Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Ray Edwards entered the boxing ring on a recent Thursday night looking every bit as chiseled and menacing as a NFL defensive lineman. Over seven seasons spent with the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons, that's just what Edwards was. Four years after his last NFL game, Edwards is back in the arena, albeit in circumstances that couldn't have been more different than what Edwards became accustomed to when he was chasing quarterbacks around Lambeau Field or Soldier Field.
Instead, Edwards was fighting in front of a few hundred people at Philadelphia's 2300 Arena. In the 1990s, the venue was known as the ECW Arena and was home to arguably the rowdiest, drunkest fans in pro wrestling. This crowd was much more subdued and quiet, but if Edwards minded it was hard to tell. He viewed the night as just another step in his unlikely boxing career.In July 2011, Edwards signed a five-year, $30 million free agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons that included $11 million guaranteed. It was validation of sorts for Edwards, who was suspended for the final four games of the 2007 season for violating the NFL's steroids policy when he played with the Vikings. The Falcons expected Edwards to join John Abraham and become one of the league's best defensive end tandems. Instead, his tenure in Atlanta ended when the team released him in November 2012, citing a bad attitude and lack of production. He was still just 27, but Edwards hasn't played a down in the league since.
When other teams didn't give Edwards a chance, he made the unusual decision to get into boxing three years ago. To that point, his only experience was a fight during the 2011 NFL lockout, when he won a unanimous decision over another guy who had never fought before. That didn't stop him from pursuing the sport."Most guys, when they get done playing football, they go sit on Miami Beach and get fat a little bit," Edwards told VICE Sports. "That's not my genetic makeup. That's not who I am. You talk to anybody who's known me since I was a teenager. All I ever did was work at something. I'm not a guy who just likes to sit around and be idle."
So far, Edwards has been brought along slowly against weak opponents. In Philadelphia last month, Edwards, 31, faced Dan Pasciolla, a southpaw and former semi-professional football player known as "White Chocolate." The bout, which was broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, was the first time either boxer had fought on national television. It was also the second fight in less than three weeks for Edwards. On August 26, he scored a second round knockout of Steven Tyner, who has a 3-15-3 record.Early in the first round of the Edwards-Pasciolla fight, television analyst Derric Rossy told viewers that Edwards does not have the ideal body type for boxing. Rossy, a heavyweight boxer and former Boston College defensive end, said that Edwards was too muscular."He's very bulky," said Rossy, who has lost 45 pounds since his college football days ended in 2002. "That can tire you out if an opponent punches you. A lot of oxygen flowing to those muscles tends to drain you."
Still, Edwards didn't seem to tire in the six-round bout. He used his five-inch reach advantage to his favor and won a unanimous decision despite injuring his right wrist during the fight. The judges scored it 58-56, 59-55 and 60-54, but Edwards was disappointed he didn't get the knockout. "I'm definitely a very hard critic," Edwards said. "We'll go back, watch the tape and break it down and get better."As Edwards sat upstairs at 2300 Arena with his gear still on, Kennie Johnson, Edwards's trainer, offered encouraging words. "Ray, wait 'til we look at them tapes, man," Johnson said. "You look sharper than what you think."
"Okay," Edwards said."You're probably gonna think you didn't because you did get hit a few times," Johnson said. "But, man, you offered him some shots sharp as hell."With the victory, Edwards remained unbeaten and improved to 12-0-1 with seven knockouts. Still, his record is deceiving. So far, he's had an easy path and hasn't competed against anyone of note. Until facing Pasciolla (8-2-1), none of Edwards' opponents had a better than .500 record.Edwards, though, is inexperienced in his own right and still learning the sport. Growing up in Cincinnati, he used to watch Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. fights with his grandfather. He also did some boxing training during the NFL offseasons, although he never fought as an amateur. After the Falcons released him, Edwards still held out hope another NFL team would sign him. As the months passed, his disenchantment grew. "You did something for your whole life and now you kind of fell out of love with it," Edwards said. "It's kind of like a breakup in a relationship. It was a great experience, a great learning experience. It allowed me to establish things for my family and take care of my family. I've got nothing but the utmost respect for the NFL shield and what they bring. It was time to move on to the next chapter in my life."Edwards has learned the business of boxing is more complicated than he originally thought. Until recently, he was mostly putting together his own fights and working with some small-time promoters he knew. After having a whopping 10 fights cancelled last year due to contractual issues, he decided in late August to sign with New Jersey-based promoter Vito Mielnicki. When Edwards knocked out Tyner a few weeks ago, Edwards showed the tape to Mielnicki, expecting to hear compliments.
"I said, 'Listen, Ray, I'm not impressed when you knock out bums. You're supposed to do that,'" Mielnicki told VICE Sports before the fight against Pasciolla. "I told him in order to become something, you gotta step it up like you did in football. If he can't beat Dan Pasciolla, he's never gonna be anything anyway. If Ray don't beat him, Ray don't deserve to be anywhere, Ray should go back and try to get in the NFL again."
Despite Edwards's unanimous decision victory over Pasciolla, Mielnicki said he still had some work to do."I thought he was average," Mielnicki said. "I thought he did what he had to do with a kid that didn't want to engage and didn't want to fight. I thought he controlled the pace, but he didn't throw enough punches. In order to be a dominating heavyweight, you need to let your hands go. He should've stepped to that kid and out-willed that kid. He couldn't figure him out. That comes with growth."Mielnicki said he plans on getting Edwards more competitive fights against better boxers. He wants Edwards to fight seven times in the next 12 months and prove that he's a legit heavyweight. Edwards's next two bouts are scheduled for October 15 in North Carolina and in December in his adopted home city of Atlanta. Mielnicki is looking for opponents for both of those fights.Edwards has a long road ahead, and it's not one that many have traveled successfully. A few other former NFL players have transitioned to boxing, including Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Mark Gastineau, and Alonzo Highsmith. None of them amounted to much in the ring. The odds against prospering don't seem to bother Edwards, a certified boxing junkie. When he's not training, Edwards evaluates videos of former champions such as Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jr., and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
"That's all I do is watch boxing," Edwards said. "People ask me about TV shows. I'm like, 'I don't know. I study too much.'"Edwards is taking steps to test himself against superior competition and committing himself even more. He sparred with WBA heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder heading into Wilder's September 2015 fight versus Johann Duhaupas. Since last year, Edwards has worked out of a gym near Atlanta with Johnson, who used to train with Floyd Mayweather, Sr."He's a very good athlete," Johnson said. "But the thing is, it's the mental part of the game that he has to understand, the positioning, the timing. Timing is everything. He's on the job learning. He's actually learning as he's fighting, and he's still undefeated. We're still rolling, baby."Edwards said he hoped to someday fight for the heavyweight title. It's a goal he has in common with every living heavyweight, and one with long odds, but Edwards is committed to his new calling. He has no plans of attempting an NFL comeback, he says."Oh, no," Edwards laughed. "They can keep it."