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COMMENTARY : Fatal Shooting Is Tragic Ending for Boxer

November 07, 1989|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the spring and early summer of 1984, I watched two teen-agers in the selection process for the U.S. Olympic boxing team who looked to me like future superstars. As it turned out, neither made the Olympic team that year--1984 was too soon for them.

But both left the impression that they were champions in early development.

One was Mike Tyson, a 17-year-old pounder from Upstate New York who was still learning to box. An unpolished diamond.

The other was Todd Hickman, 17, a bantamweight from Akron, Ohio. A polished diamond.

Both, I was sure, would one day be world champions as pros.

Tyson had immense strength and was surprisingly skilled, but in a crude sort of way. Hickman was artistry. He had that rare blend of natural boxing skill and knockout power in both hands.

Now, more than five years later:

--Tyson is the heavyweight champion of the world, undefeated as a pro, the highest paid athlete in history.

--Hickman is dead, shot recently in a drug-related, execution-style shooting in Akron.

When he was 17, Todd Hickman had superstar written all over him.

He was tall and skinny--you could count every rib--and on his way to being a middleweight one day. I've seen every outstanding U.S. amateur boxer since 1982. Todd Hickman might have been the best.

He was Mr. Personality in 1984, with movie star looks and a smile that belonged on billboards.

He was notoriously undisciplined, but when he flashed the Smile, coaches had great difficulty remaining angry with him. One reason they were frequently angry was his trouble with making weight for important amateur bouts.

Once, on the first day of a 1984 amateur boxing trip to the Soviet Union, Hickman, giggling like a child all the while, bought all the candy bars from a vending machine at the Colorado Springs airport. He stuffed them in a sack and took them along on the plane, hiding them from the coaches and team manager. He knew perfectly well he'd have to make 119 pounds in Moscow in four days.

Four days? Four days is next year. That was Hickman.

Somehow, however, Wylie Farrier, the team manager on that trip, learned of Hickman's candy bars and took them.

Farrier, 63, a retired Cleveland police officer who has been involved in amateur boxing in Ohio for 30 years, tried to speak at Hickman's funeral in Akron, but couldn't. He broke down and cried.

But the other day, he did talk about Hickman.

"This is a kid who never worked all that hard at boxing and yet, when he was 17, he beat everyone in the world in his weight class," Farrier said.

"On that trip to the USSR in early 1984, he boxed Yuri Alexandrov in Moscow. Alexandrov was the reigning world bantamweight champion, and Hickman beat the hell out of him. And he'd eaten half a bag of candy bars on the plane before I caught him. I don't know how he made weight for that bout, but he did."

I saw the Hickman-Alexandrov bout that night in Moscow. I had seen Alexandrov several times previously. He was a 24-year-old man, a world-class boxer. Hickman beat him so easily it took my breath away.

My two most vivid memories of Hickman are of him laughing while he fed quarters into the Colorado Springs candy machine, and the joy on his face after they took off his headgear, just after the final buzzer when he beat Alexandrov.

Hickman was "a sweet kid," who might have been loved too much, Farrier said. "It tears me apart, just thinking of him.

"It wasn't a broken home-type thing. He had great parents, who loved him dearly. His dad tried to discipline him, but it was hard for him because Todd was such a sweet kid. Every time I saw Todd, he'd give me a hug.

"But he always gave me a feeling that he was in a hurry for some reason, that he'd better do everything as quickly as he could, because he wouldn't be around too long.

"He fell in with a bad crowd a few years ago. The drug scene started, and that was the beginning of the end.

"Maybe (it happened) because he was such a gifted athlete . . . that because boxing came so easily to him, he thought he could break away from that drug scene at any time, just as easily as he became a great boxer."

Hickman served 18 months in state prison on drug and weapons charges about two years ago. Police believe that Hickman, who was unarmed, was killed by a man with whom Hickman fought in prison. The killer is still at large.

Police said Hickman was shot first in the shoulder, then in the back of the head, while he was on the ground.

The Hickman case brings to mind another outstanding amateur boxer from the class of '84 who also didn't make the team that year, Michael Nunn.

Now a pro middleweight champion, Nunn can't get a rich matchup with the division's marquee names because they make more money fighting each other. Current example: Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran.

You wonder then, what might have been if that big show in Las Vegas on Dec. 7 were Michael Nunn vs. Todd Hickman.

And you wonder, always, why it ended this way.

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