By Thomas Hauser
Perpendicular to the boardwalk in Atlantic City, a four-story shopping mall called The Pier Shops at Caesars extends across a narrow beach and juts out over the Atlantic Ocean. Standing at the eastern end of the mall, one can gaze at the ocean and see Herman Melville’s “great shroud of the sea” as it rolled on thousands of years ago.
But turn away from the ocean and a vastly different scene beckons. Large gaps of urban decay are visible between the hotel-casinos that mark the skyline. Tourists walking along the boardwalk are solicited by panhandlers. The Miss America Pageant (once Atlantic City’s showcase event) is gone. Seedy shops and 99-cent discount stores proliferate.
When Shannon Briggs and Sultan Ibragimov came to Atlantic City to fight for the WBO heavyweight title on June 2nd, the metaphor was obvious. There was a time when great heavyweight champions were viewed as forces of nature and the most compelling of their battles stirred passions across the ocean. But the phrase “world champion” is now an anachronism. Boxing has WBC champions, WBA champions, WBO champions, and IBF champions, but most of them are “WHO?” champions.
The heavyweight division epitomizes boxing’s plight. Since Lennox Lewis retired in 2004, thirteen men have claimed a portion of the throne. Don King looks at the bright side of things and declares, “The heavyweights aren’t down and out. The heavyweights are in a state of glorious equal opportunity.” But in truth, the heavyweight division has come to resemble a bizarre game of musical chairs with four belts being passed from fighter to fighter. Whoever holds a belt when the music stops is anointed a champion.
Briggs came to Atlantic City as the WBO champion. Despite occasional outbursts of grumpiness and self-pity, Shannon is personable and articulate. A dozen years ago, he was young and full of hope; a highly-touted amateur who won his first 25 professional fights (20 by knockout with 15 KOs in the first round). That led to an appearance on HBO’s “Night of the Young Heavyweights,” but he faltered and was stopped by Darroll Wilson in three rounds. Then, in November 1997, Shannon fought George Foreman for the “linear” heavyweight crown (Foreman had beaten Michael Moorer but was stripped of the WBA and IBF titles for refusing to fight mandatory opponents Tony Tucker and Axel Schulz). George won the fight but Briggs got the decision. In the new champion’s next outing, he lost to Lennox Lewis on a fifth-round stoppage.
Briggs is now 35 years old. The one inexcusable defeat on his record is a loss by decision to Seldrick Fields. He also came out on the wrong end of the verdict in a 2002 bout against Jameel McCline. But Shannon has 48 victories, the most important of which occurred on November 4, 2006. That night, trailing on the judges’ scorecards, he rallied to stop Sergei Liakhovich with one second left in the twelfth round and annex the WBO crown.
Briggs’s critics say that his career has been built on smoke and mirrors; that other than Foreman and Liakhovich, he has never beaten a world-class fighter; that his reputation as a puncher (42 KOs) is based largely on blasting out guys who can’t take a punch. But more significantly, Shannon has been known throughout his career as a fighter who isn’t willing to pay the requisite price for greatness, either in training camp or in his fights.
The two things that most boxers like least are training and getting hit. Briggs, it is said, goes to extreme lengths to avoid both. His detractors claim that, whatever expectations his fans have of him, he always disappoints.
Briggs rejects such criticism; particularly when it comes from the media. “The sky fell down on me when I lost to Darroll Wilson,” he says. “Ever since then, people have been ragging on me, saying, ‘Shannon Briggs doesn’t have it.’ But most of the people who write bad about me don’t know the first thing about what it means to be a fighter, so it doesn’t matter what they say. I’ve learned over time that I’m a much tougher person than I thought I was. I always knew I was physically tough, but mentally is something else. I don’t let the negative things that people say about me hurt me anymore.”
“And I fight with a disease,” Briggs continues. “People don’t understand that. I have asthma. When the asthma is bad, I can’t walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. When a football player or basketball player has an asthma attack, he comes out of the game and sits on the bench. That option isn’t available to me, so I have to pick up the newspapers and read all the idiots who write, ‘Shannon is out of shape; he got tired in the first round.’ Is anyone really stupid enough to believe that I’d be gasping for air in the first round if I didn’t have asthma? Do they really think that I don’t train enough to get through one round without breathing hard?”
Briggs’s health was part of the story-line leading up to the fight. He and Ibragimov had originally been scheduled to meet at Madison Square Garden on March 10th, but a brush with pneumonia forced Shannon to withdraw from that encounter. Ultimately, the match was rescheduled for Atlantic City. Warriors Boxing (which has promotional rights to Sultan) was the promoter by virtue of a $2,500,000 purse bid that was divided $1,875,000 to Team Briggs and $625,000 to the Ibragimov camp. It’s unclear how much of Briggs’s purse went to Don King, but DK had a rooting interest in the outcome of the fight since he holds promotional rights to Shannon.
When Briggs met Ibragimov for the first time (at the kick-off press conference for their planned Madison Square Garden confrontation), he voiced pleasure at how small Sultan was. There was a four-inch, fifty-pound differential between them. And Ibragimov doesn’t look like a fighter. At best, he conjures up images of a linebacker for an Ivy League football team.
Moreover, although Ibragimov was coming into the fight with a 20-0-1 (17 KOs) ledger, he had never beaten a world-class fighter. The toughest opponent on his record was Ray Austin, who Sultan battled to a draw in July 2006. Given Austin’s performance against Wladimir Klitschko earlier this year, that left a lot to be desired.
“Ibragimov doesn’t belong in the same ring as me,” Briggs declared as the fight neared. “He got rated because of who he’s associated with.” When informed (inaccurately, as it turned out) that Mike Tyson would be in Sultan’s corner as one of his seconds on fight night, Shannon responded, “It doesn’t matter to me. He can have Jesus in his corner for all I care.”
But Ibragimov (a silver medalist for Russia in the 2000 Olympics) was a 9-to-5 betting favorite. Part of that was based on the fact that he would be the first southpaw that Briggs had faced as a pro. And part of it was based on the belief that Shannon simply wasn’t in shape.
Once a slender heavyweight, Briggs has become a large bulky man. He started his career at 205 pounds and weighed 227 for his signature victory over George Foreman. But in Atlantic City, he tipped the scales at 273 pounds, giving credence to the view that he hadn’t trained much and that neither his head nor his heart were into fighting. The assumption was that Ibragimov would stay on Shannon’s chest all night long, throw punches with abandon, and force Briggs to fight at a fast pace. Shannon, the theory went, wouldn’t be able to do that for more than a few rounds. So unless Sultan got caught with something big early, it would be his fight.
“People can think anything they want,” Briggs said one day before the fight. “What’s going to happen is going to happen. I don’t live in fear. I’ve been in this business a long time. I’ve persevered; I’ve prevailed; I’m still here.”
On the night of June 2nd, Briggs entered his dressing room at Boardwalk Hall at precisely nine o’clock. Trainer Yoel Judah and several other camp members were with him. Don King, bejeweled and wearing his trademark red-white-and-blue “Only In America” jacket, followed.
The room was overly air-conditioned and uncomfortably cold. Shannon’s first words upon entering were, “Can someone make it a little warmer in here?” Over the next two hours, the temperature never changed.
Shannon sat on a folding metal chair in the corner. Don King sat beside him, a small American flag in each hand.
“The true heavyweight champion of the world,” King proclaimed. “Shannon ‘The Cannon’ Briggs. This show is on the road. You’re going to kick ass. There’s no stopping us now, brother.”
Briggs had brought mood music with him. A mellow voice sounded through the room. Shannon closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair.
“Oh, girl; let me hold you tight . . . Can we make love, baby? Can we make love?”
It was music for sipping wine on the way to a seduction; not what one normally hears when a fighter is in his dressing room readying for combat.
Tempering his persona to the mood, King sat quietly.
At 9:20, Shannon rose from his chair, took a pair of silver trunks from his gym bag, and put them on. Then he moved to the mirror and studied his image before taking a second pair of trunks (black with white-and-gold trim) from the bag and holding them over his lower body.
He repeated the process several times.
“Which ones look better?” he asked at last.
King had a look on his face that said, “I thought I’d seen everything in boxing, but I ain’t never seen anything like this before.”
“The silver ones have more shine to them,” King offered.
“You won the title wearing the black ones,” Scott Hirsch (Brigg’s manager) noted.
“Then go with the black ones,” King said.
Shannon solicited several more opinions before opting for black. Then he chose black shoes rather than white. That done, he turned to King.
“The room they have me in at Ballys is pitiful. I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, and the treatment I’ve received is ridiculous.”
“You’re gonna make them pay for that shit,” King assured him.
“Before I beat Liakhovich, everyone was crying that there’s no American heavyweight champion. So I beat Liakhovich, and what happens?
The room was quiet for long stretches of time with only the background music intruding on the silence.
“Touching your lips to mine . . . Every day, every night . . . Baby, baby; making love between the sheets.”
Briggs sipped slowly from a container of black coffee (Starbucks). At 9:30, he began doing stretching exercises on the floor.
“I want to feel you. I want to caress you. I want to touch you . . . Don’t say goodbye when you know I’ve got to have your love.”
There was quiet conversation around the room.
Shannon interrupted his stretching for a brief cell-phone conversation before resuming his pre-fight preparation. Then he lay down face-first on a towel on the floor for a massage. The dressing room seemed less like the calm before the storm than the calm before more calm.
The massage ended. Shannon’s hands were taped.
The music changed to gangsta rap.
“Nigger . . . Motherfucker . . . Big titties . . . Smoking some crack . . . Push me in . . . Seventeen stab wounds . . . Shots in the air . . . Laying him out.”
Shannon gloved up, moved to the center of the room, and began working the pads with assistant trainer Carlos Albuerne. There was no fire.
Yoel Judah took Shannon aside.
“Come on, man,” Yoel said. “Do what you got to do. He ain’t never been hit as hard as you’re gonna hit him. I promise you.”
Shannon looked down, averting his eyes.
“He can’t beat you, man. It’s your show. You’re gonna catch him. He’s going down.”
Shannon sat down on the folding metal chair in the corner of the room and stretched out his legs.
“You walk in five minutes,” he was told.
Yoel picked up the pads and began working with his fighter.
“Nice . . . There it is . . . Hands are fast, reflexes are sharp . . . Take him to school, baby . . . Beautiful . . . Hands like bricks. Hit him like that and he goes.”
But there was no conviction in Yoel’s voice.
Shannon stopped punching and sat down on the chair again with a look of resignation on his face. A few minutes later, he left for the ring.
America, baby,” Don King said as they left the dressing room. “Bring it home, brother.”
It wasn’t much of a fight. Briggs won round one with his jab. But more significantly, midway through the stanza, he whacked Ibragimov with a solid right hand and Sultan took it well. There would be no early knockout.
Thereafter, the bout fell into a pattern that elicited boos from the crowd for most of the night. Briggs threw a lot of stay-away-from-me jabs, while Ibragimov circled and attacked cautiously from time to time. The dance played out in the center of the ring. Absent an early knockout, Shannon’s plan was to conserve energy through a strategy similar to a basketball team that runs down the clock before shooting because, the more scoring there is, the more its chances fade. Ibragimov’s surprising lack of aggression fed into Briggs’s need to shorten the fight. But it didn’t matter.
Shannon was strangely passive. He simply didn’t throw punches, and a fighter has to throw punches to win. Sultan dictated when punches were exchanged (which wasn’t often) and landed the more telling blows. This observer scored it 117-112 for Ibragimov. The judges reached a similar verdict.
Briggs lost badly. Not in the sense that he was beaten up or knocked out. Badly in the sense that he never did what a champion is supposed to do when he gets in the ring. Shannon didn’t defend the title as much as he gave it up. In the dressing room afterward, he seemed more relieved that the fight was over than hurt by the loss. He was also ungracious, saying, “Ibragimov is a coward; he’s a punk. He was running the whole time. He was scared to death.”
Then Shannon addressed the matter of his own performance. “I came into the fight wounded,” he said. “Three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with pneumonia again. I missed the last three weeks of training and, before that, there were forest fires in Florida so I couldn’t run because the air was bad. If it wasn’t for that, my timing and stamina would have been better and I could have pressed him. But there were no bullets in my gun.”
“Do you hear what I’m saying,” Briggs continued. “I fought with pneumonia. I wasn’t happy about it, but what could I do? I’ve got two kids to feed. I had to fight because it was like, ‘If you don’t fight now, you’ll be stripped of the title and you’ll never fight on television again.’ In football, if you’re hurt and can’t play, you still get paid. In basketball, if you’re hurt and can’t play, you still get paid. In boxing, you don’t get paid if you don’t fight. It’s an ugly business, but at least I made some money tonight.”
That, of course, raises the question, “How does a fighter with pneumonia pass a pre-fight physical?”
On May 24, 2007, Briggs was examined in Florida by Dr. Alan Fields, who told Secondsout on June 5th, “I didn’t conduct a full pulminary examination, but his lungs were clear and I saw no clinical evidence of pneumonia.”
Fields’s report was forwarded to the WBO and the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. Nick Lembo of the NJSACB advised Secondsout, “Everyone at the agency was fully aware of Mr. Briggs’s pre-existing health conditions and the stated reasons for the postponement of the same match-up previously scheduled [for March 10th] at Madison Square Garden. Due to the issues involved, the commissioner [Larry Hazzard] specifically assigned ringside physician Dr. Michael Kelly to review all of Briggs’s pre-licensing medicals and to conduct both the pre and post-fight medical exams. Mr. Briggs’s lungs were examined both prior to and after the bout. Mr. Briggs was cleared to fight by Dr. Kelly. The NJSACB had no concerns about Briggs’s physical ability to compete that night.”
There are three possibilities: (1) there’s something wrong with the way the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board administers pre-fight physicals; (2) false statements were made and false documents were submitted to the board (in which case, a crime was committed); or (3) Briggs didn’t have pneumonia in the weeks leading up to the fight.
On June 5th, Larry Hazzard told Secondsout, “Fighters offer all kinds of excuses after a loss. Either Shannon lied to us or he lied to the media after the fight. I really don’t know which it was.”
Maybe Hazzard should find out.
Meanwhile, before condemning Briggs, one should keep in mind the thoughts of James Baldwin, who, decades ago, wrote, “Life is far from being as simple as most sportswriters would like to have it.”
Boxing is the toughest sport in the world, and Shannon is the one who has to get in the ring and fight. He’s the one who traded blows with Lennox Lewis and George Foreman and was punched countless times by men trained in the art of hurting. There are those who say that he failed to live up to his potential as a fighter; that he went from young to old without ever having had a prime. But Shannon is content with where his life is today.
“I feel like I’ve been successful in boxing,” Briggs said after his loss to Ibragimov. “I didn’t achieve the status of a Mike Tyson or a Lennox Lewis, but I’m happy with what I achieved. Coming from where I came from, homeless in Brooklyn, sleeping in shelters, everything I did was an accomplishment. How many kids come from where I did and break the cycle? People who’ve been comfortable all their life and were given everything when they were young think it’s easy to break away from a bad situation. They say stupid things like, ‘Just go out and work hard.’ But most people who come from where I came from wind up doing what their parents did and living like their parents lived. I live in a million-dollar home in a gated community in Florida. I’ve got one son in private school and another son who will be there when he’s old enough to go. I don’t care what anyone else says. I made good; I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. And I was the linear heavyweight champion of the world whether people like it or not.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org