by Kieran Mulvaney
As the rain outside pours from the sky above Cincinnati, a small entourage files into the hotel lobby.
First to emerge from the elevator is Levi Smith, hand-wrapper, cut man and corner sage, experienced and unflappable. He is followed by J.P., a large specimen of humanity whose job is to eye approaching strangers warily and who fulfills his duties instantly as he fixes me with an uncertain glare. Then Mike Stafford – “Coach Mike” – in his defining pose: bag over one shoulder, cellphone in his other hand, pressed to his ear. He looks up, smiles, offers a hand, returns to his conversation.
Quietly, unannounced, the fighter himself appears. He looks the part: face half-hidden behind huge shades, ear buds connected to an iPhone, muscles straining against his shirt. But there is no crowd, nobody seeking an autograph, and the thought that immediately occurs is that this is surely one of the last occasions on which that will be the case. Two days before an HBO fight against Vicente Escobedo, in his hometown, and Adrien ‘The Problem’ Broner is able to walk from elevator to valet stand unmolested and undisturbed. It is a relative anonymity. But if, over the next couple of years, Broner’s career tracks along the path that so many have predicted for it, such anonymity will soon be a thing of the past.
One floor below the lobby, we spread ourselves over a pair of couches and wait for the valet to bring the vehicles. The heaviness of the atmosphere outside seems to mingle with the sense of anticipation a little more than 48 hours before the biggest night so far of Broner’s career: a 130-pound-division fight against Escobedo that Broner will ultimately win – but only after the bout nearly falls apart at the last moment when Broner fails to make weight. J.P. sits with his fingers interlaced, hands resting on his torso. Coach Mike leans forward, phone pressed tightly to his ear. Only Levi seems tranquil, smiling and joking, impervious to any tension.
Broner sits down quietly, his eyes masked by his sunglasses, his mood imperceptible. Then, suddenly, he asks what I’d like to talk about. Publicly, he is loud and brash, punctuating his post-fight interviews by inviting his father to brush his hair and issuing rhymes and exhortations: “You can call me the can man, because everyone can come and get it,” he smiled after his most recent win: “Africans, Americans, Dominicans, Mexicans.” Privately, he speaks softly and quietly, albeit with no less confidence.
He shrugs off the suggestion that fight week – presenting as it does a conflict between needing to be accessible for media and needing to withdraw and relax in anticipation of the impending conflict – might present any kind of challenge or stress.
“I get more happy,” he says. “Because I know it’s my time, it’s my time to shine. The lights will be on me.” Even making weight, he insists, is not an issue – although he acknowledges that squeezing his frame into the 130-pound limit has become progressively more difficult. In his next fight he will move up to the lightweight division, and perhaps beyond.
“Yeah. I think I did enough at 130,” he says. “I don’t think there’s nothing for me at 135, or 140 or 147 either. Easy work.”
Not surprisingly, he does not dismiss the view that he is on the cusp, that at some point, perhaps very soon, he might be regarded as one of the most marketable fighters in the sport.
“With the talent that I have, the type of guy that I am, the charisma that I have, I knew that there would be some point in time when boxing will revolve around Adrien Broner,” says Broner, revealing he is already comfortable with the famous athlete’s requirement to speak of himself in the third person. “Patience is the key. Everybody has their time. But once you give me the chance to be in that circle, I’m never going to leave.”
We are in Broner’s Range Rover – Levi driving, J.P. riding shotgun, Broner’s three-year-old daughter Noria squirming and smiling on the back seat between the fighter and me. As we ride, Broner’s attention shifts to cranking, and rapping along with, the music he is blasting from his iPhone through the SUV’s speakers. The continued presence of an outsider in the group seems to bore him; by the time we reach our destination – a scheduled appointment with an ophthalmologist – the publicly voluble fighter is answering questions with a tortured reticence.
Why ‘The Problem’?
That’s always been my nickname. Me and my twin brother, any time we came to a tournament, they’d all be, “Oh, it’s a problem. The twins are here.”
Why boxing? You’re an athlete. You could have probably picked any sport.
It’s fun. I’m a com-pet-i-tor. Huuuge competitor. There’s just something about the ... I dunno. I guess I was just born for it.
You remember your first amateur fight?
I fought in Jordans. I didn’t even have boxing shoes. I dropped the dude and everything.
You were six years old and you put your guy on the canvas? That must have been quite a buzz.
I did that on my first day in the gym. I just like having fun, I guess.
The team, by and large, has been with him a long time, traveling the same road together to a destination that remains unknown but is now, after many years, surely just ahead.
“I started around boxing back in the 70s,” says Levi as we wait for Broner to emerge from his appointment, “but then I got out for a long time. When I came back, Adrien was 14 years old, and I’ve been with him ever since.”
He nods over to Coach Mike.
“He’s been with him since he was 6,” he says. “Isn’t that right, Mike?”
Stafford looks up, and then returns to his phone conversation.
Even the newest member of the family has bonds with Broner that stretch back in time.
The fighter and J.P. had known each other as kids and then, as happens, lost touch. But just two months previously, they had a chance encounter:
“He told me he was going to take me out of town when he need me,” says J.P. in a soft voice that belies his imposing demeanor. “He’s a great person. He’s humble, loyal, great guy, he treats me well. I’m happy to be on the team. I don’t look at him as my friend, he’s my brother.”
If, or when, the time comes when Broner emerges from an elevator into a surging sea of humankind, J.P will be the giant Canute whose task will be to keep the tide at bay. He is at Broner’s side, and his beck and call, throughout camp, and he is immensely grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m here to protect him, keep crazy fans off his back,” he explains gently. “Wherever he go, I’m there. I don’t care if he go to Africa, I’m right behind him. I thank him every day. I thank God, and I thank Adrien. I was going through a lot, and he helped me out a lot.”
It was Levi who first suggested to Broner that the time had come.
“I told him he was getting to that point in his career where he need a bodyguard,” he explains in his smooth, could-have-been-a-jazz-singer voice. “Keep people out of his face. There’s gonna be a whole lot of people trying to get in his face.”
Mt. Auburn Community Center is adjacent to the W. Howard Taft Elementary School. The gym is dominated by a ring and eight hanging heavybags. As Broner pounds away on the bag, the sauna-like surroundings are filled with the noise of half-a-dozen others doing likewise, of professionals and amateurs alike of all ages striving to emulate the hometown hero. The greatest cheers and shouts are reserved for a pair of youngsters who are perhaps seven years old, wearing headgear and wailing on each other in the ring.
“That was Adrien once,” says Stafford as we stand by the ring. “The kid has so much talent. He was born a champ. The reason he has over 300 amateur fights is he won all his tournaments, so he’d have five fights each time. And he was raised well. His grandma raised him, and she instilled a lot of good things in him.”
Broner finishes his workout, towels off, showers, and sits on the bleacher in the gym. Noria joins him, her head resting on his shoulder. He is quiet, unexpressive. As Coach Mike and I head out the door, he is a young man looking forward to the end of the day, clutching a daughter who is already fast asleep.
On Saturday night, the crowd at US Bank Arena is lustily roaring its approval. In the ring, a victorious Broner is bending down on to one knee in front of his girlfriend. It has been a strained 36 hours: a Friday failure to make weight despite two desperate hours in the gym that morning, coupled with a second failure to weigh no more than 140 lbs, as agreed between the two camps, before breakfast on Saturday, led to the loss of his title, a hefty fine and a threat that challenger Vicente Escobedo would walk out. Discussions dragged on all day and into the evening; the undercard fighters were making their way to the arena even as the ultimately successful negotiations to keep the main event intact were reaching a desperate crescendo.
But the crowd doesn’t know any of that. All it knows is that Escobedo was in the ring and that Broner was in the ring, and that for five rounds the hometown fighter bullied, brutalized and beat up his foe until Escobedo’s corner threw in the towel to halt the drubbing.
And now, Broner appears to be about to punctuate proceedings with a surprise proposal.
“In front of the whole world, on national TV,” he begins, and then a perfect dramatic pause. “Will you brush my hair?”
The crowd roars once more, a loving embrace of their brash, flash new hero.
(In Adrian Broner’s next fight on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, he moves up to the lightweight division to face Antonio DeMarco on HBO World Championship Boxing.)