Command and Control: The Right Life for DeMarcus Corley

“My third pro fight was on the Riddick Bowe–Andrew Golota undercard at Madison Square Garden. And when I came out and saw all the lights, I thought, ‘This is where you wanna be. But you gotta want this. You gotta live it.’”

He lived boxing. What does that mean? It means living first. Life itself, that assumption and condition of time dedicated to anything. For some, it provides the first challenge. For some, the rest is easy.

***

Washington, DC. Coach Kenny caught him peeking through the gym door of the Kenilworth Recreation Center. He assumed the little boy, “Duck” they called him, because of his size, was interested. So he asked him if he wanted to learn to box. “For what?” the boy said, “I know how to fight.”

Boxing was different, Coach Kenny explained, it was a sport; if you excelled at it, “you got a trophy or a medal most of the time when you were at a tournament.” “Duck” was listening now, he followed Coach Kenny into the gym, admired the trophies on display, many of them won by kids as young as ten, as young as himself. “And these trophies weren’t little,” he remembers, “twelve inches, two feet, three feet tall. I was so excited to see that a kid could win a trophy. I thought, ‘I already know how to fight, so I wanna win a trophy now.’ That was my motivation to fight.”

His mother was less enthused. She wasn’t about to let her asthmatic son pursue such an aerobically demanding sport. What happened to him when he ran with the other kids, when he tore through freshly cut grass or lingered too long in the presence of cats and dogs, that was nothing like what boxing would do to him.

He kept the pressure on her, though; kept training with Coach Kenny, learning how to conform his street fighting skills to the ring, its rules and restrictions. Around Christmas, 1987, with a tournament approaching, he asked again if he could box. She made him a deal: “You go out there and fight and you have an asthma attack—you ain’t boxing no more. And if you don’t win—you ain’t boxing no more.”

That second condition is interesting. It reflects a mother’s belief in her son and what he was capable of, an understanding of what motivates him too. She knew he was special. Otherwise, her offer contained a thinly-veiled desire that he fail. And what kind of parent sets her child up for failure?

Maggie Corley signed the application; her son, DeMarcus, brought the trophy home.

“So began my life in boxing.”

***

“Practicing how to die.”

That is what the physicians of antiquity called asthma. Seneca, himself an asthmatic, described it as “a sort of continued ‘last gasp,’” and saw this affliction as an opportunity to reflect on his death.

Corley wasn’t worried about his asthma killing him, but he knew that he had to control it to have any future in boxing. The pharmaceutical solutions were not his first choice—not because Corley doubted their efficacy, but because in resorting to an inhaler he was relinquishing control. “I’m gonna control asthma, not let asthma control me,” he told himself. He didn’t like “being handicapped,” which he believed he was so long as he needed an inhaler. The solution wasn’t to treat his condition with medication: it was to control it to the point where medication was unnecessary.

By twenty-five, Corley was past inhalers. His high school swim coach started him on the path to liberation, training Corley, who was a diver because that is all his asthma would allow, to swim laps to expand his lung capacity. But experience, too, played a role—drill after drill, round after round, Corley came to understand what his body was capable of. “I know when I can push it to the limit and when to pull back,” he says. That understanding brought him a physiological serenity, one that allowed him to control his nerves, his breathing, even in the ring. To box the way he wanted—that is, without any recourse to corticosteroids or beta-agonists—Corley had to learn to relax, to transform weakness to strength.

***

That transformation must have appealed to Corley, a man obsessed with discipline and control, specifically self-control, with what he can demand of himself. It isn’t maniacal, and there is nothing about Corley’s preternatural capacity for discipline that stands to harm other people. Sturdy but subtle, it’s woven quietly into his behavior such that it is discerned most clearly in contrasting his indulgences with those other forty-six-year-old men might permit themselves. It’s hard to believe Corley struggled much in a pandemic year, treating its unhinging restrictions as one more demand on his willpower, one more opportunity to embrace discipline.

He owes his career primarily to talent, of course. But his longevity, those twenty-three years, the eighty-six professional fights—these speak to discipline. It is worth considering whether Corley’s lucidity and articulate speech aren’t also indebted to clean living. The sun sets early on a life of violence, but, thankfully, Corley has held the shadows at bay.

How? He doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink; he prefers to prepare his meals rather than patronize restaurants, not only because he loves cooking but because it allows him to control his portions and nutrition. He is religious about his training. “I train every day,” says Corley, “and if I take a day off from the gym, I’m constantly moving. I got my kids so I’m on my feet like, eighteen hours a day. The result of such a disciplined and active life? “I walk around at the weight I’m fighting at,” he says, something his Instagram account confirms repeatedly.

Even in the twilight of his career, Corley is ever-ready, ever-prepared to seize an opportunity because he demands that of himself. That commitment paid off in 2001.

***

“June 25th, I’m in the gym training. We secured a fight on the Johnny Tapia undercard at Mandalay Bay. Ener Julio was scheduled to fight Felix Flores, I was fighting an eight-rounder. So I get a call from Don King’s office while I’m in the gym training.

‘Would you be interested in fighting?’

‘When?’

‘This Saturday on Showtime.’

‘Yes! Who am I fighting?’”

That last utterance. Corley accepted the offer without knowing the opponent because he understood the opportunity, yes, but also because he was ready to seize it, ready to go twelve rounds. He only needed one, dropping Flores twice with uppercuts before referee Jay Nady stopped the fight.

“That was my second world title. It meant so much to me to take a fight on five days’ notice and become a world champion again. It can’t get better than that. I tell a lot of guys in the gym…” (And here Corley affects a wizened tone, the shift is smooth, he’s had this conversation before.) “You gotta stay ready. This is your job. Stay ready. Why do you gotta wait six weeks, seven weeks? ‘Oh, I gotta get ready.’ Get ready? That’s your job!

I became a world champion on five days’ notice. How? Every day I’m in the gym training. And I learned this from old fighters: Simon Brown, Maurice Blocker, William Joppy, Mark Johnson, Ray Leonard. They were gym rats, and so that’s what I became. Boxing was my job; I knew I had to get up every morning and go to work. Why? Because I got bills to pay. I gotta fight. You don’t know when they’re gonna knock on that door again.”

There is wisdom there, the kind imparted by example to those who could recognize it, a piece of motivation shared while shoes get tied, hands wrapped, brows greased. “There is no guarantee that every fighter is going to pay attention to them, to soak everything in,” says Corley, “but I listened, I paid attention.”

In 1999, the wrong voice got in his ear.

***

You scared of this bike.

 ***

“I had just won my first world title, I beat Ener Julio in ’99 in DC. I was celebrating, I bought a motorcycle, a Honda CBR600. And so I went to the club. I like to dance and I was dancing. My friends saw my motorcycle jacket and they were like, “You don’t need to be drinking if you’re riding a motorcycle.”

His friends were right—Corley knew it. While he abstained growing up, he’d seen what alcohol did to people, how it taunted, tempted, dared, deceived. But the Hennessy and Coke purchased for him by a friend…

Corley chuckles. He knew even then “that that brown will set you down,” but that drink was soft, smooth compared to the gin-and-juice his mother drank. He had another and then a gin-and-juice.

Stepping through the doors of Legends Restaurant and Nightclub in Hillcrest Heights, into the night’s invigorating chill, Corley thought, “I’m feelin’ good now. I gotta ride this motorcycle.”

“I’m on Suitland Parkway, Suitland Parkway is the highway, and you know who starts talking to me? That Hennessy.”

You scared of this bike.

I said, “What?!”

Yeah, yeah, you sacred. This bike’ll bust your ass.

I said, “What?! I ain’t scared of this bike.”

Yeah, this bike’ll bust your head.

Taunted, tempted, dared, deceived.

“I open that sucker up, from 60 to 110 just like that. I’m lettin’ that thing go, 125, 135. When I looked down, I’m doin’ 185, I could feel the G-force, the white spaced line on the road wasn’t spaced anymore: it was just a long line.” As Corley navigated a slope in the road he leaned too far to the left, the bike caught gravel on the side of the road and started fishtailing toward the barrier wall.

“I saw the wall, all I could do was raise up. And that’s how fast I was going—the wind pulled me off like I was wearing a parachute.”

Like a participant in the Gloucester Cheese Roll, Corley, his helmet torn off, plunged through the roadside menagerie that should have shattered his body. Meanwhile, his bike lay peaceful against the barrier wall, gasping its last in the afterglow of explosion.

It was a relay bookended by tumblers. When Corley finally stopped moving, he was across the street from his apartment. “I was so drunk, I didn’t feel anything,” says Corley. He knows he should not have walked away from that accident, knows too the effect that story has on new ears. But he speaks casually about his accident. Why? Perhaps because years later he sees the accident as an essential element to a larger story. That would be a convenient way to frame things, and a misguided or at least reductionist way. It’s just as likely that when Corley realized he was fine, there was no reason to dwell on the accident further. Such a mentality can be exasperating for others, but it isn’t all that peculiar in a person so self-controlled.

“I got up, looked at the motorcycle, thought, ‘That’s alright, I’ll get another one.’” That’s right, he could just get another one—that much he could control. And why dwell on what might have happened? What would that do? Separated from his front door by railroad tracks and a pair of fences, Corley, now safely in control, continued his roadside trek until he drew up to his apartment.

Still too drunk to find the right key, he banged on the door until Maggie answered.

“What happened?”

“I crashed my motorcycle.”

“What?”

“I crashed my motorcycle, over there on the highway off 2-95.”

Corley crawled into bed, a few scratches on his leg the only evidence of his brush with death. In the morning, he walked over to his bike, grabbed his tags. “Oh well,” he said.

***

“If God says, ‘ How do you wanna go?’ I have two ways I wanna go. The first way, I used to say, was doing something I love: riding a motorcycle. That was my death plan. I envisioned going on a motorcycle because I love motorcycles.”

Why would anyone ever envision such a thing?

***

Wednesday, November 26, 1997, Corley got to the gym and told Sharmba Mitchell and William Joppy about a dream he had the night previous: “I was in a shootout on Minnesota Avenue.” Finished training for the day, Corley left to pick up his son, DeMarcus Jr., from daycare and “bring him back down the hill to where he stayed with his mom, on Minnesota avenue.” Corley dropped his son off, lingered about for a bit, but was antsy: he wanted “to get back around the way, we were shooting dice, I wanted to get back to gambling.”

Around a quarter to seven, Corley left the house. “I had on an Eddie Bauer coat, big, puffy. Got into my Grand Marquis, I’m looking for my keys. Two guys walk around the side of the townhouse where my son’s mom lives.”

“Give me your coat.”

And then they start shooting. “I duck down, bullets are coming through the windshield,” recalls Corely, placidly, “I get out and start running. I get hit in my left leg and in my back … I ran a good distance from where I got shot. A gentleman who came out onto his porch when he heard the gunfire, he knew me from around the way, he let me use his phone. I called Ray Leonard, who was my manager at the time, and I called my mother. I told her I’d just been shot, that the ambulance was on the way, that I was going to Prince George’s Hospital.”

Even with two bullets in his body, Corley was looking for control. The doctors wanted to X-ray Corley, but he knew enough about gunshots and the mischief a lodged bullet could make to plead for action. “Look, I’m a professional boxer,” he told the medical staff assigned to him, “You gotta get these bullets out of me before they move because if they do there’s a possibility I could be paralyzed.”

The doctors resisted, but Corley was adamant removing the bullets take priority. After signing a waiver, he got his wish.

“That Thursday was Thanksgiving; I came home, had Thanksgiving dinner with my mother, my son Demarcus came over to check on me. I rested up, and ten, twelve days later, I was back in the gym training. I was limping, but I was in the gym. ”

Back in the gym, yes, but the world outside of it wasn’t through with him yet.

***

Lauren

Ashley

Michaelangelo Jr.

Jermaine

D’angelo

Kayla

Who would look out for them now?

***

Stanley Holmes boxed out of the Round One gym in Capitol Heights with Corley. They had a friendship of sorts and once traveled to Atlantic City together. On April 19, 2001, Holmes murdered Corley’s brother.

“How do you tell someone they can’t sell drugs when you’re selling drugs and selling drugs is illegal?” That was Corley’s response when his brother Michealangelo (Mike, for short) told him about the simmering turf war between himself and rival drug dealers in Kenilworth. The idea that someone breaking the law demanded another lawbreaker follow the rules was ridiculous to Corley. That is a fighter’s thinking, isn’t it? That the rules do not apply until they apply to both parties. Corley told his brother to go about his business, that trying to avoid a conflict by dealing during the day was liable to get him arrested.

The day Mike was killed, he planned to go to the mall while Corley finished up at the gym. They were going to meet up after. “Before I can leave, I get a phone call: ‘Man, your brother’s just been shot in Kenilworth.’ They tried to revive Mike at the hospital but he didn’t make it.”

The turf war escalated and claimed its victim. “They paid Stanley $5,000 to kill my brother,” says Corley, lapsing into a heavy silence after speaking that disgusting sum. But it wasn’t just the loss of his brother that was so sobering for Corley “I was losing friends like every other month. Like, someone was being murdered, was being killed.” That death crept into his family was a sign that Corley needed to redouble his commitment to living boxing.

Corley is a loving father, a doting son, and when his nieces and nephews needed him most, a devoted uncle. He stepped in immediately to support Mike’s children, embracing six more reasons to get up every morning, go to work, be ready.

***

Do experiences like these explain that death plan? The stream of fatalism in Corley that he admits makes his kids uncomfortable. He is all-too-familiar with death, and perhaps that familiarity allows him to think about it coolly, with that ever-present angling for control. A death plan is a plan, of course, something to be executed. But that plan included two options. The motorcycle couldn’t kill him. What was plan B? Did he love plan B like he loves motorcycles? Because Corley loves fighting.

***

While he hasn’t boxed professionally since 2019, Corley recently ventured into bare-knuckle boxing and, despite losing his first fight, he intends to do it again. Is that why his kids are so uncomfortable with his talking about how he wants to leave this world? Because, secretly, Corley’s second option involves the thing he already knew how to do when Coach Kenny caught him at the rec center doors?

It seems unlikely, if only because Corley plans to retire this year. He would like to win a title in bare-knuckle first, move up a division, win a second one; like “Duck,” “Chop Chop” is in it for the hardware, not the money. Corley and his family are financially secure. When the money was coming in, at a time when he was more likely to spend it, a time when he was less responsible than he now must be, Corley was wise enough to put much of it in Maggie’s name. He learned how to invest his money—”so that your money is working for you, you aren’t working for the money”—from people he trusted. “The money that you have coming in—you wanna stretch it, you wanna make it last,” he says. “Act like you don’t have it. You can’t live on the expectation that the purse from your next fight is something you’re guaranteed to see.” Discipline. Control. Do you understand now? This is who Corley is.

When he has punched his last, Corley intends to train and advise fighters, to empower them, to teach them to secure a future in a sport where all roads lead to the boneyard. “Because promoters? They treat you like a whore and a prostitute,” he says bluntly, “They’re gonna use you till they can’t use you no more.” The analogy is apt: these are rough trades, exploitative and callous, and you are essentially alone in both until you concede some control of your fleeting future to someone else. So that preservative wisdom is something Corley believes you can only gain from having trusting relationships with people who don’t consider themselves tethered to your success. He can be that because while he will always love to fight, Corley doesn’t need boxing.

Not when there are meals to prepare, rounds of horseshoes to play, milestones in his children’s lives to celebrate, the Chop Chop Corley clothing line to run—not when there is so much living to do. “I feel blessed. I didn’t live a perfect life, but I lived the right life for the sport I chose.”

And so the living is the easy part now.

 ***

Killed in Brazil?: The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, by Jimmy Tobin

About Jimmy Tobin 76 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil?: The Mysterious Death of Arturo "Thunder" Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.