Steve Little began boxing professionally at 18 as a four-round fighter. He enjoyed a brief taste of glory as super middleweight champion in 1994 after upsetting Michael Nunn, but is now back to scuffling in the same intimate fight clubs where he began his career 15 years ago.
But Little, now 33 and unranked in the cruiserweight class, knows exactly why he is still fighting and headlining the card at Martin's West in Woodlawn on Tuesday night in an eight-rounder against Courtney Butler of Baltimore.
"I love boxing. It's been very good to me," said Little, a native of Reading, Pa., who grew up in a family of 18 children.
"I know about hand-me-downs and I know about missing out on the good times. For me, boxing was my mother and father. For all the hard and negative things in life that I ever had to face, I was able to hit a bag or spar and have an outlet.
"For any kid who doesn't know how to deal with the negative things in life, I'd like to suit him up, put him in front of a heavy bag and ask, 'What do you hate? There it is. Attack it now.' And when he's fatigued and finally embraces humility, I'll tell him, 'Now you know what it feels like to be a world champion.' "
Little knows all about humility. He was one of the most unlikely fighters to become a champion.
At the time he challenged Nunn, his ring record was an unspectacular 21-13-2. In 1988, he had lost three straight fights, being stopped by Terry Norris and John Jackson and losing a decision to Dave Hilton.
"If you look back on a lot of my early losses, I was fighting guys on their home turf and with their own promoters," he said. "It's tough winning on those terms. But when it was time to step up to the plate and hit a home run, I hit it out of the park."
Little said promoter Don King viewed him as a "pawn" to be used in a tuneup fight for Nunn, who was looking forward to a multimillion-dollar match with England's Nigel Benn.
"I was a 20-1 underdog that night in London," he said. "My brother bet a $1,000 with a London bookie and made $20,000."
Little, who had once served as a sparring partner for Nunn, surprised the champion in the first round, dropping him only 66 seconds into the match with a three-punch combination.
"I was as shocked as anyone," he said. "Nunn got up, but I gave him a boxing lesson the rest of the night and they couldn't steal it from me."
King was less than happy with the result and did little to promote his new 168-pound champion.
"He wanted me to fight Gerald McClellan, who was the best puncher in the division, for only $50,000. I told King, 'You may think I'm not worth much, but the championship belt is worth at least $500,000.' "
King didn't bite. Instead, Little was offered a match with the World Boxing Association's top contender, Frankie Liles, in Argentina.
"I was training at the time in Las Vegas, and got a bad infection," he said. "The medicine made me balloon up to 195 pounds.
"I was in no condition to fight, but Jimmy Binns [counsel for the WBA] told me if I didn't fight Liles, they'd strip me, which was just what King wanted.
"I wasn't just going to let them take my title away. So I had to hit the sweat box every day and just made the weight . I thought I gave Liles a beating, but he was still standing at the end, and with King in his corner, I lost my title."
And by the time King took his cut for training expenses and advances, Little was left with half of his $100,000 purse.
In 1996, he managed to claim the lightly regarded International Boxing Council cruiserweight crown by outpointing Joaquin Velazquez in a fight he promoted in his hometown of Reading.
"I was a young black guy without any support or financial backing who had won a world championship by beating Nunn, but nobody in my hometown really took notice," he said.
"It was only because of my God-given talent and determination I made it to the top. I thought that promoting the fight and bringing attention to myself, I'd open up some eyes and maybe another Steve Little would come along and be recognized."
Little hustled tickets all over town and a crowd of 6,200 turned out to watch him whip Velazquez. He gave $30,000 of the gate to a local boys club.
"Hey, I was almost broke, but I think I got my point across," Little said proudly. "I believe what I did gave all the minorities in Reading hope and energized them to reach out and be ambitious in reaching their personal goals."
Little also tried his hand at politics last year, but lost by seven votes in a race for chief notary in Bucks County.
"I thought that was quite an accomplishment for a first-timer," he said. "But I'm going to keep fighting. It's like being a doctor or lawyer, if you're good at something, you stick with it, in good or bad times, and I'm still young at heart."
In the past year, Little lost a decision to James Toney for the International Boxing Organization cruiserweight title and also was beaten by Arthur Williams for the USBA crown. But he still hungers for one more title shot.
"We all learn by mistakes," he said. "I never strategized on keeping a title belt, my ultimate goal was just winning it.
"But now I realize to make money, you've got to keep the belt. And if God allows me to be blessed one more time, I'll hold on it soooo tight."
Pub Date: 11/01/98