Larry Donald always lands on his feet. In 25 bouts as a professional boxer, the Cincinnati heavyweight has yet to be knocked on the canvas.
The ability to remain vertical is much prized in prize fighting. Yet Donald's career has been curiously horizontal. The former Olympian spent 12 rounds fleeing Riddick Bowe in December of 1994, and has yet to recover his reputation.
''If you don't win in your first major event, it's a very harsh business,'' said Steve Nelson, Donald's manager. ''It's very difficult to get that second chance. Because Larry's reputation had been so tarnished by the Bowe deal, a lot of guys are looking at him as the opponent rather than the main guy.''
Larry Donald is 23-1-1 as a professional fighter, but the one loss has lingered like the stench of a dead skunk. When Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were negotiating the terms of their megabucks May rematch last month, Donald was duking it out in Denmark for chump krone.
He has been reduced from a rising contender to an aging afterthought, an undercard puncher on the Larry Holmes Senility Tour. He might have been better off, from a marketing standpoint at least, had Bowe beaten him senseless.
''I've always thought that Larry is one of the more talented guys, but that performance was so horrendous to watch that it's made it very difficult for him to get any meaningful fights,'' said Lou DiBella, senior vice president of programming for HBO. ''It's unfortunate that one fight so taints a guy, but it was a horrendous performance that a lot of people saw.''
A boxing lounge act
Since then, Donald has been nearly invisible. He has fought eight times in the last two years, but most of these bouts have been on boxing's secondary circuits: Maryland, Minnesota, Jutland.
''We believe in Larry,'' Nelson said. ''We think he has the talent. But he's got to put it together for the big event. I'm not going to say it's going to be easy.
''Right now, he's just fighting enough to get by. He has to get that make-or-break opportunity soon.''
Fight Fax Inc., boxing's closest approximation of a records clearinghouse, reports that Donald observed his 30th birthday on Jan. 6. Donald claims he is still 29. He also disputes the accuracy of the scales used in Denmark, which indicated that he had ballooned to 249 pounds (up from his 228-pound weigh-in before the Bowe bout).
Larry Donald has always erred on the side of optimism, so much so that you sometimes wonder whether he is in the same ring with reality. Though he is no longer ranked by any of the major sanctioning bodies, Donald insists, ''I'm always ranked. I'm the uncrowned heavyweight champion of the world.''
''It's not frustrating,'' he said of his difficulty in landing bouts. ''I'm just keeping myself in good shape so that whenever the opportunity comes around, there will be no mistake and everything will be on schedule.
''If everything goes right, if my managers take care of their business, I see myself fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.''
Payday still possibility
That possibility can not be ruled out. There is so much chicanery in boxing, and so many titles, that Larry Donald may yet be maneuvered into position for another big payday. He remains one of the more graceful men in his weight class. What he lacks is the punching power to be seen as a sensation.
''He's definitely got some professional skills,'' DiBella said. ''He can move and he has some boxing ability. And he's shown in recent fights that he's there to fight, that he's there to rumble.
''I can't explain what happened in that fight (against Bowe). He didn't exhibit the heart of a champion. He looked like he didn't want to be there.''
Looking back, Larry Donald will tell you he was undone by anger, not passivity. Bowe landed two surprise blows during a pre-fight press conference, and the cheap shots penetrated Donald's psyche. He spent the fight seething, unable or unwilling to retaliate.
''My confidence was still there,'' Donald said. ''But my mind wasn't there. I wasn't thinking clear. I was that upset. Maybe I got back in the ring a little too soon. Maybe I needed a little time to cool off.''
Larry Donald has since cooled off considerably. In more ways than one.