WHEN BOBBY Toney heard that his childhood hero was living on a dangerous street corner in Camden, he went there to get an autograph and to save the man's life.
Toney, a short, muscled boxer from Audubon, Camden County, who works two jobs cleaning restaurants and detailing cars, had already met former two-time world champion Rocky Lockridge years earlier - in jail - but his devotion had never faded.
"When you're a kid, everyone has a Superman," said Toney, 35, his eyes welling with tears. "I feel like my Superman just went and sat himself down on a big block of kryptonite. He couldn't get off it himself. He just needs some people to lift him up."
When the Daily News went looking for Lockridge last month on his piece of kryptonite at 7th and Chestnut streets in the city's Bergen Square section, he was in the Camden County Jail on outstanding warrants.
But in the few short weeks since, the perennial underdog has been fighting back, thanks to those who were willing to lift him up: Toney; Orlando Pettigrew, a Camden mail carrier who brings him food and clothes; and friends at the Retired Boxing Foundation who are working out plans for a drug-rehabilitation and medical program for Lockridge.
"He's been degraded and embarrassed for more than a decade," said Jacquie Richardson, the foundation's executive director. "I feel that he's ready to rock 'n' roll. If we get him hooked up and he walks away, then he did it and that's on him."
On Thursday, beads of sweat ran down Lockridge's face as the rhythmic sounds of punching combinations, jump ropes and speed bags echoed inside the Camden Boxing Academy, a sweltering garage that serves as a boxing club at the Roberto Clemente Center, in North Camden.
"That's it, Bobby. Stick that jab. Give me 30 hard seconds," Lockridge said, training Toney as he leaned on the walking cane he's used since he had a stroke about three years ago.
Lockridge, 50, is living with Toney in Audubon. He's been attending Faith Tabernacle Church, in Camden, and struggling to get straight so that he can re-establish ties with his family, earn money he hasn't begged for and live on his own. He says that he's been off hard drugs for almost two weeks, and Toney says that he gives him wine coolers to keep the edge off.
"I'm no longer taking a licking, and I'm still ticking," Lockridge said, his speech slightly slurred from the stroke. "I've just got to keep my head looking up [at] the sky. I just want to do what I do best - give back."
Like so many other boxers, Lockridge wasn't equipped for life outside the ring when he retired in 1991. The entourage he partied with and spent money on had split, and the $3 million he says that he earned eventually dried up. Lockridge, who had lived with his family in South Jersey when he was on top of the world, left his wife and kids in Tacoma, Wash., and moved to Camden in 1993.
"I know I got on a plane and came here," he said. "I wish I hadn't."
Lockridge worked briefly, but, eventually, getting money for food and his crack-cocaine and alcohol addictions became a daily routine at 7th & Chestnut, a corner where regulars sip from brown paper bags and hands exchange cash for drugs through car windows. His nights often ended in abandoned homes, jail cells and homeless shelters.
The ragged entourage on his corner called him "the champ." But Lockridge, who finished his career with 44 wins, 36 knockouts and 9 losses, said that many seemed to gloat over his failures.
"There's a lot of down-lookers out there," he said. "A lot of folks like seeing you in the quicksand."
Philadelphia-born prizefighter Ivan Robinson, training a female boxer in the North Camden gym Thursday, said that the sport often chews up its finest and "spits them out on the streets."
"It's hard, man," said Robinson, who lives in Pennsauken, Camden County. "You put yourself on a pedestal and find yourself surrounded by people you don't really know. In the long run, it hurts a lot of people."
Yesterday, Lockridge's son Ricky came up from Maryland to attend church with his dad, a surprise visit for Ricky's 25th birthday. They talked about spending more time together.
It's been more than 25 years since Lockridge's defining moment as an athlete, a first-round knockout of then-undefeated Roger Mayweather in Texas for the World Boxing Association's super-featherweight championship.
Toney said that his father sat him down on their shag carpet in West Deptford, Gloucester County, that night to prove that a little guy, as long as he didn't give up, could always win.
"I've loved boxing ever since that night," said Toney, who recently embarked on his own amateur career.
Lockridge's stunning victory made a lasting impression, but Toney's life has been defined by struggle, too. In the Camden County Jail at age 19 for fighting, Toney said, he saw a familiar face: a short, muscular man shadow-boxing beneath a television.
"He was great," said Toney about that surprise meeting. "He showed me a few fundamentals."
Lockridge's life continued to crumble after their brief meeting in jail, but Toney said that he struggled to turn his life around, losing most of his friends to jail, drugs or death. And Toney lost his daughter Jamica to bacterial meningitis at age 3.
As much as Toney is helping Lockridge, the former champ is filling a painful void inside Toney's big heart, too.
"I had a lot of bad thoughts for a long time," Toney said. "I was alone. I didn't have nobody."
Last winter, when Toney learned that Lockridge was still in Camden, he drove over to 7th & Chestnut with a poster of the former champ from Ring magazine.
But Lockridge, who looked a decade older than 50, needed more than a pat on the back from a young fan.
"I knew right there," Toney said. "I thought, 'If I let this man go and just forget about him, he won't have more than a few years.' He's fought hard for most of his life, and I need him to fight a little harder now. He can beat this."