Jameel “Big Time” McCline is fighting for the heavyweight title against Chris Byrd at Madison Square Garden tonight. McCline is a 265-pound, 6'6″ prizefighter with a 31-3-3 (19 KOs) record. Now that Lennox is retired and a group of less than stellar heavyweights named Klitschko, Ruiz and Brewster wear championship belts, it looks like McCline is as alive a body, and as skilled a fighter, as anyone in the division.

McCline is trained by an old-time New York fight guy named Jimmy Glenn. Glenn ran the Times Square Gym for many years and he has seen and done it all. He has a sixth sense for fistic talent, having devoted his life to developing fighters, so I caught up with him where he was training McCline and asked him to tell me about Jameel.

“He’s in real good shape and we’re ready for the big boys,” Glenn said. “Jameel is still learning. He’s still learning the trade. Peoples learn. If you’re in the gym every day, you learn something every day.”

McCline got a late start and is a work-in-progress. I asked Jimmy Glenn if there is any difference between training a grown man to fight versus training a kid.

“As long as he gives you respect and does what you want he learns,” the trainer said. “I’m looking to make Jameel a champ. Right now he’s probably the best heavyweight in the whole world people don’t know about. He’s a complete fighter. Every fight he ever had he learns from. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s always in shape. He pushes himself. He wants to be advanced. He’s right in the mix. We’re ready for our title shot. He’s one of the best heavyweights in the world, but he wants to be the best.”

I spoke with Jameel after his workout. He was wiping his forehead with a cotton towel and I mentioned that it looks like he’s working hard.

“Yeah,” McCline replied. “The frustration you see is called the perfection disease. I want everything right. And when it doesn’t go right – just like a disease – it infects everything. It infects the rest of the process.”

McCline started boxing at the age of twenty-six. Now he is thirty-three. The disadvantages of beginning when he did are obvious. The advantages are less so.

“That’s one of the things that sets me apart from the guys at the top,” said McCline. “Everyone else has wear and tear. I’m talking about guys at my level. I’m not talking about the Dominick Guinns and Joe Mesi-type guys. I’m talking about guys at my level, like Tua and Rahman. Those guys gotta lotta fights under them. They’re beat up.”

Big Time McCline was born in Manhattan, but grew up in Port Jefferson, and by all accounts he had a troubled youth.

“A wild and crazy kid always looking to live on the edge,” McCline said. “That was me then and that’s me now.”

Being a wild and crazy kid landed Jameel in the joint.

“I know. I know,” he repeated. “I already went through that. No more.”

To his credit – and to the credit to the fight game – McCline turned things around.

“I kinda feel blessed, because it was ten years ago I was let go,” he said. “Ten years ago I came home from prison. Ten years ago – and here I am: a completely different life. So I’m happy with what I’ve done, how I’ve done it, and how fast I’ve done it.”

From the outside looking in, that seems like a militant transition.

“The transition was very simple for me. It was either sink or swim,” said the top-ten contender. “And unbeknownst to me, my makeup refused to sink. So here we are today. It was something that pretty much happened subconsciously. It just grew in me and I just started working hard. The fact that I worked hard and chose to swim was, now that I look back on it, something that built inside of me. It was something that I had to be taught how to do and learn how to do it. I had to learn how to wanna be something.”

I asked McCline about his first gym and trainer when he got out of jail.

“The very first gym I worked in was Kevin Rooney’s gym in Catskill,” said McCline. “He was the first man I worked with. I remember lying to him about my experience.”

Lying about one’s experience is something many of us have done, but there’s a transparency to boxing which makes deceit difficult. Rooney is an experienced trainer. I wondered if he asked Jameel to shadowbox.

“He did, but I pulled it off,” McCline said. “There were some people willing to put money into me even before I got out of prison. And at the time Don Turner worked for them. Don Turner came to see me while I was still in prison, and things started to take off from there.”

Don Turner, who was Evander Holyfield’s trainer for many years, is well-known in boxing circles.

“At the time, Rooney was even more renowned,” McCline pointed out, “because it was still ‘93, which was still not too far from Tyson.”

After exactly one amateur fight, McCline turned pro and scored a first round knockout against Brian Nix in Rochester, New York. “I figured I was Godzilla,” McCline said. But that monster feeling was not to last. In his next outing, a month later, McCline suffered his first loss by getting KOed in one by Gary Bell. The career of Jameel McCline was underway.

Because of McCline’s late start, on the job training was a necessity. He fought twice in 1995, four times in 1996, four times in 1997, ten times in 1998, three times in 1999, and five times in 2000. In 2001 McCline beat King Ipitan, Al Cole, Michael Grant and Lance Whitaker. The next year he decisioned Shannon Briggs at the Garden, setting up the big fight with Vladimir Klitschko in Las Vegas.

The Klitschko fight at the Mandalay Bay on December 7, 2002 was a turning point in McCline’s career. It was his biggest fight against his biggest name opponent, but McCline fell prey to the Klitschko hype and froze in the ring. His breathing was labored. He wouldn’t let his hands go. He couldn’t get no respect.

That was a big loss for Big Time. People questioned his skills. People questioned his trainer. People questioned his heart. But McCline ignored his critics and returned to the gym. He stopped Charles Shufford and Cedric Boswell in 2003 and defeated Wayne Llewelyn this year.

McCline is exactly where he wants to be at this exact moment and is ready for the fight at the Garden. He has been refining what he knows, educating his instincts, adding nuance to his arsenal.

“It’s adding different angles to the punches, the uppercut off the hook, the hook off the uppercut, the uppercut off the jab. Things like that. Not your basic 1-2-3, 1-2-3. I want to do more than that,” said McCline, “because I am more than that.”

Before leaving McCline, I asked what we should expect when he fights his friend Chris Byrd on Saturday.

“As far as friendship goes, I really dig Chris’ family, but he’s got what I want and I’m gonna get it,” McCline said. “He’s gonna hurt me, just like I’m gonna hurt him. Once you step in there, there are no friends. This is a business. This is talking care of your family. This is putting food on the table. Without this, I am nothing, I want nothing, and I know nothing else. This is it.”