The five young men standing off to the side of the boxing ring looked like they might be on lunch break from their jobs as bankers or tax accountants. Wearing dress slacks and button-down shirts, they looked a little out of place in the gym, like Cadillacs at a tractor pull.
They were at Calta’s Fitness Center in Tampa watching IBO cruiserweight champ Antonio “Magic Man” Tarver (29-6, 20 KOs) train for his upcoming fight on June 2 at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. And they were there for almost an hour, or about as long as it takes to have lunch.
They watched Tarver stretch and spar and hit the focus mitts and they listened to him talk between rounds, joke with the crowd and poke fun at Freddie Roach, pretending he couldn’t remember Roach's name.
It was a little later when the five guys started heading for the door at about the same time, almost as though a bell rang and it was time to get back to work.
As they were leaving, I stopped one of them.
“Excuse me,” I said, pushing my baseball cap back and straightening my T-shirt. “Who are you guys? You kind of stand out in the crowd here.”
The guy smiled.
“You’re the first person to ask us that,” he said. “We’re just from the insurance office next door. We heard Tarver was here training so we thought we’d come over and watch.”
Boxing still draws a crowd.
Besides, Tarver, who fights out of Tampa, doesn’t care who shows up for one of his open media workouts. He came into the gym smiling and shook hands with just about everyone there, including the insurance adjusters and the guy putting out free sandwiches for the media.
Animated with a swagger and something yet to prove, Tarver is getting ready to defend his IBO title against undefeated Lateef Kayode (18-0, 14 KOs) on SHOWTIME. It’s his first step toward what Tarver says is a quest to bring the heavyweight title back to the United States.
“I’m going to go get that heavyweight title,” he said to the media after his workout. “I’m coming for it, man.”
If and when he finally gets there, he said he’ll weigh about 212 pounds.
“I’ll be a lean, mean punching machine,” he said. “They can’t hit what they can’t see.”
But first he has to deal with Kayode, who asked for this fight after he took offense to some of the comments Tarver made on TV about the young fighter when Tarver was doing boxing commentary on Showtime for a few of Kayode’s fights.
“He didn’t like the things I was saying about him,” Tarver said. “But I was just (making some observations). Maybe there was something he could learn from it.”
Tarver has never lacked confidence and at 43, he thinks he can still rule the world, or at least the heavyweight division.
“I’m a throwback fighter,” he said. “I’m a southpaw who can hit and move. I have so many dimensions to my game. All I can say is, I wouldn’t want to fight me.
“(Kayode) predicted I’d be out in five rounds. But this fight is going to go exactly as I say. I punch organs. I punch your heart and your liver and….”
Along with his long-time trainer Jimmy Williams, Tarver has pulled in Buddy McGirt to help work his corner. He said Williams is the best trainer in boxing, but McGirt is the best cornerman.
As for Kayode, Tarver respects him, but doesn’t seem too worried about him.
“He’s a young guy with nothing to lose in this fight,” Tarver said. “If I lose there will be a question mark at the end of my name. Kayode thinks I’m going to run, but I’m too old to run."
Training in a very small boxing ring, Tarver was asked if that was all part of his game plan.
“This ring is like training in a phone booth,” he said. “But that’s what we want. I’m going to draw a line in the sand for Kayode. He thinks I’m going to run, but it isn’t going to happen.”
Too bad their lunch break wasn’t longer.