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Boxer Tony Suggs is fighting to let go of the past

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“You got to keep your head moving!” Tony Suggs yells at Little Anthony. Suggs watches, thick arms crossed against his chest, as his wiry son shadowboxes in the steamy gym. “Don’t stay stationary! Footwork is everything!”

Little Anthony’s hands are wrapped in yellow boxing tape. The 25-year-old’s eyes narrow as he ducks and weaves, each jab accompanied by an angry hiss of exhaled air and the bounce of his long dreads. Suggs thinks he isn’t listening.

“Come on! Get down on that right hand. Go through with it!”

Tony Suggs knows his son is a better boxer than he ever was. Little Anthony is quick, with “wicked” fast hands. He’s controlled where he, Suggs, was so out of control. Little Anthony Suggs could have it all, Suggs thinks: the Olympics, a pro boxing career, money, fame. All the things Suggs himself wanted so badly and came so close to getting.

That’s why Suggs, who for 15 years has worked detailing rich people’s luxury cars instead of driving one of his own, is pushing his son so hard tonight at Henderson Hall on the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, the one boxing gym in the area where Suggs is still welcome. If he can secure Little Anthony’s future, he thinks, perhaps that will lift the ache of his own past. “I burned so many bridges, I let so many people down, I feel indebted,” Suggs later explains. “So now I feel that is my job and my mission, to help someone else make it to the Olympics.”

It has been eight months since Suggs beat the bushes raising money for the plane tickets, hotel and entry fees to take Little Anthony to one of the big Olympic qualifying tournaments in Texas, only to have Little Anthony back out at the last minute. Little Anthony quit, as he has time and again since Suggs began to train him as a boy. Eight months since Suggs swore he’d never be here again at Henderson Hall, rearranging his schedule to accommodate his son’s, diving into training and getting his hopes up for a taste of the gold medal that eluded him. Yet here he is.

Still solid and muscled at 44, Suggs tells his son to use his full body weight when he throws his punches. “Get that shoulder back.” He thumps his son hard with his padded hand and nearly knocks him off his feet.

“Hook. One-two. One-two. Step, twist.” Suggs stops, disgusted. “You playing.” Henderson Hall’s 2010 July Justice tournament, which will reintroduce Little Anthony to the amateur boxing world, is just weeks away, and after so many months off, he is clearly out of shape. Suggs had even taken Little Anthony’s boxing gloves away and given them to Suggs’s younger son, who left them gathering dust on a shelf.

“You gotta be ready,” Suggs tells Little Anthony. “Suck it up. Suck it up. Suck it up.”

If Suggs were still welcome at the Alexandria Boxing Club, the place that was a second home to him and where he rose to a certain fame as a young man, he’d have Little Anthony sparring with someone his own size now. But because of strained relations, Suggs is not allowed to cross the threshold into the boxing gym, even though he’s in the same building every night working at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. Suggs teaches boxercise classes to mostly weight-conscious middle-aged women just down the hall.

Instead, Suggs tells Little Anthony to do 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and to jump rope. Little Anthony does 10 push-ups and stops. Five push-ups. Another five. Four. He flops on his back and stares at the ceiling.

Some who know Suggs well worry that he drives his son too hard. In his youth, Suggs was one fight from the Olympics. But it was the late 1980s. A new drug called crack had just hit the streets, and Tony Suggs fell fast and hard, becoming just one more lost soul in what some call a Lost Generation. “He didn’t have a chance to lose that fight. I think that’s what’s eating him up,” says Suggs’s longtime friend and training partner Jeff “Steady” Johnson. “He still wants to live his dream through his kids.”

Suggs, helping a novice boxer in the ring with his back to Little Anthony, doesn’t see him lying there. Suggs tells the beginner about Sonny Liston, the one-time world heavyweight champion.

The kid smiles, bashful. “Who?”

“You don’t know who Sonny Liston is?” Suggs asks incredulously. “What you doing here?”

“Oh,” the kid says between awkward punches, “my dad used to box.”

“So you doing this for your dad?” Suggs shakes his head.

“You got to do it for you.”

Little Anthony, still on his back, rolls his eyes.

***

For Tony Suggs, there will never be another year like 1987. He was 21. As an up-and-coming star of the Alexandria Boxing Club, he had been winning bigger and bigger amateur tournaments. That April, he won the silver medal at a National Golden Gloves tournament in Knoxville, Tenn. And on July 17, he burst onto the national scene with a surprise win in the semifinals of the Olympic Festival in Raleigh, N.C., over the No. 1 boxer in his lightweight class.

During the medal round four nights later, ESPN’s Al Bernstein cut into the regular Olympic Festival broadcast of gymnastics to show Suggs’s relentless body blows demolishing the finer polish of Patrick Byrd. “We’ve got a wild, brawling and brutal match going on here!” Suggs remembers Bernstein announcing. That night, Suggs won gold and became the top-ranked lightweight boxer in the United States.

Coaches began buzzing about Olympic gold. Not long after, Suggs was named the 1987 outstanding amateur boxer of the year by the Washington Area Boxing Hall of Fame.

He called himself Da Beast, a mark of both his viciousness in the ring and his roots in the ’hood. At 5-foot-7, he was short and, at 132 pounds, didn’t look imposing. Tony Suggs was painfully shy and quiet outside the ring, but inside it, he became a monster. “All I wanted to do was hurt somebody,” he says. “A lot of times, I would feel sorry for an opponent after a fight.”

In the four short years that he had been boxing at that point, he was becoming so feared, Suggs’s former coaches say, other boxers would try to go up or down a weight class just to avoid facing him. He fought matches in Sweden and Hungary. He so completely flattened Lyndon Walker, a top-ranked boxer, in a 1987 regional Golden Gloves tournament that Walker’s girlfriend ran screaming into the ring during the eight count. “I thought she was coming after me,” Suggs says. As an amateur, Suggs won 138 matches, 116 of which were knockouts. He lost only 12 times.

What nobody knew, what Suggs didn’t realize until it was too late, was that what made him such a good boxer was his rage. Rage that, when he was a child in Southeast Washington, the near-nightly fights between his mother and his father sometimes ended with a stabbing, broken bones or someone being rushed to the hospital. Rage that he was sexually abused by a babysitter. Rage at being abandoned in the family’s big white house in Dale City, where the family had moved, so pretty with its columns, large yard and nearby woods that Suggs once thought of it as a dream home.

When his parents split, his older half-brother was sent to relatives in South Carolina. His mother took his older half-sister and moved in with a friend two miles away. For two years, Suggs and his younger brother, Andre, lived in that big white house alone. Sometimes the lights, the heat, the water were cut off. Their father, William “The Man” Suggs,would show up now and then with food. Mostly, they went hungry.

Both of his parents are now dead. His mother he never forgave. “She lived a few miles down the road, and she never came to check on us,” Suggs says bitterly. His father he idolized. “He ran a lot in the streets with other women, but he was a real family man,” Suggs says. “I know that sounds like a contradiction.”

Suggs remembers that when he was 4, his uncle showed him a yellowed newspaper photo of his father in silk boxing trunks standing before an enormous trophy. He was too young to read the caption: “North Carolina State Penitentiary Boxing Champion.” But that photo is what made Tony Suggs want to be a boxer.

It would take Suggs years before he could see that he was angry with his father, too. Once they lost the big house and the boys moved into their father’s rowhouse in Alexandria, his father didn’t help him learn to read, something Suggs struggles with still, or tell him to do his homework. Instead, his father showed Suggs how to box and how to pack the baggies of dope he sold on the street.

Suggs married his girlfriend just out of high school and quickly had two children, Little Anthony and a girl named Ashley. When he trained, Suggs would go running past the big houses on Russell Road and Mansion Drive in Alexandria, dreaming of how boxing would take him up and out of his life.

“In 1986, I just had a vision that I was going to make the 1988 Olympics,” he says. “I felt like God was going to make it easier for me through my boxing career. So I could provide for my family. So they wouldn’t have to go through the things I went through as a child.”

That plan was first the 1988 Olympic gold medal in Seoul. Then big pro fights, TV, sponsorships, endorsements. Maybe even a shoe named for him. “He was on a road to glory,” says one of Suggs’s old coaches and managers, Troy Stone, now a used-car salesman at E-Z Ride Autos in Stafford. “He coulda been one of the best fighters in the United States. He wasn’t afraid of anything in the ring.” In Stone’s estimation, if all had gone according to plan, Suggs — and his entourage of sponsors, trainers and coaches — stood to earn millions.

But Suggs’s Olympic vision came when he was high as a kite. He had been doing drugs since high school, tantalized one night by the joints his father had him selling. Not two blocks from Suggs’s Alexandria rowhouse, in an area known as the Hole, dealers with pagers, gold chains, the newest Air Jordans, Gucci sweaters, fancy Acura Legendsor Mercedeses, wads of cash and fly girls had what so many people like Suggs wanted right then. Suggs watched as people sold their clothes, their jewelry, their bodies and their still-warm TV sets on the bustling drug strips. “It was that feeling, like you were king of the world,” Suggs says. “You just kept chasing that feeling.”

Some dealers wouldn’t sell to him. Naw, man, I ain’t givin’ you no drugs. You’re our Olympian, Suggs remembers Tracy Fells telling him. Fells was a onetime high school football standout who was later sentenced to 20 years in prison as a crack “kingpin.” Other dealers, however, had no such hesitation.

Stone, who paid for all of Suggs’s travel and training expenses, moved Suggs to rural Stafford for a time to get him away from the crack flooding Washington’s urban neighborhoods. Suggs found it there. As his addiction got worse, he would jog as many as six or seven miles a night from one drug strip to the next. In Alexandria, he ran from the Hole to the Dip to the Berg. Sometimes, Suggs would even fight strung out. “I just couldn’t understand it,” he says. “No matter what happened on the street, I was getting better and better in boxing.”

On a Saturday in late July 1987, four days after giving Patrick Byrd such a beating at the Olympic Festival, Suggs and his coaches were on a plane to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. All Suggs had to do was beat Byrd one more time on July 31 and he would be on his way to the Pan American Games in Indianapolis in August, a crucial steppingstone to the Olympics.

The next morning, Suggs’s cousin, who was stationed at nearby Fort Carson Army base, came to the training center to tell Suggs that his 7-month-old daughter, Ashley, had died in the night of SIDS.

Suggs went back to Alexandria for the funeral. “I was doing everything I could do to hold it together to make the ’88 Olympics,” Suggs says. “But when my daughter died, it was like I didn’t care no more. I wanted to get God back. I wanted to mess up my life.”

He never returned to Colorado, never fought Byrd again and never made it to the Pan Am Games. On Aug. 1, less than two weeks after reaching what would be the apex of his boxing career, Suggs was arrested on his first drug charge. Byrd went to the Pan Am Games in his place. There, the man Suggs had easily beaten took such a pounding by a Cuban fighter that one sportswriter likened it to a 50-0 blowout in football. One week later, on Aug. 26, Suggs was arrested again and given two years’ probation.

But he was so deeply in what he called “the world,” he had ceased caring. “It was like when you see a drowning person and you can’t help them. You simply stand there, helpless, and watch,” Suggs’s uncle Silas Dinkins says.

In January 1988, a friend found Suggs passed out on the porch of his father’s now-abandoned rowhouse on Manning Street, poured hot soup into him and got him to an Olympic qualifying match. Suggs, still tripping from a sleepless three-day crack binge, knocked out two opponents. He was one match away from getting a berth on the Olympic team. “I remember my coach telling me, ‘This is your last chance, man. If you mess up again, I’m not going to take you,’ ” Suggs recalls. “I messed up.”

In June, Suggs failed a drug test and was sentenced to one year for violating probation. When the Olympic medal rounds for lightweight boxing began at the Chamshil Students’ Gymnasium in Seoul in September 1988, Tony Suggs watched them from a cell in the Alexandria jail. “It mattered,” Suggs says. “But then, you know, it didn’t.”

When Suggs got out of jail for the last time in 1994, he tried to box as a professional. But his fire was gone. He won two minor light welterweight belts, then lost every other title match he fought. Suggs’s coach, Fred “Smitty” Smith, of the Alexandria Boxing Club and manager Troy Stone had stuck with him, until one night in Atlantic City. Stone noticed Suggs’s legs were gone by the third round. He was taking the kind of beating that only a has-been would take. Stone got up and walked out the door and out of Suggs’s life for more than a decade.

Twice, D.C. promoters put Suggs on the undercard for Fight Night, one of the biggest social and charitable events in Washington and a televised gig. Both times, he lost. Once, Sugar Ray Leonard’s people hired Suggs to be Leonard’s sparring partner for a couple of weeks and, impressed by the strength of his blows, looked at signing him. They decided to pass. “Tony was a big banger. And that’s something you can’t train for. You can’t teach natural power,” says J.D. Brown, Sugar Ray Leonard’s longtime adviser. “Tony coulda been a champ. But he never became the fighter he could have been. Two words: the streets.”

***

Tony Suggs spends a lot of his time thinking about salvation. On this fall day, he is at church, as he is every week, at Victory Temple Missionary Baptist Church just off Duke Street in Alexandria. Dressed in a snappy tan suit with a yellow shirt and tie, Suggs sits near the front with his 18-year-old son, Travon Porter. Suggs opens his well-worn Bible, struggles to read along with the congregation and carefully underlines the day’s Psalm with a yellow highlighter.

Suggs found the church when he finally got clean, was released from jail and a drug rehab program, and his first marriage had broken up. He is drawn, he says, to the stories of redemption. “I don’t think God allowed me to go through what I went through without a reason,” he says. “A lot of my friends died out on the streets. I’m still here.”

His father, William Suggs, died a crack addict. His older half-sister spent decades battling addiction. His younger brother, Andre, the boy he cared for when the two were abandoned as children, is serving a 30-year prison sentence for strangling to death a man on the bike path near National Airport in 2005 while tripping on PCP. A few days before church, Suggs ran into high school friends, all men now with gray in their temples, still searching for the next high.

Suggs loves the pastor, the Rev. Thomas A. Bailey, who is both a PhD zoologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and a man of the spirit. On this Sunday morning, as Bailey preaches about God’s grace when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, Suggs is thinking about saving his sons.

Little Anthony, the natural boxer, the boy who had a football scholarship to one college that he didn’t take, who lasted one semester at another before he came home to Alexandria to be near his friends, has stopped showing up at the gym. He missed the Henderson Hall July Justice tournament because he’d jammed his fist into a wall in frustration over a girl and broke his hand. He said he’d start training again for another Olympic qualifying match in the fall but hasn’t shown up for practice at Henderson Hall. Suggs fears that Travon, who has always lived with his mother, Suggs’s former girlfriend, has fallen in with a bad crowd.

Time and again, Suggs has told his boys his life story as a cautionary tale. He has told them to be better men than he was. Like others of their age, the boys have seen how crack destroyed so many in their parents’ generation. Instead, they’ve both gotten caught up in this generation’s drug of choice: the marijuana blunt. “I feel helpless,” Suggs will say later. “They’re like so many kids you see in the streets, hanging out, trying to be cool. They’ll wake up one day and see their lives were wasted.”

Tahkina Sellers, 20, Suggs’s daughter by another former girlfriend, is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University. He rarely sees her. For that, Sellers blames Suggs’s attachment to Ashley, the infant daughter whose death Suggs says sent him into a free fall. “I think he wanted me to be her,” Sellers said. “He could never see me.” Little Anthony has his dead sister’s name tattooed in red on his left inner forearm from the elbow to the wrist. “To remind me how different life would’ve been if she’d lived,” he explained.

After church, Suggs and Travon head to Great American Steak & Buffet on Richmond Highway, as they always do. They heap their plates with fried chicken and sweet potatoes smothered in brown sugar and melted marshmallows.

They start talking football. Travon, a senior, plays cornerback and linebacker for the T.C. Williams Titans. Suggs asks about one gifted player.

“Out on bond,” Travon says. “Underage drinking.”

Suggs asks about another.

“Didn’t make 2.0 GPA.”

Suggs rattles off a list of other talents.

“Not playing,” Travon answers.

“On the streets?” Suggs asks.

“Yeah.”

Suggs stiffens. And then, as it always does, the lecture begins.

About how Travon mumbles when he talks. How he’s impulsive and needs to think before he acts. That he’s no good at lying and that it’s time to stop hanging out in the streets. He needs a plan for the future. To talk to a college counselor.

“I’m lookin’ at the big picture, and you ain’t even seeing the next step,” Suggs says.

Travon, dressed in a baby blue collared shirt, his hair cropped close, leans forward and listens earnestly. He caught his first drug charge as a sophomore, when he cut geometry class to smoke weed with friends and police officers passing by saw smoke rising from the bushes. Travon takes periodic drug tests as part of his probation. He keeps failing them, which landed him in a shelter care program for a while. Little Anthony, too, has had weapons and drug charges, though they were later dropped.

“You think you slick, but you ain’t slick,” Suggs tells his son between mouthfuls. “I tell you this all the time, but you ain’t never listen.”

He tells Travon that he should think about the military — that he regrets to this day that he never joined the Marines’ exhibition boxing team when they asked him to.

“I heard they sending people out the country,” Travon protests.

“Man, you already in another country. I’d much rather you catch a bullet overseas, doing something that mean something, fighting for your country, than catch a bullet here because you stepped on someone shoes or looked at his girl funny. How you like that? ‘Travon died because he stepped on someone shoes.’ What a waste.”

Travon will say later that he wanted to tell his father that he gets lonely at night, alone in his mother’s apartment, that that’s why he goes out. He wanted to tell his father that he feels stuck and doesn’t know how to get unstuck. He wanted to tell his father that he does listen, but then he forgets. Instead, Travon says nothing.

“You lost, Travon,” Suggs says. “You don’t know what you want or where you going. There’s a place that’s full of lost people. It’s called jail.”

***

By the spring, after nearly a 10-month hiatus this time, Little Anthony had begun training again, first on his own and later with Suggs. In April, Suggs took him to a Golden Gloves tournament, where the 114-pound Little Anthony was beaten by a fighter six pounds lighter. He got a job cleaning Metro trains and quit boxing again. Travon, who sat out half the football season with a broken finger, had run away from home for a time. But he had just been released from probation, was set to graduate from high school and had been accepted into Northern Virginia Community College, though he hadn’t told his father any of that. And Suggs had become fixed on the notion that writing a book is now what will take him up and out of his life.

On a rare day off from his job detailing cars at First Choice Body Shop in Arlington, Tony Suggs hunches over a wide-ruled red spiral notebook in the quiet of the public library in Old Town Alexandria. He is holding the pen so tight his knuckles lighten as he writes. His spelling and his grammar are shameful, he says. Suggs has never read a single book in his life. But the one he’s writing is called “The Beast Within. Still the Champ.”

“Right now, my story is all I have,” Suggs says in the hush of the library.

Suggs’s friends have been pushing him to open his own boxing gym to recruit fighters other than his sons to fulfill his dream of training an Olympic boxer. But Suggs always finds some reason he can’t: He needs to work two jobs to pay child support or to stay out of trouble; he’s writing his book or busy trying to save others in his community from his fate. Suggs chairs the youth sports ministry for his church. He coaches late-night basketball at the Charles Houston Rec Center. He is surrogate father to his imprisoned brother’s six kids. Every month, he goes with his church to the Alexandria jail to tell his story. He gives a presentation he calls “Shattered Dreams” and has started Boys to Men at the rec center, teaching boys how to tie ties and set the table properly. How to be men.

Some worry that Suggs won’t move on because he can’t let 1987 and the “glory days” go. Dennis Porter was once Suggs’s corner man in the ring. Now, Porter, who heads the Alexandria Boxing Club, won’t let him through the door. “Let’s just say he ain’t the only one got ‘Shattered Dreams,’ ” Porter says. “I had shattered dreams. If he’d a made it, I’d a made it.”

LaShon Suggs, Suggs’s second wife, divorced him in 2008. She has known Suggs since he was 12. “He’s over the drugs, but he’s definitely not over the past,” she says. “He keeps saying he feels God has something better in store for him, but I don’t think he even knows what that is. I really think he thinks big things are going to happen with that book. But he keeps rewriting the same thing.”

The sun streams in through the big picture window in the library. Today, Suggs is writing about his father begging him for crack and how he couldn’t stand to see the man he looked up to so desperate. He writes about being so sick of his life that he pleaded with God to help him up and out of it.

Suggs writes for an hour. When he finishes for the day, he’s on Page 303, where it’s still 1992.

Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at schulteb@washpost.com. She previously wrote for the Magazine about women with ADHD and working mothers’ efforts to manage their time.

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