Life can knock you down.
It’s a cliché, but a true one that has been trivialized by the comforts of modern living. Stepping in an unseen puddle, losing a button on a favorite shirt or, God-forbid, no access to Wi-Fi all qualify to be voted as a metaphorical knockdown in our cozy existence. For former amateur boxer Anthony “Da Beast” Suggs, however, life doled out its sneakiest of jabs and heaviest of hooks that put him on the canvas in his youth. It was only with the wisdom that comes with age was he finally able to pick himself up, go the distance and transform his life into one of meaning rather than missed opportunities.
Today, the Tony Suggs most people meet is a hardworking employee at Koons Ford Falls Church near Seven Corners, a motivational speaker, author and devout Christian. He’s even the subject of a new documentary, “Out of the Ring, Still in the Fight,” which will be screened at the Alexandria Black History Museum next week. In his former life, he was natural talent in the ring who was driven to make his way out of a chaotic upbringing. And that destiny appeared all but assured until a tragedy derailed his promise.
“Boxing allowed me to punch my way to being the number-one ranked amateur in the country, number-four ranked amateur in the world and the ‘Man to Beat’ for the 1988 Olympics,” Suggs told the News-Press, reflecting on the moment that changed his fate forever. “It was the night before I would fight the rubber match for U.S. Olympic Festival Gold Medal and [got the news that] my daughter died in the wee hours of the morning. I got mad with God, mad with the world because I felt like I had already been through so much.”
His daughter, Ashley, died of SIDS at only seven months old. Her passing was the final shred of leeway Suggs had for a life that was characterized by uncertainty for just 21 years on Earth.
As a child, Suggs witnessed his parents’ hostile relationship and felt the ripple effect of their separation when left in the custody of his father. While Suggs’ father was off womanizing and dealing drugs, he was at home raising his brother on an empty stomach with spotty utilities. Maybe most intense was the shame Suggs felt from living such a piecemeal life. He put pressure on himself to keep it a secret, worrying he was the only person facing hardship and wouldn’t receive any understanding from those around him.
Despite that, Suggs was a self-described daddy’s boy as a kid. He revered his father and used his boxing lessons, coupled with Suggs’ big fists and inherent power, to make a himself into a formidable contender inside the ropes.
Suggs would go on to win his first 20 matches by knockout as an amateur. Five Golden Glove and four USA Amateur Boxing Federation titles later, along with a bevy of other accolades, had outlined a guarantee of a bright future for him. Though when news of Ashley’s death reached Suggs, something popped. He felt he had already fulfilled the raw deal of his youth. When the cruelty of life reared its head right as Suggs was on the precipice of his big break, it toppled him.
“I wasted my prime years in and out of jail,” Suggs continued, recounting the five-year period between 1987-92 when he was addicted to crack and later became a dealer himself. “I knew it, too, but just like drug addiction that lifestyle is addicting as well. The money, cars and girls, having people think I was making it from boxing but I really wasn’t. Trying to be something I’m not.”
By the time he was 28 the smoke had lifted and Suggs wanted to turn his life around. He asked God to help him climb out of the hole he dug for himself, and in return he would make sure that no young person would be tempted by the same path that he took. Before embarking on that journey wholeheartedly Suggs did attempt a comeback in boxing, but realized that his hiatus thwarted any chance at a competitive return and caused him to hang up the gloves for good in 2001.
That’s when he committed himself to being a motivational speaker. He passes on his message of resilience to a variety of community and institutional settings: drug awareness and prevention programs throughout the Washington, D.C. metro area schools, youth detention centers and county jails, community recreational centers, churches and the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria are a few of his main landing spots. Each time he presents, and sometimes, even when he’s not, he can feel the positive vibes audiences take from his experience.
“It touches my heart when my story has some sort of impact on somebody,” Suggs added. “I was at a party and this young lady came up to me and thanked me for writing my book. She told me she didn’t know how I had the heart to talk about it because she would’ve taken hers to her grave, and so many people feel like that. But when you carry that baggage it weighs on you, and that’s what keeps you getting high — to suppress those feelings.”
Suggs’ autobiography, Da Beast Within, Still the Champ, has brought him a slice of local fame as copies of the book are distributed to juvenile detention centers. It’s prompted a few streetside stoppages where residents will recognize him and want to chat about the inspiration they received from the text. And even though Suggs himself isn’t a gifted writer, he was blessed with the right amount of help and the fortitude he learned from boxing to help accomplish the feat.
When reflecting on his lowest point, Suggs is hesitant to say that he hasn’t messed up his life. He knows he’s helped change people’s lives for the better, but also knew of his potential in the ring and the chance he wasted. Still, he says his greatest pursuit now is achieving peace with God, and that’s one he aims to stick out until the final bell rings. Smart money would give him a fighter’s chance.
“Out of the Ring, Still in the Fight” will be screened on Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Alexandria Black History Museum (902 Wythe St., Alexandria).