Breaking Out of the Box
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.
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.
Publicly, Shane insisted the tragedy was a motivator. "I don't want to waste the past fifteen years of my father's life," he told newspapers that eagerly lapped up the story of a young man fighting on for his dead father. But Roger's death bothered Shane more than he let on.
Yet his closest friends and confidants recognized that there was more to his distraction than that. "I knew he wasn't going to make the Olympics," recalls Steven Den, Shane's sixth-grade teacher and now close friend. "His head just wasn't there."
Looking back now, it all makes sense. The problems start small, but one thing leads to another, and before you know it -- particularly if you are a 21-year-old kid whose entire life has been directed by your father -- you feel as though events are out of control, that they have taken a path all their own and are dragging you along. Sometimes the only thing to do is drop out of sight.
Rewind to Roger's funeral. Feeling lonely and alone, Shane recalls leaning over his father's casket and telling him he hoped to meet someone special, a person maybe to fill the hole. And wouldn't you know it, a month and a half later, his plea was answered when he met a smart, beautiful young woman. The two began dating, and within a month they were in a serious relationship.
Soon after he turned pro in May 1996, Shane moved to Colorado Springs to be closer to his new trainer. The move made sense -- many top boxers train there -- but complications quickly arose. A young, good-looking athlete on the cusp of fame is bound to attract attention, and within weeks, Shane had met another girl. The relationship was no big deal, though, and after a few months, Shane, feeling guilty, broke it off. He concentrated on his first relationship and his boxing, both of which appeared to be speeding ahead. Then, at the end of October, the second girlfriend called: She was pregnant.
Shane's first girlfriend found out -- you can't hide that sort of thing if you have a conscience at all -- and the two split up. During those autumn months, Shane fought furiously, more often than not whipping his opponents well before the end of the fights. In December, his seventh professional fight was at home, at the Lincoln Center in Fort Collins. Following a six-round unanimous decision over Angelo Simpson, he and his first girlfriend reconciled.
The impending birth of his child weighed heavily on Shane; he continued to search for a sign that would tell him what to do. January 21, 1997, looked auspicious: It was exactly two years to the day from when Roger had died, and that night, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Shane was scheduled to fight his eighth pro contest, against an experienced journeyman out of Atlanta, Tyrone Jacks. "If Dad wants me to quit, I'll lose," he told himself before parting the ropes and entering the ring. But instead he won, with little room for interpretation. "I kicked ass," he recalls.
Despite his success in the ring, the stress outside refused to go away, and as the months passed, Shane was handling it more and more poorly. Roger had always had his battles with alcohol, and although he eventually licked them, Shane seemed to have inherited the weakness, too. He seldom hesitated to turn to booze for a short break from the pressures pushing at him. "I dealt with things by getting hammered," he says now. "I would never drink when I was training or fighting, but after the fight...I was like a sprinter. I would drink as much as I could, as fast as I could."
Once, about six months after Roger's death, Shane was partying hard. A policeman who'd known the family for years came to break up the shindig. He ordered Shane to go upstairs, and when the young boxer became belligerent, the cop threw a body shot: "You're going to turn out just like your dad -- a no-good drunk son of a bitch."
"That was the wrong thing to say," Shane recalls. He was booked for resisting arrest.
It got worse. That February, Shane's original girlfriend finally admitted she couldn't handle Shane and his infidelity and his out-of-wedlock child any longer, and the two split for good. Two weeks later, Shane fought his final, bloody fight and in April, two months before his child was due, he announced his retirement from boxing.
There were other reasons for his despair, of course. Despite his unqualified professional success, Shane never did earn much of a living off of boxing. After turning pro, he'd quickly signed a feudal contract with a manager out of New York, in which the guy paid Shane a modest "salary" that Shane was supposed to repay. But since most of his professional fights netted only about $100 a round, that debt was growing. "After expenses, I was making $30 a round. Not that I'm anybody special, but somebody who's six-time national champion deserves more than that," he says. "And my contract said that if I retired, I didn't owe him a penny."
The baby was born in June 1997. Shane was a decent sort, raised to take responsibility, and he knew what he had to do. He kept in close contact with the woman, paid child support -- even changed diapers. Then, at the recommendation of his family, he talked the girl into a paternity test. The results came back late that summer: Shane wasn't the father.
Oddly, the news didn't come as a complete relief. "I was going through this huge mind game," Shane recalls. Indeed, in many ways it was harder to deal with the fact that he wasn't a father than it had been to think he was a 21-year-old dad. The signs of strain became even clearer. There was a DUI arrest, then a harassment charge growing out of an incident involving his previous girlfriend. A restraining order was issued.
Shane was learning that life outside the prescribed confines of the ring -- life without a goal or direction or limits -- wasn't so simple. "I tried construction, but I wasn't a big fan of that," he says. "You get paid dirt money; I was throwing Sheetrock for $8 an hour." Later, a friend got him a job working at a school for kids just getting off parole. He had a knack for the job; he liked the kids and the work. But after several of the kids moved into his apartment, using it as a sort of halfway house, Shane realized he wasn't ready for the responsibility, and so he quit that, too, and began working security for a cell phone company. At first it seemed ridiculous -- fifteen bucks an hour for one of the best boxers in the country to stand around, keep his eyes peeled -- but a few months later he moved into sales. Last year he cleared $50,000.
Yet life didn't feel right, and in many ways Shane remained without direction. In 1994, at the height of his athleticism, he'd been offered a full football scholarship to Colorado State University. He'd passed to concentrate on his boxing. Finally free of the game, in 1998 he approached the school to see if the offer still stood. "Sorry, too late," was the reply.
For the first time in his life, he let himself go physically. After nearly two decades of rigidly monitoring his body, he now grew soft. The inactivity and the alcohol took their toll. By the beginning of this year, when Shane stepped on the scale, it registered an alarming 230 pounds -- 65 pounds over his fighting weight. "People would tease me about being big," he says. "I hated that feeling."
Another shock of self-realization came this past spring, when he attended WBC lightweight champ Stevie Johnston's big homecoming fight, at the Magness Center. (Johnston thrashed Julion Alvarez in two rounds.) "That really bothered me," he recalls. "Because as I was watching, I was thinking, 'That's the level I used to fight at.' And it began to dawn on me: All the guys I'd fought with -- David Reid, Fernando Vargas, Eric Morel -- they were all in the top ten now. And where was I?"
The idea of re-entering the ring began to creep into his consciousness. One of the first people he approached was Steven Den, his former sixth-grade teacher. "One night he came up here and said, 'What do you think if I go back into boxing?'" Den recalls. "I looked him in the eye and said, 'For who?' And he paused for a second and then said, 'For me, this time. Not for Dad.'"
So, slowly, late this spring, Shane began to get back into shape. He stopped drinking altogether, began running, hitting the bags. He found a new trainer, an old friend of his dad's in Brighton, and four months ago he started preparing in earnest.
A comeback pro fight was arranged for June, but Shane was talked out of re-entering the ring before he was ready. Another bout was scheduled for late August. He carved his body to a solid 185. A few weeks ago he cut back to a part-time work schedule to make room for his return to professional boxing. "I'm not back to where I used to be," he says, "but I'm close."
The Grand Ballroom of the Riviera Casino in Black Hawk has been converted to a boxing ring, surrounded by 350 chairs. It is Sunday afternoon, August 27, the date of Shane's return to professional boxing. He is the headline event -- Shane "Hurricane" Swartz! -- and the sixth fight of the day. As Shane makes his way toward the ring -- no dancing, no fancy robe, just a purposeful walk -- the man next to me leans close and says he remembers Shane from maybe ten years earlier. "This guy used to be a hell of a puncher, a hell of a puncher," he recalls. "I haven't seen him in a while, though, so I don't know if he's still got it."
Most people in the ballroom seem to know Shane, and it's clear he's fighting in front of a wildly partisan crowd. His scheduled opponent, Joe Vega, mysteriously disappeared a couple of weeks ago, so another guy, out of Nebraska, was lined up in a hurry. Joe Escamillo is tall, with a caved-in-looking chest. With his bald head and stooped posture, he resembles a vulture. He has a couple inches' reach on Shane.
Shane looks more solid, with a squarer, more mature body than when he fought twenty pounds lighter. As the fight begins, he immediately begins stalking Escamillo, backing him into the ropes with hard jabs and a swift, strong left hook that several times catches him solidly in the midsection. Soon Escamillo is using his right hand exclusively to fend off Shane's left, making him even more vulnerable to Shane's punches. He is on the defensive from the beginning and tries to establish himself by tying Shane up and bulling him with his forearms.
In the second round, Shane resumes pounding Escamillo's body. In the middle of the round Escamillo tags him with a couple of quick punches to the head, but Shane recovers quickly; later he staggers Escamillo with a fast combination -- a stiff left jab to the face and a hard body right -- in which both punches connect audibly.
As the third round begins, Shane appears winded and eager to end the contest. He steps up his attack, mixing up combinations. Twice Escamillo's knees seem to buckle and recover. Then, two minutes into the round, Shane straightens him upright with a stiff, compact right, and Escamillo looks as though he is trying to get the attention of the referee. (Shane says later, "I know this guy, and he likes to put on an act like he's hurt. Then, when you come in, he throws a stiff right hand. So I kept at him.") Seconds later, as Shane again backs him into a corner, Escamillo holds up his hands and turns his back. The fight is called at 2:20 of the third round, a TKO; the ballroom erupts in shouts and yells.
As Shane bows to all four sides of the ring, the man next to me replays moments of the fight, remembers some of the heavier blows Shane released during the match. Then he promises all that Shane can ask for now. "I'd pay to see him fight again," the man says.
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