Sunday, December 31, 2000

Tubbs fighting biggest fight

Former heavyweight champ trying to come back from drug abuse

        Tony Tubbs is fighting for his life. He is fighting to stay busy and to stay clean, to distance himself from drugs and jail and close the gap to glory.

        He is fighting the most difficult foe of his boxing career: himself.

        “Every time I step into a ring, it makes a statement,” Tubbs said. “Everybody loves a comeback, especially when you're coming back from drugs. When you can come back from that, people never forget it.”

        Fifteen years ago, the Cincinnati heavyweight held a share of the splintered world title. Today, at age 42, Tubbs is trying to get his massive grip on addiction. Less than a month removed from the River City Correc tional Complex, where he was serving time for selling crack cocaine, Tubbs has returned to the ring in search of misplaced purpose.

        “This isn't going to be an easy road,” said Nate Tubbs, the boxer's brother, promoter and sparring partner. “When you deal with chemicals, you lose something. He'll never be the Tony Tubbs he used to be, but he can be the next best thing to it.”

        By boxing standards, Team Tubbs is remarkably realistic. Though the chaotic heavyweight scene encourages even the most mediocre fighters to fantasize about title shots, Nate Tubbs and trainer Dexter Norman are more interested in restoring the former champion's rou tine.

        If Tony Tubbs is in training, they reason, he is less likely to be in trouble. The boxer who is up at dawn to do roadwork tends to lose interest in running the streets at night.

        “The hardest thing to get back,” Tubbs said, “is the will.”

        Tony Tubbs was 22-0 when he won the World Boxing Association title from Louisville's Greg Page on April 29, 1985. His will has been wavering ever since.

        In his only title defense, a sluggish 15-round loss to Tim Witherspoon, Tubbs weighed in at an alarming 244 pounds. Trainer Richie

        Giachetti, frustrated by Tubbs' work habits and financial disputes, abandoned him less than a week before his 1988 bout with Mike Tyson.

        “I can't be connected with a guy who doesn't want to work,” Giachetti explained. “Tony has all the talent in the world. He may have more talent than Tyson, although he isn't as strong. But he doesn't want to do any work.

        “As soon as I tried to discipline him, he wanted to get rid of me. He doesn't want to get up in the morning. He's out at night. He doesn't want to work in the gym. I've had it.”

        The alarm Giachetti sounded went largely unheeded. In what proved to be his last title bout, Tubbs was knocked out in the closing seconds of the second round. A year later, he tested positive for cocaine following a 12-round decision over Orlin Norris.

        “The first time I ever experienced a drug, I was 31 years old,” Tubbs said. “I felt like everything was against me. I was too eager to fight the best and I didn't understand this game was about making money. I really felt like I lost the best years of my life — 35-36-37. But when I look on TV and I see Lennox Lewis fighting David Tua, I still consider myself the No.2 or No.3 boxer in the world.”

        He is standing on the ring apron at Covington's Shamrock Boxing Club, fresh from three rounds of sparring with his younger brother. With his middle masked by a gray T-shirt, Tubbs is clearly out of shape — he admits to 248 pounds — but his legs are lean and his instincts remain acute.

        “If I walked into a gym anywhere in the world, I'd say he knows something,” said gym owner Terry O'Brien, pointing to Nate Tubbs. Then O'Brien turned toward the older brother.

        “But he knows a little bit more.”

        In a quiet corner behind the ring, Leola Tubbs watches her sons work. She regards this comeback attempt with the melancholy common among boxing mothers.

        “I wish Tony would hang up his gloves now,” she says. “I'd rather he be a trainer right now and sit back and relax while he's still got all of his marbles and all of his teeth.”

        Tony Tubbs insists his mother's fears are overstated. Though he has fought only once in five years — a 1997 knockout of Mario Melo — he remains relatively unscarred by his savage sport.

        “If I was beat all up, if I was slurring speech, if I had a lot of cuts, it would be different,” he said. “But it's not like that. When I first came back to the gym, I fought a kid named Zach. He had good hand speed. He did a (number) on me for two or three days. But then I was able to catch him. My hands came back.

        “Give me six months, and I'll fight anybody in the bottom five (of the top 10 contenders). Give me eight months, and anybody in the top five has got a problem.”

        At present, though, Tony Tubbs is a day-to-day proposition. Thursday night at the Shamrock Club, Tubbs said he had been free of drugs for 105 days; that his incarceration served to dry him out and renew his faith.

        “Tell Judge (Steven) Martin I appreciate everything he did for me,” Tubbs said. “If he had never given me the 90 days he gave me, I would never have found Jesus Christ.”

        Tony Tubbs can prove his sincerity in thrice-weekly drug tests during a three-year probation. He does not have to reclaim his title to be considered a champion. He need only conquer his own weaknesses.

        “What happened to him saved his life,” Leola Tubbs said. “Sometimes the Lord has to sit us down to get our attention.”



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