A Boxing Memory: Michael Dokes
“The past is history, the future isn’t here yet, and the present is linguine and clam sauce,” Michael Dokes said after he had demolished a pre-fight meal before his world heavyweight title fight with Riddick Bowe in 1993. Dokes would be the one who would be demolished come fight night. A fighter from another time who had run out of time and chances.
It was the final chance to reclaim the title he had held all too briefly eleven years previously. Dokes was 35 and only the wrong type of hunger remained. It was a gift opportunity, one he didn’t deserve. Dokes was there to lose, he read the script, showed up with little serious training behind him, and the overweight challenger didn’t see the end of the first-round. The crowd booed, they jeered, but what did they seriously expect.
Dokes was once a good fighter, a very good fighter. He was the one that was supposed to liven up a generation of heavyweights that boxing politics had sucked away all of their remaining ambition.
But Dokes didn’t have a chance to live up to the potential. The demons, the fast life, it was always going to end the way it did. In truth, Dokes did well to last as long as he did.
Born in 1958 in Akron, Ohio, Dokes was an excellent amateur, a 147-7 resume highlights the pedigree he had. Future world heavyweight champions Greg Page and John Tate were beaten, at the 1975 Pan American Games he lost narrowly to the great Cuban Teófilo Stevenson.
When he turned professional in 1976 Dokes was only 18, but the potential was obvious. In 1977 Dokes had a high-profile exhibition with Muhammad Ali. The great man clowned, but Dokes showed enough glimpses to offer hope of a golden future. ‘Dynamite’ had incredibly fast hands, he looked like a shining light that could have carried the heavyweight division once Ali had finally departed the scene.
Dokes climbed the professional ranks, too slowly for his liking, but in 1982 Dokes fought for and won the WBA heavyweight title with a first round TKO of Mike Weaver. It wasn’t a win without controversy, it looked like a highly debatable call by the referee Joey Curtis to stop the fight. There were cries of fix from the Weaver camp and premature stoppage doesn’t cover it. They fought again the following year, this time Dokes could only manage a draw. Again the narrative was he was extremely fortunate, Weaver believed he had won. Many agreed with him.
Dokes was already sliding into an abyss that would practically end his career, when he awoke from the fog and the abuse, the prime was gone. He said he trained on a diet of Jack Daniels and cocaine for his next defence against Gerrie Coetzee and was stopped in 10 rounds.
The South African was a big 5-1 outsider and after failing in two previous attempts at the world title he was given little chance on his third. Coetzee had a reported 15 operations on his ‘bionic’ right hand, but he took the fight with Dokes seriously, his opponent did anything but. It was voted the Ring Magazine’s Upset of the Year. But knowing the story, was it that big of an upset. Too many times the warnings get ignored.
The fall into oblivion was always coming, but the demise of Dokes was still spectacularly quick. A casual drug user since he was 15, it became a full-on obsession. Arrested multiple times for drug possession and trafficking, inevitable prison terms, the self-destruction mode deep and seemingly irretrievable. Trips to rehab did very little, treatment merely tickled not fixed. Dokes was at times beyond repair.
But Dokes eventually got clean, a miracle in itself, and focused more on the day job. The fights became regular rather than sporadic. After eight wins, Dokes got his big chance at redemption against Evander Holyfield in 1989. Holyfield had moved up to heavyweight after clearing out the cruiserweight division, this was his big test before the ultimate one against Mike Tyson. The demons of Tyson would eventually put that particular fight on ice for a number of years. But at the time Dokes was supposed to tell us if Holyfield was really the real deal at heavyweight.
Holyfield prevailed in 10 rounds, but only after Dokes gave him hell. It is a forgotten heavyweight classic. The patented heart of Holyfield was tested yet again, it came down to freshness and conditioning. Dokes had got himself in shape, but the years of abuse had taken their toll. It was the last sign of what could have been. Dokes was only 30, but his way of life had left him much older. In boxing, you don’t stay young for long. One prime, once it’s gone it’s gone forever.
Dokes kept going, Donovan Ruddock stopped him the following year, and that looked like the final act. The former world champion had lost what he had against Holyfield. He was heavier, the legal woes and drug use now again a thing of the present. Ruddock knocked Dokes out, it was bad and worrying. It was a sign for Dokes to do something else. A sign that was ignored.
The final years were spent in the wilderness until Riddick Bowe gave him an unlikely resurrection. A forgotten scandal. Boxing is hard to understand and justify at times.
Dokes carried on because there were people who let him carry on. With a name to make money off, morals and care for the welfare of the fighter were pushed to one side. It finally ended in 1997 after two successive defeats, in truth it had ended many years before. In the end, he was fighting from the past without memory, all hope and pride had long since gone.
The downward spiral didn’t stop, Dokes was arrested in Nevada in 1998 and sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted murder, second-degree kidnapping and intent to commit sexual assault against his girlfriend of nine years.
Dokes was released in 2008, with the money long gone, signing autographs and the odd public appearance earned him a pittance a far cry from that brief period when he was the heavyweight champion of the world.
The end came in 2012 when Dokes died from liver cancer at a hospice back home in Akron. He was 54.
Dokes was another sad statistic from that lost generation of heavyweights. All were talented, but every single one of them never made the most of that talent. The stories may vary, the end is the same.
After Dokes beat Weaver in 1982 he soaked himself in $20,000 worth of champagne. He thought it would always be like that. Very quickly he realised it wouldn’t be.