I saw someone running down Rockville Pike the other day. It wasn’t some secretary trying to run off the office pastry. It wasn’t a beanpole high school cross country kid practicing for his next meet.
It was a bulldog. It was a fighter.
It was Joppy.
William Joppy, the former middleweight champion of the world, was in training, even at the age of 43, even though he officially retired from the ring more than two years ago. He was training for a new challenge — the New York Marathon.
“I was working at the Rockville Champion Boxing gym when someone I was training was a marathon runner and he said I should try the New York City Marathon,” he said. “I thought I would love that challenge. So I started training.
“I loved roadwork as a fighter,” said Joppy, a Washington, D.C., native. “It was always like a high for me.”
But roadwork boxing is different from marathon training. He would run 4 miles when training for fights. Now he runs up to 17 miles some days, preparing for his new challenge — becoming a marathoner.
He was always a quick study.
Joppy’s rise to world champion was remarkable. He didn’t start boxing as an amateur until the age of 20, when much of his competition had already fought many times — some several hundred — and were on their way to their professional career.
Five years later, Joppy became the World Boxing Association middleweight championship at 25 by stopping title holder Shinji Takehara in nine rounds in Japan. To take the title in Takehara’s home country was an impressive victory, let alone going from his first amateur fight to world champion in five years.
“I was nervous,” he recalled. “But I remember thinking, I traveled 20 hours to get there, and I couldn’t come back with a loss. That was the greatest moment of my career.”
Joppy was part of a great era of boxing in Washington in the 1990s, with five world champions — Joppy; Keith Holmes, the World Boxing Council middleweight title holder; Simon Brown, the International Boxing Federation and WBC welterweight champion; Maurice Blocker, also a WBC welterweight world champion; Sharmba Mitchell, the WBA and IBF 140-pound world champion, and Mark Johnson, the IBF flyweight and junior bantamweight world champion. Derrell Coley, Andrew Council, Reggie Green and Darryl Tyson were all top contenders who fought in title bouts.
The undefeated Joppy successfully defended his WBA middleweight title twice before breaking his right hand in the third round of a defense against Julio Cesar Green at Madison Square Garden in August 1997, the first loss of his career. He won back the belt by defeating Green in a rematch in January 1998.
Joppy solidified his hold on the middleweight division with five straight successful title defenses but stepped up significantly in class when he faced former welterweight champion Felix Trinidad in May 2001 as part of Don King’s middleweight championship tournament.
He took a brutal beating from Trinidad before the fight was stopped after five rounds. It turned out that in the next Trinidad fight, Bernard Hopkins exposed Trinidad for illegally having his hands wrapped, making it seem as if they were cement-like with power.
“I remember thinking that dude could crack,” Joppy said. “But it turned out they were taping his hands to make them like cement.”
Joppy was not the same after that fight, but stayed in the ring for 10 more years. He said he made some mistakes along the way.
“I started getting hit,” he said. “I was messing around with alcohol, messing around with women, and surrounded myself with the wrong people. That’s what I tell kids now, don’t make the same mistakes I made.”
He now works as a boxing instructor at the Rockville gym. He also has started a non-profit organization called Breakfast with Boxers, where he and other former fighters visit area homeless shelters to put on boxing exhibitions.
And he has devoted his run in the New York City marathon to raising money for kids. He is raising money through Team for Kids — volunteers who raise funds for critical services provided by New York Road Runners Youth Programs. These programs combat childhood obesity and empower youth development via running and character-building programs in low-income schools and community centers in New York City, throughout the country, and in Africa.
“I love goals, and this make this goal of mine something special,” Joppy said. “Running in the New York City marathon, and helping kids. Still fighting.”
If you want to donate to Joppy’s run, click here by Thursday, Oct. 3.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com