Western Michigan's Jamarko Simmons, left, catches a pass in front of Iowa defender Bradley Fletcher during the second half of their college football game, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007, in Iowa City, Iowa. Western Michigan won 28-19.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — The odds of earning a spot on a pro football roster seemed to be slim and none for JaMarko Simmons.

For four months, he worked tirelessly at the Security Packaging company on South Dort Highway trying to pay his bills as well as provide for his two-year-old son, Jaylen.

Simmons’ days as a All-American wide receiver starring on Western Michigan University’s football team were a distant memory. Instead of catching passes he “provided exceptional packaging products” to the company’s valued customers.

“I was seeing how this 9-5 thing was and it wasn’t for me,” Simmons said. “It was definitely a wake up call.”

Things quickly changed with one conversation in mid-October. The Jacksonville Sharks of the Arena Football League needed a physical wideout and offered Simmons a spot on the team. Without thinking, Simmons accepted.

“I was real excited about it,” Simmons said. “I got a second chance at it (and) a second chance at everything as injury free and really being able to show my talents.”

At WMU, Simmons was a four-year starter and became the first receiver in the program’s history to catch more than 100 passes in a season. He also broke the record for career receptions (260), passing Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings in the process.

After graduating in 2008, Simmons signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent but was hampered by a herniated disc in his back and didn’t make the final cut. The New Orleans Saints granted him another tryout but this would fall through. He then had plans on playing in the UFL but a fracture in his foot put his career at a standstill.

For a player who had never dealt with any major injuries all throughout his college tenure, Simmons often found himself frustrated and emotionally damaged. Being injured reminded him just how much he loved the game. When things seemed to be falling apart, he decided to rededicate himself to the sport.

He reached out to his former high school track coach at Flint Central, Carlos Benton, to help get back to the basics.

Simmons trained with Benton at Grand Blanc high school for close to two months before heading off to Jacksonville for the start of training camp with the Sharks last weekend. They met up for four sessions per week, which lasted nearly three hours to work on his flexibility, quickness, speed, cardio and agility. Simmons also participated in his own weight lifting regimen on top of their encounters.

Benton was highly impressed with the drive of his young protege.

“When we first started working out he wasn’t in shape but had the work ethics of it but as we’ve been working out he’s been getting very comfortable,” said Benton, who is now the girls cross country coach at Grand Blanc. “I can see the maturity from high school to college and I would be very shocked if he didn’t make it.”

Before he can make it back to the NFL, Simmons believes he has to crawl before he walks and this opportunity may be a stepping stone for the next level.

“I’m going to give it all I got. I still got a whole lot in the tank, a whole lot to give and it’s just one day at a time,” Simmons said. “My ultimate goal is to make it back to the league in 2011-2012 (and) hopefully it’s not a lockout and I can show what I got.”

While his sights may be set on the NFL, Simmons has to emerge as a star in the AFL first.

The rookie will get his chance when the Sharks take on the Arizona Rattlers on March 12 to kick off their five-month season.

“He better be very serious because if he’s not then he’s not going to make it,” Jacksonville Sharks head coach, Les Moss said. “These guys in this league are very good football players and he’s gonna be challenged every bit as much as he’s been challenged anywhere he’s been.”

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Powers' #20 junior Patrick Lucas-Perry dribbles past Carman-Ainsworth's #5 freshman Denzel Watts.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — Powers senior guard, Patrick Lucas-Perry is not like most high school athletes.

Although this may sound a bit cliche, it’s truly the best way to describe him. He played hockey all the way up until high school. How many city athletes do you know of that have to decide whether or not to seriously pursue hockey or hoops?
PLP is the youngest of five children and is regarded one of the top guards in the state. He currently averages 17.2 points, 6.5 assists, and 3.8 steals per game for the Chargers (15-2) and looks to lead them to another Class B state championship this season.
Last weekend, PLP sat down with the Flint Journal at the Applebee’s on Hill road for a full interview on his career, his upcoming college plans, and the legacy that he hopes to leave at Powers.
Eric Woodyard: I had a chance to talk to your mom and she told me that you are a super momma’s boy. I know this can’t be true…(laughs)
Patrick Lucas-Perry: (Laughs) She let the cat out of the bag but yeah, I think my mom is someone who’s always going to be there for me and someone I can depend on. So I guess you can say I’m a little momma’s boy.
EW: You’re the baby of the family so how does that feel to have to live up to the expectations that all of your brothers and sisters set before you?
PLP: I get that question a lot. I just tell them that the pressures that I’ve had on me is just an inspiration and just a little positive and reminder of who I am and what I need to do with my life so I just take it as something that would help me through my life. It’s something that will just always be there to be pushing me.
EW: I know you won a state championship as a sophomore and was the captain of the team. Why do you think they had that much confidence in you to put you in that role?
PLP: I think a lot of teams even the Lakers with Derek Fisher and the Celtics with (Rajon) Rondo. The point guard role has a lot of purpose and a lot of meaning to help the team and really lead and be that person to take their teammates and their team to the next level. I think being a sophomore a lot of pressure was put on me but I would like to say that I just like to make my players better around me.
EW: What was your favorite year playing varsity?
PLP: The teams over these past four years have been so unique and diverse and just different type of players. I really cant put one whole season to say that it’s better than the other but I feel like the chemistry that I’ve had throughout my whole career at Powers has just been great. It’s been a great experience from the coaches and from everybody.
EW: You played other sports too but what made you want to stick just with basketball?
PLP: Yeah, actually when I was coming into high school I was either going to play hockey or basketball and I was like ‘dang, which one am I going to do?’ but I just chose basketball over football, tennis, and track because I just felt like it was just something I could do forever and it was just a passion I had.
EW: Hockey though? (laughs) Not a lot of people play hockey…
PLP: Yeah, not too many people but my parents just had me do a lot of things when I was growing up and it was just something that I just started liking over the years. Then I realized that I was pretty good at it and I started playing travel and the AA and it was just something I always thought was fun and enjoyable.
I played from when I was like five to eighth grade year actually. Actually I don’t watch a lot, I just like to play it.
EW: What are your ultimate goals this season?
PLP: All-State, I’d like to do that again. Dream Team. But right now individual awards I’m not even focused on, I’m really just focused on that state championship.
Powers’ #20 junior Patrick Lucas-Perry dribbles past Carman-Ainsworth’s #5 freshman Denzel Watts.
EW: Out of all the battles this season, what was your favorite battle this season?
PLP: I’d have to say Carman because that’s the team that we lost too. It’s that one game that I will look back two years from now or whatever and will be like ‘I wish I had that one back,’ so I will have to say Carman and Denzel (Watts).
EW: Do you think that has motivated the team?
PLP: I really think it did. I think it gave us a great learning experience, a wake up call and in my eyes something that we can just persevere through to winning the state championship.
EW: What colleges have been aggressively pursuing you the most?
PLP: I think it’s between Pennsylvania University, Harvard, Oakland, and Boston College.
EW: What would you say is your top two?
PLP: Penn and Oakland probably.
EW: How fun would it be to play with your brother, LaVal, at Oakland?

PLP: I’ve never done it before and it would be something that’s just a insurmountable, great experience all tied into one especially with Coach (Greg) Kampe there. Being a Golden Grizzlie would just be an all-around great opportunity and something that would last for a lifetime.
EW: When will you make your decision?

PLP: After the season.
EW: How would you like to be remembered at Powers? Your family all has their legacy but what do you want yours to be?
PLP: That’s a good question. I just would like to be that leader that someone is compared to. I hope to be that person and just someone that will be remembered as a great point guard and being a true point guard.
*Look out for Eric Woodyard’s full-length feature story on Patrick in tomorrow’s sports section of the Flint Journal.

JaVale McGee

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — In 1984, Phoenix Suns power forward Larry Nance won the first ever NBA Slam Dunk competition. He did it with an array of acrobatic dunks that brilliantly utilized his length and lanky build.

At 6-foot-10, Nance went head-to-head with legendary dunkers like Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Dominique Wilkins in Denver to become one of the tallest winners in the history of the contest. But what would Washington Wizards center, JaVale McGee know about Larry Nance though? He wasn’t even born yet.

McGee, 23, wasn’t born until four years after Nance’s feat.

This Saturday, the Flint native will look to recreate that magic and perhaps have something in common with Nance. McGee was selected to participate in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, Calif. He will battle DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), and Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City Thunder) for the title.

McGee lists Nance’s performance in the ‘84 contest as his favorite of all-time, but vows to come with his own creative niche.

“I’m just really excited,” McGee said. “I got some things up my sleeve that people have never seen and it should be a pretty good contest.”

Just like Nance, McGee is also relatively large to be fighting for the crown as the league’s best dunker. He is 7-feet tall and weights 250 pounds. Since his name was officially confirmed as a member of arguably the most popular event of the entire weekend, McGee has earned a newfound fame that can sometimes become annoying.

“It’s definitely fun getting the attention, it’s also hectic though,” McGee added. “You can’t go places you went before without being heckled by everybody.”

Wizards Cavaliers Basketball.JPG

McGee lived in Flint until the age of four, but often moved from city to city. His mother, Pam McGee, was a star at Northern high school, and won back-to-back NCAA championships at USC. She also played professional basketball in several different places, including overseas and in the WNBA. Due to her career, JaVale lived in Detroit, Chicago, and even Los Angeles, but he did come back to his hometown to attend Flint Northwestern in the seventh and eighth grade.

In high school, McGee played at Detroit Country Day, Fremont’s Providence Christian HS and Hales Franciscan in Chicago before completing two years of college basketball at Nevada-Reno.

In 2008, McGee was selected by the Wizards with the 18th pick of the NBA draft and he is now in his third season averaging 9.2 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Although McGee is hardly home, he’s still realizes where he’s from and hopes to make his community proud. He has the ink to prove it.

“I definitely rep the city of Flint. I have the Flint tattoo and everything,” McGee said. “I’ve been there for like half my life like on and off, but I’m just trying to go out there and represent and win this dunk contest.”

*Click this link to check out Eric Woodyard’s complete interview with McGee.

Jamarko Simmons stands at a ramp that leads into the seating at Waldo Stadium at Western Michigan.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — One sign changed everything.

It overlooks West 12th Street, underneath the Southwestern Academy logo,  and represents a historiic mark. Mark Ingram that is.

The sign reads: “Home of Mark Ingram II 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.”

This set the bar for all aspiring football players attending Southwestern.
Senior wide receiver, Kendrick Roberts was no exception. When Roberts inked his name on the dotted line last week to attend Western Michigan University on a football scholarship this fall, of course Ingram came to mind.

What Roberts didn’t realize is that he’s also following the footsteps of another great wide receiver from Flint who had a great career sporting the Brown & Gold in Kalamazoo as well, JaMarko Simmons.

W_MICHIGAN_FLORIDA_ST_F(2).jpg

Simmons was a graduate of Central High School in 2004 and a four-year starter at WMU. Simmons left in 2008 as the university’s career leader in receptions (260) and the single season record holder in receptions (104) and receiving yards (1,267).

His no. 27 jersey still hangs in the rafters of Waldo Stadium next to all of the other All-Americans that have have battled on the field for the Broncos.

“Everytime I go up there they show me all the banners with all the All-Americans up there so they always tell me I got big shoes to fill,” Roberts said. “Pretty much going up there I just want to be able to fulfill their shoes, do better than they did, and break their records.”

Simmons, 24, is humbled that he is now mentioned with the greats from his university.
“It’s an honor and hopefully Kendrick can go down there and keep that legacy going,” Simmons added.

In October, Simmons signed a contract to play for the Jacksonville Sharks of the Arena Football League (AFL). The Sharks start training camp this weekend with their first game on Feb. 28 against the Tampa Bay Storm.

If Roberts wants to replace Simmons’ name in the record books it will be no easy task.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Simmons was twice named to the First Team All-Mid-American Conference squad and received All-American nods from both Sports Illustrated and Phil Steele’s College Football. Nonetheless, the staff at WMU likes Roberts’ chances of surpassing the former standout.

“He’s probably a little faster than JaMarko (but) if he has the career JaMarko had we would all be happy,” WMU head coach Bill Cubit said. “I thought JaMarko was a great player here and we’re really excited about Kendrick here. I think he has all the attributes to be a great one.”

KENDRICK ROBERTS_04.JPG

In high school, Roberts usually dominated his peers effortlessly. As a junior, he amassed over 1,000 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. Despite hitting the injury bug in his senior year after breaking his hand, Roberts still hauled in 736 yards while scoring eight touchdowns. As Roberts makes the transition to the next level, he will have to raise his play to meet the standards of stiffer competition. Nobody can break down the journey better than Simmons.

“It’s going to be a good experience for him. I talked to coach and he was like he’s a real good player,” Simmons confirmed. “He said he reminded him of me coming out of Flint and we was joking along and he was like, ‘You can only handle only a couple of them from Flint.’ But he was saying he’s a real good kid and he looks forward to putting him on the field real soon.”

Roberts will have to take care of business in the classroom as well as adapt to plays rather quickly if he plans to carry on the tradition of Flint athletes succeeding at WMU. The Broncos have no doubt that Roberts will prevail.

“He’s big, he’s fierce, he can catch and he’s a great kid. He’s got all the intangibles and we love him here,” Cubit said. “He’s an outstanding kid with unlimited potential.”

JaVale McGee (34) of the Washington Wizards throws down a fastbreak jam against the Los Angeles Lakers.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — The Sprite NBA Slam Dunk Contest is right around the corner.

In arguably the most popular event of the NBA All-Star Weekend, four participants will fight for the crown of being honored as the league’s best dunker.

DeMar Derozan (Toronto Raptors), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Flint’s very own JaVale McGee of the Washington Wizards were selected to take part in the action. Taking a few minutes out of his busy schedule, McGee agreed to an over-the-phone interview with the Flint Journal.

McGee talked about growing up in the city, his favorite dunk contest of all-time, and his recent popularity.

Eric Woodyard: I know you didn’t grow up your whole life here in Flint but do you still rep the city just like you’ve been here your whole life?

JaVale McGee: Yeah I definitely rep the city of Flint. I got the Flint tattoo and everything and I been there for like half my life like on and off but yeah I definitely rep it.

EW: How old were you when you moved out of Flint?

JM: I was like four then I left and came back when I was six and then I left again and came back in the seventh and eighth grade. I went to Northwestern.

EW: Where did you guys move to?

JM: We went to Chicago. We went to Detroit. We went overseas. We was everywhere.

EW: I know your mom was a star at Flint Northern (Pam McGee) and your dad was drafted into the NBA (George Montgomery). Do you feel like hooping was pretty much in your genes?

JM: Yeah definitely. My background as far as my mom is real good.

EW: So you got this big Slam Dunk contest coming up this Saturday. How excited are you?

JM: It feels good, I’m just really excited. I got some things up my sleeve that people have never seen and it should be a pretty good contest.

EW: When was the first time you dunked a basketball?

JM: I think in like eighth grade.

EW: What type of dunk was it? Was it a weak one? (laughs)

JM: It wasn’t that crazy. It was just a little weak dunk.

EW: What was your favorite NBA Dunk Contest of all-time?

JM: I think it was ’86 or ’84 with Larry Nance.

EW: I know you don’t want to reveal none of your dunks but are you taking some things from Larry Nance?

JM: I was thinking about it but I don’t think I am.

EW: Is there one particular dunk from one person that you can say is your favorite of all-time?

JM: Nah, I can’t even say it. It’s so many. It’s too many dunks out there.

EW: How cool is it to be playing with John Wall in Washington?

JM: It’s been cool, it’s a lot more exposure than it was the year before. I’m just trying to get some wins though.

EW: You’ve been getting a lot of attention since you were selected for the contest, how crazy has that been?

JM: It’s definitely fun getting the attention, it’s also hectic though. You can’t go places you went before without being heckled by everybody.

EW: Anything else you want to add...

JM: Just uh…I’m definitely repping Flint. I’m just trying to go out there and represent and win this dunk contest.

*Look out for Eric Woodyard’s full length story on McGee in tomorrow’s sports section of the Flint Journal.

Flint's Chelsey Jackson of the IPFW women's basketball team.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — The typical college athlete generally begins to play his/her desired sport at a very early age.  Most of the time they begin to hone their skills starting as soon as elementary school because they have a unique passion for their craft.

Chelsey Jackson was different.

“I was just playing because a couple of my other friends were playing,” Jackson said.

The Flint native didn’t participate in organized basketball until she was 12-years-old and didn’t get serious about it until after a close relative passed away. She used the game as an outlet to release her inner frustrations.

Jackson never dreamnt that something she did to help past the time would one day earn her a full-ride athletic scholarship to Indiana-Purdue/Fort Wayne University.

Now a senior playing on IPFW’s women’s basketball team, Jackson is one of the school’s all-time greats. On Feb. 5, she became just the 15th member of the university’s 1,000-point club after scoring a game-high 19 points against Western Illinois. Last Saturday, she showcased her skills in front her of loved ones when she made her homecoming trip to Michigan as the Mastodons took on Oakland University in Rochester.

With over thirty of her close relatives in the stands sporting white t-shirts that beared her name and number on them, Jackson poured in 12 points and handed out three assists. The Mastodons defeated the Grizzlies, 70-55.

“It’s always good coming here and playing in front of my family because a lot of them don’t get to go to Fort Wayne to see me play,” Jackson said.”So it’s always fun coming back here and playing.”

Although they may not have the time to be present for all of her contests, her folks are appreciative of all her accomplishments.

“I’ve always been proud of Chelsey since she first decided that she wanted to play. It’s just fantastic for me” Jackson’s father, Richard Williams said.”Playing Division I basketball, getting to play against some of the best talent in the country. What more can you ask?”

Jackson decided to attend IPFW after graduating from Flint Central high school in 2007. As a junior at Central, she only averaged 8.9 points but improved that production to 21.3 as a senior. She also led the city in scoring during her final year of prep basketball and was named to the First-Team All-Saginaw Valley Conference squad.

When it came time to decide on what college would be the best fit, she made her decision based solely on which program would afford her the opportunity to develop the best.

“I just felt like IPFW was a place that I could grow with because when I first came here the program wasn’t really big,” Jackson recalled.”They were just trying to sell us a dream on the idea, and I was just trying to find a place where I could just grow with the program. I felt like IPFW was the place where I could do that.”

Jackson averages 9.7 points thise season and has reached double-figures in her last four games.

On Monday, Jan. 31, she chipped in 23 points connecting on six of her nine field goal attempts against Centenary. She fired back with 19 points on Western Illinois. Against IUPUI on Feb. 7, she scored 15 points with five rebounds and added 12 more at Oakland.

“Her performances the last three weeks have been unbelievable. Chelsey’s always gone through some trying to figure out what she’s best at and she’s just figured it out now,” IPFW head coach, Chris Paul said.”You can just see it on the floor now, she’s calm, she’s comfortable, she looks like a senior, she’s shooting the ball with confidence. I just can’t say enough about the progress she’s made, not only this year but from her freshman year until now.”

IPFW is in second place of the Summit League with a record of 11-3 in conference play.The Mastodons have a overall record of 17-6.

“I’m just trying to work hard every time, every second I am on the court and that’s been paying off,” Jackson added.

Justice Thigpen (middle) poses for a portrait with his daughter Reba and his son Justice Jr. after a church league basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 12. Justice was the first Afro-American from Flint to play in the NBA.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — When Justus Thigpen Sr.  was called up from the Continental Basketball Association to play for the Detroit Pistons in the middle of the 1972-1973 season, he became the first basketball player from Flint to ever play in the NBA.

After he hung up his sneakers for good, he was willing to pave a similar path for his two young children, Reba and Justus Jr.

But it was up to them whether or not they wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps as a professional ballplayer.

“He was the first man to put a basketball in our hands, but one thing he would always say to us (was), “I’m going to introduce you to the game but it’s up to you whether or not you want to stick with it,’” Reba Thigpen remembered.

The two kept at it. Although neither of them ever cracked a NBA or WNBA roster, their success in the sport still made their dad proud. Reba left Northern High School as the school’s all-time leading scorer in 1989 before heading to Lansing Community College for two years where she scored 30 points per game.

Justus Jr. was also a Northern graduate who attended Iowa State and averaged 17.6 points per game as a senior in 1993. He got passed over in the NBA draft but had a brief stint in the preseason with the Utah Jazz before playing for several teams in the CBA, including the Flint Fuze.

The trio was all back on the same court this past Saturday in a church league at Scott Elementary with Justus Sr. coaching them just like old times. There’s only one difference now, Justus Jr. (40) and Reba (41) are not the same little whippersnappers that Justus Sr. used to drill in the playgrounds. He still has no problem reminding them or anyone else of his resume though.

“In this sport, if you get to that highest level, it’s a certain cockiness that you gotta have and you need that if you want to be great or successful,” Justus Jr. said. “So he would remind himself, ‘Hey, I was that man who paved that way for a lot of cats.’”

In his prime, Justus Sr. was a handful. He was cut from virtually every basketball team he tried out for from the seventh grade all the way up until his senior year of high school at Northern in 1965.

“For a guy to never make the high school team, I’m the only one to come out of there and play professional basketball and I’m in five hall of fames,” Justus Sr. boasted. “But I couldn’t make a high school basketball team and they call me ‘the late bloomer’ but that’s not true. They just didn’t let me play.”

When he finally got his chance, he made the best of his opportunity and earned a scholarship to Flint Junior College (Mott Community College) where he dominated in two seasons, averaging 26.5 points as a sophomore. In the fall of 1967, he transferred to Weber State University where he finished out the remainder of his college eligibility. During his tenure as a Wildcat, Justus Sr. made the Big Sky Conference first team for two consecutive seasons.

In 1969, he was drafted by the San Diego Rockets of the NBA but opted to take an offer from the Carolina Cougars in the ABA. Before the season began, the Cougars shipped him over to a league in Paris for one year to develop. He did so well in France that the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA came calling and later the Flint Pros of the CBA.

Justus Sr. averaged over 40 points per game, with no three-point line, for the Pros in the 1972-73 season, competing against legends like George “The Iceman” Gervin, who is now in the NBA Hall of Fame, on a nightly basis. He signed with the Detroit Pistons in the middle of that season and played in 18 games while averaging 2.6 points in the Motor City. He would never get another shot at the NBA, but he still marvels at his past triumphs.

“I want people to understand that I was the first one to be in the NBA!” Justus Sr. said. “A lot of us old timers don’t get a lot of recognition. We were the original ‘Flintstones.’”

Although the Thigpen family reunion was a prosperous one with great tradition on the line, their Kingdom Entertainment team still fell to Great Lakes Black, 88

Super Middeweight Arthur Abraham, left, received a standing eight count after this knock down by Andre Dirrell in the seventh round of the Super Six World Boxing Classic at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday, March 27, 2010 in Detroit.

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — Andre Dirrell was putting on a picture-perfect boxing performance.

For 11 rounds, the Flint native’s speed and elusiveness were brilliantly displayed against Arthur Abraham in front of his hometown fans at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit last spring.

He was less than six minutes away from giving Abraham his first professional loss while also redeeming himself from a controversial split decision he took overseas at the expense of Carl Froch.

Abraham had other plans.

Brewing with frustration, Abraham clocked Dirrell with a solid right-hand hook with 1:13 remaining in the round. The problem was, Dirrell had clearly slipped and fell to his knee. The punched caught him off guard and knocked him completely out. Dirrell was awarded the win because of Abraham’s illegal punch, but it would have long-lasting effects.

“(Abraham) knew what he was doing when he hit me. He knew I totally dominated,” Dirrell said. “He knew I exposed him and I caught him for the fraud that he is. He’s a paper champion and I proved it when I put my hands on him.”

That fight took place on March 27, 2010 and Dirrell (19-1) hasn’t entered the ring since. All negotiations to fight his close friend and 2004 Olympic teammate, Andre Ward, crashed in October when Dirrell was diagnosed with neurological problems that were caused from Abraham’s illegal shot. He also dropped out of Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic with his career in jeopardy.

“It was quite a setback, but it just wasn’t a big setback because I’m just looking out for my career,” Dirrell said.

He first noticed the neurological symptoms while preparing to take on Ward. Dirrell often felt light-headed, dizzy, and complained of not being able to sleep at times. His grandfather and longtime trainer, Leon “Bumper” Lawson, who never cuts him any slack, recognized a difference, as well. Lawson observed Dirrell’s slower foot speed in workouts before deciding to direct his grandson to a neurologist.

Dirrell, 27, was ruled out of action for three months. He wouldn’t be cleared to box again unless there was no evidence of the injury throughout that time frame.

“If the doctor hadn’t said that he wasn’t able to continue boxing I wouldn’t have let him anyway,” Lawson said. “Because I would like to know where he’s at after being knocked out, and I would have him fight less competitive fighters.”

The good news is that Dirrell was cleared to return to the sport last Tuesday. The bad news is that most fans believe he ducked Ward for a bigger payday in the future. Whatever the case may be, Dirrell doesn’t let it get to him too much.

“People crack jokes about it, people say that I’m faking. Haters are gonna be haters but I’m loving it because honestly I have three to four to five times as many fans as I do haters,” Dirrell laughed. “You got to take the good with the bad, but it just really motivates me, so when I hear it, it doesn’t bother me.”

Dirrell plans to make his much-anticipated return within the next three to four months. He’s currently training in Deerfield Beach, Fla., while searching for a tune-up opponent to help shake off his ring rust. In Flint, it was hard for him to consistently find the ambition necessary to reach his peak. The cold weather and snow weren’t the preferable conditions to help him hone his craft.

He hopes to take Lucian Bute’s International Boxing Federation super middleweight title before the end of the year. Bute hails from Romania and has a perfect record in 27 bouts with 22 wins coming off of knockouts.

Dirrell’s camp feels like there shouldn’t be a controversy about whether or not he wants to battle Ward. The two have been pitted against each other since their careers first began. Their only concerns is that the conditions are ideal for both parties.

“I don’t want to add skepticism, because if this wouldn’t have happened with Abraham then I would be fighting Andre Ward. People want to see the fight, but they just won’t see it when they want to see it. But it will come,” Dirrell declared. “I cant wait, I know he can’t wait and that’s definitely going to put a stamp on who’s the best, and I’m ready to get in there and show the people what’s up.

“But they’ll just have to wait.”

Last year’s layoff has been Dirrell’s longest since he first picked up a pair of gloves nearly 17 years ago. During that break, however, he married his high school sweetheart, Alaia, and the two are expecting their third child, a boy, in June.

It’s just too bad that Alaia had to compete for her husband’s attention with his favorite pastime besides boxing: Video games.

“That’s his mistress at night time,” Alaia joked. “He’ll do his training and he’s very oriented when it comes to the kids, but on top of that he (loves) that game.”

It’s true that he may have been spending over 20 hours of his week enjoying “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” but Dirrell still insists he will be better this time around.

“You definitely can look for a more determined, more focused Andre Dirrell,” he said. “My family has been great but I just want to get back in that ring.

“I don’t like sitting out this long.”

Super Middeweight Andre Dirrell, right, punches Arthur Abraham in the ribs during the seventh round of the Super Six World Boxing Classic at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday, March 27, 2010 in Detroit.

FLINT, Michigan — In October, top-ranked super middleweight boxing contender Andre Dirrell’s career seemed to be in jeopardy.

The Flint native was diagnosed with neurological problems and advised to take a three-month absence from the sport until his conditions improved.

Dirrell has now been cleared to fight.

He’s currently training in Florida while searching for an opponent but before he left he invited the Flint Journal into his plush home in Fenton, Mich., and offered some insight about what’s been going on since his last bout in March against Arthur Abraham. The fight ended in controversy and earned a victory by way of disqualification. Here is part two of the two-part interview.

Eric Woodyard: Do you feel like that fight against Arthur Abraham damaged your reputation at all?

Andre Dirrell: I could say so but it’s really hard to say. But in boxing you have to prove yourself.When I fought Curtis Stevens, I ran the whole fight. That was my first time fighting a short guy that was really good so I fought him the only way I knew how, and that was a setback for me and I felt like I lost more from that than I would have the Arthur Abraham fight, because like I said that was a picture perfect performance. If anything I gained fans. I’d been to California before I fought Abraham and it was just ‘there’s Andre Dirrell.’ I went to California for the Andre Ward fight when he fought Alan Green and I literally walked in that stadium and got a standing ovation so I won’t say I’ve lost anything, or I’m looked at at a lower standpoint.

I would say I’m pretty much glorified, but all I can do is push forward and keep proving myself. That’s what you have to do in boxing. If you have a setback, a true champion comes back, bounces back and makes something of it so that’s what I’m looking forward to doing, but right now who cares? I don’t care where anyone sees me because I don’t have a lot to prove in this game but I will be in the top of the crop one day.

EW: I know you were telling me about a possible fight with Lucian Bute in a few months. Are you still looking to fight him soon?

AD: Yeah! I’m really hoping that comes about. It won’t be in Canada because that’s where all his fights are held and it’s a lot of crazy stuff that goes on in foreign countries if you ask me. But he’s the new Showtime fighter now, they just signed him. He hasn’t had a fight on Showtime since they signed him. I’m on my way back, and after a warmup fight then I really really really want to get in there with Lucian Bute to definitely take his title then I go after Andre Ward. Bute is definitely in my radar, I would love to fight him and I’m sure it will soon come.

EW: What’s the timetable for that fight? How many months…

AD: Um…I’m actually looking for a warmup fight right so I would say within a seven-month timespan I’ll be chasing Bute.

EW: So your warmup fight should be within

AD: Three to four months. Yes, by late March beginning of April.

EW: Can you just talk about how it feels to be sitting out of boxing for so long? How have you been feeling about having all of that free time and not knowing if you would ever be back?  You know contemplating retirement if the injury was too severe. How was that?

AD: It’s a lot to just sit back and think. I’ve been boxing for 17 years man and that’s practically my whole life, even my childhood. I’ve been working out since I was five-years-old so you can really add another five years to that 17, but just to know that I wanna be in the game for seven more years, because I just get to sit back and look at it, it is really like this is it. It’s now or never. In that aspect it’s just me in a better mindset—  being out this long about what I have to do when I get back in the game.

My family has been great but I just want to get back in that ring, I don’t like sitting out this long. I’ve been working out on and off but the motivation is really hard in Flint, just because of the snow.  I don’t like cold weather and I plan on moving to Florida soon and when I do that I will definitely get back up on my training but this has allowed me to think a lot while I’ve been out. I’m serious to just get back in there and get back to work. People want to see me and I just don’t want to let none of my fans down, and I believe I’m doing that just by sitting out the game this long but I’m gonna get back in there and show them what I can do.

EW: What Andre Dirrell are we gonna see this time around? Will there be any changes? Are you a little more angry? Are you gonna be more aggressive? What kind of Andre will step in the ring in 2011…

AD: Just a more focused one man. A boxer has to control what he has to do —  that’s it because I believe my game is perfected. In my last performance, it was an A plus performance. I believe my game was perfected. I’m going to just be more focused and hold down what I have to do, so that’s just my main thing. Getting back, not being a crowd pleaser, working to the best of my abilites and practicing my craft, and just being the champion that I know I can be and everybody wants me to be. I’m a focused, more determined Andre Dirrell.

EW: Anything else you would like to add that I didn’t ask you?

AD: Basically you definitely can look for a more determined, more focused Andre Dirrell but I really above all want to bring Flint back and put Flint on the map. I plan on doing a lot of work with Flint. I plan on bringing a lot of summer and winter activities back to Flint as well as working with the kids, but my main focus is getting back on my game and bringing Flint and putting it back on the map, so when I go down to Florida to work I want Flint to know above all that I’m bringing that championship back for them as well as myself.

*Click here to check out Part 1 of the interview!

 

By Eric Woodyard | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — In March, it will be a full year since top-ranked super middleweight contender, Andre Dirrell has entered the boxing ring.

In his last bout he was nailed with a cheap shot by Arthur Abraham after he slipped in a corner and rested on one leg. The punch knocked Dirrell completely out but he still went on to win the fight by disqualification.

After that contest, Dirrell was scheduled to face his close friend and fellow 2004 U.S. Olympic teammate, Andre Ward. That fight would never happen as Dirrell was diagnosed with neurological problems following the effects of Abraham’s devastating blow. The doctors advised Dirrell to remain absent from the sport for three months until he was symptom free.

Guess what? It’s been three months and Dirrell was cleared to return back into boxing on Tuesday, Feb. 1.

Last week, Dirrell invited the Flint Journal out to his plush home in Fenton to give fans an insight on his boxing plans, address the “haters,” and to set the record straight about his injury in part one of the two-part interview.

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Eric Woodyard: Can you explain the neurological problems that you were dealing with for those that may not understand?

Andre Dirrell: I lose around 15 or 16 pounds for every training camp so it’s natural for me to feel dizzy after a fight and to feel light-headed when I start turning back into my old self after I leave camp. But after the fight, after I saw the doctors, they told me I had a slight concussion, and I came home not thinking of it, just working out and I started getting light-headed, I started getting dizzy. There were times I couldn’t sleep, I would be in the gym working out and my grandfather would see a difference just from my training alone.

So when he told me to go visit the neurologist that scared me because my grandfather doesn’t care if you’re sick, hopping on one foot all that stuff during training should be gone. So, I went to the Neurologist and told him I had dizzines that wouldn’t go away, I couldn’t sleep. I told him pretty much the same thing and they put me off for three months. They put me off until I was three months symptom-free, but I feel pretty good now.

As far as other boxers having it I know (others) have slight concussions and after fights like this from being knocked out (and)  it’s unchangeable for them. They get back in the ring and they can make nothing of it, they’re whole game is changed and it affects not only their career but their lives, so me taking this time off is pretty smart for me and I’m just hoping for the best when I get back in that ring.

EW: I know it had to be a setback for you being right on the brink of fighting Andre Ward in the middle of training. Just how much of a setback was this injury for you?

AD: It was quite of a setback — it just wasn’t a big setback because again I’m just looking out for my career. That’s pretty much the only setback. When I fought Carl Froch everybody thought I won the fight. The world saw that. The world knows that I won the fight and it was a good fight for me. Moving on to Arthur Abraham I totally dominated him. It was a picture perfect perfomance until the late hit. Like one reporter said, ‘he tarnished a Picasso.’

I am on the brink of exploding. I’m right there on the verge of becoming a big-time fighter and for this to happen it is quite of a setback. It can do something to you mentally. It bothers me a little bit, but I know once I get back in that ring I’m gonna be my old self again. In March it will be a year and I’m looking forward to fighting Andre Ward sometime in the near future. So when that comes about I will be willing and ready, so it’s part of a setback because I want to be fighting. I’m a boxer that’s what I do. I really can’t wait to get back in there.

EW: We have to address the people all over the internet who think you’re dodging Andre Ward. What do you have to say to those people?

AD: I just heard it again today. Last night I saw a video on there that was quite funny and I commented back to him on Twitter like ‘that was a good one.’ People crack jokes about it, people say that ‘I’m faking.’ Haters gonna be haters but I’m loving it because. honestly, I have three to four to five times as many fans as I do haters and you got to take the good with the bad … but it just really motivates me so when I hear it, it doesn’t bother me.

Half of it makes me laugh, half of it makes me wonder but it doesn’t bother me at all. I just want to get in there and fight. One thing about boxing is that you will be criticized until you retire so I’m actually looking forward to that. Floyd Mayweather’s being critcized to this day and he’s one of the best out there period! So I’m looking forward to getting more haters like Katt Williamssays, but I can’t do nothing but feed off of it. It’s nothing but energy for me.

EW: At what point do you feel like will be the right time to take the fight with Andre Ward? Do you think it was too early?

AD: I don’t want to put any skepticism to saying that the fight was too early because people already believe that I was dodging him, but — come on man — we’re two young fighters. We’re both at the top of our career and people look to see us fight and they know ever since we’ve turned professional that people have been wanting to see us fight. They wanted to know if we can live up to the standards of bringing in a big crowd and they said that we can do that now.

The Super Six was a beautiful opportunity for me but I don’t believe that it was the right time. Unfortunately this did happen, and we would’ve had our time to shine and we would have had a great crowd but I know it could be better with both of us carrying a championship, both of us at the high rise of our career, (and) at the peak of our performance. People are going to pay to see us. It’s definitely a potential big fight and I don’t want to sell it short. Like I said I don’t want to add skepticism because if this wouldn’t have happened with Abraham then I would be fighting Andre Ward. People want to see the fight but they just won’t see it when they want to see it, but it will come. I can’t wait, I know he can’t wait and that’s definitely gonna put a stamp on who’s the best and I’m ready to get in there and show the people what’s up, but they’ll just have to wait.

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EW: Do you regret joining the Super Six at all? If not, what do you feel like you gained from joining the tournament?

AD: Like I said it’s just been nothing but high hopes from the beginning. It’s lived up to my expectations from the beginning. When I first walked into the studio in New York, when I ran into all the Super Six fighter, I was sitting there and I did ask myself ‘Do I really belong in this tournament?’ because when you get under the lights and in that ring you feel it. You know when you’re put on that pedestial and I felt it there and after that first fight with Froch, I knew I belonged there. And fighting on with Abraham and gaining the exposure I got nothing but good out of it. It’s been an excellent tournament. Showtime has showed me nothing but love and if I can rewind it and do it all over again, I would definitely do it all over again minus what Abraham has done to me. So it was great exposure, this was a great tournament, the first time it’s ever been done and it’s definitely going down in history. Hopefully there can be more like it. I just love to know that we set the standards for boxing to be on a higher pedestal than what it is now.

EW: I know you have to feel like beating up Abraham. (laughs) I know you’re bitter at him man especially after all the junk he’s been talking since the fight…

AD: (laughs) Yeah. I was watching something with Abraham last night as well and he said I was a actor and stuff like that but he was definitely gearing away from the a— whooping I gave him. (laughs) You know what I’m saying? But listening to interviews after that fight, people don’t bring up the a— whooping. They don’t bring it up. It’s like it never happened because all they want to see is me and Ward’s fight. But like I said, an announcer said ‘he tarnished a Picasso.’ He knew what he was doing when he hit me. He knew I totally dominated. He knew I exposed him and I caught him for the fraud that he is. He’s a paper champion and I proved it when I put my hands on him.

The favorite in the tournament at the time was for Arthur Abraham, the point leader was Arthur Abraham. I came in and dominated him…period! He did what he had to do to get out. To cause controversy and he did just that. Froch put on a picture perfect performance against him as well, thanks to me but I am bitter. I am slightly bitter but no I’m not because he he isn’t the one to walk around and blabber and talk a lot of trash but he does have his point about me. If we ever meet again if he ever holds the belt, and if he’s worth my time, I will fight him again but he doesn’t get under my skin.

*Part two of this interview will be posted on the web tomorrow afternoon. A full-length feature story on Andre Dirrell will also headline Sunday’s Flint Journal.