While preparing for his 2012 fight against Miguel Cotto, Floyd Mayweather Jr., then 42-0, was asked to name his toughest opponent. His answer was what it’s always been: Emanuel Augustus. “He didn’t have the best record in the sport of boxing; he has never won a world title, but,” said Mayweather, “he came to fight.”
It is a compliment that warrants some unpacking. Mayweather would have little trouble complimenting a fighter who couldn’t threaten his standing in the sport of public eye. Indeed, by celebrating Augustus, Mayweather was diminishing the challenges of Jose Luis Castillo, who many believed beat Mayweather in their first fight, and Oscar De La Hoya, who fared better against the best fighter in the world than his age should’ve allowed.
But the compliment stands—and it should.
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Augustus, who retired with a record of 38-36-6 with twenty knockouts, made Mayweather earn his twenty-fourth professional victory; there was hardly a free moment for “Pretty Boy,” who was forced to fight, and dazzlingly so, to put Augustus away in the ninth. Craft pushed Mayweather that night: you needed more than talent, or physicality, or toughness to trouble so complete a fighter as the lightweight version of Mayweather.
And so a .500 fighter, a career .500 fighter, not one who ran up a gaudy record before hanging on long after he was derailed, is the best fighter this decade’s best fighter ever faced. It is for reasons like this that people say Augustus’s record fails to tell the story.
But if Augustus’s record fails to tell the story, what does it tell us?
Mayweather himself said Augustus’s record didn’t reflect the fighter’s skills. Those skills were considerable, and perhaps help explain why Augustus, who turned seriously to boxing when he “found out you could fight without going to jail,” took a cavalier attitude to his calling. He never studied opponents, never tailored his preparation to their strengths and weaknesses. True, his penchant for taking fights on short notice could have something to do with that, but having less time to prepare is a reason to prepare purposefully.
Still, in a career of more than thirty defeats, some are bound to be memorable; and for Augustus, even exalting. None more so than his slugfest with Micky Ward in The Ring magazine’s 2001 Fight of the Year. Augustus took the fight on short notice but showed impossible stamina that night, especially considering how Ward assaulted his body. “He was the only guy to really hurt me,” said Augustus of Ward, who scored a ninth-round knockdown via his signature left hook to the body, en route to winning a unanimous decision.
The Ward fight, like so many in Augustus’s career, compels you to ask what Augustus might have managed with proper training habits and promotional guidance. Could he have been a champion?
Perhaps, though we should resist the urge to make Augustus better than he was in sketching the portrait of a fighter better than his record. A marijuana and video game enthusiast (Augustus modeled his incomparable style on the fighting game Tekken) might be expected to stumble in his pursuit of gold. And at some point it becomes foolish to make more of a journeyman than he is, not in the least because such artifice deprives these men of the nobility of their calling. It is enough to be a revered journeyman in a blood sport.
With all due respect to Darnell Boone, who in 2011 knocked out future light-heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson and dropped a split decision to light-heavyweight co-kingpin Sergey Kovalev, Augustus was the journeyman of his era. He owes part of that distinction to his style, that off-rhythm dance of the “Drunken Master.” His style was one of showboating without insult, a bewitching performance that transfixed opponents. There was playfulness there, frivolity too, if one considers how many narrow decisions Augustus coughed up. Still, Augustus landed enough during his pantomimes to harrow opponents, and only a natural fighter could have employed that style to such effect.
It was the style of a fighter who admitted he “never had the killer instinct.” A man raised in the tumult of foster care, one who lived like a squatter, an air mattress, video game console, a pair of boxing gloves his only possessions. He embodies the fight-or-flight reaction often seen in people traumatized in their youth. Rarely are those people wired to hurt—their opponent lurks within, or in the past, not across the ring.
Even his grudge match with Courtney Burton lacked the expected animosity. In their first fight, Augustus was bamboozled by referee, Dan Kelley, and robbed by the judges.
Augustus spoke menacingly before the rematch: “If he [Burton] don’t get knocked out, he’s gonna get embarrassed. And I don’t know what’s worse.” Yet early in the fight his frivolity again saw him squander opportunities to do damage. Augustus got around to it, however, and building on the unrewarded dominance he showed in their first fight, finished Burton in the eighth. Burton was by then a shell of even the version of himself that was gifted that bogus win over Augustus two years earlier. That Augustus took so long to put him away says something about Augustus’s ceiling as a fighter (however much we may want to raise it) but also about the element of play he brought to the hardest game.
Drawn to boxing because he enjoyed fighting, Augustus gave in to that enjoyment, perhaps to his detriment. Fighters like Terence Crawford, for whom fighting is a sanctioned opportunity to hurt, or Manny Pacquiao, who before a few body shots from Antonio Margarito, could find joy in ritualized razing; or even Margarito himself, whose annihilations of Kermit Cintron were marked by a cartoonish villainy. But Augustus seemed happy in the ring, in the act of fighting itself, however frustrated he was by judges, promoters, and whatever else lay beyond his control. If he had a chip on his shoulder, it didn’t translate into how he fought. You have to wonder how he might’ve benefited if it had.
One fighter unlikely to ponder such things is Ray Oliveira. In the eighth round of their 2005 fight, Oliveira grabbed his head and turned from the action. Referee Steve Smoger called time and asked Oliveira if he wanted to see the ringside physician. Oliveira declined, and the fight resumed; Augustus never threw another headshot. When the round ended, the fight was stopped, and Augustus took the victory. Oliveira never fought again, and thankfully had the capacity to make that choice. How much does he owe Augustus, the man who was in his corner consoling him at fight’s end, for that?
Augustus’s record certainly doesn’t tell that story. What it does tell is the story of a fighter who lacked a proper promoter and manager. It tells the story of a fighter who needn’t have taken so many fights on short notice, or on the road, where he was at the mercy of hostile promoters and commissions. In an interview with Athletes Quarterly, Augustus’s longtime friend, A. J. Morvant, had this to say about boxing’s treatment of his pal: “There were lots of times when promoters knew they wanted Emanuel to fight. And they would give him a week’s notice so he couldn’t train properly … Emanuel almost never had a chance to walk in the ring against a good fighter in fight shape in his life.”
As much as promoters and managers are vilified for their predatory practices, by definition they work for fighters. Augustus simply didn’t have the proper ones in his employ. Augustus’s record? It tells the story of a journeyman, albeit one with the talent to be more in an era where some well-connected fighters are groomed to be stars with little more than journeyman talent.
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Opening up about his time in boxing, Augustus once remarked, “The last thing I want to happen is for me to leave boxing and people say, ‘What a shame what happened to him.’” In a sense, he got his wish. Augustus retired in 2011, after taking one last short-notice fight, suffering one last heist on the scorecards, this one to welterweight prospect Vernon Paris. Screwed again, it was time for Augustus to walk away.
Nearly four years later, Augustus was hit in the back of the head by a stray bullet fired during an argument between two men he didn’t even know. Augustus survived the bullet—but the nerves in his face, his vision, his coordination, his memory, will never recover from its searing journey. What happened to him that October 2015 night was yet one more cruel test in the life of a man who’d have been defined by injustice had he not laughingly told it to fuck off.
“If you were watching my fight, I wanted to give you your money’s worth.” One wonders if Augustus remembers offering this quote. There’s little doubt we’ll remember the ways he made good on it.