Simon Brown's 8x10 glossy is displayed on the wall at the Latin Connection gym, a picture of a scowling, twine-muscled welterweight with a couple of mule kicks for fists, hanging next to the peeling paint and another 8x10 of a former boxer serving life for shooting a Christmas tree salesman. "Shot him twice," trainer Jose (Pepe) Correa said, "so I guess he meant to kill him."
Past the overturned bucket, over a sagging floor and by the yellowing newspaper clippings, in walks a slip of a boy, an approximate 12-year-old wearing sweats too big and a shy, apple-fed smile. Simon Brown says "Hi" in a lovely sing-song voice strikingly reminiscent of Doris Day's, and Correa starts giggling. "Look at that nice face," Correa says fondly, "nobody's been near it."
The little guy, really 22, prances over to a chair and sits, so cute he ought to be in a window with a price tag, for he has the perfect, small-scale build of a Ken doll. But more than one opponent has been beguiled by his open, inviting visage only to discover that Brown's hands ought to be shod instead of gloved. Shawn O'Sullivan, the Canadian Olympic silver medalist, found out all about that three weeks ago when Brown stopped him in the third round, an upset before O'Sullivan's home crowd in Toronto.
The Correa-trained fighter from a basement gym on Columbia Road NW had scored a major victory in his first fight on national television (NBC's SportsWorld), and he did it with his idol, the reigning Washington-area fight legend, Sugar Ray Leonard, watching from O'Sullivan's corner. Leonard had helped train O'Sullivan, who was being groomed for a title shot.
"When I came back home it was like I won the WBC or WBA title," Brown said. "I went back to my old block and they were celebrating. They all knew I boxed. They just didn't know I was any good."
The end result is that Brown, ranked fifth by The Ring magazine and seventh by the International Boxing Federation with a record of 23-1, is for the first time garnering some widespread national attention, and in doing so bringing some much needed animation back to the Washington fight scene, which has languished since the retirement of Leonard. For like Leonard, to whom he is frequently compared locally, Brown is reputed to be an inordinately savvy young fighter with power. His only apparent shortcomings are some youthful impatience and an occasional foolhardy tendency that makes him do things like wreck motorcycles. In the meantime he is using his relatively new fame to seek a shot at Donald Curry's crown in the 147-pound class.
Correa is one of those who likens Brown to Leonard, and with good reason, for he found both in much the same way. Correa still treasures the memory of the day at his first gym, Palmer Park in Prince George's County, when another perfect doll of a young man walked into the ring and started clipping everybody about the face. It was Leonard, whom Correa has long referred to as "that scrawny kid who could punch like hell." Then there is Leonard himself, who thought he was looking in a mirror during the O'Sullivan fight.
"I think Simon Brown has power and speed, the ingredients to be a champion," Leonard said. "I saw him nullify O'Sullivan, who I expected to win that fight. He has championship potential . . . . He changes styles during a fight; sometimes he's the fighter, then the boxer. He has a very similar style to my style, that's why I'm so high on him."
The youngest of six children, Brown is a native Jamaican who moved to the District when he was 12 and still retains a slight island accent, combined with a smattering of street. As a fighter, he was born and bred in the Latin Connection, Correa's makeshift gym fashioned out of hemp rope, crumbling brick and exposed pipe in a shockingly small and grimy corner of a basement in the Calvary Methodist Church. His actual residence was a stickball swing away on Columbia Road, in a shabby neighborhood, and the only ambition he ever had was to be a professional athlete. He chose boxing because it seemed the most accommodating for someone 5 feet 9 and 148 pounds.
The resident neighborhood soul-saver was Correa, a lean knife of a man and former boxer from Puerto Rico who woke up one morning 20 years ago to find out he couldn't fight as well as he thought, and has a scarred nose to prove it. So he turned his attention to teaching young fighters and keeping them off the streets, Pat O'Brien style. Correa regards Brown with a combination of possessive affection and the regret that comes with watching someone inexorably grow up, for Brown was among his first Latin Connection fighters. He suddenly walked in at age 14, brought in by a friend named Poochy. He watched all the boxers crowded in the small room for a while, and said, "Lemme try."
"I didn't know nothing about boxing from home," Brown said. "I got here and all everybody talked about was Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. I walked in the gym and saw all the boxers, and I said, 'So that's what they do.' "
Brown did not immediately take to the new sport. Correa's workouts were three hours long, and not enjoyable. In addition, Brown had a thoroughly understandable aversion to being hit. Correa put him on the heavy bag, then took him to the speed bag, but when he tried to get Brown to spar, Brown shied away.
On days when he knew Correa would make him get in the ring, Brown put a white bandage around his knee and faked a limp. "I'm hurt," he said. On other days, when he just didn't want to work very hard, out would come the bandage again. "No, I didn't like it at all at first," he said. "It was too rough."
But Brown was curious about the technical aspects of boxing. He would call Correa at night and say, "Show me how to throw a punch."
"When he first came he was just doing it to see what boxing was about," Correa said. "He wasn't sincere. But he was interested in how to punch, he would ask all kinds of questions, and he was the only one who would call me at night.
"One day the bandage came off. That's when Simon Brown emerged. So I took him in the ring . . . One day he caught my attention with a couple of left hooks to the head. He was 132 pounds. And he stung me. That's when I knew he'd be somebody."
Two years later, in 1979, Brown had become so smooth he was nicknamed "Mantequilla," or, in Spanish, Butter. It was at that time that he met Maurice Blocker, a rangy, 6-foot welterweight who is currently the North American Boxing Federation champion. Then, Blocker was an equally frail teen-ager, nicknamed "Thin Man," with a still developing interest in boxing, who came to the Latin Connection mainly for its reputation of keeping kids out of trouble.
Blocker joined Brown in training and together they became the most regular members of the gym, going every day after school, sometimes starting at 5 p.m. and staying as late as midnight. Correa would pull up in his car after work at the Department of the Interior, and Brown and Blocker would be sitting on the steps of the church, next to the signs for another basement establishment, the Cafe Entrada. "Even soaking wet in the rain. Simon with his nose all snotty," Correa said.
The gym was then, and still is, lamentably short of both space and equipment. Sometimes the makeshift ring would fall down, and the fighters would go tumbling on the torn carpet, a tangle of arms and legs and fraying Everlast rope. The heavy bags were held together with masking tape, and the speed bag was filled by a beat-up bicycle pump, all of which frequently got stolen. One time Correa, who runs the gym on membership dues and out of his pocket, got a grant from the city and bought new equipment. It was taken two weeks later by a permanent floating cast of kid-thieves who punched holes in the pane glass door and let themselves in.
Brown and Blocker followed the signs posted in crude magic marker and cardboard above the ring, "Don't Quit" and "Everything You Touch Is Gold." They learned Correa's rules, no cursing, no playing, no fighting outside the ring, and learned his philosophy, "Boxing gets you to the point where you don't have to prove something to the world. That's why there's crime, because they think they've got to prove something." Every day, Correa would pull up and they'd be sitting there in the sweltering humidity, or with the rain running down their necks, and every day Correa would say the same thing: "Wipe your nose, kid."
But Brown and Blocker rarely sparred together, mainly because Correa was unwilling to break up the friendship. That remains true, although an exception came in Canada during preparation for the O'Sullivan bout. When Brown's sparring partner got cut and had to be sent home, Blocker stepped in.
"There's an old saying," Correa said. "It's like having two Rolls-Royces, so why bang them together? They've always been very close. But when they put the gloves on to spar, it's a war."
That raises the intriguing question of a someday match between Brown and Blocker. If both remain on their current paths, it's entirely possible. But it's a possibility Correa refuses to entertain.
"If it came to that I'd step out of the way," Correa said. "I couldn't be part of it. There are enough titles to go around, why be greedy?"
More immediately, there is a Curry fight to consider. Should Curry choose to defend, Brown probably would be his opponent. Although he has lacked attention, largely because he never fought outside Atlantic City until he went to Toronto, Brown has 17 knockouts in 24 pro fights. But Curry has been mercurial lately, struggling with his weight and sitting on his title, amid debate as to whether he will move to another division. If Curry returns, Brown feels he is ready to risk him.
But whether he is indeed ready for Curry is still questioned in some quarters. Brown suffered his first loss in November, to Marlon Starling in a bout for the USBA welterweight title.
"I was impressed by him in the O'Sullivan fight, but I thought it was a bad match. O'Sullivan was taking on too much," said Teddy Brennan, the longtime matchmaker for Madison Square Garden now with Top Rank, which represents Curry. "I wouldn't be as impressed if he was fighting Donald Curry, because I think he would be biting off more than he can chew."
Correa now says he and Brown were a little too respectful of the Starling fight. The new plan is to seek a Curry match first, then Starling for a rematch.
"Brown kayoes Curry, Brown kayoes Starling. That's how it will go," Correa said.