RIDDICK BOWE laughs, but it’s the kind of joke that wasn’t funny back when it happened.

June 14, 2013. Overweight, undertrained in the art of Muay Thai, but still willing to step into the ring to face Levgen Golovin for something called the WPMF super heavyweight world title, the 44-year-old Bowe barely took any punches from his opponent, but the kicks he absorbed were another story.

“He kicked me, and I thought somebody shot my leg off,” recalled Bowe of the kickboxing match in Pattaya, Thailand. In all, he took 19 kicks to the leg, five of which put him on the canvas, with the fight finally being stopped in the second round.

“You know I never tried that again,” he chuckles. “That was terrible. It’s over 10 years since I tried it and I wear a brace now on my leg because of that.”

It shouldn’t have been this way for Brooklyn’s “Big Daddy,” a former heavyweight champion when that title was still the most prestigious title of them all. But isn’t that how it goes in the sport for all but the luckiest? Few leave the game on the top, never to return. One of Bowe’s bitterest rivals, Lennox Lewis, did it, and the New Yorker was poised to be another fighter to transcend the sport and then walk off into the sunset with his riches intact.

But as Tom Cruise’s character said in the film Cocktail, “Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”

That’s not to say there isn’t hope for the gregarious big man, who, at 52, is in the midst of a new chapter of his life that may just produce the happy ending everyone hopes he finds.

Riddick Bowe
Michael Bentt, Mark Breland and Riddick Bowe

These days, there’s little, if any, talk of a comeback, something that filled practically every story involving him in recent years. That was an ill-advised concept 10 years ago, let alone today, even with Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jnr doing great business on pay-per-view at the end of November.

And what was long seen as a combative Bowe, both with the media and fans, has been replaced by the man we used to know: quick with a joke whether he’s the subject of it or you are, and willing to reflect on a career that while filled with what ifs was still more than enough to land him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

So while he may not be in the gym looking for bouts against Tyson or Evander Holyfield, seeing him on the popular television game show Family Feud recently, where he dropped jokes alongside Holyfield, Shawn Porter, Ryan Garcia and Mauricio Sulaiman, was a sign that maybe Bowe is going to be all right as he navigates his 50s.

That’s hard to believe. Maybe even harder to fathom is that it was 30 years ago when Bowe, a silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics, was in his second year as a pro and rapidly rising up the heavyweight ranks with a 1990 campaign that saw him fight eight times. That stretch saw Bowe go from prospect to contender thanks to stoppages of Pinklon Thomas and Bert Cooper, and his mindset at the time was a simple one.

“At that point, I just wanted to be the best, and I was very determined,” he said. “I think that was the difference. The young guys today, they don’t know what they want to do, and they don’t want to fight as often as I did. I was gonna make it happen.”

Fighting often, fighting legitimate competition, and having the New York media machine behind him was clearly a recipe for success. But it was his talent that marked him as a future champion. Blessed with a 6ft 5ins frame that allowed him to use a jackhammer jab while his power and athleticism left him able to deal with anyone who got past that stick, Bowe’s greatest attribute was his infighting ability, something rare in a fighter his size. Yet, it wasn’t his legendary trainer Eddie Futch that put that trait in his arsenal; that came from a different source.

“The thing is, we were in the Olympic Training Centre and I was watching Michael Carbajal and he was boxing with somebody and I said, ‘Wow, if I can do that as a heavyweight, that would be phenomenal’,” recalled Bowe of the former light-flyweight champion who earned his place in the Hall of Fame in 2006. “So that’s who I picked it up from, and I just kept doing it until you guys recognised it. The thing was, I never saw the heavyweights fight like that and go to the body like that. I said if I pick this up and I use it, I’m ahead of the game. And that’s what I did.”

Futch honed Bowe’s skills and kept him on the straight and narrow. Manager Rock Newman was a polarising character who some loved and others hated. Either way, the machine was firing on all cylinders on November 13, 1992, when he faced Holyfield for the first of three battles that were memorable in vastly different ways.

But that first night in Las Vegas, it was Bowe at his best, and he and “The Real Deal” went to war until the Brownsville native improved to 32-0 with a 12-round unanimous decision win. Riddick Bowe was the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I would say look at the first Evander Holyfield fight and then you know what you’re dealing with,” said Bowe of the fight he would put in his personal time capsule. “I believe that was my best effort that particular night. That night I gave Evander the business. He was never the same.”

Riddick Bowe

That’s open to debate, but what isn’t is that Bowe was never the same. In cases like that, it’s easy to blame a particularly brutal battle; in Bowe’s case, it was everything that happened outside the ring that was his undoing.

Sure, he successfully defended his titles twice, scoring early knockouts of Michael Dokes and Jesse Ferguson, but one title he won from Holyfield was missing, as he famously dumped his WBC belt in a trash can after deciding not to meet the then-number one contender, Lewis, who owned an Olympic victory over Bowe.

Nearly three decades later, I ask Bowe if there was one fight he wanted that he never got.

“The fight with Lennox Lewis,” he said. “I really wanted him so bad, I could taste it. But it never materialised, and I think Rock had a lot to do with that. My biggest regret was having him as my manager.”

Lewis-Bowe was the “What If” fight of all “What If” fights, and while there was talk in 1996 of the two finally meeting, it never happened, leaving a hole in the legacy of Bowe, who also never got to throw hands in the pro ranks with former Olympic teammate Ray Mercer.

“I would have fought him if the opportunity came about, but it never happened,” said Bowe. “I told people that Larry Holmes would beat him, just like I predicted, and if I fought him like Larry Holmes did, it would have been the same thing. Maybe that’s why we never fought. In the Olympics (during sparring sessions), I did to him what Larry Holmes did to him; I just boxed in that manner and he couldn’t do nothing with me.”

So it wasn’t a friendship thing, then?

“When it comes to the money, friends can be hit, trust me,” Bowe laughs. “For example, I love Evander Holyfield. He and I were friends together after the Olympics, but when it came to the money, we fought.”

There would be no such battles with Lewis, who would go off to greatness on his own path as Bowe lost his title to Holyfield in the infamous “Fan Man” fight in 1993.

“That fight was a rip-off,” said Bowe of a bout that saw a parachutist fly into the ropes of the outdoor ring in the seventh round, interrupting the fight for 21 minutes. At the time of the stoppage, the fight was even on two scorecards, while Holyfield held a 58-56 edge on the third. Holyfield rallied once the action resumed, and he took back his title by way of a close, and controversial, majority decision.

“I believe that fight was set up for me to lose,” Bowe continues. “If I didn’t win the fight, I think the fight should have been a draw. Actually, the fight should have been cancelled because of the fan man. It should have been a no contest. But then they wouldn’t have made the third fight.”

Conspiracy theories aside, Bowe weighed in at 246 pounds for the Holyfield rematch, 11 pounds above the 235 he entered the ring at for the first fight. It was an obvious sign that the dedication he put into winning the title was waning fast.

He hit Buster Mathis Jnr when he was down, earning a no contest verdict, he won a snoozer over Larry Donald after punching him at a press conference, picked up a WBO belt for a thrashing of Herbie Hide, then got into more pre-fight antics with Jorge Luis Gonzalez before halting the Cuban in six rounds.

This less than fab four got Bowe his rubber match with Holyfield in 1995, and while Bowe became the first man to knock Holyfield out, he had to rise from the canvas to do it. It would ultimately be his last shining moment in the ring.

The stories, fights and events of the next several years all blur into one. The punishing, foul-laced disqualification wins over Andrew Golota, the three-day stay in the United States Marine Corps, the abduction of his then-wife and kids that landed him in federal prison for 17 months, his defense team’s claim of brain damage, filing bankruptcy, the exits of Futch and Newman. It would almost be too much to bear for anyone, but one of Bowe’s shining attributes in the ring was always his heart, and it’s what got him through years of blows outside of it. He was no angel, but he was no devil, either.

He was human. That may be why people still care.

“It’s because of my mother,” Bowe counters when talking of Dorothy, mother of 13. “She told me I had to love everybody if I wanted to be successful. If I wanted people to treat me right, I had to treat them a certain way and, in the long run I would get it back. So I think it’s because of my mother – she told me to love everybody. I don’t see color; white, brown, purple, everybody’s the same to me, and my mama told me to treat people how I wanted to be treated, and to this day, I treat everybody the same way. If I can help you if you’re on the side of the road with a flat, I’m gonna stop the car and help you fix it. Because if I was in that predicament, I would want you to help me.”

For a long time, Riddick Bowe needed help. Today, he seems to be doing okay. Not former heavyweight champion of the world and global superstar okay, but good enough for a kid from Brownsville who got out and made an impression. And for a while, he was the baddest man on the planet. There’s something to be said for that.

I ask him if he ever goes back and watches those fights on YouTube.

“I used to, but I haven’t in a long time because now in my mind, I pretty much got ‘em all down.”

He laughs. It’s good to hear.