Boxing: Homeboy in a honeymoon hotel: Riddick Bowe, who escaped from a Brooklyn slum, defends the world heavyweight title this week. Richard Williams went back to Bowe's roots, and watched him training in an out-of-season resort

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THE CAB DRIVER hasn't been here before, and nothing he sees now tells him he's been missing anything. All the way from JFK into the heart of Brooklyn, along Belt Parkway, up Pennsylvania Avenue, down Flatlands Avenue and into Rockaway Parkway, he's been getting twitchy. And the steel gateway of 250 Lott Avenue in Brownsville is definitely not somewhere to linger.

As he holds open the passenger door, his eyes scan the horizon like a man expecting Injuns. But the only act of aggression comes from a middle-aged lady in a cerise fake-fur coat and an early-model Diana Ross wig, who turns her back and slowly raises the middle finger of her right hand as she enters the gate, holding it aloft in a withering rebuke to the sightseers.

250 Lott is a big, dark, red-brick housing project, occupying a whole block of Brownsville. Even in the sunlight of a quiet January afternoon, it's a bleak sight. This is the building where, while he was growing up, Riddick Bowe says he heard the noise of gunfire on a daily basis. Every other floor, people say, housed a crack den. This is the district that moulded him, and moulded Mike Tyson too. It's from where, using the same route but very different styles, they made their escape.

Dorothy Bowe, 60 years old and disinclined to gush about one of her six sons and seven daughters, even the one who happens to be the heavyweight champion of the world, says that Riddick was an average little boy. 'He was kind of spoilt as a baby, being the next to youngest.' When he showed a liking for pugilism, she tried to discourage him. 'I wouldn't sign the form that gave him permission to box at school. So his sister Priscilla slipped in and signed my name to it. He was about 12.' Eventually Dorothy Bowe was persuaded to see her son box in a Golden Gloves contest at Madison Square Garden. 'I didn't like it. Still don't'

The greatest encouragement came from his school, PS 218 on Fountain Avenue, where one teacher, Lydia Hill, took a particular interest in him. 'Riddick was 14 or 15,' she said last week. 'He had behavioural difficulties. He was very hyper, very disruptive. He needed attention. I knew he wanted to be a boxer - he was always imitating Muhammad Ali - so I started buying boxing magazines and taking them to school for him. It helped with his reading, and it kept him motivated. I liked him a great deal. He became very determined, very focused. Now I use him as an example for my students of what can be achieved, given motivation.'

As it turns out, Riddick Bowe's interest in boxing has a source. Somewhat reluctantly, as Dorothy Bowe talked about being brought to New York from Georgia as a small child, she revealed that she had a brother, James Williams, who boxed as a pro.

'He fought one of them Rocky guys,' she said airily.

Which one? Marciano? Graziano?

'Yes, one of them boys.'

In fact, the records show that on 13 October 1943 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, middleweight Jimmy Williams was knocked out by Rocky Graziano in the second round of a non-title fight. Jimmy died four years ago, just as his nephew was starting a pro career that would scale the ultimate peak.

Riddick's father also didn't live to see the points victory over Evander Holyfield that was widely felt to have restored a measure of credibility to the big-time fight game. William Bowe had died a few months earlier, aged 74. A chauffeur and window-cleaner, he left his wife while Riddick was in childhood, but he remained in the district, and watched his sixth son grow up into a 6ft 5in, 230lb contender.

Mrs Bowe now lives in Fort Washington, Maryland, in what the real-estate people call a 'mini-mansion', bought for her by the boy who shared her poverty but says proudly that she never sent him to bed hungry. Bowe, now 25, is building his own mansion not far away, for his wife Judy, son Riddick Jr, and daughters Riddisha and Brenda. He plans to be around for a while.

A HUNDRED MILES north of Lott Avenue, Bowe is preparing for another payday. On Saturday he'll collect dollars 7m for the first defence of his WBO and IBF titles, against Michael Dokes - who, when he steps out of the ring at Madison Square Garden, will himself become dollars 750,000 richer for facing the fists of the man who could dominate the division for years to come.

Bowe and his entourage have been encamped for the last three weeks in the mountains of north-western Pennsylvania, at a honeymoon hotel called Caesars Brookdale on the Lake. Some of the rooms have bathtubs shaped like champagne glasses. The do-not-disturb notice announces: 'We're Still in Bed.' Out of season, though, the mood is hard to sustain. In fact, as a flight of geese drifts across the pewter sky and a winter wind agitates the frozen leaves, this could be the final scene from Godfather II. A thin snow dusts the ice- covered lake. Around the shoreline, between copses of pines and silver birch, stand wooden bungalows, their car ports empty. All it lacks is a greying Al Pacino, wrapped up in Michael Corleone's tailored overcoat and his dark meditations on fate.

Such, too, are the thoughts of 40-year-old Eugene Roderick Newman as he lies on his stomach on the emperor-size bed, his reflection in the ceiling mirror showing him almost engulfed in a sea of fax messages. Rock Newman, who has the spoiled-cherub look of the young Orson Welles, and some of the rhetoric to go with it, is thinking about the destiny he has shared with Riddick Bowe since he began to direct the heavyweight's affairs four years ago.

'I feel a sense of . . . well, divine intervention in all we've done over the last few years,' he's saying. 'If you look at it, we started with the least and ended up with the most. I'm not so arrogant or egotistical as to believe that there weren't sources beyond that didn't assist in this process.' And he stumps across the room to check the fax.

They've been here, 100 miles north of Manhattan, for three weeks, and Newman's rumpled denims look as though he didn't bother to bring a change. Apart from the ocean of faxes, just about the only signs of personality in the suite are two books on the desk: the Bible and the Koran. 'No, I'm not a Muslim,' says a man whose teenage passion for Muhammad Ali got him into both student activism and boxing. 'Although through the years I have thought that if I embraced one particular religion, it might be Islam.'

What Rock Newman placed his faith in was Riddick Bowe - unshaken by failure against Lennox Lewis in the Seoul Olympics in 1988. 'He was taking tremendous criticism. Everyone said he was lazy, he lacked motivation, he lacked character, he lacked heart. It was amazing to me, because he had clearly won the first round against Lewis, and despite what the growing myth is now, Lennox did not knock him out. It was a terrible decision on the referee's part to stop the fight.' So when Newman's own boss, Butch Lewis, passed up the chance to manage Bowe, he saw his opening, and made the famous prediction that his client would be world champion by 21 September 1992.

Since then, by his own account, they have represented a challenge to the established order. The dumping of the World Boxing Council title belt in a rubbish bin the other week (because Bowe had been ordered by the WBC to defend against Lewis) symbolised their contempt for that body and all its works - not that it added much for the sport's precarious dignity. 'I agree,' Newman responded. 'But there was a choice to be made. To write letters of concern and make pleas for justice falls on deaf ears with these people. I never characterised it as a dignified move, but it was an effective one. It sent a message that there's a new kid on the block who's willing to go it alone.'

His intransigence extends to a complete refusal to do any more business with the WBC, underlined when I asked him how far away Bowe was from a meeting with Lewis, who is now wearing the discarded WBC belt.

'It could be as close as the third fight,' Newman said, 'and as far away as never. Certainly we'll never give the WBC the privilege of being associated with a real heavyweight champion again, as long as we have anything to do with it. Before Lennox would ever have the opportunity to be the heavyweight champion, he would have to renounce the WBC title. So who knows?'

Meanwhile, might they give us a break and stop calling each other 'chicken' and 'faggot'? 'Well, there's real, live animosity between them, you know. Riddick had a tremendous amount of respect for Lennox after the Olympics. He felt that there was some honour between the two of them. And now Lennox has violated that honour. It's not hype. Neither of them is a choirboy.' And it's not bad for the box office, either, I suppose. 'No, that natural intense animosity, it's not something you have to beat the drums for. The people know when it's for real.'

NO CHOIRBOY is right. Riddick Bowe may be donating his six-figure takings from a shoe contract to famine relief, may be preparing to go one-on-one with the Pope, may be funding a boys' club in Brownsville. Warming up for a sparring session in the gym at Caesars, though, he's hangin' with the homeboys. The boombox is throwing out a shuddering series of slow jams, and the humour is ripe. There's a joke of the day, with a punchline so pungent that Bowe can't stop repeating the unrepeatable, his fleshy face squashing into a big, soft smile.

Eddie Futch, Bowe's 81-year-old trainer, is in hospital nearby, recovering from heart failure and promising to be in the corner on Saturday. Meanwhile his assistants, Hedgeman Lewis and Thell Torrance, are guiding Bowe through a few gentle rounds against a succession of sparring partners.

One of those partners can boast two pro defeats at Bowe's hands. Garing Lane, who'll earn dollars 4,000 for his month's work, says the champ is in good shape. Now it's just a question of keeping him in tune over the last few days.

Trips to Somalia, audiences with the Pope, donations to good causes, a schedule mapped out for months ahead, the ultimate prospect of a dollars 100m showdown with Mike Tyson: all the dreams created by Rock Newman for Riddick Bowe will hang in the air on Saturday night at the Garden. The challenger, Michael Dokes, was Bowe's age and weight when he took the WBC title from Mike Weaver in 1982. Now, 10 years older and a couple of stone heavier, reflecting on a time when he let the things that success brings get in the way, Dokes might still be looking for the one punch that would ruin it all.

'We always have to live with that,' Rock Newman said, giving the impression that he plans to be writing his diary dates in ink for a while yet.

(Photograph omitted)

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