By Joel Warner
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Wickliff went on to spar with Lyles and other fighters far younger than him. Goossen says Wickliff, who stood about 5' 11" and weighed 165 pounds, was in unbelievable shape for a man his age. "He was close to fifty, but he convinced me he could have been a professional fighter," says Goossen. "He was a tough, determined guy."
The passion for boxing that Wickliff and Goossen shared became the basis for a close friendship that extended into business. Goossen dreamed of establishing a high-altitude boxing camp in the Big Bear Lake area northeast of Los Angeles. Wickliff not only offered to help him find a suitable location, he also put up much of the cash for the venture. The camp, which opened in 1990 in a hangar at the Big Bear airport, has since become popular with many boxing superstars, including lightweight Oscar De La Hoya and heavyweight contender Riddick Bowe.
"If it weren't for Steve, Big Bear would not have happened," says Goossen. "It was Steve that got this rolling."
Wickliff even lived for a year with Goossen and his wife, Cindie. "I brought him into my family," Goossen says. "We hit it off like twins. Steve was a gift from God for us. He was a fun guy. We'd go out to dinner and have a beer, talk fights and have a great time."
Wickliff never did turn pro. But Goossen says his middle-aged protege was thrilled that he could beat fighters years younger than himself. "Steve said it was such a high to get to that point, and it was one of the happiest points of his life," Goossen recalls.
However, the business world was still throwing Wickliff suckerpunches. A $20 million shopping center he developed in the late 1980s near Los Angeles was successful, and Wickliff invested the profits in proposed housing developments in Malibu and Rancho Mirage. But by 1990 the California economy was reeling, as the end of the Cold War and the accompanying cuts in defense spending sent the local real estate market into a tailspin. Once again, Wickliff was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again, he lost everything.
His friends knew that the losses in California hit him hard. "He got down and worried about business," says Goossen. "I know it was the toughest experience of his life."
Ron Grothe saw Wickliff in 1990 and says the business failures had taken their toll. "We talked about it and had some spiritual conversations," says Grothe, who adds that he urged Wickliff to turn to the Bible for emotional sustenance. His friend, he says, told him he was reading the Scriptures for comfort. Grothe hoped that Wickliff had overcome the bad times. "I told him he had to pull up his socks and bootstraps and get going again. I think we were all cheering him on and thought Steve was back. But it sounds like something snapped."
Exactly when Wickliff was introduced to crack cocaine is unclear. But the boxing world has more than its share of drug users, and Wickliff wouldn't have had to look far for a supply. "There's a lot of fighters who do drugs," Goossen says. "They're street kids, the toughest guys in the world. The attitude is, 'Screw everyone. I'll do what I want to do.' Most of these guys have been in wars all their lives in and out of the ring. They've led tough lives dealing with things most people will never have to deal with."
Goossen knew Wickliff was doing drugs, but when he tried to talk to his friend about his cocaine habit, he encountered the same in-your-face bravado he'd seen in other fighters. "When we were training in L.A., he told me he'd done drugs the night before," he says. "I could have killed him. I said, 'It's your life, but you can't do what you want to do with drugs and keep doing boxing.'"
In 1992 a defeated Wickliff returned to Denver. While California's economy was still floundering, Denver's had made a strong recovery, and he told friends he was going to start over again. He went to work selling commercial real estate for Fuller & Company and was involved in several projects, including Greg Stevinson's Denver West retail development and a forty-unit townhome complex in Glendale.
After his return, Wickliff reflected on the ups and downs of the real estate market for the News. He told the newspaper he had no desire to become a high-powered developer again and that he simply wanted to live a modest life. "Timing is everything," he said of the real estate business. "You live with it and you die with it."
More than anything, Steven Wickliff wanted to be known as a tough guy.
Before he left California, Goossen had even tried to enter him in the Tough Man competition, a bare-knuckles brawl known for its savagery. "If I'd gotten him in that tough-guy competition, he would have won," Goossen says. "If he started something, he'd finish it. They would have had to kill him to win."
Wickliff was also working on his pilot's license in California, and Goossen remembers a flight from Big Bear to Santa Monica during which the plane his friend was flying was tossed about like confetti. "The wind was kicking the plane around," Goossen says. "Jake was hitting his head on the ceiling. I started to say my act of contrition. The first time I'd ever seen Steve scared in his life was when he got out of that plane."