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Reggie Strickland aka. Reggie Buse
INDIANAPOLIS — His success is predicated on failure.
The professional loser in boxing is the sport's version of the Washington Generals, those laughable foils for the Harlem Globetrotters, or the Cincinnati Bengals, the NFL's sorriest franchise.
"Someone has to be the loyal opposition," said Fred Berns, a Midwest-based promoter. "Look at Northwestern and Indiana in the Big Ten. Without them, who would Michigan and Ohio State beat up on?"
Berns has worked closely over the years with a man who has taken the art of losing into a realm of disbelief and profit.
Reggie Strickland always has been about dependability. Carving a unique — if not infamous — boxing legacy, Strickland has traveled the back streets of America in vans and cars to earn a paycheck as the ultimate "opponent."
Now approaching 35, Strickland is the biggest loser in professional boxing history.
Strickland shows no signs of frequent beatings. He speaks eloquently. His face, accented by a pencil-thin mustache, barely has a nick or noticeable scar. But despite Strickland's fresh face and survival skills, the scorecards provide damning evidence against him. Now competing as a junior middleweight, Strickland has a 61-248-15 ring record, including a 3-10 mark this year.
"Every once in a while, a 100-1 horse wins," Berns said.
That's not Strickland's role.
In a largely unregulated industry with different sanctioning commissions in each state, the professional loser has manipulated the system by fighting under assumed names and crossing state borders for multiple fights in a span of days. Serious medical risk is rare because he will fight defensively and hang on, or drop to the canvas at the slightest flurry.
He embraces a role as a benign fighter who ensures that his opponent — usually the "house fighter" in boxing parlance — gets another notch to build up his resume.
And guys such as Strickland go home with more money.
"As long as I come out of the fight OK and I'm able to count my money when it's over, I'm fine," Strickland said. " I'm ahead of where I was before I got there."
His paydays range from $500 to $2,000. The most he has earned was $3,500. There have been a few flings with modest fame: HBO did a segment on him for Real Sports in December 2000. A book project with a publisher in Minnesota was started but fizzled. And an occasional journalist shows up in his hometown of Indianapolis to chronicle the ongoing saga of a man who hardly seems troubled by his profile as the sport's greatest underachiever.
Strickland has been banned in Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nevada wouldn't let him fight there if he applied for a boxing license. "From a standpoint of liability, if a person with one of these huge losing records were to get hurt, we have no defense for it," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing.
But in states such as Indiana, Strickland finds a comforting ally in what may be considered a victimless crime.
"If you don't have fighters like Donnie Pendelton [another journeyman] and Reggie Strickland, you wouldn't have club shows," said Jake Hall of the Indiana Boxing Commission. "Those guys come in and make fights entertaining enough so people buy tickets. Do I think he's going to win? No. Out of 45 times that I've seen him fight, I've maybe seen him win three where he really tried. And he can box, and he knows how to take care of himself. If he had started out when he was young with the right people, he could have been a champion, seriously."
He became a notorious curiosity instead, joining guys such as Milwaukee's Pendelton (13-151, 4 draws); Benji Singleton (25-90-4), from Charlotte, N.C.; and Danny Wofford (17-98-2), from Columbia, S.C., as the best of the worst.
The Strickland legacy is prominent in loser lore: Older brother Jerry retired from professional boxing with a 13-117 record, the third-worst in boxing history behind his brother and Pendelton.
Strickland turned pro in January 1987, harboring expectations of greatness only briefly. Hooked up with a manager who hustled for shows in different cities, Strickland soon learned that he couldn't beat the "house fighter" when he went on the road. Always enterprising, he found a way to work within the system without injury.
He began traveling the circuit that ran from Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Strickland would join about eight to 10 other boxers midweek, scramble into a van and tour the circuit as out-of-town fodder for club shows.
"God only knows how many times they fought on those trips," Berns said. "God only knows under what names."
There was Reginald Raglin (his real name), Reggie Buse and then Reggie Strickland. He could fight four or five times a week, switching names whenever he would get knocked out to circumvent mandatory 60-day suspensions following knockouts imposed by most state boxing commissions.
It was hardly pay-per-view with Larry Merchant, George Foreman and Jim Lampley doing the ringside blow-by-blow. Strickland has fought in auditoriums, bingo halls, state fairgrounds, any place with a standard ring and just enough metal fold-back chairs to turn a profit.
Strickland, using plenty of street smarts, always demands cash up front if the situation looks shaky. He remembers walking into a show in Arkansas and seeing about 25 people in the place. Strickland and another boxer had driven 14 hours to make the fight card.
"We got to get paid before we fight," Strickland said.
Strickland got crisp $100s and a $1,200 payday for himself and his friend. Everybody else got checks that bounced.
He knows what some people think, that his career is a sham. He is a disgrace to the sport. He doesn't care.
"People have over 300 amateur fights, and you can be dumb as a box of rocks after 10 fights," Strickland said. "I know my body. I know what it can take. When I fight, I think about my kids. This is for my kids, for my household."
Strickland is married with five children ranging in age from 14 to 10 (from a previous marriage). He rarely gets knocked out (avoiding those suspensions) and takes a cautious approach — both hands high protecting the head, stepping back when an opponent charges and slipping away for potentially dangerous flurries. He'll keep opponents off him with a crisp jab and throws an occasional power punch. He grabs. He runs. He hardly gets scratched. The last time he was knocked out was in October 1999, when Charles Brewer scored a TKO in the third round.
He's tried to wear the conventional clothes of a 9-to-5 man, but they never fit right. He worked eight months on a paint crew shortly before the terrorist attacks in September 2001 that scuttled pay raises for the state. He's worked at a restaurant as a cook, sold home security systems, peddled shoes and still does roofing "every once in a while, when it's not too high."
But still, boxing keeps calling him back. Strickland — now in the process of scaling back his itinerary to an occasional joust before expecting to retire in November — is using his knowledge to turn a profit by managing a handful of novice professionals. "I'm getting my $20,000-25,000 a year just by picking up a telephone," Strickland said. "I feel that's the greatest job in the world, just being able to pick up a phone and make two or three grand."
His fighters are gathered inside the Farm Bureau Building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds recently, where patrons driving onto the property have to be careful to avoid the cows along the roadway.
It's $15 general admission and $30 for a ringside table. An extra 10 bucks gets you a buffet of chicken tenders, meatballs, crackers, cheese, pretzels and a keg of Coors Light set up on a stage facing the ring.
It's the typical club show filled with four- and six-round fights among boxers fighting for $100 a round and 15 percent of ticket sales that they generate. There are no entourages, except for wives and girlfriends. Boxers show up with gym bags and friends or relatives holding spit buckets. The biggest celebrity in the house is a platinum blonde, middle-aged woman who used to do **** films.
One of the guys on the card is homeless. Another guy has to borrow shoes and a protective cup from another fighter.
Not surprisingly, a few guys are no-shows. Strickland, always the entrepreneurial improviser, agrees to fight a four-round exhibition to fill out the card. Older brother Jerry works the corner. It's a typical fight for Strickland, just enough action to keep the folks distracted from another run at the chicken tenders and meatballs.
"I don't really think he cares," Berns said. "He reminds me of the guy next door who has a driveway, and he's got a backboard out there. And everybody is out there shooting baskets. There's no winners, no losers, no one keeping score. 'I sank three 3-pointers today, and tomorrow I missed a layup.'
"He's perfected the art of the opponent."
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