It was 2001, the phone call came in from my good friend in Florida, Mike, a barber and boxing trainer instructing boxing students in his garage and backyard in Sarasota, Florida. “I have a future world champion. His father brought him this week. He has all the qualities, he’s tough, takes a punch, comes back fighting and does everything I say. I have no doubt he will be champion,” said the former amateur boxer from Fort Lee, NJ.
Kenny was just eleven. A white kid from a poor family. He needed an activity to keep him out of trouble. I totally believed Mike by the tone of his voice and excitement, he never talked like that unless he was certain. All it took was a couple of days in his homemade gym to see this kid was special.
The reports kept coming in. Holding his own with much bigger and older kids and even adults. Winning tournaments like the junior Olympics. Beating top amateurs in Florida. Mike sent me the videos of his fights. Each month that passed, the more certain he was. Kenny Blair was destined for boxing greatness. There was not a shred of doubt. We just had to guide him there. I would be the manager, with all my contacts in professional boxing, and Mike would be the trainer and co-manager.
With my journalism background in boxing, knowing everybody, I invited Mike and Kenny to spend a week with me in NJ, where we could take Kenny to Gleasons Gym, Hasim Rahman’s training camp in Catskills with trainer Bouie Fisher, and the highlight day – an afternoon at world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis’s Pocono’s traning camp two weeks before the June 2002 showdown with Mike Tyson. Harold Knight said it would be okay to bring Kenny to spar and be evaluated by legendary trainer Emanuel Steward.
What a week it was. We went to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn and Kenny, just 13, manhandled the best kid in the gym, so impressively that former world title challenger Lennox Blackmore, a trainer at the gym, literally came fast walking across the gym to the edge of the ring, not a minute into the first round of sparring, in a daze of awe by what Kenny was doing. I forever remember seeing Blackmore, almost singing in excitment, “Yeah, yeah hook to the body, yeah yeah, that’s it, hook to the body…” It was a scene out of a movie. Kenny crushed the black kid, it wasn’t even close. Blackmore spotted the genius of Kenny and it blew him away.
Next we visited my friend the artist LeRoy Neiman at his studio on Central Park West, who observed, “that kid loves to fight.” We wanted to expose Kenny to all different kinds of great people, to improve his cultural side.
His homelife was not one of privilege. He was one of two sons to a secretary and middle of the night newspaper delivery man. The older brother got all the love from mom. They were poor. Kenny was the unwanted son, he slept on a mattress with no sheets. Maybe that’s where his boxing rage derived from. Wherever it came from, Kenny could fight. He could throw any punch, combination, good legs and feet, quick hands, good power, his best attribute was that if you hurt him or hit him, he came right back stronger. Guys 50 pounds heavier would hurt him and he would bounce back and turn the tables. A 13 year old kid. He had the qualities you can’t teach, can’t buy. And he could move his head. Steve Lott told me that was the most important thing for an amateur boxer, train to move your head to avoid punches.
Kenny shined the most at the Poconos at the camp of Lennox Lewis. It was a cloudy Saturday afternoon in May. Emanuel Steward, a good friend of mine, greeted us but kept a little distance. He checked out Kenny, still pre-puberty and joked, “Yeah, we’ll play with the kid.”
Rey Beltran was there in camp working with Steward. Beltran was a featherweight back then, a few years ago he became world champion. Kenny also weighed around 126 so they sparred. Lennox Lewis dropped by to watch, surely curious about this white kid from Florida who came all the way to spar with a grown man.
Both boxers, man and boy were ready to spar. Steward was in the ring serving as a referee, probably expecting to pull Beltran off of Kenny before inflicting too much damage. But Kenny defied expectations and shocked the gym. Instructed by coach Mike to press the attack on Beltran, Kenny stepped forward like Joe Frazier and bulled the grown man to the ropes several times. Steward became so concerned for Beltran in that first round he began to bark out instructions to Beltran about how to thwart this raging bull of a kid. They were dead even, the kid was holding his own with the future world champion. Finally in the fourth round, Beltran hurt Blair with a body shot but Blair, after a second pause, kept on coming and fighting. He was forced to by this prodigy from Sarasota. When it was over, Steward intentionally reserved praise, to not let Kenny or any of us go crazy with our goals. But we knew what we saw. A phenomenon white kid who rose to the occasion beyond out expectations, inspired by the two Hall of Fame greats who came to watch him perform.
We decided to promote Kenny to the local media, a front page article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune and a news story on the local network news affiliate. A TV truck came to Mike’s home gym and interviewed both, showing video footage of training. The channel showed the news story all day and night and Kenny became famous in school. However some kids resented Kenny’s success and he learned a tough lesson that jealousy by other kids about success can be a detriment. Kids can be so cruel.
Not long after, Kenny would take on the local terror, a brute named Keith Thurman, who later of course became a world welterweight champion. Thurman was a beast at 14, he had been boxing already for seven years. He was destined for greatness under trainer Ben Getty. He was rumored to be several years older than 14 as his birth certificate was supposedly fudged with from Mexico, that was the story.
Kenny held his own vs Thurman in their tournament sanctioned bout in Orlando. Boxing just over a year, Kenny hung in there and lost the sparring session but took Thurman’s best shots. I remember Mike said, “Kenny did great. Thurman will be a world champion, no doubt, but in one year Kenny will be able to box better and he will beat Thurman, I have no doubt about it. Thurman has been boxing seven years and he’s much older than Kenny. Kenny hasn’t even been training for two years. In one year Kenny will be beating Thurman easily.”
Everything Mike predicted and said about Kenny came true and I knew he was right about Kenny being able to beat Thurman in a year. Kenny listened to everything Mike told him to do, he loved the training and thrived. The more success he achieved, the greater his desire became.
But troubles began to sprout. Mike discovered Kenny was using marijuana and heavily. His homelife was a mess to say the least, he needed an escape from reality. Drugs were the escape. Mike tried help get him off but failed. The parents were too weak to do anything about it. Mike had a plan to move to Miami and train Kenny there – he owned an apartment there – and would take over legal guardianship of Kenny. The parents agreed to it. They believed Mike would make Kenny a million dollar world champion. But Kenny didn’t want to go. His drug use got out of control. They ended up falling apart, Mike moved to Miami, Kenny stayed behind in Sarasota. One question I still wonder, did we burn him out? Was it too much too soon? Or was his homelife so dysfunctional that there were just too many demons to overcome to become a mainstream commercial success?
The fatal error was leaving the decision up to Kenny. There was no hope for Kenny staying at home. His only hope in life was to go to Miami and keep training in boxing. He would have become a major attraction and world champion.
Then things really spiraled out of control for the family. The older brother died. Then Kenny ended up shooting a gun and killing his father after midnight one night, mistaking him for a prowler, so the story went. Half of the family died in a span of two years. Tragic.
I don’t know what happened to Kenny, we lost contact. He gained weight, was working some different jobs and partying at music festivals with his friends. He worked, had a son. He never got back into boxing.
But what would have happened had Kenny managed to avoid drugs and stuck to boxing. And stayed on the path myself and coach Mike laid out for him?
Mike was never wrong about anything he said about Kenny’s future and potential. Kenny fulfilled all expectations and more. We had a plan, we had financial backing, Kenny just had to keep training and fighting and listening to Mike’s coaching. Kenny had what it takes to be a million dollar world champion superstar, but his path to greatness was devoured by drugs and family chaos.
The morale of the story is no matter how much talent and skill, one or two bad decisions can destroy the greatest potential.
Then a part of me wonders, if it was better to get out of the sport when he did. Boxing is so corrupt now, only certain fighters in America are installed into positions of stardom. As great as Kenny was at fighting, maybe the corrupt establishment would never give him his just due. The powers that be pick the stars they want. When in his prime, Keith Thurman never got his earned shot at the big time. Thurman would have destroyed Floyd Mayweather when he was ripe for the shot about seven years ago but Floyd refused to fight Thurman who languished and withered away after years of meaningless nothing fights from his manager Al Haymon. Thurman would have KOed Floyd and become a big star but boxing isn’t a real sport anymore, it’s a business. Money fighters in America are protected.
Maybe Kenny would have been screwed even worse than Thurman was. Maybe it all worked out for the best.