Brian O’Melia: Arresting Negative Energies

By Robert Mladinich on August 29, 2017
Brian O’Melia: Arresting Negative Energies
O’Melia’s mother Agnes, who passed away in 2014, knitted Quarry a sweater. (Mladinich)

He rarely weighed more than 195 pounds, but he sparred regularly with Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and longtime friend Chuck Wepner… 

While growing up in the once rough and tumble Jersey City, New Jersey, Brian O’Melia is the first to admit he was not a tough guy. When he was just 14, he went to a local garage to find some after-school work. The owner physically took advantage of O’Melia in the vilest of ways, which ultimately resulted in the youngster hoping to regain his lost dignity by becoming an amateur boxer. 

“The catalyst to me becoming a fighter was the fact that I was violated by a grown man,” said the now 70-year-old O’Melia, who compiled a deceiving professional record of 16-32-2 (6 KOs) while campaigning as a heavyweight from 1970 to 1980.

“The guy told me he’d hurt my family if I told my parents,” he continued. “I needed a way to get over my anger, and arrest some of the negative energies I had.”

Several months later, O’Melia told his mother about the incident but she, like her son, was somewhat passive and chose not to tell O’Melia’s father. She was afraid he would seek the type of revenge that would land him in jail for a very long time.

When O’Melia was a young man, as well as a somewhat accomplished boxer, he encountered his assailant during a summer weekend at the Jersey Shore.

“I walked up to him and called him by his name,” said O’Melia. “He said he didn’t recognize me. I whacked him, and the local cops came to the scene. I explained to them what had happened and they let me go.”

About a decade after that the man was charged with molesting many youngsters in a high-profile New Jersey case. O’Melia, by then a high school teacher and globetrotting professional boxer, offered to testify about what had happened to him years before.

Because of the statute of limitations on his case, the authorities determined that his testimony would be unfairly prejudicial to the jurors so they opted not to use him.

“The guy was convicted,” said O’Melia, “and he served a lot of time in prison.”

As a pro fighter, O’Melia was handled by the colorful and crude Al Braverman, who once graphically told a reporter that O’Melia “climaxed” every time he got hit. He also said he got angry at any opponent who missed him with a punch.

An armchair psychologist might opine that O’Melia took the presumed beatings that he did because of self-loathing brought on by the sexual abuse. Or perhaps he was trying to validate himself by showing that he was manly enough to absorb punches and always come back for more?

The reality is that O’Melia did not get hit nearly as much as people think he did. Despite the fact that he rarely weighed more than 195 pounds, he sparred regularly with Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and longtime friend Chuck Wepner and emerged with his faculties intact. 

He also squared off against such tri-state area attractions as Paul Simonetti, John Clohessy, Randy Neumann, Pedro Soto, G.G. Maldonado, Bob Bozic, and “Wildman” Bill Carson, as well as more nationally and internationally renowned fighters Joe Bugner, Jose “King” Roman, John “Dino” Denis, Terry Hinke, Lorenzo Zanon, Scott LeDoux, Johnny Boudreaux, and Englishman John Lewis Gardner, who was 22-0 at the time.

O’Melia fought 11 undefeated and six once-beaten fighters. Bugner, Roman, Zanon and LeDoux all received shots at the heavyweight title.

He won five of his first six fights, but the one he lost, he lost big. In early 1970 he was knocked cold in the second round by Jim Lee Elder, a murderous-punching Texan who tragically died of cancer just two years later. The fight took place at Embassy Hall, a glorious but now defunct club in North Bergen, New Jersey.

“He was the only guy who ever really flattened me,” said O’Melia. “I was out cold for a few minutes.”

He was back in the ring just two months later, fighting regularly at Embassy Hall, as well as at Madison Square Garden and the fabled Sunnyside Gardens in New York. 

In early 1972, O’Melia traveled to Puerto Rico where he lost a decision to Roman, who later challenged George Foreman for the heavyweight title. Six weeks later, O’Melia was stopped in two rounds by Bugner, who twice fought Muhammad Ali, in London.

Just five days after that, he was again in Puerto Rico, where he dropped a ten-round decision to rugged journeyman Willie Johnson. 

Ironically, another of his 1972 opponents, Tommy Hicks, was also a special education teacher in upstate New York. In the latter part of 1971, Hicks had been stopped in the eighth round by light heavyweight champion Bob Foster.
Despite losing decisions to Denis, Zanon, LeDoux and Boudreaux, O’Melia has fond memories of all of those fights, as well as the men he competed against. 

“They were all real gentlemen,” said O’Melia. “Denis had lots of boxing skills, but he was not a big puncher. I thought I won the Zanon fight, but it was in Italy, where he was from, and he got the decision. LeDoux had a reputation as a dirty fighter, but he was very professional with me. He was a tough, tough guy. And Bill Carson, he was a rogue type of guy who was very tough but had limited skills.”

O’Melia has a special affinity for the late LeDoux, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2011. O’Melia’s father died from the same neurodegenerative disease. 

He also has much fondness for Wepner, with whom he is still friends, and the late Carson, who before being killed in an accident several decades ago was an outlaw biker who played that part to the hilt.

They all trained at Bufano’s Gym, which boxer and journalist Peter Wood recently brought back to life in stirring stories on and in the Jersey Journal. Wood described the gym as “beautiful in an ugly sort of way—even spiritual and therapeutic.”

“I was 17 or 18 years old and it was one of my first days in the gym,” recalled Wood, a 1971 New York City Golden Gloves middleweight finalist.

“I was hitting the bag and Brian, a no frills but experienced heavyweight, told me to slow down, pick my spots and pace myself; that not every punch had to be a knockout punch.”

Wood once bloodied O’Melia’s nose with an uppercut in a sparring session and said the gracious O’Melia “never held it against me,” even though “he (O’Melia) showed up for sparring the next day with a catcher’s mask.”

Because O’Melia also sparred so many rounds with Wepner, Wood likes to jokingly “boast” that he “punched the nose of a man (O’Melia) who punched the nose of Muhammad Ali (Wepner).”

Besides Wepner, one of O’Melia’s best friends was the late Jerry Quarry, with whom he had sparred many rounds. They were so close, O’Melia’s mother Agnes, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 99, once knitted Quarry a sweater.

O’Melia is thrilled with the fact that he is still respected or liked by so many of his former opponents. One night several of his teaching colleagues went out for an evening in Manhattan, only to have a chance encounter with Bob Bozic, who was working behind the bar at the wonderfully untrendy Fanelli’s Café in trendy Soho.

They reported back that Bozic, a skilled raconteur, regaled them with stories of the two times that he and O’Melia had met in the ring. 

Despite having had such a busy ring schedule, O’Melia managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College and a master’s degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

He was a special education teacher in the Jersey City public school system for 40 years, and only retired in the early 2010s.

“I have such a passion for teaching, and I really love my kids,” said O’Melia, who spoke eloquently and with great insight, while still pondering retirement several years ago. 

The way we interact is really important to me. I like to inspire them to do positive things. I also do lots of little fun things. I’ll say, ‘This is my pinky, this is my thumb.’ I’ll then make a fist and tell them, ‘If you see this, you better run.’”

During a visit to O’Melia’s school several years ago, it was apparent that he was revered by both his colleagues and his students.

Anita Biala, a life skills teacher who is originally from the Philippines, joked that O’Melia had always been her favorite fighter—until Manny Pacquiao came along.

“Mr. O is such a gentleman, the best,” she repeated several times. 

Dolores Jackson, his teaching assistant for 10 years, couldn’t have agreed more, and added, “He is such a well-mannered man.”

And Michele Texter, a teacher and facilitator who runs the after-school program, said, “He is a class act who always puts the kids first.”   

Over the years it had not always been just been fun and games for O’Melia and his pupils. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, he would take troubled students to Rahway State Prison to show them what could happen if they did not get their act together.

He had a relationship with Rahway administrators because he, pro light heavyweight Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree and heavyweight Rodell Dupree, who was the first professional opponent for Larry Holmes, often went to the prison to box exhibitions against the inmates. One of O’Melia’s opponents was a much larger man who was known throughout the facility as “Stomper.”

“Some kids needed a reality check,” he explained. “They needed to be discouraged from doing what they were doing. It worked for some, but not for all. One kid came back years later and told me it worked for him. He said he learned a valuable lesson, and he was set on the right path. I was very happy to hear that.”

One of his favorite memories of his students took place in February 1977, on the afternoon before he was scheduled to battle a big ticket seller named Pedro Soto in one of three ten-rounders at Madison Square Garden. The other bouts featured Wilfred Benitez vs. Harold Weston and Emile Griffith vs. “Irish” Christy Elliott.

That afternoon, Ron Swoboda, a former outfielder on the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets, who was then working as a local television sportscaster, came to the school to interview him and his students.

“He did a really nice segment, and the kids got to see themselves on television,” recalled O’Melia. “It was a thrill for me, and it was a thrill for them.” 

The fight did not go so well, as O’Melia dropped a decision to Soto. By that point of his career, he was fighting more for the love of the game than anything else.

You didn’t have to be around O’Melia for long to realize how committed he would have been to his students even if he had children of his own, which he does not.

Decades earlier, he and his former wife had a son who was born with hydrocephalus, an abnormal amount of cranial fluid that results in enlargement of the skull and atrophy of the brain. The baby passed away after just a few months. 

Sometimes it seems as if the easiest days of O’Melia’s life were the ones he spent in the ring. He doesn’t necessarily agree with that, and he says that he enjoyed his days as a boxer as much as the years he has spent in the classroom.

He also enjoyed being a referee, and he worked fairly regularly throughout New Jersey as the third man in the ring for fights featuring such luminaries as Arturo Gatti, Zahir Raheem, Vinny Maddalone, Ike Ibeabuchi, Lamon Brewster, Rocky Juarez and Simon Brown.

Regarding the losses on his ledger, the always self-effacing O’Melia made a quip about it, despite the fact that the punch line wasn’t factually accurate. Only seven of his 32 losses were by stoppage, and he fought some pretty stiff competition.

“I was hurting guys hands, so they stopped the fights,” he joked. “But I’m happy to say that I’m still best of friends with some of the people I fought. That means a lot to me.”

Beau Williford is a onetime heavyweight prospect who sparred many rounds with O’Melia under the watchful eyes of Braverman. He now runs the lauded Ragin’ Cajun Boxing Club in Lafayette, Louisiana. 

He and O’Melia are both steadfast in their commitment to the youth of America, and Williford speaks for scores of others in his description of O’Melia, with whom he is still in touch.

“Brian was a beautiful guy who always had a smile on his face,” said Williford. “He was a good fighter and a tough guy. If you didn’t like Brian O’Melia, you wouldn’t like Jesus Christ.”

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  1. Philip Matsikoudis 08:13pm, 09/04/2017

    Randy Neumann is a credit to boxing as both a pugilist & an outstanding referee. I recall going to Madison Square Garden to watch Chuck Wepner box Randy Neumann for the Heavyweight Championship of New Jersey in a scintillating bout wherein they fought under the New Jersey State Boxing Commission Rules despite the bout being in New York City. As a result, the match was fought with TWO Minute rounds instead of the usual THREE minute rounds the are now universal. Wepner prevailed in the exciting mill & I believe that was the rubber match of their trilogy.

  2. Randy Neumann 04:59pm, 09/04/2017

    Brian and I have a lot in common. We are both Jersey boys and have been in boxing for 50 years. We fought each other three times, twice in the amateurs and once in the pros. We were both 200 pound heavyweights before there were Cruiserweights. We both fought heavyweight contenders. We were both longtime referees who arbitrated title fights. We are both college graduates with advanced degrees. Brian was an educator for many years and I am the President of Randy Neumann Wealth Management because, one can’t fight forever.
    I would like to thank you for writing a championship piece about my friend, Brian.

  3. Philip Matsikoudis 09:14am, 09/03/2017

    As a fellow citizen of Jersey City I’m very proud of Brian O’Melia a true Champion of Humanity.

  4. Lucas McCain 12:42pm, 09/02/2017

    I’d like to add my note of admiration to the others’.  Even the photo-caption sheds a ray of light you usually don’t see elsewhere among ring reporters.

  5. Your Name 11:52am, 08/30/2017

    Yikes, George

  6. peter 11:27am, 08/30/2017

    Brian was a nice guy, and excellent stable-mate, but he was a tough guy in the ring. He didn’t play around once the bell rang. I consider it a privilege to have boxed him. He probably could have messed me up pretty good while sparring, but I guess he held back and never did. I appreciate that, Brian! This excellent article by the esteemed Robert Mladinich, sheds a gentle light upon O’Melia’s horrendous pain, and the horrible atrocity he has endured throughout his life.

  7. Bill Angresano 07:54am, 08/30/2017

    Beautifully written tribute. Is there any wonder why we have faith in humanity? Any doubts why we love Boxers ?

  8. George Raft 07:43am, 08/30/2017

    Great write up….but this one pisses me off when I think of 14 year old Brian and that “grown man” piece of shit…..a sock in the jaw doesn’t quite get it! Drug dealers from the top of the cartels to the bottom of the barrel, vile, loathsome pimps whose only accomplishment in life is destroying other lives, all of the monsters that molest and rape helpless, innocent children, in fact all rapists whose female victims range from infants to centenarians, and don’t forgot those “justified” prison rapists and the prison workers that enable them “to keep the peace”, and don’t leave out those that rape barn animals. Round them up, put them in gunny sacks, load them on garbage barges and give them the send off they deserve.

  9. Ted Sares 06:21am, 08/30/2017

    Outstanding stuff with a hearty dash of soul.

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