‘Every punch hurts’3/25/2015
A knockout is clean and simple. You get knocked down. You don’t get up. It’s all over. No more floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee. The end.
A technical knockout is not so clean and not so simple. The referee calls the fight usually because the losing boxer’s safety is at risk. Why? Because the poor guy is getting walloped by the winning boxer. It’s not an uplifting sight.
Or maybe it is.
“I was born and raised in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with two sisters and three brothers. My dad worked on the slaughter floor, and my mom was a nurse’s aid at the county home.”
The words are jumbled together, chewed on, and delivered like taffy being pulled at the State Fair — a long string of stretched-thin sentences with no periods or spacing or changed intonation. The large pink jacket doesn’t help dispel this illusion.
John Roby continues…
“One of my goals is to get on the Ellen DeGeneres show. I hope my story will change people’s lives. My story is my life. Look at it back then and look at me today. I think it is a touching story. It’s a little depressing. How you can be at the top? And then everybody takes you for what you’ve got? It’s a sad story. But it is touching. What do you think of my story?”
April 3, 1993. Dalton, Georgia. Roger Bonine versus John Roby. 130 pounds. International Boxing Organization World super featherweight title is on the line. Out of the ring will walk a changed man. Adulation, respect, endorsements will follow. Champion of the world.
“My manager said, ‘John can you make 130? There’s a title out there for you. If you make this weight, we’ve got the title shot.’ So I went down another weight. And I had the title shot with Roger Bonine. From Georgia. He had the title for super featherweight at 130. Eventually I made the weight, two days before the fight. I was amazed. I went down as the 2 to1 underdog. And what do you know, I knocked him down in the fifth round and I took the crown. IBO crown. One of the biggest belts in the world. April 3, 1993. Preston Daniels, the mayor of Des Moines, made it John Roby Day.”
The 52-year-old hands are remarkably fine. Fingers long and delicate. Knuckles unswollen. Nails neatly trimmed. The hands of a patrician, not a boxer.
John Roby takes a long breath.
“What did I do to deserve this crown? I waited for so long. It was a blessing. I see myself winning the belt in dreams. And sometimes dreams come true. And my dream wasn’t a fantasy, it was the real deal. It came true.”
John Roby’s life dramatically changed.
“It was like I was reborn. I was giving people autographs. People noticed me more. ‘Hey, Champ. How are you doing?’ It made me feel great. Especially when I was going to schools and telling the kids about my career. The recognition made me feel good.”
And that was the beginning of the end.
“My downfall was being ‘mister-all-that.’ Mine wasn’t dope, drugs. Mine was being a ladyizer. I liked being out there. Chasing women was my problem.”
The big money never happened. John Roby worked at Dahl’s in the produce section to make ends meet. One year later, in 1994, he lost his crown to Jeff Mayweather by a 12-round decision. But worse than the loss, he had an accident at work. He injured his neck and head. His life would never be the same. Fifteen losses and a few wins later, his career was over.
“John, how do you survive today? Where do you get your money? How do you live?”
He turns away. He coughs. His brow furrows. Heaviness comes from deep down in his throat.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but I get a check. I feel like I’m stupid because I get that check. I feel like I’m retarded. I feel like I’m retarded. I have failed. I’m trying to do this story. I feel ashamed.”
John Roby recovers slowly from this blow. He looks directly at me.
“Everything is slow these days. Reflexes, legs… But I think I could make a comeback!” He laughs almost painfully. Then he becomes serious.
“Now I have feelings. Every punch hurts right now. Back then the punches didn’t hurt. Right now, every punch hurts. I was like Superman. I’m still Superman, but I don’t have the cape anymore. I’m not the man of steel. I’m just John Roby. The puppy, John Roby. The old puppy, John Roby.”
So John survives. Volunteers with kids at various places. Helps out where he can help out. Tries to inspire people with his story. And has a message he delivers in quick jabs.
“Go to school. Get your grades up. Respect your teacher. Respect your parents. Discipline. Make your dreams come true. If you want to become a professional anything, you’ve got to give it your best. You can’t listen to negative. If you’re listening to negative, you aren’t going anywhere tonight. Be sure to get your education. Don’t be a boxer. You need your brains. Become a doctor.”“Is this a sad story for a fighter? I blew my money.” He shakes his head. “I gotta get another shot. Do you think I have a good story?” CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.