Earlier this month in a training room upstairs from the video game arcade at the Fernwood resort in the Poconos, boxer Eddie Chambers stretched his calves, and his trainer/manager Rob Murray assembled along the back of a folding chair little strips of cloth tape to wrap the fighter's hands before he got in some sparring. An iPod, connected to speakers, blasted rap music into the room to propel Chambers through a final workout before the biggest fight of his life. Rapper Pharrell sang: "The motivation for me is them telling me what I could not be."
Tomorrow, Chambers will fight Wladimir Klitschko for the world heavyweight championship in Dusseldorf, Germany. Chambers, despite being the top-ranked heavyweight in the United States, is an 8-to-1 underdog. He's been a longshot for just about forever, and most boxing experts think it will take a miracle for him to win.
Klitschko is 50-3 with 47 knockouts and hasn't lost since 2004. The 1996 Olympic super-heavyweight gold medalist for Ukraine stands 6-foot-6 and fights at 240 pounds, and holds most of the world's heavyweight title belts (International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Organization and Ring magazine).
Chambers, who's 35-1 with 18 KOs, has been called too small to be a heavyweight for his entire career. He's barely 6 feet and expects to weigh in at about 210. Chambers, 27, wasn't supposed to win his last fight, over undefeated Ukrainian Alexander Dimitrenko in July. He wasn't supposed to win his fight before that either.
But on this day, they found themselves in the Poconos, preparing for a championship bout.
Murray, who has guided Chambers' career since bringing him to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in 2002, had instilled the camp with a nothing-is-impossible optimism, the kind you have when you're holding a fistful of Powerball tickets. Chambers is nicknamed "Fast Eddie," and they hope to counter Klitschko's size, long left jab and hammering right with hand speed and body movement.
"Klitschko fights the same way every time. That robotic, Eastern-European style," Murray said. "It's easy to train for him, because you know what he's gonna do."
Even Chambers, whose confidence hasn't matched his talent, envisions winning.
"I want him to feel, 'God, I cannot get away from this guy's punches.' I want him to be uneasy in there," Chambers said. "Like he's running in a maze and can never find the exit."
In a sense, Chambers and his handlers have hit a jackpot already. For this fight, in a soccer stadium that holds 50,000 people, Chambers will earn his first purse reaching seven figures - a million dollars. On paper anyway.
"I've seen the check," he said. "You think, 'Wow, this is big.' After taxes, it's not necessarily what you think it is. . . . But after the victory, then you've got the next fight, and the next fight. There's gonna be some sevens in there somewhere."
Rags to riches?
Check. Chambers grew up in the poor Homewood section of Pittsburgh. He was 2 years old when his mother left. He and his father, Eddie Sr., a former amateur boxer, spent time on welfare and receiving Food Stamps.
"There were a couple years we didn't have heat in our house," Eddie Jr. remembers.
Mornings, early before school, they'd deliver newspapers. And once he got to school, Chambers, a shy kid in a tough neighborhood, was harassed because he kept wearing the same clothes day in, and day out. So Eddie Sr. got Eddie Jr. into the gym.
Chambers was 8-0 as a professional when Murray found him.
Murray, 65, had been a boxing-gym rat growing up in North Philadelphia, learning at the feet of legends like Yank Durham, who trained and managed Joe Frazier. Murray heard that Chambers was something to see, so he went to Pittsburgh and walked into the dressing room and saw "this big, Godzilla of a guy" - Chambers' opponent, named David Chappell.
Chambers, Murray said, was a meek kid by comparison, so shy "he couldn't even look at you when he talked."
But in the ring, Murray recalled, "I'll never forget it - Eddie put a move on this guy and he was standing in back of him. Chappell put his gloves over his face, because he didn't know where Eddie was."
Murray put together financial backing to bring Chambers and his father to Philadelphia, where from 2002 to 2006 Chambers had 17 straight fights at the Blue Horizon. In 2009, Chambers easily beat former heavyweight champ Samuel Peter and then dominated - outmuscled - Dimitrenko, who at 6-7, 253, is seen as a good prelude to Klitschko.
The Klitschko-Chambers showdown is a rare shot for Philadelphia boxing. The city hasn't had a heavyweight champ since Tim Witherspoon in 1996. The fight is huge in Germany, where Klitschko and his older brother, Vitali, are major sports celebrities the way LeBron James is here.
Elsewhere, there's little fanfare. Klitschko's fights - many against overmatched Americans - have mostly been snoozers. No U.S. TV network has picked up the live broadcast, which at 5 p.m. Eastern Time today would compete with NCAA basketball tournament. It'll be viewable for a fee at www.klitschko.com.
Still, it's dazzling in the mind of Chambers. In 2006, he was hired to spar with Klitschko for a couple of weeks, and certain moments replay in his head.
"There were times I saw things, like with my jab, honestly, I was outboxing him. I was moving around - pop!" Chambers said, his eyes widening. "I was like 'Man, it's working.' If I can keep going like that, you never know."