By Terrence McCoy
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On a humid Wednesday night, the Styx Sports Bar & Grill in North Miami Beach smells of Swisher Sweets and stale beer. Patrons lazily shoot pool, and hip-hop blares from the speakers as Randall Bailey feeds a dollar into a punching bag machine. Dressed in all purple — T-shirt, mesh shorts, and an off-color Marlins hat — Bailey pulls the bag down, steps back, winds up, and throws his right fist forward.
The machine rattles and rocks with the impact. Lights flash on the screen and the numbers on the display climb and climb. It's a new high score, but Bailey isn't impressed.
"Shit ain't even accurate," he says before drawing back and throwing another haymaker.
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Bailey is used to his punches producing more dramatic results. Despite his slight stature — a few inches shy of six feet and just 155 pounds — he has racked up dozens of knockouts with arguably the most devastating right-handed punch on the planet.
It's a gift that's been routinely overlooked, though. Even Bailey's biggest win — a huge upset for a welterweight title last month broadcast live to a million viewers on HBO — was overshadowed by the next fight on the card, when Manny Pacquiao walloped Tim Bradley for 12 rounds yet lost in a laughable decision. Critics rightly point to the travesty as everything that's wrong with boxing, but they've missed that Bailey's fight is the story of what's right: a 37-year-old journeyman who, with one miraculous punch, earned the victory of his life.
"With Randall's punch, I don't care whether it's [Floyd] Mayweather or Pacquiao or anybody else," says Si Stern, his manager. "If a guy stands in front of Randall at the wrong time, he's going to get knocked out."
Bailey, born on September 13, 1974, has been delivering knockout blows since he was 6 years old. His father Randy left early in his life, forcing his mother, Cynthia King, to raise Randall on her own in Carol City. Older boys in the neighborhood would force Bailey and other kids to fight in the streets near North County Elementary School, a few blocks from Bailey's home. It didn't matter if the opponent were bigger or stronger; if the older boys said fight, Bailey had to fight.
"I saw shootings, dead bodies, really bad fights, people getting jumped... all kinds of nonsense," Bailey recalls. "I got jumped a couple of times, but you couldn't tell. They looked worse than I did. I got into a lot of fights, and I knew how to fight."
By the age of 14, Bailey had started selling drugs and messing around with guns. One day, he and his friends were hanging out in a room in the Crystal Lake Apartments on NW 207th Street. Bailey was sitting on the floor while a friend standing behind him toyed with a .30 caliber rifle. Suddenly, there was a deafening bang, and Bailey felt something zip past his leg. A round had gone off and buried itself in the floor right next to him.
Bailey stopped selling drugs when he was 15 — "I started getting involved with girls," he says by way of explanation — but guns continued to give him trouble.
On April 7, 1994, Miami-Dade police arrested him after a car accident near the West Bridge on State Road 112 when they discovered him carrying a concealed Browning 9mm pistol reported stolen from a Hialeah home two years earlier. That landed him in jail for a day. A year later, on August 29, 1995, he was again found carrying a gun that wasn't his. This time, police nailed him after he tried to throw a stolen .380 semiautomatic pistol under his Pontiac Grand Am during a traffic stop at the intersection of NW 60th Street and 18th Avenue. As a repeat offender, he was given 64 days in prison.
"That two months felt like a year, and that was enough for me," he says.
At 21, Bailey was a convicted felon and a dropout, having given up on school at 16. He already had one son — Randall Jr., born in 1993 — and would have another, Brian, born five years later. Bailey had been entering amateur fights for years, but never seriously trained. As he left jail, though, Bailey made a decision: He would try to go pro.
Ask him today where he would have ended up without making that determination, and the answer is simple: "In jail," he says. "Or I'd be dead."
Bailey's first fights came in small clubs and casinos across Florida and the Midwest, against other unknowns or career retreads. His fifth opponent, for example, boasted a record of 3-30; his eighth had a mark of 6-27. Bailey knocked them out, one after another, for 21 straight fights. He didn't use speed or endurance; he just drew back his right hand, waited for an opening, and sent it screaming for their heads.
That knockout streak earned Bailey a spot with Don King's team in 1997 and gave him a chance at a welterweight title. On May 15, 1999, in front of a hometown crowd at Miami Jai-Alai, Bailey took on Carlos Gonzalez, a veteran who'd won 45 of his 48 fights and never been knocked down. In just 41 seconds, Bailey's right hand put an end to that.
His tour as welterweight champion lasted only a year, though. That's when he finally lost a bout, to Ener Julio on July 22, 2000, at the American Airlines Arena. Bailey went a full 12 rounds, only to lose via judges' decision. He picked up another title belt in February 2002, knocking out Demetrio Ceballos in a fight in Pennsylvania.
But then his career began losing momentum. Three months later, in Puerto Rico, he lost his title to Diosbelys Hurtado. Losses started piling up. Frustrated with the trend, Bailey left King's team in 2004. Then came his most disheartening defeat, on December 11 of that year in Las Vegas against rising star Miguel Cotto. In that match-up, Cotto knocked Bailey down twice, ending the battle in the sixth round. Bailey admits he'd lost his focus.
"I didn't have a strategy going into that one," he says. "My only strategy was to try to hit him. In that fight, he was where he needed to be, and I wasn't."
Bailey's personal life was soon rocked by blows as devastating as Cotto's jabs. In July 2004, he filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court. (He withdrew the petition three months later.) In 2006, he was sued on domestic violence charges by a person named Vilson Ortiz. (A judge found no cause for the complaint, though records with further details are not available, and Bailey refuses to discuss the case.) In 2008, Elizabeth Gordon, whom he'd married in 2006, filed for divorce. Bailey also declines to discuss his failed marriage.
He didn't give up on his sport through the turmoil, but even Bailey couldn't have guessed how long it would be until he had another shot at a title. For eight years after the Cotto defeat, Bailey fought virtually anyone he could, in tiny venues across Florida — casinos, the Sheraton Hotel near Miami International Airport, even a seaside park in Key West.
"Randall has gone a lot of years on starvation wages," Stern says. "There was frustration, sure. The man has to support himself and his family, and he [wasn't] getting the fights he needs to do it."
Adds Bailey: "Trying to re-establish myself, that was hard... I look at it as I was paying my dues to boxing."
The fights weren't big, but Bailey did win them, going 15-2 post-Cotto. His financial troubles didn't disappear, though, with the victories. This past April, his landlord sued him for unpaid rent on a house in Miami Gardens and won a judge's order to evict him. Both Bailey and his agent say it was actually his younger brother, not Randall, living there and failing to pay rent. The landlord did not return calls for comment.
Either way, Bailey was desperate for his big shot. He finally got it last month, when Philadelphia's Mike Jones agreed to fight him for the vacant IBF welterweight belt, on a stage that couldn't have been bigger: the MGM Grand Casino in Vegas as the undercard to the Pacquiao-Bradley fight.
On paper, it was a mismatch. Jones is eight years Bailey's junior and hadn't been defeated or even knocked down in 26 fights. Boxing experts and sports books counted Bailey as a heavy underdog, with Jones as the 5-to-1 favorite. The only man who believed Bailey could win was Bailey.
"I don't know what everybody was saying," Bailey says of Jones. "He makes a lot of mistakes."
For the first nine rounds, Jones didn't. The two men danced around each other for almost an hour, only occasionally landing punches. Despite his speed, Jones seemed content to let the judges decide his fate. Bailey, meanwhile, waited for an opportunity to unleash his right-handed weapon.
Finally, in the tenth round, Bailey saw an opening. He threw a lightning-fast jab into Jones's face, sending him sprawling. Jones picked himself up, but a few minutes later, in the 11th round, Bailey again landed that magical right, this time a vicious uppercut. "I hit his nose, and it felt like meat coming out," Bailey told ESPN after the fight.
Jones fell flat, arms outstretched, eyes unfocused. He rolled over, fumbling for the ropes, but the referee waved his hands in the air. The fight was over. Bailey danced around the ring, sobbing with joy.
"It's an extraordinary journey," Ecksel says. "One punch completely changed his destiny."
A month later, the prize hasn't totally changed Bailey's life. He rents a modest place in Lauderhill and spends most days whacking a bag at Biscayne Boxing in MiMo. The victory purse was $100,000, but a solid chunk went to pay his promoters, trainer, and manager. He still works on the side, conditioning NFL players such as Detroit's Stephen Tulloch.
"I ain't into all the fame," he says.
Bailey's real hope is that his knockout of Jones isn't a late-career pinnacle but an opening to a real renaissance for the brawler. He's already got a September 8 title-defense bout lined up versus Devon Alexander, a 25-year-old with a 23-1 record, and dreams of luring Mayweather, the eight-time world champ, into the ring once he's released from jail later this year.
In the meantime, he keeps mostly to himself, hanging out in the neighborhood where, as a child, he first learned to fight. After five more punches on the bag at Styx, Bailey drops his hands and walks toward the exit. A few guys shooting pool look up from their games, but unlike the Jones fight, there are no cheers or hugs on the way out.
"I don't look for a pat on the back," Bailey says, "for doing something I'm supposed to do."