A man's legacy is too often boiled down to one moment, one sliver of time, when he was unable to summon the reserves to conquer his fears and foe. A résumé can be packed with triumphs and titles, but if a person of note self-destructs on a big stage, his wiki will be reduced to a sad summary of the meltdown.
Is this fair? Probably not. Why this occurs, in this age of naked schadenfreude, in this reality TV era, is best discussed in another forum. But for a man like Oliver McCall, unless he manages to uncork a shocking second-act triumph, it is a virtual certainty that his legacy will be reduced to his actions on the night of Feb. 7, 1997.
On that night, a man who probably should have been, for his own sake, cocooned in a rehabilitation facility, was instead fighting gargantuan Lennox Lewis, one of the most skilled behemoths of pugilism ever, for a heavyweight title. On that night, during a fight for the vacant WBC crown, Oliver McCall suffered a nervous breakdown in front of boxing fans at the Hilton in Las Vegas.
Should McCall's lasting impact not also include his admirable persistence in fighting a disposition to use hard drugs, most specifically cocaine, and also his exceptional longevity as a ring professional, his 26 years in this dark and dangerous trade? Shouldn't his legacy to this point include the improbable fact that, at age 46, he is slated on Saturday to fight for the WBC international title against Mariusz Wach? It probably should, but it probably won't be. No; if it bleeds, it leads. Humans are fascinated and preoccupied with dirt, and eagerly we soak up stories of degradation. It is not our finest trait, but it can't be denied, only dealt with.
Never mind that McCall has been a professional fighter since 1985, has engaged in 69 fights as a pro and has beaten fighters the caliber of Lewis, Larry Holmes, Oleg Maskaev, Henry Akinwande and Fres Oquendo.
Cast aside that he beat Lewis, then the WBC champion, in their first fight, on Sept. 24, 1994, via TKO2.
Thanks to YouTube, the boxing world will reduce the existence of McCall to that of a blubbering mess who lost his marbles in the ring in Round 4 of the Lewis rematch.
Fight fans watching in the arena or on HBO or Sky TV that night saw McCall begin to unravel with 45 seconds left in the third. He had been eating Lewis' jabs and long rights in that frame, and began to get frustrated. After absorbing a couple of jabs, he stood static and looked right, then looked left before re-engaging. After the round, McCall wandered around the ring, refusing to take to his stool. Trainer George Benton barked at him, as did chief second Greg Page, but McCall couldn't be reined in. It was no secret that the fighter could be erratic, as word leaked before this bout that he had been using hard drugs not long before the event. But the event planners didn't want to pull the plug on the scrap, so long in the planning. He was in rehab leading up to the tussle, and a drug counselor shadowed him days before the fight, and his urine was clean. But his head was not. When McCall needed to be fully focused on his health and tending to his precarious well-being, he was instead in the ring fighting for a heavyweight title.
At the start of the fourth, McCall ate a few Lewis shots but didn't return fire or even defend himself. He dropped his hands to his side, then walked away briskly, looking anywhere but at Lewis. The Brit stalked him, perhaps thinking McCall was playing a bizarre brand of possum.
One minute into the fourth, Lewis was shaking his head back and forth.
McCall was on autopilot, in a zone unto his own, disengaged to a dangerous degree. With 1:29 left in the fourth, referee Mills Lane called time and addressed McCall. "Do you want to fight?" he asked McCall. The fighter shook his head in the affirmative but continued to meander, physically and mentally.
The crowd booed heavily at the end of the fourth. McCall again wandered about the ring. By then, he was in tears. Page and Lane forced him to his stool, as McCall shook his head back and forth. "Do you want to fight?" Lane asked him. "What's wrong? Do you want to fight?"
The fifth round kicked off, and McCall went back into his shell. Lewis took it to him, landing a mean right uppercut, a few clean shots and then a long, clean right. McCall walked away and Lane stepped in, got between the fighters and halted the sad affair. McCall didn't bother to wait for the official announcement of the particulars; he exited the ring and walked to his dressing room while being showered in a bath of thrown beer, soda and epithets.
McCall was asked to delve into that harrowing night, given the opportunity to confirm or deny what has been written about the meltdown and the time leading up to the event. He declined, saying he didn't want to go there so close to his fight Saturday. But, he said, he would be happy to give us the scoop after his bout. And he noted that, all these years later, foe Lennox Lewis is concentrating on getting gigs as a TV analyst, while he's still in the mix throwing down.
Mike Marley, the fight writer who worked as a flack for Don King from 1991 to 1996, shed some light on the infamous meltdown and offered his take on McCall the person.
First, Marley made sure to make a case for McCall's legacy as something more than one bad night. He knocked out the Hall of Famer Lewis with his eyes closed, Marley reasons, and that feat must be factored in when it comes time to write McCall's obit. On that night in 1994, Lewis threw a half-hook/half-jab. McCall slipped it, threw his own hook and followed with a haymaker right -- all, indeed, done with his eyes closed. Lewis went down, then arose on shaky legs, and the ref halted the scrap.
"The night he ran into the ring," Marley said, referring to McCall's infamous meltdown, "that was a bit of insanity. But I don't know if the general public doesn't look at it as another bit of boxing insanity. Oliver was one of only two guys to stop Lewis; I don't think it should be overlooked."
Marley then explains some of what makes McCall tick and defends the decision to have McCall go through with the fight.
"Oliver was part of that generation of guys abusing everything, going on binges," Marley said. "He did things to excess -- alcohol, drugs -- but he was a guy you couldn't keep out of the gym. Certain fighters of a certain age were drinkers. Then you got guys who got into the combo platter -- drugs and juice. I wondered what Oliver would've achieved if he'd been clean.
"Don King did what he was supposed to: He put Oliver in a fancy rehab, had police detectives guard him so he would not sneak out. Oliver came straight from rehab, and Don had detectives with him. He'd only leave to train. He was under 100 percent watch, no private time."
The rehab probably came about to lessen the sting of McCall's Dec. 15,
1996, meltdown in a Nashville hotel. That night, not feeling the holiday spirit, he threw a Christmas tree around the hotel bar, was asked to leave, then got into it with cops.
"He was winning 'til about the seventh or eighth cop," Marley said.
"Oliver is a charming, personable guy. He sings songs, charms the pants off you. But once he started with the pipe, forget about it."
McCall has tried to forget about the pipe, tried to steer away from mood-altering substances for much of his life, and to this point, he hasn't been able to shake the demon. But he remains hopeful, and that, substance abuse counselors will tell you, is a key component when assessing an addict's chances at getting and staying clean.
"I've been off drugs almost a year now," McCall said during a phone interview last week. "I'm sitting at my church, the First Baptist in Fort Lauderdale. I've been doing Bible study and surrounding myself with very respectable people. That's rubbing off on me."
McCall says this is his longest clean stretch in who knows how long. Prior to this?
"I don't know, it had to be a couple of months. I went six, eight months."
The fighter balances between not wallowing in the past and keeping painful memories at the fore, to help persuade himself to stay out of trouble. "I take it one day at a time," he said. "The past is the past, but I still got to remember the things that brought me back to the drugs."
McCall is aided in staying in the present by his current quest: to get a crack at a Klitschko, at one of the massive Ukrainian-born heavyweight titlists. "I've been wanting that opportunity for the last 10 years,"
he said. "To beat them, you have to have heart and be willing to take chances. I've seen no guy really take a chance. I can punch and take a punch. Both Klitschkos are very limited in their offensive ability but are able to use their height and ring savvy to overwhelm people, because guys don't have the heart to take the chances to beat them.
"You have to bulldog the guys, like in a street fight. You have to knock these guys out. If you don't knock them out, they get relaxed."
First things first, McCall has to take down Wach, a 31-year-old Pole, to get closer to that legacy-rearranging Klitschko bout.
McCall offers his take on the New Jersey-based Wach: "He's young; he thinks his ability will beat my experience. The key to fight a guy like that is to let them expose themselves. There are things they need to learn. He'll want to use his height, use his reach advantage. But I'm real seasoned. I'm not training to take him into the deep water, though. I will start fast, throw a lot of punches and beat him faster than I did Henry Akinwande [in a 2001 KO10 win over the 6-7 Londoner]."
Wach, who stands 6-7½ and fancies a crack at a Klitschko maybe next year after about three more bouts, told ESPN.com he's not counting on McCall's age being a detriment to him. "It's a test," he said. "McCall has huge ring experience. I want to see if I'm ready for the next step. This is my toughest fight 'til now. I want to show my best qualities."
Fans seem geared up for the scrap, which will unfold at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. The arena there is sold out for a boxing card for the first time in 10 years. McCall, too, is pumped up. You get the feeling that he needs to be a sunny optimist, needs to look forward to achievements and tests that many of us might dismiss as unrealistic or, frankly, delusional.
"I'm still fighting, I've been blessed by God and I'm still good at what I do," he said. "I can fight at this level and still win, and when I'm not effective at the elite level, I will start training and managing. But I believe I can be successful in winning a world title.
"I am still at my best. Am I as good as I was at 25? As a matter of fact, I said to my family, 'You haven't seen the best Oliver McCall.
"I've been in and out of drugs and things of that nature; I was never able to manifest the best of me. Right now, I'm drug-free, I've got a good team behind me and I think you see a better Oliver McCall than at any time of my life."
That word comes up again, though -- delusional -- when McCall is asked whether he knows that some (if not most) folks think he's a crazy coot for being a grandpa pugilist.
"About being delusional, I thank big George Foreman," McCall said.
"He's a forerunner to my situation. We were champions at the same time, he was a 45-year-old champion. He showed it can be done. George done it, I believe I can do it. If I stay focused and diligent, by the will and grace of God, it can be done."
So Foreman, tracked down by phone, is asked whether he agrees. Perhaps surprisingly, he does not. In fact, Foreman admits that he now sees a downside to his
1995 win over Michael Moorer, which made him the oldest man to win a legit crown.
"My story is a bit of a curse," Foreman said. "Enough of the George Foreman stuff."
His words come not long after 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins' body betrayed him, as he separated his shoulder when dumped to the mat by foe Chad Dawson in the second round of their Oct. 15 title fight.
"Hopkins was screaming about his shoulder like an old man with rheumatoid arthritis," Foreman said mockingly. "I might've said to Oliver, 'Why don't you get a real job?'"
Foreman is countered, politely -- oh so politely -- and offered that he sounds like a hard-hearted politician who tells Occupy Wall Street protestors to "get a job," as though it were as easy as snapping one's fingers. Foreman clarifies and admits he was lucky to get a gig as an HBO analyst and grill master. "Otherwise, I'd probably still be limping on out there,"
Foreman thinks that if McCall wants to keep at it, perhaps Wach is the right level of competition. But Klitschko, he believes, would be too hard a nut to crack. "He'd get hammered pretty bad," Foreman said of McCall. "Old age has nothing to do with it -- even when he was young, he didn't keep in shape."
Foreman would be pleased if McCall put all his energies into keeping his nose clean instead of chasing a Quixotic dream. "If McCall achieves a victory over the drugs," Foreman said, "that's the real heavyweight championship."
I have to agree with Foreman -- that McCall would get whupped pretty good by either of the Brothers K. But I cannot and will not lobby Oliver McCall to hang up the gloves and lay down his dreams to reset his legacy. I offer that his plan to go at the hefty hitters, blitz them, is as sensible as any plan I've heard. Also, I'd bet Foreman's grill revenue that McCall would give a better account than David Haye did against Wladimir on July 2. Lastly, the potential damage McCall could absorb fighting on too long is probably preferable to the damage he could soak up if he goes back to the pipe. That wake of wreckage would break down Oliver and the family that adores him, the people who would rather he tackle a too-hefty task, a quest to reclaim a world title, than succumb to the allure of the devilish stimulant.
Michael Woods writes about boxing for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, and is the editor of TheSweetScience.com.