Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Inside a warehouse a few miles west of the Strip, Hasim Rahman launches a shot to the body of Willie Chapman, finding his rib cage. Small blood vessels are ruptured, and blood seeps into surrounding tissue. Chapman likely has another bruised rib, although it could be fractured. He won’t have it checked because he has no health insurance. Besides, he doesn’t want anyone to know about it, doesn’t even want to know himself, because he’s sparring again in two days.
The shooting pain in his side is just one more of life’s miseries that have been conspiring against him lately.
The power company has threatened to shut off his electricity for nonpayment. In the past 2 1/2 years, he’s lost two grandparents and crashed two cars. Three of his children were almost taken from him. He was robbed of a heavyweight title belt, or so he believes after months of effective self-persuasion. His job installing appliances at a time share complex ended, leaving him jobless again. He has been lied to and played by boxing’s dregs as well any number of Vegas hustlers.
No changing course now, though. Chapman will be back in the ring with Rahman or some other contender because he needs that $100 or $150 cash per day he earns sparring.
Because without the money, he can’t go see his 10 children in three states or pay child support to the five women who are raising them. He can’t hire a private detective to find one of the mothers, who has custody of one of his daughters but whose whereabouts is unknown. He can’t afford a doctor who might clear him to fight a sanctioned bout again in Nevada. And if he can’t fight again, he’ll never win that championship belt he’s been chasing for 54 professional fights, more than half of them losses.
And until he wins that belt, he’ll need to keep fighting. And if he keeps fighting, he can’t get a regular job. And if he can’t get a regular job, he’ll need to keep fighting.
Chapman, 41, has explained the logic of all this to me a dozen times by now, and it all makes sense if you just let it.
• • •
Map of The Orleans Arena
4500 W Tropicana Ave, Las Vegas
I met Willie Chapman in early 2007, when he was a survivor of more than 10 years in the ring. On a June night that year he is fighting at the Orleans, where he is a semiregular fighter on the undercard.
The Orleans is a few blocks from the glitter palaces of the Strip, where contenders fight before ringside crowds of high rollers and porn stars. Still, there’s some real boxing at the Orleans, and standing ringside, you can feel the current of the crowd, much of which looks like it was imported from New Jersey.
The crowd of a thousand or so murmurs as Chapman approaches the ring. A low-fi stereo plays The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”: “I’m gonna fight ’em off. A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back.”
His fight name is “Wreckless Willie,” and his showmanship and haymakers have made him a favorite among fans and hecklers alike. He likes to wear blond or blue hair in all kinds of styles.
The boxing ring rises from the floor of a converted ballroom that is up the escalator from the casino floor. Ringside seats go for 50 bucks. They’re folding chairs.
Chapman is fighting Ramon Hayes. Between the two of them, at this point, they’ve lost more than 50 times in their careers. You won’t find this matchup in any sports book.
The color commentators for the bout, which is broadcast on some no-name Webcast, call the two boxers “professional sparring partners” who are “brought in there to be punching bags.”
They announce the fighters, the bell is rung, and before long, Chapman breaks out his signature punch, a cartoonish overhand right that misses wildly.
“Swing and a miss!” a heckler calls out.
In the third round, his strategy of getting inside the longer reach of the much taller Hayes starts working, as he lands big blows.
At the end of the fourth, Chapman again connects, and Hayes looks stunned and helpless.
In the fifth, Chapman has free rein, and now he’s landing punches on Hayes like he’s the bag Chapman trains on.
Hayes is dazed and wobbly, his eyes and body betraying a plea for mercy.
A final blast, a roundhouse to Hayes’ head, and that’s it.
Wreckless Willie is crazed. He makes like a linebacker after sacking a quarterback. Then he runs around the ring in adrenaline-soaked ecstasy. He screams in a language he says he invented: “Rushoway skalajacko!”
The crowd yells in delight.
He grabs the microphone and implores the crowd to support boxing.
“I’ve got no trainer, no manager. I’m doing this myself,” he screams.
The announcer takes the mic from Chapman and congratulates him, calling him by the wrong name: “Wreckless Willie Hayes.”
When the ring girls in two-piece bathing suits, all luscious, busty and plastic, come out and begin throwing T-shirts, the horde quickly loses interest in Chapman.
But on his way back to the locker room, Chapman is mobbed again. He’s drenched in sweat, but they hug him anyway.
Somebody gives him a $100 bill. A tip of sorts.
To get back to the dressing room, which is a converted conference room, Chapman has to walk past one of the hotel’s kitchens. He passes a waiter carrying pastries.
And now, maybe, just maybe it’s finally in his grasp — the belt, the championship he’s longed for, worked for, suffered for. Sure, he’s old for a boxer, and he’s had some losses, a lot lately, but with that beating he gave Hayes, maybe he’ll get his shot.
Like a kid boxing in the back yard by himself, with the sound of Jim Lampley calling the match in his head, Chapman is fueled by fantasy.
“If I trained hard for two months, I could fight Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield.”
• • •
The fight game is in many ways a microcosm of the American economy — a few famous winners taking home most of the money, fame and power, while the vast majority of boxers, like Chapman, toil away like low-end service workers, in poverty and obscurity, at considerable risk to their health and with no retirement security or health insurance.
These are the boxers at the industry’s minimum-wage scale.
These Wreckless Willies are derisively called professional opponents. Or tomato cans. Chapman hates this talk, and with good reason. On his own and without professional management or training, he’s beaten his share of solid opponents, including a few who were unbeaten, spoiling the night for promoters who assumed he’d be a patsy.
From the back of his car, Chapman sells a DVD compilation of his knockouts, each one spectacular in its own way. A few offer up a sound beating by one man of another. The others attest to the mysterious nature of the brain — one punch in the right spot at the right angle with the right force can leave a man unconscious.
Despite his surprising flashes of prowess, Chapman and fighters like him are fill-ins, called in on short notice to fill out a boxing card, whaling on each other or allowing the up-and-comers and former contenders to pad their records with victories.
Chapman has fought on less than 48 hours’ notice at least 17 times.
They fight at small venues like the Orleans for a few thousands bucks, the air thick with Vegas small-timers, tourists, grifters, drunk and blood-lusty.
For Chapman, this existence isn’t harmless fun, either. Having passed 40 years old and 50 fights — significant warning signs for doctors who work with boxers — he risks injuring body or brain every time he steps into the ring.
• • •
In August 2007, a few months after his epic victory, his confidence freshly fueled by the knockout, Chapman is back at the Orleans.
On behalf of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Dr. Anthony Ruggeroli, a slight man with glasses, is checking out Chapman, making sure he’s OK to box.
Chapman tells Ruggeroli he doesn’t have a doctor and needs one.
“Will you be my doctor?” he says.
Ruggeroli looks confused, and explains it would be a conflict of interest.
None of this conversation is private in the conference room-turned-dressing area, with individual stalls separated by blue curtains, like in a wartime hospital.
Chapman starts shadowboxing and hitting the boxing mitts.
He’s joined by a small entourage this time, including a couple of friends, and two furniture salesmen brothers from Youngstown, Ohio, who agreed before the fight to train and manage him.
Brother One: “He’s very colorful. Got a personality. Not your typical boxer who slurs or who’s missing teeth or something.”
Brother Two: “He’s like a racehorse who just shows up at the tracks.”
Brother Two: “We’re ex-fighters so we know how the whole machine goes.”
Brother One: “There’s still some gas in the tank.”
Then they confide to me that they just want to be in the dressing room to recruit a good-looking fighter also on the card.
Chapman gets his call. Through the kitchen area again toward the ring, passing bins of dirty linens and racks of hot dog buns.
He’s not wearing traditional boxing shorts. Known for his verve and style, tonight he’s got on a vaguely Roman-looking skirt he made himself, and he’ll earn a little extra money because it’s inscribed with “Valleyhealthcareinc.com.”
The irony seems totally lost on everyone.
The matchmaker, Frank Luca, who’s well known in the fight game, roams the ring in an open-collar shirt and dark sunglasses.
Wreckless Willie is announced.
His record: 21 wins, 28 losses and three draws, with seven knockouts.
Tonight at the Orleans he’s fighting Franklin Lawrence, nearly a decade younger, who comes in at 7-1-1.
Chapman comes out, his hair blond with a blue streak.
The eight-round fight is a draw.
Chapman is mostly pleased with his performance, but as always, angry with the boxing establishment.
Chapman thinks he’s the perpetual victim of what he alleges is a corrupt boxing culture, so even when he gives an up-and-comer a good battle, the judges always seem to go the other way.
By his own estimation, he’s really only lost 10 or 12 fights out of his 54.
After the fight, Chapman’s relationship with the furniture salesmen ends.
• • •
Chapman lives on the edge of a financial ravine.
He once made more than $10,000 per fight and was flown to Germany, Russia and Denmark to be an opponent to contenders, but his losing skid — seven of 10 — has led to smaller paydays.
To get by, he has worked security at clubs and installed those appliances at the time share complex. He’s been a gofer for a few rich “sponsors,” as he calls them, been a substitute teacher and a personal trainer. And of course he spars contenders, working in a half dozen rings around the city, which is home to a small cottage industry for boxers.
His apartment sometimes smells like a gym, but he tries to keep it nice for when his children come to visit. It’s off Sahara west of the Strip, a neighborhood of barred windows and an occasional streetwalker.
His apartment is cluttered with games and toys and tchotchkes and various creations, like his handmade pinatas or a cardboard replica of Iron Man, to either entertain his children or sell at swap meets, another important source of income.
Despite his poverty, he views himself in noble terms, watching “Gladiator” and DVDs of his own victories.
He is the living embodiment of a city that thrives on fantasy — that the next slot pull will hit, that the night will never end, that this prostitute finds you attractive.
In the ring, his firmly held belief — be it delusional or admirable — that he will be the next champion is at once crushed and renewed.
“I feel more at home in the ring than in the world. The ring is a place to get away. A place to be safe. The ring is a dreamworld. The outside world is hellish.”
• • •
After his August 2007 draw with Franklin Lawrence, Chapman is due for a court appearance in California, where three of his children, ages 12, 13 and 15, are living with their mother.
She has told Chapman she wants her husband to adopt them, which would revoke Chapman’s parental rights. He’s on his way to court to fight it.
We pass Baker and then Barstow, and he tells me his life story in a lengthy monologue, interrupted only when he breaks into eerily accurate renditions of soft rock ballads like Lionel Richie’s “Lady.”
His parents moved west from Pittsburgh when Willie was 4, settling in Southern California’s steel town, Fontana.
He was a high school football star who won a scholarship to Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
He was the first member of the family to go to college. He played ball at Weber State for five years, starring on special teams, of which he was captain. He and his parents dreamed of the NFL.
But just shy of graduation, he got in a fight. The judge granted the other student a restraining order, even though, according to Chapman, the other student was the aggressor. Regardless, with the restraining order in place, Chapman couldn’t be on campus, so he couldn’t graduate.
Next, he says, he heaped immaturity on top of immaturity by having children, lots of them.
Although he hits people for a living, Chapman can be funny and charming, especially with women.
All told, he has 10 children by five women.
Although he sees his children rarely because he has no money to get to them, he believes he’s a good father because he writes and calls often.
By now we’re in San Bernardino, and the mother of his first three children has brought them to court.
Chapman is devastated to see them here, in this venue, exposed to this process.
The judge isn’t about to remove parental rights from a father who appears, and Chapman eventually wins the case.
This is just one scene in Chapman’s complicated domestic life. Barely scraping enough together for rent, he struggles to pay child support, and so faces wage garnishments and court hearings.
He can’t find one of his daughters and her mother, though he believes they are in Utah. Chapman has no money to go to Utah to look for them or hire a lawyer or private investigator.
When I press him about his responsibilities to his children, he acknowledges he’s no perfect parent. He says his life rule is to treat the world with love. “You walk away with goodness in your heart. And you make a person feel good.” He charms friends and strangers alike.
In fact, he says, people who know him tell women that he’s a man with a future. It’s a seductive line, and he’s fallen for it himself.
• • •
In late 2007, Chapman gets the call he’s been waiting years for. He’s offered an International Boxing Association heavyweight title fight with Carlos Barnett. Despite his losing record, Chapman thinks this is justice, that years of being cheated are finally being leavened with God’s grace and the power of his persistence.
Granted, the International Boxing Association is small time. Its president is the former Major League Baseball player Dean Chance, who appears to be holding a cocktail in his picture on the IBA Web site.
Still, for Chapman, this is it.
We’re back at the Orleans, in the conference room-qua-locker room, in January 2008.
Chapman says he’s badly injured his knee in training, but will fight anyway.
He also says he has a cracked rib, which he says he cured by applying a mix of turpentine, egg white and flour.
Chapman’s big, gnarled hands are being taped, his gloves tied, his skin slathered with Vaseline so punches will slide.
He’s going through his paces now, swinging for the fences with big uppercuts, his best friend and sometime trainer Michele Randall taking the punches with a catcher’s mitt.
This time, Chapman’s father and his brother Michael are here to support him.
They lay their hands on Willie, and Michael prays.
“From the top of his head to the crown of his feet, we ask for victory in the name of Jesus. Lord, we ask you to touch his heart, you strengthen it right now, you touch his flesh, make it steel, in the name of Jesus. We claim victory in your name.
“Victory right now in the name of Jesus. Victory in the name of Jesus.”
The ballroom with the boxing ring smells like popcorn.
Wreckless is announced. Chapman has a few close friends, but he also has a wide circle of admiring acquaintances and supporters who are here, and they yell out his name.
What follows is 10 rounds of thrilling, violent entertainment. Chapman is knocked down early, though Willie would later say he slipped.
At 5-foot-11, he’s a shorter heavyweight, so as with nearly all his fights, he must get inside the longer reach of Barnett, who is three inches taller.
When Chapman swings his big right, he looks like he’s scraping his glove on the floor.
He’s a self-taught brawler, but those wild swings can destroy, like a blind man driving in a demolition derby.
In the sixth, he takes a solid right hand and goes down for the third time. He struggles up, but then he delivers still more punishment of his own, getting inside and landing some of those from-the-floor beauties.
The crowd is grateful, cheering on the mutual beating.
In the end, it’s a split decision that goes to Barnett.
Chapman is devastated, and, bitterly, he blames God. “He didn’t reward me for my heart, my faith, my belief in him! Now I see why people have no faith.”
He’s sobbing. “The only thing I’m feeling is, I let everybody down.”
Back in the conference room with the blue curtains, the fight doctor, as well as Chapman’s friends and family, tell him he should go to the hospital. He balks, but they remind him he could have trouble getting a license from the athletic commission again if he won’t go. He relents.
The ambulance for the boxers awaits at the garbage dock. Chapman gets there by way of a service elevator, and is greeted by the unmistakable stench of half-eaten chicken carcasses, browned iceberg lettuce, coffee grounds.
His face is swollen and bruised.
“My heart is crushed,” he says.
He climbs into the back of the ambulance.
His share of the purse: $4,000.
• • •
For Chapman, the elusive dream of a title belt is not without risk.
The brain sits encased in the skull, surrounded by fluid. Depending on the direction of the punch and the force of the blow, the brain will move, like a passenger in a car accident. If it’s a forceful blow, the fluid will not protect the brain. The boxer can lose consciousness or suffer post-traumatic symptoms of a concussion — cognitive, speech and memory problems.
A fighter hit in the head repeatedly can suffer microscopic hemorrhages in the brain. There can be loss of blood flow.
With age, the brain shrinks, and the small vessels that connect the brain to the covering that surrounds it are stretched tighter and become more susceptible to tearing if they’re disturbed. Once there’s tearing, a hematoma can appear on the brain’s surface.
With age, reflexes slow, which makes defensive fighting harder.
With head injuries, there’s increased incidence of depression and rage.
Sparring can be just as brutal as a match, and it’s lightly regulated by the Nevada Athletic Commission. Contrary to what many fighters believe, the headgear they wear when sparring offers them little protection against repetitive brain injury. In fact, as the headgear absorbs sweat, it gets heavier, and the effect is that the fighter becomes like a bobblehead doll, with a dangerous lack of structure and balance for the neck.
A strong neck offers good protection for the brain. Chapman knows this, which is why his training includes lying on the ring floor, with his head hanging over the side, pulling his head up to strengthen his neck muscles, which press against the skin like thick cords.
Dr. Margaret Goodman, former chairwoman of the state athletic commission’s medical advisory board, has long advocated for a tougher regulatory regime to protect boxers. She is deeply concerned about Chapman, his recent losses, his 50-plus fights, his future.
“By the time you see something on a medical test, it’s too late,” she says in an interview last summer.
Goodman says all boxers take great risks, especially as they near Chapman’s age. “The fighter is eventually going to suffer something very serious,” she says. If not severe brain injury, then increased odds of early-onset dementia or a stroke.
“Blows to the head are like interest in a bank account. If you let it accrue it will add up,” she says. This means with each new concussion, the next one will come easier.
Still, she acknowledges, “It’s very hard to stop a fighter from fighting.”
Chapman scoffs at concerns for his safety. He says his style of fighting is to avoid direct blows. He says that although he’s been beaten when referees stopped fights, he’s never been knocked unconscious or counted out.
His fluid and voluble speech is proof he’s in perfect brain health, he says, and it’s certainly true he’s never at a loss for words.
Moreover, to Chapman, all this talk of him being vulnerable is absurd. Boxing continues to be a test of his manhood, and one he passes with extreme honor each time. “When you get that jaw cracked, can you continue to fight, time after time? Or do you get scared?”
But the inversion of his argument never occurs to him: What if staying in the ring, where he has a settled identity but a deeply uncertain future, is the real act of cowardice?
• • •
In the spring of 2008, a few months after his defeat in the championship bout, I too grow concerned for Chapman. He is morose, and I’m concerned about his health. His usual monologues, which can be poetic if not always logical, veer off into inscrutable ramblings.
“I’m fighting because I’m trying to live to a certain parameter of my life. I’m trying to live to the word of my life to accomplish a goal within an enlightenment of a certain time in my life to be enlightened.”
I ask him to go see Dr. Charles Bernick, a neurologist who sits on the board of the Keep Memory Alive Foundation, affiliated with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Chapman agrees. The Sun pays for the initial screening.
Bernick tests Chapman’s cognitive skills and then tells Chapman he has concerns.
Chapman doesn’t hear him. Or doesn’t want to hear him.
“Whether it’s my cognition, my smarts, compared to the guys I fight, they couldn’t sit in here and answer these questions.”
Bernick replies, “I’m sure that’s true.”
Chapman boasts of his verbal skills, mimicking and mocking boxers with slurred speech, and asks Bernick to give the OK to the athletic commission, so he can be licensed for another fight.
In fact, Bernick’s tests are inconclusive.
Usually, the athletic commission licenses fighters for a year. In the case of Chapman’s championship fight, the commission had given him a one-fight license, a safety precaution because of his age and losing record.
Without a Nevada license, he can fight in other jurisdictions with less rigorous medical regulations. Indeed, Chapman would have fought in Kazakhstan this year — had he been allowed to leave the country. But because he owed child support, the U.S. State Department would not renew his passport.
For Chapman, the difficulty obtaining a license and the fact that no Nevada promoter seriously considers him for a fight are just two of a series of difficulties he encounters in the 18 months since losing the IBA title fight.
Beloved grandmothers die.
He writes dark poetry:
Now I feel my heart starting to break
Knowing now nothing I’ve done
Has meant enough to anyone
That I would last long enough to be
How is it possible to forget me?
And text messages, too:
AnSo I Will GoOn Alone, INoWhatLies Ahead an ImCertainOf 1 ThingMyPain anSufferingHasnt EvenBegunYet, I ButMyFearOfWhat IsWillFallAway
He wraps up his job installing appliances but has nothing else lined up. He injures a knee in a car accident. Another car accident bangs up the truck his dad has given him.
Amid the troubles last year, sitting in his apartment, surrounded by the fruits of his pack-ratting — the toys, knickknacks, tools and stacked couches — he is pensive and acknowledges that he’d built a scaffolding with no way down.
It seems a rare acceptance of his reality.
“I trapped myself. I trapped myself. I trapped myself.” And he asks rhetorically: “Why don’t you get out then? Because the last 12 years, or, let’s say 14, I spent most of my life and most of my time doing sports and learning the sport and doing boxing. So now this is what I know ... and now I’m stuck with it. I tried to pull it off for far too long, and now, I’m in major, major trouble. I’m in major trouble.”
To get by, he relies increasingly on the brutal job of professional sparring partner to contenders such as Audley Harrison, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist.
Before a Harrison fight late last year, Chapman spars him five rounds, four days a week, and earns $600, 30 bucks a round.
One day, Chapman spars two other fighters in one day for a total of 10 rounds. Fighting the 6-foot-8 Tye Fields, he says, is “ugly.”
He expects to make $800 that week.
And he says he’s worth a lot more than that.
“Let my American public know this: They can’t find men of my stature, professionalism to want to spar Tye Fields,” which is true in the narrow sense that very few people with mouths to feed would agree to be punched by Tye Fields.
He was flown to New Orleans this summer to spar for $150 per day.
A recent body blow gave him that bruised rib, exacerbated soon after by the shot he took from Hasim Rahman.
But Chapman’s not fighting just for the money. He’s staying in shape for another shot at a belt, this time, he says, with a secret weapon — he’s trying to learn how to be a southpaw.
As he knows, however, there is another way. He seems mentally sharper now, not having fought a competitive fight in 18 months.
He could use the college degree he finally finished in 2002, and his considerable sales skills, to get a normal job.
He dreams of working for a toy company, which would seem like a good fit, given his many children and capacity for childlike wonder.
His mom would like that. Her worst fear is his getting hurt, she tells me.
“He’s in the mind-set that this is what he’s going to do. We don’t want him to be hurt, but he’s very strong-willed,” she says.
When he talks about a life without boxing, his plans are airy and dreamy. He was briefly involved in starting a boxing gym a few months back, but that closed quickly.
He talks about opening a “family fun” park that would feature carnival games of his own devising, but it’s not clear where the money would come from.
He often retreats into regret.
“You don’t want to know how sad I was,” he says of the past year, after losing his fight for a belt. “You don’t want to know how sad I was. I knew when I went home there was just gonna be me at that apartment again.”
His plan, if he’d won, was to quit, he says.
“I sat there alone and all I thought about was all the plans I had for me and my children to play. I go to work, come home and play with my children. When they said he won that belt, they screwed my children and they screwed me good. They screwed me good. Because I was done. I was done.”
But you can quit now, get a job, play with your children, I tell him.
He waves me off, again.
He’ll fight 68 fights, or 88 fights, or 100 fights before retiring, he says. They’re his lucky numbers, he explains.
Another time, he says he’ll fight 14 more fights and quit when he’s 43, or 14 fights in the next 18 months. It’s hardly worth pointing out to him how absurd these calculations are.
No matter, he will win a belt, afraid of how his children will view him without a championship.
“To the children of America, my children, that I love, how do I explain what I did for all those years that I took from their lives, and got nothing in the end except heartache and disappointment?”
Finally, “I’m not going to quit until I get it. I don’t care what happens to me.”