Late on a Sunday morning in mid-November, Paul Reyes sat by the phone, fiddling nervously at the gold cross that hangs over his chest, and waited to see whether his call would be answered. It had been almost 24 hours since Donald Curry’s bail bond was posted; another three weeks since the police were called to the small apartment he shares with his sister in Fort Worth, but still the line was silent. For all the dutiful old trainer knew, the ghost of his champion was outside, lost, drifting in the streets.
After a few rings, the phone connected. Curry’s voice led Reyes out into Texas’s autumn sun until he reached a rundown motel that time had forgotten, the type which never moves out of the shadows, and for the next hour, the spirit of boxing royalty flickered again. It can be jarring to imagine how two of boxing’s icons became confined to that bleak room, reminiscing about the past, treading awkwardly around where it’s left the present. They first met in 1968, when a seven-year-old Curry walked into Reyes’s boxing gym with an ability that couldn’t be taught. From that moment on, they had set about conquering the world like father and son. Now, Curry wanted nothing more than to relive the night that dream came true.
On 6 December 1985, Curry obliterated Milton McCrory in just two rounds to become the undisputed welterweight champion. It made him the best boxer in the world and, for a while at least, he felt invincible. Curry can still recall almost every detail of the fight, right down to the devastating crunch of McCrory’s cheekbone on his knuckles, a left hook so fierce it can travel through time and still elicit gasps. But the distance between then and now has ravaged the memories since.
For the last two decades, Curry is suspected to have been suffering from CTE, a rare brain disorder caused by repeated head trauma. The symptoms often don’t emerge until middle age, starting perniciously before steadily seizing hold over every aspect of a person’s life. Often, it can seem as though Curry’s mind is still stuck in the ‘80s, presiding over a world that’s long abandoned him. Pride wouldn’t let him explain how he had become trapped in a cycle between bankruptcy and prison, but even then the words might get stuck in the back of his throat. The legacy of his career is one of damage rather than glory. It is hardly a life, let alone one befitting a champion.
“I practically raised Donald, but he’s not the same person, you know,” says Reyes. “It hurts to see him like that. It’s devastating. I believe boxing has let him down badly, not just him but a lot of fighters. All I can say is Donald needs help. I’m glad his son is trying to get it for him.”
Donovan Curry rarely used to tell people about his father. There was the teacher at high school who was awestruck; the manager at his first job who asked for an autograph, but aside from that it was more or less a secret. When he was three years old, his mother filed for divorce after Donald had a child with another woman and, as their marriage collapsed, Curry was indicted on a drug conspiracy charge in Detroit. Although he was eventually acquitted, the legal fees decimated the millions he’d earned in the ring and, in 1995, Curry was sentenced to six months in prison for failure to provide child-support payments.
Despite the distance between them, Donovan had always wanted to be close to his father. Growing up, he’d visit him at his aunt’s house on weekends, where he has vague memories of Donald reeling through some of his greatest hits: a gruelling 15-round decision against Marlon Starling; a vicious first-round knockout of Roger Stafford; and of course that defining triumph against McCrory. Once Donovan was in school, although Donald had no car and was living week-by-week on social security income, he made sure to watch his son’s basketball games. But pretty soon, a pattern started to prevail.
“My aunt would call and say your dad’s back in jail, something’s happened,” Donovan says. “The first time I was about twelve. He sent me a letter from Florida and it took me for a loop. I didn’t even know he was there. I used to get frustrated but, when it kept happening, I became hardened to the situation. My aunt would say something was wrong with him, that he was crazy, and they’d get into arguments and the police would be called. I couldn’t understand why he kept getting into trouble, I’d get upset and mad at him, but you still love him and want the best for him. He’s still my dad. He doesn’t mean anyone harm, but his mental state just wasn’t there.”
It wasn’t until Donovan was around 16 that he really noticed an acceleration in how his father’s mind was deteriorating. When they’d speak over the phone, Donald would sometimes ramble for hours on end, jerking from one tangent to the next without any logical train of thought. Donovan would repeat simple things like the name of his school or his girlfriend “five or six times”, only for the words to vanish into thin air. “The one thing he’d remember was my birthday,” Donovan says. “But anything else he’d forget.”
The darkness was slowly but surely devouring at the corners of Donald’s memory, robbing him of the details and emotions, and leaving only the souvenirs and slights of boxing untouched. When he was inducted into boxing’s hall of fame in 2019, Donovan spent hours writing what he hoped would be the perfect speech for his father. They flew together to Philadelphia, spending far longer in one another’s company than had become normal, and the intimacy revealed a bleaker truth. Donald was revered like a “rockstar” by those in attendance, but backstage he jogged to try and maintain a straight line before stumbling over his feet. In uncomfortable flashes, he’d seem to lose all sight of where they were or what day it was. “When he got up to make the speech, he was supposed to talk about his career, all that kind of stuff,” says Donovan. “He just went up onto the stage, said thank you, and then he walked straight off.
“Afterwards, I reached out to psychiatrists, but they didn’t understand. I even asked other boxers, but nobody could point me in the right direction. It was traumatic seeing him like that, knowing he couldn’t do anything for himself. It felt like boxing had hung him out to dry. I just thought how can someone be considered a great, a legend, and then be left to live like this?”
Throughout his childhood, Donovan sought to hide the debris as Donald’s life unravelled. No matter what happened, he would scour the fragments and try to put everything back in place, hoping, praying if the puzzle fit, the cycle might break. But a few weeks ago, when he heard Donald was back in prison after an argument with his sister escalated out of control, Donovan finally decided to ask for help. In a post on Twitter, he explained that his father effectively had nowhere left to live and that the toll of boxing on his brain was being exacerbated with each passing day. “It was the last hope,” he says. “If anything, I just wish I’d done it a long time ago.”
Tragedy had dominated Donald’s life long before the start of his own downward spiral. He grew up poor on the south side of Fort Worth with Bruce, his older brother by five years. Their father left before Donald’s memory formed and it wasn’t until several years later that he realised the man who’d filled the void wasn’t his birth father. But Donald was never described as an angry child. His mother, Hazel, referred to him as “the quiet one”.
The more talented of the two brothers, Donald became the rising star of the US amateur circuit, winning national championships from the age of 16. “He had a God-given talent,” says Reyes. “It was never hard to train Donald because he was so good. He could beat anybody. It wasn’t just kids, he was fighting and beating grown men from the armed forces.” Curry was denied the chance to compete at the Olympics after the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games and so he turned professional that same year. Even now, his record as an amateur remains remarkable, standing at 400 wins and just four losses, all before his 20th birthday.