Eddie Chambers wanted to weep, wanted to release some tears, let out the pain and anger and frustration he felt after losing to Alexander Povetkin in Germany on January 26, after handing over an opportunity for a shot at the IBF heavyweight championship.
Back at the hotel after the decision loss that had him pondering if he would ever get over the hump, and finally get to the promised land, and erase the memories of the food stamps, and the nights without heat, and the 2:30 AM trips to start the paper route with his pop, Chambers was in a deep hole of despair.
He’d been landing rights almost at will, piling up the points as he started to shut Povetkin’s syes. Then, his brain and body rebelled.
Throw, his brain said.
No, his body responded.
Get busy, or go back to square one, his brain told him.
Square one it is, his body replied.
In the hotel, laying down in the dark, Chambers felt like he let down his pop, his crew, and himself.
Tears started to make their way into his eyes. But the tears stopped dead.
I cannot cry, he told himself.
I don’t deserve it.
If I had given it my all, truly left it all in the ring, then maybe, he said to himself. But I didn’t. I don’t even deserve to give myself the luxury of tears.
So the tears didn’t come, but the questions kept swarming into his cluttered mind. Why didn’t I throw more? Why didn’t I hear my corner, and do what they said? Is it mental? Physical? Will I ever make it over the hump? He lay in the dark, alone, with his fears, doubts, insecurity and anger, fixated on an image: prematurely retired, bloated, still asking questions like: why didn’t I make it? Why didn’t I do more?
There are theories, plenty of theories.
Trainer Buddy McGirt, who worked Chamber’s corner during the massive meltdown, weighed in.
“Man, it was just that big stage,” said McGirt, who knows the sting of losing that lofty, unbeaten mark. Buddy was 28-0-1 when he met tough Texan Frankie Warren in Texas.
He went back to NY with his first loss, a TKO12 that crushed him momentarily, until he decided he’d come back, better than before. He did come back, and got right back on the horse, just two months later. He got back on a tough bronco to break, too, Saoul Mamby. Buddy won that one, and seven more, before deciding to tangle with Warren again. This time, McGirt took a TKO12. So he was able to give Chambers, a 25-year-old who had the world in his hand, but let it slip through the cracks, some insight into why he crumbled, and how he could glue himself back together.
“Once the meaning and the stage set in, against Povetkin, you could see the change in Eddie,” McGirt said. “He became less aggressive.”
Yes he did. In the late rounds, after he finished hearing his dad, Eddie Sr. and Buddy lace into him, and do everything short of buzzing him with a cattle prod to get him jazzed up, Chambers refused to let his hands go. Bunches in bunches were called for to get the busy Povetkin off track. Instead, the punches came intermittently, with less than furious intent behind them.
McGirt, who makes it a point to be calm and positive in the corner, even slipped a few curse words in an effort to snap Chambers out of his mid-fight funk.
On the way home, McGirt huddled with Chambers. He told him about his first loss, to Warren. And he told him that that he had a choice.
“I told him he can do one of two things: you can look at this loss, and have it make you better, or you can get out of the game.”
“I’ll be back, I promise you,” Chambers told Buddy.
Chamber’s manager, Rob Murray Sr., weighed in with a few theories himself. The loss hit him in the gut, hard. Murray, who guided Bernard Hopkins for the first 2/3 of Hopkins’ career, is a standup guy, who accepts much of the blame for the loss. “I take the blows with Eddie,” he told TSS. “I have more experience than anybody on the team.”
First, Murray says, he should’ve pushed and pulled harder for Chambers to have a more complete camp. The fight took place on January 26, and Team Chambers was thinking it would perhaps take place later than that.
The camp was less than a month, and during the holiday season, heavyweight sparring partners weren’t in plentiful supply. They got some work in with Chazz Witherspoon, Murray said, and Dom Jenkins. In Florida, there weren’t a lot of heavies at McGirt’s joint, so Murray got Jenkins, and Tony Thompson. “Things were a little bit disorganized,” Murray admitted. “Whose fault is that? Probably mine. I put up the money. And some of his training was lackluster, I should have stopped that.”
Once in Germany, Murray says, Chambers never got acclimated to the time difference. In Berlin, where the fight was held, it is six hours ahead of the East Coast. So, six days before his fight, Eddie was up at 4:15 AM, watching the Giants beat the Packers on the tube.
Also, the food didn’t agree with the fighter, according to the manager. It’s easy for us on the sidelines to scoff at such an excuse, but who are we to say? In the ring, a man is fighting for his life, literally. You don’t want or need anything throwing you off, mentally or physically. A radical change in your diet could do that. McGirt shared that he could attest to the contention that being overseas, out of your comfort zone, can sap you.
He traveled to Italy to take on Patrizio Oliva for the WBC weltwerweight title. After a week in Italy, he was stir crazy, antsy, ready to jet back to the good ole’ USA. He did adjust, though, and do what he needed to do to win the crown. But McGirt understands that in a sport that calls for an athlete’s head to be on straight, surroundings can be of vital importance.
Murray, it turns out, had seen such a meltdown that Chambers endured before. It was May 22, 1993. He and Hopkins were headed over to RFK, before Hopkins was set to step in with Roy Jones. Murray told Hopkins to focus on the greats, do what they did when asked to step up. Think of Hagler, Hearns, those guys. Hopkins nodded, and agreed. And then posed for 12 rounds, as he lost a UD12.
“It was the aura of the big arena,” Murray explained.
Also possible, Murray says, is that Chambers’ hard-luck period, after his mom left, and his dad lost the two nightclubs he owned, and was reduced to delivering papers with his teenage son, lingered on in his brain.
There was no extra money to buy new clothes, so during some of those teen years, when peers judge who’s cool or not by what designer labels are sewed on to your clothes, Eddie took tons of flak from wiseguys at school. He was teased, mercilessly, as a ‘have not,’ as a scrub with ratty clothes.
So maybe sometimes he does not believe he deserves the good life that could come with a couple high profile wins, and a title crack. Maybe sometimes he still hears those taunts from his peers ringing in his head, and pays them too much heed.
Is it possible that Chambers is another Dominick Guinn, someone who swears upon a mile-high stack of bibles that THIS TIME, he’ll be busy, come to fight, fight hard for the whole twelve. And every time, he reverts to form, and never unholsters his guns?
“Guinn is different,” Murray says. “He had like 300-4000 amateur fights, he’s burned out.”
The fighters may be similar in that neither man has a yearning to finish off their foe, a burning inclination to lay the smack down on an opponent so conclusively that a stoppage is forced. Guinn has 19 KOs in 28 pro wins, Chambers has 16 stops in 30 wins. Murray acknowledges that Chambers lacks a closer’s mindset.
“Eddie’s not an Al Capone type, sometimes he’ll do just enough to win,” he said.
The manager recalls that when Chambers fought Brock last November in Tacoma, Washington, the two fighters stayed in the same hotel, and worked out at the same gym. A certain distance, even a certain air of malevolence wouldn’t be out of place if you were Chambers, and you and Brock crossed paths. Instead, when the two bumped into each other, it was, ‘Hey, how ya’ doin’?’ Chambers doesn’t have the shark’s blood in him, and that is a trait that cannot really be acquired. Either you have it or you don’t, and Eddie don’t. He is, by all accounts, a nice guy, and nice guys sometimes finish last in all areas of life, especially in heavyweight prizefighting.
Murray believes that Chambers will shrug the meltdown off, and be back, better than before. He’d tell TSS different, he swore, if he didn’t think deep down that the loss will benefit his heavyweight hopeful.
“I don’t pull any punches,” he said. “I came up under Yank Durham, I don’t sugarcoat it. If I thought the worst I’d tell him, ‘This is not for you.’ I believe he will be able to bounce back. After all, this is not the era of Ali in this division.”
No, no one is saying that Chambers is Ali reincarnated. But in this troubled era of heavyweights—-and we all saw just how troubled it is on Saturday, as the division’s top gun gave one of the most risk averse, entertainment free performances in heavyweight title fight history—Chambers could be a jewel among a pile of zirconia. So, yes, he’s no Muhammad Ali, but he’s no Rahman Ali either. He has some fast hands, a snappy jab, and moves well enough to stay out of trouble when he wants to. In this heavyweight era, he could easily stake out some turf for himself at the top of the heap.
OK, maybe easily isn’t the right word.
More importantly than what his trainer or manager think, does Chambers think he can make some noise in the division, does he himself feel like he can bounce back? Or did the experience in Germany scar him irrevocably?
“I’m still very much into boxing,” Chambers said, a month after the fiasco. “I’m looking forward to coming back stronger than ever.”
I bore in, trying to make sense of the Berlin debacle. I wanted to figure out why it happened, see if Chambers had come to understand why, when the going was good, he was unable to keep up the effort, and close the show, and snag that title shot.
“Povetkin was coming at me with a swarm of punches,” the boxer said, “and he was fighting his heart out. At that point, he wanted it more than me.”
That admission was a positive first step. Chambers admitted that his desire had lagged. He also told me that he could get into better shape, carve of some of that baby fat off his gut.
But I needed to know why the Berlin meltdown occured. Was it fear of failure? Fear of success? There had to be an explanation grounded in psychology, if there was no injury, no bodily breakdown, to blame.
I pursued that line of questioning.
During the course of the meltdown, Chambers admitted, his mind wandered. He drifted, to a negative place.
Maybe I’m not cut out to fight for a championship.
Maybe I’m destined to be someone who doesn’t perform on a big stage, maybe I’m not destined to break out, maybe I should be back delivering newspapers.
“This is it for me,” he said to himself, “my career is gone.”
While he was unable to make his fists fly, Chambers found himself looking for the perfect opening, waiting, waiting, waiting for the perfect opportunity to land. “Now I understand that you have to punch, and not care about landing or not,” he said.
And when the winner was announced in Berlin, he felt ashamed, and depressed.
“I felt like not only had I lost the fight, but like I lost my life,” he explained. “I felt like I let down the whole team.”
So maybe the burden of expectations weighed Chambers down too much. Maybe the fact that his team wanted, and needed him to deliver, maybe that made him freeze up. So, is that a fear of success, or a fear of failure, I asked?
“I don’t think it’s a fear of success,” Chambers said. “I believe, it’s all I believe, that I will be successful. And no one seen it in the cards for me.”
Forgive me for playing a shrink. I’ve just watched a lot of Dr. Phil, and read quite a few self help books, and am really curious about what makes people tick.
But I note that Chambers said, “No one seen it in the cards for me.”
Maybe he has difficulty, as Murray alluded to, in truly believing that he sees a man deserving of good things when he looks in the mirror, that he truly believes that his makeup is that of a winner, of someone who is fated to be a somebody. Somebody who is meant to be looked up to, and admired, and asked to sign autographs.
I lean towards the theory that it is fear of success that bedevils Chambers, rather than fear of failure; because those that fear failure are more inclined to not even get into the game. Success against Povetkin meant a date with Wladimir, and Eddie had sparred with Wlad before Klitschko fought Calvin Brock in November 2006. He'd tasted Wlad's power, and it made an impression, no doubt.
It is safer, and easier, to never truly invest oneself in an endeavor if you are afraid to look foolish, afraid to even try, lest you fall flat on your face. No one remarks on the sideline sitter. They fixate on the one who puts himself out there, gambles, goes for the big score. And when that one fails, the commentators can snipe, and downgrade, and luxuriate in schadenfreude.
If you don’t put yourself on the line, then you can always soothe yourself by telling yourself that if you had tried, surely you would have struck gold. With an absence of evidence, without proof you failed, then you can convince yourself that you coulda been a somebody, coulda been a contender, if in fact you had gotten up out of the La-Z-Boy.
Chambers was in the arena, performing quite capably against Povetkin. He was succeeding, on the cusp of getting that title shot, of leaving the paper route far away in his mental rear view mirror.
But that shot is now far in the distance. He’ll need to climb back up the ranks, and convince the powers that be, and himself, that he deserves to fight meaningful fights. He’ll need, he knows, to get back in with the same man who he melted down against, Povetkin, to truly heal. But not right away.
“I don’t want to be too crazy,” he said. “Shane Mosley came right back against Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright, and Jermain Taylor came right back against Pavlik. I want to take some time, and beat Povetkin. I want to fight him when I’m ready.”
I cannot, after talking to McGirt, and Murray, and Chambers, point to one thing that caused the Berlin meltdown. That would be too easy. Dr. Phil can diagnose in 48 minutes. I can’t. Neither can Chambers.
“I’m still figuring it out,” said Chambers. “And I’d be mad if I was figuring it out when I was 31, sitting there, with a huge belly. Then I’d be really upset. But the good thing is I will figure it out when I’m the champ.”
Still, some mental scar tissue has formed, I think, from his difficult home life, the food stamps, the taunts. That scar tissue may well be more stubborn than the wound incurred in Berlin. Fears and doubts and insecurities co-mingle in Chambers’ mind, and uncloak themselves from time to time.
“If the opportunity presents itself again, I will be able to make the step,” he said, in closing. “This loss will be a wakeup call.”
You’ll notice that just a minute earlier, Chambers talked in no uncertain terms about WHEN he’s the champ. Then, right after that, he talks about IF he gets another shot at a big fight.
WHEN will continue to slug it out with IF, in Eddie Chambers’ mind, until that time comes when he can test himself again on a big stage, in front of a big crowd, with big things at stake.
Fear of being 31, or 71, and looking back at what might have been is a pain that hurts worse than a Povetkin punch. You see, Eddie Chambers’ toughest foe could well prove to be not a fellow fighter, but his own complex mind, in which fears, and doubts, and insecurities, and hopes, and dreams, and expectations battle for supremacy.
If he can win the battle of the mind, the memory of the Berlin meltdown will be distant memory. If not, what happened in Berlin will stay stuck in his head, at 31, at 71, a bitter reminder of what might have been, and wasn’t.