Were Tolstoy following boxing today, he might observe that all unhappy boxers are alike, but that each happy boxer is happy in his own manner. What awaits the men who find but one route beyond the privations of their condition? Who darken their tomorrows to keep the lights on today? They know all too well. And yet, “It won’t happen to me,” each says assuredly; that naivete, or arrogance, or essential lie, all but assuring they are wrong.
But what of the men who escape boxing’s boneyard? Because those men exist: they are exceptions to the rule, and growing in number too. Happiness for them includes a few key elements: they must be secure enough to enjoy retirement and fit enough to recognize as much. Some require more, a preserved place in the public consciousness, for example, one befitting if not their achievements, than at least their ego. For others, it is an outlet for their preternatural competitiveness that keeps them happy, a chance to still make and remake the world according to their volition. Some find happiness in a quiet banality, a leisurely lope down the mountain, giving themselves fully to the kinds of lives those who haven’t lived harder might call mundane. Some are simply thankful to make a life, any life, free of fists, forked tongues, and felonious fine print. These men are happy in their own manner.
Wayne Braithwaite is happy. Or, to use his vernacular “good”; the word sounding even more convincing in his rich Guyanese accent. A hint as to why is evident in his Whatsapp status. According to WhatsApp, Braithwaite is “At the gym.” It’s one of twelve pre-set statuses on the app, along with “available,” the more ominous “battery about to die,” and saddest of them all: “in a meeting.” It seems almost uncharacteristic of Braithwaite to bother with setting a status—status is not something Braithwaite cares for. But if you want to find him, he probably is at the gym.
His Instagram account will tell you which one: Bout Fight Club in Manhattan, where for the past few years Braithwaite has served as a personal trainer teaching boxing and helping people achieve their fitness goals. You might think a former WBC cruiserweight champion would want to be known primarily as such: fighters are ferociously proud, appropriately arrogant for their line of work. But Braithwaite is different. And while the decision to cite that bit of biography first in his Instagram profile may not have been a conscious one, it reveals something of Braithwaite’s happiness, of his own way to it: he is good with the person he is and the life he lives. A little time under the hood of “Big Truck” and it’s easy to understand why.
Braithwaite retired in 2012, at the age of thirty-seven, finishing with a professional record of 24-6 with 20 knockouts. Perhaps already sensing the end, the Georgetown-born Braithwaite returned to his native Guyana that year for a pair of fights. After a stoppage loss to Shawn Cox and a bitter decision loss to Shawn Corbin, Braithwaite knew he’d fought his last. “I stepped away from the game because I was just going through the motions. And I didn’t want to stay in it without the love for the game and get hurt,” says Braithwaite. “I wasn’t fighting anybody, and when I wasn’t fighting anybody, I started losing interest in the game. If I do something, I’m going to put my all into it, I’m not going to fight because of money or because of fame, I’m going to fight to win. I’m going to fight because I want to give the people a performance. Some people, they fight because of the money. The mess up, they go and get hurt—and that won’t happen to me because I’m not doin’ it.”
No, that was never going to be Braithwaite. He harbored no illusions about the perils of his career, about the ever-present danger of what he describes as “losing it all in an instant.” And so boxing wasn’t going to take him.
That mentality seems almost out of place in a sport that so often demands the self-immolation of its fraternity. In a sense, it makes Braithwaite’s achievements more impressive. It’s hard to believe he could will himself into fighting shape, will himself through punishment, for all those years without recourse to the sublimated masochism that forges so many fighters. But then, Braithwaite didn’t come to boxing for traditional reasons either.
“I got into boxing by mistake,” he says bluntly. “You won’t believe me, but while I always liked boxing, I got into boxing by mistake. One day, I was with one of my schoolmates, he had a box of trophies. I was like, ‘I wanna win one of dat.’” It was that simple. His friend took him to a boxing gym. Soon after, the seventeen-year-old Braithwaite won a tournament, beating the very friend who’d introduced him to the sport. “Then I won another, then next thing you know, I’m representing Guyana.” Braithwaite won gold at the Junior Pan Am games in 1995. “Alright,” he thought, “I guess I’ll take boxing seriously.”
In 2002, five years into his career, Braithwaite acquired a new manager: his mother, Claire Small. When Braithwaite speaks of her, of the woman who spent her rent money on his first pair of boxing shoes, the pride is palpable. “And the good thing was that, even in the beginning, the beautiful thing about it was I had my mom in my corner and she was gonna look out for me.” Small took control of his career when he needed it. Her son, then the undefeated WBC champion, was already thinking about how he wanted to leave boxing.
Small managed Braithwaite carefully, she was protective of him, “but she was strict,” says the self-professed momma’s boy, “she wanted the best of me, as any mother would.”
Did you catch it? The of where our familiarity with cliché anticipates for?
It indicates an accountability Small demanded of her son, an accountability Braithwaite welcomed. She managed him with a maternal eye, viewed her managerial responsibilities through that lens, which drew criticisms from some onlookers. But Braithwaite won’t abide the notion his mother was anything but an astute and devoted manager. “Making my mom my manager was one of the best things I ever decided to do. A lot of people kept telling me, they say my mom messed up my career. Messed up my career? I tell everyone—I’m responsible for everything in my career. If I lose, I’m responsible for it. And if I win, I accept the win.”
The crucial element in the professional relationship between mother and son was one so often missing from fathers who train their sons. “Some fathers, how they train their sons, they want to live their dreams through them, but my mom didn’t need that.” Small guided her son’s career adroitly because she could suspend her maternal instincts enough to put him in harm’s way—that is what her role demanded—but never enough to treat him like a commodity. And so, Braithwaite doesn’t treat himself like one either.
Perhaps that explains why Briathwaite retired when he did, retired the way he did., “I retired on my own,” he says, “I never announced that I retired, I just stopped. You can’t be boxing forever, you have to think about what you’re going to do after boxing. You have to think about other things than boxing, you gotta make a future, a life outside boxing.”
Early into his retirement, a life outside boxing meant “going to the gym, lifting weights, playing basketball, going to friends’ houses.” Braithwaite was happy to have nothing to do with boxing. But a call from his former trainer, Colin Morgan, got Braithwaite back into the ring. Morgan was training Marco Huck at the time and asked Braithwaite to come by the gym. “I said okay, I went over, started movin’ around, I’m like ‘Okay…’’’ says Braithwaite, recalling with pride the way his body responded to his old commands. He sparred a few rounds with Huck but also started training kids at the gym. It was the training that helped rekindle his love for boxing.
Though there are a few aspiring fighters under his tutelage Braithwaite’s schedule is filled mostly by people looking to get in shape. He is patient with them, working to their ability, embedding little successes into their training, movements and maneuvers that allow his clients to feel good about their progress, feel proud of what they’re learning, what they’re doing for themselves. While he would appreciate the opportunity to train a fighter with championship potential, to return to the pinnacle in a different role, Braithwaite is content (he’s good) knowing that the people he works with benefit from their time with a former world champion. His mother’s son, after all, Braithwaite does not foist his aspirations onto the people he trains. Rather, he enjoys the opportunity this phase of his life has afforded him for what it is: a reminder of who he was and who he managed to remain. “It’s nice, and it keeps me in shape too,” Braithwaite says. “I put the gloves on sometimes and move around with them [his clients], they’re like, ‘You can still fight!’ But I’m good. They see me in the ring, they see the way I can still move and they say, ‘Why you retire?” I say, ‘I’m good, man,’” he chuckles. “I always said I’m gonna leave it [boxing], and when I leave it ‘I’m gonna leave it with my senses intact.”
Don’t all fighters talk like this? Years before they tell themselves they can get back, if just this last time, to what they once were; before they need just one more payday, only to realize they can always use another payday, and another one until there is little left worth paying for? There’s an oppositional arrangement in place. Fighters look to defeat both their opponents and the sport, to become champions and swerve the outlay of that pursuit. But Braithwaite boxed because he was good at it; it defined him only as much as anyone else’s job defines them. It wasn’t his only option—it was the logical one. And so “I never had a problem leaving,” he says, “I was always doing something, playing sports, and it wasn’t hard to transition because it wasn’t hard to walk away either.”
Retirement hasn’t been perfect, though. Claire Small passed away from Covid-19 earlier this year. “I don’t know how she got it,” says Braithwaite, who was shocked by how quickly the virus took his mother from him. He remembers the EMT spending an hour trying to resuscitate her, remembers being with her when she took her last breath. “It was real hard on me. My wife was stuck in Guyana, so it was just me and my little brother. There was nobody else.” Nor has Braithwaite found any support since, not because he doesn’t have people who care about him, but because the loss of a mother is something you have to go through alone. That bond is ineffable, finding its sweetest expression in the shift in perspective sons feel as they move from protected to protector. “But I’m good,” says Braithwaite, “I’m goin’ through it. I’m trying to take the pieces and build up. God gives you everything you want but he gives it at his own time. So I just keep praying, keep my fingers crossed, keep doing what I’m doing and I’ll be alright.”
He’ll be better than alright. He’ll be good.