For always the dreams they are there still.
— Horacio Castellanos Moya, Senselessness
The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison
Play his life out ten times, maybe he’s a musician. If Autryana, then just a baby, didn’t need her daddy, if he’d been a little more selfish. Impossible really. This is a story about doing for others. It was there, though, all those years ago: the booth, the microphone. But Autryanna needed him; so instead, it was the ring, the opponent, and a dirtier business.
In 1999, Darnell Boone left Youngstown, Ohio, for Atlanta, Georgia. He’d gotten in some trouble, the kind that made him leave Autryanna with his mother and relocate to get his life together. In Atlanta, he found a job and the chance to work on his music. “I almost had my big break,” he remembers, “I was supposed to go meet the manager of The Dungeon Family.” The Atlanta musical collective was then in its prime: Outkast had released their critically acclaimed, Aquemini, the previous year; the sonically feverish followup, Stankonia, was only a year away. “The south got somethin’ to say,” Outkast’s Andre Benjamin told the crowd at the 1995 SOURCE awards. By 1999, the world wanted to hear it.
So what happened to that meeting? “I left because of a situation that occurred with my daughter,” Boone says. “I left that weekend. I was supposed to meet him that coming Monday.” It was back to the daughter that needed him, back to Youngstown, back to the streets.
Sufferin’ from a severe case of inner-city blues,
I ain’t got no clues to which directions I need to choose
This opportunity to gain is all I got to lose,
Cuz I just can’t settle for these streets, shorty, I refuse
— Goodie Mob, I Refuse Limitation
“I was in the streets real heavy, you know, with the drugs and everything,” recalls Boone. “I wanted a change but didn’t have an outlet.” Soon, however, he would leave Lucius Avenue, for at least a few hours a day. He can thank his little brother, Boston Walker, for that.
Boone remembers his little brother showing up at his door one day crying because no one would take him to practice. “I figured he was playin’ football” a holy sport in the Buckeye state, one Boone himself played as a kid. But it was boxing practice his little brother was missing.
“You box?!” Boone was shocked, intrigued. He offered to take his brother to the gym, to see it for himself. When he stepped through the doors of the Southside Boxing Gym, Boone “fell in love with the atmosphere, like instantly. Just bein’ there, interactin’, the whole gym smell and everything.” This appeal of community is central to Boone, he thrives on community—as the myriad voices that serve as a backdrop to his own can surely attest. A community for Boone is something to serve, but on that day, in that gym, the twenty-two-year-old thought he found something he needed.
Boone approached the trainer: “Let me work with somebody,” a question with the effect of a punchline. “He says, ‘Who you gonna work with?’ I say, ‘Anybody, you know, it don’t matter.’” More laughter followed, but Boone was dogged, repeatedly asking for a chance to spar. “So, as we’re about to walk out, I get him again, like, ‘You gonna let me work with somebody, man?’” Some people enter a boxing gym for the first time confident in their ability to fight and eager to hurt. On the slim chance that you see them a second time, you’ll probably notice a change in their demeanor. Such hubris, unwelcome in so collegial a setting, can be roughly discouraged. But to listen to Boone recall this day, it’s clear he wasn’t looking to hurt someone, he was looking to test himself to see if he could find in that intimate challenge the thing his life was missing.
Finally, the trainer relented: “Kels, strap up.” Boone got the guy he asked for, a surefire sign that he was in for an education. No trainer would put a fighter he didn’t trust in with a stranger. “We went maybe half a round, and I’m talkin’ ‘bout, he’s bangin’ me up—the whole half round he’s bangin’ me up! And when we get done, he was like, ‘Man, you’ll do good in this sport,’ gave me a big hug and was like, ‘you got a lot of heart.’”
The trainer? Jack Loew. The fighter? Future middleweight champion, Kelly Pavlik.
Loew asked Boone if he planned to return the next day. “I looked at the ring, I looked at the trainer, I looked outside, I stood outside for a bit, I looked at the trainer, I looked back in the ring, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back tomorrow.’ I was hooked.” The directorial quality to his retelling speaks to how profoundly that moment affected him. Boone searches Loew’s face multiple times, looking for what? Something to trust? He repeatedly looks to the ring, the setting of his impromptu crucible, as if reconciling with the pending price of a new life. The streets, that concrete maze, Boone goes from looking at them to standing on them, that last venture outside the gym perhaps confirming for him that the avenue for change led inside the red building on Erie Street.
Is there not an analogy for Boone’s career here too? Unprepared, unexpectant, Boone got in the ring with a big name and earned that fighter’s respect.
While he was enamored by the atmosphere of the gym, the results Boone got from training held sway too. “I started getting good real fast,” recalls Boone, “I’m not sure if it was because of the guys I was sparring with or because I had to hone whatever skills I had because I used to fight in the streets all the time . . . but in the gym, everything started coming together.” Two weeks after his initiation at the fists of Pavlik, Boone fought his first amateur fight. Only nine more followed.
You need git up, git out and git something
How will you make it if you never even try
You need to git up, git out and git something
‘Cause you and I got to do for you and I
— Outkast, Git Up, Git Out
Ten amateur fights. That’s it. “I couldn’t find a job,” says Boone. He told Loew that he’d turn professional if he couldn’t find a job in a month. The month passed without Boone finding work so when Loew offered him a spot on a card at the Byzantine Center in Youngstown, Boone took it. The twenty-four-year-old with ten amateur fights and less than two years of boxing experience was now a professional.
It wasn’t just about money, however. “That’s what I was doin’ it for at first,” he says, “but then I started travelin’, goin’ here, goin’ there, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I’m just this little hood rat from the south side of Ohio, I’ve never really been out of Youngstown,’ so the travelin’ part got me. I started travelin’ first before I had my fights at home,” explains Boone, who fought only four of his first twenty-six fights in Youngstown, “I was always on the road, so seein’ these different places, knowin’ that I wouldn’t see ‘em regularly—that became my outlook: knowin’ that I could fight, and travel, and see different stuff.”
Boone wasn’t programmed at birth to be a champion like Floyd Mayweather Jr. was, he wasn’t born into a fighting culture like Felix Trinidad, he didn’t have his family’s aspirations foisted on him like Mikey Garcia. His peripatetic career reflects a fighter free of the pressures of expectations beyond his own. Sure, Boone had to carve out a living, but he’d already proved a survivor. When he speaks about his early years in boxing the curiosity is undeniable. He is certainly pragmatic, something rooted in a guiding sense of responsibility to others, but Boone gives the impression of being the type of person who will stop at the reptile farm advertised on the interstate, flip through an old newspaper, listen to your demo. The fighter who has fought in forty-nine different venues in fifty-four fights had freedom afforded him by his late start and a lack of expectations—and he embraced it.
That freedom came with a price: almost immediately, it made Boone an opponent, a designation he didn’t pick up on until mid-career. He understands now, however. “If you look at my résumé, all of a sudden I started fightin’ all these killers. And then I’m like, ‘Hold on, why am I fightin’ all these dudes like this dude’s undefeated, that dude’s undefeated, this is the promoter’s guy, that’s the promoter’s guy.” Boone recognized that he was being brought in to lose, fighting opponents with “their own judges, their own referees” and that having a promoter could level the playing field. He came close to signing with Chicago-based promoter, Bobby Hitz, in 2004, and learned he needed to be wary of promoters too. In Chicago to fight on one of Hitz’s local shows, Boone expected to sign a promotional contract. Boone’s purse was agreed to before he left Youngstown, “but when I got there,” he says, “I saw he had taken $3,000 out of my purse. And that’s why I didn’t sign with him.” Boone doesn’t remember his opponent that night, but traveling man that he is, he remembers the venue: 115 Bourbon Street, Merrionette Park, Illinois, where he stopped Michael Rush in the first round, running his record to 3-0 with one knockout.
Without a promoter, Boone was stuck taking offers intended to undermine him. In his tenth fight, Boone lost a decision to future super-middleweight kingpin, Andre Ward, then 6-0. He floored Ward with an uppercut, one of the only times the “Son of God” appeared mortal in the ring. And yet this wasn’t Boone at his best. “I took the fight on five days’ notice.” Ward’s people called Boone about the fight earlier, then stopped calling, he thinks, to get Boone to stop training under the impression he wasn’t getting the fight. “They knew I was a tough guy, they knew if he beat me it would mean somethin’, and they didn’t want me at my best.” And Boone was always going to take the fight. “I look at it this way: if guys are callin’ me out, you have to show me you can beat me. All that talkin’ . . . I don’t care about none of that. Cuz at the end of the day, it’s me and you in there and they can’t save you once that bell ring. That’s the mentality I get in there with. That’s the fighter in me.”
Any fighter might have offered that quote, they are a preternaturally confident fraternity. It would mean so much less, however, coming from a fighter being expedited to stardom, one with a prepackaged image polished by propaganda and protected by matchmaking. Boone has never been one of those fighters, and so he fights anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Anyone, anytime, anywhere. The journeyman’s code, more solicitation than dare. But Boone pushes back on the notion that he’s a journeyman because he beats fighters he isn’t supposed to beat and because those same fighters try to game him before the bell rings—tacit proof he is a threat.
One of those fighters Boone wasn’t supposed to beat was former light-heavyweight champion, Adonis Stevenson, then an undefeated super middleweight. That the only footage of their 2010 fight is a minute-long clip, a shaky cell phone recording of a recording of the fight playing on a television, is proof the fight didn’t go according to plan.
Boone knows he was supposed to lose that night. “The commissioner for that fight actually called me to tell me ‘Don’t take the fight,’ because the guy [Stevenson] was too strong.” Boone’s response? “Yeah, I’ma knock him out.” He remembers Stevenson trying to psyche him out before the fight, “walking by me in the hotel, making little remarks . . . coming in and out of my dressing room, laughing, giggling with his homies, messing with me the whole time.”
“I didn’t even have a corner. I took one of my good friends with me [Andre “Big Dre” Jones] and I got a cutman while I was there. The cutman didn’t even charge me to work my corner. My friend was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what to tell you. What do you want me to say?’ I said, ‘Man, just get me some water cuz I’m gonna put him to sleep.’”
It was Boone who hit the canvas first, and for the first time in his career, when Stevenson dropped him in round one. Now a fifteen-year veteran, Boone chuckles thinking about how the young “Deezol” reacted to being planted: “I get up, but now it’s in my head like, ‘Man, he done knocked me down—Oh my God, he done knocked me down!’” Incredulity, panic, doubt, the disorienting feeling of novel danger, all confounding him as he returned to his corner where a friend waited with little more than water. Water, and a piece of ring psychology crazy enough to work.
“He pushed you,” Big Dre told him. Boone thought Big Dre was crazy, he knew what happened, he felt that punch land “dead smack” on his forehead. As the referee called seconds out, Boone looked worryingly to his corner, “This dude is strong.” The commissioner was right. Big Dre’s response? “Bruh, it never happened.” Before the second round ended, a double-jab-overhand-right combination put Stevenson on the comeback trail. Hope was at work that night, hope as denial or deception, but such hope has its place; it can be enough.
The rematch took place three years later. Before the fight, Stevenson’s team offered to pay Boone an extra $20,000 to switch the fight from super middleweight to light heavyweight. Boone agreed primarily to ensure the fight went on and he got paid at all. But he knew what the combination of his trying to stay on weight, and Stevenson not having to, meant. Stevenson won by sixth-round knockout. The fighter who wasn’t supposed to win the first fight was then gamed into defeat in the rematch. That isn’t what happens to journeymen.
Boone fought Sergey Kovalev twice too, the first time only six months after stopping Stevenson. “That was a good fight, man, I was actually manhandlin’ him. I knocked him down three times, could’ve been four, but they kept it close so he could still win. I was beatin’ him to the punch, pushin’ him around, but that was one of the fights where I got stuck [Kovalev won by split decision]. They didn’t count none of the knockdowns but one, the one where I hit him and he fell and rolled over. They had to count that one because the crowd was booing for not counting the other ones.” It’s been said that Kovalev had food poisoning before the fight, but an excuse in defense of the winner corroborates Boone’s story.
For those who relish a bit of intrigue, there is zero footage of the first Kovalev fight. His sister has a copy, but Boone isn’t concerned with bringing another of his robberies into the court of public opinion. He doesn’t live in the past; he isn’t burdened by it. This is the journeyman’s mentality too, but the journeyman isn’t burdened by the past because it unfolded as it was supposed to. Boone, meanwhile, is unburdened by it because he believes the future will be different.
If the future is different it might be because Boone is too, something evident in his observations about the state of the game. “Right now, don’t nobody want to be the best fighter anymore. It’s about who can get the most money. Nobody wants that moniker on their back that says ‘I did this. I’m the best.’” There’s an interesting distinction implied here: it isn’t that fighters are concerned with maximizing their earnings—they should be in a profession sustained by blurred futures and broken dreams—it’s that they’re in financial rather than fighting competition with each other. Fighters, then, can be motivated to avoid challenges as long as they’re making more money than men they should be proving themselves superior to. The latter is something Boone cannot abide: “You know, everybody’s scared to lose their “0.” I never cared about takin’ a loss. The only time I cared about the loss was when they were robbin’ me.”
You might pause here, questioning whether Boone, whose record stands at 24-25-5, with 13 knockouts, could have a desensitizing, habituating familiarity with defeat, like the frog that doesn’t’ realize it’s being boiled if the water it’s in heats gradually. But that’s not Boone. He understands the process. He isn’t desensitized; he just isn’t afraid.
Critical of its current state, Boone’s response to the question of how boxing should be is interesting. Instead of describing a fighter’s ideal conduct, Boone speaks about who a fighter is responsible to. “You know, with me comin’ from a small town, I went to school with these people, I grew up with these people, I became a face for them, for the ’hood, you know what I’m sayin’? I became the face of the hard workin’ man, for my friends who never got to do this, or never got to follow their dreams, I became the face for them. I became hope. That’s what I put on my back. I became hope.” There it is again, hope, the thing that Big Dre gave him. Boone is paying it forward, giving it back.
A blue-collar aspirational excellence is at work here, one befitting a man born in the aftermath of Black Monday, the September morning in 1977 when Youngstown Sheet & Tube closed its Campbell Works mill, a shuttering that within five years would eliminate fifty thousand jobs in the region and flatlined the city’s industry. Youngstown has seen its population halved while becoming the only city in the country where more than half of all households earn less than $25,000 a year, a city where the crime rate is 75 percent higher than the national average, where the child poverty rate is nearly 60 percent. Youngstown could use some hope.
Boone doesn’t curse, at least not unintentionally. It isn’t immediately noticeable, but you need only hear someone use “butthead” once to recognize he can employ a cleaner lexicon. It’s a remarkable trait given all he’s faced. In 2007, Boone entered Fulton County Jail “booked on sixteen armed robberies where my first plea was life-and-sixty-years.” After thirteen months and a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence, the charges were dismissed and Boone was free—finally free, despite always being innocent.
It was back to the ring, then, and two quick wins before five straight losses against opponents with a combined record of 56-1-1. He was taking fights to recover financially from his time in Fulton County, still physically unprepared for that level of competition; but, then, a fit Boone has rarely been sought after. “I never get a fight out of camps. I’ve been in camp with Triple-G (middleweight Gennadiy Golovkin) three times, and I never got a fight coming out of a camp with him,” the implication being that Boone at his best is best left alone.
Boone admits we’ve never even seen his best. “I always stayed in the gym, but do the necessary things to prepare? That’s what I never had. I never had a strength-and-conditioning trainer. I never had a trainer watch me and make me run certain drills and do certain bag drills and all that—stuff to prepare for a fight, or watch the fighter, you know. We sit down and do recon on him, see what he’s doin’ wrong or what he’s doin’ right, what his strengths are, his weaknesses are. I never had all that. I just go fight.”
His career brings to mind a line from Catch-22: “They have the right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Boone wants to win a title and believes that the best version of himself, even at forty, is fighter enough to do so. It’s a matter of “taking the right fights with the right guys that’ll put me to that next level.” That requires being selective, turning down certain fights, holding out for others. But Boone isn’t in a position to turn down fights “Because if I don’t fight I can’t feed my kids. I can’t feed the family.” And so he is forced to take the fights offered. The “right fights with the right guys,” however? They’re only offered when Boone is compromised. “I don’t get called six weeks out or eight weeks out or twelve weeks out,” he laughs, “It’s like, today’s the twenty-third, and we’re gonna fight on the fifth in his hometown, his promoter’s promoting the card, his judges, you know what I’m sayin’?’” Alas, Boone knows promoters will keep trying to game him because he isn’t in a position to say no, and to get to a position to say no requires taking fights under conditions that aren’t likely to result in empowering victories.
Still, he is without regret, “because who’s to say I’d be this humble, who’s to say I’d be the fighter I am today, who’s to say that I’d be the guy I am today?” That guy put his music dreams on hold for his daughter (and realized them anyway), that guy found boxing because he was a good big brother, that guy works with anyone in the gym so they can know what it’s like to work with a pro, so they know someone is looking out for them. That guy became hope.