Forty-five minutes before the eighth professional bout of his near-year-old career, Haskell Lydell “Hackman” Rhodes is searching through his duffel bag. One of his corner men, Lamar Austin, can't help noticing they're both in the dark.
“What's the matter?” Austin says. “They can't buy no lights back here?”
“Here” is a six-by-six opening on the floor of Remington Park's boxing arena. Rhodes will fight here again at 8 p.m. August 25 against undefeated Keandre Gibson.
Rhodes and Austin are separated from other fighters, trainers and well-wishers by dull black curtains that do anything but keep people out.
A man moseyed back into Rhodes' prep area to retrieve the cigarette and ash tray he left behind. On curtains, “Lydell Rhodes” is handwritten in black Sharpie on a ripped half sheet of white paper below the name “Mike Maidonado.”
The fighters have to share the space.
This is where he starts. This is the reality the smiling 24-year-old boxer from Spencer, Okla., must face to see his dream come true.
Standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 135 pounds, Rhodes is working toward becoming the next lightweight champion of the world. He has another opportunity to fight for that dream, and Austin feels fortunate to witness another step taken in his come-up.
Austin has maintained in the fight game for over 20 years and flourished as the right hand of Rhodes' trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., for the last 14. He's an easy, deliberate man; a reassuring sound amid the fury.
“He's in good shape, shouldn't be no problem,” Austin says. “I think Lydell's gonna be a champion. Floyd's taught him what to do with all that speed.”
He's the man who's quick to remind most he sired Floyd Mayweather Jr. — the boxer who might be the greatest of his generation — and quick to remind others he trained Oscar De La Hoya, Chad Dawson and Ricky Hatton who were all world champions.
Mayweather walks into the dark room with Austin and Rhodes while wearing a three-piece suit.
‘WE MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING HERE'
“Where you?” Austin says to Mayweather.
“I was out there watching that other fight,” Mayweather says. “Neither one of them can fight.”
Mayweather begins to undress, taking off his business suit working into sweat pants, sneakers and his trainer's smock while recounting how he came to train Rhodes who'd fought in just four pro fights when he first laid eyes on him.
A family member told him he needed to watch Rhodes spar at Johnny Tocco's gym in Vegas. Mayweather was unimpressed when he first saw him, insulted even.
“What'd you bring here? What are you doing, man?'” he says. “He was throwing punches fast and not correct.”
Maybe out of pity, maybe out of sheer boredom, Mayweather stayed with Austin to watch Rhodes spar awhile longer. He fought a man who was known to give to other fighters problems in the ring but not Rhodes.
Rhodes slipped, countered, feinted and rolled the fighter's punches.
“Wait a minute,” Mayweather says. “Lamar, we might have something here.”
He beat the fighter with boxing that day. He beat another with brawling the next.
“The next day he cracked another good guy,” Mayweather says. “His mouthpiece came out of his mouth.”
That's how the Rhodes-Mayweather partnership began, but it thrives because Rhodes listens. He does whatever is asked of him and works hard to create a disciplined lifestyle. Rhodes has to report each day's work.
“He makes me keep a journal,” Rhodes says. “It's like homework. Whatever I learned or whatever I was messing up on that day, I have to write it down on my journal.”
Right now, he's not worried about recording the evening's events or what combinations and commands he might not immediately grasp. He's worried about finding Stephanie.
‘BRINGING RESPECT TO THE SPORT'
“You know where Stephanie is?” Rhodes says to no one in particular, looking up from his bag. “She's supposed to wrap my hands.”
Stephanie Dobbs claims to be the best hands wrapper in the state. She's certainly seen it done enough. Dobbs holds the record for most professional bouts by a woman.
After finding her standing some 20 feet away behind another set of black curtains containing even more fighters and even more corner men, Rhodes manages to bring her back behind his shared set of curtains to begin wrapping his hands. More time passes until an inspector from the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission is present to oversee the hand wrapping.
Dobbs finishes her first layer and begins her second around Rhodes' hands. The inspector makes a joke about not seeing her wrap the first layer — implying she'd have to do it again.
“You know I've got 60 fights?” Dobb says menacingly.
She takes pride in her work and bemoans men like Antonio Margarito, who was reprimanded by the California State Boxing Commission for illegal hand wraps.
“They don't have to watch me,” Dobbs says. “I'm not Antonio Margo-Cheat-o.”
This is why Rhodes' mother Kimberly Winston believes her son is good for boxing.
“You have to get people with good moral and values — people who will bring respect and honor to the sport,” she says.
THE COST OF A DREAM
Winston manages her son's budding career. It's an entirely different from her work as a behavioral health rehabilitation specialist at Corner Stone Counseling and Consulting.
Rhodes is Winston's second child and older half-brother of former stand-out Choctaw High School running back Corey Bennett.
Corey Bennett was born of the union between Winston and his father Dana Bennett, who helped Winston raise her two sons and oldest child Lashanda in Choctaw where they attended high school before moving the family to Spencer.
Rhodes received his surname from his late father and grandfather. His “Hackman” nickname is in homage to his grandfather who could hack it.
Winston affectionately calls Rhodes' extended family Team Hackman of which she is captain. It was her who hatched the idea to place Rhodes on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas with ticket vouchers from a friend.
“Well, get on the Internet and find some places where you want to go and go to a camp,” Winston told her son. “He did some research and found Johnny Tocco's gym.”
She helped pay for his stay Budget Suites of America on North Rancho Drive in Las Vegas while he wooed Mayweather.
Winston later boarded a flight to accompany Rhodes to Mayweather's Las Vegas home where the trainer agreed to take on the boxer at a rate of $200 per week.
“I was at dinner and I get a phone call, and it's Floyd,” Winston says. “He says to me he needed me to trust him because he needed to keep my son out there. He says I'm telling you your son has what it takes to be a world champion.”
That was enough for her.
The deal was sealed with a handshake, and Rhodes and Mayweather have trained together virtually every day since. Winston and Team Hackman fund Rhodes' training and stay in Las Vegas.
For Rhodes to stay at Budget Suites, eat and train, Winston says it cost about $3,500 per month. That's an estimated $42,000 per year.
MARRIED TO BOXING
Dobbs finishes wrapping his hands and gives him back to Mayweather. The young boxer and older trainer warm up using only focus mitts, but focus mitts are enough.
The trainer and fighter compose music with the pitter-patter of gloves popping mitts.
The quickness of combinations and physicality of the exercise is creates sweat beads atop Rhodes' brow and stress Mayweather, who suffers from a lung disease called sarcoidosis.
“Don't worry about knocking the guy out, just win the fight,” Mayweather says to Rhodes in between punches. “When you win the fight, you got another day. Win one and go on to the next one.”
They're simple pointed instructions. It's that kind of direction that has taken Rhodes from wrestling, powerlifting and playing football at Choctaw High School to his first professional fight in March 2010 after only six years of dedication to the sport.
He began boxing at Badlands Boxing in Oklahoma City under the watchful eye of his uncle Andy Pierce. After Rhodes proved he could do more than hit a heavy bag, Pierce and Winston booked him amateur fights in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
Slowly, boxing became his life's pursuit — his happiness.
“It's like a girl,” Rhodes says. “When you first start out, you're just talking, saying, ‘Ah, she looks good, all right.' But then y'all start dating.
“In the last year, I'd say that my relationship with boxing went from me just liking it and dating it to when you get serious with a girl you marry her. I married boxing.”
He makes his way to the ring while sliding by fans who could — and did — reach out and touch him.
In the ring, the referee gave final instructions to Rhodes and opponent Chris Russell, who hails from Shattuck. Russell has a distinct height advantage, but Rhodes is used to being the shorter more muscular fighter.
From the opening bell, Mayweather's tutelage is readily apparent in Rhodes' style. He fights with the same Philly-Shell defense that Mayweather's son has made famous.
Rhodes slips, rolls, feints, pulls and counters with flurries to the body, paying little attention to Russell's head. He wins the first round but doesn't hurt his opponent.
During the second, Rhodes immediately goes to work on Russell's body again. Shouts of “Dig him out!” are heard from Rhodes' corner.
Then — a shot to the head.
Russell's mouthpiece careers from his mouth, and the referee calls timeout. Russell takes time to collect himself in what ends as another losing round for him.
In the third, a Rhodes right hand persuades Russell to kiss canvas. A final knockdown in the fourth round leads to a stoppage, and Rhodes TKO.
Rhodes knows he'll have to repeat that effort at least a dozen times without losing before the majority of boxing fans will care. But only one man needs to, and he's standing the middle of the ring with his arm held high. Victorious.