Antonio Tarver was not a happy man heading into last weekend. On Friday, August 14, his heavyweight bout at Newark's Prudential Center ended in a split draw. As he stalked to the locker room, though, Tarver found time to stop and give a hug to an unlikely friend, the veteran character actor Burt Young. Young, 75, was sitting in an aisle seat in the third row behind Tarver's corner. Before and after the fight, Young signed autographs and posed for photographs with numerous fans who recognized him as Paulie Pennino, from the Rocky movies.
As it happens, Tarver also knows Young from Rocky: nine years ago, Tarver and Young starred together in Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the franchise. Young, as in the previous installments, played Rocky's brother-in-law and close friend; Tarver was heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon. After filming wrapped, the two stayed in touch. Young made the trip out from his Long Island home to watch the boxer try to recreate the journey of his Rocky Balboa character. Tarver, who turns 47 in November, has vowed to break George Foreman's record as the oldest heavyweight champion in history.
It's a quixotic enough quest that Tarver had to reach for a movie metaphor even more fantastical than anything the Rocky franchise has attempted. "My age ain't nothing but a number," Tarver said. "I'm the Benjamin Button of boxing, you know what I mean?"
Tarver is fighting for more than a record. He's looking to end his career on his own terms. Tarver won a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics and, after turning pro at age 27, captured five light heavyweight titles. He has never been knocked out. He has a good shot at being inducted into the boxing Hall of Fame, although a failed drug test—for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid, in 2012, which resulted in a year-long suspension by the California State Athletic Commission—may come back to haunt him.
In several ways, it already has. The suspension cost Tarver a chance to appear on NBC's broadcast of the 2012 Olympics, and raised doubts about his future in the ring. As Tarver sees it, his job now is to answer those doubts, one bout at a time. "I'm trying to show these people I never had to do any of that," he said. "I played the sport clean."
"I think that the powers that be really just tried to sweep me under the rug," Tarver continued. "They thought that I was just gonna go away. I've never been that type of guy. When the going gets tough, I pull up my jockstrap and I bite down on my mouthpiece and I go to work."
At the moment, Tarver is working two jobs, as a television commentator and as a heavyweight contender. For the August 14 fight against former cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, Tarver moved from the broadcast booth—where he usually serves as an analyst on Spike TV's Premier Boxing Champions series—to headline a card on the same network. His son, Antonio, Jr., worked in his corner; friends such as Young and former NBA point guard Kenny Anderson sat ringside.
It was Tarver's third fight since his suspension. After injuring his left wrist in the second round—an errant uppercut landed on Cunningham's elbow—Tarver recovered to fight his typical defensive before connecting on a few hard punches in the later rounds. CompuBox had Tarver landing 31 percent of his 450 punches, while Cunningham landed 23 percent of 678. It all added up to a draw, at least in the eyes of the judges.
"He didn't get hurt," Young said. "I like that. He's very crafty, and he hits hard, too."
Young wasn't the only semi-biased party to believe Tarver took the fight. As Tarver filled out his tax forms in the locker room so he could get paid, he and his crew analyzed the scorecards. Two of the judges had Tarver winning each of the last four rounds, while judge John McKaie gave the final two rounds to Cunningham. They were as happier with this decision as you might expect.
"This great state of New Jersey is so strict and so hell-bent on taking blood," said Orlando Cuellar, Tarver's trainer, who claimed that Tarver had submitted six blood tests in recent days. "They should be hell-bent on making these judges accountable for making blind decisions."
"You tell 'em, Orlando," one of Tarver's entourage yelled. "You tell 'em."
"How can you do that," Cuellar said, "give a man rounds that he ain't won?"
Ten minutes later, standing in a hallway outside the locker room, Cuellar continued to bash McKaie.
"He's off the mark," Cuellar said. "I don't know what he's doing. Maybe he's falling asleep in the corner or wherever he's at."
"I dominated the 11th round, man," Tarver said.
"Hey, you dominated the last four rounds," Cuellar said.
"The last four rounds, man," Tarver said. "I picked it up. I took control. Championship rounds. C'mon man."
"You did what you wanted to do," Cuellar said. "Ring generalship also counts for scoring. Antonio won the fight and you know what? The good thing was, it was televised. Good thing was he wasn't totally jerked. They called it a draw. Antonio's still alive. He's still in the game, and he should get a big fight."
Tarver, holding an ice pack on his left forearm, looked at himself in a mirror.
"Man, look at this," he said. "I wasn't even touched by nothing, man."
"No, nothing," Cuellar said. "He's got not a scratch. He should get the big fight that he deserves."
If it were up to Tarver, the next fight would come against Wladimir Klitschko, who holds several of the heavyweight belts. Klitschko first must face Tyson Fury on October 24 in Germany, and there's no guarantee a Klitschko-Tarver matchup would come to fruition. Tarver could also square off against WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, who fights again on September 26.
Whether or not he gets to challenge for a title, Tarver says he doesn't plan on having many more fights, despite some recent money troubles. Last March, Tarver was arrested in Florida after allegedly failing to repay $200,000 in loans from the Wynn Las Vegas resort; he told TMZ Sports that Al Haymon, the organizer of Premier Boxing Champions and one of the most powerful men in the sport, posted bail for his release from jail. Still, Tarver insists that he's not fighting solely for the money.
"Ain't nobody gonna be flying me overseas to give me no paycheck to get hurt or to even subject myself to that," Tarver said. "I love myself way too much. I respect the game. When I can't win no more and it's obvious to me that I can't compete and win championships, then I'm out of the game."
For now, Tarver believes he has a shot at another championship and an improbable, career-capping achievement. Over the past two decades, Tarver has had some big victories—he beat Roy Jones, Jr., twice, when Jones was still in his prime—and some bad fights, such as a 2006 loss to Bernard Hopkins and two consecutive defeats against Chad Dawson, in 2008 and 2009. Tarver has fought only once each year since 2010, but in his mind he's a long way from retiring. He has a story to finish, and he has a particular ending in mind.
"Shit, I had a thousand reasons to quit and give up and just say, 'Fuck life,' and do like everybody else," Tarver said. "It was harder to turn your life around day for day and be committed to something bigger than yourself. It was hard, but that prepared me for everything that life had to throw at me, man. They can't break me because they didn't make me. I got resilience, and I believe in myself like nobody else. I believe in me. I got my right hand and my left hand. That's all I need."