At 6 feet 5 inches, Tyrell Biggs presents an intimidating physical presence. However, due to his quiet demeanor, it is easy to overlook him.
Biggs, 51, is soft-spoken. On most weekdays, he can be found quietly wandering around the premises of the Shepard Recreation Center, often with cups of McDonald’s coffee for his friends and coworkers who refer to him as “champ.”
That nickname for Biggs is not just a casual term. Biggs was a world-class boxer who won American national and world amateur championships before an Olympic gold medal.
If Biggs is comfortable and it’s at the right moment, he can rattle off some of the most amazing stories.
His favorite tales include competing on the American Gladiators television show, dating sisters with Mike Tyson and once running into actor Sylvester Stallone while buying the same blazer as Stallone in a Beverly Hills shop.
Before Biggs was even an amateur, he was a champion. In 1978, Biggs was a forward on the West Philadelphia High School basketball team that won the city championship.
After high school, Biggs began training at Joe Frazier’s boxing gym in North Philadelphia. From there, he went on to an illustrious amateur boxing career, which included two U.S. super-heavyweight titles and one world super-heavyweight championship.
In 1984, Biggs represented the U.S. in the Olympics held in Los Angeles.
After beating out Mike Tyson for a spot on that ’84 Olympic team, Biggs trumped future world heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis on his way to defeating Italian Francesco Damiani for the first and only gold medal ever won by a U.S. boxer in the super-heavyweight class.
“When I got that close to the gold medal, I let it all go. I wasn’t going to lose,” Biggs said of his Olympic effort.
Officially out of boxing since 1998, Biggs now trains young boxers at Shepard Recreation Center’s Mitchell Allen Boxing Gym, located at 5701 Haverford Ave.
The gym hosts both amateur and professional boxers but Biggs works primarily with youngsters.
Boxers in the gym like to draw from Biggs’ experiences. The most requested story, Biggs said, is about his 1987 fight with Mike Tyson for the world heavyweight title–a fight he lost when the contest was stopped in the seventh round.
Many boxing pundits say that punishing loss to Tyson was the true end of Biggs’ professional career although his career last 11 years longer. Biggs compiled a professional boxing record of 30 wins and 10 losses.
However, some have said it may be more accurate to say Biggs’ career never really began.
Shortly after winning his gold medal and turning professional, Biggs was convinced by his family, friends and manager to check into a California rehabilitation center for his drug and alcohol abuse problems.
The issue of addiction had plagued Biggs throughout his amateur career.
Amazingly, until December of 1984, Biggs was able to succeed at his sport despite his addiction.
“I never mixed it,” Biggs said. “I wasn’t getting in the ring high.”
He admitted, however, that it may have held him back from greater things.
“When you’re doing that, you’re in denial. You think, ‘As long as I’m not getting in the ring, it’s not having an effect,’” Biggs said. “I was fortunate enough to still be able to win my fights.”
At the time of his check-in to rehab, Biggs was forced to pay out of pocket, as his insurance did not cover the three-week stint, he said.
However, Biggs said he thinks that stint in rehab was worth every penny.
“It was the best investment I ever made,” Biggs said.
Today, Biggs has been sober for over 20 years.
“I remember when it was hard to go that many hours,” said Biggs about his fight abstaining from substance use.
Each December, Biggs attends a meeting on the anniversary of the day he knocked out addiction, the biggest opponent life ever put opposite his corner.
Otherwise, he said he does not feel the need to attend, Biggs said.
He said he avoids urges by staying away from bars and friends who he knows use drugs, Biggs said.
Much of Biggs’ time is spent in the basement of Shepard Recreation Center. There he helps boxers around the ages of ten and 11 to punch hand pads, jump rope and spar. In this manner, Biggs’ passion for the sport manages to shine through his quiet exterior.
Aside from watching championship boxing events from time to time, training is the extent to which Biggs still remains in the boxing world, he said.
That fight with Tyson spawns constant questions from Biggs’ pupils.
“When you hang out with him, he’s a nice, mellow guy. But when you fight him, he’s vicious,” Biggs said.