Some boxers come swaggering into the fight game with a confidence gained from a life of fighting for survival on the streets. Others make a mad dash for the gloves in desperation as a last shot at getting away from the grip of poverty.
Then there's Kevin Watts.
Swagger in? Tiptoe might be a better description.
You've heard of testing the waters. This guy sent them to a lab for analysis.
It's not that Watts had an aversion to fighting. He was a champion while still in high school. But his combat was waged without gloves.
At age 17, he was an AAU state champion in wrestling at Pleasantville High in New Jersey. That's where boxing trainer Mike Hall first saw Watts, then 5 feet, 8 inches and 101 pounds.
Watts went to work for the Pleasantville Recreation Department after high school, but Hall managed to get him into a gym where he started throwing punches against a heavy bag. Within two years, Watts was fighting as an amateur.
And on his way, right?
After two amateur fights, both victories, Watts did not have another bout for three years. He chose to spend that time in class, deciding whether he wanted to make boxing a career by studying under some of the best teachers in the field--Michael Spinks, Mike McCallum, James Shuler and Virgil Hill. Watts watched them, worked out with them and served as a sparring partner.
"He just hadn't made up his mind whether he wanted to be a fighter," Hall said. "He wanted to see what he could do. I thought it was a good idea.
"Sometimes you put kids in amateur fights and they become discouraged when, time and time again, they get robbed by bad decisions or things like that. It's better to work with good fighters and learn that way."
Nobody told Watts when he had learned enough to graduate into the professional ranks. Not Hall. Not anybody. Watts just announced he was turning pro at age 22.
There were plenty of postgraduate honors. In the ensuing three years, Watts has amassed a 17-3-1 record with 10 knockouts. A separated shoulder limited him to just three fights in 1987.
But, having fully recovered, he hopes to make up for the lost time just two days into 1988. Watts, the man who stayed backstage for so long, gets a quick trip into the spotlight Saturday, a nationally televised 12-round North American Boxing Federation middleweight title fight against champion Michael Nunn of North Hollywood at the Country Club in Reseda.
There is no mystery why Watts is getting his chance. Nunn is hoping for a world title shot. To get it, he needs an impressive performance in front of a national audience, preferably against an opponent he should dominate.
Nunn, as is to be expected, is heavily favored. Ranked no lower than third in any of the three world boxing organizations, Nunn (27-0, 18 knockouts) is facing a man not among the top 20 in any world ranking.
Watts, as is to be expected, is not impressed.
"I know I'm the heavy underdog," he said. "But when we fight, we'll find out which way the odds should go.
"If Nunn gets the word I don't have a right hand, he may stand there and try and bang with me. When he finds out he can't do that, he'll take off and run, figuring nobody can match his combinations. Well I can.
"I'll tell you one thing. If he fights me like he did Darnell Knox in his last fight, there is no doubt I'll knock him out. He kept coming at Knox at wide angles, leaving himself open."
Hall, Watts' manager and trainer, wasn't too excited about Nunn's last performance, either.
"Nunn looked amateurish against Knox," Hall said. "He looked wild with his punches. I think he was in there against a guy who didn't want to fight back. If they send him in there against us to fight like that, we'll be getting on the plane to go home early.
"It's not going to be easy fighting Nunn, but it's not going to be any harder than we make it. I don't care how fast he runs. We'll run faster. We'll cut him off at the pass and make him fight in a phone booth."
Such talk is to be expected. Not many fighters or managers come in to any bout spouting negatives. But in Watts' case, he has evidence to back up his claims. Since last December, he has faced three previously unbeaten fighters and made life difficult for all of them.
He lost a one-point, 10-round majority decision to Frank Tate, the International Boxing Federation middleweight champion, won a unanimous 10-round decision over Steve Darnell and fought to a draw with Tyrone Frazier.
Perhaps the Darnell fight offers the best parallel with Nunn. Watts, who stands 6-1 1/2, was bothered early by Darnell's long reach and southpaw style, both trademarks of the 6-2 Nunn. But Watts was finally able to get in and attack Darnell's body, eventually wearing him down.
Wearing Nunn down, of course, is a far different matter. He has hardly breathed hard in most of his fights, rarely losing a round. He is always in excellent shape and not usually in one place long enough to receive a serious body blow.
But if Watts is to pull off a major upset, it would appear he will have to again use his Darnell game plan. It will take patience. Lots of it. He will have to wait for an opening.
No problem for Kevin Watts. It took him five years to decide to become a fighter. He reasons he will just have to wait about five rounds to become a champion.