Is Shannon Briggs for real?
Pro boxing, famous for larger-than-life characters, now has one invented for the Instagram age
Is Shannon Briggs for real?
Illustration by Diego Patiño Nobody in the history of boxing has worn as many hats as Shannon Briggs – prodigy, bust, coward, journeyman, champion, fraud, comeback kid, clown, huckster, lunatic.
Now 45 and a quarter-century after his professional debut, he’s in the midst of another reinvention, trying to become boxing’s shrewdest promoter. Briggs is a one-man publicity-industrial complex, securing more than 50 million views on social media with a brilliantly devious campaign of online videos ambushing and relentlessly badgering Wladimir Klitschko and other heavyweight champions for a title shot.
The soundtrack for these posts is Briggs repeatedly and loudly bellowing what have become the most ubiquitous trademarked words in boxing history after Michael Buffer’s “Let’s get ready to rumble!”:
“LETS GO CHAMP!”
Briggs (60-6-1) has ridden this slogan into not only a considerable fan base, but now, by order of the World Boxing Association, a heavyweight title shot against Australian Lucas Browne by the end of the year (although reports of Browne failing a drug test may complicate that timetable).
How can that possibly be? How can Briggs still stand? And how can we still stand him?
The Next Tyson
To answer that question, we need to go back almost three decades. Over the summer of 1988, while Briggs, a homeless 17-year-old, was trying on his first pair of boxing gloves, a neighborhood bully named Mike Tyson sold 91 seconds of his act in Atlantic City against Michael Spinks for $21 million. What was left of Tyson showed up 19 months later and was knocked out by Buster Douglas in one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
Not long after, Briggs was sold to the public as Tyson’s successor. And, at first, the comparisons seemed apt. He spent the first three years of his pro career cruising down boxing’s fast lane as an undefeated heavyweight, with 15 of his 20 knockouts coming in the first round.
On March 15, 1996, fighting against Darroll Wilson in Atlantic City, HBO showcased the carved-from-stone, 6-foot-4, 225-pound Briggs as the latest destroyer on the rise to the heavyweight title, a fairy tale boxing was desperate to sell.
But Briggs was knocked out in the third round that night by a mere steppingstone of an opponent and instantly became a certified bust.
A year and a half later, on Nov. 22, 1997, Briggs’ blessing became Foreman’s curse. Foreman, just shy of his 49th birthday, selected Briggs from a list of more than 30 heavyweights as the man he would defend his title against in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal back in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Briggs was the underdog and deservedly so. He later confessed that in the seventh round, Foreman “hit me so hard with one hand I was knocked out until he hit me again and woke me back up.”
Four months later, Briggs sought legitimacy by challenging WBC champion Lennox Lewis, then 32-1. He almost succeeded in the first round, landing a left hook that left Lewis reeling. But by the fourth round, Lewis had taken control of the fight and dropped Briggs 43 seconds into the round. Briggs answered the referee’s count and Lewis unloaded another vicious combination that toppled Briggs. Despite a reputation for lacking courage, Briggs refused to remain on the canvas.
A minute into the fifth round, a Lewis hook flattened Briggs and splayed his body over the canvas with his arms spread wide. As the referee leaned over him, announcer Jim Lampley assured his HBO audience, “That will be it. Shannon Briggs will not get up from that.” But he did. Briggs smiled bashfully at the audience and nodded as they roared their approval. He put everything he had behind one last left hook and, finding only air, collapsed behind it. The referee waved off the fight while Briggs begged to continue. He had earned the boxing world’s respect even in defeat.
On Oct. 16, 2010, Briggs, now seen as a has-been journeyman, fought what looked like the last, sad chapter of his career. In the sold-out O2 Arena in Hamburg, Germany, Briggs stood across the ring from the 6-foot-7, WBC heavyweight champion, Vitali Klitschko (Wladimir’s brother).
Forty-eight minutes after the opening bell, Briggs’ courage in remaining upright was rewarded with a ghoulish death mask for a face and a horrifically battered body. Having endured 302 blows in 12 rounds, the inventory of injuries was horrific: crushed orbital bone, facial fracture above his right eye, broken nose, burst eardrum, and a torn bicep. As Briggs was coming to grips with the severity of his beating, it was announced to the 16,000 fans in the arena that not a single judge had awarded him even one round. He’d been routed.
He didn’t get out of a hospital bed for two weeks. During that time, Briggs and his wife were interrupted once by a pair of unexpected visitors, the Klitschko brothers. Still groggy from pain medication, Briggs remembers opening his eyes one afternoon to see not his wife, but Wladimir Klitschko sheepishly asking if he was OK. Vitali Klitschko, whose savage beating had sent Briggs to the hospital room, waited in the hallway. When Briggs’ wife Alana went to thank him for coming, she recalled he attempted to soothe her, saying, “That’s boxing.”
A brutal beat-down
On Oct. 16, 2010, Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs faced WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko at sold-out O2 Arena in Hamburg, Germany. Briggs, 38, was so outmatched that he lost all 12 rounds and sustained so many injuries he was hospitalized for two weeks afterward.
‘A privileged ghetto existence’
The route from Miami to Briggs’ home in a gated community north of the city is littered with as many pawnshops, American flags, porn shops, car dealerships, gun showrooms, dime-store psychics and payday loan shops, as palm trees. But in Briggs’ exclusive neighborhood, everything magically transforms into manicured gardens and waterfalls. He’s lived in Pembroke Pines for 14 years with his wife and three children.
“I didn’t get paid anything for the Klitschko fight,” Briggs insisted. A flat-screen television playing cartoons for his youngest daughter is framed under a rainbow of nine variously colored and polished heavyweight championship belts. “Not a dime! I was broke and hospitalized for two weeks. My career was over. Boxing was done. That’s when the depression kicked in. I gained over 150 pounds and ballooned up to 403 pounds. Drinking to bury my past. I didn’t want to deal with a lot of things because I’m supposed to be tough. My mom lost everything because of her weakness with drugs. I have three kids and I gave them a roof over their heads. That’s more than I had. I’d basically given up and was either going to get revenge on a lot of people or commit suicide. I’m a pretty serious gun collector. I’d probably seen one too many episodes of Law & Order. I wanted to drive my car off a cliff.”
The quarter-century journey Briggs has taken through heavyweight boxing has been defined by trap doors and trampolines with strange bounces. He was born weighing less than two pounds, the only child of Margie Briggs and a biological father he never knew. He watched his stepfather on the second episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Yet no blow ever blindsided Briggs like the one he endured at 13, when he came home to the Atlantic Plaza Towers housing projects in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn to find himself and his mother evicted and homeless. “It was a privileged ghetto existence living there,” Briggs recalled. “My mother had a college education and was a registered nurse. But she was also a high-functioning junkie. Brownsville was rough back then when crack hit the streets like a bomb detonating. People you knew could change overnight. Crack made mothers leave their children.
“I never got over what I saw from back then. My best friend was killed and his body set on fire for owing a little money. This was happening while I was in a private school playing G.I. Joe and reading comic books.
“That day in January 1984, coming home from Bishop Loughlin High School, was the biggest turning point in my life. I came home and everybody was outside acting strange. Somebody laughed, ‘You better go upstairs, Shannon!’”
Briggs did and when he got to his front door, he could see but not comprehend that the lock was missing. “They’d knocked the lock out,” Briggs remembered. “There was just a hole! But I still took out my key and closed my eyes and put the key in that hole. Then I peeked in the hole and I could see garbage in there but everything else was gone. I’d lived there all my life and it was empty.
“When I eventually left the building there were a thousand people out there. My situation was big news. All these kids laughing and saying, ‘You got evicted! You got evicted!’ And I ran for the bus stop with a couple kids chasing after me.”
Briggs got on the bus and cried all the way to his aunt’s house.
“I was in shock the whole way,” Briggs gasped, clearing his throat and running his fingers through his beard. “When I got to my aunt’s house and saw my mother, she was completely broken down. I’d seen a little of my mom struggling with drugs, but now there was no way to avoid it. It ran us over like a truck and blew up our lives. That was the first time my mother was honest about her addiction.
“My aunt told us the next morning we had to leave. It was musical chairs after that with places to stay. Place to place. Shelters. Sleeping on a subway. Those years after being evicted were the ones that made me. I’d never be in this house right now if it wasn’t for that day. Boxing wasn’t in my life yet. I was on my way to a regular life before the crack era blew in. From then on, I had no address. For a while I slept in the fire escape of my old place. Nobody knew. But I was nowhere and yet I’d come back into my neighborhood from everywhere, anywhere, every chance I could and that didn’t turn out too well. I’d get jumped. Beat up really bad. I got pistol-whipped. I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I was always out of place no matter where I was. I made a lot of mistakes and I’m lucky to be here.”
‘You’re meat. A racehorse’
After picking up boxing in his late teens, Briggs had a promising amateur career. One of his first big opportunities in the spotlight came in 1991, when ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcast the Pan Am Games from Havana.
Briggs squared off in the heavyweight final against arguably the most menacing boxer in amateur history, Cuba’s Felix Savon. A few minutes before the opening bell, Fidel Castro and three-time Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson did the wave with a possessed crowd of fellow Cubans. As Savon’s name was announced, as was his custom, he leapt in the air like a marlin bursting out of the ocean. When Briggs’ name was announced, he mocked Savon’s leap and after touching down, thrust his glove with derision in Savon’s direction. Savon laughed. Before the first round was over, a monstrous right hand would connect with Briggs’ headgear in the middle of the ring and the impact nearly knocked him over the top rope.
After leaving the arena for the airport, Briggs was so groggy he turned to his teammate and asked what was taking the bus so long to get to the arena. It was the first concussion of his life and he had no memory of having already fought.
“Savon hit me so hard I lost the rest of that day. When I made it back to America, at the airport all these kids was screaming at me because replays of me being knocked out was on TV. Everybody in the neighborhood had seen me on TV getting knocked out over in Cuba. I went to the store around the corner a day or two later and I was so embarrassed because I couldn’t believe how many people had seen it. I bought a hair-dye kit and that’s when I dyed my hair blond as a disguise so nobody would recognize me no more. That’s where my blond dreadlocks came about.”
The following year, Briggs began his professional career with Tyson’s former childhood trainer, Teddy Atlas, in his corner. His debut was fought in the Catskills, Tyson’s Garden of Eden. He steamrolled opponents with devastating fury just like his predecessor. Everything was falling into place, Briggs claimed, until he suffered an asthma attack against Darroll Wilson and soon after was knocked out. He was proclaimed an overhyped coward with no heart. Atlas abandoned him, dismissing reports of asthma in the press, saying it was the first he’d ever heard about it. He called the performance “a plain old choke.”
“When we won, it was ‘we,’” Briggs said, smiling sadly. “When we lost, it was me. I lost. Before that fight, we’d gone to Wall Street and had some investors get in and they’d say to people around me, ‘I own this guy.’ That was their mentality. You’re meat. A racehorse. Everybody is riding you. Then I lost. The only thing I had was my wife there with me. They all said I had no heart. That’s the worst thing you can put on somebody. I had no confidence. No confidence going in or coming out. Everybody threw me away after getting knocked out. I was hyped without asking for that. And then they enjoyed tearing me down. Every day of my career I had a trainer like Atlas tell me I was worthless unless I listened to him. And he tore me down every day. He always told me I was just a body and he was the brain. After I lost, he and everybody else was gone. I had nothing.”
A new mantra for a new man
Where did this wild new chapter in his life arrive from?
“Margie Briggs: Her memory. It hit me one day. After I brought home my daughter from the hospital and I was getting bigger and bigger every day. I could see my mother’s face in her. One day it hit me. I have to provide for this girl. I woke up and I finally came to terms with being a fat piece of s— who wanted to kill myself. I gotta do something. …
“I was on all kinds of antidepressants. I couldn’t control my tears and regrets, suicidal thoughts. I was a heart attack waiting to happen. I cut off my hair for the first time in 27 years. I threw all my pills in the toilet. I threw all the food out of the house and I bought all kinds of books to study nutrition. I wanted to take my life and a lot of people do. But I started training, eating right, changing my thoughts.
“I’d left boxing and I had nothing to show for it. So this time I wanted to come back on my own. No more promoters or managers like it used to be. I didn’t have no entourage. I didn’t have anything, so I decided I had to be my own motivator. And it just came out, ‘Let’s go, champ. You need a mantra? Here it is: Let’s go, champ!’ Every time I’d get tired walking at 400 pounds? ‘Let’s go, champ!’ Then speed walking. Jogging. Let’s go, champ. I went back to the gym and I had it in a way I never did before. I was free. I was back.
“Mainstream media had no interest in helping publicize my comeback. I’d hear them snickering every time I talked to them. I was blackballed in boxing. So I had to do everything on my own. I was losing weight. I wanted to share my progress to inspire people. But I also recognized this was an opportunity to promote what I wanted to do with a title shot. My objective was to build my own fan base. I have almost 150,000 followers [now 196,000] on Instagram. My own army. I got no publicist. It’s all homegrown.”
The dreadlocks are shorn now and Briggs’ graying beard is no longer disguised by Just For Men as it was against Klitschko. He is dressed in a red “Lets Go Champ” shirt with the sleeves removed and ball cap with the matching, trademarked slogan. He offers guests shirts, coffee mugs, hoodies, a “Lets Go Champ” iPhone app – you name it. The Cannon Cooker oven is in production (It cheers you on with “Let’s go, champ!” when your food is ready), a blender ideal for healthy smoothies from a Briggs recipe book to follow that. Briggs is not only in on the joke of his self-made marketing campaign, nobody enjoys or laughs harder at its results than him.
Lest anyone laugh at Briggs’ merchandising, there’s one example America should remember: George Foreman. Hulk Hogan turned down the opportunity to give his name to a grill and lost out on the $200 million Big George has reportedly reaped for it. Foreman’s attempts at winning a heavyweight title at 45 were mocked also.
The junkyard dog awakens
And then one day Briggs walked into the Heavyweight Factory gym in Hollywood, Florida, to watch Wladimir Klitschko, then heavyweight champion, train. Briggs approached politely and offered to shake hands with the brother of the man who had beaten him so badly. But Klitschko snubbed him. A member of Klitschko’s entourage told Briggs not to take it personally, that Klitschko simply didn’t like any social interaction just before training.
“If he wanted to be a prima donna,” Briggs says smiling, “that’s when I decided to become a junkyard dog.”
And now the story veers from a feel-good Lifetime Channel movie to a a Real Housewives episode.
“Part of my comeback emotionally was spending a lot of time in the ocean. Meditating and rejuvenating out there,” Briggs said. “We rented a place out on the beach for a while. One day I was out there, a girl who rents stuff out on the water mentioned that Wladimir lives nearby and is out there on a paddleboard training in the mornings.
“I rented a fishing boat three times and on the third day we were out there for hours and he wasn’t anywhere. Then, off in the distance, I saw a dot and somehow I just knew it was him. The captain of the boat had to turn around and go back to the harbor, but I begged him to stay just a minute longer. Someone got binoculars out and looked and still couldn’t really tell if it was Wladimir. He got a little closer, and that’s when my friend yells out, ‘It’s him!’ That’s when I laughed and hollered out, ‘We got his a– now.’ Nobody else was out on that water but us and him. Even before I got our fishing boat to make a wave [forcing Klitschko into the water], that boy was s—– himself. You could tell he thought I was completely insane.”
That’s when it clicked. Briggs created a reality show out of punking the Ph.D-educated Klitschko. Briggs would ambush Klitschko as he sat down to lunch at a restaurant. Klitschko workouts? Briggs would jump into the ring. He followed Klitschko to Europe and attempted to break into every news conference, hurling “Lets Go Champ” shirts and even a sandal at the heavyweight champion until he was thrown out by security. “Mr. T killed Mickey!” Briggs screamed at one of Klitschko’s trainers, casting himself in the role of Rocky III’s Clubber Lang, as he was dragged out of one news conference. Tens of millions of people around the world were clicking on these videos and, unusual for boxing these days, a lot of them weren’t boxing fans.
“Klitschko’s a real old-school Russian,” Briggs said, cackling so loudly that I can’t tell him that he’s actually Ukrainian. “Everything is clockwork. Schedule. That’s how I know he’s the kinda guy I can beat. He’s the most predictable guy in the world.”
Britain’s former champion and top contender David Haye, another victim of Briggs’ prank videos, has even applauded the brilliance of Briggs’ marketing, “I like him screaming and shouting because it hypes the fight … I think it will make a bigger fight.”
As he does nearly every afternoon, Briggs and his 19-year-old son Chan get into his Cadillac sedan and drive to pick up groceries at Whole Foods. Today, Briggs’ cousin joins them with a camera to document the visit for Instagram.
When the grocery’s sliding doors part for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Briggs, he’s off and running like a pro wrestler on the way to ring. “Let’s go, champ!” he hollers hoarsely again and again to staff and shoppers alike, whether or not they know who he is. But most do. Nobody seems fazed. The checkout clerks, big smiles on their faces, return his “Let’s go, champ!” with their own subdued versions. Some kids badger their parents to ask if they can take a picture with Briggs. The scene resembles something out of Rocky running through Philly on the way to the art museum’s front steps. There’s something playful and kind in him that wins people over.
As Briggs’ son orders sandwiches from a woman behind the counter, his father wanders over and absentmindedly baits his son to feign some punches so he can work on his defense. It’s a tender exchange and judging by Chan’s familiarity with it, a common one. Briggs is whisked away to pose for more photos and I approach his boy with a question I’ve been dying to ask.
“How exhausting is your dad’s act on you?”
“I don’t think of it that way,” he said and smiled shyly. “It’s just nice to finally see him happy over the last few years. And he likes sharing that with people. He doesn’t mean anybody any harm. He’s been through a lot, he deserves to be happy.”
On my last day with Briggs, he invited me to watch him train at the Heavyweight Factory Gym across the street from the Hard Rock Seminole Casino. He wanted to introduce me to the owner of the gym and his business partner, Kris Lawrence.
Lawrence’s enormous office is adorned with boxing memorabilia and slaughtered and stuffed trophy kills: bobcats, bears, a crocodile. Lawrence, a large man dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, was reclining in a chair, spitting chewing tobacco juice into a plastic bottle. When we arrived, he was talking to someone with his back to us, who turned out to be Evander Holyfield.
“Holyfield’s down here?” I asked.
“And Riddick Bowe,” Briggs said.
The Heavyweight Factory was beginning to feel like the Heavyweight Nursing Home.
Lawrence and Briggs led the way to the gym, a gigantic, dim facility with warm, palmy air blowing in from the parking lot.
Bowe was holding court just outside of a ring. Now 49, he had retired 20 years earlier at 28 after suffering only one loss in a career that saw him win the heavyweight championship twice and earn well over $130 million. He’d fought a few comeback fights years later against journeymen but retired for keeps in 2008.
Holyfield came up to greet the man he’d fought in one of boxing’s most legendary trilogies. Holyfield, of course, had earned more than $300 million in his 27-year prizefighting career. All of that money reportedly is gone. Only the bills for three ex-wives and child support for 11 children with six women remain.
Briggs got into the ring and trainer Jameel Eddy laid down a mat for him to lie down on and stretch his 44-year-old body before his workout.
“I came up with Tyson,” Eddy said. “All the way back to the Catskills. Riddick Bowe and Holyfield are over there. We know how all three of them ended up. We know what they had and what they lost.
“What makes Shannon different? I’ll tell you what. Unlike them, he still has a chance to write his own ending. That’s the difference. That’s what he’s fighting for.”
Briggs laughed. “Let’s go, champ!”