Given his name, perhaps Cassius Chaney was destined to slip on those black and gold Everlast gloves.
He’s actually glad he did not duck into a boxing gym as a youth growing up in East Baltimore. He figures he would have loved the sport too much — so much that he would have yearned to test his skills both in the ring and on the streets.
Instead, he moved to Connecticut when he was 14, played Division II basketball and earned a degree in sports management. He didn’t walk in the door of Whaling City Boxing in his adopted home of New London, Conn., until he was 23. Almost immediately, that realm of stale sweat, faded fight posters and rhythmic tap-tapping on the heavy bags felt like home.
“I just knew,” he said. “I had found my real love in sports.”
Seven years later, the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Chaney stands undefeated in 11 professional fights, and he’ll look to build his resume Saturday on the untelevised undercard of the Sergey Kovalev-Igor Mikhalkin fight on HBO. As he tries to take the next step, Chaney has come back home to Baltimore to train with Calvin Ford, whose growing crew of fighters includes former junior lightweight world champion Gervonta Davis.
From his towering stature to his affable nature to the stylish afro atop his head, Chaney possesses the components to become a star if he can lift his in-ring game.
About that name … yes, Chaney’s father did christen him Cassius as a nod to the greatest heavyweight champion of them all. Muhammad Ali shed his birth name, Cassius Clay, when he converted to Islam. Nonetheless, Chaney seems proud of the link. Ali retired before he was born, but he studies the master’s old fights along with those of other cerebral champions such as Lennox Lewis and Bernard Hopkins.
Chaney would rather win with guile than brawn. On a recent morning, he walked into the Upton Boxing Center with his head buried in a book about basketball great Kobe Bryant. He was captivated by a section in which Bryant described his response to a mano-a-mano lashing from Allen Iverson. Bryant broke down every facet of Iverson’s game and designed a series of appropriate countermeasures. It’s exactly what Chaney hopes to do as he peruses film of the top heavyweights in the world.
“There’s nothing wrong with being consumed about what you’re doing,” he said.
Chaney voluntarily left Baltimore — where he was worried his life might drift off course — to live with his grandmother in New London. There, he grew into a basketball star at Old Saybrook High and the University of New Haven, kindling a friendship with one of the area’s greatest basketball players, former NBA standout Vin Baker, along the way.
“It helped me remain a kid,” he said of the move. “Me going there, I felt like, ‘Dang man, you get in trouble one time and it’s in the paper.’ So it was like ‘nah, I can’t get in trouble.’ Here, you can do certain stuff and you might not get caught.”
At 30, Chaney is old for a boxing prospect, but his path is not as uncommon as you might think for a modern American heavyweight. Many of the big men trying to make their way as fighters grew up playing other sports. Their athletic backgrounds give them an edge in one sense, but they’re also cramming to learn skills that smaller counterparts picked up in grade school.
Chaney began working with Ford about six months ago, before his last fight in October. A friend of his older brother, who still lives in Baltimore, suggested the pairing.
He was training in Florida in addition to maintaining his residence in New London, where he works as a youth mentor. But his mother, Brenda Pledger, has always remained in Baltimore. And around the same time, he was introduced to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti — “I’m thinking he’s going to be boring,” Chaney said, “no personality, but then I meet him, and he’s totally different” — and Ray Lewis over dinner.
Maybe the universe was steering him back to Baltimore, he figured. When he visited Upton to meet Ford, he loved seeing all the neighborhood kids working on their jabs and hooks as an alternative to the rough life outside.“
He kind of had a specific idea and plan for me,” Chaney said of his new trainer. “I felt like I was going to learn, and I need a place where I’m always learning or I’ll get out of it. I’ll get kind of bored.”
Just as Chaney is acclimating himself to the culture at Upton, where the coaches call him “Cash,” Ford is getting used to teaching an older heavyweight. Most of the trainer’s best fighters — Davis standing as the most obvious example — have been with him since they were young children.
For all his natural size and coordination, Chaney does not always channel his strength into his punches. He’s knocked out just five of his 11 opponents.
“We have to work on that. There’s a lot of things he wasn’t being taught,” Ford said. “I’m trying to break that basketball mentality. This is a sport, but it’s a hurt sport. He has the look. He has the charisma. I’m just missing one ingredient that I have to help put in, and that comes from his experience in the ring.”
Chaney often spars with 165-pound Lorenzo “Truck” Simpson, Ford’s top amateur and a 2020 Olympic hopeful. Ford says the theory is basically the same one the great Roy Jones used when he chased roosters in preparation for fights. Chaney must learn to land square punches on a quicker being who does not want to be hit.
On the other hand, there are significant pluses to his boxing-free background. Ford says Chaney works with maturity and focus that he does not see from most kids who roll into Upton from the surrounding neighborhood.
“He’s different. Different, man,” Ford said. “From Baltimore but he’s traveled all over the world. Cash has a great background, great family history. It’s not like most of the kids I get here who grew up in Baltimore. It’s more rugged — they’ve got some type of trauma in their lives. But when you talk to Cash, he’s from a family setting. They’re hard-working, and there’s an understanding that when you get yourself in a position, you have to step up.”
Chaney is already confident he can beat some of the top 15 heavyweights in the world. And he knows what that level of competition looks like, having worked as a sparring partner for former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. When he fights Tim Washington (6-5, 6 knockouts) Saturday in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, he’ll attempt to translate his progress from the gym to live combat.
“Right now, it’s like he’s still fighting as an amateur,” Ford said. “But because of his record, he’s moving into that second realm. It’s going to get harder. The opponents are going to get stiffer.”
Chaney was knocked down in his last fight, against a fighter with a losing record, no less. But in his analytical fashion — think Kobe figuring out Iverson — he explains how that set him on a better path.
“Now that I’ve been here for a little bit and I’ve been through the fire, it helped me,” he said. “It’s boxing. It’s one of the best things that could have happened to me and one of the worst that could have happened to my opponents. Now, I’m not really sweating trying stuff. I’m going to try it, and if I get touched, I get touched.”