Monday, November 26, 2007

Antonio Tarver Knows They Are Out to Get Him

Millionaire, champion and movie star Antonio Tarver forges on with his life.

There’s a scene in last year’s movie ‘Rocky Balboa’ in which Antonio Tarver’s character, Mason “The Line” Dixon, complains that he isn’t getting the respect he deserves. Despite being the famous and undefeated champion of the world, with all of the trappings of fame that accompany stardom, the public pays him no attention nor takes him seriously. As a result, he’s forced into facing the old champ in Balboa with the idea that it will make people sit up and take notice.

In real life, Antonio “The Magic Man” Tarver finds himself in a similar predicament.

A millionaire several times over, Tarver has an ivory smile and is as engaging and handsome as an athlete that can be found. He’s a well-spoken charmer when he wants to be and he possesses the unique ability to make you believe what he says. He’s a former two-time light heavyweight champion of the world, is married to a beautiful woman, resides in a mansion with a fleet of luxury automobiles parked in the garage – yet Antonio Tarver lives in a dark and suspicious world.

He knows they are out to get him.

It’s not enough that he knocked Roy Jones, Jr. senseless in less than two rounds, after he met Jones at center ring during the referee’s final instructions and asked, “You got any excuses tonight Roy?” It’s not enough that he’s won the light heavyweight championship of the world twice, amassed a fortune in purses and has avenged three of his four career losses. It’s not enough that he’s appeared next to Sylvester Stallone on the silver screen. No, having turned 39 years old just a few days ago, Antonio Tarver still wants more because he says they won’t give him the respect he feels he is owed.

You see, Antonio Tarver feels beaten up by the fight game and that they are out to get him.

He doesn’t understand how his last fight, in which he appeared rusty and a little sluggish against Elvir Muriqi, was scored a close majority decision by the judges.

“I don't understand what these people - how they judge boxing,” says an astounded Tarver. “I guess I don't understand the criteria for judging a boxing match. They don't understand the sophisticated boxing that I do. For anybody to say that was a close fight, it's mind boggling. You tell me after the fourth round that this guy was even in the fight, I beg to differ. That's my take.”

Further still, Tarver thinks that so many unknown people are out to get him that he claims he was drugged or poisoned before his loss to Bernard Hopkins in June 2006. It was a fight in which Tarver was dominated and even knocked down before barely making it to the final bell. Despite all of his preparation, he says clandestine forces got to him. It’s all cloak and dagger stuff and Tarver’s animated description of the widespread conspiracy leading up to the day of the fight reads like a scene from a James Bond movie.

“Something happened,” he says in a serious and suspicious voice. “I don’t want to point the finger, but I believe there’s a possibility that they got to me, or someone got to me with room service, a drink of water or whatever. I wasn’t myself,” he explains. As big as that fight was, I couldn’t get into it mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or nothing. I was zapped for whatever reason. I can’t blame it on my trainer because we trained properly. We were ready. But when I went to bed and woke up that day, I was a zombie and I don’t know what happened. My sister thought that maybe I could have been poisoned. Maybe somebody tampered with some food. My reflexes weren’t there, my counterpunching ability wasn’t there. Something went terribly wrong.”

Sylvester Stallone and Tarver ham it up at the premiere of Rocky Balboa.

So as the southpaw Tarver prepares to face the unknown Danny Santiago Saturday night in Connecticut, he does so with a feeling that he has more to prove to those that have always doubted him. The people that he simply refers to as they.

“Danny Santiago is coming,” says Tarver of his opponent. “Undoubtedly it's a chance of a lifetime for him. I know everybody gets up for me, because if they beat me, they become famous and have an opportunity to become rich. I've got to be at my best at all times. Right now I understand that this is the final chapter of my illustrious career and I want to go out on top, and I want to go out with a bang.”

After a lifetime spent in this racket they call the fight game, Tarver is of the opinion that he has never gotten his just due in the sport. Although he has accomplished more than many, he still reads the unflattering articles that are written about him and he keeps his eye on the moves of the pundits.

“I still hear the critics, so that's motivation in itself,” says Tarver about why he is still fighting. “I'm under a microscope every time I go out. Just winning is not enough for me for some reason. I've got to go out and do the dramatic, so there’s a lot of added pressure. I've got to knock people out, I understand that. Every chance they get they are trying to steal something from me. That's the chip I have on my shoulder.”

While Tarver is still a very formidable fighter, time marches on. During the months he was away from boxing making movies and taking a break after the loss to Hopkins, a new kid on the block emerged at 175 pounds in the form of 25 year-old WBC titlist Chad Dawson. The undefeated Dawson appears to be the future of the division and anybody making claims about being the best at light heavyweight would have to go through Dawson, or the very least Bernard Hopkins, who claimed The Ring Magazine championship belt when he beat Tarver.

Dawson fought on the undercard of Tarver’s last fight against Muriqi. Showtime Championship Boxing analyst Al Bernstein called both the Dawson and the Tarver fights from ringside and he gave his thoughts on a potential Tarver-Dawson fight.

“It’s a very interesting fight,” says the knowledgeable Bernstein. “I think you can make the case certainly that the hand speed and the aggression of Chad Dawson, let’s say in tonight’s case, would have given Antonio Tarver some issues. However, we know that Antonio Tarver is a very good counterpuncher. We know that from the outside he is a very, very good fighter and that’s where Chad Dawson fights for the most part. The whole point of it is it would be a very, very intriguing match-up and one, I think, that people would like to see. And you can honestly say in that division, I think, except maybe for him fighting Hopkins, it’s the most interesting match-up.”

But when Tarver speaks of his future, which, because of his age, is probably only another couple years in the sport, he rarely brings up Dawson’s name. The boxing intelligentsia has been quietly whispering that he needs to fight Dawson or nothing else matters. Certainly Tarver can’t spend his remaining time in boxing facing second-tier fighters like Muriqi and Santiago.

What would they say then?

So the question is this: What exactly does Antonio Tarver want to accomplish in the twilight of what has been a career that has had brief flashes of luminescence?

“I won’t listen to the naysayers. I want to accomplish like I did before,” Tarver resolutely declares. “I want them to choke on their words. I want them to suffer and come up for air. When it's all said and done, they are going to have to speak it loud and clear, that the “Magic Man” was by far one of the best. And when they look back at it, it's going to be undoubtable. They can't doubt it.”

As you talk to Antonio Tarver it becomes clear that he’s fighting for respect. He hasn’t gotten it, or so he feels, and that’s why he’s still here. It’s why he’s fighting the unknown Danny Santiago on a little fight card in Connecticut that few will see and that even fewer will care about. But Antonio Tarver is suspicious too. Leery that if he leaves boxing they will talk about him badly and they will say he was never much of a prizefighter.

But he tells you, and he’s very convincing, that they should believe otherwise.

“If I retired today or tomorrow, and Hopkins is the only man to defeat me without me coming back and redeeming myself, then I didn't do so bad,” he says. They never gave me credit for anything anyway. They never thought I would make it this far but I'm not looking for any handouts, I'm not looking for any sympathy.”

So Antonio Tarver keeps fighting on. He has to. He knows they are out to get him.

November 2007

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