It Starts Here

By Adam Berlin on May 10, 2015
It Starts Here
The fighters work non-stop. Their punches are textbook, appropriate for a college setting.

This was not a fight flattened out by a television screen. This was 3-D violence, controlled, but bone-basic, flesh-raw…

It starts at six o’clock. 

Like so many amateur shows, this one’s in a gymnasium. On one side of the basketball court, the fighters are warming up, hitting mitts, getting their hands wrapped, stretching their legs and arms and necks. On the other side of the court, carpet has been put down. One section of bleachers has been pulled out and four small sections of seats surround the ring. There’s a blue corner. There’s a red corner. There are tables for the officials and a table for the ring announcers. Above it all hangs a giant banner of a bloodhound, Sherlock Holmes hat on his head. John Jay College of Criminal Justice on west 59th Street in Manhattan is hosting this evening’s card and John Jay’s mascot, the bloodhound, represents the college’s mission to educate for justice. So many of John Jay’s graduates pursue careers that sniff out and snuff out crime. 

The pre-fight sounds are pleasing and familiar. Familiar because the leathered smacks of gloves hitting mitts is the signature sound in every boxing gym. Pleasing because there’s no pain in these sounds, so different from gloves cracking against facial bones or thudding, with sickening vibrations, against vital organs. One fighter, headgear already on, moves inside a stopped elevator, its door open. His trainer holds the pads and the fighter is working hard, working up a sweat. I’m guessing he’s preparing for a phone-booth-style fight.

One of the referees calls the fighters together. He wears a white shirt, emblazoned with the red, white and blue USA Boxing logo. USA Boxing is the amateur sanctioning body. The ref’s an older man, grizzled gray beard, featherweight-thin, his voice a forceful rasp. He tells the fighters to follow the rules. He warns them not to throw punches behind the head. He warns them not to throw kidney punches. He tells them to respect the other boxers and coaches. The fighters stand quiet, eyes nervous, watching the official so they don’t have to watch each other. 

I teach writing at John Jay College. I saw the posters in the lobby advertising Saturday’s fights and figured I’d support my school and buy a ticket. I don’t know anybody fighting.  I don’t know much about John Jay’s boxing club except that it exists, don’t know how serious its members train, don’t know how many students actually want to fight. 

A familiar-looking young man comes over. He reminds me he was my student. His name is Christian Espinosa. He was in my fiction-writing class a number of years ago, took some time off from school, had a child, started working as a personal trainer, and started fighting as an amateur. I ask what weight. He says 165. Now he’s back in school. He tells me how Al Gotay, who teaches in the Department of Health and Physical Education, started John Jay’s boxing club and mentored him. It turns out Mr. Gotay is running the show and, to remove any perceived bias, Christian has agreed to work the corners of the three John Jay student-fighters. All three are making their amateur debuts. 

I sit in the front row, just behind the table where a single official and two fight announcers sit. One announcer stands, taps his microphone to make sure it’s on, steps into the ring. Big and wide, head shaved, wearing a white-jacketed tux, he looks more WWF than sweet-science pugilist, but he enunciates well, and brings a touch of professional showmanship to this amateur card. He welcomes everyone. He introduces Al Gotay as the Professor of Pugilism. He calls the singer to the ring and she sings the national anthem. Everyone faces the stars and stripes hanging at the far end of the gym.

The first fight is between two heavyweights, neither one a John Jay student, both sporting a record of 0-1. It seems appropriate that this evening’s card is opening with the over-200 pounders. Tonight, thirty blocks south, Madison Square Garden will host the heavyweight championship of the world, with Philadelphia’s Bryant Jennings putting his undefeated professional record on the line against reigning king Wladimir Klitschko. This is where it starts—in a ring in a gymnasium with a sparse but excited crowd of 200.  Madison Square Garden is where it ends—if every part of the fistic dream comes true. Tonight’s heavyweight title fight won’t start until 10, late enough for expectation to build, as if professional drama requires an arena surrounded by darkness. This amateur heavyweight fight starts at 6:10, plenty of daylight left outside. 

Ruben Nicholas stands in the red corner. He’s with the Starrett City Boxing Club, a gym with a tough reputation, well represented at New York’s Golden Gloves. In the blue corner, Cam Powder, four pounds heavier and a few inches taller, stands waiting. The fighters come to the center of the ring, touch gloves. Even in the amateurs, even though the potential for raw drama is muted because amateur fighters have their heads covered in headgear, their torsos covered in shirts, there’s that first-fight anticipation. First punches, before the crowd becomes acclimated to leather hitting flesh, are brutal. I still remember the first fight I saw live. It was an amateur card. It was in the Garden. I have no idea who the two fighters were, and I can’t picture them in detail, but I do remember, vividly, the shock of violence. Not as in I was shocked. As in the punches were anatomical shocks to the system. The punches didn’t stop. This wasn’t a one-and-done street fight. This was a controlled fight where blow upon blow upon blow upon blow landed. And each fighter took it. And each fighter dripped. And each fighter snotted and spit. And I was sitting close enough to sense the pain. This was not a fight flattened out by a television screen. This was 3-D violence, controlled, but bone-basic, flesh-raw.

Seeing, in person, the force and danger of punches thrown and landed, hearing the sounds of hitting, punctuate one of boxing’s distinguishing poignancies—fights may be recounted, but a fight, perhaps more than any other contest, resides in the present tense. It’s as immediate as life. Perhaps, as Joyce Carol Oates asserts, life really is a metaphor for boxing. There’s no perhaps to Einstein’s assertion—time really is relative. But forget the physics. We all know, viscerally, how time moves differently depending on what’s happening. Condense a lot of action into a short space of time, and time slows. Like traumatic events remembered in slow motion, the trauma that is a fight slows and stretches seconds. It’s all about the present. It’s all about the now. Perhaps a single photograph of stopped time is the best way to depict boxing. Perhaps the most honest tense to write about boxing is the present tense.

The bell rings and Cam Powder lands a series of hard shots, backing up the southpaw Ruben Nicholas. Because the crowds are usually small at amateur fights, voices sound louder, more defined, and more intimate than in bigger arenas where professional shows reside. The screamers are family and friends. The stakes may not be title belts, but the connections between fans and fighters at amateur shows are close, sometimes as close as two rooms in an apartment, sometimes as close as a close-knit neighborhood. 

Two men stand behind me, screaming. One screams to the Starrett fighter, Use your jab. One screams to the Starrett fighter, Settle down, settle down. Despite the volume of advice, Ruben Nicholas has a hard time mounting an attack against the forward-moving Powder. Nicholas loses the first round. He’s deducted a point for a head butt in the second round. He’s exhausted and bloody-mouthed by the end of the third. But he never stops trying. The bell rings. The decision is announced. Powder has his hand raised. In Nicholas’ corner, they rub a towel against his mouth. Terry cloth streaked in red.

The second fight features the first John Jay fighter. Weighing 178, Oscar Montesdeoca, a Criminal Justice major, has the same thick build as his opponent David Oren, who fights out of NYC’s tough Mendez Boxing Club. Oren had been the kid warming up in the elevator. That, and his ring name Shredder, suggest this fight between two debuting amateurs will be contested at close quarters. And it is. After the pre-fight introductions, which spark the pro-John Jay crowd to life, which in turn spark Oscar Montesdeoca to jump up and down with unbridled but jittery enthusiasm, the bell rings and David Oren goes right to work. He bores in, crowding, crowding, throwing short shots that thud and uppercuts that scrape. Two clean blows in a row halt the action as the ref gives Montesdeoca a standing-eight count. Action resumes. By round’s end, two exhausted bodies lean against each other, the amateur version of a George Bellows painting.

In Round 2, Montesdeoca takes charge. He comes forward. He pushes the action. He shreds the Shredder. This time, the ref administers a standing-eight for Oren. When the round ends, Christian Espinoza acts the veteran in the corner. It may be his first time coaching a fighter during that crucial one minute of rest, but he speaks calmly and with focus, an English major to the core. He shows his fighter exactly how to counter Oren’s looping punches. He pronounces Oren exhausted, which no doubt reassures the exhausted Montesdeoca that he’s fine, that he can fight all night, or at least through the next two-minute round. Like a good student, Montesdeoca listens. He takes a deep breath and stands, ready to fight fatigue and the fighter in front of him. 

Round 3’s battle feels like it’s waged underwater. Each fighter’s arms are so heavy their punches seem pushed back by liquid resistance even as they arc forward. I remember pugilistic lines from The Iliad about the hook of heavy arms. Montesdeoca’s arms push harder. The ref stops the action and gives Oren his second standing-eight. Seconds later the fight ends. The fighters embrace. Headgear removed, Oren’s face is swollen scarlet. The WWF announcer announces the decision and John Jay’s fans rejoice. Oscar Montesdeoca is the victor. 

I find Oscar at the fighter-end of the gymnasium and ask about his John Jay debut: “It felt great being at home, all the crowd supporting me, classmates, my club members, my family. They helped me out to finish strong. And I’m glad I finished victorious. I know they gave me a standing-eight count in the first round, but I knew I had to keep my composure. I knew if I didn’t keep my composure, I’d probably lose the fight. I stayed relaxed and that helped me out a lot. It’s all about staying relaxed in the ring.”

I ask Oscar how boxing has impacted his college career: “This semester I had to wake up early, my meals were proper, my diet. Boxing helped me out with my diet. And it helped me stay focused. This is just another accomplishment I want to add to my list, something I wanted to do since I was young. I couldn’t have it back then, but everything happens for a reason. So I’m glad I’m doing it now.”

The bouts continue, one after the other. This is a well-run show without the usual lag time between fights. In the only female bout of the evening, and the only stoppage, John Jay student Kelly Cordray absorbs too many shots in a flurry-filled fight, but she never stops trying, never stops punching. In the last round, the referee sees enough. He pulls Cordray away, raises Yani Reyes’ hand. 

Kelly is stoical about her loss. I’m guessing some of her wisdom comes from studying the sweet science. “In a very indirect way boxing teaches you time management. It builds your confidence. It teaches you that even if you don’t know completely what you’re doing, you have to do it. You’re never going to learn unless you do it. When I found out there was a boxing class, I took it and I just got hooked. It was someplace I felt I wanted to be. It feels good to be at home. It’s a great environment being here at John Jay and even though I did lose, I’m not upset because I’m still home.” 

Boxing provides shelter in so many ways—boxing gym as refuge from dangerous streets, boxing discipline as shield against trouble. Kelly Cordray’s words are strong ammunition against anyone who advocates a ban on boxing. At its best, boxing houses salvation.

During a quick intermission, I walk over to Al Gotay. A retired police officer with a long resume of college teaching, he’s still in shape with the long, strong forearms of a man built to punch. I ask about the origins of his boxing program: “Boxing was my original first love many, many years ago. Lately, boxing has had a real resurgence. My younger son became a professional boxer. And boxing is coming back to where it should be. We have about forty students in the club and about six or seven of them are competing on a regular basis, in the Golden Gloves and in small fights like this.”

On having a boxing program at a college: “The ones that are the best fighters are actually the best students. They have the ability to focus. John Jay College students are aggressive, they’re go-getters, they work hard, and they’re focused on boxing and academics.” 

In the day, before boxing needed a resurgence, a great number of colleges had boxing teams, including the Ivy Leagues. So prevalent was college boxing, Hemingway wrote it into the first line of The Sun Also Rises. The great American novel begins: Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.

Thinking about literature and boxing, I ask my ex-student and English major Christian Espinosa what connections he sees between what he’s read and what he reads in the ring. 

“I’ve always found that in literature and boxing there’s a progression. There’s always a building, a build toward something. It’s very romantic. There’s no limit to boxing. And it’s the same in literature. I was a seventeen-year-old punk kid when I came into the combat room and very, very egotistical. Until I got my bubble burst. Professor Gotay brought me along. He built me up. I now fight for the New York Athletic Club. I wanted to pay back for all his work, so I said I’d step up and work the corner for our John Jay fighters. I really enjoyed it. It was really fun. It was such an awesome experience working with these guys. It’s like seeing children, seeing them as they grow. It’s like their first baby steps. The first moment they shadow box. From wrapping their hands to seeing them spar to going through the ups and downs with them. It’s beautiful.”

The second half of the program runs as efficiently as the first. Debuting Christopher Madrid, the third John Jay student fighter, drops a decision to Alex Fierro whose busy arms make him 1 and 0 as an amateur. The evening’s best fight features Trent McLeod against Aaron Katzman, a finalist in this year’s NYC Gloves. With 41 fights between them, this fight is less brawl, more skilled battle. Instead of novice two-minute rounds, the rounds are three minutes long. Both fighters work non-stop. Their punches are often textbook, appropriate for a college setting. After three rounds, Katzman gets the nod. 

In all, twenty fighters enter the ring. 

These are the names of the ten winning fighters:
Cam Powder
Oscar Montesdeoca
Folorunso Fatomiloye
Yani Reyes
Nick Guzman
Alex Fierro
Nick Marano
Aaron Katzman
Manny Grullon
Luis Cantillo

These are the names of the ten losing fighters:
Ruben Nicholas
David Oren
Stephano Rappucci
Kelly Cordray
Brian Lopez
Christopher Madrid
David Montes
Trent McLeod
Tony Kim
Robert Maloney

All twenty of these fighters deserve recognition. I’m not blowing smoke—not one fighter hesitated to fight. Each of these young men and women fought bravely, exhausting their reserves, willing themselves to take punches to give punches. The total duration of their fights lasted a few minutes. The stories they can now tell, over and over, to their families, to their friends, when the conversation turns to boxing even when they’re no longer boxing, will last much longer. They dared to step in the ring. They didn’t talk. They did. They took that first step and then the second and third and went through the ropes and put their feet on the canvas and then the bell rang and they didn’t turn back. Some say the first real step starts long before. Some say the first step starts when a fighter walks into a gym for the first time and hears those pleasing sounds. I don’t think so. The gap between training to fight and fighting is as wide as the gap between pleasing pre-fight sounds and brutal in-fight sounds.

The last fighter I speak with is the first fighter who fought, Ruben Nicholas. I remind him that the professional big boys are fighting tonight at the Garden. Then I ask about his own dreams. His mouth’s a little swollen, but his smile is genuine, almost innocent. 

“I was a little nervous, but you know that happens. I was a little nervous, but as the fight progressed I started to get more confident. This is a learning experience. I’m going to get back in the gym and work even harder. I’ve only been in the gym five months, but I’ve learned a lot.”

Ruben Nicholas lost this evening in the gymnasium at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Not everyone wins. That’s life. That’s literature. With two fights under his belt, there’s a quiet wisdom in Ruben’s words that comes from having boxed and learned. 

This, this step, is really where it starts.

Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). For more, please visit adamberlin.com.

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  1. Your Name 09:02pm, 05/17/2015

    Great description of my fight. I’m glad I found the article. Glad my interview was on it. Great article

  2. George zelma 08:09am, 05/11/2015

    Really a refreshing piece about the true virtues of boxing—brave competition without the distorting hoopla.


  3. PhilipA 04:18am, 05/11/2015

    Great job Adam, I still remember watching my first amateur show before my first bout in 2012. The atmosphere really was the catalyst which increased my love for boxing. Boxing and academics do go hand in hand, it’s true that it helps with management, ever since I stopped, I’m sure my work has taken quite a dip. Can’t wait for my return

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