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Editor's Note, June 29, 2012: The profile below of professional boxer Reggie Strickland was penned in December 2000 by Todd Tobias, who passed away this week. We offer this standout story as a tribute to a great writer.
The spotlight is shining on Reggie Strickland. It is large and bright and the color of an old lemon going bad. The heat is causing him to perspire profusely. He's used to it. The sweating, not the spotlight.
Like the cameras, microphones, monitors and the half dozen or so crew members scrambling frantically about, the spotlight belongs to HBO Real Sports. But for the next three days it will belong entirely to Strickland, hovering above him like a wayward star caught in the most unlikely of orbits. Strickland has a gift and he is about to share it with the world. Or, more specifically, with several million cable subscribers on a Real Sports feature scheduled to air December 6th.
Reggie Strickland has the gift of gab. But it's not his sheer verbosity that has the crew from HBO hanging on his every well-illuminated word. And it's certainly not why a few days earlier a pair of camera crews from ESPN were training their equally brilliant lights on him. No, like jackals on a lame zebra, some of sports media's biggest names have descended on Indianapolis, aimed at capturing not the gifts Strickland possesses -- but ones he doesn't. Reggie Strickland, you see, may be the worst professional boxer in the world today. Maybe of all time.
The Indianapolis pugilist has fought and lost more times than any professional fighter in the sport today. And probably more than any fighter in professional boxing's storied history. According to the 2000 edition of The Boxing Record Book, the telephone-book-sized register of professional boxing, Strickland boasts a record of 50 wins, 216 losses and 15 draws. To put that in perspective, consider that in a busy year, the typical professional boxer might compete in four or five bouts. Strickland once fought 13 times in one month. Since he has also boxed under the occasional pseudonym (Reggie Raglin, Reggie Buse), there are some, like Indianapolis fight promoter Fred Berns, who suspect that Strickland's career loss tally actually is closer to 250. Maybe more. Not that Reggie seems to care or that he'll give you a straight answer about his record or any other subject. Strickland talks like he fights: he's cagey; he's frequently defensive; and he gives you his full attention only when he feels like it.
This wasn't always the case.
A recent and now infamous profile in Gear magazine documented Strickland's unique approach to training for fights. He doesn't. When coupled with his dubious record, Strickland's regimen raised more than a few eyebrows. More incendiary was the implication that he would "take a dive" (deliberately throw a fight) if he were paid enough cash to do so. And perhaps most intriguing of all, is that he was quoted as saying in the presence of a reporter: "Time to go smoke me some dope."
Now that some of the national media's highest-profile sports authorities are here to listen to Reggie Strickland run the loose lips that landed him in so much hot water, he's abruptly taken to answering questions on his own terms. Which is to say, he's verbally bobbing and weaving.
Halfway through the HBO interview under way on the gym floor at Broad Ripple Martial Arts, producer Valerie Edelman gives her crew the signal to stop rolling tape. "Reggie, I want you to understand that Derek's not trying to antagonize you," she says, defending her reporter's pointed questions. Strickland's not buying it. Wearing a white T-shirt, blue sweatpants and lace-less black Nikes, the fighter is sitting literally toe to toe in an armchair across from HBO correspondent Derek McGinty. Strickland stares McGinty straight in the eye and says, "You're sinister. I know about you D.C. guys. Sinister." He wipes sweat from his surprisingly unblemished brow. He's fuming in more ways than one.
For three days, I've been listening to Strickland field an endless procession of media queries, including the questions I have been asking him myself. With each interview, he grows more and more contentious and less and less loquacious.
Reggie Strickland is more than a prolific loser; he's the quintessential modern-day celebrity, more notable for his notoriety, than for anything he has accomplished. At 32, Reggie Strickland's just started his moment in the spotlight.
Cameramen, sound guys and reporters swarm the Farm Bureau Building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, lending a somewhat glamorous, if slightly incongruous, presence to an otherwise unspectacular venue. Like most of the media personnel in attendance this evening, I've been following Strickland as he moves from one spot in the building to another. Indiana Boxing commissioner Jacob Hall says there are more cameras here tonight than at a recent nationally televised fight at Conseco Fieldhouse. Reggie takes his shirt off: a flurry of flashes and lights ensue. Reggie hugs his mother: same result. On and on. Back and forth. The effect is one giant conga line with the world's greatest loser leading the way.
But before long, Strickland slips away from the national press to take care of his other job. He and I jump into the red Plymouth Voyager that belongs to his longtime friend, photographer Scott Romer. With Reggie all to myself, I pose standard questions (does he have any predictions for tonight's fight?, etc.) when it occurs to me to ask the obvious: "Where are we going?"
"We're going to find a fighter," Strickland says.
Somewhere near "Dodge City," the near-northside community once known for its high proliferation of fatal gunfights, Strickland jumps out of the van and heads to a nearby house. He's wearing a white T-shirt that says "God's got my back."
Romer says the routine in which Strickland is now engaged is his standard practice. He doesn't just fight, he signs up other fighters. "He's a hustler" are Romer's exact words. Take for example, the night Strickland was on the road for a fight and noticed a vacancy on the evening's bill of professional women fighters. "Reggie gives this broad he just met a five minute lesson on how to box," says Romer. "She's never fought a day in her life. He tells her she'll be fine if she keeps her hands up. So he not only collects a $50 fee for saving the match, he gets paid for working her corner and wrapping her hands with tape he stole from another fighter. But when she steps in the ring, it's clear from the size of her opponent that she's not going to survive. So Reggie tells her to go out there and after about 30 seconds to pretend like she's lost a contact. She doesn't wear any. They stop the fight and everybody's looking for a contact that never even existed. They pay her for her time and Reggie splits money with her."
Reggie returns wearing a broad smile, says simply two words: "Bling, bling," and we're off again, in search of an AWOL boxer. As we pull down a busy street bustling with young hip-hoppers wearing suspicious looks, Romer remarks, "This is lovely Reggie. Just lovely."
A burly teenager with a face like a pit bull makes his way toward Romer's window. God may have his back, but Reggie assures us he has ours. "You ain't got nothing to worry about," he says. "He starts to mess with us and I'll pull out a gun."
"Hey man, you all seen Corey?" says Strickland. "He used to live right up there."
"Little Corey?" says Pit Bull. "My little sweet pea brother? He your cousin?"
"No, he box fore," says Strickland. "You seen him?"
Recognizing the earning potential Strickland poses, Pit Bull has suddenly become an eager terrier. "Hey! Hey! What's up man! I'm trying to box. I swear to God. I will make money. I'm serious." While one of the onlookers has gone into a nearby home to track down the still-missing Corey, Strickland takes down the names, weights, and telephone numbers of a few potential prospects among the crowd on the street. He's recruiting.
When he finally shows up, Corey is not what most people would expect a professional boxer to look like. He's got a cherubicien and a quiet disposition and is no bigger than minute -- which is fitting, for that's about as long as he will last in the ring later tonight. As we make our way back to the State Fairgrounds, Strickland seems content. He will make an additional $50 for delivering Corey, and even more later for serving as his new recruits' "coach."
"What advice will you offer Corey tonight?" I ask.
Says Strickland: "I'll tell him when he sees the punches coming ... duck."
What they don't seem to comprehend, these media folks, is that it's all about the money. It's a business, plain and simple. That's what Fred Berns, Strickland's promoter, would like the press to understand about professional boxing. "Every sport has an opponent, a guy or a team that shows up, is competitive and helps to fill seats, but in the end is mostly there to serve a function: to give up-and-coming talent a good contest," says Berns. "That's why I use Reggie. I know he will show up. And every once in a while he surprises you and actually wins."
But is simply "showing up" enough? If a fighter is only placed in the ring to serve a function -- to lose -- couldn't that be construed as a form of taking a dive? Of fixing the sport? Indiana Boxing commissioner Jacob Hall says it's not that simple. "Are the fights fixed? No, I can't say that," says Hall. "Does Reggie try hard enough to win? Sometimes it doesn't appear like it toe. You can look at his record and maybe you think certain things, but in the end Reggie fights hard enough to make it look entertaining. That's why most states allow him to fight."
Strickland admits that he doesn't always give it his all-out best when he's in the ring -- especially on the road -because, well, why should he bother? "I've been in fights where I've been announced the winner and five minutes later the judges will say, `No, no, no, we made a mistake,' and award the decision to the hometown guy. It's not that I don't try hard, it's just that I've been doing this so long and I get into a mode where I go into a fighter's hometown and I know the hometown judges are going to rule against me," he says. "So I just do enough to survive and keep from getting hurt. That's how boxing is run. It's all a bunch of political riffraff."
Maybe he is an occasional victim of hometown favoritism, but it certainly doesn't help his case that Strickland's on-the-road fight face is often not even pointed in the direction of his opponent. Kentucky Boxing Commissioner Jack Kerns says he once watched Strickland spend an entire fight looking for his girlfriend in the audience while trying to dodge his opponent's blows. Strickland corroborates this when I ask him what he thinks about in the ring. "Sometimes I'm not thinking about anything. Sometimes I'm just thinking about where I'm going to go after the fight is over. Or trying to figure out where my girl is sitting. Boxers get motivated in their own ways. I'm motivated to make more money. Whether I win or lose, that's up to the judges, that's not up to me. My thing is to try to do the best I can. If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose. I don't care. As long as I'm OK after the fight is over and I can collect my paycheck ... I'm happy."
Still, I have to ask: "Would you ever take a dive?"
His answer is succinct. "Why would I? C'mon. Look at my record."
"Would you smoke pot on ESPN?" That's the question ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz poses to Strickland on a set of bleachers near the Indianapolis apartment of the fighter's mother a few days before his marquee bout at the State Fairgrounds. It's a variation of the question I ask him earlier that day, only now that the cameras are rolling, Strickland is back to bobbing and weaving -- talking in circles. "No. Because that's none of your all's business. "What I do in my personal life is my personal life," he says while exhaling smoke from a small cigar, his fifth this hour. Strickland contends that in the Gear photo, he's not smoking what appears to resemble marijuana cigarette, but in fact a Garcia y Vega cigar. And to emphasize the point, he's taken to chain-smoking the things. While camera men change tape, Strickland asks each person in ESPN entourage to give him 10 dollars. "You got to show me the love," he says.
Earlier in the day, sitting in Fred Bern's office, Strickland said that, yes, he has smoked pot at some unspecified time in the past, and that, yes, his friends were partaking while the Gear reporter was in town, but he adamantly denies he is guilty of any wrongdoing. He thinks it's all a bunch of raging bull.
"What would you say to the Gear reporter if he were here right now?" I ask.
"I'd slap his face," says Strickland.
Fred Berns, whom Strickland calls his one true "father figure," interrupts him, "No you wouldn't. Reggie is the most nonviolent guy I know. Unless he's getting paid to be violent."
There are two Reggie Stricklands fighting their way through this world. There's the one you see when the camera is rolling, and occasionally when he is being interviewed on audio tape -- the guy who's all bravado and swagger. And there's the Reggie Strickland you see when there're no media around.
It's easy to come up with labels -losingest boxer who never trains and may or may not smoke pot. But Strickland turns out to be far more complex. For a guy who's been hit in the head as often as he has, he's practically a Mensa candidate. What's more, there's nary a scar on his face. In his 300-plus professional fights, he's never been knocked unconscious or seriously injured.
The widely read Gear article portrayed Strickland as a hard-partying, no-training, prolifically-losing womanizer. That depiction is more or less dead on. But what that profile failed to capture is that he's also a churchgoer ("I'm a firm believer in the most Highs will because he don't put more on you than you can handle."), advocate for children and father of five ("What I would really like to do when I'm done boxing is help children in need because they don't ask to be here.") and doting son of his mother Helen Goodson ("Don't be talking about smoking no pot around my mother.").
Strickland has a way of growing on you. Just about everyone he meets in the boxing business, from promoters to commissioners to referees, even other fighters, attests that the real reason the fighter continues to maintain a career is that y like having the guy around. Says Romer, "He owes me all kinds of money. If it was anybody other than Reggie, I wouldn't put up with it."
Strickland's just a guy trying to make an honest living. For him, this career is not a means to an end, it's the end that provides the means.
The spotlight is shining on Reggie Strickland. He's weighing in for tonight's fight. Nearby, his mother is reflecting on her son's career. Wearing a smart cream blazer, with black heels, Helen Goodson does not look like the type of woman you'd expect to find at a boxing match. She looks more like the type of woman you'd expect to find singing in the church choir (or in her case, playing drums in her church's choir). On her thin graying hair rests a black skullcap emblazoned with the HBO Sports logo. Perched atop her nose is a pair of rose-colored glasses. When you ask her how she feels about Reggie's career, like her son, she talks openly about the importance of faith. Then she offers this: "I always tell my children it's not what you do, it's how you do it. Whatever you do in life, be the best that you can be."
Strickland is on the move. He's working the crowd. A small cheer of "Reg-gie, Reg-gie" begins to rumble throughout the venue as he makes his way past the ring and toward his locker room. Along the way, he stops to pose for a few Polaroids which Romer distributes for $10 a pop. The boxer signs the photos with Reggie Strickland 175 lb. State Champ. True, it turns out. Briefly last year, Strickland actually held a title. He actually trained. And he actually won. Fred Berns says the boxer was so proud of his belt, he didn't take it off for a month. There are some, like former boxing referee George DeFabis, who say they suspect that if Strickland wanted it badly enough, he could be a contender. "I always say that if Reggie were to train hard and fight for a winner-take-all purse, he would win," says DeFabis.
In the locker room, Strickland's got his fight face on. It's impressive. With Snoop Dogg blaring on a boom box, he begins to tape his hands. It's an effortless act. He uses his lips to hold the tape in place. It's like he's giving a little kiss to each successive wrap as the tape circles his wrists. Strickland pulls on his baggy sequined trunks. On his upper arm is a tattoo of Jesus on the cross. Before long, he's up and shadow boxing. For one moment, it's easy to forger about his record: he's got the determination of a young Sonny Liston; the charisma of Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime; hell, he might as well be Ali. But then you consider all the losses and those of his opponent Donnie Pennelton. (Earlier, when I ask Pennelton's manager about his fighter's career he says simply, "Man, after 100 losses you stop keeping count.")
Strickland's brother Jerry arrives to lead his fighter into the ring. Jerry will be working his brother's corner. He's no stranger to losing himself. He's 47 years old and retired from boxing earlier this year. There are some who say he may be the second-losingest boxer in the history of the sport, right behind his brother. Donnie Pennelton is probably No. 3.
As the crowd of 600 or so onlookers seated in folding chairs at tables around the ring avail themselves of nachos and barbecue sandwiches and beers, the atmosphere in the room, as the Stricklands make their way toward the stage, is relaxed and casual. The fans don't seem to realize they are here to watch an act of violence. It's more like the atmosphere of a school carnival; people are laughing and cheering and stuffing their faces. Then, almost as if by cue, every eye in the house is trained on Reggie Strickland as he climbs into the ring.
The thing that's most surprising as the fighters begin to square off is that these guys hit really hard. They are, after all, professionals --even if they are statistically two of the all-time worst. Their gloves make loud thwocks when they connect with flesh. Strickland is the first to land a solid blow. For the first five rounds of this six-round bout, Strickland lands the majority of solid punches -- although the fight is pretty dose. Then, five seconds into the final round, Pennelton catches him off guard and Strickland goes down like a weighted mannequin. He seems dazed, but he manages to make it to his feet before the referee counts to 10. Strickland spends the remainder of the final round evading Pennelton's punches and frequently tying him up. The crowd begins to jeer. Then, as quickly as it began, the fight is over. In the eyes of many sitting ringside, the decision is too close to call. But not for the judges. Their decision is unanimous; Reggie Strickland lost again.
The loser makes his way over to a garbage can near the ring and begins pulling the tape off his hands. The cameras are rolling. "Did you feel like the judges called a fair fight?" I ask. 'Im not a sore loser," Strickland says. "I'm used to all the political riffraff, but he wasn't doing nothing until the final round."
Reggie's brother Jerry disagrees. "He lost! I'm keeping it real. He lost and I'm pissed at him. His jab would have won the fight but he didn't throw the jab. Case closed with me." But not with everyone. Out of nowhere, a man walks up and introduces himself as George Reedy, a former referee. He says he has something to tell the assembled media horde. "Hey, Reggie. You won the fight. I've been a ref for 27 years and you got robbed," he says. "There were more punches thrown by Reggie. I reffed one fight here before, and Reggie cleaned the guy's clock, but they gave it to the other guy. I'm not the judge so they must be seeing something I don't."
So is Reggie Strickland a victim of, in his words, "political riffraff," as the former referee suggests, or a victim of his own lack of effort, as his brother sees it? It's a split decision. But in the end, for Strickland, it's a question that is meaningless.
Later, in the locker room, when the cameras are long gone, I ask him where he's headed. "Man, I might just go home and get some sleep. I got a fight next week in Omaha." After all, Reggie Strickland is a professional boxer. Lose or win, he's doing his job.
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article originally appeared in the December 2000 issue.
>> MORE: Read Todd Tobias's amusing take on the process of balding, "A Hair to Remember."
>> MORE: Read Todd Tobias's write-up on a young Peyton Manning, "Viewpoint: Peyton Manning."
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