"This ain't much of an apartment, is it?" Riddick Bowe said, surveying the one-bedroom tenement in the back of a complex labeled, "Health Services and Elders."
A few blocks away, workers were putting 2-by-12s in place, constructing a boxing ring on the Citizen of Potawatomi Nation's sacred Powwow grounds, so that a man some say should not be fighting could begin his comeback at age 37.
His former manager does not want to see him hurt. Others point to medical evidence of brain damage. His new manager said that was just a ruse to get Bowe a reduced sentence at his trial for abducting his wife and children six years ago. Same with Terri Bowe, his second wife and, as of Thursday, his new promoter.
"I just got to turn this paperwork into the commission and it's all set," she said.
It was late Thursday night, and the former heavyweight champion of the world was readying for his first fight in eight years. His opponent Saturday was Marcus Rhode, a man who had been knocked out in three of his past four fights. Bowe scored four knockdowns before stopping Rhode (29-26-1) at 2 minutes 45 seconds of the second round. Bowe (41-1) came into the ring at an announced 253; his opponent weighed in at 273, but Bowe looked the heavier of the two.
The fight took place before a crowd of about 2,500, who huddled in a dry outdoor field a few hundred yards from a single-story casino with video slots and a bingo hall. The bingo hall is where a small marquee spelled out Bowe's name in black, stenciled letters -- like a grade school advertises a weekend carnival.
Thursday night, on the eve of the weigh-in, Terri poked through a small box of Kentucky Fried Chicken and tried to clear the dwelling of a fishy smell from a two-day old filet. A non-descript heavyweight fight was about to start on television. The cream-and-crimson satin robe and matching oversized Everlast trunks Bowe would wear for his fight rested on the back of the couch.
"You think I'm brain damaged?" Bowe asked. "Am I slurring? Do me a favor. Tell them I'm fine. Tell them don't worry about Dorothy Bowe's boy. Worry about who he's fighting."
The Next Ali
Big Daddy, they called him. The next Muhammad Ali, "that's who they thought I'd be," Bowe said. In his prime, he was glib and he could glide, deftly using both hands to incapacitate men his size (6 feet 5) and larger. He knocked out 28 of his first 31 opponents. At age 25, he defeated Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight title.
Bowe won on points in that memorable 1992 fight, which featured a furious 10th round in which both fighters traded haymakers for the full three minutes. Most ring observers, many of whom witnessed the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy, rank that round as the greatest in heavyweight history. It is at once the most compelling argument for the sport -- two unbowed fighters, refusing to go down -- and concrete evidence for those who wish to abolish it. Bowe and Holyfield, in the first of their three fights, absorbed many damaging blows to the head.
Bowe would get hit more the next four years, and he retired after his second fight with bruising Polish heavyweight Andrew Golota in 1996. Golota was disqualified twice for low blows in their fights, but it was Bowe, weighing a career-high 252 pounds, who suffered almost 300 power punches to the head in the rematch. He won all but one of his 42 fights (one was ruled a no-contest), but he could no longer react in time to an incoming barrage.
Two months after the second Golota fight, he joined the Marine Corps, lasting only 11 days in boot camp before he quit. His marriage fell apart several months later. His former wife, Judy, took the children to North Carolina. And one sad, desperate day, Bowe hatched a plan to get them back. He coaxed Judy and their five children into a truck out in front of their home in February 1998 and eventually pled guilty to interstate domestic violence and, after a lengthy appeals process, served 15 months at the Cumberland (Md.) Federal Correctional Institute, where he was released from last April.
And now he is here, a few hundred yards from a bingo hall, on an Indian reservation in the middle of the Oklahoma plains, starting over.
"I heard they were beginning to construct a few bleachers, like a junior high school out in a dusty field, behind a bingo hall," said Rock Newman, Bowe's former manager and confidant, in a telephone interview last week. "Juxtapose that with eating dinner with Nelson Mandela in South Africa or having an audience with the Pope at the Vatican in 1993. He was grand marshal of the Macy's Day Parade, a regular on 'The Tonight Show.' Now, Bowe is fighting in a desolate, barren field somewhere? When I heard that, I could not have been more sad."
Bowe is heavier than he's ever been before a fight. Organizers said he weighed in at 253, but Bowe asked to do so privately. Split ends from his loosely woven cornrows and a deep crease in the middle of his forehead give him the features of a more weathered, older man than 37. But he peels off the years with charm, telling you he's going to be the "champ-een of the world" again, knock out all comers.
The sorry state of boxing's most glamorous and gluttonous division is still the allure. Bowe envisions himself the modern-day George Foreman, coming back to reclaim his crown.
"Do I feel I can win it?" he said, incredulously responding to a question. "Do I feel? I know I can win the heavyweight championship. You think I'm runnin' and going to the gym because I don't think I can do it? No, you got the game twisted. First and foremost, I knew I could do it, I want to do it and I'm going to do it."
He plans to fight more than a dozen times the next 18 months so that he won't have time to pick up weight between fights. He said he got up to 330 pounds in prison.
Through his new manager, Jimmy Adams, Bowe applied for a Tennessee license in December but was denied, according to Robert Gowan, the assistant commissioner for the Division of Regulatory Boards in Tennessee, which oversees boxing.
"It was denied because he could not come before us while still in prison," Gowan said in a telephone interview on Friday. "Jimmy Adams called after that and we told him that we would not consider an application unless we got transcripts from Riddick Bowe's sentencing hearing."
The transcripts were roughly 250 pages long and included several experts testifying to a frontal-lobe brain injury suffered by Bowe during his career. (Bowe said the testimony was a defense ploy used to reduce his sentencing.)
"Given what we found, we would have been hard-pressed to defend ourselves in giving him a license," Gowan said, adding that Adams did not pursue a license after the commission raised questions about the transcripts.
Marc Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said Bowe's representatives inquired about a Nevada license but no formal application was made.
"I'm not sure how a fighter gets cleared on an Indian reservation commission in Oklahoma, but I would assume the process would be less stringent than ours," Ratner said in a telephone interview.
Bowe has passed MRI and neurological exams requested by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's three-person boxing commission. The commission is so new -- Bowe's fight is only the fourth card held here -- that it is not listed among member commissions on the Association of Boxing Commission's Web site.
"His explanation was that his defense lawyer was using that as a way to reduce the sentence," said John A. Barrett Jr., the tribal chairman of the Citizen of Potawatomi Nation. "But we were a little suspect about that, so that's why we ordered all the medical tests done."
Barrett said Bowe underwent a thorough neurological exam at an Oklahoma City hospital unaffiliated with the reservation.
"If my husband was unhealthy and not fit to perform in a boxing ring, I would be doing all I could to keep him out of that ring," Terri Bowe said, her voice rising. "He loves himself. He loves life."
"He even jokes with me now," she said. "Bowe told me, 'If I'm on life support, keep me on there as long as you can.' "
Like most involved with Saturday's promotion, commission members concede that after all the tests are passed the decision to swap punches with 250-pound-plus men is up to the fighter, not them.
"When you get hit in the head, you don't recover from that," Bowe said. "That stays with you, I know that. But from speaking with me, give me your assessment. You tell me. Am I brain damaged?"
When Bowe is told a reporter is not qualified to make such a judgment, he persists. Finally, he is told that he seemed more lucid 12 years ago, that he was not quite slurring now, but the words sometimes were inaudible.
"So I'm a little older," Bowe said. "Keep in mind, I just got through training. I'm tired, too."
"Let me explain something to you," he said. "Don't worry about me. Worry about the next man. If you see me in a fight, don't help me. Pour honey on me and then help the bear. Don't worry about me. I'm Dorothy Bowe's baby boy. I'm going to be all right."
"Why didn't you write that down, man?" Bowe is told the interview is on tape. "Okay. I just want to make sure. 'Cause that sounded good."
Next door to Bowe's apartment is that of Adams, the new manager. Adams is a Tennessean with a twang and a notorious reputation. His own state does not currently license him. Before Friday, in fact, Adams was not licensed as a manager in any state. He said he planned to give the Oklahoma Athletic Commission his paperwork at the weigh-in.
Adams broke a national record in 1997, putting on 47 fight cards every Tuesday night at Nashville's Music City Mix Factory. Oliver McCall, Tony Tucker and Greg Page were three of the bigger names on those cards.
But some of those loosely regulated fights also came to represent boxing's underbelly. Homeless-shelter caretakers complained that men from the Music City Mix Factory were offering $200 for homeless men to fill out the undercards.
"If anybody was homeless, I'm not aware of it," Adams said. "I'm not the matchmaker. It's the commission's job to find out who a fighter is, not mine."
Adams also managed McCall during his second fight with Lennox Lewis in 1997, in which McCall broke down and cried in his corner, refused referee's instructions, let Lewis hit him and was encouraged to seek psychological evaluation after the fight. "I don't forget my fighters," Adams said. Indeed, McCall was scheduled to be on Saturday night's card in his own comeback. He got out of prison four weeks ago after serving time for a parole violation.
"A lot of people in boxing don't like me," Adams says. "You say my name, they say, 'That's Don King's man.' But it ain't like that. Don's been a good friend. I would never jeopardize a fighter's health to make money off him.
"Besides," Adams says, "Bowe loves himself too much."
A Big Cat
A caravan drives over to the weigh-in area, housed in a freshly painted recreation center next to the powwow grounds. The other fighters and their sparse entourages begin arriving. Bowe is asked to step on the scale first. He declines, then quickly puts one foot on, sidesteps the apparatus and declares, "250."
Commission members politely asked him to properly weigh in, but Bowe waves them off. It turns into an embarrassing moment, and Adams finally requests a private weigh-in, which the commission agrees to. When asked on Thursday night, Bowe said he was close to "245 or 250." But he appeared to be deluding himself by about 30 pounds.
"I'm a big cat," Bowe said. "I'm 6-5. I'm not worried about weight. Nobody's coming to see a weight fight. They're coming to see the Big Dog fight."
Sensitive and gullible to a fault, Bowe seems genuinely hurt by Newman's assertions that he should not be fighting. Newman orchestrated his four-year rise from unwanted young heavyweight to the marquee name in the game.
"Why is he so against me in fighting?" Bowe said. "I haven't seen the man in five, six years. He doesn't know how I speak, how I sound."
Newman, who now lives in Las Vegas where he oversees a publicly traded online commerce company, said he respects Bowe's right to fight again, "even if I find it wrong and dangerous."
"But what he senses is a betrayal is my honesty," Newman said. "It was about seeing his reflexes go, about not being able to get out of the way of bombs. When you see that, you got a choice to reveal it and speak it or not. My heart is with him, but I cannot compromise what I believe."
Bowe's worth is estimated at more than $20 million, his savings from nearly $80 million worth of purses. He owns six homes, two in Fort Washington and four in Georgia, where he purchased houses for his mother and his siblings.
Unlike so many former champions who overcame their environment only to lose their money and return to the neighborhood as broke as the day they left, Bowe beat the system. He was not Mike Tyson, who grew up in the same rugged Brownsville section of Brooklyn as Bowe and who now is bankrupt, fighting to keep creditors away.
Why go back to boxing, the cruelest of professions?
"This is what I was born to do," he said. "I miss the cameras. I miss talking to you guys. This is what gives me life, this is what makes me happy. So to tell me to stop fighting is telling me to die. I died eight years ago. Now, I'm coming back to life."