Boxing: The disintegration of Riddick Bowe

The boxer once affectionately known as `Big Daddy' has seen his life descend into turmoil since he retired last year. Glyn Leach examines a disturbing decline

IT WAS the day that signified the completion of a meteoric fall from grace by the former world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe; one of the fastest, most dramatic journeys from hero to zero in the history of a sport littered with fallen idols. And as a consequence of his actions on 25 February 1998, the 30-year-old New York giant will be an inmate of a Federal jail within four weeks.

On 4 June a Washington DC court heard Bowe admit to abducting his estranged wife and former childhood sweetheart, Judy, and the couple's five children at knifepoint - "an act of misguided love", according to his defence attorney. And maybe so; Bowe's mother-in-law and next door neighbour had apparently commented: "If he was a man, he'd go there and get her."

For whatever reason, Bowe drove to his wife's home in Cornelius, South Carolina, armed with a knife, pepper gas spray, handcuffs and masking tape. He forced his family into the car, then drove 200 miles to a McDonald's in South Hill, Virginia, where Judy was able to get word to the authorities who apprehended the 6ft 5in, 20st former champion.

Although Judy was unhurt, refused medical attention and declined to press charges, Bowe was found guilty under the federal Violence Against Women Act. The maximum sentence for such a crime is 10 years imprisonment and a $250,000 (pounds 155,000) fine, but plea-bargaining has reduced Bowe's likely sentence to around two years.

It is a stunning development that has shocked even those who have followed the disturbing events in Bowe's life since his retirement from boxing in early in 1997, a direct result of his second brutal encounter with Andrzej Golota in December 1996.

Prior to the first Golota fight, Bowe was widely regarded as the best heavyweight in the world. The previous November he had become the only man to knock out Evander Holyfield, with whom he had a memorable three- fight series; Bowe won the undisputed heavyweight championship from Holyfield in November 1992 and lost it to him one year later, in the infamous "Fan Man" fight in Las Vegas, when an errant paragliding enthusiast interrupted the open-air bout in round seven.

But by Christmas 1996 Bowe, incredibly, was a shot fighter on the verge of a surprisingly early retirement in an era when heavyweights like George Foreman and Larry Holmes, who are scheduled to meet next January, are fighting into their 50s.

But the second Golota fight had taken a heavy toll. Bowe slurred badly in the post-fight interview; his mumbled speech was almost impenetrable. It would have been unrealistic to have expected Bowe still to be the young prospect who, so full of hope after winning the silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, would entertain the media with impersonations of his idol, Muhammad Ali. But the extremity of Bowe's deterioration was alarming. He was persuaded to retire or risk a fate similar to Ali's.

After meeting Bowe earlier this year, Holyfield said: "It's all kinda sad. He was slurring his words and his demeanour was quite different. You kind of wonder what happened with a guy as young as him."

Life after boxing is never easy for a fighter to face. But the sheer, unprecedented velocity of Bowe's decline has sent him off the rails and headed for jail.

His first move in retirement was a disastrous foray into the US Marine Corps; it was as if Bowe realised that, with boxing training camps a thing of the past, he still needed a regimented environment in order to hold his life together. But Bowe had never been a major fan of discipline and quit after just eight days.

His former manager, Rock Newman - now a spin-doctor for the controversial Washington politician, Marion Barry - attempted to keep Bowe occupied with community-orientated projects. But the frustration of an athlete cut off in his prime soon told on Bowe and his personal life began to disintegrate last year.

Police were called after a physical altercation between Bowe and his sister, Thelma, but no charges resulted from the fracas 18 months ago. But Bowe awaits trial on charges of assaulting Judy last August, and also an adult nephew, Joey Bowe, three months later. And in March of this year Judy and the children moved out of the $1.5m family home.

Bowe was a popular figure, regarded as one of boxing's nice guys, as illustrated by corporate sponsorships - rare for boxing - from blue-chip companies such as Fila and Sergio Tacchini.

Known as "Big Daddy", Bowe has the images of his children - now aged between two and 11 years old - tattooed on his chest. He had been with Judy since both were 13-year-olds in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the couple married at 21.

The second youngest of 13 children - in 1988 a sister, Brenda, was killed by muggers and a brother, Henry, died of Aids - Bowe's family meant everything to him, but a tragic series of events has robbed him of the things that mattered most in his life. And those very things seem to have destroyed him.

He checked himself into a hospital for psychiatric evaluation later on the day of the abduction. He was released with the advice to undergo anger- management therapy - too little, too late, it seems.

Now Bowe is a forlorn figure living alone at the family home, under house arrest and with an electronic ankle bracelet informing the authorities if he should stray further than his postbox. And as he sits out the remainder of the 90-day period before sentencing takes place, a famous boxing maxim will be playing on Bowe's mind; the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

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