For at least the last decade, St. Petersburg has doggedly chipped away at its reputation as God's waiting room. These days, the cliché is just about kaput. Even so, this 28-year resident still craves further proof that Green Benches Syndrome is dead. That's why I got a tingle when Ronald "Winky" Wright — during a post-fight interview on HBO after unifying the Junior Middleweight title by decisively beating Shane Mosley — ignored the interviewer's first question and gave shout-outs to "everyone back in St. Pete." After a pause, he big-upped Tampa too. Thankfully, he did not apply the generic "Tampa Bay."
The point was clear: Winky Wright's heart lies in St. Petersburg.
And so it was that last Saturday night, St. Petersburg honored its newly crowned favorite son with two parties. One was held downtown at The Coliseum, sponsored by the African People's Education and Defense Fund, a wing of the Uhuru Movement. The other was thrown at Storman's nightclub in Feather Sound, which is actually in unincorporated Pinellas County, but for this occasion sufficed as St. Pete. Both were scheduled for 7 p.m.
A Storman's press release touted its bash as "the official and exclusive victory party" for Wright. The Uhurus are known as an Afrocentric, politically charged organization. On the face of it, Saturday night looked like a case of dueling celebrations. And if you wanted to read into it a little further, you could see one as the "black" party and the other as the "white" one.
As it turns out, this theory didn't wash.
During a speech, Uhuru chairman Omali Yeshitela made a point to say, "Following this event, I understand there's another party, and that's a good thing."
The functions ultimately did not overlap. Wright attended the Uhuru fete until about 10, and then turned up at Storman's at 11:30.
The Coliseum event blended celebration and message. The large crowd was overwhelmingly African-American. Several speakers took to the pulpit and delivered heartfelt testimonials to the champ. He sat at a table of honor, dressed in a white warm-up suit and sipping bottled water, soaking up the homespun oratory. Yeshitela, a long-time Wright booster, was at his side. A young woman, Wright's cousin, said she hoped he would win another belt, and then seemed to catch herself "Wait, you have all of them," she said, smiling. "There has to be something else "
"Money!" came the cry from many of the folks up front. Laughter rippled through the crowd. (Wright made around $800,000 for his defeat of Mosley on March 13 in Vegas, about a third of his opponent's purse.)
Yeshitela opened his speech with "Uhuru," his customary African greeting. (Uhuru is a Swahili word for "freedom.") Some among the large throng returned the salutation. Yeshitela began with comments about Winky's boxing exploits, then built to an indictment of the St. Petersburg Times, which, despite Yeshitela's touting of Wright during a meeting with the newspaper's editorial board, consistently downplayed the boxer's exploits.
Yeshitela characterized Wright as a "metaphor for the African community of St. Petersburg itself."
Until the Mosley bout, Wright, 32, was consistently passed over for big-dollar marquee fights. Critics said he was not flamboyant enough, his style too cautious. His backers claimed the top competition was ducking Wright, that they were wary of his size, his reach and unorthodox left-handed style.
Likening Wright to St. Petersburg's black citizens, Yeshitela said, "It ain't enough to persevere. You have to be ready when the opportunity comes!"
Yeshitela's speech gradually evolved from good-natured salute to full-boiled rant. Don't look at Wright as the sole savior of the community, he cautioned; the problem is that the banks won't lend money to black entrepreneurs. Young black men in St. Pete are thought of as thugs, he said, and then waved his arms and bellowed, "Winky Wright is not a criminal. He is a CHAMPION!"
Cheers clashed with a growing buzz of conversation near the back of the room. (Several people said they couldn't make out Yeshitela's words in the cavernous space.) "Shhhhh" came from some of the more attentive crowd members.
Yeshitela wrapped it up, giving way to Wright. "Wass-UP St. PETE?" the champ shouted. Not a natural speechmaker, Wright urged people to have a dream and strive for it, said he never let anyone tell him what he could not do. He punctuated nearly ever sentence with "know whutta mean?"
Wright plugged the Storman's party. "Ain't gonna be no VIPs. You're all VIPs."
At 11 p.m., Storman's was listless — the racially mixed crowd standing around waiting for something to happen. The Wright-Mosley fight flashed from dozens of TV screens. The men's room attendant fiddled with his palm pilot. An ice sculpture spelling out "Winky" under a pair of boxing gloves sweated near the entrance.
As a member of the working press, I was allowed in sans cover charge, but a bartender told me it cost $25 for general admission, $75 for the upstairs VIP room. Up there, the food was a little better and you could look down upon the lower part of the club. Most of those on hand looked to be VIPs of the paying sort. There was no sign of Wright's friend and fellow boxer Roy Jones Jr., no Warren Sapp or Simeon Rice or Gary Sheffield holding court. (We left around 12:30; the stars may have come out later.)
Wright worked his way through the VIP area, grinning broadly, hugging folks, shaking hands and posing for pictures. He had no visible bodyguards or entourage. I buttonholed him for a brief interview in a cordoned off section of the VIP area.
"You seem to actually know a lot of these people," I said. "Yeah, these are my people," he said over blaring rap music. "I'm a people person."
I asked him if he'd bought himself anything special after the Mosley fight. He said he hadn't.
"What do you think you'll make for your next fight? 1.5 to 2 [million]?" I asked. Wright frowned. "Nah, we lookin' for 5 to 10 million. We're looking at Felix Trinidad."
I congratulated him, thanked him for his time and turned to walk away. He gently grabbed my arm and added, "Definitely put in there that I love St. Pete."
Then after a pause: "And Tampa too."
Contact Senior Writer Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or at [email protected].