By Thomas Gerbasi
David Branch never laced up the gloves as a pro boxer, but he knows a little something about fighting as a mixed martial artist who has four UFC fights to his name as well as a nice winning streak going in the World Series of Fighting promotion. So when he sat down to talk to his older brother Sechew Powell about the fight game, the former junior middleweight title challenger listened.
“In the fight game,” said Branch, “there are two types of people. There are people who ride the line of comfort and there are people who ride the blade. The line of comfort is in your chair watching a man fight his heart out and you have the luxury to critique it and say what you see. But the blade was that man in the ring, underneath the hot lights, putting on an exhibition for all to see.”
Powell’s choice has always been an obvious one.
“I’ve made a decision to ride the blade,” he said. “This is my life and so I’m open to criticism and I understand that people are gonna have their opinions. I take it with a grain of salt and I don’t let it beat me up too much when people give a negative critique.”
Approaching his 35th birthday in June, Powell is making a comeback. Currently on a three-fight losing streak, and inactive since a June 2012 loss to Gabriel Rosado that put his record at 26-5, the Brooklyn native was scheduled to return in March, but a suitable opponent couldn’t be secured. Now hoping to be back this summer, and at welterweight no less, “The Iron Horse” is gearing up for the naysayers, doubters, and critics that will come out of the woodwork, probably around the time they read this sentence. And he’s ready for them, but should they be heard at all?
Should a fighter with all his faculties intact, with the willingness to work to get into fighting shape, and with a track record that doesn’t show him taking sustained punishment in any of his fights be the brunt of bad jokes and stupid comments? Maybe if you’re willing to hear the man’s story and his motivations, or maybe if you understood the fighter’s life, you would think twice. This is not to say that every 30-something who has been inactive for two years should be given a license to lace up the gloves again; but some should at least get the chance to do so in peace, with the support of those who cheered him when he was on top.
In Powell’s case, he got close, but was never quite able to win the big one. A technically sound boxer who was good at a lot of things but never great at one thing, the former amateur standout was put in his share of important fights over the years, but losses at inopportune times to Kassim Ouma and Deandre Latimore (later avenged) kept him out of the title picture until a three-fight winning streak nabbed him a shot at Cornelius Bundrage’s IBF junior middleweight title in June of 2011.
Food poisoning the night before the fight pretty much killed Powell’s chances of winning though, as he entered the bout weakened and far from ready to go, even weighing in two pounds lighter the morning of the fight than he did at the official weigh-in.
“That was the biggest blow to my career and why it spiraled in a negative way,” said Powell. “No discredit to Cornelius Bundrage. He’s a great person who turned his life around and has become a model athlete for people to look at, but he should have stopped me that night. I was that bad. I was just rolling the dice and hoping to see what would happen.”
It’s a fighter’s instinct, the idea that no matter what’s going on, I’ve got enough to get through this fight and win it. That wasn’t the case in Missouri that night, and two more losses to Cory Spinks and Gabriel Rosado removed him from the ranks of contenders. And while Powell never officially retired, he had things to tend to that were more important than matters involving boxing gloves.
“I had a son in January of last year, and I’ve been readjusting my priorities and thinking about what I really want in life,” he said. “So I took a little time out of the ring, and I had to get a few things straight as far as my personal life, and even some of the boxing stuff. I feel so much more situated today, I’m finally back in a better place and I’m just excited about the future.”
It’s a future that involves boxing again, though not for the usual reasons. Sure, the money would be nice, but when Powell tells you that it’s not all about that, you believe him.
“I’ve been to a place where that (the big payday) was more of a reality and I was going after it, but at this place right now, it’s more about the glory and the legacy, and finishing up with something I can be proud of.”
Can he do it though? The odds aren’t in his favor, but he makes a good point when he says that the things that brought him success in the first place aren’t necessarily things that get diminished by age.
“I still believe in my skill set, and fortunately for me, my biggest attribute in the ring was my skill set,” he said. “It wasn’t because I was a tremendous puncher or because I was lightning fast. It’s the skill set that I have that has carried me through the successes that I had, and because of that, I’m confident that I’ll come back.”
He’s working these days with trainer Kelly Richardson, and being around young fighters like Zachary Ochoa and Jarrel Miller not only have him working harder, but feeling that spark again.
“I can be honest about this now,” said Powell. “For a long period of my career, I relied mostly on talent. I worked hard enough to get in shape, but never really did that ball-breaking work. And now I’m realizing that it’s the only way that I’m gonna be able to keep up with these young guys, and I’ve been doing it.”
When he talks about boxing, you can hear the excitement in his voice, the same excitement he had all those years ago when his father sat by his side in a Manhattan restaurant as he was introduced to the media as one of Lou DiBella’s signees. A lot of time has passed since then, and even more since he first laced up the gloves 27 years ago. It’s why most people don’t understand how hard it is to walk away. Do something for nearly 30 years and then have someone tell you that you can’t do it anymore. Think that’s easy? But Powell describes it in even better terms.
“I’ve not found anything to match what it feels like to have your hand raised in the ring after a fight,” he said. “It’s the most exciting thing that I’ve ever done, and it gives me such a rush that I truly will have to figure out what I’m gonna do when this whole thing is over, because it’s gonna be done not too much longer from now.”
But for now he’s here, he’s in the gym, and he’s waiting for that phone call with a place, a date, and an opponent. And once that first one’s out of the way, he can dare to dream again – about getting the one thing every fighter who puts on the gloves has dreamed about, even if only for a moment.
A world championship.
“It would be such a validation to my life,” said Powell. “Even though it’s just a trophy or an object, to be in the archives as a world champion would really just soothe my heart and let me know that I have the ultimate glory to show for my hard work. It would mean so much to be able to show it to my son and say ‘look Kingston, I was the champ.’”