The bright blue boxing-ring floor is smudged and pocked with ugly brown stains. "You see that? That's Echols' work," barks trainer Dan Birmingham. "It's blood from guys he sparred with."Antwun Echols, middleweight contender, self-described "rock 'em sock 'em type guy," is due in for a training session on this sweltering Tuesday at St. Pete Boxing Club, although it's not clear exactly when. Echols keeps his own clock, and admits to having a general distaste for authority figures.
With his wary demeanor and palpable air of menace, Echols will never be easy to market. He'll probably always be seen as the dangerous and unpredictable outsider. "I grew up in the 'hood, so I'm gonna have that rough look," he says. "They want pretty boys, or somebody that's gonna give 'em a sales pitch."
Birmingham, who also trains Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright, is a Seminole paint contractor whose stock has soared on the world boxing scene in the last year or so. He's an intense 53-year-old, a former fighter who looks much younger than his years. After a quarter-century of working with fighters, Birmingham is astute at handling a complex array of boxer temperaments.
"Antwun's a good kid," he says. "But you gotta get his respect. The first week he trained here, the first couple of days he punched me in the arm — right in the muscle, it hurt like hell — and I let it go. The third time he did it, I put a switchblade to his throat and said, 'If you do that again, I'll gut you like a fish.' He never did it again."
Sitting on the couch in his bare-walled, one-bedroom apartment in northwest St. Pete, fiddling with the remote control of his big-screen TV, Echols lets out a low, guttural laugh. Having a knife held to his neck is not the sort of thing that's apt to shake up Antwun Echols. Last summer, three months before his Sept. 3 championship fight in Australia against homeland hero Anthony Mundine, Echols was at a keg party in his old stomping grounds of Davenport, Iowa, when a guy shot him in the left arm. He swears there was no prior altercation, no bad blood between them. Echols turns his sleepy eyes from the television and drawls, "I don't think he liked my presence there," and then slowly winds into a grin, "I was getting' a little too much attention, probably."
Most fighters would have postponed the match, but Echols climbed into the ring as scheduled — with a chunk of the bullet still lodged just below his armpit. Birmingham says his client basically fought with one good arm, losing a judges' decision. In retrospect, it was a bad call to go ahead and fight, especially with the World Boxing Association super middleweight belt on the line. But Echols is a man with mouths to feed: He has four young children with his live-in girlfriend, Standisha Walker.
As far as boxing with a depleted left arm, Echols mumbles, "Them cats made me fight."
That seems like a throwaway line, but it speaks volumes. It's about control, or lack of it. Echols has endured a career filled with bad breaks, poor timing, shaky advice and iffy business decisions. He's had to slug his way through the prize-fighting quagmire pretty much by himself, without benefit of a mentor or consistent counsel. He's signed contracts against his better judgment, entered into partnerships when they didn't smell quite right, accepted paydays well below his market value. For most of his career, Echols has earned $30,000-$40,000 per fight. He says his best purse was close to $200,000.
Twice he battled Bernard Hopkins, a marquee opponent, for the International Boxing Federation middleweight crown. Both times he did so without adequate handlers. "My coach [in Davenport] was older; he told us to beat the dang bag and that's it," Echols muses. "I didn't have no trainer, no manager, didn't have nothin'."
Both times he lost, first by decision, then by technical knockout. At the emergency room after the second fight, when both boxers were being examined, Echols challenged Hopkins to scrap some more. "I wasn't through fightin' yet," Echols says with a wry chuckle. It was later reported that he'd fought nearly five rounds with a dislocated shoulder after being slammed down to the canvas in the sixth round.
It's testimony to Echols' toughness and resolve that he's still in the hunt, just a few victories away from another title shot. He was recently ranked the No. 4 super middleweight (168 pounds) by The Ring magazine, and No. 5 by the World Boxing Association. Echols has since moved down to the middleweight (160-pound) ranks. Influential boxing columnist Steve Kim logged a July 6 Internet piece titled "For Boxing's Sake — Five Fights That Need to Happen"; among them was No. 3-ranked Jermain Taylor vs. Antwun Echols. He called Echols "perhaps the most dangerous 160-pounder in the world." (Echols didn't know this until I told him about it. His response was muted. "It's cool," he said, "adds fuel to the fire.")