Boxer Cam F. Awesome of Lenexa once was known by the relatively routine name of Lenroy Thompson.
John Brown, his longtime coach in Shawnee, smiled and shook his head at the touch of marketing genius that now enables his protégé to look up every time he hears the manufactured surname and say, “Thank you, are you talking to me?”
This isn’t the first time in 50 years-plus of coaching more than 10,000 boxers that Brown, the president of USA Boxing, has witnessed or partaken of the powers of promotional embellishments.
Once, Brown came into an up-and-coming boxer with a certain dangerous swagger, a fellow named Tommy Morrison.
As a man whose phone ringtone is Elvis Presley’s “Treat Me Nice” and who admired Muhammad Ali and John Wayne, Brown has a certain sense of showmanship.
So he figured the guy needed a nickname.
Knowing Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison, and imagining his birthplace (Iowa) to be “in the same part of the country” as Tommy Morrison’s (Arkansas), Brown inquired as to whether they were related.
No sooner had Morrison said, “We heard a story once that we might somehow be …” than Brown cut him off and said, “Good enough for us.”
And the future heavyweight champion would become known as “The Duke,” a vague relation of John Wayne’s.
“A lie is an ugly word,” Brown said, with the perpetually bemused look on his face. “We just used our imagination a little bit.
“We took what might be the truth and stretched it a little bit. Or a lot. It was a great exercise in marketing.”
This is exactly all that the profoundly troubled and late Morrison has in common with the delightful Awesome, who on Sunday in Venezuela undertakes his last chance to transform his U.S. Olympic boxing trials victory into an actual Olympic berth by fulfilling an international component of qualifying.
The common thread is the vision and charisma of Brown, 69, whose relationship with the volatile Morrison combusted long before he died in 2013 from complications associated with AIDS and who calls Awesome the closest thing to a son that he has ever known.
So he’s “hoping with everything I have” that Awesome can emerge as an Olympian from the tournament that runs through Friday, not because it would somehow complete his career to have coached an Olympian but because of what it would mean in Awesome’s life.
This is how Brown really thinks.
That’s not hard to believe or understand if you ask him how and why he got into boxing — something he answers with characteristic bluntness and candor.
“I grew up with a cleft palate, and a cleft lip and a speech defect and all that stuff, and people made fun of me,” he said. “And I grew up with parents who weren’t very involved … My brother was the favorite one, and maybe my parents treated me as lesser because I had a birth defect.
“I wasn’t perfect, so I’ve always used that as a motivator.”
Growing up “lonely” near a state mental hospital in St. Louis, he said, he frequently was around the patients — having fun “with them” but not “making fun” of them.
That was something he was sensitive to, after all, fighting anyone who looked at him cross-eyed assuming they were making fun of him and becoming a delinquent in frequent trouble with the police.
Then a cop steered him toward boxing, telling him if he wanted to be a “tough guy” in a thorny part of town he better at least learn how to do it at a gym.
The sport became Brown’s refuge, and then it became his reason to be as he formed a boxing club at Benedictine College in Atchison and came to Kansas City to be a juvenile probation officer and started Turner Boxing Academy and thrives on it all to this day.
Maybe this is particularly so for a man who became estranged from his parents and brother and had a 4-year-old daughter die of a brain tumor and lost two grandchildren.
“I know what it’s like to cry every day for 15 years — every day,” said Brown, who can’t talk enough about his grandchildren and two daughters. “We all have sadness, we all have bad things that happen.
“I need things that make me feel good, and helping kids makes everybody feel good.”
Boxing has its issues and its critics, he knows, and many of the endless files on his desk are related to his efforts with USA Boxing to try to broadly address those — quixotic as that notion might seem.
But when it gets right down to it, he believes in boxing because it’s about the chess match and the discipline and the work ethic that makes soft kids want to break out in rashes and hives.
“I work out every day to try to tranquilize my demons; otherwise, I’ll probably end up choking people, and they’ve outlawed that in most cities,” he said, smiling. “We all have those demons.”
Morrison’s demons probably never were tamed, certainly not in time to save him from his insatiable appetite for alcohol, drugs and women that would lead Brown to once call him “an American tragedy.”
For a long time, Brown recorded his thoughts about many things on cassette tapes.
He has reels about Morrison that he had figured could make a book.
But it was all too bizarre, he said, for anyone to believe.
When he rattles off a catalog off the top of his head, it indeed sounds stranger than fiction about a man whose fictitious stature (in “Rocky V” in 1989) preceded his ascent to heavyweight champ in 1993.
They once had to cancel a fight, Brown recalled, because Morrison had hurt his back … throwing a chair at Brown.
Once, when they took Morrison to Biloxi, Miss., to isolate him in training, he sneaked out in the middle of the night and was detained for using a pellet gun to shoot what Brown believed were pelicans.
A lawyer called Brown once to say that Morrison had been at a party where everyone passed out: So he woke up and found a razor and shaved off “about six guys’ eyebrows.”
“What?!” Brown said, and then asked how much money they needed to fix it or make it go away.
Another time, a stripper called and said Morrison had broken a beer bottle and stabbed her in the chest and now she needed plastic surgery.
“What?” Brown said. “OK, what’s it going to cost?”
And on and one it went.
Even so, after Morrison became heavyweight champion by beating George Foreman on June 7, 1993, his next fight was going to be against Lennox Lewis for a $7.5 million guarantee.
But to keep Morrison occupied, Brown and Morrison’s other handlers arranged for him to fight largely unknown Michael Bentt, who TKO’d Morrison in the first round because Morrison had hardly trained.
“And it just went downhill after that,” Brown said.
Along the way to Morrison being diagnosed with AIDS in 1996, Brown remembered trying to convince Morrison to use condoms for his never-ending sexual escapades.
Morrison would make them into water balloons and throw them back. He seemed to remain in denial until he died at 44, and sad as the story is Brown isn’t particularly sentimental about Morrison, either.
“I’ve learned through coaching 10,000 boxers,” Brown said, “that some learn quicker than others.”
Which brings us to Awesome, who has an unconventional style that made Brown cringe when he first saw him in Florida a few years back.
But Awesome also was nimble and hard-working enough that Brown offered him a chance to come to Kansas City to train.
“I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for John Brown,” Awesome said in a recent interview. “He took me in when he didn’t have to … He showed me how the world works and what you need to do to survive in it — all while having a really weird, crazy sense of humor.”
It’s funny all the ways Awesome is the opposite of Morrison, really.
As a carnivore who’d eat three slabs of ribs in four minutes, Awesome also had the body of what Brown described as a “40-year-old truck driver” — a belly without much muscle definition.
So he became a vegan, which required an entirely different sort of desire to achieve and the ability to control an appetite — you name the kind — that Morrison never knew.
“He has,” Brown said, “this great will.”
Awesome also is “the kind of guy you want to be around,” that everybody gravitates to: warm, optimistic, up with life and funny enough to literally be a comedian who performs gigs to relax.
“Many kids don’t appreciate what others do for them,” Brown said. “Cam’s always been the exception to that.”
Awesome may or may not make the Olympic team, and Brown frets because international judges don’t favor his style of elusive “tag” over thumping.
But with the intelligence, personality and resilience that Awesome has, Brown knows he doesn’t have to make it in boxing to know life after.
So as much as he wants this for Awesome, there is joy in just that for Brown.
It’s something that makes this all fulfilling in a way that coaching the heavyweight champion of the world never could be.
Something as real as can be even amid a little marketing.