Andre Dirrell believes his coming out party on HBO's Boxing After Dark will be a big hit on June 16. For that to be the case though, he knows he needs to avoid one thing above all. He needs to be sure he doesn't get hit big himself.
The 2004 Olympic bronze medalist's debut on HBO comes only 12 fights into his professional career and it comes against an opponent who is among a group of Brooklyn-bred boxers who, accurately or not, have labeled themselves "The Chin Checkers." In this case, the fighter set to check the sturdiness of Dirrell's mandible is Curtis Stevens, who is 17-1 with 12 knockouts, 11 of which have come within the first two rounds. What that says about Stevens will be decided in large part by Dirrell since often with young prospects the one loss says more about them than the 17 wins, or even the 12 knockouts.
Andre Dirrell Andre Dirrell pummels James Sundin in November, 2006
To his credit, Stevens did avenge that defeat, a sixth round stoppage by Marcos Primea last year in a fight in which Stevens held a wide advantage until he blindly ran into enough leather to render himself defenseless in the final round. That loss has not been ignored by the undefeated but equally untested Dirrell (11-0, 7 KO) but neither has that string of early knockouts for Dirrrell knows what produced them. It was the kind of blitzkrieg he expects he'll have to weather in the early moments of his first 10 round fight.
"As far as I know he's a tough guy," Dirrell said from Flint, Mich., where he was raised and trained by his grandfather. "I fought wild guys like this in the amateurs so it's nothing I haven't felt before. I've been through a lot of guys like this. I know I have to stay disciplined against a guy who comes out like that."
Dirrell has had to stay disciplined both inside the ring and out to have gotten this far in life, but his training and his grandfather's counsel have prepared him well for what he believes will be the first of a string of moments in front of HBO's bright lights. A hot prospect when he came out of the Athens Olympics three years ago with both a bronze medal and a strong belief that it would have been gold had the politics of international amateur boxing not cost him his semi-final match against Kazakhstan's Gennadiy Golovkin, Dirrell has already faced down the long odds that consume so many young fighters before they ever get the chance to have their boxing skills tested on such a large stage.
Raised with little knowledge of - and no relationship with - his father, Dirrell and his boxing brother Anthony were taken in by their grandfather, Leon Lawson, about 10 years ago and taught what it means to box, what it means to work and, most importantly, what it means to be loved by somebody. What that knowledge has produced in Dirrell is a fighter who many believe could become the next great American-born super middleweight and a 24-year-old young man who understands that the position he now finds himself in was not all of his own making.
"My grandfather's by far the biggest icon in my life," Dirrell said. "He's been there through everything with me. My biggest goal is to show him that I'm trying. That I'm giving my all. I want to see me on top for him and for me.
"He worked so hard to keep us in line and give us a chance. For me to slack off wouldn't be right. He could have just gone off on his motorcycle and lived his life. He'd already raised his kids. He could have said we were somebody else's to raise but he was there for all of us.
"When I see what he did for us it's really deep. My father was never there but my grandfather was. It takes a man to raise his kids. I never seen that kind of love in anyone else."
At times it was tough love to be sure, the kind that makes a boy a man and a kid with dreams a fighter of promise. Leon Lawson long ago chose the path to a boxing ring as the one his grandsons would follow and they have walked down it with him. Perhaps reluctantly at times, but the road they have followed has taken them to successful international competition as amateurs and to undefeated records as young professionals on the rise.
Yet that road was neither smooth nor flat despite the outward appearances to the contrary. At times Dirrell questioned the direction his grandfather was pushing him in and about 10 years ago that led him to announce he wanted to do something other than live his life inside steamy gymnasiums and rope-enclosed boxing rings. Leon Lawson considered that request. Then he gave thought to what the future might hold if his grandsons left boxing for life on Flint's chipped and broken streets and he made a pronouncement. A very firm pronouncement.
"He told us, 'You're going to box so get that in your heads right now,"' Dirrell recalled, laughing lightly at the remembrance of a moment that changed his life. "The love he had for us in the gym was different than the love he had for us outside the gym. It seemed sometimes you were working so hard and you're not getting paid and you wonder where you're going and why you're doing it when your friends are hanging out. It's hard to make it in the ring so he showed us hard love, man.
"I'm glad that's how he did it. If you're in the gym and you like your coach, something's wrong. This is a hard business."
"A lot of people have high expectations for me. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. told me I can be great if I keep working. I have high expectations for myself too but I know I have a ways to go. The big thing I have to do is not abuse my talent because you can abuse your talent easily..."
It's a hard business Andre Dirrell has thus far made look easy. He has won 11 times without facing a stiff challenge, winning enough six and eight rounds fights to earn a spot underneath the Paulie Malignaggi-Lovermore N'Dou main event at the Mohegan Suna Arena in Connecticut. He has done it with speed, slickness and very fast hands, gifts that can take a fighter a long way but such skills have to be tested to prove their worth and on June 16 Curtis Stevens intends to administer such a test to Dirrell's chin.
Dirrell understands this is not a final exam by any means. It is more a pop quiz that comes with some real pop behind it and a message with it that, if it is handled well, will be a reaffirmation of what he first felt three years ago in Athens when he won the bronze medal.
"I was crying when my grandfather came up to me after they said I lost in the Olympics but he was smiling," Dirrell said as he recalled the moment of his deepest disappointment in boxing. "He said he was proud of me. Then he hugged me.
"I felt like I got robbed of the gold medal but I was also glad I medaled. That let me know I had a lot of potential. I was a bronze medalist with gold medal potential. Now HBO is putting me on a podium again with this fight. How I handle it will determine if I belong on top or a step below, with the guys on ESPN fights.
"This is not just about me winning a fight. It's how I win it. I got to fight hard to keep myself up there against a guy with really nothing to lose. I expect him to come out strong and go for the knockout but to be honest with you, I'm 6-2 and he's like 5-7 and he comes straight at you. A guy like this is really handpicked for me. I can make this fight easy or I can make it hard depending on how I react. I plan on making it as easy as possible.
"I know this is an opportunity if I handle it right. I feel I'm disciplined enough about stepping up on that stage not to focus on being on TV. My focus is on looking good on TV."
Short term then, Andre Dirrell's focus will be on Curtis Stevens but long-term, he admits, his thoughts often drift to the super middleweight division's longest reigning champion, Joe Calzaghe. Dirrell believes within a year or so he'll be ready for his moment with Calzaghe if the 34-year-old champion is still around. If he's not, perhaps it will come in the person of his favorite super middleweight, Denmark's Mikkel Kessler, who holds the WBC portion of the 168-pound title. Like any undefeated prospect on the cusp of a breakthrough, Dirrell dreams of championship fights and a crowning moment but he watched carefully the fate that befell another young prospect who came ill-prepared for his closeup with Calzaghe several months ago and saw it as a cautionary tale for him.
"This is only my 12th fight," Dirrell said. "I'm a little green in some areas. I know I've got things to learn but I'm carrying myself better each fight. After 16, 17 fights I see myself in with a top 10 guy and by 20 fights fighting for a world championship. But the big thing isn't fighting for a title. It's winning the title. A lot of that is a mental thing.
"I watched what happened to (Peter) Manfredo when he fought Calzaghe. He froze up. He wasn't prepared to go to that level. To win at that level the first thing is to know yourself. Some guys beg for that kind of fight and then when it comes they think 'Wow! It's here.' It's too overwhelming for them. A lot of guys freeze when they get pushed out on that big a stage. I plan to be ready when my time comes.
"A lot of people have high expectations for me. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. told me I can be great if I keep working. I have high expectations for myself too but I know I have a ways to go. The big thing I have to do is not abuse my talent because you can abuse your talent easily. Even world champions abuse their talent some times. They win a title and they think it's over and they can relax. My thing is to always work like you're living in a cardboard box. In this game you got to keep working like you got everything to lose because if you slack off you will lose. I don't intend on doing that. I'm coming to win."