By Elliot Worsell
BACK in September 2001, Donald Trump repeatedly tapped the shoulder of Naazim Richardson inside a Madison Square Garden dressing room and, to his dismay, found his advances rebuffed. It was unusual for Trump, a notorious grabber, to be blanked, to not get what he wanted, but Richardson, otherwise engaged, wasn’t in the least bit interested.
That night the coach of Bernard Hopkins ignored The Donald, setting an example his country should years later have followed, and did so because his focus and attention was fixed on the left and right hands of Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad. And, specifically, the two layers of tape and gauze being applied to them.
“The way Trinidad wrapped his hands was not illegal everywhere,” said Richardson. “It was only illegal in New York. He could wrap his hands like that in other states.
“He could have been an honourable guy. They might have been used to wrapping his hands a certain way in Vegas and other places and then came to New York and it wasn’t allowed. I just pointed out the fact it wasn’t allowed.”
With Trump having now left the changing room, Richardson was alerted to the fact he’d just cold-shouldered the future host of The Apprentice. “Hey, man,” said a bystander, “didn’t you hear Donald Trump? He was trying to talk to you.”
Richardson, true to form, shrugged, unimpressed by celebrity, even less impressed by the stench of foul play. “All I know is Donald Trump’s got nothing to do with these damn hand wraps,” he answered. “We will all stay in our lanes and we’ll be fine.”
Looking back, Richardson believes they wanted him out of there, out of that room, by any means necessary. Failing that, they wanted to distract him. Dazzle him. But it didn’t work. Brother Naazim held his ground, informed the commission Trinidad had incorrectly wrapped hands, in accordance to the local rules, and then had the Puerto Rican, undefeated in 40 fights, start all over again and rewrap, this time with one layer of tape rather than two.
“Bernard’s safety was too important,” Richardson said. “As a coach, you meet their kids, their parents, their wife. I want to give them back the way they came to me. Just the same way.”
Britain’s Glenn Catley was never the same after a WBC super-middleweight title defence against Dingaan Thobela in Brakpan, South Africa the year before Hopkins vs. Trinidad. This change had less to do with him relinquishing his title, thus pride being dented, and more to do with the sensation of being smashed around the face for almost 12 rounds by someone holding a “glass ash tray”.
“New gloves are like new shoes,” he explains. “They’re always a little tight and you’ve got to wear them in a bit before using them. I used to give them to my trainer and he’d wear them and open and close them for 20 minutes to make them looser and more pliable.
“As soon as Thobela’s first jab landed, I wondered what the hell he had done to his gloves. I suspected foul play. I was scared of being hit after that first jab.
“Now, if you’ve been boxing 20-odd years, you know what a punch feels like, whether it lands on your face, your arms or your gloves. You get a feel for these things. But Thobela’s shots were like something I’d never experienced before.
“The next day, I noticed welts all over my face. I know, as a boxer, you’re going to get bruises and swelling the morning after, but I’d never experienced welts like those before.”
Before he revealed his suspicions to Chris Sanigar, his trainer, he simply stood before him and allowed him to draw his own conclusions. The image alone would suffice.
“Look at my face, Chris,” Catley said. “Something isn’t right.”
Catley suspected Thobela had either loaded his glove with a foreign object or wrapped his hands in a way that ensured he punched harder than normal. He told Sanigar this was something he’d feared as early as round one.
“Why didn’t you say something at the time?” asked his coach, to which Catley, a big advocate of psychology, replied: “I couldn’t fight with any negative thoughts in my head. I had to block it out.”
The price he paid was this: he got knocked out in the last round, his face was damaged more in one fight than in 29 previous fights combined, and he now couldn’t even remember walking back to the changing room, much less details pertaining to the action.
Worse, he was left with the sinking feeling that if he were to speak out now, voice his concerns and suspicions, it would likely be deemed a sure-fire case of sour grapes in the eyes of those who’d seen him surrender his title.
Alas, Catley headed back to Bristol and kept quiet. It was a silence maintained for six weeks, broken only when his uncle, calling from Wales, inadvertently kickstarted the enquiry.
“Have you seen the fight yet, Glenn?” the former champion was asked.
“No,” went the reply. “Not yet.”
“Well, his bandages seemed ever so strange, didn’t they?”
“What do you mean?” asked Catley, his uncle unaware of his own suspicions.
“It looked like he a mobile phone strapped to his knuckles.”
No sooner had he hung up the phone than Catley was sat down watching the fight on tape for the first time. It was then he identified what his uncle meant; it was then he started to understand why the next morning he saw what he saw in the bathroom mirror. “Horrified but pleased,” is how he describes it.
People in boxing work on intuition, a gut instinct, a lot of the time. They also become familiar with the sport’s necessary routines – like hand wrapping – and take comfort from knowing a process is done correctly, often without thought, both in gyms and in dressing rooms on fight night. This knowledge, as well as a familiarity with punches – their placement, their impact – generated in Naazim Richardson a feeling of concern he couldn’t shake ahead of Bernard Hopkins’ fight against Felix Trinidad.
“I’m a fan of boxing,” he says, “and I was a big fan of Felix Trinidad. He was one of my favourite fighters. He beat Yori Boy Campas, a guy I liked. If Yori Boy had known what we found out about Trinidad, maybe he wouldn’t have got past him. But Yori Boy said this about Trinidad: ‘He might go down, but he’ll get up and knock your head off.’
“I watched that fight and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s punching incredible.’ When you see someone hitting guys on the top of the head and on the elbows and they’re not hurting their hands, it makes you wonder. Normally you block a body shot with your elbow and the guy feels it. He then thinks twice about going there again. But Trinidad was just throwing punches at random. That caught my attention.”
Richardson stayed vigilant. Wise to it, he was, like so many in the sport, fascinated by the tale of Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard in 1919, and then haunted by the tale of Luis Resto and Billy Collins Jr and their 1983 ‘fight’ at Madison Square Garden.
He knows dark forces like Carlos ‘Panama’ Lewis exist in boxing – have always existed in boxing – but struggles to remove from his mind the image of what hands soaked in plaster of Paris did to the face of poor Billy Collins Jr. The swelling. The slits for eyes. The torn iris. The busted lip. The welts.
And that was just the short-term damage. In time, plaster casts (encased in boxing gloves missing an ounce of padding) also led to blurred vision, a no-contest, a premature retirement, depression, a car crash, and the death of a 22-year-old.
For this, Lewis and Resto, the original ‘winner’, were convicted of assault, conspiracy and criminal possession of a deadly weapon – Resto’s two fists – in 1986. They spent two-and-a-half years in jail and were banned from boxing, the only thing Resto knew, for life.
Whether deformed, deceitful or distraught, these faces, once you’ve seen them, are tough to forget. Redefining the phrase win at all costs, they offer an indication of when boxing, in Naazim Richardson’s words, moves from competition to violence: “I don’t consider boxing violence. Violence is when you violate the rules. When the rules are agreed upon and followed, it’s just a contest. When you violate the rules, though, it becomes violence.”
That’s why, eight years after Trinidad and Trump, Richardson was again causing a scene in a dressing room, moments before a fight, only this time with a far greater sense of anger and urgency.
“Oh, this situation was different,” he says. “Antonio Margarito’s hand wraps were illegal everywhere in the world.”
Asked to oversee the wrapping process on behalf of Shane Mosley, his latest fighter, Richardson was suddenly among Margarito’s team, quarrelling, jostling, his mind a mess of conflicting thoughts, flooded with icky memories and déjà vu. He had to act. It was his job to do so.
“Shane did everything asked of him for that particular fight and was so ready for it,” he says. “I knew he could beat Margarito. But after I found the piece of cast in the hand wraps, I thought they were going to lock him up. I thought the fight was going to be off. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve got this kid ready to go and I’ve just ruined the opportunity for him.’
“The commission, though, stepped up and asked me to give them the piece of plaster he had in his hands. I said I’d only give it to Shane Mosley or his lawyer.
“I didn’t want to give it to someone and then two months later, when the investigation is launched, they look in the box and there’s two cotton balls. Everybody would be like, ‘Well, did you know Brother Naazim had a stroke (in 2007)?’ They’d make out I’d lost it a little bit.”
Margarito, throwing the same two hands but without the support of sulfur and calcium, elements found in plaster of Paris, struggled getting to grips with Mosley in Los Angeles and was eventually hammered to defeat in the ninth round.
To the surprise of many, it was ‘Sugar’ Shane, the fleet-footed virtuoso, who stood his ground and landed the bigger, heavier, more harmful blows, all the while Margarito, a machine taken apart and put back together again, sans batteries, cowered like a child admonished by a parent. (As for the salt, the California State Athletic Commission then revoked his boxing license.)
“I don’t know if he lost confidence,” recalls Richardson, who watched Margarito wrap his hands three times. “I just think that night Shane Mosley would have beaten him with those pieces in his hands. But you can’t take those chances.
“I felt bad for Shane and Bernard in those situations because I didn’t want people to think they wouldn’t have beaten Margarito and Trinidad if it wasn’t for Naazim messing with the hand wraps. I felt as though the work we did before exposing the hand wraps was going to make us victorious regardless.”
Glenn Catley, meanwhile, armed with photos, canvassed opinion at a British Boxing Board of Control’s awards dinner and then, encouraged by a groundswell of support, lobbied a complaint at a WBC convention in Mexico City.
“Off the back of the photos,” he says, “they set up a separate hearing six weeks later in Paris, which we all had to attend – me, Chris, Thobela and his trainer, as well as the WBC representative. Thobela, of course, denied all knowledge, but the WBC deemed something wasn’t right.
“What they offered to do was make me the mandatory challenger with a 60/40 purse split – normally the split is 75/25. Now that, to me, is an admission of guilt. They also recommended the suspension of the referee, Eddie Cotton, and the inspector on the night, Houcine Houichi.
“In the end, Jose Sulaiman, the WBC President, overturned the suspensions of both officials, but allowed the rest to stay in place. It was all an admission that they’d dropped a b****ck.”
According to the report, Houichi went to Thobela’s dressing room to sign his bandages but neither Thobela nor his trainer were ready. He then went to Catley’s dressing room and signed the champion’s bandages. Finally, on returning to Thobela, he realised the South African’s bandages had already been signed, presumably by the referee.
“It’s not Eddie Cotton’s job to sign bandages,” says Catley. “Eddie Cotton, however, says he witnessed Houichi sign both sets of bandages and that there was no chance of any wrongdoing. One of them, in black and white, has lied. Their reports contradict each other.
“We were both left unattended for forty minutes. That’s not supposed to happen. We pay the WBC a portion of our purse so that the inspectors stay with us for the duration of the night, to the point where they’re even watching us do our urine samples.”
Later, Catley tried suing the WBC. He felt he should be reimbursed the sanctioning fees he’d been made to pay to guarantee some duty of care from officials. A strong case. Or so he thought.
“The case wasn’t against Thobela,” he says. “Aside from photos, I’ve got nothing physical or tangible to prove his wrongdoing. It’s his word against mine.
“No, my case was against the WBC because their incompetence cost me my title, a lot of money and prematurely terminated my career. They ruined me.
“That Thobela fight finished me. Truth be told, I slipped into a depression. I’ve got reports that state I was going through depression and that it was brought on by what happened in South Africa.
“When I boxed Eric Lucas the second time, he stopped me – something he didn’t come close to doing first time around. It was all because I was a shell of a man. I woke up the morning after that Lucas defeat and just didn’t care. All I wanted to do was grab my money and go home to my kids. I wasn’t devastated, I was depressed. And those two things are very, very different.”
Catley wasn’t alone. Thobela, too, lost every one of his final seven fights and retired in 2006. He, like Margarito, a Mexican whose entire body of work has been called into question, found it difficult to thrive amid the scrutiny and the tightening of the rules.
As for Margarito, the big asterisk against him concerns a career-defining eleventh round stoppage of Miguel Cotto eight months before he and his coach, Javier Capetillo, were rumbled by Richardson. At the time, this display, some ten years ago, was widely celebrated, the crowning moment in a hard-fought career, and captured the Mexican at his relentless best.
Now, however, Margarito’s magnum opus is the boxing equivalent of a Milli Vanilli performance, or an episode of The Cosby Show, only tougher to watch.
“We’ll never know,” says eagle-eye Richardson when asked if Margarito illegally wrapped his hands for the Cotto fight. “It’s a fantasy matchup. We can’t measure it.
“It’s like a guy walking in on his wife cheating on him. She’ll jump up and say it’s the first time. She’s not going to say, ‘I’ve been doing it for years.’ He won’t say he’s been wrapping his hands like that all the time and just happened to get caught that one time.”
You go back to the signs, I suppose. The facial damage, for instance, that stayed with Cotto and flared up in most of the Puerto Rican’s subsequent fights. The handsome, chiselled features hammered like plasticine into something grotesque and shapeless. The helplessness in his eyes. The lips so swollen they’d no longer touch. The swabs entering his nostrils white and coming out red. Blood red. The way he’d then blow that misshapen nose before the start of every round and cross his chest with his right glove, hoping for some divine intervention, a place to escape, help.
“The thing that made me suspicious was how Margarito seemed to punch harder late in the fight,” Richardson says. “Someone like Gennady Golovkin can punch but I don’t know how late he can punch.
“Very few fighters who aren’t explosive can still punch hard late in a fight. Shane Mosley was dangerous late in the Margarito fight but he’s explosive. In a 12-round fight, Shane can explode and hit you with something at any moment and knock you out. He does that when you’re both tired.
“Margarito, though, was never explosive. He was methodical. Most methodical guys slow down as the fight goes on. But he was methodical and punching harder as the fight got late. I was like, ‘How is this motherf**ker punching harder in the eighth round than he did in the first round?’
“Well, he had a cushion and had the piece of cast inserted in the cushion. As the cushion mashes down, it gets to that cast. By the ninth or tenth round he’s punching on that cast now. That’s what you’re feeling hitting your elbows and the top of your head.”
In the case of Cotto and Margarito, boxing, a sport you’d be hard pressed to ever call fair, did the right thing and settled the situation in the best way possible. The pair fought again in 2011, this time with stricter parenting, and Cotto’s revenge beating was so thorough it rendered Margarito unable to continue beyond the ninth round. Richardson, ostensibly the reason for the heightened security, nay, the reason for the rematch, was back at MSG, where it all started, to watch justice prevail.
“When they fought the second time, I was still suspicious,” he says. “Cotto hired me to watch Margarito get his hands wrapped. I told Cotto, ‘All you had to do was stay standing in the last fight and you would have beaten him. So you know you can beat this guy. Even if he has the plaster in his hands again, you can beat him having had that knowledge and been there before.’
“At first Margarito’s people were like, ‘Hey, we don’t care who watches us wrap his hands.’ But when they flew me down there last minute and I got to the door, they went off. They went crazy. They appealed to the New York commission and wouldn’t let me watch him wrap. ‘We don’t want him in our room!’ they said. ‘We don’t want him in here!’
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t want me in there, either.’”
In life, knowledge is power. In boxing, it’s also protection.
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