Sunday, August 8, 2004

In for the fight of his life

From convicted felon to Olympian. The question: Where will Ron Siler go next?

By John Erardi
Enquirer staff writer

The challenge for Ron Siler going into the Olympic boxing competition in Athens is doubly daunting:

Win a medal (preferably gold), and return home to a big parade.

Sign a nice pro contract, climb the ranks, provide well for his five kids.

Easier said than done?

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"I can't afford do it any other way," says Siler, a Cincinnatian who will fight in the 112-pound weight class.

"I look at it as a positive, not a negative. I can't afford to get caught up in the street life. Either I stay hungry, or my kids go hungry."

Last week, Siler, 24, attended a luncheon at Brio Tuscan Grille at Newport on the Levee. It served as a sendoff for Siler and his Olympic teammate, fellow boxer and Cincinnatian Rau'Shee Warren.

At the party was former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, from Atlanta, who is managed by Avondale Management Group, Siler's Olympic sponsor that threw the party at Brio.

Holyfield posed for at least 40 photos with guests, staff and dignitaries.

But it was the way Holyfield posed for the photos that was noteworthy - good-naturedly, never losing his smile. Nobody knew it, but Holyfield's guest house had burned to the ground the previous night after being struck by lightning.

Even without that unsettling circumstance, this was a lesson in the way any person should comport himself - especially an athlete, who can make or break his entire image on days like this.

Siler noticed.

And, as some other people noticed, nobody in the crowd of 200 well-wishers bent Holyfield's ear as much as Siler did. He was at the former champ's side for at least 20 minutes, mostly listening, but also answering Holyfield's questions.

Some of it was boxing talk. After all, Holyfield was an Olympian in 1984. He lost a controversial decision in the semifinals in Seoul when everybody except the referee - who said the critical Holyfield punch had come after the bell - thought Holyfield had knocked out his opponent fair and square.

But some of the Siler-Holyfield conversation regarded life outside the ring. Not many are more qualified to offer such advice than Holyfield, who largely has made his own destiny, not letting the street lead him astray.

And what did Holyfield tell Siler?

"Evander told me: 'You're the one in charge of your destiny. You need a good manager, and you need to listen to them, but you're the one who will be blamed or credited for where you wind up. There's no hiding from it,' " Siler says. "And he told me not to let my past bring me down. I must rise above it, keep it behind me, but never forget it. That way, I won't ever go back there."

The boxer and the judge

"There" is not a good place for Siler. "There" is the confinement cells of the Hamilton County Jail and the Dayton Correctional Institution, where, two years ago, Siler spent a total of nine months after violating his probation from a felonious assault conviction.

Siler says he was a bystander who got caught up in a mob of teenagers and early 20-somethings in Over-the-Rhine. These young men were intent on robbing a pair of workmen. One of the workmen was struck in the back of the head with a hammer. Siler denies wielding it. Wrong place, wrong time, says Siler.

But there was no mistaking him. He was wearing a red-white-and-blue warmup suit and sporting two gold front teeth.

Siler is sticking to his story - a story that didn't wash back then with Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel.

And it still doesn't wash with Nadel now.

"He did what they (the eyewitnesses and the prosecution) say he did," Nadel said Friday, mincing no words. "He pleaded guilty. ... I let him out (after nine months in prison) because he had all this professional support. (Famed trainer) Emmanuel Steward came all the way (from Detroit) to speak in his behalf. So, yes, I made an exception. But he's still on probation until 2008, and if he doesn't do what he's supposed to do, he's facing six more years (in prison)."

Why would Siler plead guilty if he was innocent? Law of the street, Siler says. Even for a man who makes his living with his fists, being a snitch is dangerous stuff. Siler says he knows who wielded the hammer, but wouldn't finger him.

The victim of the assault has forgiven Siler.

"It's something that happened a long time ago," the victim said last spring. "I have the same hope that Ron has changed his life. When he represents us at the Olympics, I'm rooting for him, for Cincinnati and the U.S.A."

Big words from a big man, especially for one who was knocked unconscious.

Maybe Siler can learn from those words. Maybe he can learn from Nadel's.

Nadel will be watching Siler's Olympic fights on TV.

"Of course I will," Nadel said. "I've been watching him, reading about him. I hope he makes it. I've had other people who've made it, and they've come back to see me. They're proud of (their turnaround). I hope he turns out to be one of them."

A sponsor, and a chance

Maybe Siler can learn, too, from Avondale Management Group.

Avondale isn't going to get rich off Siler - if it winds up with anything at all. Siler is a long shot for a gold, maybe even any medal, which means there probably won't be any big pro contract up front. There's no telling how good a pro he might be, if he winds up being a good pro at all. He'll never fight for millions. The money's with the heavyweights. But he can make a living, maybe even a good one, if only he will listen.

If he listens, he can avoid becoming a clichÈ: a broke and broken-down fighter.

"When they come to you - like Evander came to us - they bring their stuff with them," says Jimmy Gould of Avondale Management. "The good stuff we keep, the bad stuff we work to make better, the ugly stuff we get rid of. Everybody has good, bad and ugly. It's what makes up a person's character. There was a lot of good stuff with Evander. Frankly, there wasn't a lot of good stuff with Ron."

But Gould spent a lot of time with Siler. He watched, he listened.

After a time, he said: "OK, we'll sponsor you. We'll give you a chance to focus on what's important."

"Whatever money we (eventually) make (after Siler turns pro) won't change our lives, but it might help change his," Gould explains. "Cincinnati has a huge boxing tradition. We (Avondale) have a great interest in boxing. I really like this kid, but I have to admit, I wasn't sure at the beginning."

5 little reasons to change

Siler, who was named captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team and therefore must be doing something right, can expect plenty of tough love from Avondale. But some signs indicate he can handle it.

Siler's girlfriend, Alexiss, mother of the last four of his five children, says Siler was an unfocused man-child when he went into prison but came out changed.

"He appreciates what he has now," Alexiss says. "His children - more than anything - are what changed him. He's always loved his kids, but he doesn't want them growing up without a dad because Dad is off in prison."

Siler's oldest boy, Ronnikko, is 4. His four boys with Alexiss are: Alerion, 3; DShawn, 2; JaMerion, 1; and TreShawn, 1 month.

"Alerion is 100 percent boxer; he sees me on TV and imitates me," says Siler, sporting a new, white-toothed smile. "If Alerion was here right now, he'd be shadow-boxing. Three years old and he'd be shadow-boxing!"

"Hectic," Alexiss says about home life in East Walnut Hills when Ron is in Colorado Springs, or as he is now in Athens, training for his first bout Aug. 17.

Pizza and boxing magnate Buddy LaRosa, long a patron saint of all-but-hopeless causes, has talked to Siler a couple of times since Siler got out of prison. LaRosa likes what he hears.

"I like his chances to stay clean," LaRosa says. "I think he's learned his lesson."

Now, Siler will get a chance to prove it.

Siler says he will never forget how - during sentencing - Nadel called him a "thug" and a "hoodlum," and then made sure he would have time to think over those words while serving 17 months of prison time.

Indeed Siler has thought it over - plenty - and always has come to the same conclusion.

"Based on what I'd done in the past, I deserved to be in that cell, but it wasn't the one incident that put me there," Siler says. "I wasn't 'the guy.' But it really doesn't matter that I wasn't. Because I got what I deserved for the way I'd been conducting myself all those years, just wasting away my talents by spending my time on the street."

So what's the bottom line for Siler?

"In the end, it's me who's standing there. I'm the one who's going to be judged for what happens to me."

Breaking the cycle

If Siler has learned that lesson, he will be one of the few, especially among Cincinnati boxers, many of whom have allowed their careers to be wrecked because they can't pull away from the street.

Holyfield has noticed that local trend.

"And by the street, I just don't mean the people literally hanging out on the street," he says. "I mean the guys who come from the street. They are more than happy to spend your money for you."

Holyfield remembers how it was when he had come into some money and was working his way up the heavyweight chain.

"In '84, they (Holyfield's early handlers), told me, 'When you become champion, you can choose where you want to stay,' " Holyfield recalls.

Holyfield ended up in Houston. There, his handlers urged him to stay in a $70-a-night hotel. Holyfield instead chose a $225-a-month apartment.

"Why do I want to spend $70 a night just to have somebody clean my room?" Holyfield remembers saying. "I can clean my own room! I can add. I was good at math. 'I'm the boss, and this is what we're doing.' And that's what I did. See what I mean? Don't be led around by your nose. Think. Ask questions. And that's what I told Ron."

At the luncheon at Brio, only one person noticed - no, strike that; only one person commented to Siler - that he no longer was sporting those two gold front teeth.

"I had (the gold teeth) removed a week and a half ago, because gold teeth aren't what I want to be remembered for," Siler says. "I want a good smile; I want to speak well. I know I need to work on that. ... I want people to be able to understand me and think highly of me. I don't want to be stereotyped."

What it means to be tough

Siler has a hard road ahead. He's inspired by Holyfield's success, because Holyfield came from a tough background. But Siler came from an even tougher one.

Tough is not knowing your mother: Siler was born in a Knoxville, Tenn., hospital. His mother called Siler's father and said, 'If you want him, you'd better come and get him.' And then she went off and joined the Army. Siler has seen her only a few times since, but he has invited her to Athens and she is going.

Tough is having the nickname "Face": Siler says he earned this moniker because he emerged from his mother's womb face-first - the same way his paternal grandfather and father arrived. Even now, people call Siler Jr. "Face." It was heard all over Brio last week: "Face" this, and "Face" that.

Tough is having a chest o' drawers for a crib: Siler's dad says he didn't have money to buy his baby son normal sleeping quarters, so he arranged for him to sleep in a drawer next to his bed.

Tough is having the family Rottweiler carry you around by your Pampers: Ron Siler Sr. says he once arranged for a babysitter to watch Face during the daytime hours. Siler Sr.'s Rottweiler, named Mud Duck, was so protective of the baby that the babysitter cowered at the kitchen table while Face destroyed the place.

"It wasn't the best life," admits Siler Sr., "but I did care for him. I was there for him. And, in turn, he basically saved my life. Because if I hadn't been caring for him, I'd have been caught up in the street life myself. I'd come from trouble, and I'd have gone back to trouble if not for Ron. I'd have wound up in prison, or worse, dead."

Siler Sr. is already in Athens.

"Winning the gold would be great," Siler Jr. says. "Winning the gold would be my way of saying, 'Thanks, Dad. Thanks for having been there for me.' "

Siler Jr. knows, however, that staying off the streets would say it even better.

After Athens comes the tough part.

After Athens comes the temptation of the street.

"I'm not going back there," Face vows.



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