Commentary

McCrary cracks under pressure, loses by decision

Australia's Sam Soliman did the "Contender" house a huge favor by sending home fast-talking Max Alexander.

Originally Published: October 2, 2007
By Michael Woods | Special to ESPN.com

There is no fighter more maligned, regionally speaking, than the American Midwesterner.

Home to the one of the banes of Teddy Atlas' existence, the "soft commissions," the Midwest boxer is best known for having an inflated record, built on a balsa-wood foundation of hapless opponents.

Donny McCrary, the latest boxer to exit "The Contender," is a Missouri resident, and he has heard the cruel verbal taunts that echo the typical stereotypes associated with the Midwest fighter. But he did his best to tear down the prevailing wisdom attached to his neck of the woods when he gave one of the show's most gifted hitters, Cameroon native Sakio Bika, a solid clash before bowing out via unanimous decision.

McCrary, who turns 25 in two weeks, came to the game late, picking up a pair of gloves at 16. He entered the Golden Gloves, and jumped in with both feet, turning pro at age 19.

The fighter's upbringing was no picnic; his mom had a hard time making ends meet, while his stepfather was prone to drink. The family, which included Donny's sister, made do on welfare assistance much of the time.

"Me, I don't complain about it, because I know someone out here had it worse," he told ESPN.com. "But my real dad, I didn't see until I was 21. He's trash."

The teenage McCrary escaped a dreary home life by hitting the road. He traveled the nation, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door with other kindred spirits looking, paradoxically, for some emotional stability in a migrant sales milieu.

He dropped out of school at age 12 and did the magazine gig for a little less than a year. When he came back, he met a young lady who became his fiancée, Tiffany, and they've carved out a stable nest with three kids (Serenity, 7; Hayden, 3; Nahaiva, six months).

McCrary compiled a 23-5-2 mark while making ends meet as an ironworker in St. Joseph, Mo. This summer, before the show began, he mowed lawns for cash so he'd have more time to devote to training.

For McCrary, boxing isn't a vehicle to fame or even fortune, though that'd be nice. Boxing represents a step up on the economic ladder, if he can make the leap from rugged journeyman to a higher echelon. A title-fight payday sure beats $9 an hour at the iron works.

When a "Contender" casting agent called, McCrary was so ecstatic he couldn't speak.

"My fiancée said, 'Contender called, Contender called!'" he said. "It was like a cat had my tongue. But I was excited, because I'm a fighter and fighting's what I do."

He relished hanging out with a house full of similar souls, other folks with a soft side, who ironically find themselves drawn to fighting. "Most fighters are sensitive people," he said. "My feelings matter a lot to me, emotions and stuff like that. All real fighters are sensitive. Of course, you have some guys that are just crazy and fight, and they get their asses kicked. People say, 'I know karate,' but it's more like 'I know crazy.'"

In the "Contender" crib, McCrary got along best with Bika.

That didn't prevent the two from trading meaningful shots come fight night.

In the first round, the two got right down to trading, and McCrary's Irish blood went right to boil. The Cameroonian, now based out of Sydney, showed the faster hands; his jab got to its target a split second earlier than did McCrary's. Bika, who's been in with several world-class foes, like Markus Beyer and Joe Calzaghe, found a home for his right uppercut and went back to the well often for that winning strike.

In the second round, McCrary jabbed with some authority, but he neglected to follow up with his right, dumbfounding his trainer, Buddy McGirt. Bika, who came to "The Contender" with a 22-3-2 mark, piled on the jabs and dictated the pace of the fight with his feet.

In the third round, McGirt yelled at his man, "Donny, stop waiting!" But it was Bika's fault. When McCrary got ready to toss, Bika would step away, leaving only air for McCrary to swing through. Bika landed a nasty right uppercut when McCrary lunged forward. McGirt gave McCrary the business after the round: "Giving up on me baby, what's up?"

In the fourth, McCrary had his most effective interlude. He landed a sharp right that stung Bika and had him grabbing to get time to clear his head. But the opportunity passed, and quickly Bika was back in control, landing one-twos, right crosses and tone-setting jabs. Bika flurried with a multi-shot combination to close the round, just in case a judge had ideas about rewarding McCrary. McGirt told McCrary to go for the knockout in between rounds.

In the fifth and final period, Bika hit home with several stinging uppercuts that had the crowd gawking and squawking. McCrary's legs were like jelly left out on the picnic table during a Fourth of July BBQ at high noon. The ref screamed, "Show me something!" at McCrary repeatedly, and the fighter from the "Show Me" state did just enough to prevent a stoppage.

Show something, he did indeed, though the judges leaned to Bika (50-45, 50-45, 49-46). The fighter -- and that is the better description for McCrary than "boxer" -- showed ample heart and guts.

"I'm too little for 168," McCrary told McGirt in the ring after he finished getting worked over by the much larger Bika.

In the dressing room afterward, hearts had to crack a bit in living rooms everywhere when McCrary's daughter did her best to cheer up daddy, whose eyes were filled with tears and whose face bore the proof that he got the short end of the stick.

"Everybody said that was a great fight," Serenity told her dejected dad.

McCrary, it turns out, knew fairly quickly that this wasn't to be his night.

"I wasn't feeling it," he told us. "I was sitting, 20 minutes before the fight, by myself, and I felt my body relax. Every dog has his day, and that wasn't my day, I guess."

So, just maybe, McCrary did a little something to improve the perception of the Midwest fighter with his valiant stand against Bika. Of course, Ohio's Kelly Pavlik, who beat Jermain Taylor in a middleweight title fight on Saturday, showed that the Heartland turns out more than pugs with inflated records and subpar skills. McCrary confirms that notion.

McCrary has been assured he will fight in the show's finale (Tuesday, Nov. 6, at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston) and will continue to plug away, he said.

"My goal is to be a world champion," he said. "But I'll settle for nothing less than being a world-class fighter. 'The Contender' got my name out there. And at the least, it's something my kids can talk about when they get older."

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.

Michael Woods, a member of the board of the Boxing Writers Association of America, has been covering boxing since 1991. He writes about boxing for ESPN The Magazine and is the news editor for TheSweetScience.com.

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