By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) — Darmani Rock mulls over the question and there’s a moment’s hesitation. Do we go there? Do we evoke greatness? Then the 18-year-old nods, he can take the pressure—because it’s a mere trickle now in comparison to what it promises to be if Rock keeps winning.
“Go ahead, mention him and me in the same sentence,” he says.
Raised on the hardcore streets of Germantown, so reluctant to throw a punch that he was the object of ridicule as a kid, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Rock has all the components to possibly represent the United States at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Some in the boxing world say he’s another Riddick Bowe, and some others that saw him win a gold medal at the prestigious 2014 Youth World Championships in Bulgaria on April 24, beating Germany’s Peter Kadiru by a 2-1 decision, say his feet are as nimble and hands as fast as a young Muhammad Ali—the “him” that Rock doesn’t mind being mentioned with.
“That’s all we’ve heard [about Rock’s performance in Bulgaria],” said Junior Walker, Rock’s trainer. “Darmani has everything it takes. He has that will to win. He digs down and he comes out victorious. He can be a superstar in this game, and the way he moves, his natural jab, all his tools, we hear it all the time people comparing him at this age to Muhammad Ali, and the way he moved and jabbed. He already separates himself from his opponents because he can punch.”
That wasn’t always so.
Wayne McLeod, Rock’s father, recounts the time he broke up a street corner fight between Darmani, then 12, and a kid who said was 13 but who was actually 15. McLeod asked his son if he wanted to continue. Rock said yes, then he got plowed—then wanted no parts of fighting again.
“You lose a fight like that on the streets, kids make fun of you; it was embarrassing,” Rock recalled. “I vowed that was never going to happen to me again. I started going to the gym; I started boxing. The teasing didn’t last very long after that.”
“Tight,” Rock’s nickname because of how he gripped his father’s shirt as a baby, has the physical makeup—and the personality—to go far. He wears an engaging smile, is extremely approachable, almost like an overgrown teddy bear.
That persona changes once he gets into the ring.
“I had a whole lot of doubts when I started this; I just didn’t know how good I could be,” Rock said. “It took some time to like boxing. I lost the first two fights I ever had. Getting robbed by judges was frustrating. My second fight, at Shuler’s Gym, I was fighting this kid, Isaiah Gibson. He beat me the first time we fought—I beat him the second time and thought I’d have my arm raised.”
The ref raised Gibson’s.
Rock cried right there in the middle of the ring like someone stole his candy.
What changed everything was the drive home.
“My father showed me a video of the fight and you can hear in the background all the people telling my dad, ‘Your boy won that fight,’” Rock remembered. “After that, I didn’t want to quit. My goal has always been to get better and better.”
To the point of turning into a major surprise.
Prior to the Youth Worlds, Rock had only two international bouts. He got to the world championship by shutting out 2013 USA Boxing youth national champion John Luna (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 3-0, in the U.S. Youth Championships in January.
Since winning the Youth Worlds, McLeod has gotten six-figure offers from numerous promoters for his son. And the only one that could deter Rock, it seems right now, is Rock himself. Though he may have some Bowe and Ali in him, he also wears the promise of a Buster Douglas, who proved when he was motivated and in shape could beat the best on the world (who could forget Mike Tyson in Tokyo).
Douglas’ issue was himself, sometimes wandering to play basketball when he should have been training as a budding pro.
That could be Darmani.
“There is still a tug-of-war with getting him to the gym, but it was far greater when he was younger than it is now,” McLeod said. “The average kid will break their neck to get to the gym. Tight won’t break anything.
“There were times when I’d have a gym bag waiting for him to walk in the door, and he’d barely get in. He got an education at the Olympic Training Center. He got used to waking up knowing he had to work out. He’s a kid who’s starting to come around—especially the last two or three months. He’s beginning to see where boxing can take him.”
Possibly to Olympic gold and maybe some day in that Ali realm.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.