Emanuel Augustus: The unlucky warrior
THE HARD-NOSED JOURNEYMAN BATTLED THE ODDS AS A FIGHTER AND THEN AS A SHOOTING VICTIM. HE KEEPS ON PUNCHING.
Nobody ever called Emanuel Augustus a lucky man. Yet even by his standards, what happened as he strolled back from a sparring session at North 14th Street gym in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one evening last October was exceptionally unlucky. Just minutes away from his destination, two men in the middle of a heated argument pulled up beside him. As the car ground to a halt, 21-year-old Christopher Stills allegedly jumped out, pulled out a pistol and started firing.
The shots evidently weren’t meant to hit anyone but they did. For Augustus, standing just feet away from the car, they were nearly fatal. Before he realized what was happening it was too late to get out of the way; one stray bullet slammed into his neck, splitting apart before continuing into his brain. His shooters fled as Augustus hit the ground and when rescuers came to his aid he was unresponsive. Lying beside him in a pool of blood was a well-worn pair of boxing gloves.
There will always be a question mark hanging over Augustus, a lingering feeling that he could have achieved much more than he did. In one sense he epitomized the career of a journeyman boxer; taking fights on short notice, traveling wherever he could be assured of a match and finishing with a record of 38-34-6.
And yet he was clearly better than that. He was a classy boxer, an entertainer, hard to hit and harder to put down. A journeyman wouldn’t have gone 10 rounds with a fired-up Micky War, and or given Floyd Mayweather Jr. a close call. It’s not hard to get the impression that with a little more guidance, and a little more care, he could have been a champion. “I always thought there was that Micky Ward in him, that warrior spirit,” his former promoter, Lou DiBella, said. “I thought that if he got on a little win streak, it would be enough to get him a big fight.” Unfortunately for Augustus, he never did.
Born in Chicago, Emanuel Burton – he changed his last name to Augustus in 2001 – grew up in Baton Rouge. He made a name for himself at the city’s famous North 14th Street Gym as someone who would spar with anyone at any time.
“He was the envy of the gym,” said his friend LJ Morvant, who met Augustus in 1996. “Even though he didn’t get the popularity he deserved here at home, in the gym nobody could beat him. He’d go through the whole gym and still be the man in the middle of the ring just wishing somebody would give him another round. He just never got enough.”
By the mid-1990s he’d begun to make a name for himself on a national level, his penchant for dancing in the ring and his silky skills marking him as good for TV. He was also a go-to man when promoters needed a fighter at the last minute.
“He would never turn down a fight,” his friend Sean Lynn said. Lynn, a longtime boxing fan, began filming a documentary about the boxer in 2006 after seeing him in action on ESPN.
“Except for a brief period of time where he was promoted by Lou DiBella, he never really had a promoter,” Lynn said. “So he was the guy people would call last minute, with two days’ notice, a week’s notice, 10 days’ notice, and it was kind of the role he fell into in boxing. And a lot of guys wouldn’t fight him because he was a really tough fight.”
A look at his record bears that out. In 1998 he went from Tunica to Denmark to Germany to New Orleans in four months. A year later, he fought in Biloxi, Mississippi; Denmark; and Las Vegas in the space of three months. He performed well, winning more fights than he lost but the lack of preparation meant he was never totally at his best.
HE’D GO THROUGH THE WHOLE GYM AND STILL BE THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE RING JUST WISHING SOMEBODY WOULD GIVE HIM ANOTHER ROUND. HE JUST NEVER GOT ENOUGH. – LJ MORVANT
Augustus’ career peaked in the early 2000s. It was during that time he took part in his two biggest fights, against Mayweather and Ward. The Ward fight, named by THE RING Magazine as 2001’s Fight of the Year, was an entertaining 10-round slugfest that Augustus lost by unanimous decision. The year before, he gave Mayweather a real challenge over the course of nine rounds before the fight was finally stopped. “Out of every guy that I fought,” Mayweather said in 2012, “I’m going to rate Emanuel Augustus first compared to all the guys that I’ve faced. He didn’t have the best record in the sport of boxing, he has never won a world title, but he came to fight.”
Those two fights, though, were anomalies. Most of his fights were against fellow journeymen in out-of-the-way locations with an unfriendly judging panel. Indeed, he began to acquire a reputation as a boxer who was unluckier than most when it came to being on the wrong end of judges’ decisions.
“It’s the nature of boxing,” Lynn said. “When you’re fighting in another guy’s hometown, and you’re fighting under his promoters and their judges, it’s not necessarily a case where the promoters will say under no circumstances can I dust this win unless he knocks the guy out. It’s an unspoken thing a lot of times.
“Emanuel never really had anybody protecting him in that regard. He was kind of a lone wolf. He would literally fight anybody, anywhere, anytime and he paid the price for that.”
“You’re not supposed to win when you have a bad record,” DiBella added. “There are certain fighters who get victimized by bad records and it becomes sort of a cycle. There were times he just didn’t win the fight but there were other times where he didn’t get the benefit of the decision because he wasn’t with a big promoter for most of his career. No one was doing him any favors.”
Perhaps the most egregious example of Augustus being on the wrong end of a decision came in a July 2004 fight against Courtney Burton in the latter’s hometown of Muskegon, Michigan. After outboxing and, typically, outdancing Burton for 10 rounds, even local fans were astonished when the judges handed the local fighter a split-decision victory. One judge, outrageously, even scored the bout 99-90 for Burton. Teddy Atlas, announcing the fight at ringside for ESPN, went ballistic. “This is terrible. This is disgraceful,” he said, his voice rising with emotion as Augustus shook his head and shouted into the camera. “This guy Augustus acted like a clown tonight but he also acted like a fighter, he also fought like a fighter, and he won this damn fight.”
For Augustus, though, it wasn’t anything new. He shrugged the defeat off and went on to win his next two fights, against Dillon Carew and Ray Oliveira, in eight-round TKOs. Just over two years later he got his revenge against Burton, knocking him out in, again, the eighth round. Yet for all the fights he was taking on, he wasn’t getting any closer to the big fight he so desperately wanted.
Around late 2007, Augustus’ career took an unlikely route as he moved across the world to Sydney, Australia. He was never fully embraced in the Australian boxing scene but he competed well, even sparring with leading Australian boxer Anthony Mundine. But it was in 2009, in a fight against Nigerian powerhouse Wale Omotoso, when he suffered perhaps his most damaging defeat.
“That was a fight he shouldn’t have taken,” Lynn recalls. “It did a lot of damage to him. Omotoso’s an absolute monster, especially if we’re talking about weight and size, and he was just so much bigger than Emanuel. I think that that was the fight that maybe put him over the edge.”
Augustus took a series of heavy blows from his younger, faster opponent before going down in the ninth round. Although he was all smiles afterward, chatting and laughing with Omotoso inside the ring, it was a fight from which he never fully recovered. Already getting on in years and with a distinctly average record, he only fought three more times.
EMANUEL NEVER REALLY HAD ANYBODY PROTECTING HIM … HE WAS KIND OF A LONE WOLF. HE WOULD LITERALLY FIGHT ANYBODY, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME AND HE PAID THE PRICE FOR THAT. – SEAN LYNN
His last fight, against Vernon Paris in January 2011 in Pontiac, Michigan, was another dubious loss on the other fighter’s home turf. After the fight, according to a RING reporter on the scene, a security guard failed to recognize Augustus and blocked him from entering his locker room. He slunk out on his own with a rucksack slung over his shoulder. Although he didn’t know it at the time, it was the last time he would ever throw a punch in a boxing ring.
After he left Australia, Augustus headed briefly to Chicago before returning to Baton Rouge in 2012 to the surprise of his friends. “He just popped up out of nowhere,” his fiancee, Dorothy Anthony, said. “He was a pop-up kind of guy.” He headed back to the gym, determined to land another fight, although friends were beginning to notice signs of deterioration. After hundreds of rounds of boxing, his reflexes weren’t what they used to be and neither was his memory. It should have been time to quit but boxing was all Emanuel Augustus ever knew.
“When he got back he was helping out at the gym, helping other young fighters,” Lynn said. “He still wanted to get a (paying) fight. But he’d reached a point now where he wasn’t going to get another fight. And I think everybody knew that but him. It was a bitter pill for him to swallow.”
On Oct. 15 he punched the bag one last time, rang his fiancee to tell her he was done for the day and wandered out the door of the gym. He had endured some hard times recently, short of money and no place to call home. A proud man who would rather suffer than trouble anybody, he was going to sleep on the street this particular night before a friend urged him to stay at his cousin’s place. He never quite made it.
If Augustus was never a lucky man, he was never a quitter either. After miraculously surviving the initial shot, he was placed in an induced coma. For almost two weeks he lay in the coma with a breathing tube down his throat before, slowly, he began to show signs of recovering. His eyes started to open. He gave a thumbs up. He cracked a half-smile. On Nov. 2, less than three weeks after the shooting, he responded to teasing by Morvant with a faint smile and a raised middle finger. After a short stint at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, he was released into the care of his fiancee and sister on Dec. 23. It is too early to say he’s back 100 percent, but his recovery so far has certainly been remarkable.
“Emanuel’s a tough guy,” Lynn says. “As far as where he is right now, it’s nothing short of a miracle. If anyone can pull out of something like this, it’s him.”