I read with interest Ron Borges piece on the forgotten heavyweights of the 1980’s, the lost generation of Witherspoon, Tubbs, Tucker, Thomas, Weaver, Tate et al in Boxing Monthly last week. It was fascinating copy and provide an effective summary and analysis of what went wrong. Only Larry Holmes would emerge from the years between Ali’s loss to Spinks and the arrival of Mike Tyson with his potential fulfilled. Whenever I read about those out of shape contenders I’m always reminded of the otherwise easy to forget Lawrence Clay-Bey.
To many observers the first introduction to Lawrence Clay-Bey would have been his televised clash with fellow fringe contender Clifford Etienne, a see-saw battle between Etienne’s voluminous work-rate and brittle chin and Clay-Bey’s superior pedigree and shallow stamina reserves. It was the flaws that made the bout beautiful.
That was way-back in 2000, by which time Clay-Bey was already 34 years old and still barely a prospect. His patchy training habits were evident throughout his career. Fighting weight was never something consciously pursued, Clay-Bey fought at the weight he was. Clay-Bey’s career was all about tomorrow, next time. Or certainly so it seemed to the detached spectator.
Lawrence Clay-Bey following defeat to Clifford Etienne
In truth, Clay-Bey was a late starter, reportedly walking into the a gym in 1992 aged 27, weighing 275 pounds. Within 3 years he was 40 pounds lighter, a finalist in the Golden Gloves, had won the Amateur World Championships in 1996 and captained the American team in the Atalanta Olympics the same year. A meteoric rise for the Connecticut born fighter.
Fans and students of the sport, and certainly those less athletically blessed than the one-time prison guard, are easily offended by Clay-Bey’s casual approach to the disciplines inherent to success in professional sport, particularly one as unforgiving as boxing. Perhaps this assumption, that Clay-Bey was simply too lazy to fulfil his natural potential, is unfair. Maybe we, the masses, who urged him to discover direction and urgency in his approach are wrong.
It took Clay-Bey a year to decide to turn professional following the Atlanta Olympics, he just wasn’t sure he wanted to do it but more is said about the man’s perspective on this and other issues in the comments following his narrow loss to Wladimir Klitschko in the Super-Heavyweight category.
Clay-Bey following his Olympic exit to Wladimir Klitschko
Those comments reflect positively on the man but provide a prophetic precursor to failed attempts to position himself for a shot at the world-title. Clay-Bey was evidently at odds with his own talent. Few elite sportsman lack hunger or drive, they may be bestowed with natural talent but without the ethics of hard-work and discipline it usually unfulfilled. Even the gifted need to work hard. As Gary Player once said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get.”
Clay-Bey’s reluctant hero persona followed him from the Amateur ranks, it wasn’t just the hubris brought on by the modest purses he began to earn in the professional game that blunted his desire. Speaking on the eve of the Olympic box-offs, Clay-Bey revealed he’d basically been trying to leave boxing every year since he’d begun. But success kept him tied to it.
“I’ve got three kids to worry about. There are guys on the pro level getting killed out there.” adding “I’m still looking for a way out, believe it or not.”
To win the berth on the American team, he was the oldest member of the class of 1996, he knocked out Joe Mesi, the presently unbeaten but retired contender from Buffalo. In short, Clay-Bey’s selection was no fluke. The son of a former fighter is now 43 and 3 years retired from a sport which got the best he had to give, but not the best he had within. His own son has now begun an Amateur career and one wonders what advice his father will offer.
He finished with an Amateur slate of 60-9 and a professional record of 21 (16ko)-3-1. Below is his clash with Wladimir Klitschko which characteristically showcased Clay-Bey’s undoubted ability to mix with the leading contemporaries of his time. In 20 second bursts, Clay-Bey was a match for anyone.