Derek Matthews teaches from experience when it comes to jabbing, taking a punch, or prepping for a fight. The only thing he can’t tell his fighters is how it feels to win.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
All things begin with the hands. The palms face downward; the fingers are spread apart like points on a star or those of a meticulous woman getting a manicure. The appendages are wrapped and laced in a brown gauze of bandages: over the back and around the wrist, now laced between the fingers. These extremities are swaddled in cloth, then mummified in white medical tape until they become clubs, tools for the better infliction of hurt. The sequence bears all the weight of a sustained tradition, a pugilistic ritual. The gloves come next. The hands slip inside aged leather and lean and push against the trainer’s chest as the laces are braided through holes on the underside.
The headgear: a leather demi-helmet crafted by Everlast, a cranial cushion built to minimize brain scramblage. Neuron insurance. With the headgear comes a degree of anonymity. The fighter is now rendered a featureless combatant, thrower of jabs and combinations.
In this instance, the rite takes place inside Round 1—a fighter’s gym, a state-of-the-art academy of violence on Ritchie Road in Capitol Heights. It is a clean place, airy, with several rows of chairs for spectators, but it is, nonetheless, a laboratory where raw brutality is distilled and refined. The facility is owned and operated by Adrian Davis, a fistic guru and local legend who articulates in a husky grumble and wears a perpetually worried expression. A floating left eye attests to Davis’ personal ring history. The gym has the architectural hallmarks of a converted warehouse. A gauntlet of heavy bags is suspended from an I-beam frame, and near the entrance, neophytes are put through their paces in two regulation-sized rings. Life in this place is measured in 180-
second intervals with 60-second intermissions.
The Dog is a fixture in Round 1, a bruised initiate who has logged literally hundreds of rounds in these twin rings. He has been hit by champions and by men who were destined to blink wide-eyed with their backs glued to the canvas. The Dog is the guy you call when your rising prospect needs someone to, as the ring lingo terms it, “move around” with before the big bout. Call the Dog on short notice; an hour later he’ll amble into your gym, his equipment contained in a nearly geriatric duffel bag. He’s shuffled and jabbed with certified beasts and talentless tomato cans, with has-beens and never-weres. He’s moved around with ascendant stars and washed-up veterans trying to squeeze a few more rounds out of their battered bodies. He is the boxing equivalent of an understudy. The Dog hurts for a living.
He dreams of one day doing the hurting.
It is not inconceivable, not in this era of engineered fitness and techno-healing, that a man might wish to flash back once or twice, to listen to the echo of his youth before the sound has faded completely. It is not inconceivable that a man might wish to rise above his station in life, if only by an inch or so. The Dog, Derek Matthews, intends to do these things by gaining his first professional victory at the age of 38. He is in it to win one. One. And then he will hang it up.
The assignment for this day is to do some work with Andrew Council, a middleweight contender ranked No. 1 by the North American Boxing Federation (NABF). The fight game is regulated by a plethora of sanctioning bodies, known by an increasingly arcane set of acronyms. Council lost a fight for the International Boxing Federation belt and is gearing up for a tuneup fight against an opponent as yet unnamed. This is where Matthews lives—how the Dog finds food—because he is the perfect hypothetical challenger. He can fight as a southpaw or as a right-hander, and although he is not particularly powerful or blindingly quick, he has a quotient of general skill—an amassed sum of ringmanship—that makes him useful to a boxer who doesn’t know what to expect from his opponent.
Council is recovering from an ear infection and has woven blue kitchen sponges into his hand wraps because “your injuries come from practice.” By all indications, the contender has no intention of “putting the cold press,” or seriously brutalizing the veteran, but sparring is not a predictable routine of engagement. A few weeks earlier, Council and World Boxing Association middleweight champion William Joppy got into a sparring clash that turned epic and led to the trainers’ rushing the ring to separate the fighters. The two are now forbidden to be in Round 1 during the same hours.
Before they enter the ring, Davis administers Vaseline to Council’s eyebrows and face in a gesture that resembles a priest anointing with oil. The Dog is left greaseless. Officially, both Council and Matthews train under Davis, but this is a sacrament administered by a man who knows on which side his bread is buttered. Davis and Matthews go back two decades, and the principle is understood.
When the bell sounds, the two shuffle-step forward, and the work commences. Matthews pivots, throwing tentative jabs, and it becomes clear immediately that Council is the quicker man, easily evading the Dog’s offerings. Council throws little leather of his own at first and works out of a crablike stance that brings to mind the old cross-handed menace Archie Moore. When the Dog lands a sharp upper cut and a left, they’re absorbed by Council’s arms and elbow. From the outer reaches of the ring apron, Davis admonishes Council to “turn his jab over,” because the wrist should rotate a full 180 degrees before impact.
In the second round, Matthew’s right hand sneaks in with frequency, and for a moment the older man looks game. Only for a moment. In mid-round, Council cranks up the volume, tenderizing Matthews’ ribs with right hands. This is what a comeback feels like. Council owns the third round, cutting off the ring and making Matthews constantly move backward to avoid bombs. And yet there is the impression that Council isn’t going all out—but he does just enough to remind Matthews of his place in the boxing food chain.
“No matter how light you’re going, you always gotta keep your sparring partner in his place,” Matthews says later, dispensing an elemental bit of wisdom that explains the preceding session. The logic holds that today’s sparring partner is tomorrow’s challenger, and one should treat sparring partners accordingly. And fighters secretly pride themselves on the number of partners they incapacitate in preparation for a fight. You can view today’s beat-down as an invaluable learning experience for a guy staging a comeback or as simply a bad day at work—but beneath all these perspectives, Matthews worries: “I can’t do anything with him. All I can do is try to avoid getting knocked out. It’s hard for me to build up any confidence being in the ring with a guy like that.” And this is exactly the point of keeping one’s sparring partner in his place.
The tale of the aging pug whose reach exceeds his grasp is so familiar as to verge on cliche. Here’s the angle: The Dog is no sad midlifer quixotically tilting at the upper echelons of brawldom. He is not haunted by some mental echo of Brando in On the Waterfront lamenting that he coulda benna contenda. He harbors no illusions about the likelihood of gaining a shot at any of the alphabet soup of middleweight titles. He simply needs to exorcise his zero. The empty digit in the win column sits in his belly like
bad meat. It was the zero that started this process, though in time other factors have come to drive Matthews.
The path Matthews took back to the ring began, ironically, with his attempts to distance himself from the daily physical grind of sparring. After Matthews stopped competing professionally, he began training boxers, gradually gathering the insights and knowledge of the more technical aspects of the sweet science. He is currently bringing along a gifted middleweight southpaw by the name of Beethavean “Honey Bee” Scottland. It was when he began preparing Scottland for his bouts that the zero began to drift back to the surface of Matthews’ consciousness. Soon he was ruminating on the number, mentally digesting what it meant to be winless.
“I felt guilty training people to do something I had never done myself,” he would say. And there were other considerations. A videotape of his amateur victories disappeared, leaving no record of his early promise, no way for Matthews’ son to see his old man’s hand raised in victory. Thus he decided to stage a one-night stand; he called up Han Kim, a local promoter, and cajoled his way onto an upcoming card that included one of the boxers he is currently training. An otherwise unremarkable bout would become the Dog’s return engagement for the record books. In placing that call, he made himself into boxing’s version of a player-coach.
After putting himself through a post-sparring regimen of crunches, jump rope, and the speedbag, the Dog slips out of Round 1 and heads home. His work is done for the day; he leaves Council to pummel another set of goats.
A boxing tale: A boy, 12 or so and skinny, flees through the ragged South Philly streets, tears and snot streaming. On his trail is a pack of older boys—bigger, stronger, the kind who sweat malicious intentions. The provocation is some Lilliputian slight, an unintentional breach of bully etiquette. Brotherless, the kid is left to fend for himself; thus he sprints.
The young runner has a contingency plan for just such an occasion: an arsenal of bricks stored under the porch steps. He makes it to his grandparents’ house, thrusts his hands under the porch, and lets fly with the masonry. Not just tossing the stuff, hurling it like a junior Satchel Paige, pelting his antagonists into retreat, earning a momentary reprieve from a certain ass-whupping. Young though he might be, he recognizes that the stakes will get higher, and there may not always be a brick handy. This understanding leads him to study the sweet science in the dingy basements of Philadelphia.
“When he started boxing, it did something for his self-esteem,” recalls Jeannette Matthews, the boxer’s mother. “My father, like most men, wanted his grandson to be able to defend himself, and boxing gradually came to be Derek’s love.”
His grandfather bought him his first pair of professional boxing gloves, and it was during the summers with his grandparents in Philadelphia that Matthews came to grasp the rudiments of pugilism: “When I learned how to box, I stopped running. One fight led to another fight, and once I busted up a few kids who were supposed to have been tough, it all stopped. Nobody tried to chase me.”
Back home in D.C., the skinny kid gradually came to adopt an elementary swagger, the byproduct of his growing rep as a giant-killer. By the time he knocked out a rival bully in a local elimination tournament, Matthews had fallen in with the type of crowd that had once terrorized him. Elmer Matthews, the boxer’s father, had a solution.
“My dad could see that the streets were starting to interest me a little more as my confidence and respect grew,” Matthews says. “I started getting in more trouble, basically small-time gang involvement. One day, I came home from a party and my dad said, ‘Boy, you’re going to Tennessee in the morning. Pack your bags.’” Twenty-four hours later, the younger Matthews was enrolled in Tennessee State University (TSU).
He was off the streets, but the ring bug persisted. When he ran into another TSU student who had qualified for the Olympic boxing team, he found out about a group called the Punching Posse across the state in Nashville: “I started skipping class and hopping a freight train to work out in the gym, which was located inside a jail.”
The Posse members included several fighters who would go on to prominence, including one, Mike McCallum, who became junior middleweight champion and a Hall of Fame prospect. The Tennessee training sessions were cut short, though, when Matthews ran afoul of a set of rustic thugs: “I got stabbed, beaten, and had my pelvis fractured when they hit me with a car. I decided that Memphis wasn’t a safe place for me to live. When I got back to D.C., I started training with Adrian.”
Matthews defies the expectations you might have of a man who has devoted the majority of his life to boxing, the dissed stepchild of professional sports. He is the product of a stable family. He is the second of three children raised in Northeast. His parents were married for 40 years. His old man graduated from TSU. His mother has taught art history in the D.C. public schools for more than 30 years. Talk to him, and he will fill your ears with all manner of arcana about boxing—or the proper training of dogs. He can tell you what a teenage Evander Holyfield said to an adolescent Mike Tyson when the two argued over who had next on a pool table. Minutes later, he’ll fill you in about the time a famous champion beat a feared challenger by getting his sister to seduce the other boxer and keep him up all night just before the bout. Or he may tell you about the dog he has trained to ring the doorbell when he wants to come inside. Matthews struggles to accept his sport on its own terms, to balance his love of boxing and his loathing for the infliction of permanent damage that dwells at the heart of it. He secretly wonders whether he’s too nice a guy to do well in a sport that punishes altruism.
Matthews’ story—like those of most participants in the brawl game—is filled with vanished chances, with almosts and not-quites, with tales of being just out of earshot when opportunity knocked. He compiled a 16-2 amateur record but had to forfeit the Golden Gloves championship round because of a broken knuckle. His parents feared “that something would happen to him and that it would be fatal.” His mother, who couldn’t watch the spectacle of her son’s being hit, took to lacing her wedding ring into his shoes as a charm. He turned pro with high expectations in 1993, only to be readily dispatched in his first two fights.
“Derek made the mistake of not being in tiptop condition for either one of those fights,” remembers Simba Sana, who manages Scottland. “The first fight was close, but he lost a decision. He trained to fight southpaw, but then he came out and fought conventionally, so he didn’t stick with the strategy. The second fight—against a guy named Robert Muhammad—was a setup. The promoter told Derek that the guy only had two or three pro fights. Turns out he had 15.” Muhammad put Matthews on his back in the third round, and the knockdown provided the crucial margin of victory.
But in the end, it was the options that did him in. Boxing is physical entrepreneurship for the dead-broke, an arena where one’s fists are the equivalent of venture capital. Matthews says it succinctly: “If a boxer had money, he’d do something else.” Yet Matthews continues to surround himself with things pugilistic. His attraction goes beyond the monetary—and at the same time, his life options insulate him from the sort of empty-bellied fury that fuels careers. He purchased his own home at 23. He began raising and training dogs as his main vocation, so boxing was left to compete with his myriad hustles: fence-building, a short-lived security company, the demands of raising four children with three different mothers.
Davis recognized early on that Matthews’ “projects” would sidetrack his career. “He would leave for two or three years and then come back, train for a year, and win all his fights [as an amateur]. Then he’d leave again, work two jobs and raise his—and other people’s—children. His biggest problem was sticking with it.”
Matthews is not a man without talents. His body betrays no hint of his 38 years. His belly has not begun to do the gravitational tilt, and his face could easily pass for that of a man a decade younger. But fighters, more acutely than any other athletes, understand that Father Time is larcenous—stealing away skills, pilfering the reflexes until a man is left plotting maneuvers he used to execute intuitively. By age 38, a man has on average five fewer pounds of muscle than he had in his 20s. By age 38, even Muhammad Ali was rendered graceless by the sheer number of his days in the ring. “Boxing,” the Dog says simply, “is a young man’s game.”
And yet, there is virtue to age—even in this alleged sport. I once saw an up-and-comer go against a wily old vet. For seven rounds, youth held the day. The young blood threw a catalog of blows while the old man just circled around and around, his left hand pawing the air like a blind man’s cane and his right cocked back like the hammer on a rusty old revolver. Just when it looked to be over and the new jack paused to inventory the damage he’d done, the old man pulled the trigger on an overhand right. He had concentrated his entire chi, the sum total of his ring experience, into one shot that left youthful vigor horizontal and staring at the houselights. The principle is simple: The greater the investment, the higher the possible returns. Derek Matthews is betting the farm.
“I believe,” he says, “that a simple victory can bring a man up from the bottom. No matter how long it lasts—for that night you feel like you can conquer the world. The thrill of the comeback is what drives me; I think a victory can help me cope with all I’m dealing with.” He is, in opaque terms, speaking of the death of his father only 10 days prior. Elmer Matthews never wanted his boy to pursue boxing.
“He wasn’t like most fathers. He’d tell me not to fight in school, and I’d ask, ‘What if they hit me first?’ and he’d say, ‘Go tell the teacher.’ He basically thought boxing was for people who didn’t have enough sense to do something else.” Still, on some basement level of his psyche, Matthews believes that a simple victory will lift him from bereavement. When his father died, what began as a simple quest to kill his zero became infinitely more profound.
Hours after the Council session, Matthews meets Scottland and Sana at Ring Masters, a cinder-block sweathouse on Kenilworth Avenue. Scottland has begun to generate an industry buzz, and Matthews is grooming him for a tuneup fight before he and Sana give any consideration to finding the breakthrough opponent. The interior of Ring Masters is steeped in the funk of ages—it is dark and hot and deep-blue. Along the walls is a gallery of boxing greats: Liston, Frazier, Leonard, Tyson, Louis. In the far corner, Tim “the Bama” Hillie, co-owner of the place, passes around an aged Polaroid of Muhammad Ali.
Under Matthews’ watchful presence, Scottland conducts his warmup. At first sweat, he begins throwing light combinations at Matthews’ padded palms. Moments later, shots begin to pop and sizzle into the pads, coming at odd angles, attuned to their own insular rhythm. There is an almost symbiotic flow going on between fighter and fighter-trainer. Scottland looks nearly flawless in practice, but Matthews understands his fighter’s mechanics on a level deeper than the visual. He dissects the minutiae, correcting minuscule errors and running through the routines time and again.
He betrays a moment of paternal pride when Scottland fires a burst of leather at the heavy bag, sending it swinging on a high arc. When it returns, Scottland slips under the bag and punctuates the moment with a left and right that shove it in the opposite direction. “There are not many guys his size who can get away with that,” Matthews smiles.
Matthews understands boxing because he understands dogs. Or vice versa. The trainer—of boxers or Rottweilers—is part psychologist, part father figure. The key is in understanding temperaments. The canines have taught him that it is the quiet hound that packs the worst bite.
Matthews first met Scottland 14 years ago, when he was conducting a summer program for neighborhood kids in North Brentwood. Scottland was a sullen 11-year-old youth who wanted to learn how to fight. His quiet, ominous bearing alienated the other trainers but made Matthews take note. Before he would accept him as a student, Matthews devised a character test: He asked the boy to bring water to a malevolent hound, famous for attacking anything within reach. Scottland reached out, picked up the bowl, filled it with water, and slid it over to the dog. The two have been working together ever since. Matthews eventually became Scottland’s legal guardian; he raised the boy from age 14 to 18.
When the workout concludes, the three confer. It is six weeks away from Matthews and Scottland’s Aug. 27 fight date, and neither boxer knows whom he is scheduled to fight. On the lower rungs of the industry, boxing functions this way. Until you get marquee value, you train furiously, often with no idea of what style, temperament, or skill level you’ll be facing when you climb through the ropes. The one certainty is that Aug. 27 will be the pivotal night of the Dog’s long career, the night on which his mettle as both fighter and trainer gets put to the test. Sana tells them he has arranged a sit-down with Han Kim to get definite opponents and tapes of previous fights, and the three part ways. It is, by now, deep into the night, and the Dog must rise at dawn to do his roadwork.
The following day finds Matthews at Carver Terrace, a forbidding housing project at 21st Street and Maryland Avenue NE. On a patch of scorched grass under an oppressive 10 a.m. sun, he begins setting up portable heavy bags and unpacking gloves. Already there are a dozen preteens lined up waiting for “Uncle Dee,” as he is known. The youth-training session is part of a summer program he conceived called Pound 4 Pound. He and co-sponsors Bernard Richardson and Omar Bowman are trying to get grants to build a permanent gym in the area to house the program.
Technically, such community-service projects are exactly the type of distractions that derailed the Dog’s earlier career. This time out, if he wants to remain upright on the big, the crunches and punches have to be fully integrated into his daily schedule of miscellaneous do-gooding. In the midst of all this, he must phone Scottland to schedule joint workouts or to make sure that his charge is keeping up with his solo assignments. Erasing the zero will be meaningless if Scottland ends up inhaling smelling salts in his corner on fight night.
The kids are weighed and divided up into weight classes. They line up to take practice swipes at the bags, each trying to outdo the preceding series of wild blows. Boxing, Matthews believes, is the path to discipline. Before they leave, he gathers them together and talks to them about the intense work required and the necessity of staying out of trouble and avoiding drugs. Just as he ends what sounds like a standard inspire-the-youth speech, he detours, telling the kids about Anselem Hare, one of his former students. Two days earlier, Hare was arrested by the D.C. police for driving without a license. When he was placed in a cell, an officer noticed that he was chewing something. Hare had swallowed several vials of crack; he overdosed and died. His end merited all of a 100-word blurb in the Washington Post Metro section. The story hangs a pall over the improvised training camp.
Later, Matthews reflects, “Maybe I shouldn’t have told them that story, but I felt like I needed to. That’s the situation around here. To me, they gotta know how to make decisions about right and wrong for themselves.”
There is tragedy in abundance in this game. Hare is only the latest in a virtual cavalcade of misfortune. Take Hillie, who was once poised to dominate the middleweight division: At the grand old age of 35, he drinks to excess and conjugates most of his verbs only in the past tense. Davis qualified for the ’68 Olympic team but was left behind because his trainer had badmouthed the team’s manager. Then, on the verge of a title fight, Davis’ eyebrow was shattered by a head-butt. The injury derailed his career. To this day, young fighters at Round 1 lament the prospect of sparring with him: The residual bitterness still adds sting to the old man’s jabs. It was Davis, in fact, who introduced Matthews to the canvas for the first time. “He threw a right hand over my jab, and when it landed on my chin, it felt like somebody had clicked the lights off for a minute,” Matthews recalls. “I think it was educational.”
After the kids at Carver Terrace have been given parental permission slips to box and dismissed, Matthews packs the equipment into the trunk of an abused Buick Skylark and heads back to Round 1. Today’s assignment: move around with William Joppy, the World Boxing Association middleweight champion.
The session with the champ follows the same arc as the rounds with Council—only worse. Joppy is a 23-year-old Hagleresque brawler who pounds Matthews with lefts and rights. The Dog looks as if he’s being abused alternately by buzz saw and sledgehammer. Matthews gears up and connects with a strong right hand. Joppy all but ignores it. Ring hubris. Davis urges Matthews on, yelling, “This is what it feels like to hit a world champion.” On Davis’ advice, Matthews throws an overhand right that misses by a ZIP code, and Joppy makes him pay for it—with interest.
In the third round, the champion hits Matthews with a malignant shot to the ribs, and the victim nearly folds like a cheap lawn chair—or a grown man being put in his place by a fighter 15 years his junior. Nine minutes of this assault, and the Dog is out, hustled off to the outer precincts of the gym. He exits the ring with a fresh raspberry under his right eye and a sore torso. Former welterweight champion Simon Brown slips between the ropes to replace him. In the wake, Matthews looks distracted and less confident. He looked bad in the ring with Joppy—but, in all fairness, so does Brown.
Joppy is exceedingly good at making other fighters look bad, but to hear the Dog tell it, the Dog has had his own moments of success. “The first day I sparred with him, I surprised myself. I was hitting him with all kinds of punches—I couldn’t believe it. I told my nephews to come see it. I was dealing with Joppy. I did so good that they started paying me to be a sparring partner. The next day I was able to deal with him, but it was a little different. By Wednesday, things had definitely changed. And on Thursday, he straight beat the hell out of me. He cracked one of my ribs and put a hematoma on my eye.” An hour later, behind the wheel of his Skylark, he concedes that his head is still fuzzy from the session with Joppy.
If there is any virtue in being pounded crimson by Joppy and Council, it’s that whatever don’t kill you will make you stronger. Matthews has a damn near iron-clad guarantee that whomever he faces when he steps into the ring on Aug. 27 won’t be as tough as either of the bruisers he’s training with.
The intervening weeks follow this same rhythm. Roadwork in the pre-dawn, checking the dogs after that, followed by sparring sessions at Round 1 or training sessions with Scottland at Ring Masters. When he isn’t working a part-time job at Safeway, the late nights often find Matthews and Sana tucked away in the basement of Matthews’ home, working on strategy or perfecting defensive tactics. The basement is divided between Matthews’ twin passions. The right side has been turned into a kennel housing several breeds of dog. The entire left side is a boxer’s training facility, complete with ring, treadmill, punching bags, and lockers. The combination is an olfactory nightmare. All told, Matthews puts in nearly 100 rounds of sparring.
Three weeks away from the fight, word comes from the promoter that Matthews will be fighting an unranked newcomer out of Virginia named Kevin O’Connor. Scottland will be pitted against James Mullins, whose claim to fame is that he recently fought a No. 1 middleweight contender to a draw. The student and trainer will both be tested on the same night.
By now, the fight has become the central focus of Matthews’ daily existence. “He’s relaxed and confident, because he’s in the best shape ever,” Sana points out. But at the same time, the Dog is anxious, edgy, and tired of waiting. The opponent has become a mere detail, a footnote of sorts: The Dog is counting down the days until his date with the zero.
By fight day, Matthews looks the part of a contender: grave, chiseled, and focused like a man accustomed to transcending his own pain in order to inflict pain on his opponents. He weighs in at a lean 168 pounds, seven pounds lighter than he was a few weeks before and endowed with more muscle mass. His midsection is as striated as an insect’s underbelly. His roles as trainer and boxer are at least mildly in conflict: Instead of spending the day winding down, he shuttles between Maryland and Virginia to make sure Scottland’s last-minute paperwork is filed. If he is to pull off tonight’s cameo, the Dog will have to fight his fight, and, regardless of how it turns out, return to the dressing room to warm Scottland up, lead him to the ring, and coach him through his battle. The double play is possible at all only because Matthews and Davis are sharing ringside responsibilities for the night.
Outside the arena, a knot of people mill around for the ceremonial shooting of the shit. One old head pulls the Dog to the side and offers some words: “I ain’t gonna say good luck, because we both know luck don’t have a thing to do with this business. I will tell you one thing: Win.”
Entering the building on an errand, Matthews catches a glimpse of O’Connor and his son leaving. His response to the sight is equal parts concern and bombast: “Right now, I’m thinking about how I don’t wanna knock this guy out in front of his family.” Minutes later, he exclaims, “This is doomsday! The day I get the monkey off my back.”
Matthews and Scottland spend the better part of the late morning inhaling carbohydrates and trying to hype themselves into a warrior mind-set. Between plates of pasta, Matthews leans over the table and elaborates on his self-evident gifts. “You know,” he says, pointing a finger at his temple, “I could beat a whole lotta guys with this. I’ve done it before in sparring. But a fight is different, because the anxiety makes you stop thinking. It’s mental. The whole thing is about relaxation.”
By his own admission, Matthews has not slept in two nights, but mental fatigue doesn’t cow him—so great is the Dog’s self-esteem that he even muses momentarily about his odds of taking the D.C. metro title from whatever nameless sucker is holding on to it. “You think different about these things when you’re in shape,” he explains.
The fight is held in the ABC Arena, an event center in a dejected industrial corner of Northern Virginia. The ramps and vestigial loading docks attest to the arena’s previous life as a place where blue-collars drove forklifts and wore back-support belts. Down here, broadcast boxing’s patina of glamour is stripped away. There are no blow-dried TV commentators or bethonged round girls. This is pure, primordial ass-kicking. A thin haze of smoke permeates the air, not from cigarettes, but from the barbecue grill set up near the loading dock.
The crowd is a multiethnic congregation, a social cross section united by a common blood lust. Seated in the rows of folding chairs are equal contingents of the ghetto fabulous and the rustically glamorous. These people are close enough to the action to require a Hepatitis B test afterward. Up in the cheap seats, several men have rolled into place a battery of beer kegs, increasing the odds that before the night is out, there will be a few instances of life imitating sport up in the bleachers. Providentially, two paramedics are stationed across the arena; they smoke cigs, talk vacantly, and await the stuff that will inevitably hit the fan.
One set of fighters—most of whom are from the area—is assigned a cluttered storage space to serve as a dressing room. The away team gets to dress in the semiprivacy of the loading dock. Matthews slips into the dressing room decked out in his slickest date-wear: black fitted shirt, a little gold showing at the collar, crisp jeans, and black suede shoes. The Dog, at the very least, expects to look the part of a winner.
The early fights feature lots of little men artlessly clubbing one another, to the audible pleasure of the congregants. The losers are generally the ones bleeding most profusely. They leave the ring resembling glycerin-coated mutants from a Roger Corman flick. By the third fight, it becomes clear that the home team is pitching a shutout. Three consecutive visitors have found themselves splashed across the canvas like abstract art. In one instance, the “challenger” for the Virginia welterweight championship is a 48-year-old delicacy who should be entering the ring on a platter. Decked out in an old pair of Reeboks and basketball shorts, the guy looks like the human equivalent of a ’74 Gremlin. He performs like one, too.
Back in the dressing room, Matthews steps into the bathroom to change and steal a moment of solitude. This is the point where he gets to pit his public cockiness against his private doubts. That zero is still there, sitting in the belly, undigested.
While Matthews meditates in the john, O’Connor, his opponent, paces implacably on the loading deck, muttering under his breath and throwing slow-motion jabs.
Ten minutes later, Matthews emerges, semi-dressed, and struggles into his cup, a padded leather contraption that covers the entire groin. The team goes to work: Davis wraps and tapes the hands; a young prospect named Jet Howard laces and ties the cup into position; Scottland and Sana alternately pace and offer calming platitudes. The Dog’s face has gone solemn and brooding. Unlike street fights, where the combatants operate on pure adrenaline, organized boxing requires a cool, mortal clarity.
By agreement, O’Connor enters the ring first. He walks out unadorned and nonchalant—like a man heading to the corner store for a six-pack before the game. O’Connor is lanky but muscular. He has the type of physique designed to generate torque and to sling his long arms around like whips. His trainer rubs the back of his neck.
The Dog has cryptically promised to enter the ring with his “cats,” and he delivers. The cats are two dancers with whiskers drawn onto their cheeks in eyebrow pencil, outfitted from head to toe in mesh cat suits. The speakers begin blaring a tinny version of “Atomic Dog,” and the spectacle begins. Matthews is wearing what appears to be a black fur loincloth with “DOG” emblazoned on the front. The diaper-trunks are complemented by a matching executioner’s hood. The outfit was designed and sewn expressly for this occasion.
A serpentine line of supporters streams out of the storage room and circles around to the front of the arena. The Dog’s pack—Sana, Davis, Scottland, and Howard—surround their fighter like Secret Service men handling a threatened head of state. Just outside the entrance, Security stops the Dog and his two steatopygous felines, protesting the lack of attire on the cats—this is family entertainment, after all. The men in the upper decks can see feline flesh, though, and they begin to howl for the women to be let through. Matthews states bluntly, “I ain’t comin’ in unless my cats come with me.” The compromise: The cats can escort him to the ring, but they can’t enter it, and they have to immediately return to the dressing room.
The Dog has personally sold upward of 70 tickets to ensure a friendly crowd. Unlike in previous fights, there is an entire section of Matthews supporters, as is evidenced by the chorus of barks and howls emanating from the middle rows. The setup is like a bizarre coming-out party. Inside the ring, O’Connor looks bewildered by it all: the outfit, the music, the buck-naked flesh yearning to breathe free. By now his trainer is rubbing his shoulders, certainly telling him to block it all out. Matthews is bouncing on his toes, shifting from left to right and trying to burn off nervous energy. These are both hometown boys, but the fact that Matthews entered the ring with two nearly naked women has given him a distinct edge in crowd support.
The announcer gives intros and finesses his way around Matthews’ winless record by saying, “In the red corner, weighing in at a lean 168 pounds, Derek ‘the Dog’ Matthews.” He adds a perfunctory line about O’Connor’s hailing from Virginia and calls the men to center ring. The referee runs through the rules, and the two men stand there, in the middle of the arena, sharing a bizarre zen moment before they begin trying to send each other to the great beyond. The ref tells them to touch gloves, and, in a fragment of a second, it is under way. The two rush forward. O’Connor throws a poorly placed jab, and the Dog easily evades it. Matthews’ strategy is simple: Hit hard and avoid being hit. Easy as throwing a brick off the porch and ducking into the house.
When O’Connor lurches forward with a left, Matthews loops his right hand over the top of it, and O’Connor hits the floor as if he’s mad at it. Flash. The Dog is on top. With a count of five, O’Connor is back in the game. Ten seconds later, he offers his chin to Matthews and tastes canvas again.
When he stands up for the second time, O’Connor is clearly dazed, but the referee lets it continue. In desperation, O’Connor throws all the leather he owns. He pitches his best and lands one shot squarely on Matthews’ left eye—a blow that serves only to piss Matthews off. The consequent flurry sends O’Connor heaving backward, literally unconscious before he hits the canvas.
Matthews rushes to a neutral corner and climbs to the second rope in victory. He looks down at the faces in the crowd, which are now twisted into war masks. He pumps his fists. He is happy. The cats are happy. His private Dog pound is happy.
But back in the ring, O’Connor is not getting up. He is out for 10 seconds, then 20. At 30 seconds, the paramedics on hand begin shining a light into his eyes to see if his pupils contract. The Dog alternates between ecstatic celebration and a tight feeling in his gut, because this other guy doesn’t look so good. A minute elapses, and damn, dude still ain’t moving.
Matthews’ cornermen remove his gloves. He waves to his people. O’Connor is still down. When I make my way over to him, he says, “It don’t get no better than this. I got the monkey off my back—for now. I don’t care if I never fight again.” Then he mumbles something about hoping the other guy is all right. Next he questions the tastefulness of his ascension to the second rope while the paramedics were still attending to his dead-looking opponent. In the corner, the paramedics are slipping a neck brace around O’Connor, and the fallen boxer’s wife is wringing her hands.
There is a smattering of applause when O’Connor is pulled out of the ring on a stretcher, but it’s hard to tell whether it is in praise of O’Connor for fighting until he was literally unconscious or of Matthews for making him that way. When Matthews goes out to the ambulance to check on his opponent, the family members warn him away, and he wanders back to friendlier terrain.
The zero is dead, but the victory has an asterisk in Matthews’ mind. He will probably keep O’Connor’s graceless professional debut on his conscience for a long time. Back in the dressing room, his entourage tries to forestall any post-fight second-guessing. The goings-on amount to a profane debriefing: “Fuck that! He was trying to knock you out, wasn’t he? This is what you’ve been training for in that hot, smelly basement, ain’t it?” And, most profoundly, “If you on that nice-guy shit, then this ain’t the sport for you.” The Dog absorbs the admonitions vacantly.
Eventually, Matthews recovers enough to realize that he still has work to do. He turns to Scottland, who is sporting a galactic gold get-up surely inspired by a Parliament-Funkadelic album cover, to walk him to the ring. Matthews drapes his hands protectively over his charge’s shoulders. From the edge of the ring, he whispers last-minute details to Scottland—none of which he will have time to use, because the fight will be over inside of a round.
It becomes clear, from the tentative opening jabs, that Scottland is a class above Mullins. From the upper deck a sotted patron yells, “Hit him hard,” as if that thought hadn’t occurred to either man previously. The goat ducks an inaugural left hand, hoping to stay out of range of a lethal hook, only to walk into a blistering right that drops him like a character from Mortal Kombat.
It’s over, and Matthews is batting a thousand, but he doesn’t look like it. He should be focused on the big win he and Scottland have put together, but Matthews keeps thinking about the guy he left lying back on the canvas.
Later, I learn that Matthews has called O’Connor at home to see how he’s been doing. O’Connor was treated at Fairfax Hospital for a minor concussion and released.
It’s not an academic issue for Matthews or anybody else who commodifies hurt as part of his professional life. A few weeks later, Randy Carver, the NABF super-middleweight champion—a man on Scottland’s wish list—is killed in the ring by a series of head-butts. He collapses and struggles to stand up, but never even makes it to his knees.
Matthews, ironically, seems less worried about his own mortality than he is about permanently damaging an opponent. Maybe he is too nice a guy for this sport—and maybe that’s not a bad thing. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.