By Thomas Hauser
Jameel McCline is easy to like. The 31-year-old heavyweight spent his early years in Harlem with his mother and five siblings, all of whom were on welfare. When Jameel was seven, his mother put him in a group home run by Little Flower Children Services in Port Jefferson, New York. "It was a great place," he remembers. "Even though I wound up in trouble later on, who knows what would have happened to me without it. I got to see what I saw there, and it gave me a vision of a better life."
McCline graduated from Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson and attended college for three semesters. Then the "trouble" referenced above intervened. In 1989, he was arrested for transporting and selling stolen firearms. "I was 18 years old and running around crazy," McCline acknowledges. He spent the next five years in prison, including 14 months in solitary confinement.
But McCline seems to have learned life's lessons well. He's now married to the daughter of a police detective and dotes on his own daughter from a previous relationship. He's a reader and very interested in politics. "I vote both sides of the aisle," he says when asked about his political preference. "I believe in the Democrat's idea of taking care of people, but I believe in the Republican's idea that you have to get out and make things happen for yourself."
In the ring, McCline is now making things happen for himself. At 6-feet-6 inches, 260 pounds, he's a "big" heavyweight with promise. But very few fighters who take up boxing in their twenties reach the upper echelons of the sport, and Jameel turned pro at age 25.
The early signs weren't promising. After one round of amateur experience (a first-round knockout triumph), McCline began his professional career with a 2-2-1 record. "I didn't doubt myself after the early losses," he remembers. "I just kept at it. The doubts came later. I'd talk about being at the top of the heavyweight division, but a fight would fall out or I'd look bad in a win. And it was the same with fear. I was a little nervous before my amateur fight, but not much. The fear came later, when there was more at stake, when boxing became all I had in the way of my livelihood. And to be honest, there were times when I didn't prepare myself properly. I'd have a great fight, and then I'd get lazy and not do what I had to do to get ready for the next one."
McCline's record is now 27-2-3. The additional draws came against Ron Guerrero and Sherman Williams on Heavyweight Explosion cards two years ago in New York and cast further doubt on his credentials. But at the same time, Jameel was learning his trade as a sparring partner for Lennox Lewis, Hasim Rahman, Larry Holmes, Henry Akinwande, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, Larry Donald, and Andrew Golota. Some fighters in that position develop a sparring partner mentality. Others take advantage of the experience to become better boxers. McCline fits into the latter category. "I didn't know how to fight a lick," he remembers. "And I was sparring with some of the best heavyweights in boxing. They'd beat me because they were better fighters, but I never quit and I was learning."
Thus, it came to pass that, in the two defining fights of his career, McCline was regarded as a stepping stone for better-known opponents. On July 21, 2001, he fought Michael Grant and floored Grant with the first punch of the fight. In a freak occurrence, Michael broke his ankle as he fell, rose, but was unable to place any weight on the foot. The bout was halted after 43 seconds. Then, on December 1, 2001, McCline pounded out a 12-round decision win over Lance Whitaker at the Javits Convention Center in New York. That led to McCline versus Shannon Briggs at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night.
Meanwhile, as McCline was progressing, Briggs was floundering. The 6-foot 4-inch Briggs, now age thirty with a 36-3-1 record, is personable, articulate, and bright. And a complainer. "People criticize me for having brains," he moans. "And they treat me differently now that I'm not on top."
"On top" refers to the early years when Briggs was a well-marketed potential superstar. But in the four defining fights of his career, Shannon was knocked out twice (by Darroll Wilson and Lennox Lewis), won an undeserved decision over George Foreman, and fought to a draw against Frans Botha (described by some as a human meatball). The low-point for Briggs came on April 27, 2000, when he lost an eight-round decision to Sedrick Fields on a Heavyweight Explosion card in New York. Thereafter, Shannon had four bouts against creampuff opponents and won them all by first-round knockout. But to put matters in perspective, in the past four-and-a-half years, he has won only one fight that went past the first round. It's a classic example of squandered talent.
In the days leading up to McCline versus Briggs, Shannon seemed to be trying hard to alienate the media. And he was successful, evincing a sense of entitlement that went far beyond the norm for fighters. The business of boxing has been pretty good to Shannon, but he pronounced it "demoralizing" and added, "I can't say one thousand percent that my heart is in the game. There's a bandwagon now to dump on Shannon Briggs. There's no respect. When I go to a fight, they put me in the nose-bleed seats."
Clearly, Briggs was feeling sorry for himself. And at the final press conference, he verged on self-parody. "Every fight I fight, I have the edge," he told reporters. "I'm Shannon Briggs." That was followed by, "You guys have been slandering me, talking bad about me. Shannon Briggs this, and Shannon Briggs that. Shannon Briggs got no heart. Well, guess what. I'm still here. I'm not a yes man; I'm not a house nigger; so people hate on me. I've been reading all this crap you've been writing about me. You people smile to my face and badmouth me behind my back. Well, I'm through kissing babies and walking old ladies across the street and sucking up to people so I can kiss their ass."
Meanwhile, McCline had been getting ready for the fight. "I love the beginning of training camp," he said. "I'm happy then, but I'm not happy now. Right now, I'm miserable. I've been stuck in a room away from home for eleven weeks. I don't get to see much of my wife and daughter. I'm eating food that's healthy, but it doesn't taste good. And my state of mind is like, a fight doesn't start for me when the bell rings. It starts weeks before, so I'm fighting now. Everything I do, all day every day, is geared toward fight night."
McCline also knew that a fighter has to go out and win a fight. He can't rely on something in his opponent (in this instance, Briggs's supposed lack of character) to give the fight to him. Thus, in a reflective moment, McCline said, "Everyone tells me, 'You'll walk through this guy; he has no heart; he'll quit.' People are taking him lightly, and there's nothing light about him. Shannon has fast hands. Shannon can punch. He's experienced. He's been in with the best. This guy is a fighter. He's not just a big lug who comes at you."
"Big lug" was a reference to Lance Whitaker. McCline had watched Whitaker (his own signature opponent) stagger to a draw against Ray Austin on April 13th. And it troubled him. "You can look at it two ways," Jameel said. "You can say that I totally demoralized Whitaker and he gained thirty pounds afterward. But when I watched him fight Austin, and I don't mean to be disrespectful, I said to myself, 'This guy is a bum.' I try to be realistic, and watching that fight took away a lot of what I did against him. It put more urgency in my mind for the Briggs fight. Because yes, Whitaker is big; and yes, Whitaker is strong; but he's not a good fighter."
McCline was also painfully aware that, had Michael Grant not broken his ankle, McCline-Grant, regardless of its outcome, would have been a different fight.
In sum, McCline-Briggs was an interesting match-up; a hungry fighter on the way up hoping to continue his climb against a fighter on the way down looking to reverse the slide. McCline was a 2 to 1 favorite. The assumption was that Shannon had better skills and figured to be dangerous early, but that Jameel had the better corner and figured to be in better shape. Jimmy is like a father to me," McCline said of his trainer, the widely-respected Jimmy Glenn. "It's a father-son sort of relationship. He brings stability and calm to my preparation for a fight, and I trust him once the fight begins."
Then, the day before the bout, McCline received an unexpected gift when Briggs tipped the scales at a whopping 268 pounds (40 pounds more than he had weighed against Lennox Lewis). "I'm fighting a bigger guy [264 pounds], so I want to be bigger," was Shannon's explanation. But in truth, Briggs's training regimen seemed to have been based on the principle, "No pain; no pain."
The fight itself was basic boxing. Jameel established his jab early and fought cautiously, which allowed Shannon to set the pace throughout the night. That was important to Briggs's survival since, at 268 pounds, he was expected to fade down the stretch as he has in past outings. McCline, despite his size, isn't a big puncher, and Shannon fought like the larger man with Jameel trying to outbox him. In round six, a right-left combination put Briggs on the canvas, but he rose quickly and McCline continued to box cautiously. He rarely engaged, kept his jab going, and fought a calm measured fight. In sum, Briggs sold himself short. He had quicker hands and was the bigger puncher. But Jameel did what he had to do in training camp to get ready for the fight, and Shannon didn't. All three judges scored the contest 99-90 for McCline, which reflected the 150 to 67 disparity in punches landed. After the bout, Briggs told reporters, "I'm going to take off 30 pounds and come back." He should have lost the 30 pounds before the fight, not after it.
Meanwhile, McCline is optimistic about the future. He's a good athlete and is adjusting well to the demands of the sweet science, both in and out of the ring. "I sparred with Lennox Lewis before he fought Michael Grant and again before he fought David Tua," Jameel says by way of explanation. "And I learned so much from that guy about what to do in the ring and also how to have a professional organization. With Lennox, everybody has a job to do; everybody does their job; and everything runs smoothly. Lennox taught me how to prepare for a fight on a professional level."
"Boxing is a business," McCline continues. "It's how I make my living, so I have a very structured organization around me. It's a professional team, and I'm proud of it. Alan Wartski is my manager; Michael Borao, my attorney. My wife Tina sets up meetings and interviews, handles the rest of my schedule, and does marketing. My promoter is Cedric Kushner. I have a staff for strength, running, yoga, hypnosis. I'm faster and stronger now than ever. My body is so much more prepared for fighting, and there is no cap on my ability to learn."
"I'm impressed with Jameel," observes Emanuel Steward. "When Lennox had him in camp as a sparring partner, he wasn't the most talented kid in the world, because he didn't have any amateur background. But he was much tougher inside than I thought at first. He never complained; he never quit. Whenever Lennox wanted to go a few more rounds, no matter how tired Jameel was, he always said "yes'. He was humble but he had a lot of pride. Mentally and spiritually, he's on a good road. He's not burned out from too many amateur fights like a lot of fighters today. He has the size to compete with today's big heavyweights. And Jimmy Glenn is bringing him along nicely."
Glenn, in turn, says of his charge, "Jameel tries his hardest to do everything I ask him to do, in training and in the fights."
A lot of people in boxing are rooting hard for Jimmy Glenn, who's one of the good guys in the sport. And in today's heavyweight division, the door is wide open. Lennox Lewis is thirty-six, will be retiring soon, and is susceptible to one-punch knockouts. Mike Tyson is capable of self-destructing at any moment. John Ruiz lasted all of nineteen seconds against David Tua, who can be outboxed as demonstrated by Chris Byrd, who in turn is vulnerable because of his size. Kirk Johnson has a suspect chin and has beaten one less world-class heavyweight than Hasim Rahman, who has been knocked out by three of them. Wladimir Klitschko remains a questionmark and has lost to Ross Puritty. Meanwhile, the most sobering numbers attach to Evander Holyfield. Evander has won only nine of his last sixteen fights. The last time he fought three times in a year was 1989. He hasn't knocked anyone out since Michael Moorer in 1997 and has won only two fights (Vaughn Bean and John Ruiz) in the past four-and-a-half years.
In other words, as noted by Teddy Atlas, "The heavyweight landscape keeps changing, and it's getting weaker every day. Joe Louis ain't here. Muhammad Ali ain't here. Larry Holmes ain't here. Anything can happen."
"I don't want to sit around and play games," says Jameel McCline. "I want to fight every three or four months."
The stepping stone might be turning into a boulder.
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