James Bryant goes from pro boxer to fullback

James Bryant is throwing haymakers and roundhouses. It's lunch, and he's only talking, but Bryant is delivering some hard-hitting statements without reservation or apology.

He has dressed up like a mass murderer. He has enjoyed knocking people out. He has taken people's souls from them.

It's ghoulish. It's dark. It's the rarely discussed honest, visceral side of athletes who have products to sell.

Bryant, 26, is a rookie fullback in training camp with the Lions, but in another life not long ago, he was a professional heavyweight boxer. A good one. He could hit. Hard. And he learned how to listen.

Mostly, though, Bryant's true talent in the ring was devastation, in all its forms: physical, psychological and just for fun.

Bryant dressed in a Hannibal Lecter mask and a straightjacket for one weigh-in. He wore a Michael Myers mask from the "Halloween" horror flicks to another. Bryant went 4-1 with four knockouts in his brief boxing career that ended nearly two years ago.

Knockout is like big hit
Bryant fiddles with his salad during a lunchtime interview. Then he stops. The man who has been a boxer and a swimwear model and has played on both sides
of the ball and in almost every pro football league, suddenly stops.

He is considering a simple question: What is it like to knock someone out?

"Oh, man," he said.

A smile breaks across Bryant's face. He pauses for 12 seconds before he continues. He chooses a football analogy and says, "It felt like a big hit over the middle."

But it was so much more.

"It's just rage," Bryant said calmly. "You just turn into another person, another animal. And that's what happened when I first cleanly knocked somebody out. It was something special."

Bryant was recruited in 2009 to box for the Heavyweight Factory. The now-defunct Florida training facility specialized in reprogramming former football players into boxers. It enlisted giants of the sport such as Michael Moorer, Oliver McCall and Shannon Briggs as coaches.

Boxing paid off early
Bryant had a troubled two-year career at the University of Miami. He was suspended three times and later accused by booster Nevin Shapiro of accepting money and gifts.

"Never knew him," Bryant said of Shapiro. "Seen him one time. Didn't even shake his hand because I knew who he was and what he was about, and I never associated myself with him, never affiliated myself with him."

Bryant transferred to Louisville. He had a brief tryout in 2009 with the Washington Redskins. But he needed money and a way to stay in shape to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.

"What job can I go and be working out 6-7 hours a day and get paid really good money for it and have them take care of my housing, get paid weekly?" he said. "There's no job out there, except for boxing, except for maybe MMA fighting."

A friend put Bryant in touch with the Heavyweight Factory, and his first fight was Feb. 16, 2010, against Roy Boykins, a small heavyweight. It was a scheduled for four rounds. Bryant knocked down Boykins twice and KO'd him 2 minutes into the first round.

Bryant's first fight was intoxicating. The light glared off the canvas and faded the crowd into darkness.

"And it's just you and him," Bryant said. "And your main objective is to basically dominate an individual.

"Now, what does that mean? Reach into his soul and take it from him. That's what dominating an individual means, making him quit because he's mentally not prepared to endure what you're mentally prepared to endure."

Two months later, Bryant knocked out his next opponent, Andrew Maxwell, at 2:19 of the first round.

"James had a hell of a right hand and a left hook," Moorer said. "He had a good, strong jab. Everything was just solid. He was just a solid guy."
Bryant trained 8 hours a day, five days a week. In his third fight, Bryant knocked out Lujan Henderson in 45 seconds. Bryant was turning the sweet science into an art form.

"Jab, left hook, right hand," he said. "That was my best combination.

"I remember I knocked (Henderson) out. I came out knowing that's what I was going to run. Took a couple jabs to see what he was going to do. After the jab came out, I knew where his head was going to go, and I immediately executed that combination. He went down, and he didn't get back up."

For the Henderson fight, Bryant also brought something special. He dressed as Michael Myers and carried a sledgehammer to the weigh-in. Bryant is 6-feet-3, and Henderson stood 6-7, but Bryant swore he saw Henderson shrink.

"And if you're mentally not ready for that, that could drive somebody literally back home to their mom, because you don't know me from a grain of salt or a whole in the wall," Bryant said. "All you know is the next day you've got to get in the ring with somebody who showed up as a masked killer from all of our childhood scary movies with a sledgehammer staring at you."

Bryant has shown video of his fights to coaches and fellow running backs.

"I was pretty impressed, man," Kevin Smith said. "I like boxing myself, so it's good to see. You can see he's a warrior, but it'd be good if it could translate to the field."

"Oh, yeah," Joique Bell said. "He's a heavy hitter. And I think he uses the same mentality on the field. I think that's why it's good to have him here."

After three fights, Bryant was finding his talent in the ring -- even while he was trying to escape it. Boxing always had been a means to an end. The ring didn't scare Bryant, but its effects did.

"I've been in positions before where I've gotten in the ring with Oliver McCall, who's been boxing just as long as I've been alive, and I took a lot of damage," Bryant said. "I remember trying to have a simple conversation with a couple friends of mine and knowing what I wanted to say in my head but not being able to speak it clearly."

Bryant lost his next fight by a split decision. Then he KO'd Dieuly Aristilde in the fourth round in what would be his final fight on Oct. 19, 2010.

"I knew that I wasn't going to be in boxing forever," he said. "But when I left, I also knew that I could have been a great champion.

"But at the same time, at what cost? I'm very intelligent. I consider myself to be very handsome. At what cost would I be the heavyweight champ of the world? At a cost I wasn't really willing to pay."

Ring savvy clinched it
Bryant played in the Arena League in 2010, then landed in the Canadian Football League as a 280-pound defensive end in 2011. This year, he began his road back to the NFL when the Lions signed him in March. It was Bryant's boxing background that caught the eye of running backs coach Sam Gash at Miami's pro day.

"His size, his athleticism and the fact that he was a boxer kind of showed me that he does not have fear versus a one-on-one," Gash said. "And that is evident. We were in full pads (recently), and it was evident. He's going to run in there as hard as he can."

Bryant's boxing license doesn't expire until 2014, but he says he won't fight again. He's saving his battles for the football field, where he has turned his whole body into a fist that moves inexorably forward, pummeling anyone in its path.

"I'm going to dominate this individual until the game is over," he said. "Literally, chip away at him. What's the average per play, 5 to 8 seconds? So 5 to 8 seconds of your life, you're giving it all you got to mentally and physically defeat one individual.

"That's what boxing brings to the table when I step on the football field. And that's what football has brought to the table when I step in the boxing ring."

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