American boxer Julius Lloyd-Long found love in an Auckland bar. Dylan Cleaver sat with the NZ-based, seven-foot tall journeyman to unpack one of boxing's most intriguing lives.
"You wanna fight. You fool. You damn stupid fool. Don't you understand? Can't you get it into your silly head? There are only eight champions in this business. Everybody else is an also-ran." – Maish Rennick in Requiem for a Heavyweight.
The lights were on but Julius Lloyd-Long wasn't home. It wasn't as if he hadn't seen the punch coming. He'd fought much faster, much stronger and much better fighters than Hemi Ahio before. Nevertheless, there he was, lying on the canvas, legs akimbo, arms outstretched, listening to the roar. Man, it was loud. Primal. That was good, right? There's nothing worse than silence – an echoing, indifferent crowd in a dimly lit, funky smelling gymnasium. This was a guttural we've-got-our-money's-worth noise. It wasn't the only sound Lloyd-Long could hear. There was a sharper, more insistent buzz in his ears. It went: "three… four… five…" "Are you crazy," the fighter thought to himself as the ref continued. "I'm out of shape, I'm tired, I've just spent seven rounds being punched by someone 13 years younger than me; I'm not getting up. Listen to that goddamn roar. I've done my job."
Like thousands of others, I was there that night. It wasn't why I was there, though.
The fight people were paying to watch was the intriguing but ultimately disappointing heavyweight clash between former WBO world champion Joseph Parker and fellow South Aucklander Junior Fa.
That bout played itself out as a series of jabs, perfunctory two-punch combinations and clinches. Few will remember anything about it. By contrast, the curtain-raiser left an indelible image.
The punch that floored Lloyd-Long was a left that started low and snaked up to connect flush with his jaw. To hit him in the head, you need to aim up. The American is 2.16m.
Lloyd-Long is built like an NBA centre. He could have been a seven-foot shot-blocking machine, a rim protector, a screen setter. Hell, if he'd joined the family business he would have been all that.
His uncle, John Long, earned upwards of US$5m in an NBA career that started with his hometown Detroit Pistons in 1978 and ended with the Toronto Raptors just shy of 20 years later. In today's money that would have looked more like the $21m Julius' brother Grant Long earned in a career that also included a stint at Detroit, and the $16m cousin Terry Mills – who now drag races hot rods – raked in during his six-team NBA odyssey that included five years at Detroit.
Lloyd-Long could have walked that path but instead he's wearing one flush on the jaw in an Auckland arena for what would end up being "about $5000".
A morbid fascination enveloped me. Who was this journeyman heavyweight? What was he doing, at his age, getting knocked out on the undercards of New Zealand promotions?
What tale of woe led him here?
Julius goes by the double-barrelled Lloyd-Long because he loves his wife Rebecca, but has enough respect for his history to keep his own.
They are a conventional love story – boy meets girl, love, marriage and child – born from an unconventional framework.
She's from Thames. He's from Romulus, Michigan, designated as a city but essentially a satellite suburb of Detroit. Romulus has few claims to fame. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad but mostly it known as the place where Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed into a freeway overpass and exploded just seconds after taking off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, killing 156.
It's a tough-luck kind of place.
"I'm raised by a mother without a father. Five brothers. It was hard for her, for all of us, most definitely, not having enough food to eat," Lloyd-Long says without bitterness. "We were big boys who needed big meals and big clothes.
"It was a tough neighbourhood. Detroit, there's nothing you can compare it to here. Guns, drugs, I mean, people are selling drugs there right on the corner in the middle of the day."
There was not a lot to do in Romulus except think of ways of getting out. His baller brother Grant figured it out, but there was something holding Julius back.
"Everyone thought I was going to follow in those footsteps, being seven-foot-one, you know what I mean. I had opportunities but they're not giving out NBA contracts every day. There's only a few that can make it," says Lloyd-Long, the baby of the family.
"You try to be like your brothers. They make the footsteps, you can step in them but at the end of the day you have to make your own way in life. I kind of threw a curveball into the family tree and went into boxing because no one else did. I didn't want to be that guy who people said: 'You're only here because of your brother and you'll never be as good as him.'
"Nobody in my family wanted to do this but me – get hit in the head," he says with an accompanying laugh that stays steadfastly tenor as it rumbles along.
"It was something I was going to do fly-by-night and make some money at it and get myself out of the neighbourhood. But I started taking a liking to it. I started going to all these places."
One of those places was New Zealand, but that's about round 8 of this 12-round story and we're still strapping on the gloves. Although Lloyd-Long talks about boxing as if it was planned all along, scratch a little and you find out it was more tenuous and serendipitous than that.
"I didn't have an amateur career. I went straight professional."
When Lloyd-Long spins a yarn he often starts with a short, idealised version before reverse-editing himself. It's a quirk; an idiosyncratic style of storytelling made all the more compelling because the long story is always more engaging than the short.
"I walked right off the street into a gym," he says, before quickly shifting to, "I didn't walk right off the streets into a gym, necessarily. What happened was… it's a funny story…"
Lloyd-Long had a passing interest in the fight game, enough to gather at a friend's place to watch the heavyweight title fight between the champ Lennox Lewis and the challenger David Tua. Those there knew little about Tua, even less about New Zealand. Lewis won, easily.
"We were having some beers. The fight ended and I was hungry and I said, 'I'm going to go and get a cheeseburger.' I went into a restaurant and sat down to have something to eat and ran into some guys from Lebanon. They were boxing promoters who owned a gym. They saw me reach across to another table to grab a salt-and-pepper shaker and some ketchup and he saw my arm span – which is 90 inches [229cm] reach – and he was like, 'Man, this guy is a million bucks walking.'
"They came to my table and approached me like this: 'Hey, you want to fight?' I was like, 'Yeah, I'll fight you right now.' I had a cocky attitude right then, I was trying to protect myself. I was in a bad area, Dearborn, which has a big Lebanese community.
"They were like, 'No, no, no, no, we're businessmen, promoters and we see a million dollars in you and we want to invest in you and make you a champion.' I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever man, I'm just trying to finish my burger.' I'd just got done watching the Tua fight and this was too much for me. I can't believe someone is coming up to me about boxing of all things."
The men left but not before paying for Lloyd-Long's meal and handing him $2000 and a business card. "That's how much we believe in you," they said.
"They didn't know me from Adam or Eve," Lloyd-Long says, still smiling at the wonder of it. "I took the money. I let them pay for my meal. I went home and thought about it all night."
What was there to think about, really? This was Detroit. The paint had long chipped off the city's signage. The automotive giants had moved their manufacturing and in most cases their headquarters out of the city, Motown had stopped making hit singles and even Stroh's, the city's flagship brewer, had been sold to rival out-of-state brewing corporations.
Whenever Lloyd-Long walked his streets it was a sightseeing tour of "liquor store, liquor store, liquor store, crack house, liquor store, liquor store". What the brothers, Phil and Alex Awada, were offering was a form of social mobility.
"I went to their gym [Dearborn Sports, now Detroit Boxing jungle] the next day. I ran everyone out of the gym on my pure strength. I didn't have any skill. I was 22. I was a tough kid. I could take some punishment. I could take some hits.
"Even to this day I need to take hits before I can inflict them on others. Don't ask me why but I find it harder to dish out pain than I do to take it."
In Detroit, the boxing game was big. The Emanuel Steward-led Kronk Gym was king and its fighters famous, none more so than Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns, the brilliant middleweight who lost arguably the greatest championship fight in history, two-and-a-half rounds of captivating brutality against Marvin Hagler known simply as "The War".
Although Julius was at a rival gym, he'd often head down the street to Kronk.
"Every time they had a big fighter come over, like Michael Moorer or Lennox Lewis, they'd call me: 'Hey fresh meat, you come on down, hey Julius, fresh meat, we need somebody to beat up on.' They'd call me down from the gym. And I'd get out of there and think, 'I've survived another day'. It was hot down there. It was beside a boiler room down in the basement so you were sweating before you did anything."
He started taking fights for a few thousand dollars here and there. Steward even worked with him for a while, but it didn't make sense to the fighter.
"I wasn't even making $5000. He was trying to take $4000 of my money and leaving me $1000. I was like, 'I really don't like that.' I was 23 years old – I needed to eat too."
Lloyd-Long's outlook on boxing was different to many of those around him who had come up through the traditional amateur route. Trainers and managers saw the long game. They wanted to "pad" Lloyd-Long's record to 20-0 and then get him a big fight; the sort of fight that would put the boxer behind the wheel of an off-white Lexus, but also keep the lights on in the gym.
Lloyd-Long was more pragmatic. He wanted regular payments in a largely unregulated sport. Immediately he started looking for the best-paid fights, even if they made little sense to the outsider. At 5-0, Lloyd-Long could have stayed on a slow and steady path but instead he agreed to get in the ring with Leo Nolan, a good heavyweight and a bad man.
Nolan had served five years for the armed robbery of an off-duty cop, a year for every bullet he took in the botched hold-up. His career would later be ended when he was shot in the neck during a car-jacking. Despite his travails Nolan would finish with a 27-2 record and would beat the likes of Lou Savarese. He would also beat Lloyd-Long.
Two fights after the Nolan defeat, Lloyd-Long decided fighting British Olympic gold medallist Audley Harrison at Wembley Arena was a sound idea. In terms of his wallet, maybe, in terms of his career, not so much. Harrison clipped him with a left as he lumbered forward in the second round and, well, let's just say there have been more dignified trips to the canvas than the one he made.
This is all a circuitous way of saying if Lloyd-Long cared about his record, he would have found a better matchmaker.
"I was like, 'Man, this is Detroit, I might not be around that long. I could die coming to the gym tomorrow. I needed to make money then and now to support myself. I might not be the best fighter in the world, but the one thing I was going to do, is if they were going to pay me, I was going to fight everybody."
When he says "fight everybody", that applies to kickboxing. The most lucrative fight – US$90,000 – he took was a K1 match-up against Jan Nortje.
"I didn't even know how to kick," he says, staring at his size 18 shoes. "My manager brought in two black belts who were brothers and they were teaching me how to kick a little bit. All you have to do is act like you're kicking a couple of times and then just use your hands because you're a fighter. I was like, 'Alright, the amount they're paying me, I don't care if I win or lose.'
"I was destroying him with my hands but…"
It's a big but; Nortje looked like he could go down at any minute but found some range with his kicking and, eventually, quite literally kicked the legs out from under Lloyd-Long. Pride a little hurt, maybe, but money banked.
Fighting everybody also meant sparring, the well-paid, side-hustle part of being a journeyman.
He sparred with the Klitschkos, Wladimir and Vitali, and worked with Jameel McCline.
Once he was booked to spar with Bermane Stiverne at Floyd Mayweather's gym in the lead-up to his title fight with Deontay Wilder.
"He looked at me one time and said, 'I am not working with that guy, I'm not sparring with him; I don't care what you told him.' They brought me down from Detroit, they put me in a Vegas hotel for two months and I never once sparred this guy. Never. They paid for it though. I was like, 'okay'."
Lloyd-Long eschewed the bright lights of the Vegas Strip and took himself off to Roy Jones Jr's gym and got himself in the shape of his life, all on Stiverne's dollar.
Here's the difference between you and I, as boxing observers, and Lloyd-Long, the boxer. For us it's a sport both compelling, aspirational and, at times, thrillingly dangerous. For the boxer, one as aware of his limitations as Lloyd-Long, it's a series of financial transactions. It's not a sporting career as much as a cost-benefit exercise.
The Stiverne fleece isn't his best sparring story, nor is it the one that would have the most profound effect on his life.
The best would be working with Mike Tyson in two camps, one in the Poconos, the other in the Bahamas.
"When I first got into boxing my manager sent me back from a training camp to spar with Mike Tyson. My first punches ever taken were by Mike Tyson. I had seen this guy break other guy's ribs and get sent home. You get $3000 to $5000 per week to spar with Tyson plus $500 for food. He hit me a couple of times and my ribs were sore. I got some of that [padding] the All Blacks wear and wrapped that around my ribs. I was like, 'You're not going to get me sent home for that.' I'm making too much money to get sent home. I'm not going all the way back to Detroit.
"I got to hang with him after the training camp and talk with him for a bit. We sat down and talked and had some food, but Mike was his own type of guy. He'd talk for a while, then go out and have his adventures. He'd be missing from camp, not show up for three days but when he did come back he would make sure somebody had to be ready to take a beating."
The other sparring story? Well that's the one that brought him here, not just to a new life, but to the rest of his life.
By the time 2012 rolled around, Lloyd-Long's relationship with the Awadas was frayed. He had made money, but he hadn't become the million-dollar big baby they'd envisaged. They wanted him to take fights he wasn't comfortable with. He was a big guy and big guys lost condition easily. He didn't mind losing – and he was doing a lot of that – but he wasn't interested in getting damaged.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, David Tua's explosive career was winding down. His brief revival following his thunderous dismantling of Shane Cameron had stalled after a draw and a loss to Monte Barrett. A fight against the 2.02m Alexandr Ustinov was planned. It felt like a desperate gambit and Tua's handlers realised they needed somebody who could mimic Ustinov's height. Given that Lloyd-Long had previously fought and lost to the Russian, he was the ideal punching bag.
"This training camp idea came along. I was meant to fight David Tua about six times in my career. I got in shape for it, spending all my money, and they cancel it without telling me," Lloyd-Long recalls. "The fight never happened. So this opportunity came up and I was like, 'I'm going to sign the papers, but I know they'll never get me over there.
"I signed it, got everything done, said 'Yeah, I'll come over', and it actually happened, it came through. I was like, 'What?' I was surprised."
It wasn't a great time in Lloyd-Long's life. He was "going through some things" and was weighing up retirement to be a stay-at-home dad to his daughter Ambreyah. A proud wearer of braids, Lloyd-Long had shaved his hair off really low, had packed on the pounds and didn't really like the man who stared back at him from the mirror.
"They paid me a bunch of money to spar with David Tua. I was honest. I told them I was really out of shape but would give him the best I had. I was mentally focused to help David get ready, got in the ring with him, David did a little dance around, getting ready, warming up and he TWISTED HIS ANKLE BEFORE I EVEN THREW A PUNCH," he says, his face lighting up as he recalls the absurdity of the situation.
"I've got all this money in my pocket from David Higgins and now I'm over here for four months until Tua gets better. I've got nothing to do, but I've got a hotel room paid for. Sweet. They call me and say I can go back to America if I want and they'll bring me back in. Think about it. Detroit, or a nice room with a view in Auckland? I said, 'Don't you worry about it, I'll stay right here and take the opportunity to get fit and get my mind right.
"Have you heard about the band Six60?"
"Oh my gosh man, that song 'Don't Forget Your Roots', that whole album. It was a whole different mindset change for me. Somebody put me on to them and I would listen to that and I would just go running all the way along the waterfront down town. I was running all the way up to the shark museum [Kelly Tarlton's], all the way back to Parnell and up the hill, through the domain – every day."
Lloyd-Long got fitter and stronger. Some of the fog and uncertainty he'd been carrying around in his mind started to clear.
He had his arm twisted into taking a fight on the undercard of a night put on for a promising young heavyweight, Joseph Parker. Lloyd-Long was on a nine-fight losing streak and he wasn't much interested. He was here to help Tua, not to engage in the sort of loose-change fights he no longer had the hunger to win.
Promoters Higgins and Dean Lonergan kept badgering him. "You're moving well, you're losing weight, you're looking good – take the fight." His worst fears were realised when Jason Williams beat him up for five rounds. In the sixth and final round, Lloyd-Long landed an uppercut and knocked Williams out.
"The story was written. I was a star in New Zealand. I'm like, 'Why should I go back home?
"I was celebrating my victory after knocking him out. I was in Fort Lane and I met my beautiful wife Rebecca. I was celebrating my knockout, she was out celebrating her birthday. I was drinking straight out of the champagne bottle. I was acting like a thug. One of her friends came up to me and said, 'Why are you drinking out the bottle, get a glass.' She thought I played for the Breakers."
Lloyd-Long played the small talk card well enough to convince Rebecca he shouldn't be defined by his champagne-swilling antics but there was still the small matter of 13,500km between them. The camp had ended, Tua had lost his 59th and final professional fight, so it was back to Detroit.
"I got into a couple of different training camps and got focused. Rebecca came to America to visit me and after a while she was like, 'Just come back and live here with me.' She got me all set up. She made me business cards because I didn't know how anything worked. I couldn't pronounce most of the names. Whakatane? I was like, 'What the f***?'"
Now would be a good time to mention that Lloyd-Long has dyslexic dysgraphia. He can read, although he does not find it easy, but the problems mainly manifest when trying to write, with spelling and, occasionally, with speech, though he is an engaging storyteller.
One of the first things he noticed in New Zealand was that he could talk about his learning difficulties and not be worried that somebody would try to exploit it.
"It's a good thing I came over here. It's really good man, because New Zealand's got a really great set up. If you want to achieve something, it's not like America where everybody wants to climb over you to be first. Here, if everybody sees you're working hard, they'll try to help you achieve your goals. That's what I like about New Zealand."
Rebecca says it has been fascinating watching his personality evolve and grow.
"In Detroit, everything revolved around his primary needs, which were personal safety and having enough money to survive. Now he has room for others, he has empathy that extends beyond his immediate family. It's been interesting to see.
"We've talked about it. He doesn't have to think about his physical safety on a day-to-day basis. It's freed up room in his brain and he's grown in other ways."
She says it has also made her evaluate her own life, which she describes as a "cross between privileged and non-traumatic". She thinks about what their toddler daughter Travistine's life will look like, because it won't be anything like her father's.
"There are some things Julius has lived through that I'm never going to understand but I want to support as best I can."
That security is not an abstract concept. Lloyd-Long has stared death in face. He is a religious man, a Baptist, so what you might read as a simple mechanical failing, he sees as a message.
One of the offshoots of Detroit's love affair with the sport was that the newspapers, particularly the black press, covered the local fights assiduously, including the purses. There was an assumption the boxers were paid in cash after the fight and would therefore be carrying large wads of cash through the city. Three times he says he got robbed at gunpoint.
One time, he should have been killed.
"I went to a gas station. I'm on my way home about three or four in the morning and I stop to put some gas in my car, grab a Powerade and get home to get some rest.
"I pumped the gas in the car, was going to put the nozzle back and this guy has got his gun in my face saying, 'You better give me all your money.' I said, 'Look man, put all my money in the gas tank, I've got some change maybe in the car.' He's like, 'I don't want no change, I'm going to end your life.' He pulled the trigger and I've got my hands up in front of my face but then I see it wasn't working so I just grabbed the gun starting beating him with it. I bloodied his face all up. I took the gun, left him all bloody on the ground, jumped in the car and went home."
Lloyd-Long laughs when I ask him why he didn't wait for the cops. A big black man, the middle of the night, an incident involving guns – he expects me to be able to join the dots.
"I never thought about who [the gunman] was. I was just happy to leave with my life and I left with his gun. I have it to this day back in Detroit. I'd look at it now and then to remind myself I shouldn't be alive. It's a .38 revolver."
He won't return to live in Detroit, but the ties remain strong. He has Ambreyah there, who will turn 10 later this year, and an 11-year-old daughter Maleigha who he has just found out about.
"I got a shock this year to find out I have another daughter. I have Ambreyah, who I thought was my first child. I've been in her life. But this one, when Covid hit, her mother must have freaked out and thought I was going to die and needed me to know the story. She said, 'You have an 11 year old.'
"I'm in contact with Maleigha now and we talk all the time. I haven't met her yet but she's been to my mum's place and met her. My mum, she's still living in Romulus. My brother bought her a house with his NBA money and set it up so all she has to do is go to the mailbox every day. She don't have to cut no grass, shovel no snow, nothing. I do all her grocery shopping for her online over here. I love my mum."
He is determined to be a part of his daughter's lives – his girl to Rebecca, the delightful Travistine, is named after his maternal grandmother – because his dad wasn't a part of his.
"I know who my dad is. He wasn't around. He'd come around but never stay. He had five boys by my mum and five boys by another woman. I don't associate with them. Half of them died from different causes but I never associated with them too much and I don't associate with my dad too much.
"He'd come around at the wrong time. When I was in Detroit and fought my first couple of fights and started making some good money, he came around then. I saw him once at the casino and the first thing he says to me is, 'Let me borrow $1000.' I walked away from him right then. Even to this day, like I say, I've got these daughters to different mothers and I'm trying to be a better father to them than he was, try to be in their life."
"Don't you understand? The odds are all you'll wind up a mumbling idiot. A stuttering jerk. Why don't you go home. Go home!" – Maish Rennick
When I saw Lloyd-Long lying on the canvas that night, looked at his age, his record and did a little bit of mental arithmetic on the blows he might have taken across his 44-fight career, I hoped it would be the last time I saw him in trunks.
Others feel that way too. David Higgins, the promoter and manager of Parker, said he'd be reluctant to put him on a card these days "because I love the guy and can't stand the thought of him getting hurt".
The Lloyd-Longs have talked about it too, but they see it differently. Rebecca says the moment it looks as if a fight has taken a toll more profound than the usual welts and bruises she'll tell him no more, but she's seen not a hint of that yet. She has the usual nervous anticipation when he fights, but no fear.
Lloyd-Long is even more bullish. He feels he nearly had the much younger Ahio – "I just gassed out man, gassed out" – and if he'd been in better shape he would have. It wasn't so long ago he drew with on-the-rise Kiki Toa Leutele.
He still remembers beating Bowie Tupou to the WBA Oceania heavyweight title like it was yesterday. He shocked everybody that night. Coming forward, being the aggressor from the outset. He was fighting for his recently deceased grandma, Travistine, and nothing was going to stop him that night.
Yes, there have been losses in between, but he knows his role and how he's seen. He's the worldly older guy they stick in there against the up-and-comers: good enough to test them but (hopefully) not good enough to beat them.
If the fight is even and it goes to the cards, he knows the ref is not going to be lifting his arm up. Yeah, it pisses him off sometimes but he knows the game.
Boxing has all kinds of awkward truths. Lloyd-Long likes to play the long game, to take the sting out of his younger, smaller opponents before working his way slowly into the fight, yet nobody pays to watch Lloyd-Long go the distance. To do so misses the point.
Heavyweight boxing is, essentially, the marketing and packaging of big men's pain for the entertainment of others. Most of those who watch Lloyd-Long do so in the hope he will either suffer or dispense a concussive injury that renders him or his opponent momentarily incapable of self-locomotion.
The roar that rolled through the crowd at Spark Arena early this year, that's what people pay to watch.
Lloyd-Long, however, has goals that go beyond your bloodlust. He wants to notch up 50 prizefights. There might be a couple in Australia later in the year if they can get on top of Covid.
He feels 24, not 44, he says. Because he's so tall, he doesn't get hit in the head that often. You don't have to worry about that part of him. His only problem, he repeats, is that he has so much stuff he wants to do and only 24 hours in the day to do it.
You hear all this and you can choose to believe him, you can call bullshit, or you can accept that he's an adult man capable of making decisions about his own life.
Lloyd-Long walked a tightrope every day in Detroit.
"I walked past a lot of drug dealers who'd try to give me the bag to sell but for some reason I felt I was destined for more than that. I was destined for more than that. I mightn't be the smartest person in the world, but I try. My heart is big.
"A lot of people aren't set up in life to succeed. I wasn't set up that well to succeed where I was at, but here I'm set up a lot better. I was given these two hands and I might as well use them."
I admit it, when Lloyd-Long was lying there on the canvas those months ago and the crowd was going nuts and I wondered why the hell a middle-aged man would put himself through that, I thought I'd find a sad story. A desperate story.
Instead it is much more than that. It's a story of hope, but it's something even deeper than that.
"I don't have to box any more, but I love it. I love boxing, you know what I mean?"
That's what it is: it's a love story.