Long's life rivals Tyson's in uniqueness

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.

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 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 Foil III: Donnie Long
Donnie Long, even though he doesn't follow boxing anymore, is familiar with the sordid nature of Mike Tyson.

Long knows about the rape conviction and the numerous allegations of similar incidents. He is aware of the assaults, the ear-biting incident, the alleged marijuana usage, and on and on and on.

Long, the ninth opponent of Kid Dynamite's pro career, has faith Tyson can be rehabilitated despite zero supporting evidence over the years.

Stranger things have happened.

Long knows this because his life story might be the strangest of them all. If this can be possible, anything is.

The convicted murderer and drug trafficker, who used to wear a dog collar at Akron's North High and once stabbed a classmate in the schoolyard, now is the associate minister at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Akron, Ohio.

And five years ago, after his first week at Mount Lebanon, the former boxer was reunited with a woman he hadn't seen in decades. A month later, he married her – while on parole for murdering her brother.

Donnie and Margaret Long never really dated and never were engaged. One afternoon, they were downtown and impulsively walked into the courthouse, where a judge, who had no idea he might be an accessory to a parole violation, married them.

"I asked her 'What will your family think?'" the 48-year-old Long recalled. "And she said 'I'll do what I want to do!' We said we better not tell everybody. We waited a couple weeks because we didn't want anybody to have a heart attack."

Long was only 18 years old when he killed Jeffrie Boyd during an altercation in an Akron pool joint in 1975. Long claimed self-defense, that he was cornered and was only trying to fire a warning shot when the bullet struck Boyd dead.

"My mother had some of the worst kids in Akron," Long said. "I was probably every bit of Jason, Chucky and Freddy Krueger all rolled into one."

Long's sentence was 15 years to life, but a higher court released him in 1981 on grounds his trial was unconstitutional. He began his boxing career in earnest that year and won his first dozen fights before losing to James Broad. "The Master of Disaster" rebounded in his next appearance, beating Dino Dennis on national TV.

But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision again and sent Long back to prison in 1984. He said he got a second chance to make good in the ring when he was released in 1985.

Long won his first two bouts and received a $5,000 invitation to fight Tyson in Atlantic City in November 1985.

"I remember going to the fight, and I remember waking up in the hospital," Long said. "As far as the actual fight, I can't tell you a single thing."

Tyson floored Long three times in 88 seconds.

"After I fought Mike Tyson, my whole career went down the drain," Long said. "I went from thinking I was somebody great to being lost in the wilderness. I lost my faith in myself. I thought I was a loser and a failure again. I went back to the streets and the destruction."

He fought seven more times after the Tyson defeat, winning only once and taking lumps against Francesco Damiani, Renaldo Snipes and Buster Douglas. Long retired with a 16-10 mark.

Long also had a side job pushing drugs. He was charged with five counts of drug trafficking in 1988 and went on the lam for five years. He hid in Alabama for a while, but eventually decided to take control of his life and turn himself in to police.

The man who used to wear a dog collar to school even surprised himself when recounting his life story to a reporter for the first time. He vowed all the old memories would be locked away at the end of the phone call. There won't be any more interviews about boxing.

Then Long imparted one last thought: "Through boxing, I learned to prepare for the battle of life. I can withstand against any storm. God knows how to put the puzzle together."

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