PATTAYA, Thailand — Riddick Bowe now understands why people warned him that Muay Thai is a dangerous sport.
"I would have to say, they have a valid point," said Bowe, after his debut in Thai kickboxing ended with a thud in the second round. "It's much harder than boxing."
The former world heavyweight boxing champion had hoped to prove his critics wrong and show that he could comeback from retirement into an entirely new sport and revive some of his past glory.
But Bowe is now 45 and weighs 300 pounds, and he looked it Friday in his first fight since 2008.
Slow and out of shape, the fighter known as "Big Daddy" took a big beating from his 30-year-old unheralded Russian opponent Levgen Golovin, who attacked with repeated kicks to the shins that knocked Bowe off his feet five times. The bout ended with a technical knockout after his last fall when Bowe sat on the ground clutching his legs, wincing in pain.
"You can recover from a head shot or a body shot, but when you get kicked in the leg it lasts a long time," Bowe said, as his trainer iced his left shin. "My leg is still hurting. I don't know how long it's been – 15 minutes?"
Not once during the brief fight, which ended 2 minutes into the second round, did Bowe land a punch or a kick. But he was happy to trade barbs with reporters afterward showing the wit that made him one of boxing's charismatic personalities during his brief reign as champion two decades ago.
"This ain't a setback it's a getback," Bowe said, referring to his comeback. "I had a lot of fun. I'm going to do it again. Next time it's going to be different."
Like so many boxers, Bowe lost the struggle to stay out of the ring. He had his reasons: He's bored with retirement; his millions are gone and he needs the money; he misses the adoration of fans; he loves to fight – and knows little else.
Bowe said he was inspired by the comeback of George Foreman, who won a heavyweight title at age 45. But the comebacks of aging champions don't always go so well. Think of Muhammad Ali, at 38 and two years after retirement, taking punishment round after round from Larry Holmes. There was onetime heavyweight champion Greg Page coming back and nearly losing his life for a few thousand dollars. Heavyweight great Joe Louis paid dearly for his attempt to come back at an advanced age.
Bowe escaped without serious injury and made $150,000 for his Muay Thai debut, organized by Thai promoters trying to increase the international appeal of Thailand's national sport. The money is a far cry from the millions he earned by beating Evander Holyfield in 1992 to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
In his heyday, Bowe fought on boxing's grandest stages in Las Vegas and New York.
His return to fighting took place at an outdoor ring set up beside the beach in Pattaya, a Thai town best known for its sprawling seaside red-light district.
Surveying the scene before the fight started, Bowe shook his head sadly.
"I should be moving up, but I'm moving backwards here," he said.
His fight was one of a dozen at the venue, which had the atmosphere of a village fairground with loud music and amusement park rides nearby. Promoters had said they hoped to draw about 20,000 people, but a crowd closer to 1,000 turned up even though admission was free.
On a sweltering night, Bowe sat and sweated for hours as he waited his turn to fight. The venue had no changing rooms, so Bowe and other fighters stripped down and changed in open air tents beside the stage.
"I've never seen anything like this," Bowe said, his spirits lifted by fans who came up to ask for autographs and wish him luck.
One American fan stared in awe at Bowe.
"He was such an underrated and great champion," said Jerry Mathison, a former fighter turned songwriter who lives in Thailand. "I can't believe he's here, in Pattaya."
In some ways, Friday's fight is the latest bizarre episode for Bowe, whose life in and out of the ring was marked by drama.
One of his three fights against Holyfield was interrupted by a parachutist who landed beside the ring. A fight against Andrew Golota in 1996 set off a riot in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Bowe left boxing later in 1996 at 29 for a career in the U.S. Marines, but that lasted only a few days. He then served 17 months in prison for interstate domestic violence after going to North Carolina to haul his now-former wife and their five children back home to Maryland.
Despite his loss, Bowe was optimistic before limping away into a car.
"Hey, we're going to do this again. I'll be back soon," he said. "I'm not a quitter. I want to do it until I get it right."
Bowe's opponent shook his head in disbelief when told the aging boxer plans to return to Muay Thai.
"It would be a big mistake. It's not for him," said Golovin, a trim and fit 220 pounds. "He's too slow and a bit too old."