Special to Page 2
CALIFORNIA, Pa. -- While Calvin Brock prepared to fight IBF world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko by sparring with Brad Williams late on a Thursday night, David Cadieux, a 6-foot-6 Canadian heavyweight, whaled away at a heavy bag at Buzz Garnick Jr.'s Round 2 Gym.
When Cadieux finished, he asked me if I were a boxer.
The trepidation on my face was palpable. Having the waist of a teenage girl, the mere thought scared the dickens out of me.
"You don't want to go in there?" he asked jokingly. "I was going to give you my gloves."
Thanks, but that wasn't a Corleonean offer. My plan was to interview Brock, a good-natured, 235-pound former banker and Olympian from Charlotte, N.C., who tussles for the title Saturday night at Madison Square Garden on HBO, not to be his -- or anyone else's -- punching bag. All those years spent in school were to learn to get paid while seated.
And to avoid ever having to get hit in the face.
What makes a man willing to get hit in the face? Perhaps that seems trite, but it's the question that makes boxing compelling. The tradeoff for any offensive maneuver is the chance of catching one in the snot locker. Boxing's rhythm, the bob and weave, is dictated by man's innate reflex to avoid getting hit in the mug.
Know why Olympic boxers wear headgear? Because not even a gold medal is worth a broken jaw.
And considering how much greater the range of motion of one's neck is than that of one's stomach, staying as pretty as possible is probably as rooted in Darwinism as it is in vanity.
The willingness to shut down that reflex is essential to being a fighter. It's also part of the reason fighters are widely considered to be dim and/or animalistic. David Remnick, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Muhammad Ali, "King of the World," recounted the conventional wisdom of boxing that, "only a fool or a desperate man gets hit in the head to earn a living."
And I'm neither.
But the same holds true for Calvin Brock, who is undefeated in 29 professional fights with 22 knockouts. So what in Hades is on his mind?
• Chat wrap: Calvin Brock
• Chat wrap: Wladimir Klitschko
• Boxing page
Brock is known as "The Boxing Banker." That's not as foreboding as Bernard Hopkins' nickname, The Executioner, but it's more accurate (Hopkins served five years for strong-arm robbery, not murder). Brock earned a degree in finance from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 1999, and he took a job with Bank of America after graduation.
But just a year later, he left his cubicle for the Olympic trials, where he earned the chance to go to Sydney as a member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Shortly thereafter, he decided to turn pro instead of entering a management training program.
"I could have milked them," he said. But instead, he left his position before B of A invested heavily in his future with the company, a future he had no intention of fulfilling.
It seems strange that he would choose to box for a living. Not just because honesty probably isn't worth much in a game that's been controlled historically by mobsters and mob-like figures, but because the annals of boxing are filled with competitors who used boxing as their ticket out of the margins, their vehicle to escape ghettos, Jim Crow, "Irish need not apply" signs or the dead ends caused by poor education. In contrast, Brock fought by night and went to school by day because he wanted to be like his father and first trainer, Calvance, and get an education.
So why become a boxer?
"It's what I've wanted to do since I was 8 years old," Brock explained. "I gave my life to Christ at the age of 6, and I decided I wanted to be a fighter at the age of 8."
But that seemed an insufficient explanation. When he was 8, Brock fought with headgear to protect his face. It's hard to imagine he had a real idea what he would be stepping into by becoming a professional boxer.
Childhood fantasies are usually pushed to the back burner because of pragmatic concerns, not a lack of desire. And college is as much about indoctrination into the principles of white-collar living as it is about imparting knowledge. David Stern doesn't want basketball players to spend time in school to improve the depth of locker room conversation. One of college's greatest payoffs is the security that stops its students from having to risk life and limb to make a decent wage, and boxing is all about wagering safety for the chance of victory and its spoils.
The spoils for Brock are fairly simple. He's got a performer's spirit. Like Sugar Ray Robinson, he's an accomplished tap dancer (the "booking" section of his Web site is for both boxing and hoofing). "I like entertainment," he said between deep, post-sparring breaths.
Then there's the money. The heavyweight division is long removed from Tysonian, eight-figure paydays. Brock's night at the office against Klitschko will bring him $1.2 million, a handsome sum but not enough to stop a man from ever having to work again. Monster.com says the median salary for credit analysis manager, the job his career path was leading him toward -- "[Finance departments] basically teach you to be a credit analyst," Brock observes -- is a shade under $90,000. In other words, a career of fighting probably won't earn Brock much more than a life working for The Man.
But working for The Man was never his dream.
Calvance Brock worried when his young son wanted to become a boxer. But he appreciated Calvin's desire so much that after Calvin's first trainer, then an octogenarian, proved incapable of handling the kid, Calvance bought a stack of instructional videos and taught himself to become his son's trainer.
"He had such desire, and I couldn't turn my back on that," the elder Brock said with paternal pride.
Round 2 Gym is a converted house. Like a pool table in a rumpus room, a regulation ring is the centerpiece of Round 2's front room.
The walls on each side of the room are covered with photos of boxers. There's a poster of the classic shot of Ali imploring Liston to get up after being knocked down in their second fight, and there are a couple of other shots of The Greatest at his most striking and charming.
But in a corner near the kitchen, there's a collage of postfight photos taken from magazines, many of which were positively disturbing. Fighters like Ricardo Mayorga, Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya faced cameras with their faces both inflated and distorted. The only way to tell if those gentlemen were victorious was if the photographer happened to catch the man with his hand raised.
It is that part of boxing that makes the matches compelling. Just being fit to step in the ring is as physically demanding as anything in sports. But losing might be more painful than anything in the world. The ego stings viciously after losing a match; being defeated in such a (for lack of a better term) masculine sport can be debilitating -- something documented flawlessly in the sections of "King of the World" about Floyd Patterson and his heartbreaking insecurity -- especially since being punched can only be perceived as a challenge of one's manhood.
Now, add to that figurative pain the effects of the abuse of a boxing match. The broken jaws, closed eyes, bent noses, split lips, loosened teeth, bloody urine and foggy recollection that any of those things ever took place.
It seemed that my time with Brock was best served asking about those things. Maybe Brock is proof that the pain isn't as bad as it seems. He doesn't need to box -- nor does Klitschko, who has a doctorate in Sports Science from Kiev University and diverse interests, but continues to study the sweet science.
Perhaps he does this because the bad parts about being in the ring are overhyped. Maybe the guys that cowered at the sight of Tyson or a young Foreman were just punks, unable to handle a little boo-boo on their faces. Or maybe he fights because his love for the craft is so powerful that the pain is worth it.
So I asked the Boxing Banker to talk about the punishment he receives in the ring.
And, more or less, he refused.
"You won't last long in the heavyweight division taking punishment."
He's right about that. There's a reason boxing doesn't have a Mendoza line. Mario Mendoza would have quit long before he became infamous.
But that statement caught the ear of his trainer, Tom Yankello. Brock looked sluggish sparring that evening, and Yankello gave Brock a look to remind him that being slow against the towering Klitschko would earn him his share of abuse.
"That's because I didn't have the legs to get out the way," Brock pre-emptively yelled. Later that evening, Brock decided to fly home to Charlotte for a couple of days, fearful that overtraining would doom him like he feels it did in Sydney, where he did not win a medal.
Brock was also unwilling to entertain the possibility of losing -- boxers, it seems, don't entertain such thoughts -- which made it clear there was no chance he would publicly admit professional vulnerability. Yankello, however, was more forthcoming. The grandson of a boxer, Yankello isn't a large man by any stretch. He's under 6-foot, so it's not surprising he got interested in boxing in 1976 after seeing "Rocky." He fought several amateur fights but stopped boxing after having four shoulder surgeries between the ages of 18 and 21.
When asked about what it's like to be in the ring, Yankello's face scrunched up and his head shook.
"Fighting a heavyweight?" he asked rhetorically. "Punches from men that tall that weigh 225 pounds are like dropping 25 pound dumbbells from 20 feet up. Most heavyweights throw punches that would kill an average human being.
"If a pro hit a guy on the street, it would leave him comatose. Think about how Mitch Green looked after fighting Tyson in the street."
After scrapping with Tyson bare-knuckled, Green's eye looked to be the size of a softball.
"Tyson just hit him with a short jab."
So it's no wonder Brock's strategy is to avoid punishment rather than absorb it, something Yankello thinks his fighter's fully capable of doing. As expected, he thinks Brock's the best fighter in the world.
"He's well-rounded, has many dimensions. He can fight on the inside, on the outside. Good puncher, good boxer."
But Brock has taken some punishment in his career. He lost his first six amateur fights at age 12, and threw hands as a teenager against grown men.
"He ran into some hard-hitting ones," Calvance Brock said of his son.
Maybe Calvin Brock has chosen to forget those things. Maybe it's impossible to fight while thinking about getting hit, the same way it's impossible to tap dance while thinking about falling. Or maybe he's just so good that he hasn't taken serious licks since fighting those men when he was a tyke.
Or maybe he loves the game so much that he rolls the dice in the ring, even though he's fully aware of the risks.
His goal is to leave boxing "talking straight, walking straight, looking good."
Will he be able to pull that off? Saturday's fight will go a long way toward answering that question.