AT 24, UNDEFEATED ADRIEN BRONER, NICKNAMED THE PROBLEM, HAS ALREADY WON THREE WORLD TITLES AND IS POISED TO BECOME BOXING'S NEXT BIG THING—IF HIS OUTSIDE-THE-RING EXCESSES DON'T DERAIL HIM ALONG THE WAY
THERE ARE two Adrien Broners, and on a chilly November night, in the cozy confines of a two-room boxing gym on the sprawling grounds of Fort Carson, a U.S. Army installation in Colorado Springs, both are on full display. First is the fighter, the dynamic young welterweight who recalls a young Floyd Mayweather. Since turning pro in 2008, Broner, just 24, has won his first 27 fights. He has earned world titles in three weight divisions and knocked out 81% of his opponents. From the fast hands to the crushing power to the slick shoulder-roll defense that Broner refined after years of mimicking Mayweather, the tools are all there. "From a physical standpoint he is extremely skilled," says veteran trainer Teddy Atlas. "Whoever he gets in with, he just looks faster, smarter and better than all of them."
The other Broner is the showman, the brash, outlandish personality that recalls, well, a young Floyd Mayweather. It begins during warmups, when Broner interrupts his shadowboxing to admire a video of his 2011 KO of Vicente Rodriguez playing on a flat screen dangling from a wall. "See that guy," Broner shouts at a dozen or so friends around the ring. "He just made history. When he gets old he's going to say, 'Damn, I got knocked out by Adrien Broner.' " Returning to his routine, Broner breaks into a smile. "You know," he croons to no one in particular, "I could knock God out."
The chatter continues during sparring, when Broner and Hank Lundy, a junior welterweight contender with a 23-3-1 record, start to go at it. In most camps, sparring sessions are broken up into 10 to 12 three-minute rounds, with a fresh opponent brought in after a few rounds. Not here. Mike Stafford, Broner's lifelong trainer, prefers two 18-minute rounds that are less a test of skills than a war of attrition. After a minute or two, though, Broner and Lundy are engaged in more talking than boxing.
"I can box your head off if I want to," says Broner.
"And I can beat your mother------- ass," Lundy fires back.
"I got your girl's number," says Broner.
"I got your girl," counters Lundy.
From the ring apron, Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a USA Boxing assistant coach and a longtime Broner aide, recalls Broner's first trip to Fort Carson years earlier. He used to needle Broner about joining the Army. At that prospect, Broner says, "Hell, no. I would have shot one of my own men just to get out."
This is the side of Broner that he flaunts, the side that he practically shoves down the public's throat. To his 135,000 (and counting) Twitter followers, Broner is boxing's wild child. He infamously posted footage of himself flushing $20 bills down the toilet. He published a photo on Instagram of two women performing oral sex on him. Some of Broner's boorish behavior is revealed by others—an arrest for an allegedly alcohol-fueld battery in Miami last March, for example (Broner pleaded not guilty, but missed a court date and now faces a bench warrant)—but most he publicizes himself.
Through it all, Broner's popularity has soared: His last two fights, on HBO and Showtime, respectively, attracted 2.7 million total viewers, making Broner one of boxing's most marketable stars. But the drinking and the brushes with the law have raised the question of whether The Problem—Broner's ring moniker—is going to run into a serious one someday soon. It's why, as Broner prepares to defend his WBA welterweight title against Marcos Maidana on Saturday (Showtime, 8 p.m. ET), many wonder: Are we witnessing the rise of boxing's next big thing or the early rounds of another cautionary tale?
BRONER'S INTRODUCTION to fighting began in the streets, in English Woods, a since-demolished cluster of subsidized housing projects in north Cincinnati. There, Broner and his twin brother, Andre, would get in daily altercations. "We just went around jumping people," says Broner. "We had a saying, 'When he swings, I swing; when I swing, he swings.' " When Broner was six, his father, Thomas, tired of hearing about fights in the neighborhood, bought a pair of boxing gloves and some headgear and encouraged anyone who was looking to fight to come to his yard and do it right.
Adrien needed sports. "He was so hyper all the time," says Thomas, 45, a mechanic and owner of a lawn-care business. "Playing sports was the best way to direct that energy." When Thomas saw how much Adrien liked to box, he took him and three of his brothers to Stafford's boxing gym and threw them into the mix. "Adrien was like this ball of fire," says Stafford. "Fast hands, tough as nails, not afraid to get hit, not afraid to challenge bigger kids."
After watching Broner wipe out the first few kids he sparred with, Stafford called in Rau'Shee Warren. Warren—who would go on to become a three-time U.S. Olympian—was two years older than Broner and had already had a handful of amateur fights. Warren was from English Woods too, though he knew Broner only by reputation. "He was the kid that went around beating other kids up," says Warren. "And he could talk. Man, could he talk." After a few rounds with Warren, Broner cried and went home. "But [Adrian] insisted we come back the next day," says Thomas. "And he has been going back ever since."
Broner's profile grew quickly. He started winning Midwest regional competitions. He began using Mayweather's shoulder-roll style—one of boxing's most difficult techniques to master because of the speed and timing it requires—in 2001, after watching Mayweather pick apart Diego Corrales. Broner won National Silver Gloves championships in '02 and '03 and a bronze medal at the '05 nationals. In '07, he appeared destined for a spot on the following year's Olympic team. But in early '07 he was arrested for robbery and assault in Cincinnati. He served more than a year while awaiting trial (he was eventually acquitted) which cost him an opportunity to make the team. Broner declines to talk about the incident, but admits that his time locked up made him more serious about boxing.
Having missed his Olympic chance, Broner turned pro, and he quickly showcased his potential. He knocked out his first five opponents, four in the first round. In 2011 the then 22-year-old Broner stopped Rodriguez to claim a super featherweight title and become the youngest reigning U.S. world champion. In '12, Broner moved up to lightweight and demolished Antonio DeMarco to win another title. Last June, Broner jumped two weight classes to welterweight and beat Paulie Malignaggi for a third world title. The buildup to the Malignaggi fight was especially nasty, with Broner repeatedly taunting Malignaggi by claiming to have stolen his girlfriend. After the fight Broner was asked if he regretted any of his antics. "Negative," said Broner. "I left with his belt and his girl."
ASK BRONER'S inner circle about his behavior and the answers are similar. Stafford will tell you that it's just Broner enjoying his success after years spent working to achieve it. "He didn't have a life coming up," says the trainer. "He was in the gym all the time. He didn't get any real time with his friends." To Thomas, anyone Adrien's age with a taste of money would act the same. "He's making a million dollars every three or four months," says the father. "He's just having fun with it. The money never runs out." Leverette is more reflective: "I think he's caught between who he really is and that bad boy image he knows really sells."
Ironically, one of Broner's harshest critics has been Mayweather, who has publicly urged Broner to lead a quieter life. Broner calls Mayweather a "big brother" and admits that he has been chewed out by him plenty of times. "Every conversation isn't a good conversation," says Broner. "Sometimes he is mad as f--- at me. He cusses me out a lot. But I know he is just looking out for me."
Among boxers, Broner's lifestyle is hardly unique. And it's not always detrimental to boxing success. Arturo Gatti put together a Hall of Fame career in the ring despite a wild life out of it. Would Gatti, who died violently at age 37 under still-uncertain circumstances, have been more successful had he led a calmer existence? "As crazy as it sounds, I don't think so," says Jolene Mizzone, Gatti's matchmaker at Main Events. "Sometimes with fighters, the wilder they are, the better they are. With Arturo, when he wasn't training, he liked to party. But when he was training, he was totally focused."
Broner's team gives voice to a similar sentiment. When a video surfaced last spring of Broner sporting a potbelly, Broner's strength and conditioning coach, Robert Easter, was asked if he was worried about Broner coming to camp in shape. Easter's response? Not at all. "He's totally committed," says Leverette. "Nobody works harder than him. He's got as good a work ethic as anyone in the game."
Broner insists that the criticism doesn't bother him—"These people don't know me," he says—but away from the cameras, his words betray him. As a recent workout wound down, Broner whacked away at a heavy bag, his sentences firing out like piston rods, faster than his punches. "They say I don't work hard," said Broner. "They say I'm not in shape. They say all I do is party. I'm mad as hell. This is my party. No one works harder than me. No one gave me what I got. No one is taking it away."
"He's making a million dollars every three or four months," Broner's father says of his son. "He's just having fun with it. The money never runs out."
For more on Broner, and Chris Mannix's Inside Boxing column, go to SI.com/More
Photograph by AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES
HIGH IMPACT In his most recent fight, Broner delivered a hair-raising shot on the way to a 12-round win over Malignaggi to run his record to 27--0.
LUCAS J. GILMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
LUCAS J. GILMAN
STAYING HUNGRY Broner (far left with girlfriend Arienne Nickole Gazaway) has been boxing since he was six. He insists that, despite his reputation as a partier—and despite occasional dietary indiscretions—no fighter works harder.