The hollow murmur of a half-empty arena. A sleepy crowd wishing for something to stir it alive.
So far, this warm September night has been full of unknown fighters in unmoving fights. For the smattering of ticket holders, buyer's remorse is about to set in. Then, with no warning, the arena spins into a spectacle, a carnival of the odd and oddly gifted.
From the tunnel emerges Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell in a striped sweater, her expression telegraphing a simple message: My scheduler is so fired. The crowd adores the look and boos the mayor with great urgency.
Next comes Don King. The famed boxing promoter wears his signature afro, waves his signature American flags, and enjoys his signature welcome: a chorus of applause fit for a Kennedy.
The glass mayor and the farcical sports icon, ringside at the Q. A caricaturist's dreamland.
Then the announcer: "Representing his hometown . . ." The crowd rises, necks craning to see the new act. They've heard about this guy, a Cleveland guy who's built like a redwood and moves like a grizzly. They know -- some of them, at least -- of his dope-selling and street-fighting past, a life he is said to bring with him to the ring.
His name is Ray "The Rainman" Austin, and he is fighting in the night's penultimate bout. Another fighter has dropped out, so the Rainman is taking on one of King's heavyweights, a Jamaican named Owen "What the Heck" Beck.
Beck is 29 years old, 24-1 with 18 knockouts. Austin is five years older, but barely more experienced -- 22-3-3 with 15 knockouts. If he can pull off an upset, Austin will jump to No. 2 in the International Boxing Federation rankings and pick up two little-known championship belts. More important, a win could put Austin a couple of fights away from a shot at one of the heavyweight division's handful of recognizable names, like John Ruiz or Chris Byrd or Wladimir Klitschko.
It also would put him one step closer to his first major payday -- six figures, maybe even seven -- way more than the 20 grand he'll see for tonight's head-pounding. The heavyweight division is so weak that, despite Austin's age, inexperience, and lack of refinement in the ring, he could soon be fighting for a heavyweight title.
He slips off his slick robe, revealing a square, beefy trunk and long, ready legs. On his round face, he wears the certain look of a man on the verge of plotted violence. The crowd settles into seats, praying for blood. As Austin stalks the ring, he remembers the lessons learned from 28 previous fights.
Set up your punches.
Deeper down, he's praying for blood too.
The bell rings, and Austin reaches from the seats, throwing hooks and haymakers with the precision of a kindergarten Christmas play. And they're landing! They're pushing Jamaica against the ropes, making Jamaica wobbly. The crowd is up.
"He's a bear!" someone bellows. Then: "Ray's tryin' to hit him with a Shaw Avenue sucka punch!"
Between rounds, it's more Be patient and Calm down, followed by more grizzly swiping at Jamaica's face. They move slower and slower with each punch. The ref can't peel them apart. They are newlyweds, Siamese twins, bound together by exhaustion. By round 12, they look as if they might fall asleep right there in the ring, pressed together like tired lovers.
The bell rings again. It's over. The arena's hollow murmur is forced out by chants of "Let's go, Ray!" The crowd waits for the judges' decision. It's split.
Judge One's card goes to Austin. Judge Two's to Jamaica.
The mayor and the promoter climb into the ring, ready for their photo op. The fans want in too; they're pushing toward the ring to get a glimpse of the victorious Clevelander.
And Austin? He's just yelling, over and over, to no one in particular, "Gimme that belt! Gimme my damn belt!"
The story begins, as it always does, far away from any ring, without gloves or referees, on a tired street in a tired corner of the city.
It was probably 1978, although no one can remember for sure. On a weekday afternoon, Robert Bolden parked his car in front of his ex-wife's duplex on Lamontier Avenue, near East 93rd Street. He was there to see his son. A few years before, they had moved back to Cleveland from Detroit. The boy had decided he wanted to live with Mom. Dad was relegated to visitor.
Bolden pulled his burly frame -- six foot seven, 225 pounds -- from his car and started up the driveway. A commotion caught his eye. A boy was darting toward him, his feet barely touching ground. Two more boys motored not far behind.
Robert Bolden's son was about to get his ass kicked.
Ray Austin didn't even see his own dad, he was going so fast. His father scooped the boy up and turned to the pursuers. "You can fight him one at a time," he told them. "But you can't just both jump on him."
Bolden had come up boxing on the streets of Cleveland and, occasionally, in gyms. His brother Bo was a successful amateur and even fought briefly as a pro. Fighting was just something they did. "For survival," the brothers say now, but you get the feeling it was just as much for laughs.
His ex-wife safely inside -- this was not the sort of thing she would condone -- Bolden cheered on his son as he rolled in the grass, trading blows with Boy One until they couldn't go any longer. Then came Boy Two.
"He fought both of 'em, one at a time," recalls Bolden, 61, with a wide grin. "And he was so tired! But he held his own."
In the years that followed, Austin started showing up at the Glenville gym where his uncle boxed, to take in the sweet science, to soak up punching as sport. As he grew from boy to bear, eventually acquiring his father's beefy frame, Austin used on the streets what he learned at the gym.
Bolden remembers the time Austin knocked out a couple of guys over on Eddy Road. "He'd come home with broken hands," Dad says. "But as far as being all bruised up and all that? No. Never."
There was also the time he started swinging at a guy on a city bus. The bus driver kicked them off, Austin recalls. So he beat the kid up some more on the street.
"Ray was a warrior," says Kabir Muhammad, a childhood friend. "He was a loyal dude too. You could turn your head and never worry about getting stabbed."
In this sport, Austin's checkered youth is the sort you celebrate. To sell the Austin-Beck fight to pay-per-viewers, Showtime bragged about Austin's "countless street fights." They also talked up his "most memorable fight," when he was 16. Austin can't remember for sure -- "It's been so many of 'em" -- but it might have been that one that got him kicked out of Shaw High his sophomore year.
"I had jumped on somebody inside the school," he recalls, "then jumped on him in the parking lot. Then the next day, I jumped on somebody else. They was like, 'Shit, we gotta get rid of this kid.'"
After they booted him from Shaw, Austin started showing up at the West Side gym of Bob Giachetti, who years earlier had helped his brother Richie train Larry Holmes to the heavyweight championship. Austin had barely been in a ring, but he knew how to fight, recalls Giachetti, a chatty, potbellied man. Austin was a heavy hitter and a quick learner, dedicated as hell. He had to wait for the other fighters to finish before Giachetti would give him time. But Austin always stuck around.
For two years, he kept coming back. He even won a couple of fights as an amateur, knocking guys out with his heavy right. "He was such a talented fighter," Giachetti says. But it worried Giachetti the way Austin would disappear for days at a time. Giachetti had a son too, a son who'd seen his own share of trouble. The trainer feared that one day, Austin would stop showing up altogether.
Eventually, he did.
A few weeks after the Beck fight, Austin arrives at the Chicago Deli, near the Hough Avenue gym where he works out. He's in sweats -- always sweats -- shiny Adidas trainers, and a gray knit cap, which is pulled low over his closely cropped hair.
This is where he likes to talk about himself, sprawled on a bench in a busy restaurant. There should be a turkey Reuben -- possibly his second of the day -- and a glass of cranberry juice in front of him. If he's not working out, Austin is usually eating. "I'll be saying to myself, 'Okay, this is the last one,'" he says, his baritone chuckle filling the deli. "Next thing I know, it's 9 o'clock and I'm still chewin'." He's been ogling the cheesecake in the deli's dessert display since he arrived. "That's a bad boy."
Austin doesn't remember much about those countless street fights, or maybe he doesn't feel like talking about them. He has an odd tendency to shut down when the subject is easy and pipe up when things should turn uncomfortable. If he could afford a PR flack, the guy'd probably quit within a week.
It's not that he doesn't like selling himself. Before the Beck fight, when a reporter asked Austin which heavyweight he fights like, he said: "Ray Austin. Rainman." In an interview last year, he was asked who his favorite fighter was. His one-word answer: "Me."
But his boxer's bravado doesn't come with the standard-issue off switch. When the pro-athlete handbook suggests that Austin start ducking and diving, that's when the stories pour from him freely.
He talks openly of his weakness for women, which has resulted in five children with three different women. It's a trait he inherited from his father, who is on his third marriage.
"I'm telling you," Dad brags of his own womanizing days, "I was something else." In the family room of his small brick home in Euclid, Bolden has a wall devoted to photos of his son and his girlfriends.
Austin lives in Shaker Heights with his current girlfriend, their two-year-old son, and a teenage son from his first marriage. With no provocation, Austin talks about his rocky relationship with his oldest son, who until recently lived with his grandmother. "I was kind of insulted," Austin says, his usual crooked smile gone. He got his son back recently, and now he's trying to keep the boy from inheriting his forefathers' vice. "You don't want to fall in love and try to pay some bills off some love," he tells him. "You can't eat off love."
Austin seems at peace with his family life. He even boasts at length about his youngest son's prodigious response to potty-training. But he doesn't plan on settling in Cleveland. "When the money gets bigger and better," he says, "I'm gone."
Most athletes would sing a few bars of Cleveland-will-always-be-home when asked about their future. Not Austin. He is candid about his lack of loyalty, which doesn't stop at his hometown.
When Austin was a teenager, say boxer Mike Long and his father, they used to pick Austin up and drive him to the gym. Long's dad remembers Austin as many people do -- a polite, respectful young man who always called him "Mr. Long."
But Austin dismisses the tale. "White Mike?" he asks when reminded of the Longs. "I had a car since I was 16. His dad never drove me anywhere . . . He probably just wants something. I wouldn't even remember his dad if I saw him."
Austin seems to trust no one, which might be why he doesn't have many friends. "I don't know nobody I could call his friend," Bolden says of his son.
Says Austin: "I ain't had a friend since junior high."
That's not to say people don't consider themselves close to Austin. He's had the same trainer since he turned pro in 1998. Romeo Connors is a gentle-voiced man who drives a tow truck during the day and coaches fighters at night. He's not a big-time trainer, but Austin has yet to prove that he's a big-time fighter. He's risen to the high-rent district of three boxing rankings, yet most who follow the sport don't place him among the world's top fighters. Only Austin and those close to him -- people like Connors -- believe he's a legitimate title contender.
"We've got the Browns, we've got the Cavs, and we've got Ray Austin." That's what Connors likes to say.
But the devotion doesn't cut both ways. When asked about Connors, Austin scrunches his face into a wrinkly mess. "We ain't gonna see him in the future," he says. "Rom' gettin' a lot of props off what I'm doin' . . . To take me to that next level, I'm gonna need someone with that experience under his belt."
Then, in case he isn't being perfectly clear, he uses the Beck fight to illustrate his point: "When he was talking to me, I wasn't even paying attention."
He isn't supposed to speak like this. He's a professional athlete, one whose job is to have clichés at the ready. But he rolls on easily, openly, even when the subject turns to, say, that time he spent in prison.
"That," Austin says, "was a goddamn nightmare."
A traditional career was never in Austin's future. As a boy, he would ride his bike down to the construction sites on Woodhill or Euclid to watch his father pour cement. Sometimes, afterward, he would head to his dad's house and watch him sink carefully into the couch. The discs in Bolden's back were so wrecked from pouring concrete that 20 years later he still walks gingerly. Bolden would be lucky if he could get into a bathtub, let alone shadowbox or horseplay with his son.
His father's example became Austin's notion of grown-up work. He wasn't interested.
He had the punching power to fight professionally, and he was learning to fight from watching the boxers at Giachetti's place. But by 17, Austin was already married, with his first child. He needed money. He had seen the kids his age with nice things and wondered, "How the hell you got that nice truck with those rims?" He soon learned the answer and found a vocation: selling crack.
He built a steady roster of clients and a rap sheet to go with it. At 18, he earned his first arrest, when police caught him with a stolen car. That got him almost a year in state prison.
When Austin was 19, the cops found him on East 102nd Street with three one-ounce bags that they suspected had held cocaine. They released him, records show, when the bags tested negative for coke. But he wouldn't always be so lucky.
Almost two years later, on a Tuesday night in February, he drove to the West Side to make a delivery, he recalls. But when he neared the customer's apartment, the neighborhood was swarming with cops, so Austin went home.
The next morning, he had a meeting with a probation officer. He arrived on the Justice Center's seventh floor, court records show, and a security guard searched his pockets. He was wearing the same coat as the night before. "I had forgot it was in there," he says, laughing hard.
He copped to drug-trafficking charges. In March of 1992, he arrived at Lorain Correctional for a stay of almost four years.
At that time, Ohio prisons still allowed inmates to box. Austin already had a few amateur knockouts under his belt. He was six foot six and 260 pounds. Pounding on fellow prisoners might have been an easy way to pass the time.
But the only punches Austin threw came at night, he says, after they locked him down and hit the lights. That's when he would swipe at the dark, tiptoeing around the room.
Set up your punches.
In the yard, he ran, played basketball, lifted weights. When the fights went off, he might stand ringside to watch. But that was as close as he got.
"I didn't want to get institutionalized," he says. "I wanted to come the fuck home. I wasn't trying to mess around with that shit. Guys'd be like, 'I can't go home now, I gotta boxing match coming up.' I wasn't trying to get glorified in no joint."
If his life were a boxing movie, Austin would have emerged from prison in a thick hooded sweatshirt and scuffed, heavy boots. He would have crunched through fresh snow toward an idling taxi, its exhaust thick in the December cold, and sent the driver to the nearest gym, to train for his new life as a determined heavyweight.
Instead, this: He emerged from prison on December 5, 1995, still on probation. He didn't set foot in a gym. He needed to pay bills, he says, so he got a job, first at Wendy's, then at a factory.
In July of 1996, he was arrested again when police spotted him in front of an East Side home doing a deal, a report shows. As detectives approached, Austin bolted through a back yard, pitching foil-covered rocks into the gutter. The cops found the crack and chased him down. He pleaded no contest to abuse charges and was slapped with more probation.
It wasn't until 1998 that Austin realized there was money in beating people up. He was talking to a guy who was putting together some fights in Columbus and needed a heavyweight. Austin had recently quit his factory job after he and the boss "had some words."
"But when I quit, I had all those damn bills," Austin says, laughing at yet another misstep. "I had too much pride to go ask for my job back."
So he told the promoter he'd been sparring with pros for months. "I ain't been in the gym since I been out," he says. "I lied. I said, 'Shit, when you wanna go?'"
The guy wanted Austin to fight that weekend, against a heavyweight named Charles Hatcher. Payday: $800.
"I think I was 284 pounds," Austin chuckles. "My stomach was out to here. When I get in the ring, I'm breathin' hard al-fuckin'-ready. I'm like, 'Damn, I wanna hamburger or something.' It'd been almost 10 years since I been in the fuckin' ring."
It was only a four-round fight, but Austin decided his best strategy was to knock the dude out quick and get a burger and a nap. So he ran into the ring and started swinging, and quickly knocked Hatcher down.
"After that," Austin says, "he got up and whupped me."
He lost a unanimous decision, but learned that he punched hard enough to contend as a heavyweight. He just needed his lungs to last and a body he could actually move around the ring. So he found his trainer, and in the two months after his debut, he dropped 20 pounds.
The wins rose as his weight fell. Fighting at a weight as light as 230 pounds, Austin won his next 14 bouts, 12 by knockout. He took any fight he could get. Once, he fought twice in five days -- and knocked both guys out in the first round.
In 1999, he stepped in against Cisse Salif in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. With former Mike Tyson manager Bill Cayton in Salif's corner, the 280-pound African was a favorite. But in the fourth round, Austin ended the fight, crippling Salif with a body blow.
Austin started landing bigger fights. In July of 2001, he drew unbeaten Attila Levin in Las Vegas. Austin threw his typically wild rights early, dropping Levin in the fight's first 30 seconds. But after staying on the canvas for eight seconds, Levin got up and outboxed Austin, eventually knocking him out in the ninth round. Austin hasn't lost since.
Earlier this year, King came calling. The promoter bought Austin's contract and immediately arranged a fight against Larry Donald at Madison Square Garden.
Donald had just outlasted former champ Evander Holyfield. Austin and Donald had once trained together, and Donald accused Austin of being soft. They pounded on each other for 12 rounds, and the fight ended in a draw. At least, that's how the judges called it.
"He fought like a wimp," Austin said afterward. "I won the fight."
That was in April. Five months later, King was planning a night of fights in Cleveland, his hometown. The event, slated for broadcast by Showtime, would feature his up-and-coming heavyweight, Beck, against a heavyweight title contender named Sergei Liakhovich. But when Liakhovich got hurt, King needed a replacement.
Austin still wasn't the sort of fighter you put on pay-per-view. He had made a name and some cash as a durable sparring partner, the kind of guy you want to throw with as a big fight approaches. But no one outside boxing knew much about him, and those who did didn't see anything special -- just another street fighter with a heavy punch and a cement jaw.
But to King, Austin was the perfect pick: a local guy who might sell some last-minute tickets -- and was cheap enough to take a chance on.
"It's gonna be like Vegas in Cleveland," Austin, stretching on the floor of an East Side gym, told a handful of reporters on a gray morning before the fight. "I'm bringin' it home."
"I be takin' this serious," Austin says as he arrives at the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center on Hough. This morning, he ran five miles, pumped out 200 sit-ups, 200 push-ups, and 100 dips, and then did some wind sprints.
Now, for his second workout of the day, he steps into the ring in a small, sweat-soaked room. Teenagers are working taped-up bags. Boxing posters are peeling off the walls. In the ring, Austin's head hovers a foot and a half from the fluorescent ceiling lights.
He pulls on gloves and shadowboxes into a heavy sweat. Then he works a pad held by a fellow gym rat. Sometimes he misses the pad altogether. But when he connects, it's thunder.
A muscular, 175-pound fighter named Andre Conner climbs into the ring. Conner met Austin a while back, when he needed someone to spar with. "Nobody would spar with him," Conner says of Austin. "He was knocking everybody out."
Once, before a Golden Gloves event, Austin cracked Mike Long's ribs in a tune-up spar. "He ripped a body shot that landed," says Long, who had to drop out of the event. "It lifted me up in the air."
Sparring with Austin, adds fighter Roosevelt Johnson, is "like trying to chop down a mountain."
Austin's hands dangle coolly as he lazily pokes faux jabs at Conner. Then he winds up and drops a left hook on the kid's face, knocking out his mouthpiece.
When they're finished, Austin lingers around the ring, hollering at young fighters. "Take your time, Bonnie," he tells a young woman. "Set your punches up. The main thing is to get your punches right."
He admits he's yelling at himself. "I gotta work on my patience," he says. "I get in the ring and I just wanna punch. Sometimes I think I'm so big and strong, I can just knock a guy out. Sometimes it don't work like that."
"He's still a rugged, tough-type fighter," says Al Jones, who runs a gym on East 55th. "He's the kind of guy you wouldn't want to meet in an alley."
For Austin to beat more experienced fighters, he'll have to learn to calm down and box, to stop chasing his opponents as if they just lifted his wallet. Especially after his recent 35th birthday.
Although everyone seems to root for him -- for a guy with no friends, his friendly demeanor has earned him plenty of fans -- no one's quite sure whether Austin's title hopes are realistic. "He's got some age on him now," says Clint Martin, a longtime Cleveland trainer. "All he can do now is just work for a payday."
"He's basically an average heavyweight," adds ESPN.com boxing writer Dan Rafael, who barely ranks Austin among his top 20 heavyweights. "He tries hard, gives an honest effort. It just shows you how bad the heavyweight division is, where someone like Ray can be on the cusp of being in a position to get a heavyweight title."
Austin also benefits from having King on his side. Since King controls the sport, particularly the heavyweight division, he controls which fighters climb the rankings and compete for the belts. He's helped push Austin to No. 2 in the IBF, No. 4 in the WBA, and No. 6 in the WBC -- a position that may soon entitle him to a shot at a heavyweight belt.
Yet even that might not earn him a big paycheck -- at least not the seven figures he's hoping for. Neither Showtime nor HBO will put up big money for an Austin title challenge. They know they'll have trouble getting even hard-core fans to watch.
But if he can win that fight, suddenly he might be a hot commodity. Because while no one will pay top dollar to watch Austin, they will spend money to see someone they've heard of take Austin's belt.
In fact, the big-name fighters -- Wladimir Klitschko, Hasim Rahman, John Ruiz -- might be knocking on Austin's door. "Austin would be looked at as very beatable," says Jack Hirsch, editor of Ring Sports Magazine. "If you're very beatable, they'll even offer you extra money."
Of course, Austin knows exactly how that will play out.
"I'm the most underrated heavyweight there is," he says. "They think, 'He's a stepping-stone.' Then I drop 'em."
"You know what the Rainman do," he adds. "Leave 'em in that puddle."
After the third judge's decision is announced, Austin's sister pushes her way to the ring, screaming, "That's my li'l brother!" She dials the phone and says, "Lemme talk to Mom . . . Mom -- your son is the champ, baby!"
Austin's dad soaks up the attention his son gets in town. "It's a wonderful feeling," he says. "Instead of having those calls of 'Hey, come downtown and see about your son,' it's a wonderful feeling to know that call is not nothin' that's gonna make you feel bad."
But Austin's mom isn't at the arena. She doesn't like seeing her son get punched and has been to just one fight. Occasionally, she even tells him to get a real job.
"Mom," he tells her, "this a million-dollar job. Why'd I want a job?"