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 lives’ privations? 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; 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. What is happiness for them? Financial security, a mind fit enough to appreciate it. Some require more, a place in the public consciousness, for example, one befitting if not their achievements, than at least their ego. For others, an outlet for their preternatural competitiveness keeps them happy, a chance to still make and remake the world according to their volition. Some find happiness in a quiet banality, in a life those who haven’t lived harder might call mundane. Some are simply thankful to make a life free of fists, forked tongues, felonious fine print. These men are happy in their own manner.
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Wayne Braithwaite is happy. Or, to use his vernacular “good”; the word made convincing by his rich Guyanese accent. A hint to why is evident in his Whatsapp status: Braithwaite is “At the gym,” one of the app’s twelve pre-set statuses, along with “available,” the ominous “battery about to die,” and saddest of all: “in a meeting.” Setting a status seems uncharacteristic of Braithwaite—status holds nothing for him. But should you need him, check the gym.
His Instagram account tells you which one: Bout Fight Club in Manhattan, where Braithwaite is a personal trainer and boxing instructor. You might think a former cruiserweight champion would want to be known primarily as such, according to his glory. But Braithwaite is different. He is good with the person he is and the life he lives. Some time under the hood of “Big Truck” explains why.
Braithwaite retired in 2012, at 37, with a record of 24-6 with 20 knockouts. Already sensing the end, the Georgetown-born Braithwaite returned to Guyana that year for a pair of fights. Losing both, Braithwaite knew he’d fought his last. “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,”says Braithwaite. “Some people fight because of the money. They mess up, they go and get hurt—and that won’t happen to me because I’m not doin’ it.”
He harbored no illusions about the fighter’s ever-present danger of “losing it all in an instant.” But boxing wouldn’t take him.
That mentality seems out of place in a sport that demands its fraternity self-immolate. In a sense, it makes Braithwaite’s achievements more impressive. How did he will himself into fighting shape, will himself through punishment, without recourse to the sublimated masochism that forges so many of his brothers? But then, Braithwaite didn’t come to boxing for traditional reasons.
“I got into boxing by mistake,” he says bluntly. “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 17-year-old Braithwaite won a tournament, beating the very friend who’d introduced him to the sport. “The next thing you know, I’m representing Guyana.” After winning gold at the Junior Pan Am games in 1995, he thought “Alright, 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 the woman who spent her rent money on his first pair of boxing shoes, the pride is palpable. “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 and Braithwaite welcomed. She viewed her managerial responsibilities with a maternal eye, which drew criticism from some. 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 … they want to live their dreams through them, but my mom didn’t need that.” Small guided her son’s career adroitly, suspending her maternal instincts enough to put him in harm’s way—which her role demanded—but never enough to make him a commodity. And so, Braithwaite didn’t treat himself like one.
Perhaps that explains how Braithwaite retired: “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 retirement, Braithwaite was happy to have nothing to do with boxing. But a call from his former trainer, Colin Morgan, got Braithwaite back in the ring. Morgan was training Marco Huck at the time and asked Braithwaite to come by the gym. “I went over, started movin’ around, I’m like ‘Okay…’’’ says Braithwaite, proudly recalling how his body responded to his old commands. He sparred a few rounds with Huck but also started training kids at the gym. The training rekindled 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 successes into their training that allow his clients to feel good about their progress and proud of what they’re learning. While he’d appreciate the opportunity to train a potential champion, to return to the pinnacle in a new 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 as a reminder of who he was and who he remains. “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? Before they tell themselves they can get back, just this last time, to what they once were; before they one last payday, only to realize they can always use another one, and another until there’s little left worth paying for? There’s an oppositional arrangement in place. Fighters look to defeat their opponents and the sport, to become champions and swerve the outlay of that achievement. But Braithwaite boxed because he was good at it, it wasn’t his only option, it was the logical one. And so “I never had a problem leaving,” he says, “and it wasn’t hard to transition because it wasn’t hard to walk away.”
Retirement hasn’t been perfect, though. Claire Small passed away from Covid-19 earlier this year. Braithwaite, who was shocked by how quickly the virus took his mother. He remembers the EMT spending an hour trying to resuscitate her, remembers 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 no one cares about him, but because the loss of a mother is something you go through alone. That bond is ineffable, finding its sweetest expression in the shift sons feel as they move from protected to protector. “But I’m good,” says Braithwaite, “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.