This was the evening for which Craig Bodzianowski had been waiting 18 months, the end of a long and tortuous road back to the prize ring.
On May 31, 1984, the promising young heavyweight (13-0, 11 KOs) had mangled his right foot in a motorcycle accident near his home in the southwestern Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, and nine days later, with his consent, doctors cut off the leg nine inches below the knee. To get back to the ring he had pedaled thousands of miles on a bike and pumped tons of iron. He had sparred dozens of rounds in the gym and done so much roadwork that he had whittled his time for the mile down to a remarkable 6:13.
By the night of Dec. 14, Bodzianowski (pronounced boh-jah-NOW-ski), now a 186-pound cruiserweight, had arrived. As the 24-year-old fighter stepped into the ring at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Ill., accenting his entrance with a fancy shuffle to the tune of Bad to the Bone, his theme song, the mostly white crowd of 2,750 roared. The entrance of his opponent, Francis Sargent, a black highway maintenance worker from Peoria, III. drew little attention. In his last fight before the accident, Bodzianowski had won a 10-round decision over Sargent (8-11).
The tumult ended abruptly at the opening bell, when a curious silence fell over the arena, as if the crowd was holding its collective breath. "Everyone was looking at Craig's foot," says his manager, Jerry Lenza. Sargent appeared to be looking only for a place to run. Bodzianowski, a plodder all his career, stalked Sargent from post to post.
Finally, from a distant seat, a voice bellowed: "Come on, ya big Polack, hit him!"
At that moment, the crowd got back into the fight, and Bodzianowski quickly picked up the pursuit, moving stolidly if not gracefully forward and planting the artificial foot to throw the right. After a few inconsequential flurries, with less than a minute gone in the second round, Bodzianowski caught Sargent against the ropes, hit him with a right hand that grazed his left eye, then hit him with two quick hooks. Sargent dropped to the canvas, holding his left eye.
Referee Stanley Berg counted him out at 1:05. As Sargent rose at the completion of the count, he was crying to Berg, "Stanley, my eye! My eye!" Dr. Michael Treister, the ringside doctor, examined the eye and found it watering, its cornea scratched. "It was all red," Treister says. "He had his eye open and the leather glove skidded across the front of it." Whatever, Bodzianowski had come back from the operating table, hitched up his seven-pound prosthesis and had won his 14th straight fight, and his first as a one-legged boxer. He was, and is, a ring curiosity, an eminently marketable commodity. And although he hasn't fought since, largely as a result of extensive oral surgery, he hopes to make a bout this month.
If the whole episode smacked of a kind of made-for-TV movie—in fact, Bodzianowski has signed on with the William Morris Agency, which is aiming for just that, among other things—what ensued was a twist quite as bizarre but a lot less uplifting. Five days later, after returning from New York, where Sargent had appeared with Bodzianowski on Good Morning America, Sargent told Lacy J. Banks, the boxing writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, that he had thrown the fight. He claimed that he had felt intimidated at the arena, and out of fear for himself, his wife and friends in the audience, had gone into the water.
"I threw the fight," Sargent was quoted as saying, adding, "He did not hit me hard enough to knock me out. I quit. From early in the fight, I was looking for a reason to fall down." Sargent told Banks that during the week before the fight, he had received threatening phone calls with messages such as, "Nigger, you better not win." When he walked into the high school arena, Sargent said, "I was made to feel very uncomfortable by the fans."
No sooner had Sargent made that splash than he began backstroking. Sargent recanted his story, saying that he was misunderstood, that he really meant to say he "blew" the fight, not "threw" it. He offered no further rhymes to explain what he had meant when he told Banks, in the tape-recorded interview, that he had been looking for a reason to lie down early in the fight, that he had gone down willingly, that he had let Berg count him out and that he was ashamed of what he had done.
By then, however, the state had launched an investigation into the matter. Frank Glienna, the supervisor of athletics for the Illinois Department of Registration and Education, which is conducting the investigation, says, "Was there a conspiracy as far as the promoter wanting him to lose and paying him? So far we have uncovered nothing to that effect."
Sitting in the living room of his Peoria home recently, Sargent appeared confused and bewildered by it all. He stuck with his threw-blew story, saying he said one but meant the other. "I blew the fight," Sargent said. "I didn't fight the way I normally fight.... I could have performed better." He said that he went down after Bodzianowski hit him in the eye but that it was not a knockout punch.
"After I went down, I laid there," he said. "By the time I got to my feet, the fight was over. That's all I have to tell you.... I never let them count me out. If Mr. Banks put that in [his article], he probably heard me say it, but I did not directly say that."
"You didn't mean it?" he was asked.
"I didn't mean what I said if I said that. I did not let them count me out. They counted me out."
"Could you have gotten up before you got up?"
"I don't know," Sargent says. "I'd say no. I don't know. I was just down from my eye being closed anyway.... It's a hard question. Whether or not I would have continued if the referee hadn't done his counting, I can't answer that."
"Were you looking for a reason to fall down?"
"Well, I don't know," he said. "A question like that...." Finally, he said, "I'm just trying my best to forget all this stuff.... The more I talk, the more it's getting confused." All Sargent really wants, he says, is another chance to fight Bodzianowski. "At a neutral site," says his manager, Jerry Moore, who is white. While observers at ringside that night said they heard no racial taunts, Moore says that Sargent got unnerved by the crowd. Moore says, "He was worried about the crowd and not the fight...."
The controversy generated by Sargent's remarks, which made eye-catching news nationwide, drew much more attention to what had gone on at Shepard High on Dec. 14. It also raised a number of questions, chief among them being: Is this just another example of the shameless exploitation of boxers by flesh peddlers? Who would license a one-legged man to fight and why? Who is Craig Bodzianowski anyway, and is he for real? What does he want?
"I want to fight for the cruiserweight title," says Bodzianowski, who has the looks of a male model and is nicknamed the Gator (which stems from a Lacoste-type alligator he had tattooed on his left breast as a joke in high school). "Then we'll see what happens when I'm sitting on the title for a while. Defend it a couple of times and maybe go heavyweight. Getting ranked and getting a title shot mean more than anything has ever meant to me. More than my leg. I wanted it before the accident, but I want it twice as much now. From everybody saying it hasn't been done, it can't be done, that just made me work harder and harder and harder. I'll show you. I'm going for it."
On that May day almost 20 months ago, Bodzianowski was driving 15 miles an hour down a side street on his Kawasaki 440 motorcycle when an apparently parked car made a U-turn into him. Bodzianowski's right ankle was smashed by the car's bumper. "I jumped up and fell down," he says. "With the shock and excitement of it, I didn't feel it. I got up and fell down again. I looked down and [the foot] was shattered. Bones shattered all over the place. Blood pouring out."
Within a week, the foot having turned almost black, a doctor told him he had two choices: To save the foot would require a dozen operations, and even then he would need a cane to get around on it. If the foot and part of the leg were amputated, he could be fitted with a prosthesis and have perhaps 85% of his previous mobility. Bodzianowski thought about it for just a few minutes and said, "Adios. Cut it off."
Just about everyone figured that Bodzianowski's boxing career was over, but Craig never even considered that possibility. "I've got to get in shape," he told Lenza a couple of days after the operation. "I've got to get back." That October, prosthetist Mike Quigley fitted him with an artificial foot and told him not to walk on it without crutches for at least three weeks.
At home that same day, Craig jogged around the house on the artificial limb, exulting to his mother, Gloria, "Check this out, Mom. Can you believe this?" He played racquetball that evening, at least until the severed bone pushed through the skin. That set back his recovery three months. Bodzianowski stayed in shape by swimming with a high school swim team. Fitted for a second prosthesis in January, he started running on it too soon and lost another three months.
It was not until last June that he was able to climb into a ring again to spar. By then he was bicycling 90 miles a week, playing softball, driving himself to get in shape. In October, Lenza alerted the five-member Illinois State Athletic Commission, which licenses boxers, that Bodzianowski was convinced he could make a ring comeback.
"My immediate reaction was to say no, due to the controversy it was going to create," says board member James Lahey, a Chicago fireman.
"I was against it on the broad general principle of a person with one leg being in the sport of boxing," recalls Dr. Glenn Bynum, a board member who is also a ringside physician. "There was the fact that he might not be mobile enough to get away from punches and that he might be at a certain disadvantage. I didn't think he could do it in that competitive a sport. I resisted."
Glienna, a state official who implements board policy, was equally opposed when he heard of Bodzianowski's plan to return to the ring. "We took a very negative look at it," Glienna says. "My first thought was 'How in the hell does he get leverage with that foot?' "
Cedric Kushner, who had promoted all of Bodzianowski's pro fights, wasn't easily swayed, either. When Lenza called to tell him that the Gator needed his aid, Kushner said, "Are you crazy?"
What finally turned the board around were the opinions of four physicians and Quigley, all of whom urged that Bodzianowski be given a license. Among them were Treister, an orthopedic surgeon who has 10 years' experience as a ringside doctor, and Robert Eilers, Bodzianowski's own orthopedist.
"I didn't have the least little worry about it," Treister says. "I would be much more concerned about a person who had a history of being knocked out three months before, or had two or three previous knockouts. Or a torn rotator cuff. Or a neck problem. Those things would be of more concern to me than an amputation."
Bodzianowski is unquestionably at greater risk in the ring now than when he had two feet. He has some difficulty backpedaling, and stamina is also a potential problem. "Energy expenditure with that prosthesis is much greater than if he had a normal leg," Eilers says. "It can increase his expenditure 50, 60 percent." There is also the danger of the prosthesis breaking or coming loose.
"But do I tell him to quit living?" Eilers asks. "Boxing to him is his life. He has something to live for, something he wants to achieve. How can I take that away? I can't."
Neither, as it turned out, could the board, which unanimously granted Bodzianowski a license. Says Lahey, "The whole board molded into the feeling 'Let's give him a chance.' " But Bynum admits, "It's a calculated risk on our part, no doubt about it."
Surprisingly, Bodzianowski may be more graceful in the ring now than he was before the accident. "My honest opinion is that he moves better than when he had both legs," says Tony Arvia, the trainer of the USBA's middleweight champion, Johnny Collins. "Maybe the accident made him conscious of his footwork. He seems to have better balance. He's much stronger. And he's gotten smarter. How it's going to be when he gets in against a strong guy who can force him backward remains to be seen."
Bodzianowski trained in New Jersey for the Sargent fight, sparring with Lee Roy Murphy, the IBF's cruiserweight champion, and Kip Kane, a 218-pound heavyweight. Carmen Graziano, who has worked with three world champions—Wallace Smith, Joey Giardello and Mike Rossman—thought he had seen everything until he sent Kane after Bodzianowski. At first Kane was reluctant to spar with a one-legged fighter, but a Bodzianowski jab and hook snapped him to attention.
"I didn't think that he would have any balance or any kind of strength," Kane says. "I figured if I got inside him, I'd be able to push him around very easily. But he's got leverage with that foot. A lot of strength. He hit me, and I thought, This guy's for real.' "
Graziano watched the sparring sessions in astonishment. "I've never seen anything like this," Graziano says. "There was no limp there. He's mobile, agile, versatile and hostile. This guy's better than 90 percent of fighters who have both limbs, and for many, many reasons. A wicked hook—that's where his power is. I've been around 42 years, and if I hadn't seen it, there is nobody who could have gotten me to believe it. Any boxing commission that would deny this guy.... I'd go to the fore for him. It's not because I'm sympathetic or sentimental. It's because he's there. That leg doesn't bother him. In his mind he doesn't have that [artificial] leg."
In fact, at one point he didn't. "Once he was sparring and his foot broke," says Kane. "The thing fell right off. Talk about something that will freak you out. It was no big thing to him. There he sat with his foot in his lap, talking to me like it was just another day at work."
From New Jersey, Bodzianowski returned home for the fight with Sargent that, because of the controversy, ended up proving nothing. Kushner has been trying to line up a fight against Matthew Saad Muhammad, the former light heavyweight champion who is attempting a comeback as a cruiserweight. He is also seeking a fight with Young Joe Louis, who three years ago lost a 15-round decision to Ossie Ocasio for the WBA junior heavyweight title. "I'm treating Craig like any other fighter who has been off 18 months and has seven or eight years left to fight if he so desires," Kushner says. "There's no need for him to fight King Kong tomorrow just to try to prove something. I want him to fight somebody who's not only perceived to be competent but who is competent. We're obviously under scrutiny."
One scrutinizer is former heavyweight champion Ernie Terrell who says, "No doubt about it, Bodzianowski's tough. He's the kind of kid who would fight you if he had no arms. But I just can't figure a guy with a deficiency like that competing. Naturally, he could compete at some level, but where would it stop? It's so hard to draw the line once you let him out there. You just cannot give a guy a license to compete at a world level in a contact sport like that. It would have been very hard for me to make the decision that they made."
Terrell cites another difficulty Bodzianowski will meet in trying to line up future fights. He says, "I would never take a fight with a guy with one leg. I mean, how could you win?"
For those who have never seen Bodzianowski in the ring, the idea of such a fighter taking on world-class competition defies logic. Ray Arcel, the 86-year-old retired fight trainer and acknowledged dean of the profession, simply cannot imagine it. "I can't fathom the idea of him getting in there with a top contender today," says Arcel. "To get away from a punch, to move, to make a fella miss, to counter—these are the fundamentals of boxing. How can you balance yourself on one leg?"
Bodzianowski dismisses such talk: "Say whatever you think, I just put it aside. I don't even think of that. I'm a hungry man."
Bodzianowski has adjusted to the loss of his foot, and in the ring may even have better footwork than he did before the accident.
Sargent at first said he took a dive against Bodzianowski.
Even at the height of the Bear season, Bodzianowski was a hit on Chicago call-in shows.
Bodzianowski's nickname is the Gator, and he has a Lacoste-like tattoo and a pet to prove it.