Emanuel Augustus stands outside his fiancée’s apartment on dead-end Grant Street, his arm wrapped around a black Everlast punching bag as he tries to sum up his years in the ring.
“I’ve been in some incredible fights,” he says, sketching out his time in professional boxing as a stubborn but flamboyant fighter. It was a hardscrabble career in which he won fame and admiration but no lasting wealth.
For a kid who grew up bouncing between foster care homes and first learned to fight on the streets, his is, in part, the story of unlikely success.
But there’s also the nights he spent sleeping under bridges in Baton Rouge. That came after the repeated blows and ravages of age pushed him further to the fringes of the sport and away from the once-regular purses, the paydays that left him with tax debts but penniless.
And then there’s the bullet that caught him at the base of the skull in 2014 as he walked through the Mid City neighborhood where he’d been sleeping rough. He’d been carrying his boxing gloves home from the 14th Street gym where he’d started his career.
He can’t say much about the shooting — “I don’t know how it happened,” he says. “I don’t remember nothing” — but his slurred speech and unsteady balance testify to his hellacious past two years.
“Can you imagine me getting shot?” Augustus asks. “No one can ever say the life of Emanuel Augustus is boring, not by any stretch of the imagination.”
Then, as if by instinct, Augustus begins to punch the heavy bag as he talks, tentatively at first but gaining in speed and strength. Although he wobbles and staggers slightly on his feet, his fists strike with power, delivering combinations as his eyes squint in focus and the bag swings on its chain.
“This is all I know how to do,” Augustus says. “And I feel better when I train. That’s why this is out here: So I have something to hit.”
Without something to hit — without a structured, sanctioned place to unleash his aggression and anger — Augustus says he’d almost certainly have wound up in prison. By his 41st birthday, which he celebrated quietly with a handful of friends and relatives in January, he might have been dead — though even with boxing he’s come perilously close.
The latest tough knock was the decision of the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office to drop charges against Christopher Stills, who was accused of firing the bullet that passed through Augustus’ head and left him in a coma for two weeks, battling for his life.
Baton Rouge police said Stills, then 21 years old, was in an argument with his cousin as they drove down Louisiana Avenue. Stills then slammed on the brakes, stepped out of the car and fired off a few rounds, a report said. Though the shots were aimed at no one in particular, one struck Augustus, who was walking by.
Augustus says he doesn’t believe that version of events — the bullet was too well-placed to have been a stray, he says — but can’t prove it either way. His memory, hazy from years of hard punches to the head and damaged by the shooting, goes almost completely blank when it comes to that October evening.
When the only witness to the shooting, Stills’ younger cousin, died in June, the chance for a conviction in Augustus’ wounding likely died with him.
Prosecutors dropped charges last month after state District Judge Lou Daniels denied a continuance, though charges can be brought again if new evidence surfaces.
The possibility that charges can still be brought again doesn’t cheer Augustus much. “At least there’s hope for that,” his friend James Georgetown reminds him.
“Man, I’m so ... tired of hope,” Augustus replies.
Without any witnesses and with a victim unable to recall much, District Attorney Hillar Moore III admits it’s a long shot that the case will ever head back to court.
Is he lucky just to be alive? There’s no doubt in Augustus’ mind about that.
“I’m glad to still be here. I’m not ungrateful at all,” he says. “But ...”
For those who know Augustus, the circumstances of his shooting — wrong place, wrong time, the police said — are the latest in a long line of breaks that have never gone the boxer’s way. A highlight reel posted on YouTube of some of his greatest moments in the ring is titled “Boxing’s most cheated fighter.”
L.J. Morvant, who boxed with Augustus at the 14th Street gym and built a close friendship over the years with the fighter, said he felt physically nauseated when he first heard the charges against Stills were being dropped.
“I got something in my inbox, and I felt flush; I felt weak. It was true disbelief,” said Morvant. “I’m like, really, not again. This dude cannot catch a break. No justice for Emanuel — that is the story of his career. Poor decision after poor decision after poor decision going against him. There was never a poor decision that went in his favor.”
Born Emanuel Burton in Chicago, Augustus never knew his parents growing up. He spent most of his life bouncing between group homes in Baton Rouge. He first learned to box as a street fighter, someone ready to brawl at the slightest insult and with a determination and toughness that would serve him well in his pro career.
“I was an angry, angry person,” Augustus says. “My whole life, I was basically lied to, and I didn’t find out until my early 20s. All this time I was taken from my parents, done this to, done that to, taken from one group home to the next.”
In his late teens, shortly after getting out of his last group home, Augustus discovered organized boxing when he walked into the gym on 14th Street and met trainer Frank James.
“I was staying with my grandma and had to find something to do,” Augustus says. “I didn’t want to be a drug dealer or go back to jail. I had already been to jail already.”
He forged a close relationship with James, a staple of the Baton Rouge boxing scene who died in 2006 at the age of 47. As a young fighter, Augustus moved in with James’ family, spending long nights training in the garage.
“He was completely raw but he had the mental attitude,” said Frankie Caruso, a retired Baton Rouge policeman who coached for years at the 14th Street gym. “His mental way of looking at it was, ‘You’re not going to hurt me, and I’m going to beat you.’ Emanuel just wanted to fight: He didn’t care who he fought or where he fought.”
A light welterweight who was never well connected in the murky business of boxing, Augustus found himself relegated to working as what boxing insiders call a “gatekeeper” — a ferociously tough journeyman against whom to test up-and-coming younger fighters.
Ask anyone who followed Augustus during his fighting days and they’ll tell you about fights taken on extremely short notice, bouts against promising fighters in their hometowns, with unfavorable referees and questionable judges.
Georgetown, who became a boxing and mixed martial arts matchmaker following a brief professional fighting career, recalled repeatedly seeing Augustus outmatch fighters but still come out on the short end of judges’ decisions.
“He was fighting in their backyard, their gym with their judges. It was really hard to get a decision,” Caruso said. “Several times, Emanuel did so good and it was obvious he’d won the fights. Even the guy’s hometown crowd would boo because they knew that the guy didn’t win.”
A particularly notorious decision against Augustus followed a 10-round bout in 2004 with Courtney Burton in Michigan. It led to calls for an official investigation and left boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas, who was calling the fight for ESPN, outraged.
“He won this damn fight; this is a disgrace!” screamed Atlas as he harangued a Michigan boxing official on national TV. “This is what’s wrong with boxing!”
And even when a big breakthrough seemed just around the corner, something seemed to hold him back.
Augustus’ 2001 fight against Ward, a brutal 10-round slugfest he’d taken on two weeks’ notice, was named by both The Ring magazine and ESPN as their fight of the year. Judges made a unanimous, though close, decision in favor of Ward, launching the boxer who later would become the subject of the movie “The Fighter” toward big-purse fights and a legendary three-fight series with Arturo Gatti.
Mayweather, perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of his generation, has consistently called Augustus the toughest fighter he’s ever faced. But with a slew of tough losses on his record and without friends in high places, the big opportunities never came Augustus’ way.
“He never had anyone looking out for him,” said Ron Katz, a matchmaker who set up a number of fights for Augustus during the height of his career. “Emanuel could fight, but he was ‘have gloves, will travel.’ ”
“He fought as tough of a schedule as anyone could fight,” said Al Bernstein, a sportscaster and Hall of Fame boxing analyst who now calls fights for Showtime. “If you had to put it in a succinct way, I’d say he’s somebody who was much better than that record would indicate, somebody that but for a few breaks here and there would’ve had a much more overall successful career. I think most people in boxing certainly have a great deal of respect for his toughness, ability and knowledge of the sport.”
Augustus kept toiling away. His goofy antics in the ring — where he’d throw unconventional combinations and then dance away from his opponent — earned him the nickname “The Drunken Master” and a loyal following among fight fans.
But despite the procession of televised fights and entertaining bouts with some of the biggest stars, the money never poured in. Sean Lynn, a friend of Augustus who is making a documentary about his career, estimates Augustus’ biggest single payday at maybe $30,000 or $40,000 — a sizable check but nothing compared with the earnings of some other fighters.
The end — though not his last fight — came during a stint fighting in Australia. Augustus took an offer to fight up a weight class against then-24-year-old Nigerian welterweight Wale Omotoso.
“I didn’t take into account that I’d moved up in weight — I didn’t have to and I damn sure shouldn’t have, but I did,” Augustus says. “I had this superman mentality because I was from America. I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what weight I’m at because these guys, they don’t know nothing about boxing. I’ll go over and teach these guys some things, make good money and I’ll get my life back on track and move on.’ The exact opposite happened. They showed me.”
The shoe dropped in the final round when Omotoso, who’d been jabbing with his left throughout the fight, connected with a big right hook that sent Augustus staggering.
“He lowered the boom, and that’s all she wrote,” Augustus says. “When he finally did use that right hand, all it took was one time.”
The blow broke Augustus’ orbital bone and almost certainly gave him a concussion that never fully healed, Morvant said. By the time he got back to the United States, his eyes were pointing in different directions and his skills were much diminished. Though he fought several more professional fights, he was never the same.
“That was the punch that changed everything,” Morvant said. “That right hand really did something.”
“About a year after his last fight, he called and wanted to fight, and I gave him hell,” Katz said. “When time comes, it comes.”
By the time Augustus got back to Baton Rouge a few years ago — he isn’t quite sure when — most of his possessions were gone and he struggled to find work outside the ring. A fiercely independent, proud person, Augustus also didn’t call on friends for help and wound up living in shelters on the street.
“The purses were all gone,” Augustus says. “Somebody else got them, not me. The only thing I got were like trickles.”
Though he now struggles with his balance and memory and occasionally gets dizzy walking around the house, he insists he’s training for a comeback and bristles at the suggestion he ever retired from boxing.
A set of dumbbells sit on the counter of at his fiancée’s place, and he suddenly, without prompting, demonstrates some of the exercises he’s been using to drill his body back into shape.
“I don’t have nothing else to do. All I know is boxing,” Augustus says. “I never forgot how to box. I got shot, but I still remember exercises; I remember how to make my body stronger.”
It’s a bit of hope that keeps Augustus going. But asked about his chances of a comeback a few days later, he’s much more resigned.
“No matter how bad I want to get back in the ring and fight, who the hell is going to OK it?” Augustus says. “So now, how am I supposed to make money? What kind of life am I supposed to live? What kind of life is this, being handicapped on the slick?
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.