By Thomas Hauser
On the morning of April 29, 2000, Michael Grant had a 31-and-0 record with 22 knockouts and was regarded by many (including the decision-makers at HBO) as the heir apparent to the heavyweight throne. His early opponents looked as though they’d been in a cement mixer when he finished with them. People marveled at his size, strength, stamina, and coordination. Some observers called him the best pure athlete ever to take up boxing and a prototype of the heavyweights who would reign in the new millennium.
That night, Grant was knocked down four times by Lennox Lewis in a bout that ended in the second round. Michael’s proponents noted that he‘d started boxing late in life and turned pro with only twelve amateur bouts to his credit. “Give him time,” they said. “He can still be a great fighter.”
But Bobby Miles, who worked with Don Turner in training Grant for the Lewis fight, sounded a cautionary note.
"The problem,” Miles said, “is that Michael doesn't really like boxing. It's just not something he likes to do; and he still thinks like an athlete, not a fighter. In most sports, there's a code of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. If you're a fighter, you have to approach each fight like a gladiator in the Roman Coliseum. You have to be mean. You're fighting for survival. Tyson, Duran, guys like that; they understand. All great fighters do. Ray Leonard might have smiled and said nice things, but in the ring he was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Right now, Michael just isn't mean enough."
Thirteen months after losing to Lewis, Grant returned to the ring and was stopped in one round when he broke his ankle in a freak occurrence after being knocked down by Jameel McCline. That was followed by seven consecutive knockout victories. Then, in 2003, Michael was knocked down four times by Dominick Guinn in a bout that was halted in the seventh round.
In the seven years following his loss to Guinn, Grant had eight fights. All of them were wins. None was against a legitimate top-forty fighter. On August 21st, Michael returned to the spotlight to fight Tomasz Adamek at The Prudential Center in Newark. His largest purse since losing to Guinn had been $25,000. For Adamek, he would be paid $75,000. More important, a victory would catapult him back to the bigtime.
Adamek was a 10-to-1 betting favorite. But those odds seemed long, given the fact that Grant is a well-conditioned 6-foot-7-inch 260-pound athlete, who has skills and would outweigh his opponent by 44 pounds.
“Everybody is talking about how he's slick,” Michael said several days before the fight. “I don't see no slickness. He's a very simple ABC-type guy. I don't see him getting beyond my jab. And if you're getting past my jab, you're in range of my right hand. Anytime they step one inch past that jab, it's the right hand that's coming.”
Still, Grant looked nervous in the dressing room before the fight; similar to the way he’d looked on the night he fought Lennox Lewis. A fighter can go into a fight thinking that (1) he will win; (2) he should win; or (3) he might find a way to pull it off. Michael appeared to be contemplating the third option.
Craig Hamilton co-managed Grant from 1995 through the loss to Guinn. They parted amicably at a time when Craig felt that Michael didn’t appreciate what was being done for him on the managerial end. Now Hamilton was in Michael’s dressing room to show support as a friend.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this fight,” Craig said as he left the dressing room and moved toward his seat at ringside. Michael is bigger than Adamek. He’s stronger than Adamek. He’s by far the better athlete. He might even be faster. And Adamek can be hit; he’s not Pernell Whitaker. If Michael uses his physical gifts, Adamek will be in trouble. But Michael won’t use his physical gifts because he doesn’t have the instincts of a fighter. Adamek is very tough mentally, and Michael isn’t.”
The Prudential Center was a sea of red and white, the colors of the Polish flag. Virtually all of the 10,972 fans in attendance were rooting for Adamek and cheered his every move.
Grant began the fight in a posture akin to survival mode. Adamek was in front of him and there to be hit. But it was jab . . . jab . . . jab . . .
Worse, it was a stay-away-from-me jab, not a hurting jab. And there was no right hand behind it.
In rounds three and four, it appeared as though Grant might be able to impose his size and strength on Adamek. He shook the smaller man each time he landed solidly. But Tomasz continued to outwork Michael and initiate the action.
More significantly, there are fighters who throw more punches with a broken hand than Grant did with his healthy right hand over the course of twelve rounds. Consciously or subconsciously, he seemed to be telling himself, “If I make this a firefight, Adamek will fire back. If I go all out, Adamek will go all out too. So why don’t I play it safe and reduce this to my jab against Tomasz’s flurries.”
By round eight, Grant had a tired cruiserweight in front of him, and Adamek was cut above the left eye. At that point, it was obvious to everyone in the arena except Michael that he should jump on Tomasz and try to manhandle him. Instead, he kept jabbing.
In the late rounds, it seemed as though Adamek was struggling to hang on physically and Grant was struggling to hold on mentally.
Finally, in round twelve, Michael came out hard. But it was too, little too late.
The judges scored the bout 118-110, 118-111, and 117-111 for Adamek. This observer had it 116-112. The bottom line was that Tomasz wanted it more and dug deeper. Grant was good enough to beat Adamek, but he didn’t seem to know it.
“It was a disappointing effort,” Hamilton said afterward. “But that’s Michael. This fight meant so much to him. He’s thirty-eight years old. He needs money. If he’d won, he would have been in line for a half-million-dollar payday in his next fight; maybe more. But he fought the way he always does. It’s not a question of courage. Every time in his career that Michael has been knocked down, he’s gotten back up. But he lacks confidence, and confidence is crucial to a fighter.”
“Michael had a fighter in front of him tonight who was scoring points but not really hurting him,” Hamilton continued. “He could have let go with his punches and given so much more than he gave. But his number-one priority is always to make sure he can get to the end of a fight. Pacing yourself is one thing, but a fighter has to open up from time to time. Michael is in survival mode from round one on. Then it’s round twelve and he knows he can get to the end of the fight, so he opens up. But it’s too late. What can I say? Michael wasn’t cut out to be a fighter. The fact that he got as far as he did in boxing is testament to what a great athlete he is. He could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the temperament of a fighter. But he doesn’t, and that’s that.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) was published last month by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”