Boxing ring surrounds Briggs' world of dreams Millionaire, model movie star, champ

HAVANA — HAVANA -- Shannon Briggs wants to be a millionaire, a movie star, a model who exposes his bare, broad chest on magazine covers, and he wants to be the heavyweight champion of the world.

Of course, he is a boxer.


His story is as old as the sport itself. Like Joe Louis and Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Mike Tyson before him, Briggs is the poor kid who would be king. Like Rocky, he is the streetwise dreamer who tries to overcome improbable odds with one roundhouse left.

He is 19 years old, and he wants to beat up people and drive a Mercedes.


Briggs is in Cuba training and waiting to fight one time in the Pan American Games. In Sunday's 201-pound gold-medal final, he meets Felix Savon, a world champion, a Cuban national hero, a pal of President Fidel Castro. He says he is not scared, even as he describes what it is like for him to walk the streets of Havana.

"People come up to me all the time, and they do this," Briggs said, moving his index finger like a blade across his neck. "They'll be looking at me to lose, and I'll be looking at me to win."

It's not hard to notice Briggs in Havana. Most fighters have distinctive nicknames -- he has a distinctive head of hair. He's the guy who looks as if he is wearing a blond mop on his head. His dreadlocks, dyed by his girlfriend, flop as he walks, runs or fights.

"How did I get my hair this way?" he said. "Don't comb your hair for eight months. I don't even want to cut off one lock. I'm superstitious."

Briggs hasn't fought yet and he is already the subject of two newspaper stories in Cuba. He hasn't fought yet because only two other boxers showed up in his weight class. They write about him because he has a vibrant personality and a story to tell.

"I want to be famous," he said. "I want everyone to recognize and know me. I don't want bodyguards. I want to be able to go out into the masses."

Briggs said he comes straight from the streets of Brownsville, the same Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood that ignited the fire in Tyson. A basketball and football player in high school, Briggs decided two years ago he wanted to box.

"My mom told me I should find something to do with my time other than hanging around with my friends," he said. "I was sitting home, watching TV, and a boxing match came on."


The next day, Briggs went to a local gym to get a closer look at boxers and boxing.

"Guys were getting killed in there," he said. "I left and said, 'I'm not coming back.' But I came back. The first time in the ring, I got killed. My mom saw my face and said, 'You better not go back.' But I was mad. My nose was messed up, and I wanted to go back and get the guys who beat me up. They don't get near me, now."

He was tricked into his first fight in Staten Island, N.Y. He came to the bout thinking he was going to be a second in the corner. But a coach cut off the sleeves of his T-shirt, made him squeeze into trunks made for a middleweight and pushed him in the ring. He knocked out his opponent in three rounds.

"It's a hard sport," Briggs said. "You don't come from a rich family wanting to be a boxer. Rich kids get hit in the face, they go home. Poor kids come back. They see boxing as a way out."

For Briggs, boxing is a vehicle to fame and fortune. He has fought only 25 times as an amateur, with three losses, yet he talks of movies. He was set to play a gangster in one home-grown film production that went bust. He wonders what it would be like to star in "Predator IV."

He was the bronze medalist in last month's U.S. Olympic Festival, but he exudes the confidence necessary to have a chance of defeating Savon, a veteran of more than 200 amateur fights.


During a training session yesterday at a converted casino in downtown Havana, Briggs sweated through 90 minutes of skipping rope and shadowboxing. He is 6 feet 4 and weighs 194 pounds, an exquisitely proportioned athlete with a sliver of a waist and shoulders shaped like foothills. Two months ago, he didn't know what roadwork was, let alone jog at dawn. Now, he is tuned to produce the flurries necessary to win three-round fights.

"He worked hard because the press was around," said Tom Mustin, the U.S. assistant coach. "I wish you guys were around every day."

But Briggs is also displaying maturity under pressure. His mother Marjorie had a stroke two weeks before his appearance in the Olympic Festival in Los Angeles. She is now out of the hospital and called the U.S. coaches earlier this week to check up on her son.

"In a way, I'm fighting because of my mom," Briggs said. "She wanted me to find something in my life."

What Briggs found was a brutal sport that could help him realize a checklist full of dreams. But first, he must brawl with Savon. One fight for one medal on one Sunday in Havana.

"Nothing is impossible," Briggs said. "The odds are against me. I like it that way. You have something to push for. All these people are getting me excited."