This Friday night former heavyweight challenger Michael Grant takes on journeyman Carlton Johnson. Outside the couple of thousand folks that are expected to show up at the First Union Center in Philadelphia, not too many others will be able to see Grant (currently riding a five fight winning streak) back in action.
It's a long way from the bright lights and the exposure that Grant once fought under on a regular basis. Remember, it was just a couple of years ago that the hulking Grant was HBO's heir apparent at heavyweight and was hailed as 'the heavyweight of the new millennium'. That is until he was rushed into a title fight with Lennox Lewis and stopped in two short rounds. Like a piece of fine china, he was dropped and shattered into a thousand little pieces.
More than a year later, those thousand fragments would be pieced together and put back into the ring against Jameel McCline, in what was thought to be a comeback fight on his way to bigger and better things. This time he would be armed with a new trainer, the esteemed Teddy Atlas. But he wasn't much help as Grant was dumped to the canvas is less than 15 seconds with the first solid punch from McCline, fracturing his ankle in the process. In two fights, his stock plummeted faster than Enron.
Grant had hit rock bottom- twice. But he decided to give his career one last chance at legitimacy and after recovering from his fractured ankle, he would embarked on a series of comeback fights. We would say that he took some 'gimme's' but the fact of the matter is, we're not sure in his state of mind that there was any fight that could be considered an easy one for him. But slowly he has started to climb out of his hole; and this past August he took a decisive step up in class by knocking out fringe contender Robert Davis in three rounds in front of a national audience on ESPN. For Grant, it was a significant step in the right direction.
So now they move on to bigger and better things right? Actually, they took a step back by fighting James Walton in early November in Washington D.C., stopping Walton in four. And now, they're taking on Johnson, another unknown and relatively safe fighter. And it's just the way Atlas planned it.
" You gotta be honest," he says." I think we dropped back a lil' bit but not by accident. What I really felt like after the Robert Davis fight was that I wanted to evaluate what I saw. And I saw some good things, but I also saw some things that need to be tightened up, some inconsistencies, and so I thought I'd be wrong if I stepped ahead . I believe in the way I'm going about it and my philosophies towards this business; and right or wrong, you have to believe in it if you're the one who's leading it."
Atlas, after the knockout loss to McCline, in his first bout training Grant, took over the decision making in Grant's matchmaking from managers Craig Hamilton and Jim Thomas. Atlas, from the very beginning, had doubted that his new fighter was ready for a fighter of McCline's caliber so soon. And Atlas is hesitant even now to push the envelope looking ahead.
" With his lack of background, and moving to a title fight, and then the devastating two losses in a row and everything; I feel Michael needs time obviously in the gym to develop and then develop in proper fights. Off of the Davis fight, I though that he took a nice step forward from where he was. But there were some things I wanted to see better, become more consistent with."
The word 'consistency' is used over and over again by Atlas in talking about his fighter. In short, he wants more of it from him and even in his performance with Davis, he didn't see quite enough of it. After a strong round one against Davis, he would fight listlessly without focus in the second- earning a loud reprimand from his trainer- before stopping Davis in the next round. It was the second round that made Atlas proceed with caution.
" I felt, let me pull back a little bit," said Atlas, of his thoughts after the Davis win." And work in the gym again and see if I can get him to be more consistent and add to the areas that I saw were good and the areas that I thought he drifted a little bit and that he could have been better at. See if he can be consistent before he gets to the next level. To me, that's the way you do it. That's the way I feel comfortable developing a fighter and training a fighter."
So next came a fight off of TV against Walton.
" We had the fight in Washington. I felt that I was right, there was still some inconsistencies in that fight," Atlas says." Now, we're gonna have this fight where we got a game guy in front of him, who's gonna come forward but he's a level below Davis. And now, I'm gonna see- and I don't just care about winning- but I want to see how he wins. I wanna see how he looks, I wanna see if he shows the things we've been working on in the gym."
And Atlas insists that he will not move up to the next level just based on wins. He must see development and of course, consistency.
" It's always about the fighter getting better to me. My bottom line is being a teacher and the most important thing is your fighter getting better," said Atlas, who's currently got some time off from his other gig on ESPN2 as their 'Friday Night Fight' series is in the midst of a three week hiatus." Look, I know I don't have forever to do this, he's 30 years old, I got him at a certain point in his career, I know that.
" But I'm still not going to ignore the fact that there are still certain areas that he needs time to develop. I'm going to give it as much time as I can in practical terms and then I still understand that I need to step forward and be able to apply it within certain time frames- I understand that."
" But my first and foremost priority is going to be my fighter being consistent in the area's that he needs to be, becoming as good as he can become. Forget about the styles of the guys out there, I can pick spots out there with guys, but I want Michael himself to become as solid as he can possibly become within a certain practical term of time."
Ok, but where does he see his fighter in six months?
" I'm looking at stepping up to an ESPN-type fight," he answers." I'm looking for him, by the summer, to be on the fringes of the HBO-fights, the kind of guys you gotta fight in those kind of spots. To be able to show that he can be consistent on that level."
FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS
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