Breaking Out of the Box

Shane Swartz steps back into the ring.

To an outsider looking in, Shane Swartz was on top of the world in the spring of 1997. Twenty-one years-old, handsome, polite, a servant of God with a body as tight as a drum skin, he was living the life he'd always been instructed to envision for himself.

He'd begun boxing, at his dad's insistence, at the age of five. Roger Swartz wouldn't let him in the ring until he learned to jump rope, but once Shane did that, he quickly learned to fight. Roger recognized his only son's potential and began to groom him. Almost every weekend, they'd drive from their Fort Collins home to endless tournaments in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota. Shane didn't take his first true vacation trip until he was fourteen.

Those early trips were not for pleasure. From the very beginning, the goal wasn't fun -- nor, for that matter, was fighting. It was all about winning. "Shane had to be the best at everything, regardless of the sport," one of his sisters once said. "Dad would be furious if he wasn't." So Shane learned to oblige the old man, and by the time the fights really started to matter, winning had become a habit.

Older and wiser, Shane Swartz is ready to get back in the ring.
Brett Amole
Older and wiser, Shane Swartz is ready to get back in the ring.
Shane Swartz and Joe Escamillo battle it out in Black Hawk.
Brett Amole
Shane Swartz and Joe Escamillo battle it out in Black Hawk.

At age fifteen, he began compiling an extraordinary record of boxing victories. In 1991, he won the Junior Olympic championships at his weight. In 1993 he came in second at the U.S. Amateur Championship. And in 1994, he won it all -- the United States Amateur Championship. Later that year he earned a silver medal at the Goodwill Games. The following year he did it all over again, adding a second national amateur championship and then a third at the Pan American trials.

In fact, by the time he was twenty years old, Shane seemed well on his way to both wealth and boxing fame. He already had a half-dozen national championships: Next would come a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, followed in short order by turning pro, a series of quick, high-profile wins, and then, within a couple of years, a shot at an oversized belt and the millions of dollars that would inevitably follow.

Yet Roger couldn't script everything for his son, and in February 1996, Shane hit a roadblock. Surprising nearly everyone -- although, in retrospect, perhaps not surprising himself -- he did not make the Olympic team. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said, following his final loss at the trials. "Probably go home and cry." But fifteen years in the ring teaches you not to leave yourself exposed for long, and after a few months of mental convalescing, Shane appeared to rebound. In May 1996, he declared he was ready to turn pro.

Starting with an 81-second knockout of Muricio Morez on May 10, 1996, at Boston's Suffolk Downs Racetrack, he began fighting with a fury and pace that were startling. He won his first three professional bouts in 25 days; none lasted beyond the second round. By the end of seven brutal months, he was 7-0, with five knockouts. At nine months, he was 8-0.

But while the outcomes of the contests were familiar, to those who knew Shane, the fights themselves seemed fundamentally different. There had been a shift in Shane's demeanor and comportment. Now it was as if he were trying to run from something rather than toward it.

On February 26, 1997, he fought Steve Robinson in Denver, his ninth professional bout. The fight was messy and bloody, though that was hardly Shane's fault: Robinson head-butted him twice, opening cuts above both of Shane's eyes before the fight was halted in the fourth round. "I'm kind of frustrated," he said afterward. "I wish I was 20-0 and fighting for a world title right now, but that's not the way it works."

Still, he added, he anticipated a big-time fight within a year. His trainer was optimistic, too. "This is his last six-rounder," the trainer said after the brawl. "The next two or three are going to be eights, then we want to get him into some tens, then maybe a shot at the NABF championship..."

But Shane didn't fight the following month, or the month after that, either. And then, on April 22, 1997, at the tender age of 21 years and four months, Shane Swartz, who'd built one of the most remarkable amateur boxing careers in recent memory, stunned a boxing world grown accustomed to expecting great things from the Irish kid when he announced that he was retiring from the ring. "It's a dangerous and dirty sport," he said of the game that had provided the very foundation of his life for the previous sixteen years. "I'm tired of getting hit in the head."

We tend to invest our extraordinary athletes with extraordinary lives. Their existences are big and two-dimensional. They walk through fancy hotel lobbies in dark sunglasses, fly in private planes with beautiful long-haired women. They drive Porsches to parties, fundraisers, banquets. They seem somehow exempt from the everyday problems of day-to-day life, but of course they're not.

Shane Swartz's friends and family were aware that the young boxer's concentration had been waning long before he formally quit his sport. Some of the reasons were clear. In January 1995, while Shane was fighting in Oregon, 47-year-old Roger Swartz's heart stopped working while he was driving a group of kids back from a boxing weigh-in in Loveland. Roger was a formidable taskmaster, but he and his son had been extremely close in their way, and he was the only coach Shane had ever known.

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