When your grandfather is a lifelong friend and former sparring partner of Muhammad Ali, odds are you’re going to develop more than a passing interest in the sport of boxing. Such was the case for Anthony Dirrell.
A native of Flint, Michigan, Dirrell first found his way to a boxing gym at the age of 8. A year later, he competed in his first match, and the result, well, let’s just say it would’ve made his grandfather’s buddy proud.
“I stopped my very first opponent, and ever since then I knew I wanted to [box],” Dirrell says. “It was definitely love at first punch. It felt natural.
“As soon as I stepped into the ring, I knew I had the skills to do it. My grandfather (and career-long trainer Leon "Bumper” Lawson) knew it, too.”
Now 12 years into his professional career, Anthony Dirrell remains as passionate about boxing as he was when he first laced up the gloves as an 8-year-old. In addition to a sensational 29-1-1 record (with 23 KOs), Dirrell is a former 168-pound world champion. It’s that word “former,” though, that irks "The Dog.”
Since losing his title to Badou Jack by majority decision in April 2015, Dirrell— whose older brother Andre is also a 168-pound contender—has been on a mission to reclaim his lost hardware. That mission continues January 13 when he ends an 8½-month layoff with a 10-round fight against Hungary’s Norbert Nemesapati (24-4, 17 KOs) at Hialeah Park Racing & Casino in Miami (Spike, 9 p.m. ET/PT).
A day after his fight with Nemesapati, Dirrell will be a very interested ringside observer in Brooklyn, New York, where Jack and James DeGale—who beat Andre Dirrell for a vacant world title a month after Anthony Dirrell fell to Jack—will clash in a 168-pound title unification bout.
We recently caught up with 32-year-old Anthony Dirrell to get his thoughts on his upcoming fight, the Jack-DeGale showdown, the ongoing water crisis in his hometown, his heavyweight dream matchup and his weakness for McDonald’s double cheeseburgers.
It’s been a while since we last saw you in the ring. How eager are you for this fight against Nemesapati?
Very eager. I want another shot at a championship, and I won’t stop until I get it. … I want to make sure that my presence is known at 168 pounds. I’m looking for the knockout [against Nemesapati]—I plan on going in there and getting this guy outta there.
The day after your fight in Miami, James DeGale and Badou Jack will square off in a 168-pound title unification bout in Brooklyn. Safe to say you’ll be keeping a close eye on that contest?
It’s very intriguing for me to be fighting the night before DeGale and Jack are fighting. I’m going to be at that fight. I want to be ringside, because I know whoever wins, I’m up next for that championship.
I want my rematch with Badou, but if DeGale wins, well, he beat my brother, so I’ll take that, too. I want to avenge my brother’s loss, of course, but I want the title no matter how the cookie crumbles.
“ I want another shot at a championship, and I won’t stop until I get it. ” Anthony Dirrell
You and your entire family were front and center during last year’s lead-contamination water crisis in your hometown of Flint, Michigan. Any updates on the crisis and your family’s involvement?
I know that a few pipes have been changed and the government is working hard to get [the problem resolved]. I’ve seen articles where the government has given [Flint] $170 million to fix the pipes, so hopefully that will bring more people in to get the work done.
My brother and Claressa (Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medalist boxer and fellow Flint native) had a turkey drive and giveaway while I was in camp. And I do some work with the Dirrell’s Chance Foundation and the Morris Peterson Jr. Foundation. (Peterson is a former NBA player, and an alumnus of both Flint High School and Michigan State.) We’ve put our foundations together, and I help out in that aspect.
Hopefully, our city is back on the rise.
If you could spend 20 minutes picking the brain of any fighter in history—living or dead—who would it be, and what would you want to learn?
Muhammad Ali was one of my grandfather’s closest friends, and we’ve watched a lot of tapes on him. But if I had to pick one fighter’s brain, it would probably be Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker.
Sweet Pea’s defense was so immaculate that you couldn’t even hit him. You couldn’t do anything. With my skill level on offense, if I had Sweet Pea’s defensive [abilities], it would just be mind-blowing.
Who’s the one fighter in history you wish you could’ve fought, and how do you think such a fight would’ve played out?
Sugar Ray Leonard. I think my style would make it a helluva fight and one of the best brawls ever. I would probably fight him as a middleweight or at a catchweight of 165 pounds.
It would be hard to stop Sugar Ray Leonard, because he’s one of the best who has ever done it. But I think I would win by a decision.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
… playing football as a linebacker or a cornerback.
Excluding yourself, who is the best fighter in your division right now?
My brother Andre. His hand speed is tremendous—like no one has ever seen—and he’s got pop. Nobody thinks he does, but he really does. I think he can beat any 168-pounder out there.
If you had the ability to change your body type, what’s the one weight class you wish you could compete in, and who in that division would you like to fight?
Heavyweight. And I would fight one of the Klitschko [brothers], because they’re among the best to do it, and one of them [Wladimir Klitschko] still is doing it.
I would want to weigh about 230 or 240 and go in there the same height as they are and just box them. I would give them the same sort of movement that Muhammad Ali used against the guys he fought.
Describe what it feels like to land the perfect punch.
I fought a guy in 2005 at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit. I hit him with a hook and knocked him out. He didn’t know what hit him or that he even fought at that time.
It was my sixth or seventh fight, and it ended with a first-round knockout after I clipped him with the hook. That was night-night.
Favorite punch to throw?
The left hook to the head and body is the most devastating punch that I’ve got. But the right hand, when I put it there, I like that a lot, too. I also like the jab. All of them!
What’s the one meal that’s the toughest to give up while training for a fight?
That would have to be the double cheeseburger with a sweet tea from McDonald’s. That’s the best.
What’s the one thing about the life of a professional boxer that most fight fans don’t understand?
The business side of boxing. Fans expect fighters to get in [the ring] without making deals for the fight venue or the right money or anything. You can’t just come to an agreement with another fighter without a solid deal. That’s the hardest part of the sport.
Who is your favorite comedian?
I like Kevin Hart and Martin Lawrence, but more probably Martin Lawrence. He’s been doing it for so long, man.
I still watch the TV show Martin to this day. In fact, I was watching it before you called.
Who is your favorite actor and why?
These days, it’s probably The Rock—Dwayne Johnson. He’s a hell of an actor, and I’ve always wanted to meet him, honestly. But Denzell Washington is first. He has a hit with just about every single movie he’s in.
If Hollywood made a movie about your life and you could pick the actor who portrayed you, who would it be?
Cuba Gooding Jr. I think he could pull it off. He kind of resembles me, and he could get the role down better than a lot of people.
Finish this sentence: People would be surprised to learn that I am …
… a family man. I have three boys now—my oldest is 4, and the other two are 1-year-old twins—and they’re tremendous. I just miss them like crazy [while in training camp], and I can’t wait to see them. I just love my family. I’ll do anything for them.
Which animal in the wild best describes your personality?
The lion, because I’m fierce. I want to be the king of everything.
If you could have dinner with four people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
LeBron James, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
You can change one thing in the world. What is it?
Stop the violence.
What’s on your bucket list?
I want to go to Dubai soon, and I want to see that skyline and go skydiving.
“12 Rounds With …” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: 168-pound world champion James DeGale.