Family, always: Inside the unbreakable bond between Shawn and Kenny Porter

LAS VEGAS -- I met Shawn Porter in early 2016 as he was preparing to fight Keith Thurman, who was then the best welterweight in the world. Three things were immediately apparent, first among them being Porter's distinct physicality. He had fought most of his amateur career at 165.3 pounds. But even that 75-kilogram limit was pushing it for a kid whose alternate athletic endeavor was playing safety and running back in the formidable high school football leagues of northern Ohio. Porter was good enough to receive letters from California, Southern California, Virginia and Georgia Tech, but he chose boxing anyway.

Then as now, it seems a preposterous choice. Why would any kid opt for a life spent in malodorous gyms when he might come of age in a plush athletic dorm? Still, it made the second of Porter's striking qualities even more blatantly conspicuous. That would be his smile.

Fighters tend not to be happy people. Forgive the generalization, but I'm not wrong here. They're mined from dismal circumstances, and the business of boxing does little to leaven their distemper. But Porter is a dangerous anomaly, a truly happy warrior. His smile remained broad, generous and almost ever-present, as if it were the natural condition of his face.

Finally, there was his father, Kenny Porter -- guarded, broad-chested, drill-sergeant Alpha and, as was plain to see, good with his hands. Not at all the smiling type. He scripted Shawn's workouts -- from sparring to swimming -- with military precision. Kenny, now 56, wasn't merely domineering but a particular kind of controlling, not on his kid's case but literally in his space, always touching him, never letting him out of his sight. Their only physical separation seemed to be when Kenny consigned Shawn to sprint on the treadmill in an oxygen deprivation tent.

Somehow, someway, this isn't going to end well, I was thinking.

"You don't get it," Shawn told me later that day. Sure, there had been times when he bridled under his father's need for absolute authority. He'd run off and drive away, only to drive back.

And yes, for the record, Shawn did break his dad's rib in sparring, but he said it was an accident.

"I'm blessed," Shawn said, with that smile. "I have a loyalty to what we are doing, a loyalty to my dad. I carry that with me all day, every day."

Now, more than five years later, we meet for another series of interviews just days before his WBO title challenge on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay with the champion, Terence Crawford. Welterweight has been boxing's glamour division for at least a quarter of a century, from the heydays of Oscar De La Hoya to Floyd Mayweather to Manny Pacquiao. If the line of succession has grown less clear since Mayweather's retirement, this fight should go a long way toward remedying that. It pits the current division's most talented fighter, Crawford, 34, against its most relentless and richly experienced one in Porter, also 34. Crawford is heavy-handed, ambidextrous and possessed of a brilliant boxing IQ and a mean streak.

"What do you have that he doesn't?" I ask Shawn.

"My corner," he says.

His father, he means.

It's a point that not even the famously prickly Crawford would argue. He knows them both, Kenny and Shawn, going back to the amateurs. "What he can get out of his son," Crawford concedes, "probably nobody else can."

Purchase Crawford-Porter on ESPN+ PPV

IF FIGHTERS ARE forged in specific moments of cosmic anguish, then Shawn Porter is no exception; his is merely a generation removed. It's not his trauma that made him the fighter he is; it's his father's. It was circa 1970. Kenny was 4 years old in east Cleveland. His brother, James, was 3, and left in his charge. Kenny has good memories: playing tag, riding Big Wheels with his brother. But he better recalls the neighborhood's archetypical night lords: pimps, numbers bosses, gangsters and -- atop this felonious nocturnal hierarchy -- one Don King, who happened to then be away at the Marion Correctional Institution on manslaughter charges.

"My mother ran the numbers for him," Kenny recalls. "It put her in positions where she had to leave the house at night."

Among them, the night: "After dark, me and my brother were left alone. And just like any small child, when you leave them alone, what do they want? They want their mother."

Kenny gave James something to eat -- candy, as he recalls. But that wasn't enough to stop his crying, so they went looking for their mother. Kenny remembers leading the way: "Crossing the streets, we made it all the way to the house where she was at, which happened to be a gambling house, a drug house. They ran the illegal numbers there.

"Right in front of the place, just across the street ... we made it ..."

Almost made it.

"We just didn't get quite across the street. James was hit by a car and killed."

James is buried in an unmarked grave. The way Kenny explains, there just wasn't enough money.

"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN looking for my brother since that happened," Kenny Porter once told me. "That's always been something that I've needed."

Kenny grew up angry and strong. He fought his way through the neighborhood and did some amateur boxing and eventually some toughman-type contests. But mostly, he ran the streets. "Players, drug dealers -- those were my idols, my role models," he recalls. "Those were the people I looked up to. I was told every day, I'd be dead or in jail before I was 21."

Who told you, I asked.

"My mother."

In fact, before Kenny was 21, he was twice a father. First, there was Kenneth II -- then, not quite a year later, Shawn, on October 27, 1987. Both sons were born to the same churchgoing woman.

"I told her God has spoken to me and told me that a man is supposed to raise his sons," Kenny remembers. "I felt like I was blessed with the opportunity now to protect what was mine and to raise it, and make sure that it was taken care of like it was supposed to."

Shawn recalls a childhood peaceably divided between his devoted mother and his hard-ass father. A bleary-eyed Kenny looked after the boys during the day, as he went from a 5 p.m. shift cleaning offices to an 11 p.m. shift as a hospital orderly.

By the time the boys were in junior high school, Kenny found employment at a metal processing plant 45 miles outside of Cleveland. It wasn't pleasant work, what with the heat and industrial-strength acids splashing about, but it enabled him to get the kids out of the city, to the suburb of Cuyahoga Falls.

"I never drank or smoked. I didn't hang out," he says. "I didn't have friends."

He lorded over a tightly circumscribed existence: job, church, home, gym.

The boys were not allowed out of the house without a full declaration of purpose.

Where are you going?

How long will you be?

There was homework. There was road work. There was gym work. Always a lot to do. But Kenny didn't want answers so much as affirmations: What are you going to do today?

"The best I can."

Kenny II turned out to be a decent enough middleweight. Boxrec.com lists his last fight in the semifinals of the 2009 Cleveland Golden Gloves. He lost on points to Terrell Gausha, an eventual Olympian.

Shawn was different, though. He had an unnaturally high-revving motor and an eagerness to please all those around him, but especially his father. The dynamic was evident in his very first amateur fight, during which Shawn found himself down going into the final round.

"You know what a thunderstorm is?" asked Kenny.

Shawn nodded. He was 8.

"I want you to go out there and throw punches like a thunderstorm," he said. "Just rain all over him."

As per his father's instructions, Shawn got into a sprinter's crouch and launched himself toward the opponent at the sound of the bell. Then, the deluge. If the moment became the basis of Porter's relentless style, it had less to do with boxing than fidelity to his father's words.

"He grew up with the blame and the guilt and everything," says Shawn, referring to the death of an uncle he never knew. "So much so that it's never going to happen again. If you take a look at my relationship with my dad and how it's structured and he doesn't want anything to go wrong like that moment -- that's where it comes from."

They became a fixture on the amateur circuit. If Kenny didn't make many friends, the affable Shawn did, among them a moody, bellicose lightweight from Omaha, Nebraska.

"Terence Crawford has always had a short fuse," Shawn recalls. "Terence would get so angry that his eyes would well up and he would tear up. People looked at him like he was soft. But they didn't understand. That's how his anger comes out. My dad has hung on to this story where he and Terence got into an altercation."

"We were at a U.S. tournament," Kenny remembers. "I had words with Terence about something. I happened to be walking through this darkly lit area, and he was coming through at the same time, and we faced off like gunfighters. It was crazy, because even then, he didn't just walk away. He turned with me and watched me until I walked away. Fists stayed clenched the whole time."

ONLY ONCE DOES Kenny recall his mother at one of Shawn's fights. That was 2009. She took a Greyhound bus from Cleveland to Memphis, where Shawn scored a first-round stoppage of a kid named Eloy Suarez.

"She never allowed herself to get close to my boys," Kenny says. "I figured out sometime later that it was because it brought back memories of the son she lost."

It wasn't long after the Memphis fight that her health started to deteriorate. Kenny would sit at her bedside: "One night she just woke up and looked at me and said, 'You know you need to let that go."

James, she meant.

Me? That's what Kenny wanted to say. I need to let that go?

But she was dying, and he didn't want to upset her. So, he just gave her something to drink.

"Don't you worry about nothing, Mama," he said.

THE INTERVENING YEARS have seen Shawn become a two-time welterweight champion. If the switch-hitting Crawford is the most talented of the post-Mayweather welterweights, then Porter can draw on the division's deepest résumé. Porter seems like he has fought everybody: Devon Alexander, Paulie Malignaggi, Kell Brook, Adrien Broner, Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, Yordenis Ugas and Errol Spence Jr. Most of them were in their prime. Hence, if experience has anything to do with it, Porter's should stand him in good stead come Saturday. While Crawford remains his friend, Porter thinks he can use the Nebraskan's anger against him.

It's a legacy fight for them both, and it could well alter the history of the division. But it's still just a fight, and no matter the outcome, Kenny Porter's son will remain a spectacular anomaly: a happy fighter in an unhappy game. As tight a grip as Kenny maintained, as hard as he raised his boys, so did his affable, eager-to-please son raise him.

"What he can get out of his son, probably nobody else can." Terence Crawford on Shawn Porter's father, Kenny Porter

"I've jumped out of planes with my son at 18,000 feet," Kenny says. "I've ridden camels in the Sahara Desert with my sons. I've swam the ocean with my sons. I've raced my son in Corvettes and Porsches at 100 miles an hour. I've won world championships with my son. And of course, I've eaten and prayed with my son."

Still, Kenny endured a great trepidation, the knowledge that Shawn would eventually become his own man and go his own way. A few years ago, Shawn married his longtime girlfriend, Julia, and began looking for a place to raise their two sons, Shaddai and Adonai, now 3 and 1.

It was in 2019 when Kenny got the text he'd long dreaded: an address. He punched it in the GPS and walked to his car. But the GPS wasn't measuring his journey in miles but mere feet.

"Why did you do that?" he asked his son.

"I thought it would be cool," Shawn said. "I thought it would be cool to live across the street."