Anthony and Andre Dirrell grew up dreaming of wearing world championship belts around their waists.
Just like many kids would dream of being the hero of the Super Bowl or hitting the home run to win the World Series, the Dirrell brothers would go to sleep at night with visions of boxing greatness.
Andre truly believed Anthony would win a world championship and Anthony believed just as fervently that Andre would.
Nothing that happened in the early days of their professional careers convinced them otherwise.
"We were right there, right on track," Anthony said.
They were, that is, until that day in 2007 when Anthony, then 24, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Doctors told him it was curable, but cancer is nothing to trifle with. Fighting cancer makes boxing seem fairly insignificant.
And while Anthony was going to have to put his dream of a world championship on the shelf for a while, he wanted no such thought to cross his older brother's mind. He worried, if only briefly, that it might deter his brother's progress toward the championship.
But after the two spoke privately, Anthony Dirrell was convinced Andre would be better than ever.
"We were positive about beating this, but he definitely told me that if I couldn't come back, he'd take care of me," said Anthony, who is recovered, cancer-free and 18-0 with 15 knockouts. "He'd talk about the championship when I was (undergoing chemotherapy) and he would say, 'We are going to get it.' I was there for him and watching his training and watching his fights and he was always there for me. It was like nothing had changed."
Things are about to change big time in Andre's life, however. He was chosen to be part of Showtime's Super Six super middleweight tournament and will make his debut on Oct. 17 in Nottingham, England, when he meets unbeaten Carl Froch in Froch's hometown for the World Boxing Council belt.
Froch is coming off a dramatic 12th-round stoppage of Jermain Taylor in April, but Dirrell said he won't make the same mistake Taylor did. Dirrell, a middleweight bronze medalist for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics, said he won't allow his conditioning to wane like Taylor did.
"Jermain, you could tell he was worried about gassing out, even early in the fight," Andre Dirrell said. "When he dropped Carl Froch, he didn't go back in and try to execute and try to finish the fight. He could have done that, but he didn't. He thought about his gas and he did exactly what everybody thought he'd do, including Froch. Froch pretty much knew he was going to gas out and that's what happened.
"I'm coming in tiptop shape, believe me. I'm a young guy. I just turned 26 and I'm more ready than I've ever been. I'm ready to get out there and make this happen."
Dirrell is considered one of the tournament's underdogs, if only because he hasn't been on the big stage as frequently as men like Froch, Taylor, Arthur Abraham and pre-tournament favorite Mikkel Kessler.
Leon Lawson Jr., Dirrell's assistant trainer, said he barely hesitated when his father, lead trainer Leon Lawson Sr., asked his opinion of Dirrell accepting a spot in the Super Six.
"My father brought it to me and it took about 20 seconds," Lawson Jr. said. "That was enough time for me to ask and answer a lot of questions. Who is faster out there than Andre? No one. Who is more elusive and who uses the ring as well? No one. Who has his power? No one. I came up with nobody on every question I asked myself, so it was a no-brainer to put myself in there."
Promoter Gary Shaw expects Dirrell to use the stage he's given at Super Six to become a big-time star. Winning a medal in the Olympics doesn't have the cachet for a boxer it used to and Dirrell isn't widely known beyond hard-core boxing junkies.
But he's a charismatic and friendly guy with a pleasing style and a megawatt smile. Such traits carried former Olympians like Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. to mainstream success and while Shaw isn't expecting Dirrell to reach that level of stardom, he thinks Dirrell will in time be huge.
"He's got a large personality outside of the ring and people are drawn to him," Shaw said. "He has an award-winning smile that sucks you in and makes you feel close to him. He's a likeable guy and when he smiles, you feel like he's your friend. You relate to him."
He has no lack of motivation to win. Not only has he been clamoring for a title shot for a long time, but he wants to fulfill his half of his bargain with his brother.
The family is deeply spiritual and Lawson Jr. said Andre Dirrell accepted his brother's illness as one of those obstacles that test a man's character.
He said he was convinced Andre was a man of the highest character, but said his reaction to his brother's cancer discovery proved it conclusively.
"Everything happens for a reason, but when a young man is hit with something like that, you ask yourself at the time, 'Why is this happening?' " Lawson said. "But we know, soon enough, the reason will reveal itself. The devil throws monkey wrenches in the game to keep us from accomplishing our goals, but he only added fuel to our fire. The devil is a liar and thank God, Anthony is healthy and OK.
"That's a tremendous motivation for Andre. It's made him a stronger person. The devil is there looking to kill, steal and destroy. Andre got a first-hand lesson of what life is about, that it's not a game. It's for real. He handled it so well. He was there for his brother every step of the way and he threw himself into his job because he promised he would do what he had to do. He's better for having lived through the experience."
Andre Dirrell is grateful that his brother is back, boxing and once again on the path toward a championship. Anthony Dirrell will fight on a ShoBox card in Santa Ynez, Calif., in December as part of his comeback.
Andre Dirrell, though, has some business to attend to first and plans to make a big statement with his fight against Froch. Even fighting in Froch's hometown and with a crowd rooting vehemently against him in his first world title fight doesn't faze him.
He insists he's going to keep his end of the bargain with his baby brother and bring a world championship back to Flint, Mich.
"This is my chance and I'm going to take it and run with it," said Dirrell, whose 18-0 record with 13 knockouts is remarkably similar to his younger sibling's. "I'm already mentally focused and I'm physically prepared and with these last couple of weeks, I'll be able to bring even more to the table. I'm going out there fully confident and not worrying about the crowd and how hostile it will be. That's where I am very confident. I am very fast, I'm very slick and I'm very aware.
"I'm on my 'A' game now and if it goes the distance, I'm not even worried about it because I know I'll pull the fight off. I'm not worried at all about getting robbed."
- Andre Dirrell
- Anthony Dirrell
- Carl Froch