Gladiators to the ring!" barks the announcer into the mic. A crowd of college kids, working men, and business owners hoot and holler at the ring located in the center of the basement-like room for the main event. Clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke mingle with the smell of sweat from past fights. The lights dim, the DJ cues hype combat-crunk music, and a spotlight snaps to the blue corner: "Loooowelllll Chriiiiistiannnnn!"
Christian waves to the boistrous crowd while a loud-mouthed regular in the VIP section leans over the guard rail to yell, "I bet on you blue! You better win!"
Then the spotlight flashes to the red corner and local favorite "Riiiichardddd 'The Rrrrebelllll' Roooyyyalllsss!" Royals sends the crowd into an uproar. The 155-lb. junior middle-weight nods to his fans while hopping around the ring in his Confederate flag shorts and a specially-tailored satin robe, the light glinting off his bald head. He removes the robe to reveal a palmetto tattoo covering his entire back.
The two opponents meet in the center of the ring and pound gloves amiably while the ref briefs them on what is to be expected in the following four rounds. The bell rings and the pummeling commences.
For veteran boxer Royals, the fight marks his first return to the ring in five years, the longest break he's had from the sport since he first got involved at the age of seven. Royals wants to prove that, at 38 years old, he's still got it. He's anxious to impress his wife, Randi, who is watching him fight for the first time. He wants to make sure his friend, firefighter Louis Mulkey, who died in last month's fire, is honored by dedicating this fight to him. He wants to justify the last six weeks he's spent training in the off-hours from his full-time job as a power-line technician, instead of being at home with his wife and 2-year-old son Riley. And he definitely doesn't want to disappoint his Summerville fans, who've come out from his hometown to support his return.
This is World Class Professional Boxing at The Plex, taking place on the last Thursday of every month for the past six years. This week marks the 76th consecutive night of fights.
Big lights, big egos ... maybe Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield come to mind. But, at The Plex, you won't see anything like what's on television. In fact, Kelley says there isn't a single boxer in his show who doesn't have another job. The fighters at The Plex don't train all day every day, they don't live and breathe boxing every waking moment, and they aren't making the kind of money that can buy their mamas houses. But they love the sport. Enough so that, like Royals, outside of working 40-plus hours a week, taking care of their kids, and spending time with their wives, they make time to go to the gym six days a week and bust their asses to prepare for the next fight card they're featured on — the next fight that will test their skill, their training, their endurance, their heart. And it may just improve their record.
In 1976, Royals' teenage brother thought it would be a good idea to get baby bro into boxing to keep him out of trouble and out of their single mother's hair. After all, she was taking care of five kids and it didn't hurt to incorporate positive male influences into her sons' lives.
"Back then, there were 10-12 boxing teams in Charleston and there was a tournament almost every weekend for kids," says Royals. But as with most youth sports, it wasn't really serious competition. Royals describes it as being "more like a pillow fight than an actual fight."
But even at that young age, local trainer and manager Al "Hollywood" Meggett saw potential in Royals, who still remembers Meggett approaching him when he was only nine years old to say that he liked his uppercut and he'd be training under him someday.
Royals continued to box at local gyms while attending Summerville High School. One of the best things about the sport, he says, wasn't so much winning but the relationship with his coaches.
"One coach, in particular, took me under his wing and acted like the father figure that I never had," says Royals.
But winning did prove rewarding. The highlight of Royal's career was winning State Champ five years in a row — the first time when he was only 16. Even then, he considered boxing merely a recreational sport and wasn't interested in making it a career.
Royals turned professional under Meggett's guidance in 1991. Pro, of course, is the next step up from amateur in the boxing world, when your record actually means something, and a little money can be made. Pro fighters have more and longer rounds, lighter gloves, and more serious opponents. They also have contracts which restrict street fighting, which can become a problem when you have a reputation as a pro boxer. That's why Royals doesn't want his son involved in the sport.
"There have been plenty of times that I've been out somewhere and someone will say, 'Oh that's Richard Royals? I think I can take him.'"
After graduating from high school, Royals still continued to box, but he got a full-time job too. Once he started a family, he decided to take a break from the sport. "My wife didn't really want me to fight," he says.
It wasn't until four months ago, when Royals and his wife went to fight night at The Plex that he decided to scratch the itch to get back into the game. Royals says it was the first time his wife had ever been to a live boxing match. "She realized it wasn't a brutal sport," he says, so she acquiesced.
He sought out a new trainer and ended up at Johnny Lewellen's gym in Summerville. They had met before but hadn't seen each other since the Southeast Olympic trials in '88, when Royals was 14. Lewellen told him that he would love to whip him back into shape, but there was one thing Royals must do: Instead of paying Lewellen for his services, he had to pick one of the kids in his gym to mentor. Royals agreed and the training began. "Mentoring kids gives more experienced fighters a whole different perspective," Lewellen says, "because it forces them to watch what they do and practice what they preach."
Lewellen's gym is small — so small, in fact, that the practice ring doesn't even fit inside. It's outside in the parking lot, with tables and benches lined up for viewers. When it rains, sparring is out of the question. The mat is faded and the ropes are weathered, but it serves its purpose. The small, poorly-lit building has fresh drywall, new floors, open rafters, and is cluttered with boxing equipment. An American flag and posters litter the walls with encouraging statements about being responsible, making the right choices, displaying respect, and putting forth effort. There is a feeling of security inside this gym, which serves as a home to over 20 kids after school. It was neighborhood kids who fixed up the space to begin with. And Lewellen invites all ages and all backgrounds to join him. Training is free as long as they go to church with him every Sunday and Wednesday.
Royals runs two to three miles a day. When he goes to the gym, Lewellen's training regimen includes 45-60 minutes of calisthenics: 300 jumping jacks, 50 push-ups, jumping rope, sit-ups. That's followed by 10 three-minute rounds on any combination of the 12 different types of bags in the gym. Next comes the sparring. Lewellen puts Royals in the ring for four or more rounds, switching to fresh opponents between rounds to keep Royals on his toes. He eats no fried, processed, or fast foods. The night before the fight and the day of, Royals tries to relax. He might do a mental run of how he'll react in certain situations against an upcoming opponent.
Royals says last month's fight had a lot riding on it, but he was ready. "I felt confident and relaxed. I knew it was going to go my way, and it's been a long time coming."
After three rounds, Royals was declared victorious by technical knockout. He fell to his knees and cried, looking up towards the heavens and thanking God.
However, whispers of illegal punches lingered in the resonance of the last bell. There were arguably a few times that Royals threw late hits — after Christian's knee had touched the mat. One of the judges showed signs of frustration that the referee didn't make a warning or penalty call sooner during the fight.
Christian says he lost his balance after taking a few punches from Royals. "I took a knee to try and get him to back up and regain my balance," he says. "I didn't like my performance, and I would like to fight him again."
Promoter Jim Kelley blames Royals' performance on "ring rust." "The man hasn't been in the ring in years. His reaction time is obviously going to be slower and sometimes once you throw a punch, it's hard to retract it," he says. Royals later apologized and said that he has never knowingly thrown an illegal punch in his career. Both he and Lewellen feel that the ref should have stepped in.
Even so, Royals says, "It was a perfect evening."
After the bar tabs close and the crowd leaves, chattering excitedly about the match, the lights go down in The Plex and the boxers head home, sore, sweaty, and tired. Most are dreading work in the morning, but they're already planning a new training strategy to make next month's fight even better.
Richard Royals can be seen in the ring again at World Class Professional Boxing at The Plex this Thurs., July 26. Doors open at 7 and the first bell rings at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $50 for VIP, and can be purchased at the door or online at www.etix.com