One early morning in 1985, Eugene Roderick (Rock) Newman awoke in his house in Princeton, N.J., with an irresistible urge to go boating. That it was the depth of winter, ice-fishing weather in New Jersey, was only a minor impediment to Newman. "He likes to go boating," says his wife, Demetria, recalling her favorite Rock Newman story, "and he had a jones to go that morning."
The Newmans ended up on the shore of a half-frozen lake, at a place called Bernard's Boat Yard, whose doors were closed for the season. On the beach were canoes chained together and piled on racks. Tracing the chains, Rock found one canoe that had been left untethered, and he promptly wrestled it into the water. He then spotted two canoe paddles crossed above the boathouse door, as decoration, and he climbed up and unfastened them with a screwdriver. "One was cracked and the other was broken," Demetria says. The couple climbed into the canoe, and off" they went. An hour or so later, they were paddling happily around the lake when they heard the roar of an engine and looked up to see a man on a motorcycle careening wildly down the bike path that traced the high embankment above the shore. The rider leaped from his machine and started waving his arms and screaming at them, shouting something about stealing his canoe.
In his various incarnations—from colicky, caterwauling infant to car salesman and radio talk-show host to telephone junkie—Rock Newman had never known a speechless moment. He looked up at the frantically waving motorcyclist, and in his best FM voice, a soft southern timbre acquired in the sticks of Maryland, he intoned, "Bernie? Is that you?"
The hands fluttered down. "Yeah," said the man. "I'm Bernie."
Now feigning exasperation, Newman bobbed his head and said, "Where in the hell have you been?"
"I had to pick up a prescription for my kid," Bernie said.
"I've been trying to find you all morning!" "Oh, I'm sorry," Bernie said. "Where did you get the paddles?"
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever dealt with Newman that after having lifted Bernie's canoe and paddles, he not only put the man on the defensive, but he extracted an apology from him too. The tale is vintage Newman. "Very typical," Demetria says.
Today Newman is the manager of the heavyweight champion of the world, Riddick Bowe, and also his teacher, confessor, protector and Svengali. Since Nov. 13, when Bowe won the undisputed title from Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas, Newman has been blustering here and bluffing there, negotiating this deal and signing that, and mocking his rivals while avenging unforgotten grievances. He is mercurial and articulate, often angry and obstreperous and forever unpredictable.
At times the spectacle has been rather unseemly, as when Newman lunged toward an Associated Press photographer, Douglas Pizac, who was on the ring apron shortly after Bowe won the title. At times it has been low comedy, as when Newman wisely ducked a commitment to the World Boxing Council to fight the winner of the October 1992 Lennox Lewis-Razor Ruddock fight—a commitment he had agreed to keep if Bowe won the title—and then called a press conference in London, Lewis's hometown, where Bowe deposited his WBC belt in a garbage can before the organization had the chance to strip him and give the belt to Lewis. And at times it has been a show of artful dodging, as when Newman deflected the heat he got in the aftermath of February's Bowe-Michael Dokes one-round fiasco by grandly proposing a $32 million, winner-take-all fight contract with Lewis, which he had mined with terms so unacceptable to Lewis's camp that the contract blew up at first touch. In the midst of all this, Newman worked out a six-fight deal with Time Warner Sports (HBO and TVKO) that could ultimately gross $100 million for Bowe. It is potentially the most lucrative individual sports contract in history.
"Let me make one thing clear," Newman says. "I have but one agenda as Rid-dick Bowe's manager, and that is to make him as much money as possible in the shortest period of time. Everything I do is geared to that." Of course, manager Newman gets nearly a third of Bowe's take, but no one in the game would seriously argue that the man has not earned his cut of the action. Butch Lewis, Newman's onetime mentor in the business—they went two years without speaking until a recent reconciliation—says, "Of the high-profile players, I don't think anyone could have done a better job with Bowe than Rock has."
Less than four years ago Newman took over Bowe, a down and discredited silver medalist in the 1988 Olympics: Boxing observers had questioned Bowe's heart after his loss to Lennox Lewis in the gold medal round. Newman then helped persuade a reluctant Eddie Futch to take over Bowe's training and guided the fighter through the perilous straits of the heavyweight division, right up through the title fight and the lucrative deals that lay beyond it. Along the way Newman fended off cruising sharks, battled the WBC over Bowe's ranking, nearly went broke supporting him and fought for attention and respect with a passion that now and then suggested he had lost his grip. "If I wasn't the maniac I am—the defiant rebel, the maverick—I'd have been swallowed up a long time ago," Newman says. "Swallowed up or lost."
Given all they've been through together, Newman and Bowe have grown close outside the ring, sharing not only the fame and perquisites that come with the heavyweight championship, but also Newman's perception of what a champion should be: a visible, influential world figure on a world stage. Late in January, while Bowe was training for Dokes, Newman was busier mapping out Bowe's approaching tour of Africa and Europe than he was preparing him for the fight. There was the trip to Somalia, the meeting with Nelson Mandela in South Africa and even an audience in Rome with the pope. Bowe was sitting in Newman's room one day when the manager heard through a Vatican emissary that the pope would be expecting them on Ash Wednesday. Newman leaped up when he got the call.
"Bo Diddley!" Newman cried to Bowe. "We're going to have an audience with the pope."
"What does that mean, an audience?" asked Bowe.
"It means we have a meeting with him," said Newman. "Maybe 10 or 15 minutes."
The fighter smiled softly. "Man, we're going to be blessed now," he said. "Hang-in' out with the pope."
"What I hope will happen with Riddick is there will be a universalism about him," Newman says. "These kinds of things will validate Riddick's world reign and elevate his status as a world figure."
That Bowe could even begin to realize these goals is as much a testament to the 41-year-old Newman's wits as it is to his resilience. The man has an unshakable knowledge of who he is and where he is from, and an abiding sense of his own importance. "I never wanted for self-esteem," Newman says. "I never lacked a sense of purpose." Newman was the last of eight children, six boys and two girls, born to Gertrude and Spencer Newman. His father was a cement-truck driver by trade and a bootlegger on the side. A consummate manipulator with a gift for controlling a situation, Rock knew instinctively how to get what he wanted. "The cryingest baby I've ever seen," Gertrude says. "He cried from morning to night for a year and a half. Growing up, he always had to have his own way. If he didn't get it, he'd get mad and pout."
The boy was raised in Brandywine, Md., in the family's modest rural homestead, a five-room clapboard house with a privy out back near the henhouse. He had the run of the place and enjoyed his life as none of his siblings had. "My mother spoiled the hell out of him," says Newman's sister Vivian Harley, a librarian. "We all had to work, but not him. All he had to do was study and play. I told mother the other day, 'Mom, you have only one child, not eight. The rest of us are friends and acquaintances.' When Rock was wearing London Fog coats, we were wearing hand-me-downs."
Newman describes his childhood as idyllic—"Well-loved and well-fed, I always thought that I was special," he says—but his early years were not without pain. His father, says Newman, "would drink and not be able to not get drunk. He would drive his pickup truck into the yard, make it home by some act of God, and he'd get out and fall down beside the truck. I have never tasted a drop of alcohol in my life. I never, ever wanted to be out of control like that. There were times when I was embarrassed by it, but it didn't stop me from loving him or being proud of him."
As searing as such moments were for Newman, nothing carried the sting of growing up black in southern Maryland. That was particularly true for a young black man with crisp blue eyes and skin so fair that strangers routinely took him to be white, as they still do today. "I have seen and felt racism like most blacks have never seen," says Newman. "Raw, naked, nasty racism. People let their true feelings out around me, not knowing who I am. Guys talking on and on about 'niggers.' I've heard it all." And he is not alone. The whole Newman clan could pass for white—Gertrude says the four grandparents also looked Caucasian—but the family is black, Newman says, and he is fervently proud of the heritage, often wearing traditional African garb. "That is what I am," he says. "That is my culture. That is my history. That is my upbringing. That is my soul."
Newman attended predominantly black Howard University on a baseball scholarship, and his .372 career batting average set a school record. For years boxing was only an enthusiasm that he shared with his father as a fan. It wasn't until he was 30, after brief careers of selling cars, announcing sports on radio and counseling students at Howard, that the boxing business drew him in, first as the manager of light heavyweight Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Qawi), then as Butch Lewis's public relations man, and finally as the rescuer of the rudderless Riddick Bowe. "He needed me, and that was very appealing and attractive to me," Newman says of Bowe. "I saw him in a very vulnerable position, and I instantly connected with his vulnerability."
As Bowe rose, so rose Newman, leading interference while warding off pursuers, scratching together fights and funds and sparring partners. "I've spent night after night without sleep, getting him opponents," Newman says. "I've paid Riddick's purse, his opponent's purse and the opponent's manager's travel expenses. I've fed the opponent." Newman has drawn upon the diversity of his past to help him make his way. During his radio days he learned the workings of the media, and no manager in boxing plays the press to greater effect. He lives by a few simple rules: "Never allow the situation to become boring. Make people have an opinion of you—good, bad but never indifferent. Confront people's ideas. Be accessible. And controversy sells."
Newman has sold controversy as he once sold cars. Take, for instance, the night of Oct. 29, 1991, in Washington, D.C., when Elijah Tillery was disqualified after the first round for kicking Bowe. When the two began scuffling, Newman leaped on the ring apron to aid his fighter. In all the confusion Newman ended up folding his arms around Tillery's neck and Hipping him backward, over the ropes and into the crowd.
While Newman was a star of the highlight films for those matches, he was busy fighting larger battles in boxing's corridors of power. A year ago, with Mike Tyson off to jail and everyone jockeying to get a shot at heavyweight champion Holy-field, Newman says that WBC president Josè Sulaimàn quietly urged him to retain Don King as his promoter. "Don is the best," Sulaimàn, a longtime King ally, told him. "He's made the most money for fighters." Having come so far with Bowe, Newman said no. "Why should I work with King or anyone else?" he said. The WBC's answer came in February 1992, when its ratings committee, in a split vote, leapfrogged Razor Ruddock, a King fighter who had lost twice to Tyson, ahead of Bowe in its rankings. Newman says the move deprived Bowe of a guaranteed shot at the title. Newman called Sulaimàn and said, "You are a dirty, no-good——! You forced Riddick out because I would not do business with Don King." Sulaimàn denied this vehemently, but Newman promised revenge. He eventually got it at that garbage can in London, vowing that Bowe would never fight Lewis as long as Lewis wore the WBC belt.
Desperately looking for another avenue to Holyfield, Newman found himself last spring sitting in a conference room in the Manhattan offices of HBO. Newman had been carrying on a long battle with the cable giant, believing that Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports, had been patronizing toward him and his fighter, offering them piddling sums of money. Abraham disagrees. "When Riddick started to fight on HBO, Rock had one value that he thought Riddick should be paid, and we had another," he says. "It was never patronizing. I think he misread what we do here. This is not the Salvation Army for handouts."
The tension between Newman and Abraham culminated in that conference room, where they were meeting to iron out a deal for a fight between Bowe and South African-born Pierre Coetzer, then the World Boxing Association's No. 1-ranked heavyweight challenger. The fight would be offered as a cofeature with the junior welterweight title bout between Pernell Whitaker and Rafael Pineda on July 18, 1992. The meeting began poorly when Abraham offered $400,000 for Bowe, and it descended steadily from there. Newman ranted at the offer. "This is an insult!" he said. "You are disrespecting me. You arc disrespecting Riddick!"
"Rock!" Abraham said. "Pernell Whitaker is fighting for the title! Who ever heard of Pierre Coetzer in the U.S.? You're the cofeature. You're getting exposure. And I don't think $400,000 is insulting!"
Newman became increasingly agitated. Abraham's voice rose. The dialogue grew so heated and profane that the seven other people in the room sat listening in stunned, awkward silence. "It was like two rhinos," Abraham says. "Everybody moved out of the way."
Cedric Kushner, Coetzer's promoter, watched in disbelief. "I've had nicer meetings with my enemies," he says.
The whole deal nearly blew up entirely when Abraham finally said, "Putting a Bowe-Coetzer fight on in July will add not one rating point to Whitaker-Pineda."
That did it. Newman jumped from his chair, his face wine red, and bolted for the door. Kushner chased him, fearing Newman would blow the deal. He almost did. "Screw 'em!" Newman said. It took some mollifying by Kushner before Newman decided to return to the room, but return he did. When Abraham raised the offer to $650,000, Newman grudgingly agreed. "It still wasn't enough," he says.
But it was the wisest managing move Newman had ever made. Bowe beat Coetzer, and the victory ultimately carried him to Holyfield in the fall. To the $100 million promise. To where Newman and Bowe arc today. "We're on a roll," Newman says. "The wind's at our back. Everything we've touched has turned to gold." To be sure, Bowe is the only heavyweight champion in the world to have won his title in the ring. For now, at least, the rest of the division is right where Newman wants it. On the defensive, up the creek. And Rock has all the paddles.
During an African tour with Bowe, Newman organized a sack race at an orphanage in Somalia.
JOEL RICHARDSON/WASHINGTON POST
After the title fight Newman lit into Pizac (white vest), then helped the new champ with his belts.
[See caption above.]
Newman, still Mom's favorite, has come far, from his tiny birthplace to the world of the stretch limo.
Rock and Demetria exchanged friendly jabs in their D.C. neighborhood.