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The Greatest Boxer You’ve Never Heard Of
Will History Remember Sugar Shane?
By Julian Rubinstein
The Los Angeles Boxing Club sits inside an unobtrusive, pock-marked cement structure in the shadow of downtown L.A. and it crawls with young talent, a mecca for local kids seeking fame and fortune in the ring. Shane Mosley used to be one of those kids, and in many ways, despite the fact that he’s 27 years old and holds the IBF world lightweight title, he still is.
On a recent October morning, Mosley is stutter-stepping around on a blue, blood-stained canvas, punching with blurring speed at hand targets held by his hulking father, Jack, who is his manager and trainer. A slight but rippling 5 feet 9 inches with no jewelry or entourage hanging on him, there is little that sets Mosley apart from the throngs of gym rats pummeling body bags in the stale air, except for his picture-perfect smile and the mere fact that a growing legion of prominent figures in the world of boxing—including Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones, Jr. and commentator Larry Merchant—believe he is the best lightweight to step into a ring since Roberto Duran.
Fortunately for Mosley, his reign as the most talented fighter in the world that nobody’s ever heard of—he might as well have been the next Duran Duran—is quickly coming to an end, thanks to a three-year, multimillion dollar deal with HBO that was being finalized in November. But what it took for Mosley to get here, and the image- tinkering he’s still undergoing, is not only the legend of boxing’s next big star but also a fin de siecle allegory of a professional fight game where a boxer’s best weapon is less likely to be his right hand than his right-hand man.
When Shane Mosley turned pro in 1993, it seemed a fitting culmination to a 14-year amateur career that included three national titles and began at age eight in his hometown of Pomona, 30 miles east of L.A.
Little Shane took to boxing immediately after having followed his father, a former amateur fighter looking to shed a few pounds, to the gym near the family’s suburban, middle-class home. Within a year he won the California state Golden Gloves title, and soon earned the nickname “Sugar” in deference to the great middleweight champion at the time, Ray Leonard, and the original namesake, Ray Robinson, who many believe to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in history.
Mosley loved the moniker “Sugar Shane” and was determined to prove himself it. At 13, he pummeled a crosstown fighter named Oscar De La Hoya, winning a unanimous decision. By the time he was 15, he was being asked to spar with former LA-based champions such as Julio Cesar Chavez, Azumah Nelson and Zach Padilla. Mosley’s quick hands, sideways dance-step stance, in which he dragged his back foot, and punishing body shots that seemed to twist from his torso as if his arms were on spring-release hinges, even recalled the late Robinson.
“Shane was something of a schoolyard legend in his teens,” says Lou DiBella, the senior vice president of HBO Sports who negotiated Mosley’s deal. “I used to hear stories coming out of L.A. about this kid who would get in the ring with world championship caliber fighters and hold his own.”
But Sugar Shane wasn’t like so many other champions. In a brash, in-your-face world, Mosley exuded a rare understated confidence that bespoke his utter lack of fear, a quality that was only strengthened in 1987 when, as a 16-year-old, he flipped his car over an embankment near his home, killing his three-year-old nephew. The memory of that rainy afternoon is perhaps the only thing that can bring the affable Mosley down today. “When the car stopped rolling I couldn’t find him,” Mosley says, his striking, chameleon-like eyes going from green to ice-blue as they well with tears. “I was looking all over. When the ambulance came they found him in the car, smothered. I saw the dirt in his mouth. He had passed.”
From that point on, Mosley viewed life as a survival test of the fittest, and he applied that psychology to his boxing. “Take a lion or a tiger going after their prey,” he says. “They’re not going to rrhhaaa—they’ll scare it away. Only time they growl—rrhhaaa—is when they’re afraid. I’m the same way. When I go out there to fight, we’re going to fight for real. I’m not playing games. We’re all going to die sometime but this is my life. I’m not afraid of getting dropped because I believe I’ll get back up.”
Incredibly, he’s never had to try. In 299 amateur and professional fights, Mosley—whose pro record was 29-0 with 27 KO’s at press time—has never been knocked down.
His last defeat was in 1992 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Colorado Springs, an upset loss to Vernon Forrest that cost him a trip to the Barcelona Olympics. At the time, Mosley didn’t think it was a big deal; he would turn pro and get a jump start on his goal of becoming a world champ. Only later, when he saw how De La Hoya was canonized for winning a gold medal did Mosley realize how little he understood his sport.
While the amateurs jousted for Olympic glory 6,000 miles away, Mosley was home, making the first, and hopefully worst, decision of his career. He signed a three-year contract with a local promoter named Patrick Ortiz, who either didn’t have the clout or the desire to get Mosley where he wanted to go.
In 1993 and ’94, he kept Mosley busy with 16 bouts, all in California, none against elite competition. Only four lasted more than five rounds, one was televised. Mosley, who was making as little as $2,500 a fight, was anxious to get a shot at the world lightweight title, but Ortiz wasn’t coming up with anything close. “They had a world class fighter on their hands and they were treating me like I was a guy just starting out,” Mosley says. Soon he was feeling the cold shoulder from the LA boxing community that had so recently regarded him as a champion-in-waiting. When he would go to local fights on weekends, promoters who had previously glad-handed him at the door began stopping him and asking where was his ticket.
When Mosley tried to get out of the contract, Ortiz hit him with a lawsuit, leaving him little choice but to bide his time until late 1996. “What impressed me was the way he handled himself,” says Steve Kim, who broadcasts a weekly boxing radio show in LA. “Here was probably the most underutilized talent in all of boxing. He’s living at his parents’ house, making no money and yet he still had this incredible love of the game. Every time I went to the LA Boxing Club, he was there working out, smiling, keeping a professional attitude. That’s when I knew he had something special.”
From November 1994 until November 1996, Mosley fought just three times, scoring second, fourth and first-round knockouts. He watched from the garage that he had converted into a bedroom behind his parents’ house as that other LA fighter De La Hoya rose to superstardom and the flashy Brit, Prince Naseem Hamed, plotted world domination. Mosley, though, kept busy stoking his fire. “I use the memory of that time as motivation,” he says. “That’s in the back of my head until I finish my career.”
When his contract with Ortiz ended, Mosley signed a deal with New York-based promoter Cedric Kushner, who presented him a clear plan for his ascension to the lightweight title and the recognition he deserved. The reinvigorated Mosley camp took on a full-time publicist and hired a professor of sports marketing from University of Southern California as a consultant, and transformation of Mosley into “Sugar Shane” — the star attraction — began.
On August 2, 1997, Mosley finally got his shot at the IBF lightweight title against undefeated South African slugger Phillip Holiday in Connecticut. Mosley was so anxious to put on a big show that he took too much creatine after the pre-fight weigh-in and had diarrhea the whole day of the fight. When he stepped into the ring, he was 10 pounds under his normal fighting weight, yet losing never crossed his mind. “I had seen video of Holiday and I knew I could beat him, even on a bad day,” Mosley says. Conserving his energy and steadily pounding away at Holiday’s body, he won a unanimous 12-round decision.
But it was hardly a coronation. Because of the lofty expectations the Mosley camp had raised in the boxing community, many viewed his performance as a disappointment.
It wasn’t until his third title defense, against the gritty John John Molina in Atlantic City in May 1998, that Mosley’s reputation as a boxer of rare talents was solidified. Molina was a former three-time world champion who had gone the distance with De La Hoya three years earlier in a bout some scored Molina winning. When Mosley manhandled Molina, pounding him mercilessly with rapid-fire combinations in front of the full boxing media corps and live on HBO’s Boxing After Dark, Kushner seized the opportunity. Just after the referee stopped the bout in the eighth round, Kushner jumped into the ring and draped his arm around Mosley, instructing him how to handle the post-match interview. “I’m not afraid of [then-WBC lightweight champion] Stevie Johnston,” Kushner could be overheard suggesting.
Moments later, puffing out his lips, scowling and staring straight into the camera, Mosely half-growled, “For all the other lightweights out there who think they can take me on — Stevie Johnston and [then-WBA champ] Orzubek Nazarov — I’m rrriiight here.” It was about as convincing Stallone doing Hamlet. After a few seconds, Mosley cracked and broke into a staccato, high-pitched Ha ah ah ah ah ah. “You know, I like Stevie Johnston,” Mosley said, smiling through the wide David Letterman-like gap between his front teeth that would mysteriously, and permanently, disappear before his debut at Madison Square Garden four months later. Soon afterward, Mosley’s father Jack, purchased a minicassette recorder to do practice interviews with his son.
At a diner down the street from the L.A. Boxing Club, Mosley is wolfing down a garden burger and french fries after his two-hour workout…
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