The Chubby Kid from Pittsburgh

By Daniel Kravetz/Max Boxing

King of the World, David Remnick’s authoritative tale of Muhammad Ali’s ascent in boxing, begins with Floyd Patterson, who is arguably history’s finest undersized heavyweight champion and who Sonny Liston battered twice before Liston’s own two-act downfall versus the upstart Ali. Patterson, Remnick writes, never had the physical presence of a heavyweight champion: “His physique was sinewy, the body of a road laborer, an utterly plausible body.”

Nor did Patterson have the “proper disdain” to match his prestige, disdain that Liston and Ali each exhibited in his own radically distinct pitch. In fact, writes Remnick, “For all his hand-speed, for all the hours he put in the gym, [Patterson] was the most doubt-addled titleholder in the history of the division.”

The parallels between Patterson and current heavyweight hopeful Eddie Chambers—who will fight Tomasz Adamek on Saturday at Newark’s Prudential Center (on NBC Sports Network’s “Fight Night”)—begin with the lack of an imposing physique. When Chambers challenged 6-foot-6 Wladimir Klitschko for a world title in March of 2010, the contrast in the appearance of the two fighters was staggering.

Approaching the ring and receiving his introduction, Klitschko was in typical form: towering in both stature and demeanor, chin high, shoulders rigid, his mouth forming a trademark sneer. Standing across from him as referee Genaro Rodriguez gave his instructions, the top of Chambers’ head was level with the point of Klitschko’s chin. Chambers too stood upright but his center of gravity seemed uncharacteristically low for a prizefighter. His face bore the expression of a man with a chip on his shoulder but not the disdain of a champion.

Naturally, while Chambers is not nearly the talent Patterson was in his prime—and though he does not have a weapon akin to Patterson’s destructive left hook—he too has mostly overcome a disadvantage in physical presence with his quickness, hence his almost comically literal and pedestrian moniker,“Fast” Eddie. But as was the case when Patterson fought Liston, Chambers’ speed was woefully insufficient against a big and menacing puncher like Klitschko.

Chambers’ most noteworthy resemblance to Patterson, however, is the lack of self-certainty with which he began boxing—and that he still betrays in doses. This trait, too, is not nearly as extreme as it was in Patterson’s case but it is certainly present. Chambers, in fact, freely discusses his own perceived shortcomings, or at least what might be considered shortcomings, with an unflinching candor that is as refreshing as it is surprising, a habit for which Patterson was famous.

“Believe it or not, I’m not a fighter,” Chambers says, in what is an unexpected response to a question about why he became a fighter. “I just don’t have that mentality.” Then he amends his statement with a modest chuckle, “I guess now you could call me a fighter.”

In fact, Chambers only began fighting under the pressure of an authoritative father. “I didn’t even think that I would stay in the gym more than five minutes,” he confesses. “I wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to get in there and throw and punch and take a punch. That wasn’t my personality. I wasn’t that guy.”

In his first professional fight, Chambers says, “I was so nervous; I wanted to leave the arena. That was the most nervous I’ve been for anything. Playing football, talking to girls, anything. That was the most nerve-wracking experience of my life.” His opponent that night, Tyrone Austin, had a record of one win and 11 losses.

As time went on, Chambers explains, “I started to learn and I started to get more comfortable in my own skin and then I realized that, hey, I can do this a little I said, ‘Well, I guess this is for me then,’ and I just went along with it.” This statement does not convey the innate self-determination of the prototypical pugilist but winning one’s first 30 fights, including decisions over one-time prospects like Dominick Guinn and Calvin Brock, can do wonders for a tentative self-belief. “When it rains it pours,” he says.

As Chambers gained faith in his own ability, his focus turned to demonstrating it to everyone else. When asked what moment he is most proud of as a fighter, he does not point to one specific moment at all. “Just being an overachiever,” he says. “Being such a small heavyweight, who honestly, for the most part, came out of nowhere, nobody expected me to do something, this chubby kid from Pittsburgh.”

Chambers is candid about his lingering anxieties, ones that now stem from elevated expectations. “I deal with it on a regular basis,” he says, “but now it’s not so much being nervous about whoever I’m gonna fight or being afraid of the guy I’m about to fight. It’s more about being nervous about what I’m expected to be able to do…I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

So when Chambers fought Klitschko in Germany, he wanted not only to win but to prove to himself that he was the type of fighter who could handle fighting a larger-than-life champion in a giant arena filled with his opponent’s supporters. This purview probably explains why, in discussing a fight in which he was soundly beaten for 35 minutes and 50 seconds, until a vicious left hook finally removed him from his senses and left him draped over the bottom rope, he still conveys a genuine sense of accomplishment.

“I wanted to be one of those guys that was able to deal with that pressure of fighting a guy like Wladimir Klitschko,” Chambers says. “I just said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to go over there and win this fight. I don’t care what the crowd’s saying, what the judges say. I’m going to win this fight,”…At the end of the day, it was a great experience for me and was what I needed to do.”

The bout also marked the first moment that Chambers had ever been hurt in a fight. It was not the punch that knocked him cold in the final round that Chambers refers to—that one he does not remember at all—but rather a well-placed Klitschko cross in the second. “To get hit with a shot like that, it can take the air out of you,” Chambers says. “It did kind of put doubt in my mind and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t.” But, he says, “I was able to come back and continue on.”

That experience—of fighting through a powerful punch, of boxing overseas in a full stadium—is one thing Chambers believes will propel him to a victory on Saturday in spite of his bevy of challenges, the 16-month layoff between now and his prior fight, the fact that Adamek may be the best fighter he has fought aside from Klitschko and the swarm of Poles that will descend upon the Prudential Center to noisily support Adamek.

Chambers also alludes to another basic self-development he believes will enhance his chances for victory. For the first time in his career, he is coming into the fight with a cohesive strategy. “Honestly, in the past, I haven’t really had plans going into fights. I just went in thinking I’m just gonna beat them with skills and my conditioning. I never honestly sat down and came up with a plan and looked at video and put certain things together.”

Finally, Chambers cites his own pre-fight motivation. “It’s definitely important,” he says. “Winning this fight definitely gets me back in the conversation of fighting for a title...I want my legacy to be something of a world champion.” The passing of one of his mentors, manager Rob Murray Sr., just a week before the fight has further catalyzed him. “[Murray] was a big part of not just my career but my life too. A lot of the success I’ve had- and will have- is going to be dedicated to him.”

Yet while Chambers will enter the ring with a number of reasons to be confident and inspired, he cannot entirely remove himself from the concept of defeat. It is a trait that historically has been viewed as to the detriment of a fighter but one Chambers seems to recognize as important to his life. “I’m not going to be a trial horse for other fighters,” he says. “That’s not my idea of a career, even if I make good money with it…taking punches to the head and getting beat up for fans’ enjoyment is great if you’re successful but what if you’re not?”

That’s why, even though he is still only 30, Chambers talks about this moment as the beginning of the “fourth quarter” of his career. And although he says he is fully focused on his fight with Adamek, he also allows himself to discuss his future. “I always wanted to go back to school…it’s never too late to go back, and I’m actually thinking about that now.” Chambers says he would like to pursue a major in graphic design “to learn how to do things with computers.”

Floyd Patterson’s fame and greatness afford us an awareness of the trajectory of his life after his boxing career was over and specifically of the dementia from which he suffered in his later years. Patterson’s crippling self-doubt may have been in its own league among prizefighters but was never strong enough to remove him from boxing before boxing took a severe toll on his mind.

Chambers is one of many fighters today who talk of leaving the sport of boxing with their brains intact. If he does, he will be one of the few who actually does what he says he will. He has already been concussed by Klitschko and will be facing a hard, relentless puncher in Adamek.

But the same mentality that leads Chambers to aver that he is in fact not a fighter, in spite of his profession, may give him an advantage in successfully fulfilling what he calls his “exit plan,” his path out of boxing. “It’s like being in the ring,” he says. “You gotta be on your toes at all times. If you do that, you’ll end up being okay.”