With one punch, Clay-Bey saw light Power switch: A fight at a housing project gym four years ago sent Lawrence Clay-Bey on a quest for Olympic gold.

April 18, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, GA. — |TC AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It all started with a left hook.

"It really shocked me," Lawrence Clay-Bey recalled recently. "I didn't know I had that kind of power. I remember seeing the guy fall. I was sitting in the corner looking at him, then looking at my left hand. I had it happen in some street fights, but I didn't know I could hit somebody that hard with an eight-ounce glove."

The punch, which connected with the head of one of Francisco Zayas' more promising fighters at his gym in a Hartford, Conn., housing project, launched an unusual boxing career.

Then 26, Clay-Bey was a 275-pound corrections officer who had come to the gym a couple of weeks before merely to get into better shape. But this former high school football and basketball player has done more than shed a few pounds. He's built a reputation, and possibly more.

"I had no idea I'd still be boxing," Clay-Bey, now 30 and 245 pounds, said recently. "That wasn't in the game plan."

Clay-Bey's game plan, not to mention his life, is in the process of changing dramatically. He has gone from sparring partner to Golden Gloves contender and from national amateur champion to reigning world champion.

The game plan is expected to lead Clay-Bey to Atlanta for this summer's Olympic Games. But first he must finish what he started at the U.S. Boxing Trials in Oakland, Calif., earlier this month.

The three-day U.S. Box-Offs begin here tonight, with those who left the trials victorious needing one more win to qualify. Those who lost once in California need two. Clay-Bey, who hasn't lost a fight in nearly a year, boxes Joe Mesi tomorrow night.

"Going to the Olympics wasn't a goal or a dream of mine," said Clay-Bey, along with Antonio Tarver one of two Americans to win world titles in the past year. "I was very happy with the way my life was going. I just wanted to lose some weight."

After stints as a cook at two local restaurants and later as a welder, Clay-Bey had found a career in corrections. Having been part of a gang in Hartford as a young teen, Clay-Bey had seen friends and acquaintances either killed or incarcerated.

So he visited a local prison -- on his own terms.

"I wanted to know what it was like," said Clay-Bey. "I didn't want to go the other way."

Clay-Bey wound up working at the Hartford Community Corrections Center for five years and has been at the Manson Youth Institute, a maximum security facility in nearby Cheshire, for the past three.

He works in the segregation unit, which, according to warden Robert Ronne, houses most of the facility's worst offenders.

"He's a role model to everyone at the facility, including myself," said Ronne. "We always encourage the people who work here not to let the job consume them, and he has so much going on in his life. He's so quiet and unassuming, you wouldn't know that he's about to go to the Olympics."

Where Clay-Bey goes after the Olympics isn't certain, and it might have little to do with how he does in Atlanta. When he looks at the big picture, he sees the possibility of going back to his job and retiring at 42 with a full pension.

"After this year, I will probably call it a [boxing] career," said Clay-Bey, whose counterpunching style and status as a late bloomer remind some of Ray Mercer.

But there are forces pulling at him to turn pro. Though he and his wife, Valerie, an accountant, have been able to provide a nice home for themselves and their children (Jarelle, 11; Jarin, 6, and Jenia, 4), an Olympic medal literally can turn into gold for some fighters, especially heavyweights.

But he hasn't been blinded by the spotlight. The success hasn't gone to Clay-Bey's head. Or to his mouth. He is downright respectful of each opponent.

"I never go into a fight thinking it's going to be easy," he said. "I always go in putting the other guy on a higher level."

Maybe not everyone. There was the long-forgotten fighter who took that left hook a little more than four years ago. One minute, he was on his way to the Golden Gloves; the next, he was on his way to oblivion.

As for Lawrence Clay-Bey, he took another road.

The one that leads to Atlanta for this summer's Olympic Games.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

U.S. Box-Offs

What: Final qualifying for U.S. Olympic boxing team.

Site: Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center, Augusta, Ga.

When: Tonight and tomorrow, beginning at 7 p.m.; Saturday at noon.

Who: Winners of the championship bracket and the winners of the challenger bracket from the recent U.S. boxing trials in Oakland, Calif., including world champions Antonio Tarver and Lawrence Clay-Bey.

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