Don't hate him because he's beautiful. Haven't you ever wanted to pick up a round-card girl?
Sure you have. Troy Rowland did too, except he got a closer look than most one night at a leggy blonde, 6-feet in heels, who worked one of his fights. I'm not sure when Rowland decided she would look good on his arm, but I'm pretty sure of one thing: I met her before he did.
"Stacy Starr," she said, upon our introduction.
"Is that your stage name?" I asked. Granted, it may seem somewhat indelicate in retrospect, but only because it probably was.
No, Stacy Starr (her first and middle names) does not remove her clothing for all or any part of her living, though if she had dropped her towel instead of Nicollette Sheridan on that controversial Monday Night Football promo with Terrell Owens, there might've been more boxers than jaws dropping along with it in American living rooms.
Can't quite figure out whether Rowland ever sees Stacy wearing an apron, as opposed to climbing upon an apron, though for the last several months, the fighter and round-card trophy have been nearly inseparable.
Don't hate him because he drives a pick-up truck, and hunts deer at every legal opportunity, and knows the words to croon a country tune, and wears red flannel as part of his birthright, and sports a crew cut. Country boys have been known to fight from time to time, it is alleged. And some round-card girls apparently like the clean-cut type.
Don't hate him because his knockout ratio falls somewhere below the Mendoza Line, and we're talking baseball analogy here, not tonight's knockout-artist opponent Epifanio Mendoza, whom Rowland will face in ShoBox's 10-round main event. Rowland has 24 percent knockouts, to Mendoza's 83 percent, but lack of swat does not equate to lack of swagger. Rowland has scored in the last 13 months against former three-time title challenger Andrew Council (who still had some left), former WBO welterweight title-claimant Manning Galloway (who has gone on to some good wins, i.e. Ricardo Williams, since losing to Rowland), and Kenny Ellis. As trialhorses go, those are not gimmes, and if the kid couldn't fight, we would've known then.
Don't hate him because he bears little resemblance, in style or substance, to the better-known fighter from his home region, Floyd Mayweather. They have known each other many years, came through the amateur ranks at the same time, grew up about 20 miles apart, haunted the same gyms, fought on many of the same shows, and attended each other's shows when they weren't fighting. But Mayweather hailed from inner-city Grand Rapids, Michigan. Rowland grew up in rural Cedar Springs, where the city’s motto reflects its casualness: "The Red Flannel City."
Don't hate him because he does the right things in life. When he bought a house a few years ago, he decided to go even farther into the rural area, 40 miles from Grand Rapids, because he could get more house for the same money in a one-horse town called Howard City. If he owns any ostentatious jewelry, no one knows. He works every day, alongside his brother, Shane, in their two-man home siding operation, Rowland Brothers Vinyl Siding. Honest fighter, honest work.
Don't hate him because he honors contracts. What a novel idea in boxing. His first amateur trainer at age 14 is still his trainer at age 29. The gym manager of his youth is the manager of his boxing career. His promoter owns the arena in Grand Rapids where he fights most often. That triumvirate may not always see eye to eye, but on Rowland, they all agree, they work with a sweetheart.
They have shared aspirations too. Big ones. There have been talks off and on about a fight with Jermain Taylor, who turned pro the same year as Rowland, 2000, and is one of few 20-somethings ascending the middleweight ratings at a faster pace. Taylor, however, seems to be taking the deliberate route toward actually fighting champion Bernard Hopkins. Rowland won't need asking twice if that offer ever comes.
"I watch tapes of Bernard all the time," Rowland said. "I love watching him fight. But I'd also love to fight him someday. I'd love to beat him, of course, but it also would be an honor to get in the ring with him. He's done so much." John Mason, 63, was a journeyman light heavyweight in the 1970s, lost a couple more than he won, but never completely left the game. He is one of those workaday amateur trainers who escapes notice, and only gets publicized if he finds the right fighter at the right time. When you train in a rural gym, a former church building in tiny Sand Lake, Michigan, such athletes rarely come along.
Mason finally thinks he has one.
"I see no danger for Troy with (Oscar) De La Hoya, not even before De La Hoya got knocked out," Mason said. "As far as Bernard Hopkins, I think Troy can beat him." Did he just say Rowland beats Hopkins, the record-holder with 20 consecutive middleweight title victories?
"Yeah, that's what I think," Mason said. "I could be wrong. I don't win the Lotto with the numbers I pick, but I don't stop trying." Rowland, 20-1 (5) lost his fifth pro fight, a four-round split decision to Ian Gardner, who is 17-1 and moving through the middleweight ratings at a similar pace. In retrospect, it was one of those fights that could have been saved for years later, at a main-event distance, but which can happen when a crafty matchmaker like Bruce Trampler makes a fight before its time because he has no interest in either athlete.
Mendoza, 20-2-1 (19) has not fought quite the same caliber of opposition as Rowland, but on those occasions when he did step up, he has been spectacular. His 2002 first-round knockout of 17-0 Tokunbo Olajide in New York happened in Mendoza's first trip to the U.S. His 2003 first-round knockout of 19-0 Rubin Williams happened here in Detroit, just a few miles from tonight's venue at Michigan State Fairgrounds.
But Olajide and Williams built their early records against suspect opposition, and so did Mendoza, who won his first 15 fights on knockouts in his native Colombia. After beating Olajide, he went three fights without a win, including a 2002 draw in Rowland's hometown arena with Leon Pearson, a journeyman Rowland had beaten on a decision earlier that year.
Mendoza is not quite the endearing character Rowland is. He became a boxer because his father wanted one of his 10 children to box, and young Epifanio demonstrated particular joy in beating up his five brothers -- along with schoolmates, total strangers, and anyone else who wanted a piece. “I just liked to fight, any time, any place,” Mendoza said.
That is not to say Mendoza is an utterly unsympathetic character today, even though a one-punch banger elicits little sympathy in general. "People ask me, 'When you enter the ring, why do you transform?' When I get in the ring, I think of all the Christmases that passed when everybody got toys but me,” Mendoza said. “I never got toys, not even a little toy car. I didn't even have shoes." On the other hand, childhood regret might not be his only motivation.
"Knocking out my opponent is what I love. When I knock him out quick, I don't have to get any bruises, and I can go to the post-fight party and relax,” Mendoza said.
When he doesn’t knock out an opponent fast -- 18 of his 19 knockouts have come within three rounds, but he is 2-2-1 in fights which last into the fourth -- there is some question about Mendoza’s fallback plan. Rowland has outboxed or outlasted some pretty good fighters. Frankly, I have significant doubts whether Mendoza is really a bigger puncher than, say, Council, whom Rowland beat on a split decision (a legitimate split; I scored it 95-95 from ringside). Council had a lesser KO ratio than Mendoza, but built it against far better opposition. Rowland took the heaviest shots of his career from Council, and kept coming for 10 rounds.
“Guys like Andrew Council, Manning Galloway, Kenny Ellis -- those were good fighters, with experience against other good fighters. And I beat them all. Nothing can boost your confidence more than winning fights like that,” Rowland said.
We don’t see clean-cut country boys as middleweight contenders all that often, and if Rowland beats the one style he hasn’t seen yet -- the pure, one-punch knockout artist -- then a top-10 rating is exactly what he deserves. He has been on television just once, in the one-sided win over Ellis, when ESPN2’s announcers somehow got the idea that Rowland has benefited from hometown decisions. I’ve attended all his significant hometown fights, and only two were close. He won a split from Council and lost a split to Gardner. I didn’t have a problem with either.
The offers keep coming. A short-notice offer to fight Felix Sturm a few weeks ago was declined; another offer to fight Sturm popped up just a few days ago, according to Rowland’s manager, Dave Packer.
Meantime, promoter Joel Langlois said he hopes to reach a multi-promoter deal to put a fight in his mid-sized Grand Rapids arena, DeltaPlex, in January. It doesn’t take a genius to put together Mayweather’s offer of a January 22 HBO date, plus Rowland’s rising star in Mayweather’s hometown, plus Langlois’ unabashed desire to have Mayweather fight in his building, plus Langlois’ courtship of Top Rank for just that purpose, to figure out that formula.
All those future ideas hinge on a classic boxer-puncher matchup tonight. Big advantage Mendoza if the fight goes short. But failing that, the pick-up driving pick-up artist should pick up another big win.
“I have to make him miss with those big shots, and make him use up some early energy,” Rowland said.
“Mendoza can knock you out with either hand. I know that going into the fight. He’s not a fighter you can relax with, even for a second. But, you know, I just think I’m better than him.”