The Low Blows, Billowing Bedsheets, And Huge Disgusting Poop Of July 11, 1996
2:59 PM EST on January 18, 2022
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On the morning of July 11, 1996, South Carolina Governor David Beasley called for the evacuation of his state's coastal areas, including the portions of Georgetown and Horry counties lying east of the state's Intracoastal Waterway. Hurricane Bertha, churning northeast of the Bahamas, was intensifying into a Category 3 storm; Beasley and Emergency Preparedness Director Stan McKinney were tracking Bertha's trajectory and anticipating landfall sometime on July 12, somewhere along the southeast corner of North Carolina but close enough to deal major damage to South Carolina's Grand Strand.
If you head south from Myrtle Beach and stick to the coastal highway along that Grand Strand, you will pass through Surfside Beach and Garden City and Murrell's Inlet, all essentially resort towns powered by summer beach tourism, progressively quieter and more residential as you gain distance from Myrtle Beach. On the other side of Murrell's Inlet, 17 miles south of Myrtle Beach, you'll pass the huge and pleasantly swampy Huntington Beach State Park, and then zip quickly through a tiny little unincorporated town called Litchfield Beach, nestled unassumingly along the oceanfront of Georgetown County. Keep an eye out on your left and you will see a little road called Norris Drive, with an old and weathered Eagles beach supply store on the corner. Norris Drive points directly at the ocean and then veers south to run parallel to the town's sandy beach and healthy dunes, before ending at a cul-de-sac. Had you made the turn onto Norris Drive on the grey and ferociously windy morning of July 11, 1996, crossed over the high and surging tidal marshland that connects with the Intracoastal Waterway, slowed over the speed humps in front of the evacuated Litchfield Inn, and continued for another third of a mile or so along the suddenly deserted beach homes of the town's compact oceanfront, eventually you would've noticed the one beach-side rental house in the entire town with a bunch of cars parked in front. What are they doing, you would've asked yourself. Why haven't they left?
Had you then parked your car and wandered around the side of this house to gaze out at an Atlantic Ocean whipped into a roaring, crashing frenzy by an approaching hurricane, you would've seen a small group of utterly untroubled morons running and jumping into whistling, 40-mph winds and letting the parachute effect of queen-sized bed sheets tied to their wrists and ankles rip them down the white sandy beach. Those goobers, defying an evacuation order in order to do hijinks with hurricane wind, that was me and my extended step-family. I was 15 years old, cackling like a psycho, and absolutely bewildered that anyone in history would ever voluntarily leave a beach during a hurricane, surely the coolest possible time to be at a beach.
Roughly 700 miles north of that bizarre scene, former undisputed heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe was preparing for a tune-up fight against Andrew Golota, scheduled for that evening. Despite headlining an HBO promotion, this was not supposed to be much of an event. The only blemish on Bowe's résumé at that point was a tough split-decision loss to Evander Holyfield, in a rematch of the spectacular 1992 bout that saw Bowe claim the undisputed crown. In the time since that loss—still the only loss of Bowe's professional career—he'd flattened Herbie Hide and punished a shit-talking Jorge Luis González. Bookmakers had Golota as a 12–to-1 underdog.
But circumstances suggested the night had at least some chance of producing something memorable. For one thing, Bowe by this time had something of a track record of appearing in newsmaking events, and not always for fisticuffmanship. His 1991 fight against Elijah Tillery was interrupted by Tillery kicking Bowe between rounds and then getting clotheslined over the ropes by Bowe's manager. In 1992, after the first Holyfield fight, Bowe held a press conference in order to theatrically relinquish the WBC belt by throwing it into a trash can, the result of a dispute with the sanctioning body over the proposed conditions of a bout with mandatory challenger Lennox Lewis. That second Holyfield fight, in 1993, was interrupted in the seventh round—a round Bowe seemed to be dominating—when James "Fan Man" Miller parachuted into the arena and landed near Bowe's corner, causing a surreal 30-minute break in the action.
More importantly, though, Bowe entered the Golota fight in disastrously poor condition, weighing in at a career-high 252 pounds, six pounds heavier than his previous high, set in 1993 at the worrying weigh-in of his only professional loss. In retrospect, it's clear Bowe was losing discipline as his interest in the sport waned—he would take a seven-year break from boxing following a Golota rematch in December—but at the time Bowe's expanding waistline was positioned as evidence of his opinion of Golota as a boxer. The quote "How do you train for a bum?" has been attributed to Bowe in the decades since the fight, but even if it's apocrypha it captures Bowe's respect for his big Polish opponent that night: He told The New York Times that June that the only thing that kept him around boxing at that stage of his career—at a ripe 29 years of age—was a chance to fight either or both of Lewis or Mike Tyson. Bouts against guys like Golota were the demeaning price of staying in the mix.
So Bowe's flab was another reason to wonder whether the Golota fight might merit attention. And then there was Golota's reputation as a nasty, brutal fighter. This is not revisionist history, beefed up with the benefit of hindsight after all that happened that July night. The morning of the fight, Michael Katz of the New York Daily News noted with eerie prescience that Golota would "bite" or "butt" and in all cases "do anything to win," making him the kind of savage brawler who could take the will out of a weary, woefully out-of-shape former champion. Bowe knew about this reputation, and cautioned ahead of the fight that Golota would receive "a nasty tail-whipping in return" if he resorted to dirty stuff.
I was tracking all of this as a 15-year-old the way such a thing was still possible in the media world of the mid-1990s. Moving in with our then-stepfather a couple years earlier had exposed my siblings and me for the first time in our lives to cable television, and this was a time when SportsCenter and the Washington Post sports section could still be counted upon to give significant attention to an upcoming heavyweight non-title bout. But as far as I knew HBO was still exclusively for the rich, which meant I would absolutely not be watching the fight. Anyway by the second week in July I was fully in Beach Mode, no longer aware of anything happening in sports or news or back home or even a mile west of that Intracoastal Waterway. By the time the morning of July 11 rolled around, with Bertha bearing down on our beach house and threatening to disrupt a vacation I'd been dreaming about for the better part of a year, nothing on Earth could've been further from my thoughts than Bowe-Golota.
The three families crammed into that beach house on July 11 did not vacate the premises without a struggle. I have a hazy memory of a sheriff knocking on our door at some point on the 10th or the 11th. I have a somewhat more vivid memory of everyone crowding around a television, ashen-faced or exhilarated, as a Weather Channel report showed a helicopter-eye view of Norris Drive, utterly empty except for the four cars parked in our own driveway. Somewhere in there someone had the brilliant idea to tie bedsheets to our ankles and wrists and run out onto the beach so that the fiercest gusts of wind could turn us into birds, I guess, or at least into wind-propelled ballistic projectiles. This is how several of us spent the morning of July 11, and it was what cemented my allegiance to Team Stay. I remember the adults in the house arguing pretty intensely over whether it wouldn't be wiser to leave. I remember wanting to get a word in—leaving would mean sacrificing at least one full night of our beach vacation, which to me was unthinkable—but feeling that matters had finally gotten too serious for my input. I remember it was perhaps mid-morning or early afternoon before Team Leave finally wore us down. Suddenly yanked into the real world by Team Leave's deadly seriousness, we hurriedly packed up the bare necessities and set off down Norris Drive, planning to head inland as quickly and as far as possible. The wind and rain were intense, the sky a deep and darkening grey. The low bridges spanning the marsh areas between us and high ground were alarmingly close to the point of breach. It was clear we had made our decision at the last possible moment.
Smarter people might've factored into this whole deal the likelihood that all hotels and motels within a solid 10 miles of South Carolina's beaches were already completely booked up in mid-July, which for rental purposes is still considered peak summer in that part of the world. With all of the state's dense oceanfront areas emptying out at once, and with South Carolina's relatively dismal inland areas lacking the hotel capacities of your average mid-Atlantic suburb, this zone of no vacancies now extended for more than a hundred miles west of the coast. My then-step-aunt and her family, in a huge conversion van with three kids in tow, abandoned the search after an hour or so and made for an emergency shelter located in an elementary school gymnasium. I have no memory of what happened to the third family staying in that house, except that they did indeed survive the night. I can tell you that the two cars containing our group—my parents, my siblings, a friend from school who I'd invited along, and my sister's boyfriend—continued on a mostly northwestern trajectory. I think my then-stepfather would've driven all the way across the country to avoid sleeping on a cot in a room crammed full of a thousand hurricane refugees.
Hurricane weather is different as you retreat from it. In the low, flat areas near the coast it's the wind that's most impressive, bending the palm trees, piling up the foaming sea, spraying sand all over, and screaming between the houses. But on the long drive inland, buffeted by South Carolina's dense forests, the outer bands of an approaching hurricane mostly register as a lot of rain. The excitement of the moment wore off in no time. Soon we were chugging grumpily along anonymous roads, staring off into inland South Carolina's rundown, deserted-looking towns, or blank woods, occasionally perking up at the odd threatening billboard promising eternal damnation for those who would not accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This was a bad time, and an endless one.
We'd been on the road for several lifetimes before we found a motel with any vacancies, an unimaginably seedy roadside place with a too-large parking lot, offering rooms by the hour. We checked in and out again in a span of 20 minutes, fleeing in horror after discovering that our rooms had filthy, stained bedsheets and bathrooms absolutely crawling with the huge cockroaches that South Carolinians refer to as "palmetto bugs." None of us were particularly eager to be back on the road and heading even further from the ocean, but sleeping soundly or really at all in such a place would not be an option.
The sky was dark and the storm was revving up alarmingly when we finally found safe haven. This was another shitty roadside motel, but the bathrooms were clean and the bedsheets recently laundered. Crucially, there were three available rooms, so my parents, my sister and her boyfriend, and three teenage boys could be separated for the night. We shuttled our few things from the car to our rooms in a heavy downpour. A pizza was ordered, with soda and hot wings, and the television was immediately turned on. Excitedly we flipped through the channels, not for local weather but for the mythical programming wonders of premium cable. To our delight, this dingy little hotel piped HBO to all of its rooms, quite literally the only thing that could be advertised on their flickering roadside sign.
HBO elected not to broadcast the undercards that July night, despite the card featuring all of Arturo Gatti, Hector Camacho, and Montell Griffin, three telegenic fighters all still reasonably within range of their primes. It's ultimately a footnote, but is nonetheless a fascinating sign of how boxing has changed in the decades since: Nowadays, a heavyweight non-title bout between a fatso former champ and a blue-collar Pole would have no shot at headlining an aggressively hyped HBO event. But in 1996, Bowe-Golota had juice. A respectable 7,000 or so tickets were sold to the event, which had some intrigue for the area's not-insignificant Polish population, and which was heavily marketed as Bowe's triumphant return to his New York home.
The bout was scheduled to commence at just after 10:00 p.m. As teenage boys (and, for that matter, adult men) tend to, the three goobers in that South Carolina motel room, having watched a combined couple of hours of live boxing in our lives, spent the hour or so in the leadup to the opening bell fattening up on greasy food and forming the most overheated possible faux-expert takes on the fight to come. As I recall, my pal Brian* favored the former champ, for being a slick fighter with a proven pedigree. I, in a chauvinistic lurch toward the tiny amount of leftover Eastern European blood coursing through my veins, may have argued absurdly for the challenger. What can I say? I had a belly full of Hawaiian pizza and Mountain Dew and needed some basis for picking one of these men over the other one. Given a little more time, I might've fashioned a Polish flag out of my own clothing.
*Brian is not his real name, but this story requires a pseudonym, for reasons that will soon become obvious.
There is an event waiting in the future for anyone who spends most of a day crammed in a car and mindlessly scarfing down junk food, and then loads up their insides with cheap pizza, spicy chicken, and toxic fluorescent soda. Whether this event qualifies as punishment will depend largely on the efficiency of your bowels. What I can tell you is HBO was still counting down the minutes to the big fight when Brian, without any forewarning, moseyed over to the bathroom and closed the door behind him. He was in there for quite some time. Possibly my brother and I had forgotten he was even in the room at all when he cracked the door open and announced, not very abashedly, something like, "We've got a problem in here."
I have spent some time thinking about this event and how to present it to readers who are for the most part innocent strangers. I'm sorry to say I don't think it can be done properly without describing the scene in that bathroom, which was like something out of a Lovecraft story. The toilet was clogged, but whatever you are picturing in your mind right now is woefully short of capturing the disaster that faced us in that hotel room. It strikes me now as a uniquely teenage-boy sort of thing that before we endeavored to solve this problem, we needed to stand there together and gawk, in a perfect mixture of horror and awe and admiration, at the terrifyingly huge poop that had overwhelmed this poor toilet. Not too many craps become legend, but this hell turd, composed of every evil thing there is to eat or drink along 120-plus miles of South Carolina highway, circled the bowl. It had outgrown a purely aquatic existence and was reaching for dry land. To this day I can hardly accept that my very own human friend, who I knew to be mostly normal, could've produced this thing. There is not a toilet on our planet that could've swallowed it in one gulp, not without some poor bastard first attacking it with an immersion blender.
And then there was the smell. All poop stinks, but a properly submerged poop has only the briefest of moments to waft into the open air before splashing home. A beached turd, like those found in the diaper of a baby who has started eating solids, quickly off-gasses a rich cloud of funk, with a putrid iron-y undertone redolent of swamp muck and spoiled meat, and a troubling soupçon of red miso. The nightmare python of a turd writhing in that toilet that night was clear of the waterline in more than one place, and the resulting miasma was enough to chase us not just out of the bathroom but out of the room altogether, into a night whipped into a frightening chaos by Bertha's approaching eyewall.
Brian, in a panic, had spread the room's store of towels across the floor, and they were now soaked with half an inch of cloudy poop water. But the toilet could not be abandoned, for the simple reason that Brian was not the only person who'd spent a day feasting on trash like some kind of desperate feral animal. None of us had ever encountered a situation quite like this before. A few minutes of frantic searching and calls to the other members of the family told us that this little motel did not stock its individual rooms with plungers. A deeply apathetic receptionist answered our call to the front desk and told us that we could use the motel's one plunger if one of us felt up to venturing out into a tropical cyclone to retrieve it. As we were already effectively exiled from our room by the toilet monster, this was a price we were only too eager to pay. Brian, as the offending pooper, was the man for the job.
It was around this time that the bell rang for the first round of the night's main event. Golota opened up as the aggressor. He was fitter, younger, and determined, and Bowe extremely did not want to be in the ring with him. The first round went decisively to the underdog, and Golota kept up the pressure in the second, notwithstanding a low blow that drew a warning from referee Wayne Kelly. No more than two of us at a time witnessed the events of the fight's opening rounds: Such was the strength of this crap and its unimaginable aroma that it would quickly overwhelm and overpower whoever was wielding the plunger; as there were two other people in this room who badly needed to use the befouled toilet, wrestling the beast into submission became a tag-team effort.
With 40 seconds left in the third round, and with Bowe seeming to gain his footing, Golota loaded up a left and fired it directly into Bowe's dick and balls, earning a second warning from Kelly. Bowe found himself in trouble in the fourth, but this is where the fight really turned. Golota landed another borderline low-blow with 31 seconds left in the round, and Kelly appeared to shout disapprovingly without breaking up the action. Five seconds later, Golota once again loaded up a left and aimed it directly at his opponent's jewels, this time dropping Bowe to the mat. Kelly, who'd already warned Golota twice and seemed to want to warn him a third time, paused the action and deducted a point.
Inside our motel room, the three teenagers had also struck a disabling blow against our terrible foe, the gigantic poop. Persistent plunging, plus a fair amount of stirring and chopping, had fatally wounded the monster, and with a final sequence of frenzied plunging and flushing the vanquished turd was finally sent to the watery depths. The bathroom was by now an absolute horror show. The soggy poop-smelling towels were piled disgracefully outside the room, facing the full wrath of the storm. The two of us who'd been waiting to use the toilet did so with forms of caution that quite frankly cannot be articulated in any language of man.
Unbelievably, it is what happened in Madison Square Garden that night, and not the motel room in central South Carolina, that has gained a place of notoriety in American history. Golota and Bowe, following a three-minute break for Bowe to nurse his bruised testicles, slugged it out in increasingly sloppy fashion. Golota dropped another point for a low blow in the sixth. In the seventh, with the fight even on Harold Lederman's unofficial scorecard, Golota landed two more belt-line punches before winding up and slugging Bowe in the tender bits for the fifth time on the night. Kelly once again halted the action and deducted another point, this time warning Golota that another violation would result in a disqualification. It's not clear how much of this made its way through: Just over one minute later, Golota landed an incredible sixth punch to Bowe's poor hog. Golota's body punches were around Bowe's pelvis all night long, as if magnetized to Bowe's junk. That sixth and final nut-shot was really something: Golota had been landing almost at will to Bowe's head, but then punctuated a combination with an absolutely brutal punch a solid four inches below Bowe's belt, a crippling knee-buckler that immediately dropped Bowe. This is when all hell broke loose.
Kelly, left with no other choice, jumped in and ended the fight, but Bowe was in intense pain, and the members of his corner and camp were extremely, extremely pissed. Immediately after the punch, with their man writhing on the mat, the HBO broadcast picked up Bowe's corner absolutely fuming. Someone in a chorus of angry voices can be heard calling Golota a "motherfucker." Seconds later, at least two members of Bowe's team sprang into the ring and started whaling on Golota. A man clubbed Golota with a walkie-talkie, opening up a nasty gash that would later require stitches. Golota's handlers fired back from their corner, and by the time Golota was dragged away from the action a full-on brawl was underway. George Foreman, working the fight as Jim Lampley's color guy, could be heard imploring ring invaders to cool down and return to their seats. The violence spread with alarming sped to the crowd and out into the stands, triggering what has come to be remembered as a riot, in no small part because Lampley had no better way to describe it.
The details of the melee are still surprising 25 years later. Golota's manager, Lou Duva, had to be lifted out of the ring on a stretcher after his implanted cardiac defibrillator fired and he collapsed in the ring. Then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was hustled to the arena after the initial outbreak of violence, had to be whisked into a private room and surrounded by bodyguards while police—who responded not to an emergency call from the arena but to a 9-1-1 call from a concerned HBO viewer—cordoned off the area. A dozen injuries were officially reported, and at least seven people were hospitalized. Eleven people were arrested the following day, including three members of Bowe's entourage. Because this happened just a year after Madison Square Garden got back into the boxing business, Garden officials felt it necessary to make a formal announcement that they would continue to host fights in the riot's aftermath.
The three teens in that South Carolina motel room, exhausted and foul-smelling from a frankly unbelievable amount of plunging, watched the scenes at Madison Square Garden unfold in a condition of dazzled euphoria, quite the opposite of Lampley's thundering disappointment. The escalating chaos in the arena drove all concerns about the hurricane and all trauma from having fought the mighty turd out of my mind. Having watched a handful of boxing matches ever, and virtually zero premium cable, to me this huge brawl was evidence that a whole fascinating and supremely cool world was hidden behind the premium cable subscription paywall. Is it always this good?? I think before that night, the closest I'd ever gotten to a pay-cable boxing match as a big cultural event was the 1991 episode of The Simpsons when Homer steals cable and invites the whole town over to watch "The Bout To Knock The Other Guy Out." Because I was such a bumpkin, it didn't even fully register that what was happening on television was more than just HBO Shit, was in fact a big and terrible event that might reverberate through the sport and the lives and careers of the participants for a long time. To me it was programming for the eyes of the premium-cable-viewing class, and I had been lucky enough to sneak a peak.
Bowe-Golota wound up being a much bigger newsmaker and topic of conversation than the storm. Hurricane Bertha made landfall the following day, further north than anticipated, along a stretch of beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. It quickly lost hurricane-level intensity but continued to chug northeast along the coast, battling wind shear, before dissipating on July 14. All the really bitchin' weather action went down well north of the Grand Strand. A six-foot storm surge hit the North Carolina town of Swansboro. Five tornadoes touched down in Virginia. At Wrightsville Beach, near where Bertha made landfall, 75 feet of Johnnie Mercer's Fishing Pier was ripped away and cast into the sea. 750,000 people fled the Carolinas ahead of and during and after Bertha, and North Carolina was for a short time declared a disaster zone.
But in the end, Bertha took it easy on the Carolinas: The National Weather Service notes that Bertha made landfall and brought its strongest winds during low tide, which "helped prevent more significant coastal flooding and erosion than was observed." Ultimately, Bertha wasn't even powerful enough to earn retirement of its name: There have been four tropical cyclones named Bertha in the decades since, including two hurricanes; 2008's Hurricane Bertha holds the distinction of having been the longest-lived Atlantic tropical cyclone recorded in the month of July, and even that Bertha couldn't take the name with it into the record books. Relative to history's really terrible hurricanes, the Bertha we ran away from in 1996 was roughly bupkis. Someday, inevitably, there will be a Big Bertha, and then there will be no more. Possibly I will even be around to meet that Final Bertha, and will devote a little bit less of that encounter to sawing away at someone else's turd.
The three teens waited out the remainder of that night and the following morning in our accursed hotel room, and then joined up with the family for another long drive, this time headed back east. In order to spare Brian, we downplayed the extent of his unholy creation and the magnitude of the disaster it had caused. As I recall, the poop-and-pee-soaked towels we'd left outside overnight were long gone. With any luck at all, they were scattered far and wide by the night's fierce winds and wound up causing minor scandals in several nearby towns. That morning we stopped in at the emergency shelter to collect the van crew, who had their own horror stories of a sleepless night in an echoing gymnasium. The weather was still grey and rainy, but all chance of a dangerous landfall had already passed. Placid little Litchfield had gone virtually unscathed. We returned somewhat sheepishly to our beach house and resumed our vacation. Leaving had been the right call, of course. You can never know how those situations will shake out, and there's for sure an alternate timeline where Team Stay won the battle, Bertha pulled a Hugo and slammed into the South Carolina coast, and one 15-year-old moron out on the sand riding the wind on the morning of July 11 got what he had coming, and was blown out to sea.
Hardcore boxing fans rue Bowe-Golota as a stain on their sport and as the beginning of the end for one of the really sublimely talented heavyweights of that generation. Sports fans remember it for a huge shocking brawl that spread from the ring to the stands and trapped the most famous mayor on Earth in a dressing room for hours on end. It's a strange fate to know that as long as I live, all mentions of this memorable fight will inevitably trigger the sense memory of anchoring my feet in toilet-water-soaked towels in a grimy motel bathroom, gulping down my rising gorge while a dangerous hurricane raged right outside the windows, and stabbing wildly with a borrowed plunger at someone else's huge disgusting poop.