Kwan Manasseh Versus Himself

He was a homeless ex-con with nothing to lose. Now he's a homeless fighter with nothing to gain.

Fight night is just two weeks away and Kwan "the Bomb" Manasseh has put on his hard face. It's time to get serious. He knows it. So he furrows his brow, twists his mouth into a scowl and lets his eyes go dead. They seem to recede into his head, which is shaved and lumpen and looks like it was built for beating on. Which is good, because it has been beaten. Plenty of times. More than Kwan cares to count. But that's not what Kwan is thinking about at the moment. He's thinking, I got to let my hands fly this time. That's what got me wins at the beginning. The hook. The jab. The haymaker. He tells himself over and over, I need to throw more punches.

As he assumes an orthodox fighter's posture--left hand held high, right hand cocked, chin tucked down--Kwan looks like he could be a world beater. At 180 pounds and a little under six feet, he is lean and chiseled, with balled-up biceps and pecs. He appears younger than his 39 years. At his age, most professional boxers are usually over the hill, retired, or dead. Kwan believes in his future in the ring. Way he sees it, he could be a champion one day. He can't deny that something has gone wrong lately. Facts are facts: He has 17 straight losses. He's got to stop the bleeding. He's sure that's what he'll do come May 1, when he steps back into the ring.

To his mind, it's a comeback fight, the most important fight of his career. A final chance to turn things around. "In order to get somewhere in the world, I need to get a win," he says. "And if I don't, I should stop." He doesn't say anything after that. Those aren't easy words, and they hang in the air like a fart. He isn't ready to walk away.

On this mid-April day, Kwan has sought a tutorial from an old acquaintance, Thomas "Chaos" Jones. Jones, who fought professionally for a few years in the '90s as a light heavyweight, is not Kwan's trainer. He has never worked Kwan's corner. He has no plans to do so. But because Kwan doesn't have a trainer at this juncture in his career, Jones has offered to dispense some pointers. Also, he has agreed to hold the hand pads for Kwan. If you're trying to fix your technique, you need someone who doesn't mind getting his palms whacked.

The workout session is conducted outside Chaos Clothing, Jones's retail clothing business in south Minneapolis. In the basement, there is a training area with some basic boxing paraphernalia--gloves, weights, a heavy bag. But there's not enough room there for a ring. Which is why Kwan is outdoors, on the corner sidewalk at Chicago Avenue and 40th Street, for all the passing world to see.

As he works up a sweat, bobbing and weaving and throwing punches at the hand pads, motorists and pedestrians take in the spectacle with alternately bemused and puzzled expressions. Kwan doesn't notice them. His eyes are drilling holes in the hand pads. He's bearing down. Focused. Everybody always said that about Kwan. Outside the ring, Kwan had a lot of troubles. But in the ring and the gym, Kwan was serious. In his prime, he trained hard and often. Nowadays, he still punctuates every practice punch with a sharp verbal exclamation: Uh! Uh! Uh! That lets everyone know he throws with bad intentions. Just like Mike Tyson, the boxer whose name he most often invokes.

After three minutes, a guy in the store who volunteered to act as timekeeper lets out a shout. Kwan stops to catch his breath. During the lapse in action, Jones shakes his head disapprovingly. Kwan may look fearsome, but Jones has detected numerous flaws in his style. "I got to tear him down. Rebuild him from the foundation up," he whispers. Still sucking air, Kwan is oblivious to the slight. He simply stares into the middle distance.

The one-minute break ends. Kwan resumes his workout. As he slowly chases Jones around in a circle, he fires off his arsenal: uppercuts, hooks, jabs. When the fight night comes, Kwan plans on throwing more jabs. That's the fundamental thing, and he hasn't done enough of it lately.

After a few more rounds, Kwan is ready to quit. He says he feels sharp, every bit as good as he did back in the beginning. That was almost 10 years ago, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. He was cooling his heels in jail when he saw a big Indian guy pounding on the heavy bag and suddenly found himself overwhelmed by thoughts of a boxing career: I want to do that. I could do that. The more he teased it out, the better it sounded. After all, he was always in fights. Why not get paid for it? Until then, Kwan's life had been dominated by a messy cycle of crime and punishment. The life of a boxer couldn't possibly be worse than the life he was living, could it?

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