Adrien "The Problem" Broner—23 years old, 135 pounds, undefeated, and one of the five or so best boxers in the world today—rolled into the lobby of 1221 Avenue of the Americas just before 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, along with two coaches, his friend, his large, superfluous security man, and a harried-looking PR woman from Golden Boy Promotions. The first radio interview of the first day of his first major pre-fight media tour started in six minutes. This would give us some time to get to know each other.
This Saturday night, Broner will fight overmatched Welshman Gavin Rees in Atlantic City. Broner has become enough of a star that his promoters thought it worthwhile to bring him to New York City for a day to hype the fight to the collected media. I was along for the day, a fly on the wall. The primary thing that I learned from this exercise is that, in boxing, the fights are important; everything else is just a creative form of waiting around.
At 10 a.m., sitting in the 36th-floor lobby of Sirius XM, Adrien Broner—blue sweater over checked button-up, jeans ripped in a fashionably deliberate manner, tan Timberlands, aviator shades, and ever-present earbud headphones plugged into his phone—was an unenthusiastic interview subject. He has a reputation for being "colorful," and indeed he does seem to light up before cameras and microphones and crowd, but here, with just me and a notebook, his answers were desultory and distracted. In his defense, I came to find out that every single member of the media he encounters, myself included, asks him the exact same questions. So when I asked him to predict the outcome of the fight and he said, "I don't make predictions, I just show up and fight," or when I asked him if he's always been "colorful" and he said, "I was born that way, that's just me," or when I asked him when he's going to move up to a more challenging weight division and he said, "It doesn't matter, I'll make any fight look easy," his responses are best understood not as meaningless platitude, but as a honed verbal reflex to the same basic set of questions that are repeated to him over and over and over again by his interrogators. In the same way that he has learned to slip a jab, Broner has learned to say, "I don't watch tape of my opponents, I just train to stay in shape" whenever some asshole like me asks him for his strategy in his upcoming bout. Celebrity requires muscle memory, too.
Joe Budden was also in the Sirius lobby. Broner—a rapper himself—did not seem to know who Joe Budden was, but posed for a photo with him nonetheless. Then down a carpeted hallway to Renada Romain's cramped studio, where the first question was about the Illuminati.
"Do boxers join this alleged organization?" I couldn't tell how much she was joking.
"They ain't come to me yet," Broner replied.
What became clear over the course of the day was that Broner's "colorful" reputation—his reputation for playing to the cameras and saying outrageous things and generally comporting himself as a brash and careless young superstar—was a function of the relatively low wattage of the sport's star power. He can best be understood as a cheerful young guy who has found that the boxing media are mostly a bunch of credentialed Stans who are desperate for any storyline and who will laugh uproariously at even the most minor display of personality, and he is quite rationally playing to that tendency. In person, Broner does not come off as someone burning with political passion like Ali, or as a deeply wounded soul like Mike Tyson, or as a cash-horny Barnumesque villain like Floyd Mayweather. He comes off as a fairly happy 23-year-old who has found that everyone will laugh at whatever he says. So he keeps saying stuff. If what he says doesn't make sense, it doesn't matter. The media will fill in the blanks for him.
They will do that for him, because he is very fucking good. He is, in his current weight class, unbeatable. He is so much better than every other lightweight that every additional fight that he takes at 135 pounds is really just a chance for him to demonstrate his talents, rather than a real contest. He fights with Floyd Mayweather's impenetrable shoulder-roll style of defense, but, unlike Floyd, combines it with knockout punching power in both hands. He is also faster than even fast fighters. He is faster, and he hits harder, and he is harder to hit than all but a handful of boxers in the world. When someone is that good, a "colorful" personality is powerful asset that can be monetized.
We all crammed into a single studio for Sway's morning show—with Broner's crew and the DJs and the producers and the assorted hangers-on, I counted 22 of us in a room smaller than the average office bathroom. "Turn the heat down," pleaded an unseen voice from the corner. It was hot as hell. Broner kept up a steady, disjointed stream of trash talk against opponents, both real and theoretical. Yuriorkis Gamboa, whom everyone wants him to fight, was "turtle arms," or "Short-boa." Of Antonio Demarco, his last opponent, he said: "They knew Demarco. They don't know him no more." Of any and all future opponents, he said, "If your career's on the rise, are you gonna jump in front of a Mack truck going 100 miles an hour with no brakes?" And of Gavin Rees, his current opponent, he had decided to stick to the story that he didn't know who he was. "What's his name? Cabbage? I don't even know this dude's name." He must have said this 50 times over the course of the day, including at the press conference, while he was seated in Gavin Rees's chair with a "GAVIN REES" name tag in front of him. (In the inane press gaggle afterwards, one reporter held a tape recorder close to Broner and asked, with a serious look, "So this thing about not knowing his name—is that a mind game?" As if it might not be.)
We finally filed out of Sirius XM—Karolina Kurkova and Coco Rocha were waiting patiently in the hallway to get in the studio after us—and hopped in a van to the Westin Hotel a few blocks away. I sat next to Broner and tossed him a few questions, but he was mostly absorbed in his phone, texting with someone more attractive than I. At the hotel, we made our way up the escalators to a large room that an HBO crew had set up with cameras and a backdrop. On the other side of the floor was a "Restructuring Debt" conference for finance people; a large sandwich buffet was being laid out. Broner's cut man, Levi Smith, a tall guy in a tan church suit and white dress shoes, eyed the sandwiches keenly. "I gotta get me some of that. I don't care whose it is."
HBO was filming its pre-fight video. A producer was asking Broner questions, but because the final cut will just feature Broner talking, much prompting was required to achieve that natural, off-the-cuff tone.
"What do you gotta do to get to the next level?" the producer asked.
"Keep knocking guys out."
"What do you want me to say?"
"'In order to get to the next level, I have to ...'"
"Oh. In order to get to the next level ..."
The producer surprised him with a whole series of questions about his grandmother's death from breast cancer when he was 13. They had clearly dug deep in his past for poignant moments. Broner spoke sweetly about rubbing her feet while she was ill, about staying by her side, and about what she meant to him. The producer pushed for his recollections of the actual day of her death. "She passed away on my 13th birthday," Broner said. "She was already in the hospital. We got up, got dressed, looking good, had the new Jordans on ..."
After the HBO folks had milked her passing as much as possible for dramatic purposes, they had him remove his shirt and pose in front of a backdrop as a photographer snapped hundreds of photos. "Poses with attitude," ordered the photographer, "because this is boxing." "So what?" replied Broner. He continued smiling. In many ways, he is extremely polished. Most of his boasts and taunts come in response to some sort of prompting. He does not seem to have much real animosity towards his opponents at all. He doesn't have to, yet. He knows he's better than them.
The interviews and photos finally done, we all gathered to leave. The producer approached him for one last question.
"How do you pronounce your last name? Is it Bro-ner, or Brah-ner?"
Broner looked at him. "I don't know."
"We actually had a meeting about this," offered the photographer. "The right way to pronounce it."
"I don't care."
As we walked out the Westin lobby, a small group of hard-looking Europeans gathered off to the side. Among them was a very short man with a very clean bald head, looking at us warily. It was Gavin Rees. We all filed out the revolving door. Not a word was exchanged. Broner didn't even glance in his direction.
Golden Boy Promotions had rented B.B. King Blues Club, around the corner on 42nd Street, for the press conference. We were there an hour early, so everyone grabbed food and lounged around. Giovanni, a young man who carried bags and generally gofered on Broner's behalf, was standing by the railing, wearing an athletic-looking warmup suit. "You a fighter too?" I asked him. "Nah," he said. "I used to spar with him, but ... busted my nose." He shook his head at the memory. I didn't blame him. I'd asked Mike Stafford, Broner's chief trainer, if Broner had started fighting young. "No, he didn't start young," he replied. "Well. He came into the gym when he was 6, but he didn't start fighting competitively until he was 8."
In the small green room backstage at BB King's, Broner lounged on a couch in back, gazing intently at a chocolate chip cookie that he was submerging in a paper cup of milk.
"Are you allowed to have cookies?"
He looked at me as if I were crazy. "I eat what I want."
"But you said earlier you couldn't have ice cream."
He considered this for a second, then shrugged. "That what you tell the media." He took a bit of cookie. "I don't have trouble making weight."
On an average day in training camp, Broner wakes up and runs about seven miles. Then he does about 500 pushups. Then he sits in the sauna for a bit. Then he eats breakfast. Later, he goes to the gym. When preparing for fights, he sometimes spars 15 rounds without a break—that is, not 15 normal rounds in a row, but 45 consecutive minutes of nonstop sparring, with a new opponent coming in every 15 minutes. ("If they can stand it," Levi Smith adds, meaning the opponents.) Then he hits the pads for another half-hour and the bags for another half-hour.
So, yes, he can have a cookie.
The place filled up moderately; the press conference began; and the fight was duly hyped by HBO executives and promoters and trainers and the fighters themselves, from a stage flanked by plastic-looking ring card girls in Corona-branded bikinis. "I don't even know this dude," Broner repeated dutifully from the stage. "You're ugly."
"Well, your missus wouldn't say that," Rees dutifully replied. "Whatever."
It was all very halfhearted. Outside of the biggest global megafights, boxing media events tend to have the squalid, vaguely depressing air of a casino that is no longer popular with rich people. They are not quite full, and a large portion of the press corps are basically fans with blogs, and you always wonder how many people showed up primarily for the free food. A dozen reporters crowded around Broner at a table, asking him all of the same inane questions that I had asked him earlier in the day. And worse. "Are you a gun owner?" asked one middle-aged white reporter of the young black man, for no apparent reason. All of this—the interviews, the TV, the press conferences, the hype—is just meaningless chatter that fills the long, drawn-out void of waiting until fight day. Boxers train and train for weeks and months and years and lifetimes, all for a single fight on a single night, and this run-up period is the most torturous time of all. The fact that we fill it with dumb questions only makes it harder to bear.
In the late afternoon, Broner and his team got in the van and left for Atlantic City. And there, on Saturday night, the only thing in this entire process that means anything will happen.