Fifty years ago, a young, undefeated fighter danced into the Miami Convention Center and shook up the world.
The fresh upstart was facing an indestructible force – a boxer so feared that other fighters avoided him.
That night, 22-year-old Cassius Clay, a 7-1 underdog, captured the heavyweight championship of the world, stopping Sonny Liston in six rounds.
On Saturday, at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., another virtual unknown will be attempting to make history.
Cedric Agnew (26-0, 13 knockouts) is no Cassius Clay, but he’s undefeated and loaded with confidence. A lot of people in his hometown of Chicago believe Agnew can defeat unbeaten WBO light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev.
Agnew, 26, has boxed most of his life. He built an early reputation by capturing gold medals at the 2003 Sweden Cup, and 2004 and 2006 Chicago Golden Gloves.
But for his father, and a brand new gym located in the heart of Chicago, Agnew’s talent might have gone untapped.
“My brother and I had reached such a high level in amateur boxing in Chicago,” Agnew told RingTV.com. “When we tried to enter a tournament they’d ask what gym we represented. By us not being with a formal gym, they wouldn’t let us into these tournaments,” he said. “The Harvey Boxing Club was just opening at that time. My father had talked to the head trainer over there and we went over to the gym. That’s how it all started.”
The Harvey Boxing Club originated in an old vacant garage to give underprivileged young people somewhere to go and to stay out of trouble. Agnew had no problem adhering to the strict rules of the gym.
“There was discipline when I was going,” Agnew said. “At some gyms, parents drop their kids off. It wasn't like that at Harvey. If you went there after school, you had to make sure your homework was done before you could practice.
“If you were falling behind in school, you couldn’t fight in the tournaments. It was very much disciplined. They have positive people around. The atmosphere was great.”
Agnew values his time spent at the boxing club.
“I learned incredible things while I was there,” said Agnew. “The coaches and staff really took the time to work with me. I worked with some good amateurs. All the way round it was a great place to be.
“I’ve learned things at pretty much every where I’ve gone, but I was glad I ended up there.”
Agnew draws inspiration from remembering where he came from. He’s a grinder who has flown under the radar for years. Could a big name promoter have helped him? Probably, but Agnew is fine with the way things have turned out.
“None of these people were around when I started,” said Agnew, alluding to the more famous promotional companies. “Even with my record getting better and better, they still weren’t around. And then recently, they started coming around. It was a matter of; did I want to bother with them now? Or keep working and pushing. I kept working.
“I’ve always had to be a self-motivated person,” Agnew added. “I started boxing at eight. I was traveling across the world at the age of 13. Some of these tournaments you go to, they have a team coach. You’re not allowed to bring your own coach.
“Basically you’re there alone – you don’t really know any of these people. It can be lonely. So, you have to push yourself as much as you can.”
Agnew won’t be lonely in the ring on March 29 when he faces the aggression and power of Kovalev. The 30-year-old puncher from Chelyabinsk, Russia has knocked out 11 of his last 12 opponents. Kovalev was last seen in the ring demolishing former contender Ismayl Sillakh in the second round. Agnew has been keeping tabs on the defending champion for some time now. He has a pretty good idea what to expect.
“I think he’s a good fighter,” said Agnew. “But he’s basically a ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ kind of an opponent. He hits hard. I’ve seen quite a few of his fights. He’s looking to knockout everybody they put in front of him.”
Agnew believes his style will give Kovalev trouble.
“He punches well and sometimes real well,” said Agnew. “I’ve fought fighters who have great power. There are ways you fight these people. You have to adapt to any opponent. You have to have a game plan coming in – not just to win a percentage of the rounds, but to win all three minutes of every round.
“He’s coming to knock you out,” he said. “To avoid that, you have come in and fight with a tip-top game plan.”
Agnew’s game is the opposite of Kovalev's. He's all about speed and elusiveness, not knockouts.
How does he plan to stay out of the range of the heavy-handed bomber?
“There are a lot of things you can do to neutralize a power-puncher,” Agnew said. ”You can go to the body. You can use angles all day. Everybody knows that for a power puncher to punch hard – to generate that power, his feet have to be set. His feet can’t be set if you’re always giving him angles. He’s constantly looking for you.”
The heavy underdog feels that he has one obvious advantage, suggesting that of Clay in the ring so long ago.
“My brain. I’m a smart fighter,” said Agnew. “It’s got years and years of fighting. I’ve been polishing my talent and working on what I’ve been doing at a great level. I have a plan.”
Video by Bill Emes