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
Mike Simms had laced up his shoes and sat resting his forearms on his thighs. “I let my opponents make all the faces,” he said. “I'll be the one smiling. So when I get into the ring, I let my hands do the talking.” His hands had spoken well for him on nineteen occasions, but on nine others they hadn't been as eloquent. “I don't think about the knockout seriously until late in the fight.”
I can imagine a journalist or a bookie predicting that a fighter would get a last-minute knockout, or even a fighter, having studied his opponent, deciding that a knockout in the eighth or tenth was more likely than the first, but for a boxer to plan generally on knocking a man out late suggests less that he is passing up early opportunities, and more that all fighters are more susceptible the more exhausted they are. And it seemed, based on his recent form (which I would read about later that afternoon) that Simms was confusing his results and his plan. In his first twelve fights as a professional, he was undefeated. And other than his first and eighth bouts, he had won by knockout, and of those, only two in the late rounds. In his next seven fights he drew once in Chicago, then lost a majority decision in Reno, won with a late, technical knockout in Tahoe, lost a majority decision near Chicago the day his manager Sid Tenner died, knocked a man out in the first round at Arco Arena in Sacramento, and finally knocked out another man in Sacramento two months later in the eighth round. Since then he had fought every scheduled minute of every fight he'd taken, and had been beaten seven out of eleven times, including, most recently, a string of five consecutive losses.
“Rather than knock him out,” Simms was saying, “I want to soften the guy up and make him look bad.” I wondered then if he thought leaving an opponent on the mat weren't the ultimate humiliation, but I refrained from asking.
“Anyways, if you knock your opponent out early, you might get a day or two off, and then you're right back there in the gym. So I figure, if I put some rounds in the bag, I can work my way to a week off at the gym.” He laughed and I laughed and I felt for the first time that I was beginning to understand his vacillations.
“But I've never been kayoed,” Simms said. “Not as a pro, or as an amateur.” Whether or not he believed in putting his opponents to sleep, he wanted to make sure I understood that under no circumstances did they ever knock him out.
“What was your amateur record?” I asked.
“132 wins, 32 losses, and 64 KOs,” Simms said. “In 1999, I was number one in the state, number one in the nation, number one in the world. I went 22-1, and the only fight I lost was the National PAL Tournament. Otherwise I would have swept the whole year. I won the Golden Gloves, the US Nationals, the World Championships—I became the second light heavyweight in US history to win a gold medal at light heavyweight, and Antonio Tarver was the first one to do it. It was weird because I'd never been to the Worlds, and there I was, the best against the best.”
I was struck first by the scope of his success as an amateur, and secondly by his nonchalance. There was nothing braggadocious about his statement. Perhaps it was because he was speaking about his amateur days, but it seemed as if he were talking about another fighter.
“The first night,” he continued, speaking of the Worlds, “I fought a guy from Azerbaijan, and I knocked him out in the second round, I think it was. The second night I ended up fighting David Haye from England. He'd never lost to a US fighter then, and now he's the top Cruiserweight Champion. He's the WBO and WBC Cruiserweight Champ.”
“And he's moving to heavy,” I said.
“Yeah, he'll move to heavy. And when I fought him, we were about the same height. He had a good jab. He was a strong puncher. I think he lifted weights a lot because after a while I saw him shaking his arms out. That's always a sign of a fighter who's too tight and tense. Later on in the fight I started picking it up more on him, started running away with the score, and I beat him. And then I fought a guy from Cuba. He had over 200 wins, no losses, and he'd just won the Pan Am games. Before I went in there with him I'd just been toying around. But I beat the snot out of him so bad.” This was the first time, I realized, that Simms had cursed. “Everybody asked me afterwards, how would you rate yourself, and I said, '9.9.' They said, 'Why not a 10?' I said, ''Cause I ain't finished him off.' I just wanted to display my skills on how bad I could just beat guys. I don't want to go ahead with a punch and have people say, 'That was a lucky shot.' When I fight somebody I want them to wake up and be sore all over, like they just been in a car wreck, not wake up with a headache and one black eye. I wanna beat you so bad that you don't want a rematch. Then I beat a guy from Russia in the semi-finals, and a Frenchman in the finals. We fought to a draw, but because of my punch rate, I won the fight for throwing more accurate punches. Then I went to Puerto Rico for a mini World tournament, and I beat a guy from Mexico, and a guy from Brazil. I wanna say Brazil, but it wasn't Brazil. It was another strong guy, but I beat him.
“When I came back to the states, probably like within a couple of weeks I went straight to Florida for the National PAL, and that was the last qualifying tournament for the Olympic trials. In the semis I knocked off the number one guy, Atlanta Anderson, who was an army sergeant. He was the favorite to make it to the Olympics at light heavyweight. The last guy from the service to make it was Ray Mercer. And then I found out that the government funds the service branches' boxing programs, and every four years, all they're asked to do is produce one fighter at least for the Olympic team to represent the branches. So they really wanted Anderson on.
“The assistant coach for the Olympic team was also the army coach. So it was kinda like they were saying, 'Anderson is our son.' They're gonna try and get their son in before they take me in. But I'd beaten Anderson at the PAL tournament. So at camp they had to come up with all kinds of stuff saying I was out past curfew, late to meetings, out arguing with officials, and that I was bad for the team. But in 1996 Antonio Tarver came up missing during one of the weigh-ins, somebody else went to jail, and they kept all that quiet from the media. Everyone stayed on the team in 1996. But in 2000 they kicked me off, and they kicked off Angel Martinez from LA. Now, when they kicked Martinez off, they said he quit for personal reasons. But when they kicked me off, they bad-mouthed me throughout the whole media. It was on the front page of the Sac Bee, and on a whole page inside, about me getting kicked off the team. I could write a book now, like José Canseco, and everybody'd be in trouble.
“When I went to arbitration I talked about the coaches that were married sneaking out with women, coming back in drunk. Some of them were allowing us to go out at night. They knew what we were gonna do. We were grown men. And the coaches would be drunk and say, 'We don't see y'all, you don't see us. I don't care what y'all do or where y'all go as long as you're back to go run in the morning.' So we were sneaking out every night—everyone was—and they put it all on me, that I was the bad guy. And I'm thinking, “If I go and sneak out, who do you think I learned it from?' The guys that've been here already,” he answered rhetorically. “And then they're talking about how I'm so bad, and I told them, 'Who do you think was picking us up from the strip clubs?' Atlanta Anderson, the guy you put in my spot. If he was picking me up, that means he was sneaking out. There were 24 guys—12 Olympians and 12 alternates—and only two guys were being pretty good. This guy Dante, because his son had just died, so mentally he wasn't gonna be out playing around at all. And one other guy, but he had a volleyball girl at the Olympic training camp—you got all different girls there—so he would stay in the dorm, and the girl would come over and they'd sneak up to an empty floor. We had housekeeping people who would leave doors open for us so the rest of us could sneak out and do whatever.
“But we all came back in time to go run in the morning and everything. It was just crazy,” he concluded, almost sentimentally. He was reminding himself of what should have been the precursor to his greatest moment, and it all sounded pretty grand to me, too. But he hadn't intended to digress. “I could go on forever talking about how bad it actually was.”
Through all of this he sounded almost wistful. It wasn't evident to me that he harbored any malice towards the coaching staff or the Olympic committee. It is possible that he knew his behavior had compromised his opportunity to fight in Sydney. Or maybe he remained unaware of the part he'd played in his own collapse. But as I sat across from him, he appeared to me a man undone by a temper he'd long since lost.
Then he became suddenly serious, and returned to thinking about the fight that was a week off. “The guy I'm fighting, Harmon, he's been off for the last two years. He done lost to Roy Jones—got stopped I think in the eleventh round. I don't know what other names he got under his belt, but he's a key name to have under mine, as far as a victory.”
If Harmon had beaten Roy Jones, Jr., I can see the logic in wanting to assimilate his record, but I can't rationalize what exactly is gained from inheriting another fighter's loss. Perhaps if he beat Harmon, who had almost gone the distance with Jones, it suggested that Simms would have put up an even better fight against the ex-champ.
“I think this time, though,” Simms said, “I'm definitely gonna try to blow someone out of the water.” His tone was almost melancholy. He was no longer the crafty boxer intending to humiliate Harmon by not knocking him out, but the thirty-three year old man on a five fight slide who needed to win or find a job with union hours.
“You're going to go hard?” I asked.
“It's like, you know, I'm on the losing end right now.”
“But you've only lost decisions,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Simms. “Never got knocked out. Only been down once, and that was like in my third pro fight, against Marcus Harvey, and Harvey just happened to catch me with a lucky punch.” He paused for a few moments, then went on. “I've been doing this for seventeen years, now,” he said. “Since '91. I'm kinda like Holyfield and them guys: I'm gonna stick around probably till I'm 40. I never abuse myself.” Across the gym another fighter came in and crossed the floor. “Oh,” said Simms, “here comes Otis right now.” Otis was, apparently, whom we'd been waiting for.