The preaching pugilist: Former pro heavyweight boxer recently ordained at Cleveland church

The preaching pugilist: Former pro heavyweight boxer recently ordained at Cleveland church

April 25th, 2015 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Even as a professional boxer, Adam Sutton says he felt God's hand at work and the need to reach out to others. He hasn't boxed professionally in more than a decade and was recently ordained at Cleveland Community Chapel. Inset above is a shadowbox of Sutton's boxing memorabilia.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Win/loss record

* June 20, 2003 -- vs. Danny Wofford in East Ridge (win)
* May 10, 2002 -- vs. Leonard Long in Ringgold, Ga. (win)
* April 2, 1999 -- vs. Isaac Brown in Chattanooga (win)
* Dec. 4, 1996 -- vs. Frank Wood in Nashville (loss)
* Sept. 25, 1996 -- vs. Mark Bradley in Louisville, Ky. (loss)
* Sept. 9, 1995 -- vs. Eric "Butterbean" Esch in Las Vegas (loss)
* June 8, 1995 -- vs. Chad Ragin in Las Vegas (loss)
* June 1, 1995 -- vs. Tim Ray in Louisville, Ky. (win)
* April 18, 1995 -- vs. Derrick Banks in Las Vegas (loss)
* March 18, 1995 -- vs. Leroy Ezell in Louisville, Ky. (win)
* March 16, 1994 -- vs. Rick Cloer in Forest City, N.C. (win)
* Oct. 22, 1993 -- vs. Tony Bradham in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (loss)
* Sept. 14, 1993 -- vs. Ray Sanchez in Decatur, Ga. (win)

Plenty of people sing in the shower or rehearse speeches in front of a mirror, so perhaps the circumstances in which Adam Sutton finally accepted that God wanted him to be a minister really aren't all that unusual.

"I was in Volkswagen working, and the first sermon I preached was to the car parts," the 40-year-old Cleveland, Tenn., native says. "These sermon ideas I've had over the years just started coming and flowing out."

Since September, he has preached monthly during Sunday services at the Cleveland Community Chapel, a small church tucked into a wooded notch off State Route 2.

A former pro heavyweight boxer with the lingering broad bulk to prove it, Sutton can lay claim to bragging rights as the first man to knock Eric "Butterbean" Esch off his hocks during a 1995 bout at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He now works at the Enterprise South VW plant, making sure the right parts make it to the assembly line in the proper order.

Growing up in Charleston, Tenn., a Bradley County hamlet about 30 minutes north of Cleveland, Sutton says he felt the call to minister twice before but ignored it. When the impulse struck for a third time last September, he gave in to the seeming inevitable and shared the good news with a stack of rubber door welts that were as unresponsive as they were nonjudgmental.

"I was putting them on the rack as I was preaching to them," he laughs. "I didn't get a crowd. As a matter of fact, one of the girls there drove by, and I was there preaching away, and she looked at me and said, 'Who are you talking to?'"

After his impromptu sermon on the line, Sutton says he still felt compelled to spread the gospel, so he sought the advice of Tazz Reid, his pastor at Cleveland Community Chapel. Reid had experienced God's call decades earlier and asked Sutton if he'd like to try his hand at ministering during one of the chapel's evening services, which were more sparsely attended. A few weeks later, Sutton found himself facing a flesh-and-blood audience for the first time.

There were only about 20 people in the pews, but Sutton says he quailed under their gaze, feeling anxious in a way he wouldn't have believed possible after years of throwing punches in front of thousands of onlookers.

"It was nerve-wracking," he says. "When you fight, it's just you and the other guy across the ring from you. I was up there, and like boxing, all eyes were on me, but my eyes were back on them. I was scared to death."

Sutton had weeks to prepare a sermon, but what he ended up saying that evening was largely ad-libbed, an unrehearsed recounting of his past and the path that lead him to salvation and the pulpit.

"I didn't really use any of the ideas I already had," he says. "It was really just testimony and how I got to where I am now. I didn't have a horror story -- there were no drugs or alcohol; I wasn't in a gang -- but God saved me, and I give him all the glory for that."

In February, he was ordained in Cleveland Community sanctuary during a service Reid describes as a kind of formal recognition by the church of God's will acting through Sutton and encouraging him to minister.

"I laid hands upon him and prayed over him ... and asked God to use him in the future," Reid says. "That's what keeps the church going through history; God keeps calling people out to preach and pastor.

Former heavyweight boxer Adam Sutton, who was recently ordained at Cleveland Community Chapel, smiles for a portrait on April 16, 2015, in the chapel sanctuary in Cleveland, Tenn.

Former heavyweight boxer Adam Sutton, who was recently...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

"I believe [the call] is as genuine in Adam as in anybody I've ever met."

Fists of iron, heart of gold

Sutton hasn't boxed professionally in more than a decade and tips the scales a bit north of the 220 pounds he weighed in his prime, but he still has the imposing bearing of a prize fighter. He's bulky in a way that suggests muscle rather than flab, and his hands are huge and engulfing with a well-worn strength, like old iron.

He began boxing at an amateur level when he was 14, first training at a gym in Riceville, Tenn., before relocating a few months later to a facility in Cleveland.

Sutton's first amateur fight was in 1989. Eight matches and four years later, he made his pro debut -- which he won -- against Ray Sanchez in Decatur, Ga. For the next decade, his pro career saw him trading blows in more than a dozen bouts in venues around the country, from Louisville, Ky., to Nashville to Las Vegas.

But the bouts came with frustrating inconsistency, some of them years apart. During these lulls, Sutton says he often became bored with the rigorous training, neglected his regimen and fell out of shape. The backslides are something he deeply laments.

"That's my biggest regret, not that I didn't win a championship or make millions of dollars, just the fact that I'll never know whether I would have made it if I had applied myself," he says. "Would I be retired right now and not having to worry about going to a job every day? I just don't know."

Sutton hung up his gloves in 2003 after a triumphant final fight against Floridian Danny Wofford at Camp Jordan Arena in East Ridge. He ended his career with a middle-of-the-road record of 7-6.

Even though he says he's past wanting to trade blows with 250-pound pugilists anymore, he still thinks about boxing practically every day. Despite terrible memory for dates, he can precisely recount specific exchanges from his fights, often accompanying these narrations with enthusiastic shadow boxing pantomime.

"I do miss it," he says "It's hard."

'Not the nicest sport'

Even as a boxer, Sutton says he felt God's hand at work and the need to reach out to others. He frequently would join in devotions with his opponent before or after matches.

The Bible doesn't have much to say about whether pugilism is favored or frowned upon, he says, but God knows the difference between an athletic competition and a street brawl.

"It's not the nicest sport in the world, but whenever someone asks, 'How can you be a Christian and box?' I say, 'It's not personal,'" he explains. "I'll punch you down now and pray for you after we're done."

As much as he misses the ring, Sutton says he has found peace in the knowledge that he was destined for a different path. He's not sure if he'll attend seminary or continue with his monthly ministry to his home congregation. He's open to whatever comes next, he says, so long as he feels he's remaining true to the path on which God set him.

"Knowing everything there is to know about me, he called me to ministry anyway," he says. "It's humbling; it really is. When I think of it, it's just like, 'Wow, God. Thank you. Thank you for calling me.'"

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.