Rock, around the clock a day in the life of Roderick ‘Rock’ Newman, the boxing promoter who was in Marion Barry’s corner when he was on the ropes. And who now may be one of Washington’s biggest heavyweights.

Roll, Rock, roll. Out his driveway in his white Rolls-Royce Corniche IV convertible, Rock Newman cruises past the million-dollar mansions of Foxhall (one of which is his), over to the half-million-dollar town houses of Chatsworth (one of which is his), and on through the District of Columbia, through nine neighborhoods rich and poor, waving and greeting, nodding and saluting like beloved royalty.

Rolling down 14th Street NW, accepting the accolades, Rock might as well be mayor. He gets a better response. Fists pump high, thumbs shoot up, and most remarkable of all, Rock seems to know someone on every block.

“Hey, Darryl!” he calls across six lanes of traffic. “I know your sister,” he responds to a man waving from a corner. “Hey, brother, got those boxes for me yet?” he asks the garbage collector hauling cans from senators’ driveways in Foxhall.

An astonishing number of people in town feel enough kinship to Rock Newman that they approach him in the street to ask for work, cadge a five-spot, cheer him on, ask after his wife, or leave it at a simple “Hey, Rock!” The man need only stop at a red light and a crowd gathers. He steps over to a pay phone and a line forms to the right, 14 guys waiting to pay their respects.

And then there are those for whom Newman is tabula rasa. Perhaps you’ve seen the name -- boxing promoter, savior of Riddick Bowe, the fighter Newman nurtured back from Olympic disappointment to the heavyweight championship. Or perhaps you saw the Santa-shaped, bearded man on TV, doling out cash -- $250,000 in one day -- to any and all who turned over guns to be melted down. Possibly you recall when Rock stormed into the ring at the D.C. Convention Center and heaved over the ropes a man who he felt had dissed his fighter; this would be remarkable enough if the offending individual had been a sportswriter or the opposing manager or the referee, but the act achieved mythic proportions because 5-foot-8 Rock Newman had flung over the ropes his fighter’s heavyweight opponent.

That was Rock standing beside Marion Barry at his primary election victory party last month. That was Rock directing the band when to stop playing, leading the crowd in cheers and chants. When Barry was indicted, when all around the disgraced mayor were leaping out of camera range, Rock stood by his side. Rock was the one who invited Barry, post-prison, out to Las Vegas to spend time on the fight scene. Rock was the guy who urged Barry to mount his remarkable rally for redemption. And it was Rock who masterminded the Election Day coup in which hundreds of homeless men were plied with sandwiches and given rides to the polling places.

By his own estimate, Rock pumped $50,000 into the Barry election campaign (the legal limit on direct contributions is $100, but PACs can give anything, and the pro-Barry Washington Business PAC is Rock’s baby). Rock is a member of the prayerful foursome that believes a God-force will help lift Washington out of its spiritual and social morass -- Newman, the Barrys, and the Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington.

Rock, eager to revive his troubled city, will have the ear of a future Mayor Barry.

Rock, 42, is a rich, big guy these days. He’s a mandatory invite at a small private dinner for Nelson Mandela. He’s a guest at the White House. He gets an audience with the pope.

Rock likes that.

It’s evidence of a kind of success beyond mansions and Mercedeses. By lavishing care on friends and strangers alike, Rock has climbed from poverty to a particularly hip kind of power. It’s got more substance than mere celebrity, even if it lacks the authority of the learned and the wise. You work hard for it, but not in conventional ways. Ultimately, it is less about what you do than how people perceive you. Marilyn had this quality, and Capone, and Warhol and Elvis. The people who have it tend to be called by one name. Rock has it.

Rock’s got the requisite Ego Wall at home, at the stairwell landing that opens onto the indoor pool and the weight room. Here’s Rock with Bill Clinton, Rock with Riddick, Rock with Mandela, Rock with Louis Farrakhan. But the biggest memento is the plaque from Marion Barry, to “Our Rock, Love, Your Friend and Brother.”

Catching the Fallen

The fallen mayor sat in his basement, silent, morose, humiliated.

“This will pass,” Rock said, once, twice, a thousand times. “It can be all right again.” A doubting Marion Barry, still in shock over his arrest for smoking crack, didn’t want to talk about it.

Newman knew Barry only peripherally before 1990. But Newman had been close to Cora Wilds -- the future Mrs. Barry -- for about 15 years, ever since a girlfriend of Rock’s baby-sat for Cora’s kids. Over the years, Newman had played surrogate father to Cora’s children. She knew his ferocious loyalty firsthand.

Back in 1987, when Wilds admitted double-billing travel expenses and resigned as chairman of the D.C. Boxing Commission, she paged Newman in Atlantic City. “I said to him I had to resign and he didn’t even ask why,” Mrs. Barry recalls. “He just said, ‘We won’t let you fall. We will wrap arms around you and hold you up.’ Unconditional love, unconditional support, at my lowest. You will never know what that meant to me.”

“When friends abandon a friend, it’s sickening,” Newman says. He has made a life of catching the fallen, holding the hurting.

Long before he collected his gold Rolex and his millions (one-third of Bowe’s $20 million-plus heavyweight fight prize money), Newman busied himself picking up people who needed someone.

Driving up to Howard University, where he went to school and later worked for five years as a dorm counselor, Newman is, of course, on the phone. HBO Sports head Seth Abraham, a couple of lawyers, three friends, a radio station manager and a Howard dean, all in the time it takes to cruise from Seventh and T up Georgia Avenue to the campus.

Rock is here to help a friend, Carla Hollis, a young woman he met at Bowe’s Lake Tahoe training camp a few years back. Hollis turned out to be a Howard dropout. Within hours, Newman persuaded her to go back to school. Now, he was dropping in to smooth her reentry, see if he could line up some financial aid for her.

“Rock gave me the money to get back here, he set me up with the dean for housing and registration, he guided me through the system,” says Hollis, 20. “He saved my soul.”

“That’s how Rock gets his rush,” says Tamara Wilds, a 19-year-old Occidental College student who is Cora’s daughter and one of several young people Newman calls almost daily for progress reports on their lives. “More than from boxing, more than anything he’s ever done for work. Especially when he doesn’t get anything concrete back in return, Rock gets a lot out of these relationships. It’s a very powerful feeling. That person is linked to Rock, and not in servitude. You can’t repay him. You just let him know you love him.”

Newman was never a looker. He’s a stocky, balding fellow with reddish brown hair, striking blue eyes and the kind of gut that takes well to patting. But Rock is an extraordinary talker and -- rare combination -- a good listener too.

“He’s a magnet,” says Glenn Harris, the Newschannel 8 sportscaster who has been buddies with Newman since their days at Howard. “He can talk anyone into anything. Back when we had nothing, I’d see him line up a limo for a date, just by sweet-talking someone. He was a big fan of Gladys Knight, he wrote her a letter and damn if she didn’t call him back, on the job.”

The first time Demetria Victor, model and college student, ever heard Rock Newman’s voice was when her phone rang and a man greeted her with these words: “I’m going to marry you.” He had seen her picture in a magazine. Six years later, they wed.

“Some people collect stamps,” Mrs. Barry says. “Rock collects people.”

After the arrest at the Vista Hotel, Cora asked for Newman’s help. Rock burst into Barry’s life like a summer storm sweeping across a tropical island. Rock was everywhere: He spent long hours in Barry’s basement, just being there. Newman took Barry, then-wife Effi and son Christopher up to the Catskills, where Rock had set up training camp for Bowe. Newman took Barry everywhere, to fights in Vegas, to his mother’s house in Brandywine, in southern Prince George’s County.

Rock kept talking up the ex-mayor’s future. “This is not the end,” he would tell Barry. “You’re going to run again, and I’m going to be your campaign manager.”

As Rock remembers, Barry simply wasn’t ready: “He was always like, ‘I ain’t running. Can’t do it.’ “

Newman says he never even considered whether Barry had broken the compact between politician and public. Newman saw Barry not as an elected official who had betrayed those who believed in him, but as a hurting man, a brother in need.

The two men had late-night strategy sessions about the trial and Barry’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Before long, Newman began to plant the seeds for a political comeback. “Cora wouldn’t even listen to it,” Newman says. “I’d say, ‘The city needs you,’ and Cora would hang up on me, take Marion away.”

“In a difficult time, you don’t need people to beat you up, you need them to help you up,” says Barry. “I decided in 1990 to turn my lifestyle around, to save my life. The greatest force on my side was the God-force, but it was Cora, Rock and Reverend Wilson who accepted my collect calls from prison. They were there. Rock kept me strong.”

“Rock is a member of our family and a member of the family was in trouble,” says Cora Masters Barry. “There are people God puts on this Earth to touch a lot of people. Rock is one of those.”

If Newman played a crucial role in persuading Barry to run for mayor again, his role in the primary campaign was less well defined. Newman casually throws around the term “campaign manager,” but both Barrys say Rock was an unofficial adviser who provided more spiritual support than substantive direction.

“He’s not a politician,” Cora Masters Barry says. “Most of the time he was in training camp.”

But Newman seemed to be everywhere in the final weeks of the campaign. He drove Barry from appearance to appearance. He hand-delivered radio spots to WHUR and other stations where Newman had connections (Rock spent several years as host of a sports talk show on WOL). On Election Day, Newman says, he stopped in at 30 precincts. Several homeless men who appeared at the victory night party after a long day of driving voters to the polls said they had been recruited and fed by Newman.

On Election Day, the Barry campaign’s remarkable get-out-the-vote effort was helped considerably by the sudden appearance of a fleet of new cars and vans. Three drivers who worked that day said the cars were provided by Newman.

“Don’t know,” he says. “I don’t have all the details on that. It was part of a multifaceted effort.” Rock Newman chuckles mischievously.

“This stuff about money on the street is ridiculous,” says Marion Barry, without being asked about anything of the kind. “Rock might have spent $20, $25 on sandwiches that day, that’s all. Rock’s number one role is personal. Let’s hang out for a while, how’re you doing. And he helped with our ads. We didn’t have any high-priced ad agency. We just sat around, a few of us, and came up with it.”

After the November vote, assuming Barry wins, Newman won’t hold any office, but will remain a crucial friend, Barry says. “Rock knows the sentiment of the streets,” he says. “If he hears something, he’ll call and offer some words. He’ll say so-and-so needs some input on something, and so we’ll listen, we’ll talk.”

Car Care The Rolls glides across U Street while Rock carries on a seamless phone patter, with his assistant Kim back at the office, shooting him important calls and dumping others. At Seventh and Florida NW, Newman pulls into a tiny alleyway where Jonathan Jones and Earl Wilbanks run J L Car Care. J and L, sitting in their car, hop to when their best customer drops in for the semiweekly scrubbing of his whitewalls.

Immediately, scraggly guys from several blocks around converge on the pay phone where Newman has set up shop. From houses, alleys, street corners, they form a semicircle around Newman, who turns to face them. His fat diamond ring and gold chain necklace sparkle in the sun as he talks to a series of lawyers and promoters: “We have to get $600,000 on that,” and “No, no, no, one hundred thou expenses above half a million,” and “Make it two two-room suites for 10 days.”

Newman’s audience does not wait for an opening. “I could clean your car,” offers Wallace Linton, who also volunteers his services as a boxer.

“I could be your servant,” says Robert Dockery, an unemployed man just out of the Occoquan correctional facility.

Newman takes Dockery aside and hands him a fiver. And he’s off again.

Newman loves public recognition. He even boasts that by driving around town in “the white car,” as he calls it, he’s giving the less fortunate “a ray of hope of being able to get from there the right way.”

Newman’s business these days is to set up Bowe’s next two fights. Newman is immensely proud that he has made serious enemies of boxing’s big three promoters, Don King, Bob Arum and Dan Duva. Far from sucking up to the sport’s terrifying triumvirate, Rock has gone out of the way to publicly slam their ethics, denouncing them in the press, calling them an unholy cartel. Predictably, they are not shy on the topic of Rock Newman.

“Rock has managed to alienate just about everybody in boxing, even people who are sworn enemies of each other,” says Arum. “He knew goddamn well he was alienating people. He’s a damn hypocrite, with his holier-than-thou approach. People in boxing generally make no bones about their goals: to make money and advance their fighter. Not Rock. Hypocrite. If he came to me to fight one of my champions, I would lean over backwards not to deal with him. I wouldn’t give him the sweat off my back.”

Newman loves it. He says he’s in boxing only to prove that the sports establishment was wrong about Bowe and to make Bowe an ocean of cash. That done, he says he will quit the game.

“They don’t want to have to deal with me, but they do,” Newman says. But at the moment, he is on the phone several hours a day maneuvering to force King and Duva to put one of their top fighters up against Bowe in a prelude to Mike Tyson’s release from prison.

“Boxing has taken a toll on Rock, spiritually,” says Jeff Fried, a Washington lawyer who recruited a bunch of lawyers, bankers and doctors to put up $500,000 to invest in Newman and Bowe. When Newman bought out the syndicate less than two years after he took Bowe as a fighter, the investors took profits of more than 200 percent. “The ethics of most people in boxing is terrible. It’s not easy for someone with scruples.”

All boxing bluster aside, there is another reason Newman stays in the game. It is the same reason his company is called Spencer Productions. Rock’s father, Spencer Newman, loved boxing. His hero was Jersey Joe Walcott. The elder Newman died before Rock became big in the ring game, before Rock could bring Walcott home to Brandywine to meet his mother.

Rock was 21 when his daddy died. It was by far the most devastating event in his life. “It’s the one thing I couldn’t change,” he says, and after placing 56 phone calls in 5 1/2 hours, Newman is, for a few moments anyway, quiet.

Smartest Child When Sarah Gertrude Newman was 45, her doctor told her she likely was pregnant. Impossible, she said. When she returned for her next visit, he confirmed it.

“I almost cried my head off,” Gertie Newman recalls. Seven kids was enough.

The doctor tried to reassure her. “This baby will be your smartest child,” he said. “A baby born on the change of life is the smartest of all.”

“He was right,” Rock’s mother says 43 years later. “All my children are good, but Roderick is extra.”

There’s a new blacktop driveway outside. Roderick Eugene Newman put it in. Heaters and air conditioning, furniture, a porch, siding, a regular check for living expenses -- all from Rock. He tried to buy his mother a new house, but she refused to move, preferring the flimsy four-room bungalow she knows as home.

Rock grew up poor. He used an outhouse until he was 15. His father was an alcoholic, and most of his siblings were so much older that they were out of the house during his childhood.

But from the start, Rock was a willful, cocky kid. He decided when he was 8 that he would never take a drink. He says he never has. In sixth grade, he was the only one in his class who favored Cassius Clay over Sonny Liston. (That’s the first time he remembers thinking that other people’s opinions weren’t worth squat.)

And for his entire childhood, Newman was the only kid in class who had what he calls a front-row seat on America’s racism. The notion that Rock Newman can be called “black” is a choice proof of the folly of America’s race dilemma. A genealogist would pore over Newman’s family tree and give up -- mulattoes and Indians, whites and blacks, some of everything.

But society decided the Newmans were black. And it never occurred to Rock Newman to shy away from his racial identity. Not even close.

At Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Newman was a baseball phenom, a fierce line-drive hitter. He was also a scrappy fighter with a passion for loyalty and a penchant for extracting justice.

In eighth grade, just before the first game of the baseball season, Rock discovered that his cap was too small. He couldn’t get a bigger hat, but he could get smaller hair. His uncle had always cut his hair in the past, but Rock needed quick action. He walked to the local barber shop at lunchtime and got a haircut.

Only after he inquired after Rock’s name and where he lived did the barber figure out that Rock was not white. “At that moment, he took that straight razor and put it on my throat and said, ‘Nigger, if you ever come in here again, I’m going to use this razor on you.’

“That was a mistake,” Newman says, his lips tightening even a quarter of a century later. “That place was three sides glass, until we got done with it.” A week after the incident, the barber shop was in ruins. The owner rebuilt, and Newman and friends attacked again.

“We took care of business,” Newman says proudly.

Over the years, Newman says, he has seen more racism than most darker-skinned blacks. He says whites unwittingly let him in on their private slurs and jokes. Newman does not stand quietly by.

That’s not his nature.

Last year, Newman was fined $35,000 by the Nevada Athletic Commission and sentenced to a $1,000 fine and 10 hours of temper-control counseling by a Las Vegas court for punching out an Associated Press photographer after Bowe’s victory over Evander Holyfield.

In 1991, Newman was fined $2,000 by the D.C. Boxing Commission for another, more outrageous outburst, in which he lunged at fighter Elijah Tillery at the Washington Convention Center, flipping the boxer out of the ring after Tillery had kicked Bowe.

“It will never happen again,” a chagrined Newman said then. He said similar things after the Vegas incident. And he’d say the same kind of thing today if boxing officials asked him about his temper.

But catch him over lunch on a fine fall day and Rock has a different take on those outbursts.

“The best that I am lies within my loyalty,” he says, spinning as fast as he can. “I worked so hard that day, selling tickets, setting up seats. I had so much pride bringing that fight to Washington; important people were there. And then Tillery kicked my fighter in the groin. This was a horror to me. My only thrust was to separate them and end the fight.”

But Newman did more. He kicked, punched and upended a professional fighter.

“Yeah,” he says. “Hey, it got us about $2 million worth of publicity.”

A while later, Newman is talking about his new-found spirituality. How do those attacks fit in?

“My real nature, fostered in the country, is getting along,” he says. “Because of this vicious business and my brushes with racism, I’ve had to develop a toughness I’d really rather not use. I’ve never been one to go along with authority just to go along.”

The Rev. Wilson works with Newman now on “anger management,” Cora Barry says.

Newman says he’s ashamed by his outbursts. But he is proud of what he calls his “defiance,” a quality that has a good deal to do with being black in America.

Just raise the topic of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader whose fiery antisemitic rhetoric has helped turn him into a racial divider, and Newman bristles. The presence of Nation of Islam members in the Barry campaign has been taken by some as a sign that the former mayor’s rhetoric of inclusion may be only skin-deep.

“We are all glad we got support from every group, including the Nation of Islam,” Newman says. “There was no official relationship, but if there was a relationship, so what? I have a photo of Minister Farrakhan on my wall. That means I have a respect for him and the good work he has done, and I don’t allow anybody to influence my opinion of him. He’s my brother, and I see him through my eyes, not through the slant of the media.

“Here’s where we may well get controversial. I do not believe Farrakhan is anti-Jewish. He can speak for two hours in an inclusive way and I hear it interpreted as Jew-hating, white-hating rhetoric. Some of the criticism he has for white America and for Jewish America is true. There was unfair bondage by slum landlords who were Jewish. The truth hurts.”

From Farrakhan, Newman glides into a discussion of Washington’s white voters, the ones who spurned Barry so profoundly that Newman believes they have disrespected his friend.

Newman, like Barry, sounds alternately conciliatory and antagonistic toward Washington’s white voters. Newman says he advised Barry to lay it on the line for the white electorate.

“Marion did all he could to request their support, and they gave him the finger,” Newman says. “Okay, {Barry’s} ‘Get over it’ comment may have been offensive to some white folks. He meant, ‘Get over it and let’s move on.’ But there seems to be such a hardened mind-set in Ward 3. Once you try to demonstrate your goodwill, people have to meet you halfway. Marion’s already gone beyond halfway. If the hard-core white folks don’t come around, that’s not Marion’s fault. That’s their fault and they have to live with it.”

Spiritual Awakening

At the end of nine hours of rolling around town -- final tally, 81 phone calls -- Newman steers the Corniche IV back into his Foxhall driveway. He surveys the splendor of his surroundings, and says, quite earnestly, “Man, I don’t take any of this too seriously.”

In 1980, when Newman was a young counselor at Howard, he and Dick Gregory, the comedian turned political activist, were approached by Iranian diplomats looking for a way to pressure the U.S. government in the tug of war over the American hostages in Tehran. Newman ended up spending three weeks in Iran as a guest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

One day, he visited the shah’s palace and sat in the deposed ruler’s bed. It would be years before Newman found fame or fortune, but the visit -- and its lesson about the evanescence of power -- stayed with him.

Money comes and goes. So does fame. Watching any boxer proves that point.

Now, as he reaches middle age, Rock Newman has found something larger. Newman, like the Barrys, believes he is in the vanguard of a revolution, a spiritual awakening that can lift black America from the sorrow and anguish of racism and poverty.

“It sounds esoteric and cosmic, but you must understand that Reverend Wilson, Cora, Marion and myself have developed a sense of spirituality that says miracles can and will happen, if you be the right way,” Newman says. “This team believes in that power.”

Demetria Newman believes so strongly in her husband that she thinks he was chosen by a higher power. But that does not prevent her from reminding him of something she said long ago.

“I told Rock way back when, ‘I don’t want to be married to an athlete, a politician or a minister,’ “ Mrs. Newman says. These days, she says, he sometimes acts like a combination of all three.

 
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