A gravel road splits an expansive tract of sod from a soybean field and runs past the isolated boxing gym, before dead-ending into pinewoods and a rising mist, as evening sets in.
It’s humid for October and hot. There’s no air-conditioning in the gym, and the thin, sweat-stained walls with exposed insulation trap the heat and moisture.
Sunset is the loneliest hour for Marko Bailey as he starts his twilight walk. Done with training, the young Durham fighter, 5-0 as a pro, has nothing to do but think about how he packed up his life and moved three hours away to a 535-person town to put it all on the line.
He quit his jobs and left his 1- and 2-year-old daughters with their mother. Now, his sole income comes from small sponsorships, like an accident attorney and a used car lot, which barely cover his only expenses of three meals a day and child support.
But, Marko “The Bull City Bully” Bailey, 22, has caught the eye of renowned boxing trainer Don Turner.
That means the East Durham streets may have produced a “real” fighter – a serious fighter, with potential to bloody others for serious money – for the very first time.
In Durham, where I’m from, there are a lot of bad things that go on.
Marko “The Bull City Bully” Bailey
Turner, 78, has trained over 20 world champions. He was the principal trainer and cornerman for Evander Holyfield when he defeated Mike Tyson, and again, for the rematch, when Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s ear.
“He has the potential to be the best fighter I’ve ever worked with,” Turner said of Bailey, tapping the side of his head.
“He could be a world champ, if he can get this right.”
‘Ain’t no good fighters’
Last spring, a local fight promoter phoned Turner to tell him about a good-looking prospect in Durham.
“Yeah,” Turner said. “Right.”
The elderly trainer crosses his arms and shakes his head just remembering it.
“Durham. A fighter? … Mhmm,” he dismissed the notion.
“There ain’t no good fighters in Durham. No real fighters in all North Carolina,” Turner said. “You take these guys to Jersey, New York, Philly. Get the s--- beat out of them, man.”
It took someone with substantial boxing world connections to turn Turner’s ear.
Someone like Michelle “Raging Babe” Rosado, who’s backed by International Boxing Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz – a man who breaks conversation to say things like, “Excuse me, I’ve got to take this. It’s a good friend. Don King.”
Rosado is trying to jump start boxing expositions in Durham.
“The Raging Babe called and wanted me to take a look,” Turner said. So, he relented.
Bailey made the three-hour drive to Turner’s camp, changed into shorts and ducked inside ring ropes. He bobbed. He punched. And Turner called the Raging Babe back.
“What do you think?” she said.
“He can fight,” Turner said. “He can fight.”
The kid and an old man in a soybean field
One wouldn’t call Turner sweet-tempered.
His voice has gristle, and he answers questions by posing his own.
“It’s called Don Turner’s Boxing Camp,” he said. “What? You too busy to read the sign out by the road?”
Turner retired from his own short-lived professional boxing career in 1967 and has trained fighters since.
Holyfield’s victory over Tyson in 1996 was considered the biggest upset of that year, and the World Boxing Association named Turner the 1996 Trainer Of The Year. Now, he said, finances don’t concern him.
Besides Holyfield, Turner has trained former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev and he originally built the Arapahoe training camp in the late-’90s for Michael Grant, who Turner considered a potential contender for a heavyweight title shot.
“It didn’t work out between us,” Turner said of a later split with Grant.
As it turned out, Turner was right. An undefeated Grant would challenge, but fail, to beat Lennox Lewis for Lewis’ three heavyweight titles in 2000.
When the bell rings, they got to change their whole personality.
Turner believes fighters should be single-minded.
“If you doing something where you can get hurt doing it, why wouldn’t you want to put everything into it?” he said.
The remote property surrounded by crops and nature’s silence fit his philosophy – no distractions – as the perfect place to build a gym.
He bought the small house, added a gym and ring, and a dormitory with a half-dozen small, windowless rooms to house fighters.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve had some tough days,” Bailey said. “I miss my kids; I miss my children. I miss out on a lot of memories.”
Bailey has lived in one those rooms for over a month, training every day.
Other kids used to tease Bailey about his size.
He got into his first fight stepping off a Durham School of the Arts school bus in sixth grade.
“Things went south real bad. He was a lot bigger, but, I tussled with him,” Bailey said. “I don’t remember if we got suspended from school.”
Bailey fights as a lightweight under 135 pounds, standing at 5 feet, 7 inches.
He grew up on North Goley Street in what was the Few Gardens community off East Main Street before a city revitalization project demolished it.
“In Durham, where I’m from, there are a lot of bad things that go on,” Bailey said.
He enrolled at Southern High School, then transferred to Northern High, where he wrestled and graduated in 2012.
He’s been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession and for carrying a concealed gun without a license.
Bailey believes Turner’s training is his way to a better life.
“Coach is old school,” Bailey said of Turner. “His training techniques, a lot of people don’t use anymore.”
Turner won’t let Bailey run more than three miles a day, opposed to most boxers’ six to 10.
“Fighters need rope work, shadow boxing and calisthenics,” Turner said. “That’s it.”
Bailey spars for \an unusually minimal three times a week for three, three-minute rounds and never hits mitts.
“Mitts is something somebody created to give somebody else a job,” Turner said. “But fighters like ’em cause they can rest … makes them feel good, but they ain’t done nothing, man.”
Turner doesn’t want his fighters to lift weights.
“You heard of Joe Louis?” Turner said. “Never lifted one weight.”
Turner rarely uses a speed bag when training, because boxers hit the bags with the side of their fists. “You hit a guy that way?” he said.
But, Bailey spends hours every week uppercutting, throwing quick crosses and thousands of jabs into punching bag skins. One step for every punch, coordination is paramount. He’s not allowed to throw two punches in row without replanting his feet, but he punches fast.
Punch, step, punch, step, day-in, day-out.
“Harder,” Turner yells.
Sweat suctions yellow, knee-high socks to his ankles.
“Pick your foot up! Turn. Turn that foot right,” Turner coaches. A timed buzzer sirens.
A fatigued Bailey slumps on his slow walk toward water bottles.
“Spit,” Turner commands.
Bailey swishes and spits in an old black spit-bucket sitting slimy at the foot of the ring.
Does he got ‘It?’
“He’s the first kid in a long time, that I’ve seen with everything,” Turner said. “But I don’t know if he wants to fight or not. ... But I don’t know, if he wants to fight.”
Bailey possesses a quick-footed athleticism, but Turner says every good fighter has “something” else inside them. He won’t give up the “something” else.
Is it a mentality?
Turner stays silent.
A specific kind of drive?
Turner doesn’t say a word.
An edge? A chip on the shoulder. A need to hurt somebody real bad; a need to prove something to themselves. Or maybe, somebody beat on them and it’s that face they aim for.
“Yeah,” Turner said. “They got to be mean. They – got to be, mean.
“When the bell rings, they got to change their whole personality,” he added.
The seasoned cornerman lowered his voice and answered with a soft smile on his face saying, “A killer.”
Turner says if Bailey wants to be a great fighter, if he wants it bad enough to be mean enough, then he his first step would be to beat Steve “The Answer” Massey – “run through him” – for the North Carolina Lightweight Championship Thursday night in the Durham Armory downtown.
But Turner insists he doesn’t talk to Bailey about the kid’s personal life. At night, after they’ve eaten their dinners, the two sit on the couch in Turner’s living room watching TV. Bailey wears flip-flops. ESPN is on.