BANGKOK — For years, Riddick Bowe dreamed of getting back into the ring – just not this ring and this sport, in this country.
Next week in Thailand, the former world heavyweight boxing champion will step out of retirement to make his debut as a Muay Thai fighter – the brutal martial art that makes boxing look gentlemanly.
“I’m just rolling with the punches, baby,” says Bowe, during a training session at a rundown Bangkok gym that has no air conditioning, a few practice rings and a lot of mosquitoes. Stitched across the backside of his shorts is the nickname from his glory years: “BIG DADDY.”
At 6-foot-5 and weighing 300 pounds, Bowe towers over his sparring partners who say he’s learning how to kick. At 45, he still has a ferocious punch but his prize fighter physique is gone along with the millions he made from boxing. Bowe says that friends and former foes, including Evander Holyfield, have told him he’s “crazy” to try Thai kickboxing. His wife compares it with street fighting.
Bowe shrugs off the risks, even though his speech is slurred after decades in the ring. Thai boxing, he says, “has brought me back to life.”
“I’ve been sitting at home bored to death, twiddling my thumbs, trying to figure out what to do.” And this is what he came up with.
During a series of interviews at his gym and Bangkok hotel, the fighter spoke about the loneliness of retirement, his fondest memories and some of his deepest regrets.
“I don’t think a kid should have as much fun as I had,” Bowe said, thinking back. “It wasn’t a job, it was an adventure for me.”
During his heyday in the 1990s, Bowe was one of boxing’s most charismatic personalities in an era of titans like Holyfield and two heavyweights he never fought as a pro: Lenox Lewis and Mike Tyson. He met the pope at the Vatican and three American presidents – he still does a convincing Ronald Reagan imitation. He appeared with Jay Leno on the “Tonight Show” and on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Bowe took on occasional fights after retirement in 1996, but had trouble getting licensed due to allegations of brain damage – which he denies and says have been disproven by medical tests and MRIs. He went overseas in search of what he once had and fought his last bout in Germany in 2008.
That’s one of the reasons he came to Thailand: “Nobody will fight me in boxing,” he said. “Muay Thai will accept me.”
Another reason is cash: He dodges, ducks and weaves questions on his finances, but says he’s getting by on savings.
“I’m OK. I’m not rich like I used to be,” says Bowe, who filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005 listing more than $4.1 million in claims against him. “I ain’t got my hat in my hands, so I’m doing pretty good for myself.”
Win or lose, Bowe walks away from his June 14 bout against 30-year-old Russian fighter Levgen Golovin with $150,000.