“Winning the world title? It never really sets in at the moment you achieve something like that, but I want to put it into perspective. I remember saying to people, ‘When I have my first Rolex it’s going to make me feel like I have that S on my chest’ [like Superman], and I got my first Rolex and it was a bit of an anticlimax. Then I said, ‘You know, when I get my first Mercedes, it’s going to make me feel like I have the S on my chest’, but again, it didn’t make me feel anything special. I already knew at that point I needed to develop a bigger picture in my life, beyond material worth and look at providing for my family and friends and people in need. So when I became champ and got my world title, it was a great feeling, but that’s not an everlasting thing and doesn’t define you.”
Liles’s entry into boxing may not have been planned, but once immersed into the discipline, he more than made his mark. “I started boxing by chance when I was thirteen years old. I was a scrawny little neighborhood kid at the time and there was a gym up in my neighborhood [Syracuse, New York] that had opened up for about two months and I had a friend of mine who had been working out there and told me to come along and check the place out. When I got there, the old man that was running the gym asked me where my workout stuff was at. I said, ‘It’s at home.’ He said, ‘Well, get your stuff.’ I went home and came back and that was the first thing in my life that I was ever consistent with. The funny thing is, the man running the gym didn’t realize I wasn’t one of the members. He assumed and I went with it!
“As an amateur, I won two hundred and eighty-five and lost fourteen, so I was one short of three hundred fights.” The details Liles left out regarding his amateur career are worth revisiting, however. In 1985 he took third place at the National Golden Gloves in the welterweight category, and then the year after became Golden Gloves champion. The same year he also claimed gold at the US Olympic Festival. In 1987 he won bronze at the Pan-Am Games at light-middleweight, which was swiftly followed by gold at the US Amateur championships. A few months later he defeated Roy Jones Jr. twice, including one contest where Jones lost a 3-0 decision and hit the deck twice. Jones Jr. would get his revenge the year after, pushing runner-up Liles out of the pecking order for the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul.”
Liles reflected on his former US teammate. “Roy is a friend of mine and we went on a number of international trips together including to England and Ireland. Roy was never my nemesis and was never the guy who I was ever worried about. We never had a problem with each other and I have the utmost admiration for what he achieved as a professional, but his style was never a problem for me. My stiffest competition as an amateur was Tim Littles. I idolized Tim’s style. He fought at junior-middleweight when I was a welterweight, but I could no longer defeat mother nature, so I had to move up. Once I moved up, he went from being my best friend to my enemy. He took it personal and I never wanted that to happen. We fought four times in the amateurs and we had very close fights on two of the occasions and the other two I dominated, but without a doubt he was my toughest opponent.”
On November 18, 1988, the Syracuse-born southpaw made his professional debut against Jeff Kennedy. Winning his first twenty-one fights, including fourteen via stoppage, on July 7, 1992, Liles challenged fellow undefeated American and old foe Littles for his USBA super-middleweight title, losing by a points decision. Liles recalled his first loss. “I believe in the second round he hit me with either an elbow or a headbutt and I received a blow to my top lip that would need eleven stitches after the fight. As a result, I was reluctant to do any inside fighting and exchange any blows because I didn’t want to make the cut worse. However, I also didn’t want to stop, so I just kept on sucking my lip for the course of the fight.
“I lost a decision to Tim, but that’s not what angered me. Me and Tim had traveled together as part of the USA boxing team and, as I mentioned before, until I moved up in weight he was one of my best friends in boxing who I idolized. After the fight, when I was injured, he said some negative things about me and I took that personally. He’d won the fight, so I didn’t understand why he said that. I carried that grudge for a while until we ended up fighting again.” That rematch would have far more at stake.
On a more lighthearted note, the fighter explained how he picked up his moniker, “Fabulous.” “I turned professional in 1988 with Emanuel Steward at the Kronk Gym, alongside a host of other fighters. After my three-year contract ended I decided to move on and went to the Goossens in California. My manager at the time was involved in a few different business ventures—one was boxing, the other was music.
“I used to go to his office all the time and we would all go to the same place to pick up our checks. He had a songwriter named Sammy, who was flamboyantly gay, and he would always call me fabulous. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous! The name just stuck and that’s where the nickname came from. Nobody knows that. I just thought, if Marvin Hagler was ‘Marvelous,’ then I could pull off ‘Fabulous.’
Bouncing back from the Littles defeat, three months later on October 21, 1992, Liles took on Merqui Sosa, 21-2-1 at the time, stopping him in the twelfth round, for the NABF super-middleweight title. “To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with the Sosa fight. I was told, ‘We have a championship that we need to fight for,’ and I replied, ‘Great!’ Then they said it was against Sosa and I asked if it was possible if we could get some footage on him to see how he operated. They said, ‘Well, errr, basically all of his fights are knockouts and he’s never been stopped.’ I watched the videos and he was a very aggressive and powerful fighter, but I said, ‘Let’s do this.’
“I went in with a no-fear attitude and attacked him from the first bell, which really wasn’t my style of fighting. It was a huge feather in my cap to not only beat him but to stop him in the twelfth round.”
Three fights later on August 12, 1993, the west-coast resident challenged Steve Little for his WBA world super-middleweight crown in Argentina. “When my contract was up with the Goossens I was number-two at the time and close to fighting for a championship. That’s when I hooked up with Freddie Roach and our first fight together was against Steve for the world title.
“At the time, Steve was being called a journeyman because he didn’t have an impressive record, which was harsh because he’d fought a lot of durable opponents. He was a very good, rough and tough fighter who I’d fought as an amateur and he was hard back then. Then when he defeated Michael Nunn in his previous fight and became world champion, he got his recognition.” Liles beat Little via unanimous decision to be crowned the WBA world super-middleweight champion.
After winning the strap on Argentine soil, Liles had to hit the road again for his next four defenses, traveling as far afield as Ecuador, Germany, and the UK. “That’s Don King for you! Mike Tyson and I have been friends since we were children and he brought me to Don King once my promotional contract ended with the Goossens. At the time I was a number-one contender. Mike dropped me off in Don King’s office and left me there to fend for myself. I thought that, because Mike brought me along, Don was going to be gentle with me. I told him what I needed, but it was the fine print in the contract I didn’t understand and I really didn’t know what I’d got myself into. I went with Mike Tyson thinking it was cool, but I should have gone with a lawyer. He wanted his son to manage me and when I said no I think I kind of blackballed myself to an extent.
“My first title-defense was against Michael Nunn in Ecuador on December 17, 1994. I remember saying to him, ‘You’re putting me in with Michael Nunn for my first title-defense? Give me a break!’ That’s what Don did. When I fought Mike [Nunn], he was ready. He’d lost to Steve [Little] because he took him lightly and was looking to get a rematch with him. Then I beat him and now Mike wanted to beat me.
“For the Nunn fight, I did things completely the wrong way. The venue was nine thousand five hundred feet above sea level and the way you are supposed to train for a fight like that is how Bernard Hopkins trained [for his IBF middleweight title fight against Segundo Mercado that same night]. He went out at least a month before the fight to climatize, whereas I went two weeks before. When I was going out jogging, running upstairs and running out of breath, I didn’t know why.
“Mike always liked trash-talking and the build-up to this fight, nothing changed, because he thought I was somebody he could beat. He said if he lost to me he was going to stay in Ecuador for a year or something like that! I had maybe five people in my entourage and he had about twenty-five. I had my brother in my team, which gave me added confidence and Muhammad Ali was also in attendance. Ali was a friend to me at the time and there was no way I was going to lose in front of him!”
“Even though I was gasping for air, I refused to let him outhustle me. He hit me with a lot of his signature liver shots and I just kept coming forward, which got me that unanimous decision. If I had fought Mike in America, I probably would have stopped him.”
Did a fight with old friend Roy Jones Jr. ever look likely? “It was never close to happening. He and I were champions at the same time at super-middleweight and everyone knew our history together as amateurs and wanted to see the matchup. Roy at the time had his own promotions with HBO and he offered me a 15-85 split in his favor. Who’s going to accept terms like that as a world champion? I declined.”
Shortly after the Nunn fight, Nigel Benn fought Gerald McClellan in a fight remembered more for the aftermath than the battle that took place in the ring. “At the time, there was talk about me fighting the winner of the Gerald versus. Nigel Benn, so I went to the fight. Don King was trying to divide and conquer. He wanted me and Gerald to fight, but I didn’t want it because we were friends. Don was trying to build us up to go against each other and, although there was a bit of beef, we reconciled before the fight and I have a picture with him before the weigh-in.”
As Liles recalled the fateful evening with a heavy heart, he took a deep breath. “That fight was painful for me because Gerald was a dear friend to me. I sat ringside that night next to Don King and watched Gerald get hurt. He didn’t look right. His eyes keep flickering. Gerald hit Benn with a massive right hand and was dominating, but then Benn fought back, throwing a number of big right hands, some that hit home and some that missed and landed with his head instead. Gerald’s corner simply didn’t tell him how to defend and ride out the storm.
“When Gerald took a knee for a ten-count [in the tenth round], I knew something wasn’t right. He then collapsed in the corner and they brought him out of the ring on a stretcher and I went over to him and was holding his hand. He said, ‘Frankie. Did he knock me out?’ I said, ‘No. You went down on one knee and took a ten-count.’
“I then went to the hospital with him and they said they wanted to keep him overnight for observation and to give him a CT scan and things like that. He went into a coma that night and that’s when they detected the hematoma.”
On June 6, 1996, old foe Tim Littles, the only man to put a blemish on Liles’s record, challenged the champion for his crown. “I knew this time I was going to win. I did what I should have done the first time around. Being champion gave me a certain amount of added confidence and determination. I’d made a number of title defenses and had been champion for a while, so there was no way I was letting him take it away from me.
“I hurt him in the first minute of the first round and he tried to make it into an ugly fight. He punched me behind the head, the back, low-blowed me, you name it. That first round was also strange because it was only two minutes. At the end of the round, Steve walked to the wrong corner because he didn’t know where he was. I almost had him out. If it had been three minutes I would have stopped him. I had a lot of issues in my training camp, but often when you are supposed to be at your worst, you perform at your best. It was fulfilling and I felt vindicated. It was an action-packed three rounds and I ended up knocking him out on his face in the third.”
By this stage, Liles was finding it difficult to make the super-middleweight limit. “I always wanted to be middleweight champion, as I wanted to be like Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler. Then they came up with the super-middleweight division and I wanted to stay in that division for my whole career. But when I got the call from mother nature that, ‘You need to move your ass up to light-heavyweight,’ nobody would fight me. When I was champion, I was trying to move up, but Don King promoted me and didn’t have anybody who held any belts at light-heavyweight. Everything was so political back then. Unless you signed with a promoter that had a championship belt, you couldn’t fight for one. They could dodge you up to around two years. That was eventually one of the reasons I left boxing, the politics and mental gymnastics.”
Liles defended his title against Andrey Shkalikov on April 3, 1998, then didn’t fight for fourteen months. “Going into the Shkalikov fight, I injured my shoulder. I knew it was hurt, but I had no idea how badly. I’d fought with a torn rotator cuff and also tore my supraspinatus tendon. I had surgery after the fight, but it took the year to fully heal.”
On June 12, 1999, Byron Mitchell challenged Liles for his title. Going into the eleventh round, Liles was a mile ahead on all three judges’ scorecards. “By this stage, I was really struggling to make super-middleweight and went three days without eating to make the weight. In terms of the fight, I think he legitimately knocked me down once and then pushed me down twice.” The contest was automatically brought to a halt because of the three-knockdown rule. Liles was no longer champion.
“In all honesty, I was so weak and drained it was a miracle I went that far in the fight. That said, I think I fractured his cheekbone or something like that. We had a mandatory rematch in the contract, but it never happened because I knew I just couldn’t make that weight anymore. I wasn’t going to put myself through that.”
After an unsuccessful bid against Demetrius Jenkins in 2002 for the WBO NABO light-heavyweight title, Liles hung up the gloves for good. Retiring with a very respectable record of 32-3 and a stellar amateur career, Liles is happy with his achievements in boxing. “There was a lot more I wanted to do in terms of unifications, but politics made that very difficult. I wanted to fight against Nigel Benn, Eubank, all of those guys. However, with what I achieved I was very content. I won the title, defended it a number of times against anybody they put me up against. I always said the only person who could beat me in a fight was myself and that’s what I stood for.”