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Saturday, June 11, 2005
Nelson living in a hut in Jamaica

By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com

They go by many labels. The polite terms are trial horses, stepping-stones, gatekeepers, B sides. Others would dare to call them palookas, bums, stiffs, pugs, cadavers, cannon fodder – though maybe not to their faces.

These are the sort of men, practically anonymous to all but the staunchest fight fans, who compose the early portion of every champion's career. They build up confidence. They build up a record. And then when their usefulness has been exhausted, they usually fade away.

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Mike Tyson had the most prominent career launch of any non-Olympic fighter. The buzz generated by his early fights – the relentlessness, the explosive power, the don't-blink knockouts – made Kid Dynamite a crossover sensation.

Even so, a quick glance at those early bouts will conjure up memories of … well, not much. Most of the names won't register.

Who are these guys? Where are they now?

Some fighters, like Tyson's first professional foe, Hector Mercedes, are tough to locate. Some, like Mitch "Blood" Green, are easier. Joe Ribalta won't do interviews without getting paid. Reggie Gross was imprisoned on murder charges.

Tyson will try to patch up his sagging career against Kevin McBride on Saturday night in Washington. This will mark Tyson's first appearance since losing to Danny Williams last summer.

So the time seems fitting – since McBride is about the same caliber of fighter upon which a 19-year-old Tyson feasted regularly back in the day – to track down some of those men who gamely stepped into the ring to face a skyrocketing phenom and helped create a legend.

Tyson Foils V: Conroy Nelson

Conroy Nelson guessed he's only about four pounds heavier than the night he fought Mike Tyson two decades ago. The cheerful 6-foot-6 Jamaican, however, isn't sure because he certainly doesn't own a scale and he can't afford to see a doctor.

"I need help, but nobody is around when the fun stops," Nelson said. "I can't even purchase a prescription. It's money I don't have. Right now I'm just in Jamaica all alone, trying to make a go of it."

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Tyson's 13th professional foe lives alone in a hut he constructed himself in St. Mary, near the chic resort town of Ocho Rios. The frame is made of bamboo, the roof of zinc. The floor is dirt. No plumbing. No electricity. No windowpanes.

Nelson has no income aside from the tomatoes, corn, bananas, mangoes and sugar cane he grows and sells to neighbors and friends. He said he eats only "what I catch and what I dig." He doesn't own a car. He barely can afford the occasional $10 U.S. fee for minutes on his cell phone.

He retired in 1998 with a record of 21-24-2 and 13 knockouts. He fought Trevor Berbick, Razor Ruddock, Alex Stewart, Bert Cooper, Herbie Hide and Riddick Bowe, losing to them all. Nelson also made some scratch playing bit roles in a few movies.

Now he has virtually nothing, alleging his former handlers "took me for a ride and had a good time with my money." He's desperate for an honest manager or a promoter to give him a couple fights at the purported age of 44.

"I'm down and out," said Nelson, who despite his destitution has one of those personalities so distinct you can almost hear him smiling through the phone. "People forget. I'm just trying to come out of the bush and get a little money."

Nelson guessed he made about $5,000 to face a relatively unknown Tyson in November 1985. Tyson recorded a second-round technical knockout for his 13th victory. It was his first bout in seven outings that lasted longer than 1:28.

"When I fought Mike Tyson it was on a week's notice," Nelson said. "We set up training camp in a car garage, set up a couple heavy bags. I wasn't totally ready to fight, but the money was there.

"At the time, I said to myself "I'lll go in there and box him. He's a shorter guy.' Usually my jab is pretty good, but the way that he avoided the jab ruined the plan I had for him. He set the pace for himself. He ducked underneath it and came up with a body shot, a left hook. Then it was bam, bam, bam! I was on the ropes, and he broke my nose. The referee came over and my eyes were watering. I wanted to continue, but I couldn't see."

Nelson revealed last week something he insisted he never told anyone outside of his family, not even his own handlers. He said he had been out of the ring for the 14 months prior to the Tyson fight because he had been diagnosed with skin cancer on his right hand, and three inches of skin had been taken off his hip for the graft.

His history of cancer frightens him. He noted he hasn't been to a doctor in years because he said Jamaica's health care is not offered to the indigent like it is in the U.S.

"Trevor Berbick is down here and he's looking to make a comeback," Nelson said. "He's over 50 years old, and if I can talk to him and say 'Let's get it on!' I would come out of retirement. I'm broke. I need a fight. Bro, I think I got one more kick left."

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.