America's heavyweight hope

Can Michael Hunter restore American Olympic boxing to the glories of Ali, Frazier and Foreman?

Published July 15, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

On a recent Monday in Las Vegas, Michael Hunter entered the Hit Factory, his uncle’s popular Las Vegas boxing gym, to spar with his younger brother, Keith. The talk, when Hunter arrived, was of Manny Pacquiao’s controversial loss the night before to Timothy Bradley. The men at the gym could not believe that Pacquiao had lost. But as Hunter began hitting his brother with punches, the talk dimmed. Mustafa Ameen, Hunter’s confidant and advisor, looked on at his pupil. Hunter's footwork was great as he eluded jabs and hooks; his hands were quick. Forget the fight the night before: He was the main event.

The walls of the Hit Factory are plastered with posters of past fights. On one, there’s a framed and signed picture of Hunter. It reads: "I WILL be the HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION of the WORLD." First, however, Hunter will aim for the Olympic gold medal in London as the top U.S. heavyweight boxer. American boxing hasn’t medaled higher than bronze in heavyweight boxing since Henry Tillman and Ray Mercer brought home gold medals in heavyweight boxing in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. There’s also an underlying sense of urgency that the U.S. not only needs a heavyweight who can win the gold in London, but who can also go on to have the kind of fruitful professional career a gold-medal heavyweight hasn’t had since the days of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

“The sport is not irrelevant, but the reason people think that [it is] is because there’s no heavyweight champion to drive the sport,” says Art Horan, executive vice president of global marketing for USA Boxing. “The sport is not being driven by a heavyweight. As great as Pacquiao and (Floyd) Mayweather are, and now, Tim Bradley, it is not enough to create an impact.” Horan adds: “We’re looking at this wasteland, and we’re searching for an American heavyweight … Michael could turn the whole sport around. One guy could turn the whole universe of boxing on its heels, which is what we need.”

There aren’t too many weaknesses when it comes to Hunter, who stands as America's best chance for a gold medal in heavyweight boxing for the first time in 24 years. Boxing fans and insiders have also tapped him as the next great American heavyweight boxer, someone who could help bring the sport back to a level of societal relevance and excitement that has been absent among American heavyweights in the decade since Mike Tyson was a legitimate contender.

If American heavyweight boxing has become a forgotten art, then Hunter, by all accounts, is the lost artist of Las Vegas, where he grew up. The son of a former heavyweight fighter and a mother who grew up around boxing, the two-time USA National champion and 2011 National Golden Gloves champion, with about 100 amateur fights under his belt, has speed and graceful footwork rarely seen among today’s American heavyweights, plus a devastating left uppercut. “God made a beautiful brother here,” his trainer, Kenny Crooms, told Ring in September. Legendary trainer Emanuel Steward has called Hunter “the future of boxing in America,” while former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield bestowed the Olympian with the title of “best amateur out there.”

“He’s able to do some things that I’ve never seen guys do, as far as making opponents look silly,” says superheavyweight Dominic Breazeale, one of Hunter’s Olympic teammates. “He can make it look like he’s getting ready to walk away and drop a straight 1-2 combination, and look so flush and clean. The way he carries himself in the ring is something like I’ve never seen before. Anytime I’m in the area that he’s fighting, I’ve got to see him because there’s always going to be a magic show happening.”

Yet, the journey toward future stardom has come with road blocks. On the night before his last Olympic qualifying fight in Guatemala in 2007, Hunter, coming off a win at the National Championships and widely expected to qualify for Beijing as a superheavyweight, came down with food poisoning. Hunter says he lost 10 pounds overnight. Sick or not, he was going to fight – he had to fight. And he lost. “If I had one arm, I was still going to be out there,” he says.

Then, training with Wladimir Klitschko’s camp in preparation for Klitschko’s March 2010 fight with Eddie Chambers, Hunter re-aggravated a right shoulder injury from two years prior. It was more severe than the Hunter camp originally anticipated. For almost two years, the injury had been misdiagnosed, and Hunter had been fighting with a partially torn right rotator cuff and labrum. Surgery would follow, keeping Hunter out of the ring for a year.

At 23, Hunter resembles a younger version of former New York Giant Michael Strahan if Strahan had a tongue ring instead of a gap tooth. He is lean with the kind of broad shoulders that look well in a suit. His rise begins with his boxing family. With actor James Caan as his manager, Michael Hunter Sr. met his future wife, Gwen, as she was working at a fight for Sylvester Stallone’s Tiger Eye Productions in March 1987. Just 16 months later, Hunter was born. Perhaps Hunter’s greatest attributes, his elusiveness and speed, are hand-me-downs from his father, a former sparring partner for Tyson.

Hunter Jr. speaks gleefully about the time his dad accidentally made his nose bleed from a father-son sparring session in their backyard, or the numerous times they’d watch films of fights, hoping to learn something new from each fight. When he first showed serious interest in the family trade, his father pulled him aside. They made a promise to each other: Go after the gold medal. Hunter has kept that promise he made with his father, one made long before Hunter had been projected to be the next great American heavyweight boxer.

“One thing my father understood was that you always want your son to be better than what you were,” he says. “He kind of instilled that in me. I do think of stuff like that as far as him and his problems, and I just say, we’re doing this for a reason.”

Known as the “Bounty Hunter,” Hunter Sr., who typically wore a black mask and black hat and wielded a lariat on his way to the ring, was one of the sport’s most flamboyant characters during the 1990s. Wins over a slew of heavyweight contenders helped set up a USBA title defense fight with Tyrell Biggs in January 1993, a win that proved to be arguably the biggest of Hunter Sr.'s career. Months later, a win against Buster Mathis Jr., which would have helped catapult his career, would be overturned to a no-contest after the elder Hunter tested positive for cocaine. Quickly, his personal demons began to ruin his career.

Hunter and his siblings knew something was wrong that day when his mother, Gwen Hunter, got a call at the family’s Las Vegas home that Hunter Sr. had died. The news of her ex-husband’s passing paralyzed her.

“I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth,” Gwen says, recalling the tragedy. “It probably took me five or 10 minutes. I just could not get it out. I knew how bad it would hurt them. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, telling my kids something I knew would hurt them more than anything.”

On Feb. 8, 2006, two undercover LAPD officers had set up surveillance on the roof of the St. Moritz Motel, overlooking a Mobil gas station that had been a popular location for drug deals in that Los Angeles neighborhood. No one knows for sure how the elder Hunter made his way up on the roof or why he was there, but the result was fatal. Hunter Sr. allegedly snuck up on undercover cop Todd Ramsey, hitting him in the head with a gun, which was later discovered to be a black, polymer replica pistol. Ramsey’s partner would tackle Hunter Sr., giving way to a momentary struggle between the two officers and the former boxer. Hunter Sr. allegedly raised his gun, pointing the replica pistol at Ramsey, who would shoot twice in self-defense, hitting Hunter’s chest and arm. Shortly thereafter, he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. To this day, the motive for the incident remains unclear. Police have pointed out that Hunter Sr. was arrested a week earlier for being under the influence of an unspecified narcotic.

People worried that Hunter would follow in his father’s footsteps when, shortly after winning the Olympic trials in August 2011, he tested positive for marijuana, resulting in a three-month suspension that also forced him to relinquish the gold medal he had won. For the first time, questions were raised about whether Hunter would make the same lifestyle choices his father made years earlier, choices that ultimately ended Hunter Sr.'s career, and his life. Hunter Jr.'s inner circle – his mother, Ameen, Crooms – was disappointed. Hunter knows he let his loved ones down.

“I’m not pointing fingers at anyone,” Hunter says. “I just wasn’t with the right group. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. I was doing a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have been doing and it came back to bite me in the ass.”

The three-month suspension served as a wake-up call, and Hunter would finally qualify for the Olympics during last month’s trip to Rio de Janeiro, bowing to the Brazilian crowd once he had achieved the elusive feat after years of both success and hardship. Ameen recognizes the heavy expectations that Hunter is shouldering heading into his first Olympic fight on August 1. Their relationship is unique, a dynamic that’s part friend, part unofficial manager, and part father figure. Ameen can’t sit still, telling colleagues and friends who call or approach him that he’s “in the middle of 18 different things right now.”

Knowing the hype surrounding Hunter and the promise everyone wants him to make good on for the sake of the sport, Ameen remembers a story involving Muhammad Ali, which, for all intents and purposes, sums up his feelings on the matter of his pupil’s upside. “Muhammad heard about a guy one day who had some potential,” Ameen says, his head slightly tilted. “When the guy stepped away, Ali said, ‘Potential means he ain’t done shit yet.’

“Michael can’t win a gold medal with press clippings and what others are saying about him. It has got to be done in the ring, and Michael and I and this team truly understand that."

“If you were to look at the number of young boxers who are now professional who, in another age, might have gone the Olympic route first like Cassius Clay, you look at the ages of these guys and you’ll say these guys would have been Olympic age and might not have turned pro,” says David Wallechinsky, president-elect of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He adds: “It’s possible to see the U.S. losing potential medals due to the economic reality.”

Hunter embraces the responsibility. He is refreshingly candid. On his lack of a set training routine: “As long as I use the bathroom, I’m good.” On the need to increase the entertainment factor in heavyweight boxing: “People watch Kim Kardashian, and she doesn’t do anything but live.” On what pop star he hopes will help introduce him at his professional debut: “I’m trying to get Adele to sing one of her songs at my first pro fight.” He rethinks this statement for a few seconds. “Well, not yet, but eventually.”

Walking around the Hard Rock Café the night before the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, the conversation inevitably turns back to whether a single American heavyweight fighter can really turn the sport around. He might be young and excited to get going, but his big-picture perspective is humble and honest. “One person can definitely help, but one person can’t do it all,” he tells me. “I can make a big difference, but it won’t come back completely. To get it together, we need a number of American heavyweight fighters in order to bring this back in America.

“It is definitely a lost art.”

By Timothy Bella

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