WHEN the bullet hit DeMarcus Corley’s spine he lay helpless on the Washington tarmac and remembered the warning he’d received the previous night. The gun fire, the panic, the attempt on his life; all of it had come to him in the most incredible premonition.
“This career, this life that I’m living, should have been gone in 1997,” he recalls.
“I had a dream I was in a shootout. And then I go to the gym and tell my friends about the dream. That evening, I go pick my son up from day care, and I take him home to his mother. I go get back in my car and the guys run up on me and they robbed me for my coat. But they shoot up my car. I jump out the car and I’m running. I get hit in my spine and in my leg. The doctors and everyone said, “You’re supposed to be paralysed.” I signed a waiver and they took the bullet out of my spine and my left leg. Within four months I was back in the ring fighting again.”
Even by boxing’s fabled standards DeMarcus Corley’s life and career is one of the most storied in the sport today. As a fighter few can claim a resumé littered with so many great names, the highlights of which include Floyd Mayweather Jnr, Miguel Cotto, Randall Bailey, Lucas Matthysse, Ruslan Provodnikov, Marcos Maidana, and Zab Judah. Whether in America with the backing of his fans or in front of a partisan crowd in faraway lands, Corley garnered a reputation for stepping up to any challenge, no matter how tough. It’s this resilience, this refusal to let defeat define him, that Corley feels is part of his core identity, and why fans still hold him in such high regard.
“Fighters don’t have the heart and the determination to fight each other the way we did growing up,” he laments. “It was more about the recognition. And it’s the money with the new era of fighters now. They want to pick and choose who they want to fight.”
These days he cuts a breezy and jovial figure, busily preparing and promoting new recipes in his kitchen as he prepares to launch a new career as a chef. As a youngster he was the antithesis of boxing’s stereotypical wild child, the young Corley content in the surroundings of nature and in the company of his own imagination.
“I was a kid that liked to have fun and play, plant trees, ride bikes. I think I’m a good tree climber. I spent a lot of time in the woods playing, climbing up trees. I got into boxing at the age of 18 years old. I wanted to box just to win trophies. I didn’t like to fight but it was an opportunity to receive a reward. I took advantage of it. And it changed my life.”
Corley quickly excelled in the amateur code, targeting a place at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Losing out on a spot in the squad that year came as a crushing blow, however, and he took a three-year hiatus from the sport as a result, choosing instead to work as a dressmaker after discovering a talent for needle-and-thread creativity in high school.
“That was a real wake up call for me in my life,” he recalls. “I took off. I stopped boxing in ‘93 and ‘94. And I just said “I’m gonna relax and have fun. I’m just gonna do me”. And I said, “I’m gonna come back to boxing and 1995 and I’m gonna try out for the 96 Olympics”. So when I came back in 1995 and started boxing I had 36 fights that year. I won a national Golden Gloves and became number four in the world.”
The lure of professional boxing, however, meant that a year later Corley was making his pro debut, and with a bona fide boxing legend as his manager the Washington DC youngster began the long and arduous journey towards the sport’s pinnacle.
“It was in my head (to turn professional) as I started winning major tournaments and I got a chance to meet all-time Hall of Fame fighter, Muhammad Ali. My idols were Marvin Hagler and Pernell Whitaker. Sugar Ray Leonard was my manager when I turned pro in 1996 so just before I turned pro I came to the boxing gym as his guest. I’m a kid and I meet Muhammad Ali! I was hungry, eager to fight. We were trying to fight at least six to eight times a year early in my career. I want to become world champion. I want to fight for a title.”
Having amassed a record of 25-1-1 the chance of a sanctioning body belt finally arrived on June 30, 2001 when DeMarcus Corley stepped in as a last minute replacement for Ener Julio, who was forced to relinquish his WBO super-lightweight title after failing an eye examination. Corley quite literally climbed off his mother’s couch at four days’ notice to knock out Felix Flores in the first round.
“Oh man, I was so happy. It was an amazing feeling. Oh yeah, it was perfect. I came out non-stop and bruised but I was world champion,” he recalls.
Corley went on to defend his new strap against previous belt holder, Julio, before outpointing the hard-hitting Randall Bailey. A remarkable run of opponents was just around the corner, but the joy and kudos of his new-found status as a ‘world champion’ was about to be overshadowed by heartbreak in his personal life. In April 2002 Corley received a telephone call that turned his world upside-down. His brother, Michael Angelo, had become involved in drug dealing in Washington DC and had been shot and killed.
“That was a rough time for me early in my boxing career because the young man who killed my brother, we all knew each other. We lived in the same neighbourhood. He was paid to kill my brother from other guys and he went to jail and went through the trial. But after the trial was over he was convicted ‘not guilty’ because the eyewitness will not point him out in the courtroom,” says Corley.
It would be a year before he could contemplate stepping through the ropes again. Corley’s mental health lurched from despair to fury, his primal response for vengeance tempered by the responsibilities he had to his own family.
“I had my moments. I went through my depression and hurting and grieving and having my nieces and nephews asked me questions and stuff about it. And it was a time where I was thinking about getting revenge on the guys who paid Stanley to kill my brother. I went through a hard time with that. I was married and always thought about if I retaliate they’re gonna think it’s me, regardless of if I do it or not. And the police are gonna be investigating because they were looking at me. I would have police, at the end, they were following me at times to see my whereabouts, what I was doing. I didn’t want to retaliate. I could have paid someone to do something but it probably would have still trickled back to me if he got caught or anything. And I didn’t want to have my kids going through… they lost their uncle and now maybe lost a dad because their dad is in jail, and somebody would try to kill [i]me[i].”
Navigating his way out of grief’s paralysing morass, Corley turned to what he’d always known. The noble art wasn’t just his trade, it was his route back to sanity and a life which honoured his brother’s memory.
“Boxing helped me. It was therapy for me because I was going through so much. Losing my brother. It was real hard at that time. I always stayed in the gym because it was my job. But it was therapy just to let out frustration because I knew I couldn’t do nothing to Stanley, because he killed my brother and I couldn’t get the guys who paid Stanley.”
When Corley did eventually return to boxing it was to begin a carving out a resumé of prize fights few in the modern era would equal. He shared his memories of the most prominent with Boxing News:
vs Zab Judah
12/07/2003 in Las Vegas
Zudah would win by split decision
The Zab Judah fight was personal. That fight will never leave me. It’s always going to stay with me. That was a personal fight because of what took place six months before the fight actually happened. Me and him had an altercation at the Bernard Hopkins press conference after the Bernard Hopkins fight. I was champion and he was with his brothers and everybody. He had about six guys with him. And it was just me and another fighter and we were just talking trash to each other but one of his boys was like “Zab, go at him now.” So Zab listened to the boy and Zab punched me in my face. And a fight broke out at the press conference and they tried to jump us. Don King and everybody broke it up. And Don said “Why y’all fighting and not get paid? Let’s make the fight and make some money!” From the time that jump happened in January I started training six months for Zab Judah. I over-trained, and it was personal, because when I went into ring I was fighting out of anger.
vs Floyd Mayweather Jnr
22/05/2004 in Atlantic City
Mayweather Jnr would win by unanimous decision
One of the biggest fights I ever had. We had a game plan to make Floyd fight me every round of that fight. I wanted to put pressure on him to get him to exchange with me so we could catch him in the process in exchanges. We knew we were the bigger, stronger fighter. And we knew he knew he was the quicker and smarter fight. We was exchanging up to the fourth round, and when I hurt him the game plan was working. But as the fourth round was over with his uncle told him in the corner, don’t bang with me. He told him to go out and box. “You can beat this motherfucker! Just box him. Don’t bang with him.” From the fifth round on, he started boxing and letting his hands go and he stopped exchanging with me. He put on a boxing clinic.
vs Miguel Cotto
26/02/2005 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico
Cotto would win by 5th round TKO
That fight was raw for me. And it wasn’t from the judges, it was from the referee. I think he was paid under the table from someone because how you gonna have a Spanish referee that don’t speak English ref the fight and not translating in English to me? But I understood what he was saying. And when I hurt Cotto they could have stopped the fight, when I had him out on wobbly legs. But when Cotto hit me with a good shot and then I see myself in trouble I do something that’s supposed to be a smart thing in a fight. If you see yourself hurt, you supposed to take a knee. You can recover. And that’s what I did. But the referee stopped the fight. He waived the off the fight. I wasn’t able to continue but I got up and I was ready to fight some more.
vs Marcos Maidana
28/08/2010 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Maidana would win by unanimous decision
That was a Golden Boy card. He was promoted by Golden Boy. I’m promoted by Don King and I’m fighting in his country, Argentina. And I was against the promoters and the judges. It does make a difference when a fighter fights in his country or in his city. I’ve been fighting for so many years, it doesn’t matter where I go to fight. My goal and my game plan is to go for the knockout and because I feel I’m always gonna be the underdog, against whoever I’m fighting. Especially when I’m in their backyard.
vs Lucas Matthysse
21/01/2011 in Las Heras, Argentina
Matthysse would win by 8th round TKO
Matthysse just put it on my little ass! That guy was like a tsunami. They say who, “who beat you the worst out of your career?” He pound my little ass! He just put it on me!
vs Ruslan Provodnikov
05/12/2011 in Ekaterinburg, Russia
Provodnikov would win by unanimous decision
I got robbed in that fight in Russia. I beat Ruslan before he came back to the US and started fighting better. I beat him.
Corley may have been on the wrong end of these results but the pride with which he speaks of these experiences almost renders the defeats immaterial. His reputation as a road warrior continues to this day. Having amassed a colossal 87 fights, many coming at the highest level, he still hasn’t officially retired.
“I love the competition and I like to be going against someone in their backyard. I never turned down no one. I fought everyone. Even when I lost I kept my head up high. I went back to the gym, I started training, I prepped for another fight,” he declares.
“We’re going to do one more fight and then I want to retire. I want to do some exhibitions but my exhibitions are only going to be for charity, for different causes. Like, I have asthma so I’m going to do an exhibition for the Asthma Foundation charity, do some for breast cancer awareness and kids outreach.”