One Long Season In Hell: Michael Dokes 1958-2012

image: akron beacon journal

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How he always believed—what madness—
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”
Cavafy

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Once, during his prime, he would toss red roses to the women seated at ringside for his fights. But that was some other lifetime ago. Michael “Dynamite” Dokes was light years removed from those carefree days when he died of liver cancer at a hospice in Summit County, Ohio, on August 12. Dokes was 54 years old, a short-lived champion, and a charter member of “The Lost Generation” of 1980s heavyweights, a grim cast of characters marked by misfortune and tragedy.

For years, Dokes lived a life as bleak and as dark as a late Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, perhaps, or The Fates. Like all fighters, however, Dokes had simple dreams that would never come true. “There are many things that I would like to do in my life,” Dokes told Boxing Today in 1982. “I’m very interested in real estate and the stock market. I enjoy designing clothes. I have a whole life ahead of me. I plan on spending two or three years as the heavyweight champion of the world. After that, I can pass it on with dignity and continue living and growing as an individual.” Such small wants, and yet, they were impossible.

Michael Dokes was born on August 10, 1958, in Akron, Ohio. A gifted all-around athlete, Dokes played football and basketball and ran track. But what he really excelled at was boxing, and Akron followed his every move as a teenage prodigy. How talented was Dokes? As an amateur he won a National AAU title and a National Golden Gloves title. At 15, he was sassing Muhammad Ali. At 17, he had to settle for a silver medal at the Pan-Am Games when he lost a decision to Olympic legend Teofilio Stevenson. Even before he gloved up against Stevenson, Dokes had already been featured in Sports Illustrated. By the time he turned pro in 1976 (a second-round KO over Al Byrd in Hollywood, Florida), Dokes was considered a future star.

But it took six years for Dokes to land a title shot. “It seems like I’ve been fighting forever,” Dokes said in 1982. “I’m not impatient. I just know that I’m ready right now.” Lost among the disastrous heavyweight stable of promoter Don King, Dokes ran his record up to 25-0-1 but remained in limbo until he became the mandatory contender to a journeyman champion named Mike Weaver.

On December 10, 1982, Dokes scored a knockdown within thirty seconds of the opening bell and stopped Weaver in just over a minute to capture the WBA title in Las Vegas. But the biggest win of his career was overshadowed by the panicky actions of referee Joey Curtis, who stopped the fight before it ever really got started. After a scrum between corners—and with an enraged crowd at Caesars Palace chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit!” and “Don King sucks! Don King Sucks!”—Dokes left the ring without even being announced champion. Weaver insisted the whole affair was a fix, and the press sniffed out skullduggery in every possible corner. No matter. Dokes soaked himself in a bathtub full of champagne after his victory party, prefiguring the excess that would eventually ruin his career. Years later, Dokes would estimate that his bubbly bath had cost around $20,000.

There is no jet set as low-rent as the prizefight jet set and Dokes was soon off on one merrymaking junket after another, surrounded by the leeches that would eventually drain his blood and end up sucking at the marrow. “Once you get into that life and get that kind of money…” Dokes haltingly explained to The Akron Beacon Journal in 2010. “…last night we were talking about the people we were around—the toughest gangsters, the biggest entrepreneurs. It was probably more than we probably should have been biting on at the time, but I was just caught up in it.”

In boxing, the enemies of promise are numerous: entourages, managers, promoters, injuries, other fighters. But self-destruction ranks up there with the best of the worst, and Michael Dokes had a talent for dissipation second to none. Soon, Dokes began to look sluggish in the ring as well as outside of it. His downfall was reminiscent of how Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises described going bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.”

As partial heavyweight champion (alongside the far more established Larry Holmes), Dokes had an undistinguished title reign even by the low standards of the “Greed is Good” decade. And Dokes began to realize it as much as anybody. “I had attained the most coveted prize in boxing, yet I still was not happy,” he told Wallace Matthews in 1989. “I thought everything would be great, but there was nothing but dissension and jealousy in my own camp. I was so let down, so hurt. At that point, I said, ‘I’ll fix everybody.’ I started to escape by the use of drugs. Before I knew it, it became the number one priority in my life.”

A rematch against Weaver ended in a draw, and on September 23, 1983, Dokes was flattened before a sparse hometown crowd in Richfield, Ohio, by Gerrie Coetzee. Dokes never had a chance. He entered the ring at the Richfield Coliseum cross-eyed on cocaine. Coetzee, whose brittle right hand had undergone surgery more than a dozen times, made his limitations count against a zombified Dokes, scoring a KO in the 10th round. With “Dynamite” still out of sorts on the canvas, Don King ducked through the ropes, stepped over a woozy Dokes, and led the congratulatory charge for the new champion, the first white heavyweight titleholder since the days of Ingemar Johansson. Even in his fifties, Don King was a spry, spry man.

And just how did King—ex-numbers runner, showman extraordinaire, two-time murderer, and master of the malapropism-affect Dokes? In the early 1980s, the electro-haired promoter had a virtual lock on the heavyweight division as well, it seems, as the souls of the men whose careers he moved at whim on a sinister chessboard of his own design. “Don King hurt me,” Dokes once confided to Jack Newfield. “One time I went to Cleveland to ask Don for some money when I was in a jam with the IRS. He said he didn’t have any money and I started to cry. I loved that man. I looked up to him like he was my daddy. I even tried to comb my hair so I could look like him. And he had this big mansion, and millions of dollars, and he wouldn’t help me out just a little. I became suicidal, close to a nervous breakdown. And I was still doing drugs all the time.”

But Dokes was not the only heavyweight who found himself drawn and trapped by a master manipulator whose business sense had been honed by a lifetime of hustling. With the exception of Larry Holmes, no one got away from the dark side King seemed to represent. From Dokes to Trevor Berbick to Pinklon Thomas to Tony Tubbs to Jeff Sims to James “Bonecrusher” Smith to Tim Witherspoon to Greg Page to James Broad to Mike Tyson—all of them sent spiraling into drugs or prison or murder or obesity or injury or privation. Like some sort of creepy fairy tale, King even imprisoned his fighters on a compound in Ohio. “Oh, man, did I hate that training camp,” former two-time heavyweight titleholder Tim Witherspoon told Jack Newfield. “Being there was like being back in the ghetto. The mentality put most of the fighters back into a not caring situation. The fighters didn’t have money. There wasn’t a hundred dollars between us. We knew Don was charging us for staying there. The morale was real low. There was drugs floating all around the camp. It was just like being back in Philly….That camp messed us all up. That’s where we became the lost generation of heavyweights, that’s what I call us.”

This is how Richard Hoffer once described the 1980s heavyweight scene as controlled by Don King: “Such a monopoly, and that’s what it was, guaranteed him the most important title in boxing, no matter who won or lost. There was little anxiety on his part, watching one King fighter batter another. Who really cared who won or lost? Sadly, as it turned out, not even his stable of fighters cared very much; as a group they had become so demoralized over their enslavement that defeat, and the possibility of freedom, had actually become cause for celebration in some cases.”

But losing to Coetzee sent Dokes headlong into oblivion. From 1984 to late 1987, Dokes spent more time in prison, rehab centers, and on police blotters than in the ring. Dokes swapped abbreviations like NABF and WBA for SWAT and AA. Cocaine was his lodestar. Alcohol, women, parties, and marijuana also guided Dokes through a permanent American midnight. He used so much dope that he was once charged with trafficking.

In 1987, a SWAT team crashed his Las Vegas home expecting to find a kingpin like Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes inside and an arsenal to match. Instead, they found Dokes, a one-man-gang of personal use. “I just poured it out until I thought it was enough,” Dokes told Wallace Matthews. “If you could picture buying a bag of flour, putting a piece of paper on the floor, and just pouring it out until you had what you thought was enough, that’s what I did. I didn’t scale it out, I didn’t measure it out or nothing. I just started pouring.” It was one of several misunderstandings Dokes would have with the law during the mid-1980s, before his comeback, before his last pathetic shot at the heavyweight title, before he almost beat his girlfriend to death and paid for it by spending nearly a decade behind bars.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives,” and boxing tries its damnedest to make sure that sentiment is true 95 percent of the time. Incredibly, Michael Dokes almost made the five percent bracket when his comeback, begun in late 1987 after a 47-day stretch in the Clark County Detention Center, led to a high-profile fight with Evander Holyfield in 1989. Holyfield, undefeated and only eighteen months from winning the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, was all that stood in the way of Dokes and the kind of redemption all too rare in boxing.

On March 11, 1989, Holyfield and Dokes savaged each other in a minor classic at Caesars Palace. In preparing for his biggest challenge in years, Dokes had flayed his war-torn body to its absolute peak for one last chance at an honest future. Once a nimble dancer in the ring, Dokes had lost his legs by the time he faced Holyfield, but he still had his hand speed, those blistering combinations, and a raging desire to win. “I was willing to put out whatever it took to overcome,” Dokes said after the fight. “It was disheartening to see it slip away from me.”

It was the best performance of his career, but Dokes was simply not fresh enough to beat Holyfield. Although only four years separated them, it might as well have been a generation for Dokes, who was 30 at the time, but had long ago yielded his natural gifts to the night.

“There were moments during their heavyweight bout last Saturday night in Las Vegas when Evander Holyfield and Michael Dokes looked like two men trying to knock down mountains,” wrote Pat Putnam for Sports Illustrated. Dokes ripped shots to the body, doubled his left hook, and forced Holyfield to trade in close. But Holyfield responded with just as much fury and Dokes seemed to be slowing down with each passing second of barbarism under the lights. Holyfield fought through so much pain, he later admitted, that he had begun to doubt his calling as an athlete mid-fight. Dokes finally succumbed to superior firepower in the 10th round, his dream now as limp as his rag doll body in the ring. It took nearly 10 minutes for Dokes to rise from his stool.

A little over a year later, Dokes was flattened—as still as winterkill—in the fourth round by a left-hooking powerpuncher named Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. It was not a fight for which Dokes was prepared. Not only was Dokes 19 pounds heavier than he had been against Evander Holyfield, but he had also been arrested for possession only a few months before he was to answer the bell against the dangerous Ruddock. Doctors stormed the ring before referee Arthur Mercante, Jr., could finish his gratuitous count. Dokes remained on the canvas, unconscious, for something close to forever. “Maybe it’s time to consider doing something else for a living,” Dokes later said in his locker room. It had taken him an hour to regroup and face the press. Although he recovered and kept fighting—going through the motions against stumblebums for what amounted to pocket change—Dokes was finished as a contender.

Incredibly, after nearly three more years, Dokes somehow managed to qualify for a title fight—his first since 1983. How the New York State Athletic Commission allowed Dokes to face undefeated Riddick Bowe in such a ghastly mismatch remains a mystery even now, almost two decades later. On February 6, 1993, Bowe trampled a burnt-out Dokes in less than a round before a crowd of over 16,000 at Madison Square Garden. No longer the prodigy of the late 1970s, no longer even the wilted but dedicated pug who pushed Evander Holyfield to the brink in 1989, Dokes looked tired, faded, gray. Dokes had as much business being in the ring that night as Charles Oakley or John Starks, and his baffling training methods inspired the rare snarky headline from The New York Times: “The Dokes Diet Program: Eat, Eat, Eat.” There was nothing left of him as a fighter that night. Maybe there was nothing left of him as a man.

With his $750,000 paycheck, Dokes invested in a restaurant, and bought a few race horses and watched them charge from the gate down in Florida. But he soon became restless and returned to Las Vegas to renew his “Sunglasses at Night” routine. In 1998 Dokes brutally assaulted his girlfriend, and in early 2000 he pleaded guilty to attempted murder, second-degree kidnapping, and battery with intent to commit sexual assault. No longer the high roller with an entourage, Dokes was appointed a public defender and was given a 10-year sentence.

When he was released from prison in 2008, Dokes settled in Sin City once again, making a living of sorts by signing autographs and making appearances, but he returned to Akron in 2010, back to where he first put on gloves as a 12-year old boy at the Firestone YMCA. Michael Dokes, who fought from 1976 to 1997, finished his career with a record of 53-6-2, with 34 knockouts.

The flamboyant personality of 30 years ago has long been forgotten. The man who tossed red roses at the crowd before his fights, the man who cooked like a gourmet chef, the man who designed and sewed his own clothes—none of that seems relevant now. But for the fighter who once told KO Magazine, “I found out once you get past the clouds, you don’t see no angels,” it may be best, after all, to remember him for these few quirks and to forget the squandered promise, his heinous crime, that one long season in hell.

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Topics: Don King, Evander Holyfield, Heavyweight Champions, Michael Dokes, Mike Weaver, Razor Ruddock

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  • Ben

    A grimly compelling read, sir. I’d previously heard of Dokes and seen the Holyfield bout but didn’t know a great deal of the story behind it all. Depressingly familiar.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi Ben,

      thanks for writing. Yes, Dokes led a pretty grim life, although I have read that he was a funny, gregarious, and giving man when he was “straight.” It was a hard life and a hard career, but he did manage to win a sliver of the title, and the Holyfield fight will live on for those who saw it.

  • DrRck

    Here’s what I said about this piece on BLH; I wasn’t sure you’d see it:

    “A compelling story, so well-written that it makes me ill to think of how close to the edge we can teeter.I remember Dokes, and the pythonesque squeeze King had on the heavyweights. That squeeze was so strong that the media and fans seemed paralyzed into some sense that it was inevitable, and so why bother to even complain? Most of us just hoped that someday, it would all become better, just like that, once the wheel had turned a bit more.”
    To continue, I’m not a fighter, but I’ve been close to that edge as a result of other factors, and maybe that’s why I find it so frighteningly immediate.
    That is, besides your writing.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi DrRck,

      Thanks for writing and for the kind words. The King heavyweight era was certainly bizarre and something that only Mike Tyson managed to break when he came onto the scene. And then–presto!–Tyson was taken in by King as well! King was poison to ghetto fighters and he had a cult-like effect on many of them because he represented everything they dreamed of while growing up poor. When not ripping them off, King manipulated them so that some of them eventually began to suffer some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. It was all just so sad and disturbing.

  • http://thelivingdaylights.co/ Andrew Fruman

    Hi CA,

    This was a really fine piece. I’ve read a lot about Dokes over the past week, and I think you captured his story perfectly. He was such a talent, with the personality to be a real star, and it’s a shame things couldn’t have played out differently for him.

    That last quote… “I found out once you get past the clouds, you don’t see no angels.” I don’t think I’ll be able to get that out of my head.

    • thenonpareil

      Hi AF,

      thank you kindly. Dokes did have a lot of talent–natural athletic talent, as well–and a skillset that has virtually disappeared from heavyweights over the last 10-15 years. He certainly had some of the fastest hands I’ve seen on a heavyweight in the last 30 years. The three-punch combo he floored Weaver with in the first fight was delivered in the proverbial blink of an eye.

      Also, I agree, re: personality. Dokes was a great interview, a fashionista, a gourmet cook, and he was always ready with a quip. Also, at least before the drugs really kicked in, he was looking to knock people out at times. He tried to blitz Weaver twice early, for example, and wiped out Ossie Ocasio in the first round (although some have questioned Ocasio’s effort that night). I don’t think he could have beaten Holmes, but he could have carved out a nice career for himself as co-champion. Too bad it never happened.

  • Jimmy Tobin

    Hi CA,
    This was excellent. A pleasure to read, and wonderfully informative.
    Just yesterday I read the section of “The Black Lights” where Lewis filed a lawsuit against King, leading to King submitting an affidavit detailing his stranglehold on the WBC heavyweight rankings. Seems Dokes was one of the fighters that got stuck with Carl King as well, and extricating himself from the virulent Don was damn near impossible.
    The paragraph on King’s training camp was especially interesting. At a glance, a promoter providing a training complex for his fighters doesn’t seem like a bad thing. When I first read about King’s camp I didn’t know how to envision it. I do now. It wasn’t designed to give his table a competitive edge. His monopoly of the heavyweight rankings meant he didn’t care who won or lost – he always got paid, always maintained control. Promoters may be greedy pigs, but at least they usually want their fighter to win, producing a modicum of care and advocacy for their guy. King didn’t even have that when playing in-house. He might as well have kept those guys in a pit in his basement (and probably would have if he could have gotten away with it.)
    The fluorescent excess of the 80′s is something I remember as a kid (and mostly as a kid would). Do you think that decade, with the “Greed is Good” mentality you reference was particularly perilous for fighters? Sure, you can count the happy endings in boxing on one hand, but maybe the 80′s, with the drugs, exponential advancements in luxury, and the encouraged excess, was a unique force multiplier for a fighter’s self-destructive tendencies?

    • thenonpareil

      Hi JT,

      thanks much, buddy. King was truly a boxing Mephistopheles in the 1980s. He billed his fighters daily for the training camp, and once, he billed Witherspoon $1,000 a day to be there! To me it sounded like a way to create a sense of dependency in his fighters and to reinforce negative behavior that would keep them constantly needing money from King. What King did in the 80s went far, far beyond money or boxing or “the business.” There was some deep, pathological need for him to dominate, manipulate, and “get over” on fighters. The hustler is always trying to pull one over–it’s an intrinsic personality trait–and King operated exactly as Witherspoon once described him: “Don’s problem is that he would rather put a dishonest quarter into his pocket than an honest dollar.”

      What happened in the 80s was caused by television. People don’t understand how dormant boxing was from about 1964 to about 1977. Other than Ali and the heavyweights (and Emile Griffith, perhaps), U.S. boxing was at its nadir. Chicanos kept boxing alive in California during that time, but things were pretty slim across the country other than that. When TV realized boxing was a big deal due to the Olympics, it opened up new cash territory that hadn’t been seen since the late 40s and early 1950s. During strike seasons for football and baseball, the networks aired well over 100 cards each year. Think about it: that’s over 100 big-time cards compared to the 25-30 each year shown on HBO, SHO, and PPV.

      With no Muhammad Ali Act, King and Arum went to work in brutal hand-to-hand television combat for the right to as many of those dates as they could get. There was no regulation and cutthroat business practices were the norm. King was far worse than Arum during that time, but both men were on a scorched earth policy. It’s like the fall of communism and how so many scrambled trying to take advantage of the sudden windfall of “capitalism” in Eastern Europe and Soviet Bloc countries: it was pretty ugly.
      And the fighters, too, suffered–as well as prospered–from this sudden shift in economic fortune.

  • Lindy Lindell

    Really outdid yourself with this piece, Carlos. Dokes really brought to life with your selective quotes and the depiction of the Orwell (surprised that you didn’t jump all over the literary allusion) camp was made tangible with the aura you ascribe to it. A trainer, Hubert Canady, told me of a fighter who would lay on his bunk at the camp, handgun on his chest, to indicate that he shouldn’t be messed with. The next time I see Dwight Davison, I’ll ask him some more pointed questions about how life was there “in camp.” Lindy Lindell

    • thenonpareil

      Hi Lindy,

      Thanks and welcome to my nightmare. There was/is a lot of grim and colorful material to work with concerning Dokes, so it was just a matter of not being overwhelmed by the quantity.

      Good God, Hubert Canady makes the King compound sound even worse than it was depicted in Jack Newfield’s book! I’d like to hazard a guess at who it was that relaxed with a handgun. I’m going to go with Bernard Benton or Trevor Berbick, who, of course, was flat-out insane.

      Let me know what Dwight Davision has to say; that would be interesting. You know, you could interview him for The Cruelest Sport’s sister site, The Living Daylights! Big money in that for you, LL.

  • nealo

    Carlos
    Another excellent piece that really captures the sheer waste of a whole generation of talented heavyweights of which Dokes was a prime example. I have recently been watching some of Dokes’s fights and if he could have kept his focus and avoided Don King!,he really should have had a stellar career. His bout with Holyfield showed a level of skill and intensity that you just do not see these days amongst the heavyweights. In that fight with Holyfield, I think Dokes weighed in the region of 225 and yet after that he was up in the 240′s and for the final fights of his career he was weighing 280. All very sad. A real talent wasted as were so many in that era. The common denominator in the sad decline of so many of the 1980′s heavyweights seems to be Don King. I am sure that they all had their own demons but signing with him generally heralded the end of a promising the career whether it was financial mismangement or lack of opportunity. It always surprises me that so many heavyweights of that era where taken in by what must have been extremely persuasive talk. I am sure I read in the papers over here that for fighting Frank Bruno, Tim Witherspoon was receiving a million dollar purse but after Mr King had calculated his deductions, Tim Witherspoon was left with 93000 dollars at best. Talking of that other participant of that excellent bout with Dokes, Evander Holyfield, he has recently been in the UK. He attended the Olympic boxing and then has been touring the country as part of an anti Gang initiative called ‘Gloves not Gangs’. He walked into a local gym with a ‘reformed’ gangster to show kids there is another way. It is very sad to read about his financial difficulties and so see him continue in his quest for a sixth heavyweight title when his best days are long gone. There does seem to be a shortage of happy endings in boxing.