Reality Provided the Knockout Blow to Boxer Who Fought on Heart Alone : For Curry, Ending Was Tragic

Times Staff Writer

Bruce Curry, some say, was never properly matched. He had Thomas Hearns way before he should have. He had Wilfredo Benitez before he should have--twice.

But Bruce Curry, they all say, had heart. The one thing about him, he could make a fight even when there shouldn't have been one.

Heart wasn't enough when Bruce Curry, 28, his championship gone, was finally put in against reality, when his corner was attended only by the invisible demons of paranoia. Heart wasn't enough when even the shadows boxed back.

Today, Curry, once the best at what he did, is in a Nevada mental institution. It is impossible to say for sure whether his raging and ultimately violent paranoia was a result of the beatings he suffered during his single-minded, 13-year pursuit of a championship, or whether his sickness is functional, whether he would have pulled the trigger anyway.

All that can be said for certain is that Curry's wiring was so burned and frayed by the time he lost his title that not even boxing could tolerate him. Certainly, as a court decided last fall, society shouldn't have to.

Until Curry finally fired a gun at his trainer in a Las Vegas gym last year, missing by only three feet, his condition had been one of boxing's best kept secrets. His nervous system was an unpredictable circuit, occasionally shorting out, giving off little showers of cerebral sparks. Everybody in boxing knew that, and lots of them knew it well enough to avoid him. But he was a champion and, as such, his eccentricity could be tolerated. Had to be tolerated.

His trainer and apparent father figure, Jesse Reid, hardly enjoyed Curry's mood swings, if that's what you'd want to call them. Half the time, Reid, a former middleweight, feared for his life.

Toward the end, Reid refused to go to Curry's door when he arrived for Curry's roadwork. He regrets the one time he did. After first checking under a nearby car and then looking behind bushes, Reid cautiously approached the door, knocking and standing aside. Curry jumped onto Reid from an upstairs window.

Still, he was the World Boxing Council's super lightweight champion. Allowances were made. Had to be made.

Reid said he warned Curry's mother and members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission that there would be trouble down the road. In the meantime, there were fights to prepare for, a once-blown career to be resumed.

When Curry insisted on doing his running in the starlight, Reid reluctantly agreed. When Curry insisted on carrying a baseball bat, to fend off dogs, Reid reluctantly agreed to that, too. But he always made sure Curry ran in front.

Curry would call Reid from his home in Texas, in the early hours of the morning, and want to know why Reid had caused a girl to spill popcorn on him in the movies. Or why Reid had caused a fly to be in his room, because if his mouth were open, it could fly in and kill him. Or why had Reid put the nix on a dream date with one of the Pointer sisters.

That all could be tolerated. Fighters can be explosive and unpredictable out of the ring as well as in. As we have often read in the news, a life centered on violence, however legitimized by sport, is awkward preparation for social responsibility. There are too many once-promising boxers in prison to think otherwise.

What cannot be tolerated is a shooting. Especially by a boxer no longer champion.

For Bruce Curry, the end arrived last January, in his third title defense. That Curry even had a title was testament to Reid's patience and to the shrewdness of Curry's manager, Las Vegas gambler Billy Baxter. Curry's athletic prime had long since been squandered in some curious matches, and it is generally agreed that Curry was just a shell of his former self by the time he beat Leroy Haley for the title.

That finally became apparent that January day in Beaumont, Tex., when Curry fought Bill Costello. Curry offered neither offense nor defense. Reid was appalled at ringside.

"He was punching like a girl," Reid said.

Costello hammered away. In the 10th round, after a knockdown, Curry took 29 unanswered punches before Reid and Baxter leaped onto the ring apron to stop the fight.

It was over. In the dressing room, Baxter said as much. Curry had lost it, and Baxter didn't mean just this fight. It was time. Curry had gotten the title he had deserved so long ago, had made some money and gotten some fame. But it was over.

A fight publicist remembers that as Baxter was saying this in the dressing room, Curry lay rigid on a table, his arms outstretched. He was seemingly catatonic.

That was on a Sunday. On Tuesday, back in Las Vegas, Curry showed up at the Golden Gloves Gym, just beyond the city. According to Reid, he had threatened "to beat my head in."

In court, Reid testified that he had told Curry, "I'm not saying you're shot. You ought to take time off, go to Hawaii, get away from people and think about it and come back in six months."

According to Reid, Curry said, "I'm going to come back in a couple of days and I'll show you who is shot."

He came back on Thursday. He told another boxer at the gym, Leroy Caldwell, that he was going to kill Reid. In court, Caldwell said, "I took it for a joke." Nevertheless, Caldwell was disturbed. "His expression, you know, it made me feel a little uncomfortable."

Reid pulled into the parking lot and Curry ran up behind him.

"His hands were all wrapped up and he had some kind of baseball batting glove on his hands." Reid said. "I said, 'Bruce, why are you coming up behind me like that?' He said, 'I am going to kill you.' "

Reid and Curry had had a stormy relationship through their eight years, so this was nothing especially new. Reid said that Curry had hit him 10 or 11 times over the years, had slashed his tires, had once hit his car with a baseball bat, and had come at him with an ax.

Yet Reid, the bigger man, had never hit back. But when Curry insisted on a fight--"We gotta get it down, no one tells me when to quit!"--Reid finally obliged him.

The fight was brief. Reid quickly reopened a cut above Curry's eye, one that had required 15 stitches after the Costello fight.

Curry retreated, then announced that he had a gun, and ran to his car. Reid ran to the gym and locked both the back and front doors. He yelled for someone to call the police, then someone shouted, "Watch out!" Curry had stuck a pistol through a hole in the door, where a knob had once been, and fired off one shot. Reid says it missed him by three feet.

Curry left, but was quickly found by police. He had gone to a hospital for emergency treatment. At the time, he tried to shrug the incident off. He told KO Magazine shortly afterward that he had gone for his gun because he hadn't wanted to get laughed at and be embarrassed because of his fight with Reid.

"I could get in a lot of trouble, but I doubt it," he said at the time. "I was just scaring him more than shooting him. I could've walked through the door and shot him. We've had lots of fights. Don't bother me none."

In September, however, acting on the testimony of two psychiatrists, a judge accepted Curry's plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and ordered him to the Nevada State Mental Institute in Sparks.

A district attorney said at the time that Curry was "fairly bonkers," and one of the psychiatrists agreed that he was "pretty far out."

His condition is to be reviewed in March, at which time he can either be released or ordered to remain another six months. The sentence is indefinite.

There are some people who are not surprised, Reid among them. When Reid began managing him eight years ago, Curry came complete with rumors of instability. "Everybody in Texas called him nuts," Reid said. He didn't particularly disagree, but he believed Curry was basically harmless, "a lot of talk."

Curry's increasingly bizarre behavior came to worry him, though, especially once the emotional outbreaks began to focus on Reid. "Everything good that happened to him in life, he felt I caused it," Reid said. "Everything bad, I caused that, too."

There also was the nagging question of whether Curry was really harmless. Curry began carrying small axes and a Bowie knife in his gym bag, even to his fights.

As Curry got banged around more and more, Reid, who stepped down as manager but continued as trainer, believed Curry was getting increasingly dangerous. "He got paranoid about everything, accused me of having a walkie-talkie and reporting him to the police," Reid said.

Reid said he wanted to get out, but felt a responsibility to Curry. "I was this big, strong factor in his life, so I hung in there. I didn't really want to work with him. He wasn't all there."

He also said, however: "I needed the job at the time."

There are some, believers in Curry, who take Reid's last explanation of their relationship and run with it. There are some who believe that Reid, through either mismanagement or exploitation of Curry, is entirely to blame.

Curry's manager, the man who reunited Reid and Curry, suggested that. "It was just a personal thing that was brewing between Jess and Bruce," Baxter said. "I don't believe he's a danger to society at all. He's never done anything to anybody else.

"He's got some emotional problems, I guess. Never was the smartest guy in the world, either. He's got a few, I don't know what you'd call them, hostile feelings toward Jess. Feels his career was mismanaged before I got him. Bruce believes he should have had the title four or five years ago. Just something that was brewing."

Baxter, as do some others in boxing, believes that Curry's career was indeed badly handled. Donald Curry, Bruce's half-brother and currently the WBA welterweight champion, apparently agrees. He once said: "He got rushed. He never knew who to believe in."

Mostly he believed in Reid, for better or worse. Certainly it doesn't sound good to report that Reid once got him a fight in Tokyo and then, a week later, put him in against Benitez in Madison Square Garden.

Monroe Brooks, a longtime friend of Curry and later a ring opponent, supports the possible conclusion that Reid used Curry. "(Curry) was thrown into tough fights before he should have been," he said. "He was thrown to the dogs. Jesse Reid, I think he threw Bruce too deep, too fast."

David Gorman, who manages Donald and who briefly handled Bruce before washing his hands of him, also wonders. Noting that Curry, a natural 140-pounder, once stepped up in weight, then suffered a devasting loss to Hearns at the welterweight level in 1979, he said: "It was bad judgment. He probably felt the same way that other people did, that he didn't belong in there. He really felt he had been used, and it seemed about that time all his attitude problems began getting worse. Getting knocked out so dramatically, that was a big downfall, mentally."

Bob Busse of the Texas State Athletic Commission also pointed the finger. "His career was ruined at the start," he said. "Possibly mismanaged, put in with a fighter he shouldn't have been in with. He was as talented a boxer as ever came out of Texas. But the way he was handled, by mistake or whatever, took the possibility of being a great world champion away. It's one of those sad things. It doesn't speak well for boxing."

Maybe not. But it is hard to blame Reid entirely for Curry's growing inability to get along, to function outside the ring. According to his friends, Curry never developed that ability, never prepared for anything but boxing.

Overton Brooks, Monroe's brother and a childhood friend of Curry in Fort Worth, knows how much boxing meant to his friend and what little else there was to his life. Brooks knew Curry when he first got interested in the sport, when Curry and his brothers boxed in the back yard with cereal boxes on their hands. Bruce, especially, was driven.

"For blacks, in lean times, boxing was an opportunity to go places, to get treats, attention," Brooks said. "Boxing was one of the few things he was good at, and he clung to it and held on to it."

Apparently, Curry enjoyed the attention as much as anything. "He had to be the center of it," Brooks said. "He had to excel over everybody. He was always jealous. He had problems with people coaching him. Changed teams two or three times. Gotta remember, Bruce needed to be king on the team, needed the attention."

Curry may have been learning to box, but he was learning little else. He quit the ninth grade--he was 16 at the time--so that school wouldn't interfere with his roadwork. Although he returned, he later quit for good.

"Bruce basically just wandered around the streets until it was time for boxing practice," Brooks says. "It was his world."

There was nothing else to it, either. When he returned from Tokyo after a fight, Brooks asked him what it had been like. Curry didn't really know. He had no social skills and was unschooled in even the most basic graces. Besides, he was mostly uninterested.

"He was never very knowledgeable," said Monroe Brooks. "He'd walk into a restaurant and think the napkin was supposed to be something he'd take home with him."

Curry occasionally would try to cover his unsophistication with bluster. Said Overton Brooks: "He would hear me tell somebody off. He would witness it, but wouldn't know how to apply it. He wouldn't know how to use it or when to use it."

Dan Burns, Curry's attorney in Fort Worth, said that Curry often exhibited inappropriate behavior, but almost always because he was ill at ease. "He had absolutely no exposure to real life," Burns said. "He didn't know how to respond, so he pulled this Muhammad Ali stuff. He could be wild and boisterous and hot-headed. He always felt he had to express himself. Yet when he feels comfortable with you, he's almost shy. It's as if his defense mechanism has gone too far."

Curry had a relentless drive when it came to boxing, though. When he was fighting the wrong people and in the wrong division, it was sometimes hard to see that, but when Baxter finally took over, Curry quickly was steered into a title shot with Leroy Haley.

It was not figured as the fight of the year, and it wasn't. Said Monroe Brooks: "Leroy Haley was the only guy he could have beat. And the reason why, Leroy Haley had no heart. Bruce had heart. By the time he got to the title, he didn't have no legs up under him, but he had heart. He was maybe too tough for his own good. A lot of heart but no legs."

It is difficult to think of an athlete washed up at 26 or 27, but that is one point everybody agrees upon when it comes to Curry. His fights and his curious insistence on a rugged weightlifting program had taken a toll.

Reid could not keep him away from the weights. Curry was evicted from three apartments because of the noise he made with them. Reid thought he had Curry off what he considered a destructive regimen once, but when they traveled to a fight, Curry set off airport metal detectors when he tried to smuggle some of the weights through in a duffel bag.

In any event, Curry had nothing left but that heart, which was truly amazing.

Said Overton Brooks: "That will to succeed, you couldn't find that anywhere. I look up to him for that."

Said Baxter: "I feel sorry for Bruce. He probably had more heart than anybody around. He won it on heart. His boxing skills were diminished, he was just a shell. He didn't really have anything anymore. Everything he had done, he had done just as long as he could do it. He fought with bravery above and beyond call."

That bravery perhaps carried him to his final descent. One of the two psychiatrists who examined him on behalf of the court wonders whether brain damage wasn't responsible for his strange behavior. But Dr. William O'Gorman can only speculate. "With brain damage, the controls are very poor, there is no censorship and the primitive impulses come out," he said. Tests were never completed, though, and it is impossible to know.

There were so many other factors, however. Bruce's rivalry with his brother was one. Don was champion at 21 and the town hero Bruce never was. Mostly, though, there were the people closest to him telling him to give up what, for him, amounted to life itself.

A pay phone rings in a wing of the Nevada State Mental Institute in Sparks. Bruce Curry comes to the phone. A sportswriter wants to know how he's doing.

"I ain't talking to no sportswriter," he says. "But I'm doing fine, don't worry about it."

His mother, reached in Fort Worth, says he's doing better than that. He'll be out in March, she reports. It's a sure thing.

His attorney, meanwhile, says Curry plans to fight again, just as soon as he gets out.

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