I read with interest Ron Borges piece on the forgotten heavyweights of the 1980’s; the famously lost generation of Witherspoon, Tubbs, Tucker, Thomas, Weaver and Tate in Boxing Monthly last week. It was fascinating copy and provided an effective summary of the period as well as interesting insight into how this potentially gilded era dissolved in a sea of wine, women and song.
Only Larry Holmes emerged from the years between Ali’s loss to Spinks in ’78 and the arrival of Mike Tyson in the mid-eighties with his potential fulfilled. Whenever I read about those out of shape and misguided contenders I’m always reminded of the otherwise forgotten Lawrence Clay-Bey.
A fighter of pedigree, Clay-Bey entered the pro-ranks long after that lost band of heavyweight brothers of course and his story is one of indifference toward prizefighting rather than the destructive pursuits of those who’s footsteps he followed, but the sense of the unfulfilled is a connecting thread between the two.
For many observers, their introduction to Lawrence Clay-Bey would have been his televised clash with fellow contender Clifford Etienne on the undercard to Lewis v Tua in 2000. A ‘see-saw’ battle between Etienne’s voluminous work-rate, he threw 658 punches in 10 rounds, his brittle chin and Clay-Bey’s superior class and shallower stamina reserves.
It was their flaws, as much as their strengths, that made the fight compelling. Clay-Bey’s lack of wind arguably cost him the fight, when energised he could clip and cuff Etienne at will, but lacked the fitness to sustain those attacks or to launch them more frequently. His immediate response to defeat was reflective of his attitude to his profession; he remained sanguine and passive, as he all too often appeared between the ropes.
“I’m not worried about it. It could have been a lack of confidence on my part.”Lawrence Clay-Bey following his loss to Clifford Etienne over 10 action packed rounds
In truth, Clay-Bey was a late starter, 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 Bronze at the Amateur World Championships in 1995 and then captained the American team in the Atalanta Olympics the following year. A meteoric rise that he often seemed ill at ease with.
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? Acknowledging what you are, and also what you aren’t, is a place many of us take our whole lives to reach.
The reluctant Olympian appeared aware of his strengths and weaknesses from the very beginning.
It took him 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. He lost 10-8 in the 3 round match up.
“Smile, it’s not the end of the world, it’s the Olympics. Smile.”Lawrence Clay-Bey following his narrow loss to Wladimir Klitschko at the Atlanta Olympics in 96
Those comments reflect positively on his sportsmanship and grasp of the Olympic ideal but provided a prophetic precursor to his failed attempts to summon the perseverance to land a shot at the professional world title. Clay-Bey was evidently at odds with his own talent. Few elite achievers lack hunger or drive, they may be bestowed with natural talent but without the ethic of hard-work and self-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 wasn’t just the hubris brought on by the purses he began to earn in the professional game. It didn’t blunt his desire, perhaps only revealed its absence. Speaking on the eve of the US box-offs, a sequence in which he lost his opening bout narrowly, Clay-Bey revealed he’d been trying to leave boxing every year since he’d begun but success and necessity had 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.”Lawrence Clay-Bey speaking in 1995
To win the berth on the American team, he was the oldest member of the class of 1996, he knocked out Joe Mesi, the unbeaten but now prematurely retired contender from Buffalo. In short, Clay-Bey’s selection was no fluke. The son of a former fighter, Lawrence is, at the time of writing, now 43 and 3 years retired from a sport which got the best he had to give, but perhaps 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 Clifford Etienne, which 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.