Detroit takes boxing’s center stage this weekend, as Showtime Championship Boxing lands in town Saturday with resident Cornelius Bundrage in the starring role.
But in the periphery, both on the network and in his hometown, will be Bundrage’s cousin Willie Fortune. The late-blooming middleweight prospect will be a part of the ShoBox telecast the previous night in Cabazon, Calif., taking on Tureano Johnson.
“We talked and got a couple game plans and stuff like that for one another, giving each other advice. We’re kind of excited to be fighting pretty much back to back,” Fortune (15-0, 7 knockouts) told RingTV.com. “I wish I could have fought there with the rest of the locals, though.”
The periphery is a familiar location for the 31-year-old fighter. Despite having a similar record and fighting in a reasonably similar weight class as his cousin and fellow up-and-comers Tony Harrison, Domonique Dolton and J’Leon Love, Fortune has never been talked about in the same glowing manner in the boxing community.
In fact, unless you were one of the few who ordered the infamous Evander Holyfield-Sherman Williams pay-per-view (on which he defeated Donatas Bonduravas), or have been savvy enough to catch word of the mid-week Motor City Casino shows that seldom register on BoxRec, you may have no idea who Fortune is at all.
“I’m the quiet guy. I don’t mind being quiet. When it’s time to fight, I’ll fight. I have so many other things that I venture into. I just opened a gym, I try to give back to my community, and do other things. I’m very proud of the choices I’ve made and the route that I’ve taken. Recognition comes,” said Fortune, who recently opened JABS Gym in nearby Birmingham, Mich.
Unbeknownst to most, that route started 60 pounds ago.
In 2006, a 220-pound Fortune lost a good job at Advanced Logistics when the company downsized and moved to Ohio. Employees were given the option of taking a pay cut and a new position in another state, or simply being laid off. Fortune decided it was not financially feasible to move.
Unemployed and overweight, he looked in the mirror one morning and decided he wanted to get in shape. Having grown up in a family of fighters—including his father and uncle—he was well-versed in the sport, and had been around high-quality pros all his life. Surely one of them could help him shed a few pounds.
Fortune headed to the Adam Butzel Recreation Center with Greg Coverson, a former fringe contender and trainer of former IBF featherweight titleholder Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson. Quickly the sport became more than a cardio session, but a full-time commitment as an amateur. Before long he was four shirt sizes smaller.
In that respect, it’s forgivable if he isn’t getting recognized.
“I’m kind of glad that I got a later start in boxing, because it didn’t get burned out of me. I lived that life where people would lack discipline because they didn’t do it. I kinda had already done it. I used to go out and party and drink and eat late at night,” said Fortune. “That’s the thing that gets most fighters. The curiosity, the women. You always think you’re missing something. I know there’s not a lot to it. It’s kinda that been there, done that.”
Fortune’s career has fittingly gone the way of Coverson’s, and his former charge Johnson’s. Both solid fighters—in the case of Johnson, a dominant force in the featherweight division—who silently plied their craft in the shadows of better publicized fighters. In his 42 amateur fights, he collected regional Golden Gloves titles, but in his opinion dropped ‘robbery’ decisions to younger opponents with perceived higher ceilings than a 25-year old amateur. Now as a pro, he and Coverson have independently guided his career slowly but surely on haphazard Michigan events, while his contemporaries have gone on to sign contracts and fight abroad.
“I don’t want to be a hype fighter. I want to be respected for my skills and what I accomplish, and not built on other things. Me, I’m self motivated. In my eyes, whether the world knows me or I’m just what people would consider a local fighter, I’m still the one who has to fight. So I’m gonna give it my all whether there’s one person there or a thousand people. I’m not gonna cheat the sport,” said Fortune.
His audience will be closer to the latter when he fights on Friday night. As a result, he’ll have the opportunity to garner recognition by beating the undefeated Bahamian, Johnson (13-0, 10 KOs), who has recently taken to YouTube comments sections on Fortune’s fight videos to downplay the difficulty of the fight ahead.
“The first thing I always do is go out and try to get my respect,” said Fortune. “All I can say is, he won’t have to look for me, I’ll tell you that much.”
Immediately after his fight, he’ll catch a red-eye flight out of California directly to Detroit, where he’ll be in the audience to watch his cousin and friends, happily blending in as usual.
Photos / Willie Fortune, Craig Bennett-SHOWTIME