“In life you become what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.”
– Kurt Vonnegut Jr
Boxing is truly a sport rich in stories, of all kinds. A few weeks ago now I was swapping messages with a regular reader of my column from the USA.
‘You should look into the whole Charlie Zelenoff thing’ he said. ‘I bet you’d find it fascinating.’
‘The Deontay Wilder internet troll?’ I asked.
“Yeah, it’s really messed up.”
I thanked him for the tip and pretty much forgot all about it.
Since then I’ve been extremely busy. It wasn’t until I was considering possibilities for this week’s article that I remembered his message and acted upon it. The Wilder title defence over the weekend reminded me and I soon found my American friend was right. I really did find it fascinating.
Before I start I should say that for anyone who does read this page from the States, I realise I’m quite a long way behind the curve on this one. Zelenoff, for those who don’t know, achieved instant notoriety about a year ago, when his repeated baiting of WBC Heavyweight champion Wilder resulted in a bizarre confrontation at a Hollywood boxing club. After running out of the ring, despite having spent months calling the Bronze Bomber out, allegedly racially abusing him and insulting his disabled daughter, Zelenoff ended up facing off with him on the gym floor. Predictably, he got slapped around.
My first reaction on seeing it twelve months ago was that Zelenoff (who weighs in only as a welterweight) was clearly a bit of a headcase, but also had guts. He may well have trolled Wilder moronically on the internet, but when the enormous Alabaman turned up to fight him, he actually had the courage to stand there and trade blows, albeit briefly. My assumption was that Charlie was a silly kid who had overstepped the mark and the whole thing had been a crazy one-off. At the time I was reminded of former British light welterweight champ Curtis Woodhouse confronting his internet tormentor and the stomach-churning, pitiful, abject apologising that followed.
What struck me was that Charlie Z or ‘Z-Money’ as he likes to be known, did not apologise to Deontay. In fact if you listen to the video carefully, after receiving his beating and while leaving hastily through the side-door he calls out, “you got lucky, punk!” That parting shot was my first clue that something deeper and far stranger was afoot in this scenario. Here was a young man who had shamelessly goaded a much larger pro fighter into coming to his gym and ass-whipping him, but even as he was running away, he seemed unable to accept what had actually happened.
You see, the Charlie Z story, which has already been much discussed stateside, is not really about boxing, although it is connected. That’s why it’s such an intriguing and unsettling tale. It is about how we become trapped by self-image. And how the bizarre fakery of the internet can assist us in free-falling into the abyss of mental illness.
I had no idea at the time, but on the world-wide-web, Charlie had spent years building quite a reputation. In digital la-la land the boy had declared himself an unbeatable fighter. He made wild contentions about his amateur career and stated that he was pound-for-pound number one in the world. He claimed a record of 50-0, 60-0, the numbers kept going up. Incredibly, assisted by some amateurish videos on his youtube channel, he built up a massive online following. Most recognised him as a crank and found his antics amusing, but a minority actually seemed to believe him.
Films of Charlie’s wins, which he has characterised as ‘underground’ boxing bouts suggest the depth of his detachment from reality. As recently as two months ago he posted this video, for example, of a contest with a US Marine. It is typical of his online output. I use the word ‘contest’ lightly, as what is shown is actually little more than a very brief light spar.
In moving around in circles and swinging air shots for 49 seconds, Zelenoff declared himself to have ‘beat down’ his opponent and moved to 80-0.
After each such victory, Charlie would then post further vids and pics, posing with replica championship belts he had acquired from somewhere, declaring himself to be the GOAT (greatest of all times) while talking in that Hip-Hop street-slang that so many people under 30 think equates to coolness these days. “I beat that muthafucka’s azz, all you bitch-azz haterz can suck my dick etc etc”
In my every-day life away from boxing writing, working with young people excluded from school, I am well used to this mindset. In Charlie Z, I saw the personification of everything I keep telling them. A lot of these kids live in a world where image is everything, where walking the walk and talking the talk are more important than reality. Little boys who actually spend their evenings at home playing X-box invest a great deal of energy in dressing, moving and expressing themselves according to a wannabe-gangster ideal that rap stars and video games have packaged and sold to them.
In their world, you don’t need to be hard, you just need to act it, but that is the opposite to how boxing works. The rawness of the ring is one of the things I have always loved most about the sport. That’s why it has the power to save young men.
So what really made the whole Charlie Z story extraordinary for me was discovering that Zelenoff actually was a professional fighter. If he had just been a gym-rat clown, high on testosterone and creatine, shooting his mouth off and shadow-boxing in the mirror, the whole thing could have been written off as harmless fun. There’s a guy like that in most gyms, in my experience. But Zelenoff made his pro debut in 2008 against a guy called Andrew Hartley. Hartley came into the contest with a record of 1-13 and they boxed at Paris Middle School, Arkansas, USA.
About a minute and a quarter into the fight, Zelenoff started to ship punishment. He covered up, backed away, but couldn’t assuage Hartley’s attacks. At 1 min 30, he spat out his gumshield to get some respite. After the ref had picked it up and had it replaced, when the bout was restarted, Hartley mauled him against the ropes and he went down. He got up, spat out his gumshield again and refused to continue. In other words within half a round of the start of his pro debut, against an opponent with a heavy losing record, Z-Money quit.
His performance was so abject that after the fight the Arkansas state athletic commission suspended his licence for 45 days. Charlie went away to reflect and rather than process what had happened, he began to construct a fantasy world. His online activity increased, making bombastic statements on boxing forums. In a sign of the times, his behaviour attracted attention. Even if much of the attention was negative, he became an internet celebrity. In his own mind he was ‘making noise’ and ‘creating a buzz’.
He teamed up with a manager by the name of Frank Stea, who set up gym-bouts for him in which he would KO much bigger fighters before posting the videos. Stea later admitted that these men were paid to fall over. Charlie knew that, yet repeated his lies so often, he began to believe them himself. In several videos he can be heard saying, “I KO’d a 260lb guy with one punch. What welterweights can do that?” When someone wants things so much, in this case acceptance and acclaim, it’s easy to self-convince that wrong is right.
In order to bolster his outlandish claims and bragadoccio, sooner or later he would have to fight again. In 2011, Zelenoff was due to rematch Hartley in an attempt to avenge his embarrassing defeat three years earlier. For unrevealed reasons, Charlie pulled out of the fight thirty minutes before it was due to start. He then waited outside Hartley’s dressing room until his opponent was sat on a bench putting his trousers on, then ran in and sucker-punched him when he wasn’t looking. As his father led him away, he could be heard saying, ‘that’s revenge, bitch’.
In the years that followed, this move became something of a specialty for Charlie. Incredibly he managed to blag himself a spar with a then 59 year old Floyd Mayweather Senior at Tocco’s gym. A couple of minutes into the round, Charlie was caught with several big shots and climbed through the ropes to escape. Mayweather turned his back and walked away, believing that the spar was finished, at which point Zelenoff saw his opportunity, darted back into the ring and hit the old man from behind while his back was turned. Unashamed, Charlie posted a video of the fight on his own youtube page boasting that he had knocked Mayweather Sr ‘out cold’.
Both the Hartley and Mayweather sucker-punches were publicised by Zelenoff as being victories on his pretend record. They were really little more than common assaults. Similar incidents followed, leading up to the eventual spat with Wilder in 2014. His manager, Stea had by then disassociated himself from the whole charade, becoming deeply worried about Z-Money’s state of mind.
After stirring up a real mess of controversy over the last 5 years, it seems Zelenoff has now married and moved to the Ukraine, the homeland of his father. Hopefully there he can distance himself from the imaginary world he built online. He needs to start reconnecting with the here and now.
Boxing is a business built on hype. Ever since Muhammed Ali proclaimed his greatness and taunted opponents, fighters have invested heavily in their public personas. The internet has made that so easy. Talk smack, sell tickets, make money – extreme statements get instant responses. Thousands of views can be achieved within hours. Fame is there for anyone who wants it badly enough.
For many of us, the web is an alternate dimension to our lives. Social media gives us the opportunity to interact beyond our day-to-day normalities. It is a new phenomenon and its long term impact on human identity and social interaction remains to be seen.
Charlie Zelenoff is not alone in struggling to cope with all of that. As a fighter he was nothing, but he kidded himself and everybody else otherwise. Eventually he said it all so often, it wormed its way into his psyche. If he kept at it, he thought, turning heads and gobbing off at boxing’s biggest names, it would give him the attention he craved. He could somehow be no.1, in some sort of reality. Yet the truth was that if he had carried on much longer, it was surely only a matter of time before he got himself badly hurt, even killed.
Hopefully, he’s OK now and we won’t hear much from him again. But he should be remembered – as much as any success story, his is a clear parable for our times. Just as Money Mayweather, posing with piles of dollars and bikini babes in his promos encapsulates our current aspirations, Z-Money’s delusion and desperation does too.
Look around. Be honest. There is a bit of Charlie Z in all of us.