News of the death from cancer of Michael “Dynamite” Dokes, former WBA heavyweight champion, causes one to pause and consider the terrible toll an overestimation of one’s talent and resiliency can take on a life. The young Dokes, who, along with Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon, emerged as one of the best heavyweight prospects of the early 80s, was nothing if not extremely confident. He enjoyed showboating and playing for the crowd, throwing roses to ladies at ringside, and fancied himself a cut above other boxers, not just in terms of talent and ability, but in sophistication and intelligence. A man of style and huge appetites, the native of Akron, Ohio had a discriminating eye for fine clothes and at home loved cooking French and Italian cusine.
Such robust self-regard coupled with hedonistic inclinations spells doom for a professional athlete. Not long after Dokes defeated Mike Weaver for the WBA title in 1982, in one of the most premature fight stoppages in boxing history, things began to unravel. He was only 24 years old and big money showdowns against Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney awaited him, but Dokes evidently failed to see the point of restraining himself in order to reap future rewards. In his very next bout the ravages of the high life were evident when he could barely make it to the final bell in a rematch with Weaver. Breathing heavily by round seven and clutching and grabbing in the late rounds to survive, Dokes was fortunate to retain his title by a controversial draw decision.
Just four months later the party was officially over. In the upset of the year, perennial contender Gerrie Coetzee knocked Dokes out in front of a hometown Ohio crowd, the South African’s potent right hand putting a clearly out-of-shape champion into slumberland at the end of round ten. It was suspected, and years later Dokes confirmed the rumour, that by this time cocaine had him firmly in its clutches. He would struggle with drug and alcohol abuse for the rest of his life.
Dokes boxed sporadically over the next few years before attempting a serious comeback in the late 80s which led to a showdown with rising contender Evander Holyfield. In a brutal war, Dokes gave the future three-time heavyweight champion one of the toughest fights of his career before succumbing to Holyfield’s assault in round ten. The bout is regarded as one of the most exciting heavyweight clashes of its time.
The following year he lost by knockout to Donovan “Razor” Ruddock and in 1993, in his final significant match, Dokes was chosen as the sacrificial lamb for the first title defense of new heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, losing by a first round technical knockout. Apparently a big believer in the practice of loading up on carbohydrates before a fight, the former champion reportedly enjoyed a huge plate of pasta before entering the ring against Bowe. When asked if this was a sensible thing to do, Dokes’ reply revealed as much about his character and outlook as anything else. “The past is history, the future isn’t here yet, and the present is linguine and clam sauce,” he told The Cleveland Plain Dealer before digging in.
By the mid-90s his gluttonous and hedonistic tendencies had overtaken him. In his last fights in 1996 and ’97 he weighed as much as 290 pounds. He continued to indulge in drugs and alcohol and by this time had two narcotic-related felony convictions. In 1998 a drug-fueled rage led to a vicious assault on his live-in girlfriend, Dokes beating her so badly that he was charged with attempted murder. In the subsequent trial, the victim testified that Dokes was good to her when he was clean and sober but substance abuse caused him to be violent. At his sentencing Dokes told the judge that he was “remorseful.” “There’s no excuse for my actions,” said the man who once stood at the cusp of stardom and massive success. He was sentenced to ten years in jail and released in 2008. The cancer diagnosis soon followed.
The tragedy of the tale of Michael Dokes is the waste of potential it represents. He had the talent, confidence and power to be an elite boxer, but Dokes overestimated those gifts while underestimating the toll taken by his excesses. Once he became WBA champion he thought himself invulnerable, thought it didn’t matter how much cocaine he snorted or how much champagne he drank. Essentially, Dokes was a man of his time, the 80s, when cocaine and reckless overindulgence were the name of the game. His is a cautionary tale, and sensible young athletes of today could do worse than to pay it heed.
— Michael Carbert