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Original Issue

Up from Main Street

A skinny teenager from a one-pawnshop town has big designs on boxing
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Small towns wait lifetimes for heroes like this. Fathers spend years preparing sons for nights like this, and boxing draws life from nights like this, for a chance to whisper in a 52-year-old man's ear the news that his son, not someone else's, will one day be champion of the world.

This Saturday night in April, 3,200 people are on their feet in the Eldorado (Ill.) High School gym, trying to get a look at a 17-year-old local hero. Half of the fans in attendance seem to have become part of his entourage, and the other half stand and applaud his entrance to a ring set up in the middle of the gym floor.

"Aaaand in the red corner, the pride of Carmi, Illinois—Clarence 'Bones' Adams," the ring announcer calls out. Bones dances around the ring. His father, Clarence Sr., stands in the red corner, high-fiving the other cornermen, whipping the crowd into a frenzy, well aware that parked outside the gym is a Madison Square Garden network television truck, beaming images of his son, his future world champ, to a satellite in the heavens above.

And in the blue corner there seems to be a midget. No, it's Bones's opponent! Javier Diaz—all five feet, 118 lumpy pounds of him—looks up and finds himself in the ring with a bony kid (thus the nickname) with a Don King 'do.

"There's no use even giving Diaz advice," says Mario Lozano, 27, a fighter on the undercard who still can't recall the punch that Bones knocked him out with last November. "Diaz is going to lose. He could put together a thousand lucky punches, and he's not going to win."

Luck is not on the 27-year-old Diaz's side tonight. Thwack! Bones's right eye grows puffy from a Diaz left in the second round. Smack). Diaz's right hand slams into Bones's stomach. But it is all for naught. Bones gathers himself and turns on Diaz with fists so quick the combinations are heard, not seen. Diaz clinches whenever he can or taunts Bones, who replies with another flurry of punches. "I love it!" screams Tank Adams, Bones's older brother, who is seated at ringside. "Put a couple of his ribs in a bag for me!"

Tank is a former pro fighter who retired at 21 to become a self-described "professional pizza-eater." Just a few seats down from Tank sits Momma (Mary Ann, but no one calls her that) Adams, who tells an MSG p.r. man who has approached her with a question, "I'm not doing nothing until this fight's over."

And then it is over—a 12-round unanimous decision for Bones—and Momma watches as Tank and Bones and Clarence Sr. hug in the middle of the ring, and the ring announcer makes another appearance: "Ladies and Gentleman, the new WBC Bantamweight Continental Americas champion, Clarence "Bones' Adams."

Bones learned to fight when he was five. He had a 172-4 record as an amateur by the time he was 14, and three months shy his 15th birthday, he turned professional. No Golden Gloves. No Olympics. No childhood.

Clarence Sr. either lied or winked his way past state boxing commissions just to get Bones licensed to fight professionally. In his debut, in April 1990, Bones fought 36-year-old Simmie Black to a decision in Memphis for $100. From there, the Adamses loaded up their van and crisscrossed the country from South Carolina to Michigan to Missouri, putting their future world champ on any card that would have him.

The crowds ate him up. In Kansas City, which became a frequent stopping place, highlights from Bones's fights were shown on the local news. Then the TV people from Madison Square Garden boxing called from New York City. They gave Bones a two-year contract and told him to keep the haircut because it helped give their little white hope an identity.

And during all this, what happened to his schooling? Bones hasn't had the time. He trains three hours a day and needs his rest the other 21. The only class that Bones attended at Carmi-White County High was driver ed. and when his teacher suggested he should be in school, Bones compared their ages and incomes. Besides, the high school equivalency course Bones says he's taking via the mail will do.

Cocky? Unquestionably. But, as of May 8, Bones was 23-0-1, in the top 10 of the IBF, the WBA and the WBC bantamweight ratings, the holder of a title, and as his father says, "a full-time professional fighter."

"I ain't going to lie," Bones says. "I know this is what I was brought up to do. Mostly I do it because it's the only thing I can do where I ain't going to be working in McDonald's or stuff. I do it for the money. If any of these boxers tell you that they don't, well, they're lying. They have to be lying."

Lies have a hard time hiding out in Carmi, the Adamses' adopted hometown. That southern Illinois burg of 6,500 people has a downtown composed of three tired blocks. At Main and Church streets, the town's theater, The Main Attraction, is boarded shut, void of dreams. You want dreams? Check out the storefront across Church Street.

Through the window you can make out a boxing ring. Two years ago Clarence bought two empty stores and converted them into Bones's personal gym, while the Adams family lived in the tiny rooms in back. Come by any afternoon, and you're welcome to watch Bones work his speed bag or jump rope so fast he becomes a blur. You might want to sit down and chew the fat with Clarence, who has an easy chair stationed outside the ring. The mayor of Carmi drops by often. So do truck drivers passing through town looking to kill a little time.

Around the corner, on Main Street, is the Adamses' other dream, a little store with a BUY-SELL-TRADE sign in the window. The store is called Quick Cash, and it's a pawnshop, the kind of place where a man can sell his wedding ring for $100 and 30 days later buy it back for $135. "What made me want to do this is when we were down and out and I had to sell all my stuff and march off to the poorhouse," says Clarence.

In 1968 Clarence was living in Los Angeles and "running from my other old lady" Back Last when he met Mary Ann Garrett, who lived in an L.A. trailer park.

The trailer park wasn't far from the gym where heavyweight Ken Norton trained and where, for hours on end, Clarence Adams would watch guys beat up other guys.

A decade later, Clarence taught his two sons to defend themselves and their milk money on the school playground. "Two boys tried to jump me when I was five," says Bones. "I hit one and knocked him down, and the other one ran away."

In 1980 Clarence developed blood clots in his legs from too many hours of sitting in the tractor trailer he drove. Soon the job was gone, and the bank took the family's house. The Adamses moved to Kentucky, living first in Henderson, then in Spottsville, in a rickety shack of a house with no running water. About the only thing they had left was Tank, Bones and four fists between them.

As it turned out, that was all that was needed. Over the next six years, the Adamses crawled out of poverty. They raised and sold a few farm animals. Momma, Tank and Bones picked up trash in a K Mart parking lot. And everyone did any odd job that needed to be done. All the while the Adamses never stopped canvassing the Midwest, entering Tank and Bones in any peewee boxing tournament they could find. Often, the family slept in the car or ate a single meal each day.

"When Bones was eight years old, I knew he was going to be world champ," says Clarence.

By 1984 the Adamses were living 20 miles away, in Smith Mills, in another ramshackle house on a small plot with a few cows. There, guided by Clarence, the boys would spend countless hours sparring in a pasture, thereby writing a significant chapter of the Bones legend.

"That's how we say Bones got his footwork," says Tank.

"Yup, trying to stay out of the cow doody," says Clarence.

One day in 1986 a black man from the city met up with the white family from the country and took the family under his wing. Johnny (Ace) Smith was a promoter from Detroit who signed Tank to a contract, brought him to the Motor City and kept his pockets stuffed with cash. When the family joined Tank six months later, Smith gave Clarence a job training his stable of amateur fighters and opened up a world of sweaty gyms for Bones. "I would just get out of school and go train," recalls Bones. "On the weekends I would train four hours at a time."

But in March 1989 Smith was murdered. Rumors began that it was a mob hit, that Smith was selling drugs. The Adamses never questioned the source of, Smith's money then, nor do they now. "Johnny was a great man," says Bones. Today a huge portrait of a smiling Smith looks out at Bones from a wall in his gym, and the word ACE appears on Bones's boxing trunks.

Tank had built a respectable record of 16-2-1 hovering around 130 pounds but had blown $70,000 or so in earnings and handouts from Smith. Out of work again, Clarence accepted a fight for Tank for $4,500 in Johannesburg, South Africa, against Dingaan Thobela, who would later become the WBO lightweight champion. "We knew he was going to get whipped, before he went," says Clarence.

Sure enough, Tank went, Tank partied, and Tank got knocked silly before the light was stopped in the first round. But with the money Tank made, the family moved to Hvansville, Ind., and opened a pizza place—an appropriate tribute to Tank, who never met a pizza he didn't like. Two pizza places later, the family settled in Carmi and set its sights on some glory for Bones.

"I don't want Bones fighting past 23 or 24," Clarence says. "I'd like to see him be a champ, then quit, kick back and have a blast for 10 years. Then he could sit down and find a job."

This sounds as if Bones doesn't still live at home with his parents. As if Bones hasn't fought a shelfful of tomato cans. As if his ring earnings were more than $35,000 for 1991 and his purse were bigger than $8,500 for this year's Diaz fight—before expenses.

"I think he's spoiled a little bit. He thinks he's a big star," says Diaz, who is eating dinner in the restaurant at the local Days Inn motel the night before the fight and wearing a gray sweat suit.

Seated at the next table, Bones makes a more pronounced fashion statement. He is in a flashy leather jacket and has arranged his dirty blonde hair so that it points skyward. Three gold chains—one of which spells BONKS in huge block letters—hang around his neck. At home, a Honda motorcycle is parked in the driveway along with a 1990 Cadillac Eldorado.

"Some people around here think I'm spoiled and I never worked a day in my life and my father gives me everything," says Bones. "Well, they don't know. I remember those things when I was little. Once you go through that, you never forget. That's why I'm so mature. I never had the things a kid has. Now that I'm 17, I'm more like 25. Unlike my brother."

When asked if his dream is to be world champ, to leave Carmi and to lead a rich man's life, Bones says, "What I really want to do is open a gas station here. That's my dream."

His father nods and agrees. Sure Clarence hears what some people say behind his back: that he and Bones are going to blow the prize money; that he is going to rush Bones into a title as a super bantamweight—a division Bones doesn't yet have the power for; that a father cannot be a trainer, manager and protector at the same time. Clarence bristles at this, thinking of the many greedy hands waiting to pat Bones on the back.

And his response to those who have doubts about him and his plans for his son is always the same: His son, his future world champ, Clarence will say, is not about to become quick cash for someone else.

Sheriff Jerry O'Neal has stopped by Clarence's pawnshop this winter morning. It seems Tank forgot to pay a $400 repair bill on his car.

"Tell me something," says O'Neal, nodding toward Bones. "How come this one's straight and the other one ain't?"

Later, when Tank shows up at the gym to spar with Bones, he is greeted by Clarence, who mentions the sheriff's visit and asks about the repair bill.

"The preacher said he'd pay it."

The preacher is Tank's soon-to-be former father-in-law, and Clarence is satisfied with the answer. "That's what I told the sheriff."

Tank laces up his gloves, hoists on his headgear, steps into the ring and shows he is still a puncher. Sometimes he swings wildly, and sometimes he connects with powerful body shots, knocking Bones around but never hurting him. In the second round, Tank puts everything into a roundhouse right and punches at air. When Tank turns around, there's Bones, gone southpaw and tagging him with three straight left jabs that send Tank's headgear askew.

"Ugh, I hate it!" roars Tank, his voice muffled by the leather over his mouth.

Clarence leans back in his chair and watches with delight, rubbing his belly and counting the punches until the day his family reaches a paradise he thought it would never see.

PHOTO

MARK KATZMAN

Bones has already won a TV contract and fans aplenty.

PHOTO

MARK KATZMAN

While Bones trains in Carmi in his personal gym, Clarence has the perfect ringside seat.

PHOTO

COURTESY OF CLARENCE ADAMS

In defense of his school milk money, Bones began fighting at the age of five.