He was advertised, unashamedly and often, as The Next Big Thing.
Take that, NFL, here's one you didn't steal from us!
There was certainly more than a grain of truth in the hopeful description, as Michael Grant stood 6-7, weighed 250 pounds, and the pundits pointed to the Chicago native as the prototype next generation heavyweight.
Didn't quit work out that way, but the Grant story isn't done.
There are still chapters to be written, maybe a title to be won, potential to be fulfilled.
He's 34 now, and will turn 35 in August, and hasn't been seen as the prototype for years now.
He was 22 when he got his first shot at turning in The Next Big Thing label for the next size up.
Had he beaten Lennox Lewis on April 29, 2000 Michael Grant would have become The Man.
But his opportunity quite quickly shifted into an unfamiliar territory: Lewis swarmed Grant in the first, felling him three times and Lewis finished the job, with a masterfully illegal hold and hit technique, in the second round of Grant's title shot. Arthur Mercante counted to ten at Madison Square Garden, and the Next Big Thing was downgraded from The Prototype to Too Much, Too Soon.
The pundits who had salivated over the specimen licked their lips as they set into him with knife and fork, sliced up the big guy, chewed him up and spit him out, and tossed him like gristle into the refuse pile. We do that well, and someone who's felt the sting of such a process could make a strong case that the media sometimes appears to build up a persona for the express purpose of tearing them down.
The knives–super sharp after 15 months of grinding time–came out again, ready to slash, when Grant tried to restore his standing against another new breed of heavy, Jameel McCline. The stage on July 21, 2001 was again expansive and the result again was disappointing. This time, Grant was down for the count in the very first round. He crumpled to the canvas after eating McCline's first toss, as his ankle cracked and gave out. He could not continue and McCline assumed the Next Big Thing title. (McCline, too, received the teardown treatment not long after, having his heart questioned following a December 2002 loss to Wladimir Klitschko.)
Grant, who fights for the first time in two years on June 27 in New York City against Billy Zumbrun, recalls that period with a mixture of irritation and acceptance.
“Now, I know what I'm boxing for,” he told TSS. “But for years I was a puppet, everyone was pulling the strings. Everyone had decisions on my career, and I knew nothing about the management and promotion end. I have control of my destiny now.”
Grant got back on the bucking bronco eight months after the McCline fight, and racked up seven straight wins in a row. He traded in Don Turner for the combustible Teddy Atlas, switching from a soft-spoken grandfatherly sort for the pugnacious Atlas, a Vince Lombardi sort who tried mightily to light a fire under Grant. After a win against Gilbert Martinez on April 18, 2003, Atlas stood with Grant and assessed his fighter's performance for the ESPN2 audience. Atlas didn't mince words, and his public dissection made some squirm.
“He was doing [the wrong] things because he wasn't thinking clearly,” Atlas said. “He was not concentrating.” Manny Steward went public with criticism of Atlas, and Bob Raissman of the NY Daily News defended Atlas, declaring that people didn't know all of what the New York TV analyst/trainer did to put Grant back together following the McCline debacle.
The Atlas/Grant marriage, as solid as a Britney Spears union, hit the skids, unsurprisingly, following Grant's final loss to date. Grant faced off with then unbeaten Dominick Guinn, and was batted to the mat four times, as the match was stopped in the seventh round.
Grant took time off, and came back eight months later, with Buddy McGirt handling the training duties. That personality pairing was more to Grant's liking, he says. Grant fought three times with McGirt, and took wins over Charles Hatcher, Wallace McDaniel and Marcus McGee, but the big man wasn't getting big traction.
A more high profile bout almost came together in late 2005, he says, but the money wasn't to his liking, so Grant didn't meet Shannon Briggs. (Briggs was to receive in the neighborhood of $300,000 while Grant would take home about $65,000, the fighter says. Grant recalls back in his first upward climb HBO wanted to see him and Briggs get it on, but Grant says Briggs turned down $1.5 mill to make it a go).
He's been in the gym, he says, and is now ready to make a stretch run, with the desired result being a glittering belt.
“I'm a free agent promotionally,” Grant says, “and the time is cool for me. Shannon was 35 when he won his title, and Bernard Hopkins started making millions a fight at age thirty eight. I'm looking at a three, four year run, I'll give it my best shot and whatever happens, whatever God puts me into, I'll accept the final outcome.”
Grant, now being trained by Tommy Gallagher (who does not trade X-Mas cards with Atlas) isn't calling out any particular target at this time, though he admits he would like to tangle with Nicolay Valuev when/if the Giant re-climbs the division ladder. And the Klitschkos, he thinks, will both be in the mix when Grant foresees himself in title shot contention.
“I don't discriminate against any of them. I want the gold,” he says. “Money's not a factor, I had that, it doesn't feed my belly.”
SPEEDBAG Grant fights on a June 27th card, a “Black-Tie Boxing” event, which will be broadcast on ESPN2's Wednesday Night Fights. The card is to be headlined by Yusaf Mack vs. Jose Juan “Zeus” Vasquez, at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. A new strict dress code will be enforced – black-tie attire is required — and fashion models will replace ring card girls.
Tickets, priced at $300.00 (dinner included), are on sale by calling Cipriani Wall Street (212.699.4099), Gallagher Productions (646.884.6200) or Sheldon Productions, Inc. (212.624.9363). Tables of 10 are still available for $3,000.00. A portion of the proceeds will go the Veterans Boxers Association (Ring 8 VBA). All bouts and boxers subject to change. I remember Tommy did this a few years back, and bless him, he wore a wifebeater while working a corner, while all the sartorially splendid mingled fabulously hither and thither.
–note: thanks to Bob Trieger, for furnishing the photo, by Teddy Blackburn