Boxer chasing pro career after prison stint

Conversation was replaced by tension and disbelief. Everyone thought the little guy was out of his mind.

It happened a few years back in the television room at the Correctional Reception Center, the Columbus facility that processes prisoners into the state penal system.

Everyone was watching a show when a big, imposing guy walked in, headed straight to the TV and changed channels.

Mike Evans remembers the moment. He was the little guy.

“He turns on Satchmo, you know, the trumpet player, Louis Armstrong,” Evans said.

“I didn’t know the guy and he didn’t know me, but I knew what he did wasn’t right and I said, ‘Man, turn that TV back. I was watching that show.’ But he’s like, ‘We’re watching this now.’

“I said, ‘Naaah, we ain’t watching that.’ Changing channels is disrespectful. It’s like hanging up the phone when I’m talking on it. So I got up and turned the TV back to our show.

“Everybody looked at me like I was crazy.”

No wonder. The big guy was two times his weight. Stood more than a half-foot taller and, unbeknownst to Evans at the time, had a fistic reputation filled with high notes that could match Satchmo’s.

He had been the heavyweight champ of the world. He’d beaten future champs “Bonecrusher” Smith, Greg Page and Bruce Seldon, top contender Jimmy Young and Olympic gold medalist Tyrell Biggs. He’d lost a close decision to Riddick Bowe and had fought Mike Tyson in Tokyo.

“We were about to fight,” said the 135-pound Evans. “But then he says, ‘Man, where you from?’

“I tell him Dayton, Ohio, and he says he’s from Cincinnati. I told him I knew a lot of people there. I named a few and when I said Nate Tubbs was my dude, he goes, ‘That’s my brother. I’m Tony Tubbs.’

“I said, ‘Tony Tubbs, the guy who used to be heavyweight champ of the world? Yeah, right,’ But everybody goes, ‘Yeah, he is.’ ”

Evans didn’t flinch, a trait that over the next four years — in some of the wildest scenarios imaginable — made him an underground legend in the Ohio prison system.

Tubbs sensed some of that.

“He said, ‘I knew there was something about you. You’re a boxer aren’t you?’ ” Evans said with a smile. “He said, ‘I like you, man. Want a bag of chips?’ ”

Highs and lows

Evans certainly is a boxer.

He remains the most honored amateur fighter in Miami Valley history. Five years ago, he was the captain of the Team USA boxing squad that was positioning itself for the Beijing Olympics.

He had won two national Golden Glove titles, a national Police Athletic League championship, two Junior Olympic titles, a bronze medal at the Goodwill Games. He boxed in China, Hungary, Ireland, England, Japan, Thailand, Germany and all across America.

He fought at Madison Square Garden, and his bout with Amir Khan — the British silver medalist in Beijing and the current WBA junior welterweight champ — sold out Liverpool’s famed Olympia ballroom.

But just as Evans defended himself so well between the ropes, he had a way of knocking himself out away from the ring.

Growing up on Dayton’s West Side, he had some juvenile run-ins with the law and then saw his 2004 Olympic chances derailed by a felonious assault charge that was complicated because he had a gun in his possession. He ended up in prison three years.

Once he got out — with the help of local Good Samaritans like lawyer Nick Gounaris — his boxing star rose again and he seemed destined for Beijing. He had fast hands, ring savvy and charisma.

He also had that penchant for self-destruction.

And when he tried selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop — just a few weeks before he was to lead Team USA on a tour of Russia — he got another four years in prison.

“I regret a lot of things,” Evans admitted. “But I’ve had to learn to live with those regrets and move forward as best I could.”

After the Lucasville riot in 1993, Ohio discontinued boxing training and fight shows in its state prisons.

“I’m a boxer, though, and I still had a dream, so I kept training,” Evans said. “I’d do sit ups, crunchies, calisthenics, road work. It kept me fit ... and sane.”

Then one day he was holding a shower slipper and, with a sudden flash of improvisation, he turned it backwards and slipped it over his fist.

“I pulled a sock over it and that was it,” he said. “It only had about an ounce of padding, but I had a homemade boxing glove.”

Perfect in prison

His buddies thought he should put his makeshift mitts to use and, as Evans tells it, they began telling everyone, “Nobody can beat my dude, Mike.”

After that, guys wanted to put him to the test. “I told ’em, ‘All right, we can do it two ways,’ ” Evans said. “We can fight with fists and be mad at each other afterward or we can put these shower shoes on and be friends afterward.’

“But I wouldn’t fight for nothing. It would have to be for $150, knockouts double. So if you got knocked out, you paid $300.

“I took on anybody, any size. Big guys who thought they were boxers agreed to unlimited rounds, no breaks in between. And right then I knew I had them. I’d box them a little bit, let ’em chase me till they tired out and then I’d go get them.”

He said they’d sneak into the gym or the TV room or along the back wall of the dormitory to hold their clandestine fights.

“There was so many different kinds of bets going on — Who’s gonna go down first? How many rounds it gonna go? Who’s gonna get knocked out? — it was like Vegas,” he grinned.

“Every time you got hit by those gloves, you felt it. It left a bruise, it cut you or left a mouse somewhere. I got a couple of busted lips, but I never lost a fight. Went 17-0 and had 15 knockouts.

“To be truthful, I loved it. I felt like a boxer.”

Old friend helps

A champion as an amateur, unbeaten as a prison pug, Evans — now 32 but rock solid as ever — hopes he can carry all that over to a professional career.

He was released from prison 20 days ago and the first place he headed was to the Precision Performance gym in Trotwood. It’s run by Milt Pearson, a supervisor for the Montgomery County juvenile courts who nine years ago converted the former TV repair shop into a place to develop young boxers, none more so than his son Chris, now part of the Olympic training program at Northern Michigan University.

As for Milt and Mike, they have a past.

“Mike’s a good kid,” Pearson said. “He’s always been very respectful of me. When I first got into this sport, I didn’t know anything about it except my son was a little chubby kid who wanted to try it.

“We walked into the old Team America gym (on Salem Avenue) and Mike took us under his wing and looked out for us. And he always called me Coach, even when I didn’t know anything.”

Now Pearson is repaying some of that kindness and has accepted Evans — as has the entire stable of fighters in the gym — with open arms and a renewed sense of awe.

“Mike is like a star,” Pearson said. “He legitimizes our gym. People already are coming to see him work out.”

Both Evans and Pearson say several promoters — from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Memphis, North Carolina, Cincinnati and Cleveland — have shown interest in signing him to a modest pro contract.

“Because of his age, he needs to be on the fast track, but I want to watch out for him and make sure he doesn’t sign something silly,” Pearson said. “He’s still a legitimate contender, he just needs to work off the rust.”

That’s what he was doing the other day and everything about him — his smile, his mood, the way he came alive in the ring — told you he was enjoying it again.

“It feels great to be back in the gym,” he said. “This is where I belong.”