Not a day goes by that former WBO middleweight champion Lonnie Bradley of Harlem, New York, doesn’t wonder about what could have been. While managed by Dave Wolf and trained by “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, he won the vacant crown from David Mendez in May 1995, and made six successful defenses (including one draw) over a 22 month stretch. However, while training for a Madison Square Garden title defense against Julio Cesar Green in the summer of 1997, Bradley was blindsided by the fickle finger of fate.
While sparring with Troy Waters, he experienced vision impairment and soon learned that he probably had a detached retina for quite some time. Bradley expected to be on a six-month hiatus before resuming his career. Instead he was stripped of his hard-earned and well-deserved title for being unable to defend it, and now, nearly eight years later, is still clamoring for the brass ring. He is scheduled to engage in his first fight in 16 months, an eight-rounder against an opponent to be determined, on April 8 in Boston. If victorious, Bradley hopes to rattle off three or four victories before finding himself across the ring from any of the luminaries at 160 or 168 pounds.
“I’ve never been more anxious, or more excited, in my life,” said the 36-year-old Bradley. “Over the past few years there have been so many disappointments. But my skills haven’t diminished, and I still have the physical tools to be successful. If anything, I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been. Even during all the years of inactivity, I kept myself in shape.”
Unlike so many other fighters on the flip side of 35, Bradley seems capable of making a realistic personal assessment of his capabilities. He has fought five times since his injury, with his last bout being a seventh round TKO loss to the alligator-tough David “The Destroyer” Lopez in Tucson in November 2003. It was only Bradley’s second fight in more than four years, and he still wonders how he found himself in against such a wily ring veteran so soon into his comeback.
“I had been training to fight Epifanio Mendoza, so it wasn’t like I was looking for easy fights,” said Bradley, whose record now stands at 29-1-1 (21 KOs). “I had inexperienced people handling my business. I was told this guy was a tall, skinny Mexican, who I’d knock out easily. Nobody even knew he was a southpaw. I had trained to fight a hard puncher, but not a hard-punching southpaw. That’s something you need to have time to prepare for.”
Bradley now has Bob Duffy, the former director of boxing for the New York State Athletic Commission, acting as his informal advisor. Duffy is hoping to keep Bradley busy with a series of little fights before hopefully sneaking him into a bigger fight under the radar.
“Lonnie might be 36, but he’s a young 36,” said Duffy. “There’s no reason to think he couldn’t be competitive against, or even beat, guys like Jermain Taylor or Kassim Ouma, if he moves up in weight. He recently sparred with Syd Vanderpool in Florida, and Buddy McGirt said he looked terrific. Up here he was working with Dorian Beaupierre, and he looked great. When he’s on, he’s a sight to behold, a pure boxer with such easy grace and movement.”
Bradley is much too humble to talk trash, but does feel that with a few comeback fights under his belt, he could give Taylor, or even super middleweight champions Jeff Lacy and Joe Calzaghe more than they could handle. “A year down the road, I just hope to be in a position to make title defenses,” he said. “I’ve worked too hard, and sacrificed too much, to give up on my dream now.”
What makes Bradley so easy to root for his sensibility and downright likeability. While on hiatus from complications from the eye surgery (he refuses to say which eye was damaged, because he doesn’t want it targeted by future opponents), he first went to work at Radio City Music Hall as a $12 an hour security guard. Never once, he says, was he recognized by any of his co-workers or guests. To them, he was just another face behind a flashlight.
“It was like I was in disguise,” said Bradley. “I was proud of the work I was doing, but felt like my world had collapsed. A few years earlier I was sitting with Donald Trump, Woody Harrelson and Roseanne Barr at the second Tyson-Holyfield fight. Now I was escorting people to their seats and telling them to enjoy the show. That was fine, but I kept yearning to get back in the ring.”
Later, Bradley became a $16 an hour apprentice in Local 608 of the New York City Carpenters Union. He worked on several major construction projects, and took an abundance of trade courses. Just like in boxing, he took no shortcuts and always put in an honest day’s work. However, he found himself perpetually daydreaming about fighting, about all of his untapped potential and unrealized dreams. His co-workers would tease him and tell him he didn’t belong there, that he was a fighter and the only way to be true to himself would be to take one last shot at attaining the glory so many others had envisioned for him.
“I really admire the carpenters and construction workers that I worked with,” said Bradley. “They are very smart people who put a lot of pride into their work and build and create things from scratch. But boxing is in my blood. And it is in my heart. I took a leave from the union and I just had to give boxing one last shot. If I walked away, I would have always wondered if I made a mistake. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”
The way construction workers create buildings that will stand for the ages, Bradley wants to create a fistic legacy that will also endure. When he first won the title, the media billed him as the first champion to hail from Harlem since Sugar Ray Robinson. While that was arguable, every chance he got Bradley spoke glowingly of the community in which he has lived for his entire life. His grandfather, known throughout Harlem simply as Uncle Chic, is a neighborhood legend, not only for teaching his grandson to box, but also for his countless altruistic endeavors on behalf of those less fortunate than himself and his family.
Bradley still wants to be the athletic face of Harlem, and is determined to bring his lofty dreams to fruition. “I’m a dreamer, but I’m a realistic dreamer,” he said. “If I didn’t have anything left, I wouldn’t be doing this. I have too much respect for myself, and too much respect for my community. Every fight I win is a shout-out for Harlem. And every punch I throw puts me one step closer to becoming the middleweight or super middleweight champion of the world.”