looked like a man who might run along the track and hop the westbound train back to Chicago later that night.
We shake hands and half-hug, and start to chat about the fight.
“I thought White taking that point away was ridiculous,” I told him.
A career of frustration was about to cut me off.
“See, why don’t you guys ever write about that, man,” he begins, before launching into a diatribe about how boxing writers haven’t properly acknowledged the wrongdoings he’s endured over the years.
Earlier that week, I’d written a piece on his career. The premise was that, in short, a man with his personality and talent deserved a better result, but that through decisions made by the difference-makers in boxing, and some of his own, it just never panned out. I’d send him the article out of courtesy, and he thanked me and said he enjoyed it. He said the same at the weigh-in, unprovoked.
But right now, he doesn’t remember who I am.
A fellow media member senses the uncomfortable situation I’m in, and reaches over and pats Augustus on the shoulder.
“I just wanted to say, he did do that. I read his piece this week, and he said all of those things. He did that,” he assured.
Augustus stopped, looked at me for a few moments, smiled and pulled me in for another half-hug.
“I’m sorry man,” he said.
We’d reconciled just in time, as people were filing in to the converted locker room, which today served as both the media room, cafeteria and press hall.
Having been to hundreds of these, Augustus walked up to the door without any hesitation, as I trailed right behind him. I was cut off by a few stragglers, but he had made his way to the doorman. The stragglers seemed to multiply, and suddenly I couldn’t see him, but I started hearing a disagreement.
“I’m a fighter, I was just in the ring…”
“I was told you need a badge.”
“I’m one of the fighters, what do you mean?”
“I’m a fighter man, come on!”
By this time I could see what was going on. The security guard wasn’t going to allow Emanuel into the room. After a hard night’s work, the old veteran didn’t have the energy to argue anymore. He had a tired, sad look in his eye, and swung his bag over his shoulder to walk down the hall, and out of the stadium.
Here he was, on the final night of his career after having put his life on the line for almost two decades, and the security guard who stood with a clear view of the ring all night long didn’t even recognize him.
Before he could take another step, me and my observant media compatriot who had saved me moments ago slipped through the crowd and took him with us, armed with lanyards.
“It’s alright, he’s a fighter,” we assured the guard, who barely glanced down as he let all three of us through the giant metal door.
We walked into the room and assessed where we would stand for the conference. Emanuel smiled, nodded and said thanks.
That was the last time I saw him, and I assumed, the last time I’d see him at a boxing event in a fighting capacity.
Soon thereafter, his listing on the BoxRec website changed to indicate that he was no longer active, removing him from its world rankings. It remains that way to this day.
I’d heard whispers that he was working with a Canadian fighter as a sparring partner, but assumed he was just fooling around in the gym as former fighters will do from time to time.
It turned out to be more than that. Bolded in my inbox last week one morning, an email from Roy Engleblecht Promotions: “Steve Forbes to face Emanuel Augustus on April 12!” The subsequent release that was sent this week wouldn’t mention Emanuel’s name at all, just Forbes’.
A 3-3 heavyweight, a 3-1 MMA fighter, and what time happy hour was at the bar were all noted as attractions.
Even while fighting another journeyman, he still remains an afterthought to promoters and matchmakers. Not to mention publicists and doormen.
“I’ve loved boxing like a member of my family, but it has never returned the love to me,” he told me that Wednesday in Michigan.
This Thursday, Emanuel Augustus will fight again–this time at a fair ground in California against Steve Forbes–and he’ll do it because he loves the sport.
Certainly not because it ever loved him.
Editor’s note: Shortly after press time, it was made official that the Forbes-Augustus fight was cancelled. Augustus did not pass the medical examination.
Corey Erdman is also the host of RingTV Radio. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman
photos: Ed Mulholland/Fightwireimages.com; Josh Barron/Fightwireimages.com