Before heading off to his boxing training session at M-Power Gym in Vandalia, Michael Evans was spending the late afternoon hours with his grandmother – 84-year-old Emmaline Ross – in her room at the Siena Woods senior care center off North Main Street.
She’s the woman who raised him.
She always was the shining light for him during some of the darkest periods that came with his three stints in prison — over 14 years total — most of it coming during his prime boxing years when he was the most accomplished amateur fighter in Miami Valley history.
Now she needs him as she recovers from a pair of falls in her West Dayton home while also dealing with the mental haziness that comes and goes with what Evans has been told are the early stages of dementia.
As he talked about growing up under his grandmother’s watchfulness, Emmaline mostly just sat there quietly and listened.
But she smiled when he got to one story.
She remembered some of it, too.
He told of winning his second National Golden Gloves title in 2005 – he also won in 1999 – in Little Rock, Arkansas. After beating Diego Magdaleno (now the NABF super featherweight champ) in the nationally-televised lightweight bout, he was doing an ESPN interview when he suddenly looked into the camera and said:
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my grandmother.”
Back at her Vancouver Drive home, Emmaline – who didn’t have cable – was on the phone with Michael’s mom, Shevanne, who had placed the receiver of her phone next to her TV so Emmaline could hear the broadcast.
But when Michael praised his grandmother, Shevanne was screaming, “He won!…He won!” and that’s all Emmaline could hear.
When her grandson now recounted the moment, Emmaline smiled: “I was proud of him.”
When he’d gotten home from Arkansas, he gave her the large belt he’d won and she put it in the china cabinet that once had displayed her doll collection and now was a trophy case.
Soon she figured she’d be adding more. He was headed to train with the other U.S. Olympic hopefuls in Colorado Springs and then was set to fight in Russia. He previously had been the captain of Team USA and it was expected he’d be so again.
But a few days after giving his grandma that heartwarming shout-out from the ring, he was arrested at the Northwest Plaza trying to sell crack cocaine to an undercover police officer.
He would end up doing four years in prison for that and, in the process, add another confounding chapter to the story of his life. It’s a narrative that always seemed to come with one glorious step forward and then two or three numbing strides in reverse.
As good as Michael Evans was at stopping his opponents – as an amateur he won over 100 of some 120 bouts – he saved his best knockout punches for himself.
His penchant for self-destruction — his latest incarceration for 7 ½ years sent him to three different federal prisons and ended last August 23 – has always been the ugly intruder in a career of dedicated training and glorious accomplishment.
Besides the Gloves’ titles, he won the 1996 Eastern Olympic Trials, was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team that fought in the Atlanta Games, won a bronze medal at the Goodwill Games in New York City and claimed a U.S. National Championship, a national PAL title and two Junior Olympic crowns.
He fought all over the world, from Hungary, Germany, England and Ireland to Japan, China and Thailand.
He and Amir Khan – who had just won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games and would become the undisputed welterweight champ of the world – sold out the Liverpool Olympia Theatre in England for a bruising bout.
He blanked Terence Crawford — who since has won multiple titles at three weight classes and was just rated the game’s second-best, pound-for-pound fighter by The Ring, ESPN and BoxRec – as an amateur, 5-0.
The City of Dayton once honored him with a Michael Evans Day.
“At one time Mike was rated the No. 1 lightweight in the country,” said Ron Daniels, who trained Evans to many of his titles and is working with him again along with co-trainer Craig Thurmond.
“He really could have been something else.”
But the prison stints – once for a fight, twice for drugs – have caused him to hit the reset button over and over.
This time he was released to a halfway house in Charlotte, N.C., where his sister lives. And that’s where he caught the eye of a pair of boxing promoters, both of whom now want him – even though he’s almost 42 – on their cards.
He had his first pro fight on March 16 and stopped 19-year-old Kwatevion Isom just 73 seconds into their lightweight bout.
He became an instant fan favorite in Charlotte, especially when he brought up his Dayton roots.
“I said, ‘I want to follow in the footsteps of my brothers,” he explained. “And they said, ‘Your brothers?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, you may have heard of them: Orville and Wilbur Wright? They invented aviation in Dayton, Ohio and came to North Carolina to fly. I started boxing in Dayton and came to North Carolina to reach the sky.’”
Although he has three more fights scheduled for North Carolina – and one in Indiana – all that’s been put on a side burner as he’s returned to Dayton to help his grandmother.
It’s especially important to him because his mom – 59-year-old Shevanne Francis, a Roosevelt High grad and former University of Dayton student – was hit and killed by a car at the corner of Gettysburg and Free Pike on March 6, 2018.
He was not granted permission to attend her funeral at the Bethesda Temple Apostolic Church and that crushed him. Now that pushes him to do what he can for his grandmother.
“I feel I should be able to do more at this stage of my life – that I should be able to get her the best care there is – but I know I really (screwed) up along the way,” he said.
“I was out there trying to get money when really I had the money in my two hands all the time. I didn’t realize the gift I had.”
He said he does now and that’s why he trains five days a week – three at M-Power, two at Drake’s Downtown Gym – while he’s home.
“It’s a Rocky story, but one that’s more important than anything just in the ring,” said Will Ashcraft, co-owner of M-Power. “He’s fighting to come back from everything else.”
‘You go down and you go down hard’
When he entered the ring in Charlotte – accompanied by Tony “TNT” Tubbs, the former heavyweight champ of the world who lives there and trains him – Evans wore a white robe bearing his new ring moniker:
“America’s Royal Bad Boy.”
The name fits, though he tried to explain:
“The bad I mean is bad like Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and Michael Jackson. The type of bad that’s good.”
The law might have said otherwise at times, but there’s no debate on his ring royalty.
“He’s a rare, rare athlete,” Kenny Miliner, one of Evans’ first trainers, told me many years ago. “I’m telling you one day this kid’s going to rule the boxing world. But the thing is, he’s the last one to see that.”
The short-sightedness led to some early brushes with authorities and finally Ray Acri, who used to run the Team America gym on Salem Avenue, gave him some spot-on advice.
“I told him if he kept up, he’d end up in the state (prison) system and then the federal and soon you’re no longer who you once where,” Acri told me at the time. “I said, ‘You go down and you go down hard.’”
Evans often tried to do better — including taking classes at Sinclair Community College — and because he can be as charming as he is talented, he’s had lots of people in the community pulling for him.
After he was arrested a second time, a stunned Drake spoke for everyone: “I absolutely feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach.”
Lawyer Nick Gounaris, who had befriended Evans, called it “heartbreakingly sad.”
While boxing hasn’t been allowed in Ohio prisons since the Lucasville riot in 1993, there is still a clandestine boxing and betting scene behind bars and Evans – using shower flip flops as minimally padded gloves – became something of an underground legend.
But before I could revisit that topic the other day, he shook his head:
“I don’t want to glorify all that. Prison is hard. It’s mentally draining, physically draining. It’s depressing. Man, it’s just not what’s happening.”
This last incarceration took him to federal prisons in Gilmer and McDowell, West Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland.
Through the years, he tried to stay in shape by running, shadow boxing, doing what he could, but he said others knowing he was a boxer could be “a good thing or a bad thing. There are some guys who want to try you because the don’t think you are a boxer.”
At Gilmer, he said one guy resorted to other measures rather than confront him with his fists.
He explained how inmates divided themselves into groups, according to the state they were from or the gang they were in.
He said when the guy who was the head orderly was put into solitary confinement for two months, he asked for the job and got it.
“I was on the compound, cutting grass, picking up garbage, stuff like that,” he said. ”I was new to the federal system and didn’t know prison politics.”
He said when the guy – who was about four inches taller and 80 pounds heavier – got out of solitary, he told (Evans) he wasn’t supposed to have the job. He said it should have gone to someone from his group.
“I said, ‘Look, I asked the C.O. and he gave me the job,’” Evans said. “But the guy said. ‘You need to go to the C.O. and tell him you don’t want the job no more.’
“I felt he was trying to bully me and I said, ‘I’m not going to the C.O.. I’m not telling him (crap.)’
“The guy got upset. He felt his reputation was on the line, but he knew I was a boxer and didn’t want to try it like that.
“So I’m in the chow hall eating chicken and he comes up behind me and stabs me seven times with like an ice pick. Got me in my head, chin, neck, back and under my arm. I grabbed his hand and stood up, but he snatched his hand away and stabbed me some more.
“I got in a boxing stance and I finally made him miss and then I hit him with a hook and a right hand. He fell and the weapon fell, too. I grabbed his legs and pulled him away and then the guards came in.
“I could have lost my life that day. “
Five- to six-year window
That left hand – that he’s balled into a fist in lots of boxing rings and a few prisons, too – was now open and softly patting the shoulder of his grandmother, whom he’d put an arm around.
He was talking about growing up in her home and how she “didn’t cuss, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke.” .
“I still don’t,” she snapped. “And those who come around drinkin’, I had my walking stick. I’d tell ‘em ‘I’m starting low and I’m gonna move high with this stick.”’
Her grandson laughed and shook his head, saying “Naaah.”
He then described the real her: “She made sure I knew I was loved and cared about. As a little boy, she had me in church and made sure I knew who God was. She made sure I had happy birthdays and Christmas and Easter. She got me nice clothes to wear to school and toys and she sponsored my boxing at first. She made sure I graduated from high school (Colonel White.) She means everything to me.”
Now he’s trying to care for her. As she’s struggled at home, he’s helped her with everything from changing her clothes to bathing. When she was in the hospital and now at the nursing home he’s slept on an empty bed or a couch in the same room.
He’s trying to help others, too. He said he’s written a children’s book about chess that also imparts lessons about peer pressure and bullying.
He’s been asked to talk to local school students and also a Central State University class.
And then there are the four fights he has scheduled for this year.
He said he thinks he has a five to six-year window to box and points to Bernard Hopkins, who spent five years in prison and won the WBC light-heavyweight title at 46 and the IBF version at 48.
“While he’s been away, his body hasn’t been abused in the ring,” Thurmond said. “He kept himself in shape and has great discipline when it comes to training. Actually, now that he’s out and free, he’s so eager that I think he over-trains sometimes. He’s trying to get everything at once.”
The other day Evans was sporting some sore ribs after a sparring session at Drake’s with hard- hitting Warren Roberds, who outweighed him by some 60 pounds.
But what’s hurt him most was seeing his grandmother in the hospital and now the nursing home.
At the gym – after finding out my late mother had battled Alzheimer’s – he asked me about dementia:
“Does it go away?”
I told him ‘No” and his eyes began to glisten.
But just he worries about his grandmother, she worries about him.
“He’s a good boy really,” she said. “I don’t want him to get into no trouble while he’s here.”
He patted his grandma on the shoulder.
And as I left, she summed up their situation perfectly, saying quietly:
“Just keep us in your prayers.”
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