Riddick Bowe should have been a great grunt. Boxers are a tough breed, accustomed to training at odd hours and to extended periods of privation. They ought to make marvelous Marines. At least as good as Gomer Pyle.
But Bowe couldn't cut it among the few, the proud and the pushups. Nine days into an extraordinary enlistment, the former heavyweight champion was discharged from the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. His ''lifetime dream'' proved a little too difficult.
''He had trouble adjusting to the lifestyle of being a Marine,'' said Sgt. Anthony Sousa, the Corps' public relations specialist for the Cincinnati region. ''It's a regimented lifestyle. He went from being a 29-year-old multi-millionaire to being told what to do, when to do it, and how quickly to do it.''
Bowe's sense of Semper Fidelis (always faithful) only goes so far. The wonder is that it went anywhere at all. When a man has made more than $100 million in his chosen field, the decision to subjugate himself to a drill sergeant seems a curious career change. Bowe would have raised fewer eyebrows had he joined a convent.
On one level, at least, it made some sense. The knock on Bowe as a boxer is that he is indifferent to training and inclined to become bloated. He saw the Marines as a chance to achieve fighting trim on fast-forward, the way an academic slacker might cram before a big test. He just didn't see clearly enough.
Boxing is a brutal sport, but it is not boot camp. There are no limousines beside the barracks at Parris Island, and K-rations are rarely catered. When a private starts packing for a 25-mile hike, he is discouraged from carrying a cell phone. This can take some getting used to.
''I don't know if a lot of people understand what we go through,'' said Gunnery Sgt. Ron Funke, of the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center on Gilbert Ave. ''I don't think Riddick Bowe's problem was physical fitness ... (so much as) culture shock.''
Riddick Bowe is not the first to fail at the transition from civilian life. According to Sousa, roughly 15 percent of Marine recruits are washouts.
Most of those who tough it out are highly motivated, and slightly masochistic. Few of them face the agonizing decisions Bowe must make almost daily. (Steak or lobster? Porsche or Ferrari? Common stock or tax-free bonds?)
Eddie Arcaro, the great jockey, once observed that it's a lot tougher to get up in the morning after you start wearing silk pajamas. Consider the difficulty, then, when you start wearing silk pajamas, and are suddenly obliged to respond to reveille.
''There were a lot of occasions when he was told to do something and he just said, 'No, I'm not going to do it,' '' base spokesman Maj. Rick Long was quoted as saying in Tuesday's editions of The Washington Post. ''It's just obstinacy, that's all.''
Later, Long attempted to clarify his published comments by saying he knew of no specific instances in which Bowe had refused to follow orders. Plainly, however, Bowe was not with the program.
''He didn't want to be a Marine and he was having trouble adapting,'' Long said. ''The bottom line is if you don't want to be a Marine, you won't be one.''
Good PR for Corps
Riddick Bowe probably realized he was not meant for the military about 10 minutes into his first day of basic training. Yet it would be wrong to think of his dalliance as a total defeat.
Bowe may have provided the Marines some brief embarrassment, but he can only enhance the Corps' rugged reputation. Every recruit who survives Parris Island this spring will be able to boast about beating him. Any decent advertising agency could turn the boxer's failure to the Marines' advantage.
''Hi, I'm Riddick Bowe. I used to be the heavyweight champion of the world, but the Marine Corps knocked me out cold. Think you could do any better? Contact your local recruiting office.''
Something like that.
''I think a lot of us were hoping that he would make it,'' Sgt. Sousa said, ''but we respect him for trying. We respect anyone who gives it their best shot and tries. That alone takes courage.''
The Marines are looking for a few good men. Sometimes they have to look a little further.