Tampa Bay, boxing mecca? Prize-fighting thrives in Northern industrial cities, whose working-class denizens respect struggle and grit. It's "big business" in entertainment capitals like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami, where the combination of glitz and danger spins a heady spell.
But Tampa Bay, the land of pink-skinned tourists, strip malls and back-office call centers? Where it's often too muggy to move, let alone find the strength to put up yer dukes?
Well, yes. Boxing in the Bay area is in full boom.
In the last few months, two local men have become world champions. Winky Wright, 32, a longtime St. Petersburg resident, holds two championship belts in the super welterweight (154 lb.) division. Tampa's Antonio Tarver, 35, wowed boxing with a second-round knockout of once-invincible Roy Jones Jr. to claim the light heavyweight belt. After years of struggle, these athletes are finally getting their due, collecting keys to their home cities and looking at lucrative future bouts.
Then there are the guys on the brink.
Super middleweight and St. Pete native Jeff Lacy, 27, has all the tools to become Tampa Bay's first golden boy of the sport. Antwun Echols, 31, is a brawler who's had to slog his way through the ranks, a guy one boxing columnist called "perhaps the most dangerous 160-pounder in the world." Where Lacy has enjoyed loving benefactors, good coaching and Olympics exposure, Echols has worked his way through boxing's byzantine culture largely by himself, enduring myriad setbacks along the way. Both fighters have chosen a world where fortunes can be made and lost overnight, where fame is fleeting, where the security of long-term contracts so common in team sports is nonexistent, where one wrong move or bad break can send you to the scrap heap.
Here are their stories.