The Hand of Fate: Alfonzo Ratliff was dealt a bad hand before his boxing career had even begun

By Oliver Fennell

“THAT man hit me so hard with a left hook, it felt like my head and my brain was on fire. I can’t even explain it. It messed up all the vertebrae in my neck, so after he hit me with it, I couldn’t turn my head back round. I been hit hard by some of the best, but I never been hit like that. That was unbelievable. It took me six months before I got my neck back right and my head facing forward.”

Alfonzo Ratliff’s vivid description of facing a young Mike Tyson 38 years ago goes a long way towards explaining his tactics on the night, which were decried by the commentators who mocked him for “running”.

His counter: “I don’t hang on other people’s opinions about me because – would [i]you[i] have got in the ring with Mike Tyson back then? Or even now?

“You know what, though? It’s not me being cocky or anything like that, but if I had two good hands, Mike Tyson wouldn’t have beat me.”

That’s not the typical excuse of a sore loser blaming a defeat on an injury. Ratliff [i]really didn’t[i] have two good hands – still doesn’t, and never did throughout his entire boxing career. It’s something nobody noticed while he was wearing boxing gloves, but it’s the first thing I notice when I arrive at his house in suburban Chicago and he extends his right for a handshake: it’s not so much a hand as a claw.

Yes, he can make a fist with it, but at rest, the hand is crooked; bone jutting out above the wrist and tendons pulling the fingers into gnarly positions. Ratliff says it’s been like that since he was a teenager when he intervened in a street fight and got stabbed in the arm for his troubles, causing the nerve damage that gave him what would be a handicap in any circumstances, and a huge one in a fighting sport – which makes it all the more bizarre that he didn’t even start boxing until after that happened.

Alfonzo Ratliff’s hand

“I was always a good street fighter, so when I saw this situation where a guy was killing a guy, I jumped in,” he says. “I didn’t know them, but this guy was getting stabbed up. I was a little tipsy, too. He stabbed me in the arm and it messed all my nerves up. That’s how I got this claw hand. I was like 16 or 17, before I started boxing.”

“I was into basketball back then. I became world champion in boxing, but I was a better basketball player than I was a fighter. But after I got stabbed and this happened [the damage to his hand], I couldn’t dribble the ball no more.”

It might not have been the most obvious switch, taking a handicapped hand into a new sport in which the hands are just as important as they are in basketball, but Ratliff already had a love for boxing, so to him, the transition came naturally.

“Back then, we had a black and white TV,” he says. “I used to watch Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake La Motta, Muhammad Ali. Those were my heroes. I said to myself: ‘One day, I’m gonna do the same things they did.’”

Ratliff may not have hit quite those heights, but he did win a world championship, reigning as WBC and ‘lineal’ cruiserweight king in 1985, as well as going back and forth to heavyweight, where he battled several of the biggest names of the time in a nine-year career in which he had 34 bouts (25 wins) and weighed anything from 186lbs to 222lbs, against opponents ranging from 177lbs to 239lbs.

Of how this misshapen hand affected his boxing, Ratliff explains: “My hand hurt in every fight, and hurt worse afterwards. My hand had to be specially wrapped, but even so, the gloves don’t fit; they’re too small. I was hurting my hand in training, then fighting with a hurt hand. I’d hit a guy, and this part would be up like that,” he says, gesturing to the wrist bones and indicating a couple of inches. “It would take three or four months to go down.

“I wasn’t able to manage my ability as a fighter. Really, I shouldn’t have even been in the ring. Every time I fought, my hand got worse. But I loved boxing, so I was willing to take that pain.

“Getting stabbed was a blessing and a curse. It was a curse to me because I wasn’t as good [at boxing] as I could have been. With two hands, I would have been devastating. With one hand, I did the best that I could. But it was a blessing because I might not have started boxing without it. Boxing saved my life. It gave me something to do; a dream to fulfill. It kept me focused. When you’re not focused, when you’re on the streets out there, especially here in Chicago, you can get into something real quick. And even though I was in a handicapped position, I still became world champion.”

Another handicap, if it can be seen as such, was a mental one. Perhaps in a subconscious effort to make up for his damaged hand, Ratliff says he was prone to overtraining. “I’m obsessive,” he says. “If you ask me to do 10 rounds, I’ll do 200 rounds; I’ll set out to run five miles and I’ll run 60 miles. It does more damage than it helps. I need someone to watch me.

“Back then, we didn’t know about rest days, we thought you should just train as much as you can. I was in a rush because I knew my career wouldn’t last so long, physically. I was doing damage to myself because I was always overdoing it.”

He blames this for his first defeat. “Tim Witherspoon was my first loss [tko 7 in December 1981]. He was a heavyweight and I was a cruiserweight, but it really made no difference to me. If I was a flyweight, I still would have tried it. Heavy or light-heavy, cruiserweight, it didn’t make no difference. Short, tall, heavy, skinny; I just wanted to fight.

“I got called up for Witherspoon on the [Atlantic City] Boardwalk. I ran up and down that Boardwalk over and over again; I was running the whole ocean, looking out at all this water, then going down to run on the sand. I overdid it; I had nothing left; I was defeated before the bell. I hate to say it, but I left everything in that damn ocean. Sometimes a person can be doing certain things, but they don’t get the truth until certain things happen to them.”

Ratliff did manage to temper his enthusiasm a little, to learn to not simply train hard but also train smart, in the wake of what happened against Witherspoon, but always ranked his conditioning as one of his best attributes. Still, this calorie-burning work ethic was perhaps counterproductive to his ultimate ambition.

“I wanted the heavyweight championship, but I just couldn’t put on the weight,” he says. “I never could put no weight on, and I ate like a pig.”

That didn’t stop him trying several times to gatecrash the heavyweight top tier, though each attempt was met with defeat, with Pinklon Thomas (tko 10, March 1983), Tyson (tko 2, September 1986) and Gary Mason (tko 6, February 1988) also proving too big and too strong.

At cruiserweight, though, Ratliff was, as a 6ft 4ins upright box-fighter with long arms and fast feet, a different proposition. Wins over the likes of Elijah Tillery, Craig Bodzianowski (twice) and Ricky Parkey attest to this, and his signature success came on June 6, 1985, against cruiserweight great Carlos De Leon, who saw the second of his four WBC reigns ended by an inspired Ratliff.

The Chicago man made the most of his height and reach advantages against the favored De Leon, his long jabs and scything hooks and uppercuts catching the eye as the shorter champion sought to counter with speed and volume. While De Leon was the superior talent and more experienced operator, Ratliff’s desire was palpable, and his endeavor was rewarded with a split decision after an entertaining, back-and-forth bout.

“Everybody had all this confidence in De Leon,” he says. “It was all De Leon this, De Leon that. I felt in my heart that if I gave everything to it, stayed focused, I could do it – and that’s what I did. I did all the right things a good fighter should do to win a fight: I trained good, ate good, rested good and stayed focused.”

Inevitably, a hard fight like that came at a cost, with Ratliff as usual left nursing that sore hand, but then having to make an immediate mandatory defense. Noticeably lacking the desire he had shown against De Leon, Ratliff was often outworked by underdog Bernard Benton and surrendered the title via unanimous decision, little more than three months after winning it.

“Benton caught me at the right time, because I defended my title too fast,” he says. “I don’t make excuses. Mike Tyson beat me because he was Mike Tyson. Nobody else ever done that against me. But [against Benton] I wasn’t healed, but they forced me to fight him. But then I look at it like if you’ve got a mandatory fight, you should give him his chance the way someone gave you your chance. It was his turn and I wasn’t going to deny him the same opportunity I had.”

Ratliff’s next notable outing was that painful night against Tyson, two months before ‘Iron’ Mike won his first ‘world’ title, and from there he fought on for another three years, winning and losing in equal measure against a good level of opposition at both cruiser and heavyweight, before finally bowing out in 1989, when a knockout defeat to Lee Roy Murphy ended his hopes of returning to title contention at 33.

“I was just having physical problems catching up with me by then,” he says. “When you’re younger, you can work through it, but as you get older, it gets worse. I just wasn’t supposed to be boxing anyway. If you have any kind of disadvantage going into that ring, you should think twice. But sometimes people love something so much, they have to take a chance. But by then [after fighting Murphy], I was slowing down, so I knew to leave it alone.”

Like most ex-fighters, Ratliff knew boxing would try to tempt him back – and it still does, even at 68. “I’ve forgotten about it mostly,” he says. “I worked several jobs [since retiring from boxing]. I was an Amtrak mechanic and I worked on the GSK production line for bottles of medication. I’ve trained some kids; I still do when I run across guys who need help, who want me to show them some different things.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in the gym, but I’m thinking about getting back there. At my age, when you sit down too much, it’s not good. But I need to be careful – I’m still compulsive. I don’t move a lot, because when I start, I don’t stop. If I go out that door for a run now, you won’t see me again today.”

And that compulsion manifests right in front of me, as Ratliff talks about training and then, with apparent seriousness, about fighting again.

“I’m thinking about it right now,” he says. “A lot of these guys coming up, I could whoop. No, I’m serious. They’re not conditioned at all. What kind of chance would they have against someone with my attitude, my gumption?

“I might not take a punch to the solar plexus, as I haven’t been doing too much ab work, and my knees are gone, but I’ve never had my teeth knocked out, never had a swollen eye. Boxing costs you a lot of brain cells, and the way I fought, the guys I fought, I really should be punch-drunk, so I’m very, very thankful God sheltered and protected me.

“I’m a lot more experienced and knowledgeable now. The older you get, the smarter you get, but you tell that to these young guys today, they wouldn’t even understand it.

“Imagine me in the ring with these young guys? Man, I’d run right through ‘em!”

Ratliff needn’t be reminded that even in his athletic prime of 38 years ago a young guy by the name of Mike Tyson ran right through him.

“Even now I have problems with my neck; it came from that punch,” he admits.

As fanciful as it may be for him to talk of beating today’s young contenders, at least it shows Ratliff is now able to do something he couldn’t as a 30-year-old after facing Tyson: He can look forward.

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