By Evan Berkowitz | [email protected]
In the late 1980s, as his boxing career was shooting skyward, everything was seemingly falling in place for Anthony “Da Beast” Suggs, Sr.
He was hot off a surprise victory at the 1987 Olympic Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, that pegged him as the No. 1 amateur lightweight in the country. U.S.
Olympic team coaches were showing interest, Suggs said, ahead of the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea.
“The USA coaches were impressed by my punching power,” Suggs recalled during a discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum Oct. 19. “One coach would call another coach up and say, ‘Hold the pads for this guy, he hits like a middleweight!’”
The former star prospect from the Alexandria Boxing Club, who was at the museum last week promoting his new memoir and a recent documentary chronicling his life, was considered a lock for the ‘88 games.
“At the end of the day,” Suggs said, “couldn’t nobody beat me but myself.”
While training for the bout that would have sent him to Seoul, Suggs learned his baby daughter, Ashley, had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
A crack cocaine addiction that had started on the streets of the Port City spiraled larger, the raging drive that had propelled him in the ring petered out and time in the Alexandria jail consumed what could have been his best boxing years.
Now though, while speaking to a crowd of about 40 at the museum, Suggs said he doesn’t have any regrets.
“I play the tapes back a lot of the times and see all the people that died around me that [were] in the same circle with me,” he said. “I’m just grateful to God that he kept his hand on me and protected me through the storm.”
Michael Joyner, an award-winning entertainment professional who coaches basketball with Suggs, his childhood friend, moderated the discussion. It followed a screening of “Out of the Ring, Still in the Fight,” a half-hour documentary on Suggs directed by Lawrence Dortch and Maniko Barthelemy that was recently tapped for the Alexandria Film Festival, set for Nov. 10 through 12. Afterward, Suggs took photos and signed copies of “Da Beast Within Still the Champ,” his 2016 book.
“I’ve known about Tony’s story since I was a young man,” said Alexandria City Councilor John Chapman, among notable attendees that also included former Mayor Bill Euille and local NAACP President Chris Harris.
“Hearing it again and knowing that it’s a local story is … powerful for me, because I can remember Alexandria during that time period he talks about where drug use was rampant in many of our communities and it shattered lives like his.”
The film weaves Suggs’ story of redemption around clips from four rounds of a televised fight, using the narrative rhythm of each landed punch to parallel the out-of-ring struggles of the man throwing them. Museum director Audrey Davis said Suggs’ story has something for everyone.
“You have his boxing story, you have the story of his addiction and recovery and then you have his story as a grieving parent, so I think there’s something that every single person can relate to,” Davis said. “If you’re not into boxing, that’s OK.”
After the film, Joyner opened by talking about growing up with Suggs, who moved to Alexandria at age nine and played football at T.C. Williams High School before he turned to boxing.
“I came up alongside this guy,” Joyner said. “I’ve seen quite a bit the ups and downs, the roller coaster ride, and I was one of those on the sidelines cheering for this guy.”
But, Joyner said, he only knew the beginning of Suggs’ negative home situation.
His mother and father would fight violently, Suggs says in the film, and she eventually left the family.
“She was real strict, real mean,” he said during the discussion. “I can never remember her kissing me, hugging me, telling me she loved me, and when she left my dad, she only moved about two miles down the road … but she didn’t come check on us, make sure we ate, slept, took a bath — nothing.”
The family often went without utilities, Suggs said in the film, and in his teenage years, his father, William, trained him to bag the drugs the elder Suggs sold.
Boxing was a way out and a way to act on his rage. The crack came with the territory, and the death of Ashley derailed everything else.
“When my daughter died, I just quit,” Suggs said. “It was like my OK to go ahead and be a crackhead.”
But Suggs is a spiritual person, and when it rained, he envisioned Ashley’s tears from heaven falling down on him. His addiction became another fight, another way to prove himself.
“My daughter always, even today, has been my inspiration to get my life together,” he said. “Even now, I want her to be looking down at me and feeling proud of her father.”
Therapy and counseling replaced boxing as the way Suggs worked to unpack the complexities of his childhoodrooted abandonment issues and parse the origins of his rage.
“All that suppressing burns up inside you, and boxing just became therapy,” he said. “It took all of the years of me going to counseling, treatment [and] urging myself to realize that.”
Chapman said it was important for Suggs to acknowledge the role of counseling.
“One of the things you don’t hear a lot from men — and particularly black men — is the vulnerability that you heard about today,” Chapman said. “Tony’s vocal support of therapy and counseling is something that ‘men’ don’t talk about, and so to hear somebody talk about that openly is, I think, a blessing to this community.”
The Rev. Dr. Tom Bailey, Suggs’ pastor at Victory Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Duke Street, has worked with the former boxer in counseling for years.
“I always knew there was something in him … and through counseling, a lot of that comes out,” Bailey said. “Even through all of the turmoil and dysfunction, there was something there that he could build on, and so that’s what I think kept him from destruction.”
Nowadays, as the former national No. 1 coaches basketball, raises his sons and
tells his story to anyone who will listen, Bailey said Suggs’ power comes from his relatability.
“So many of the young kids look up to him because they can relate to him,” Bailey said. “He’s walked in their shoes, he’s been in in their position, he’s lived where they live, he’s been through what they go through — and now they see he has overcome.”