Nothing about Emanuel Augustus’ career could be labeled as typical. It would be a shame if he dies in a fashion typical of faded boxers, a victim of street violence in his adopted hometown of Baton Rogue, Louisiana.
A veteran of 78 fights between 1994 and 2011, Augustus compiled an unremarkable record a shade north of .500. But for Augustus, it never seemed to be about winning. It was always about performance and pride. It’s hard to think of any boxer who seemed to have as much fun in the ring as the so-called Drunken Master.
If boxing is less sport than it is some kind of mortality performance, as Joyce Carol Oates has argued, then Augustus was a master performance artist. His uncanny resemblance to what Ol’ Dirty Bastard would have looked like as a trim and ready light welterweight only deepens such an impression.
His boxing profile was that of an elevated club fighter, a journeyman’s journeyman. He became notorious for fools’ errand fights on short notice and in the opponent’s hometown. With proper handling and marketing, or with half of a good business sense, he probably would have amassed a better record and a larger bank account. But these are things that never mattered as much to Augustus as the ability to get back in the ring and under the lights fight night.
He fought in Denmark, Russia, Australia, Germany, and all over the deep South. He gave a young Floyd Mayweather Jr. his toughest fight in 2000. In 2001, he engaged in Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year with Irish Micky Ward. Ward was riding his career’s highest crest at the time, just after dispatching Steve Quinonez in the first round with his patented left hook to the body. Inexplicably, Augustus set up office with his back to the corner and let Ward take his best shots. The entire fight could be classified as an insane man’s war of attrition, and no boxer fought more insanely that Emanuel Augustus.
After the first round bell, there’s a brief glance between the Ward and Augustus, that tells a thousand words: the recognition by both of them that they were in tough, and that this was going to be a show. He weathered the best of Ward’s hooks, even one that knocked him down in the ninth. But like Arturo Gatti in a future ninth round against Ward, he got up and finished the fight that some had scored a draw (the UD went to Ward).
Augustus fought with a reckless determination and flair that begged serious questions about his own faulty sense of self-preservation. It is with no pleasure that today, with Augustus on life support at press time from a shot he could never slip, that his general attitude towards his own well-being can be second-guessed. But this is part of the contract between boxer and fan: the boxer sacrifices all for fight night in exchange for the fan’s admiration and pocket money. Few boxers have ever honored the contract as much as Augustus in the ring, whether with his counter hooks, his dance move transitions in and out of solid footwork, his ability to slip and weave clumsier fighters, or with his durable chin. And fewer boxers in the lower tiers of the sport have enjoyed the attention he has. For his durability and ceaseless showmanship, he appeared on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights eleven times.
After watching the man fight, it should come as no surprise that he was raised in Chicago in foster care, that boxing became something of a necessity for the 5’6” Emanuel Burton, as he was named before reconnecting with his father and changing it. Many boxers with a similar background will claim that boxing saved their lives. It seems sadly fatalistic that Augustus could meet his demise only years after retiring. His 40th birthday looms in January.
It’s somewhat ironic to say about a man who made his living toeing the line of mortality that he is too young to leave the land of the living. I always imagined that Augustus would settle down somewhere and take up residence in a gym, training younger fighters. Reports from Baton Rouge indicate just that: that he was shot in vicinity of the boxing gym he worked out and sparred in. If the end of the life follows the form of his best moments, then he’s got another unpredictable and inspiring moment left in him. The odds are solidly against him, but I’m sure he’s used to that.