CEDAR RAPIDS — The former heavyweight boxing champion of the world — “Two-time,” Riddick Bowe reminds you immediately — is in a classroom here with about 75 other aspiring truck-drivers.
These are people from all over the country who are starting or changing careers, trying to move toward something, or maybe away from something else.
“But I got ‘em beat on one thing,” Bowe said. “They’re not as pretty as I am.”
He gets the laugh he sought, and with a big grin, relaxes and talks about why someone who made tens of millions of dollars and performed in Madison Square Garden and Caesars Palace is trying to earn a license to drive a big rig as a 46-year-old.
“I was watching a program on television and I saw (former NBA star) Karl Malone,” Bowe said. Malone owned a trucking company for a few years in the 1990s. “I said ‘Wow, that’s a way I can get out of the house.’ Because all the years I’ve been retired, I’ve been in the house. So I said ‘Why not me?’
“I love driving. It just makes me relaxed. All my worries go away.
"I like a truck because it’s big like I am, and I think I’ll have a lot of fun working with it. … I always considered myself to be a regular person, so now I’m doing what regular people do.”
Bowe’s wife, Terri, did some researching and chose Cedar Rapids-based national truckload carrier CRST as the company to train her husband. He left his Fort Washington, Md., home several days ago, and rode in a commercial bus for 24 hours to get to Cedar Rapids.
“He has permit training, which is like a 3-day seminar to help with the written portion of the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License),” said CRST vice president Carl Hadley. “Then we’ll take him over to our school at NATDA (North American Truck Driving Academy) and see how his skills and put him through whatever training he may need. He may need the full two-week school.”
“I have a bus that’s 40 feet long,” Bowe said. “When I was in training camp, I was scared to fly, so I used the bus.”
It’s been 17 years since Bowe retired as champion. That was three brief un-retirements ago.
It’s been nine years since he finished 17 months in a Maryland federal prison for kidnapping his then-estranged and now former wife, Judy Bowe, and their five children in 1998 from her North Carolina home and tried to drive them to his Maryland home. He was stopped and arrested in Virginia.
That was nine years ago, and Bowe has been part of civilian life ever since. In a conversation here last Thursday, he was friendly, easygoing, talkative, often joking.
He offered a reporter a sip from the can of Vanilla Coke he was drinking during an interview. After the interview, he put up his hands and asked the reporter if he wanted to box a couple of rounds with him. The reporter was relieved when Bowe told him he was kidding.
The last professional boxing Bowe did was a fight a year in 2004, 2005 and 2008 against highly unaccomplished foes. One of them has endured 41 career knockouts.
A few years ago, Bowe worked as an instructor in a chain of health clubs in the Washington, D.C. area. He made promotional appearances this summer in England and Texas. In June, he competed in a Muy Thai fight in Thailand.
Muy thai is a martial art that allows the use of fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet, Bowe, weighing over 300 pounds now, never landed a blow, and lost by TKO in the second round.
But mostly, he said, he hasn’t been doing anything.
“I’m just finding a new career,” he said. “I’ve been sitting around the house for 20 years. I’m sick of it. So I figured why not do it this way (driving a truck)? I ain’t got nothing else to do
“First I’ll get my CDL and work for these guys for a while. Hopefully, eventually I’ll have a Big Daddy’s Trucking Company.”
“Big Daddy” Riddick Bowe. In 1992 he defeated Evander Holyfield by unanimous decision to become the undisputed world-champion. Recently, ESPN.com ranked that fight one of the 10 best of the last 30 years. It was packed with action, skill and drama.
Holyfield won the 1993 rematch by majority decision. The 1995 rubber match went to Bowe on an eighth-round knockout. A year later, he retired as the World Boxing Organization champion.
“Riddick was a legitimate heavyweight champion, not just a belt holder,” boxing journalist/author Thomas Hauser said via email Thursday. “But there came a time (too early, unfortunately) when he was unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be a great fighter.”
(Here is a video of the first Bowe-Holyfield fight, in 1992:)
Bowe’s speech is slurred. He had 44 professional fights, winning all but the second one against Holyfield. But his mind isn’t dull. He enjoys conversational give-and-take in conversation. He has taken a liking to Twitter (@riddickbowe), and has expressed disappointment he doesn’t have more followers there.
“I love talking to the people,” he said. “You’ve seen how many tweets I do. I love the people.”
He has tweeted to Holyfield. “Yeah, he responds. He’s just a funny guy. He’s not outgoing. He don’t say much. Most champions I reach out to, they respond.
But Bowe said he and his greatest rival are on good terms.
“Absolutely. We’ve come to realize it’s just a business and not personal. Holyfield was like a Timex. He took a licking and kept on ticking. … I hope he’s OK.”
Holyfield fought all the way up to last October, as he was about to turn 50. Once, he was as esteemed as any active fighter. But he ended up with 57 pro fights, and lost 10 times. Boxers seldom seem to fully walk away from the sport, nor do they seem to walk off with much of the money they made.
Bowe had 26 cars at one point in his life including a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley. Now he wants to drive a truck. And he sounds happy with that.
“When you live,” he said, “you’ve got to expect things to change. I’m not in the ring anymore. I’ve already seen the world two or three times, so now I’m going to do it on the road instead of the air.”
Fame, he claims, “never motivated me. I think that’s where I’m different. I’m not trying to find the same rush. I’m not trying to find the things I used to do. Been there, done that. That’s why I’m here, because I want to do something totally different.”
Yet, perhaps every waking hour, Bowe is reminded of who he is and who he was.
“That’s an understatement,” he said. “All day long it’s ‘Hey, champ, let me talk with you.’ ‘Hey, man, let me take a picture.’ Actually, I kind of enjoy it. I never turn anyone down. It’s a great feeling.”
“I’ve been here five years and haven’t seen anybody come through here with his notoriety,” Hadley said. “People know who he is. He’s a pretty large subject. A very nice guy.”
Bowe spotted a U.S. map as he walked down a CRST hallway, and pointed to Idaho, misidentifying it as Iowa. But he spoke warmly about Cedar Rapids.
“Everybody’s treated me real good,” he said. “Sometimes you go places and you have this crowd, this crowd, and that crowd. Every section treats you different. But since I’ve been here everybody’s been real good to me. It’s been great.
“I guess if I didn’t have New York to live in or Maryland, I guess it would be here in Cedar Rapids. This would be my home, man.”
What Bowe kept coming back to in an interview was the fact he graduated from Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School. He has a graduation photo of himself on his cellphone.
“I truly feel like I’ve gone back 28 years. I feel like I’m in high school again.
“You know, I’m doing pretty good for myself. But I never thought I’d be back in a setting to where I had a teacher tell me something. I guess that goes to show you in life you’ve got to expect the unexpected.
“I know Holyfield finished. Bonecrusher Smith, myself, and I don’t know who else finished. Oh, Ali finished. Out of a million champions, I know four finished that I can think of.
“A lot of people don’t know I graduated. I don’t know why. Maybe because I talk too much. Maybe they think I’m punchy.”
Now Bowe wants to be a trucker. He could be a butcher or a baker, but he’ll always be a boxer in the public’s mind, and his own.
“The other day,” Bowe said, “I was running from one building to the other here. I thought about making a comeback. It’s little things that trigger certain things. Maybe I better stop running.”
He saw something about kickboxing on television, and said his reaction was “Maybe I’ll do that. That’s how that (Muay Thai bout) came about.”
He saw something about trucking on television, and now he’s trying to do that.
“Maybe I better stop watching TV,” he joked.