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Brute Pt. 3-The Day Of The Fight He Died

BY Kaelan Smith ON January 18, 2009
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The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.

Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. --KS

Otis Griffin walked towards the dressing room carrying his bag. Simms waved him over and said, "This is—" but he had apparently forgotten my name. "What's your name, again?"

"Kaelan," I said. Griffin nodded, but did not look interested in shaking hands.

"Who do you write for, again?" asked Simms.

"The Sweet Science," I said.

"He's doing an article on the fight," said Simms. Griffin did not seem particularly interested, and went in to change.

"Do you need to get ready to spar?" I asked.

"Probably," said Simms. He did not get up. The advent of Griffin had, it appeared, interrupted Simms' train of thought, but it had not spoiled his desire to talk. That passion, unlike perhaps his energy for training in the gym, was inexhaustible. "Like I was saying," he said, "I never abused myself throughout my whole career as far as drugs and alcohol or the party life. Only time I do drink, I maybe a beer or a glass of wine on Christmas. Like right now I think the last time I had a drink was two years ago at Christmas."

I myself have been sober for almost three years, and I considered informing him of this, to cement the camaraderie we were developing, but I decided that I didn't need to establish a deeper trust. He was already very open.

"I keep myself focused training," Simms was saying, "and I try to stay strong-minded. But like I said, I'm on a little downhill right now, with my career."

Griffin came out of the dressing room and walked past us. He sat down on one of the weight benches in the corner and began wrapping his hands. Simms was looking out the front window of the gym into the parking lot. "The last fight I had," said Simms, "was about a month and a half ago over in Russia. The guy I fought, I think for the first time, was really prepared for me." Even as he recounted this he still sounded surprised. "I found out after the fight that this guy had been studying tapes of me, because everything I did in that ring he was a split second ahead of me, like he was waiting for everything I did. They told me after the fight that, yeah, he'd watched my New York fight, the last fight I'd had in Russia, and the fight I'd had in Germany. So he knew everything I was capable of doing. On the ropes he'd come in, throw a combo, and then back away. He said after the fight he knew I was trying to set him up, hoping that he would stay there. And he stayed one time, for a split second, and I caught him with a hook to the body and a hook to the head, and I maybe hurt him, and he backed off me." Simms laughed here, remembering this minute victory encapsulated in the larger loss. "And he stayed away from me."

"He wasn't letting you fight off the ropes?" I asked. Earlier, Simms had touted this as one of his tactics.

"No. He wouldn't let me fight anywhere where he felt that I might be comfortable." Simms saw this almost as unfair, as if his opponent were obliged, at least for a round or two, to engage in his territory. "He came out boxing," Simms continued, "and he was trying to out-box me. Then when we got on the inside, he knew I could bang, so he would stay to a certain side where he knew I'd have to turn southpaw to throw right hooks. He wouldn't go nowhere near my right side.

"I told my trainer, 'Any time we fight internationally, we get a good heads-up notice. I want tapes on the guys I'm going to fight so I know what I'm walking into.' I never believed in studying opponents because I had 164 amateur fights, been around the world, fought every type of style, height, and everything else, so I'm like fighting these guys in the pros, I don't care what they got. Ain't nothing he can do in that ring that's going to surprise me." It had, apparently, taken Simms five consecutive losses to realize that he could be surprised.

"Only thing that's been my downfall," Simms said suddenly, "is my conditioning and my mental state." By my arithmetic that left him with only natural talent. "If you look at my record, up to the time my first manager, Sid Tenner—when he died, that's when everything went downhill for me. Financially, he was taking care of a lot of things for me. Whatever bills I had he had them coming to his house. He got me a sponsor, and for the months I didn't fight he'd give me some money to get through or whatever." As he said this he tried to act as if it didn't bother him any longer, and perhaps enough time had passed that it didn't affect him daily.

"When did he die?" I asked.

" 2003, I think it was. Hey, Eric," Simms called across the gym. Eric Regan, who was still leading a class of kickboxers, walked a few steps towards us, still watching over his flock. "What year was that when Sid passed? 2003?"

"Yeah," said Regan. "'02 or '03. Man, that was a long time ago."

"Yeah," said Simms. (Later that afternoon I researched Sid Tenner, and discovered that he'd died in the summer of 2004, but perhaps their imprecise recollections of the date suggested how long they really felt they'd been without him.)

"He wouldn't take nothing from me when I fought," Simms said. "His whole thing was, why take something from nothing? Financially in his life he was cool. He knew that I was the one that needed finances to make sure everything was okay. He wanted me to focus completely on boxing. That's what you're supposed to do: eat, sleep, and box. Try to have no mental problems at all. He passed away. He was on dialysis. He had kidney failure. I was in Chicago for a fight and I found out the day of the weigh-ins that he was in the hospital. And then the day of the fight he died—that morning."

"What happened in that fight?" I asked.

"Lost a close decision to Felix Cora, Jr. One judge had it for me, one judge had it for him, and one judge had it a draw. But the judge that had it for him gave him a couple more rounds. Plus, the fight was in Chicago, Cora's promoter's hometown, and all the judges were Chicago judges." That majority decision loss was only the second of his career.

Simms didn't appear interested in dwelling on the Cora loss, and I didn't want to press him. "I look at my career," said Simms, changing the subject, "and I'll tell you: I'm nineteen and nine now, and I done lost five in a row. And I can say honestly a few of the losses I fought for the wrong reasons. The reason I fought on 'em was for finance. It was kinda like, I know I wasn't quite ready to step into the ring for that kind of a fight, but that kind of money, I couldn't pass it up. It ain't like I got money in my bank account, or money at home, where I can say, 'That fight? $10,000? Nah. I'm not ready yet.' I'm broke, so I gotta take whatever I can get just to keep these bills off me. Since Sid passed away, I haven't had a fight I'm happy going into. Now, every time I get paid, all the money I make goes back to make up for the months that went by when I didn't fight. I get two or three months when I ain't fought, and I get like a $10,000 fight purse, the money's gone before I even get it. 'Cause I got to go back and make payments on this, payments on that, and try and keep myself on the good side of the law. I mean, with child support and everything, it's a killer."

On the floor the kickboxers were finishing their workout. The two women were already sitting on the bench, unwrapping their hands. A few of the men were punching and kicking the heavy bags. Regan walked over to the ring where I sat with Simms.

"You could write a book on this guy," Regan said. "I was gonna go get you another pad of paper." Simms laughed at this.

"Win some, lose some," Simms said as he stood up. "One thing about boxing, you can't please everybody. I gotta please myself first." He added after a pause, "It's crazy. I'm gonna get some sparring in."

Unlike in a champion's camp, or even a strong contender's, where a trainer can acquire at whim any species of sparring partner, the lowly ranked boxers, of which Simms is still included, must fill up their time in the ring fighting with whomsoever they can. In Simms case, the only other orthodox pugilist at Niavaroni's (the others were all as accustomed to using their knees and elbows as their fists) was Otis Griffin. Griffin is a light heavyweight, shorter and, obviously, lighter, but more muscular, faster, and as he proved later in the sparring rounds, more aggressive.

After the two men had climbed into the ring, Eric Regan, who was standing on the edge of the mat, leaning on the ropes, helped the fighters on with their gloves. They had on their sparring headgear, which, because of the thick padding on the temples and jaws, lends the head an almost humorous frame. It diminishes the intensity of a scowl, and Griffin, who was "mean mugging," as Simms might have said, looked much more benign than he might have had he been stripped for real battle. Simms was also frowning, but his face is rounder, and therefore kinder, and the protective pads only exaggerated his apparent docility.

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