Boxed In

Fighting the urge: Denver heavyweight Will Hinton.
Anthony Camera

In case you missed it, Denver heavyweight Will Hinton fought former World Boxing Council champion and current contender Oliver McCall last month in a small arena at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. To say the fight did not go well for Hinton would be like suggesting that Mike Tyson has had some ups and downs in his personal life.

McCall, a menace of a fighter but also one who lugs about an Edmund Muskie-like rep as something of an emotional china doll, has been trying to claw his way back into contention ever since swiping the heavyweight title from Lennox Lewis in 1994 and then losing it a short year later to Frank Bruno. A title rematch against Lewis in 1997 started out reasonably well, then quickly turned embarrassing for McCall when, in the middle of the fight, he started weeping and refused to continue fighting. As is the case with most manly athletic pursuits, shedding tears in boxing is viewed as okay when you win, but unseemly following -- and, particularly, during -- a loss. McCall forfeited the fight, and his wife confined him to a mental institution.

McCall's blubbering was on Hinton's mind as he prepared for the bout. "Oliver McCall -- basically, he's got nothing," he explains. "No jab, no left -- just a right hand. We were hoping that I could go into the first couple rounds, hit him hard to the body, and he'd break down again."

Since losing to Lewis, however, McCall has reeled off five straight wins without bawling once, and against Hinton he managed to blink back the tears as well. The December 18 fight drew to an abrupt close when he set up Hinton with a stiff jab and then clocked him with a swooping, circular right hand. Unfortunately for the Denver fighter, all of this action occurred in the first round. It had been a very long trip for a very short fight.

The win lifted McCall's record to a respectable 34-7, 25 of those victories by KO. Hinton, meanwhile, fell to 17-15 -- a startlingly good record if you are the Denver Nuggets, but not so hot if you are a boxer looking for one final title shot. Still, with heavyweights, especially, a fight can turn on a single punch (Exhibit A: Mike Tyson's KO at the slow hands of Buster Douglas in Tokyo). And so now, a week after the battle and back in his small Aurora apartment, Hinton can't help fantasizing how things might have turned out if maybe a few punches had landed on the opposite face.

"People would have been knocking down my door," he hypothesizes. "Can you imagine? Managers would have been chasing me, because I would be up for earning some good paychecks after that."

As it was, Hinton earned 6,000 bucks plus travel money and room and board -- all for what turned out to be little more than a minor scuffle. Not bad dough for a couple minutes' work, and if you want to figure it out in terms of an hourly wage, it's probably close to what a genuine title challenger takes home. The irony of boxing finance, however, is that when a fighter really needs it, when he is scrapping in small smoky rings to build a record good enough to catch a promoter's attention, the money doesn't really matter. It only becomes important when he begins fighting on national TV for belts. Even then, the number of dollars is only partially about economics and all about respect.

"It was a little less than what I usually get," Hinton says of his most recent paycheck. "But since my record is kind of bad..." His voice trails off, then starts again. "I looked at it as an opportunity. If I beat Oliver McCall, I'm goin' somewhere. My next paycheck is fifteen, twenty grand. I'm right back in the swim of things."

Hinton's wife is a beautiful, exotic-looking woman named Trease, whom he met while taking a course at Grambling University in 1986. At the time, Hinton didn't speak to her at all, not one word. He just stared. Six years later he called her, out of the blue -- she was living in Louisiana, he was in Denver -- and asked her for a date. They've been married now for seven years; William III is four years old. It's blissful.

Like her husband, Trease doesn't care much about the money Will earned off the McCall match, but her reason has nothing to do with pugilistic opportunity and everything to do with home. Because when he's in the ring, no matter how good the opportunity is, the money will never provide the insurance she needs.

"At first," she says, "just after we started dating, I was kind of excited about him being a fighter. But then I was just praying that he'd stop. I've never told him no. But I let him know how I feel about it. During the fights, there's really not a lot I can do except pray and hope that it ends quick."  

And now, she adds, after the McCall loss, "I hope he's done for good. That's my husband, and I don't want anything to happen to him. And too much can happen."

So, then, here is the question: With a dismal record of 17-14, a family, a new, thriving computer business (KO Compupro Inc.) and the stern disapprobation of his wife, what the hell was William Hinton doing in the ring against Oliver McCall in the first place?

Hinton began fighting professionally almost as a lark. A successful college wrestler at the University of Pittsburgh (and a proud degree-holder: "My mom told me that if I didn't graduate not to bother coming home") and then a minor-league football player in Colorado Springs and Italy, he entered a Tough Man contest in Denver in 1992 and won. "I figured, 'Hey, I won the Tough Man, why not?' And at my age" -- he was 29 -- "I didn't have much time to work my way up through the amateur ranks," he recalls. Without a boxing match under his belt, he turned pro.

It was surprisingly easy. A natural athlete, Hinton kept in good physical condition out of habit. By early 1994 he was 11-2, an admirable record that included a December 1993 thrashing of a highly touted Angelo Dundee prospect named John Bray. "After the first two rounds, he didn't want to fight anymore," Hinton recalls. "You can tell by looking into his eyes. After a guy gets hit a few times, if he wants to fight, he'll stand and slug it out. If not, you can see the quit." Soon after that, he beat Justin Fortune for a minor belt -- the WBB title -- but a belt nonetheless. He commissioned a gold necklace of two boxing gloves and prepared for greatness.

"I thought I was on the top of the world," he recalls. "I thought I was right on the threshold of cracking the Top 10. I was riding sky-high. I was like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna get there.'"

Then Hinton began losing. Maybe it was the new manager, who urged him to fight when he wasn't ready. Maybe it was bad luck, a story that just wasn't destined to be written. In November 1995, Hinton was scheduled to take on former heavyweight Larry Holmes in a nationally televised fight. But Holmes pulled out at the last minute. Hinton got his money, but not his shot at fame.

Then again, maybe it was Will Hinton. "My head got kind of big," he says. "My training head kind of slipped." Though the chances still came, Hinton was not up for them. In December 1995 he lost a close match to James "Quick" Tillis, a comeback-minded heavyweight who had made the bigtime by being the first man to go ten rounds with Tyson. In early 1996 he was knocked out with a piston uppercut by contender Jimmy Thunder. A year later, Hinton was laid low by a fifth-round monster body blow from Obed "Ben" Sullivan, at the time the ninth-ranked heavyweight in the world. Hinton earned $10,000 from the bout, while the real currency of the sport -- respect -- continued to slip away.

At some point in the career of a boxer, there comes a pivotal moment at which he stops being a fighter who might win a title and becomes one who won't. Sometimes this is the result of his record; sometimes it simply happens inside his head. If he is good enough to continue getting high-profile fights, news stories start referring to him as a "journeyman fighter" or a "contender guardian," a way station in gloves for the fighters who still do have a shot. He becomes a boxer who absorbs the blows and losses so that the winners may win. Hinton is all too aware that he has rounded this bend.

"Basically, I'm a journeyman -- someone who warms up the crowd, can go a few good rounds," he says. "But," he adds, "I don't want to be a stepping stone for someone so he can get better. That ain't something for me. That's why I'm getting out of the business."

But when it really comes down to it (when you are presented with an opportunity, say, like Oliver McCall), it's tempting to focus in tightly on the fact that, in boxing, the only thing standing between retirement and a glittering championship belt and the giant paydays can be a single well-placed -- hell, even lucky -- punch. "You can be like Jesse Ferguson," says Hinton, referring to an 18-9 journeyman who, in 1993, upset the 25-1 Ray Mercer. The fluky victory propelled Ferguson into a series of high-profile matches, all of which he lost badly. "They put you in, even with a mediocre record, and you get an upset, and you're right back in the thick of things. The heavyweight division is the only one like that." So who's to say the next match isn't the one that will make all the difference?  

And then there are the other allures, the ones that most people don't and could never understand. Strapping on the gloves and seeing who comes out on top: no bouncing balls, no bats, no uprights, no skates, no teammates -- nothing between you and your opponent but a few inches of leather and the voices in your head. "Taking your body to the edge," Hinton explains. "You're in the fight, and you know there's going to be some hot moments in the kitchen -- because you're going to get hurt, everybody gets hurt -- and you gotta be ready to make a decision: What are you going to do when you get hit? And after you make that decision, to win, it's a downhill ride. I been there a couple times: You're throwing punches, in the zone, and you don't even feel their punches. It's like, 'Dog, I can do this.'"

When a person reaches the age of 36, however, those magic moments are fewer and farther apart. Still, anyone who has ever been there can forgive Will Hinton if he doesn't walk away just yet. "I didn't ever need to box. I just did it because I loved the sport, the competitiveness. I loved the limelight -- stepping into the ring under the lights. There's nothing like it. People running up and saying your name. I remember in Reno, in 1994, after I had just fought Larry Donald. I played cards with Bruce Willis for an hour. He said, 'I saw you. You had a good fight.'"

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