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Former USF tailback taking puncher’s chance at glory

Mike Ford, 32, fights Saturday night at the Yuengling Center
 
Former USF tailback Mike Ford has compiled a 5-1 record as a professional heavyweight boxer. [Courtesy of Mike Ford]
Former USF tailback Mike Ford has compiled a 5-1 record as a professional heavyweight boxer. [Courtesy of Mike Ford]
Published March 1, 2019

TAMPA ― Just the other day, the burly 32-year-old slipped on the pads, strapped up and took a few more handoffs.

“I broke a 60-yarder up the middle,” former USF tailback Mike Ford said of that semi-pro cameo. “And they tried to figure out how the hell I didn’t lose a step but gain a step. That was my last game, so I actually pretty much hung it up now.”

Despite a solid career that included 5,000 rushing yards in high school, 1,500 yards at USF, and a cup of coffee at the pro level, football never truly endeared itself to Ford. He did it because he possessed the talent for it, because everyone in his Sarasota neighborhood played it, because it provided a path to college.

But boxing was his true passion. Today, he’s indulging it as a 248-pound heavyweight with a potent right hand.

“He doesn’t have the skill set that a lot of top amateurs coming into the heavyweight division have,” said Johnny Williams, Ford’s Sarasota-based trainer. “But he has unbelievable power.”

Ford will seek to improve his pro record to 6-1 Saturday night, when he fights a four-rounder against Francois “The Hulk” Russell as part of an Alessi Promotions boxing card billed as the “Saturday Night Brawl” at the Yuengling Center.

“Just the whole thought of a gladiator sport, oh my goodness,” said Ford, who really became smitten with boxing during Mike Tyson’s heyday. “In football, baseball, basketball, you’ve got a team. But in boxing, there’s one-one-one so there’s no excuses.”

Well, he could latch on to a few excuses at this stage, and few probably would blame him.

One is his age. Ford, who still owns USF’s bowl-game rushing record (207 yards in the 2010 International Bowl vs. Northern Illinois), chose to let football run its course after college.

He signed in August 2010 with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, but was released three weeks later. He also played briefly with some Florida-based arena teams.

Off the field, Ford had some scrapes with the law including arrests on misdemeanor battery charges in 2010 and ’12 (both times, the charges were dropped). The first of his five amateur fights (in Florida, boxers must have at least five amateur fights before turning pro), wasn’t until Halloween, 2015.

By then, he was 29. He won via third-round TKO.

“To the boxing world, I started late,” Ford said. “But me and Coach Williams, we already know what’s going on. I’ve been in and out of the gym for years of my life, even through high school and college.”

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Today, he’s still in and out of it. Ford, who is unmarried, says boxing hasn’t yet provided a payday of substance. Saturday’s fight against Russell, who enters with an unsightly 3-31 record, isn’t likely to provide a windfall either.

As a result, he requires a day job (in this case, hanging drywall with a fellow boxer).

Ideally, Williams says, Ford should be training six days a week. If he could reach a point where 10-week training camps are affordable and skills are honed, Ford “can hurt some people.”

“He was born with power...but his skill set, he needs work,” said Williams, a former super middleweight who amassed a 20-7 pro record that included a four-round knockout loss to Antonio Tarver. "I’m not afraid to admit it, he needs work.

“It’s all on him. It’s not my call. He’s a grown man now, he’s not that spoiled running back he was coming out of high school. ... But if this is what he wants to do, I’m there for him. He can make a lot of money.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.