Sorry tales of downward spirals into drugs, crime and misery are nothing new in the fight game. Countless former champions have seen out their post-ring days in the grip of misery, poverty and madness, and ended up as little more than a cautionary tale to a future generation.
For English fighter Clinton Woods, his descent into the murky underbelly of society came well before his pugilistic career. It was not the sport itself that saved him, but it played a vital role in the process.
Unlike the tragic souls whose wretched stories are sprinkled around boxing’s gossip circles like confetti and met with sad, resigned shakes of the head, Woods’ personal nadir came long ago and he emerged from it to become a world champion.
When the 35-year-old IBF light heavyweight title holder steps into the ring against Antonio Tarver at the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday, it will be the latest chapter in an improbable story that could have ended in any one of a hundred different unhappy ways.
Ensnared in a web of brawling and recreational drug use in the dingy nightclubs and on the mean streets of Sheffield, a northern English city that produces inhabitants as tough as the famous steel smelted in its forges, Woods’ wake-up call came in the form of a desperate letter from his mother Andrea.
“Mam was frightened to death because every time I went out something bad was happening,” Woods told reporters this week. “I used to take ecstasy. Not many really, only two or three in my life.
“But I did take whizz (amphetamines) along with other mates when we’d go out drinking. Everybody else was doing it so I was daft enough to do the same.
“The stuff makes some people want to dance, or in my case fight. I felt like I could fight King Kong. I was around 20 when my mum was sick of me getting into trouble and got me to stop. She wrote me a letter, telling me I was ruining my life. It was a turning point for me.”
Barely out of his teenage years, Woods had already lost two close friends, one being killed while trying to break up a street fight and another who took an overdose rather than face prison.
As he sat in his basic flat on Sheffield's rough Westfield council estate, Woods decided his fists would be better served pounding the workout bags at a local boxing gym than the teeth and skulls of the neighborhood scrappers and nightclub bouncers.
If the decision didn’t save his life, it certainly altered its course forever.
In the early days, despite his natural power, gym regulars would scoff when Neil Port, Woods’ friend and mentor proclaimed with regularity that his charge would one day become British champion.
His biggest purse in his first 10 fights was £350 (around $700) and debts to friends and family racked up quickly. There was little indication that a big money payday like the Tarver showdown would ever materialize.
Yet Woods never lost his focus and, driven by a desire to never return to his former ways, he pressed on. His first defeat, to David Starie for the Commonwealth super-middleweight belt in 1998, was a setback, and it took another 13 wins in four and a half years before his first big shot, a crack at Roy Jones Jr., took place.
Jones was at the sublime peak of his powers when the pair squared off in Portland and although Woods gamely took punishment for six rounds, his corner ended the mauling early to avoid sustained damage.
His key fights since were an entertaining trilogy against Glen Johnson, who takes on Chad Dawson on the same card Saturday. All three fights took place in England and ended in a draw, a narrow defeat, followed by a split decision victory in September 2006 that planted Woods smack in the middle of any light-heavyweight argument.
If he beats Tarver, then an all-British clash with Joe Calzaghe would be a tantalizing prospect that would capture the imagination of the public in the United Kingdom and further afield.
“When I look back and see what I’ve achieved in boxing it’s unbelievable,” said Woods. “I could have ended up in prison. But now I have the chance to show that I’m the best light-heavyweight in the world. I’m so lucky.”
Woods has been training at the Frontline gym in Orlando, under the supervision of veteran trainer Lou Harris, who is credited with masterminding the start of Tarver’s career.
“It's funny that we ended up at Tarver's first amateur gym,” said Woods. “But it's perfect and I've been getting as much information as I can out of coach Harris while I'm here.
“I'm shut away from any distractions like screaming kids and I couldn't really have had a better camp out here, apart from the heat. I'm ready to go and I can't wait to defend my title in style.”
- Clinton Woods
- Antonio Tarver