Local Fighters, Local Fights
Tonight was a throwback—two hard-nosed fighters fighting each other, struggling the way contenders need to struggle…
(Heartfelt congratulations to Boxing.com’s Adam Berlin for winning second place from the BWAA for a feature over 1,750 words for his superb “Local Fighter, Local Fights”)
The Roseland Ballroom, a New York City dance hall built in the 1920s, has become host to a more violent two-step over the past several years. Instead of tangos and cha-chas, instead of men in tuxedos sweeping women in gowns across the floor, the toe-to-toes at the Roseland have featured men hitting men. The very idea of a dance hall conjures images of another time, a time before my time, when life was more romantic, but those good old days were not all rosy. Times may have been simpler, but lives were harder, life spans shorter, working conditions rougher, which is perhaps why the roughest of sports was more popular. Before the glitz and glam of Vegas trumped the Big Apple as the place to fight, New York City was boxing’s mecca and every week, in arenas around the city, fighters fought.
Weekly shows diminished into monthly shows.
During the ‘80s, Thursday night was New York City’s fight night and the Felt Forum, Madison Square Garden’s small sibling of a theatre, housed much of the action. Local fans followed local favorites as they moved up the rankings and, if successful, onto bigger venues and lucrative paydays. Iran Barkley, one of the Forum’s favorites, sharpened his blade at the Forum before he spectacularly knocked out Thomas Hearns. At the Forum, Carl Williams and Alex Stewart built records that earned them heavyweight title shots. Juan LaPorte showed his forward-moving might. Glenwood Brown made believers that he indeed was a contender. The list of fighters that worked under the Forum’s lights was long and interesting, some famous—Mike Tyson, Mike McCallum, Aaron Davis, Buddy McGirt—some not—Chris Reid, Kevin Moley, Tundee Foster, Angel Cruz. These were the names from my boxing youth and the less-famous names are the ones I remember best. New York’s fight fans looked forward to watching these fighters fight regularly, gauging their progress as they transformed themselves from kids with skills into genuine professionals. We were connected to these fighters because we felt we knew them. And, in no small measure, our connection to these local boxers helped the larger sport of boxing thrive.
Monthly shows dwindled into a few shows a year.
This unfortunate progression is the current state of boxing in New York City. And it’s a downward shift which highlights a sad syllogism about today’s fight game, a syllogism that makes logical sense but not pugilistic sense. Fighters have fewer places to fight. Therefore fighters fight less often. Therefore fighters are not as skilled as they once were, often ill-prepared when they’re forced to step up in class. A serious by-product of this spiral in local bouts per year is that fans no longer feel as passionately about this sport, which, at its finest, has the power to inspire. I still love boxing, but I’m not invested in fighters the way I once was. Sporadic appearances in local venues do not loyal fans make. Sure, millions of viewers will shell out fifty bucks for a pay-per-view mega-fight, a crass indicator that boxing, if not thriving, is alive and well, yet our allegiance to specific fighters has become tempered. It’s a disappointing case of out-of-sight, out-of mind.
Fewer fights in fewer venues. This damaging trend will not reverse itself soon, if ever. But give credit to Joe DeGuardia, president and CEO of Star Boxing, for promoting local shows, for providing stages on which New York area fighters can learn their trade, at least a little, and where New York fans can find new favorites. If these young fighters eventually make it to the big-time, great. We’ll watch them on pay-per-view and root for the local kids made good. But even if these fighters never become superstars (or regular stars) they’ll have earned followings, they’ll have created memories, and they’ll have proved their own toughness in a tough place. Defining themselves as local fighters in a locale like New York City is a label worthy of pride. Local fights. It’s good for boxers. It’s good for boxing.
DeGuardia’s Friday night card at the Roseland promised to be special because it featured a number of local fighters at the beginning of their careers, and, squaring off in the main event, two relatively local favorites with strong records and solid fan bases. There was something old school about two guys from the proverbial neighborhood fighting for bragging rights. And there was something old school about the match-up in styles—a slick boxer pitted against a rugged brawler. I didn’t expect to see seats filled with men in fedoras smoking cigars, but I did expect to see a full house, to feel the anticipation of a good fight, to be drawn into the timeless thrill of boxing. Before he became a promoter, Joe DeGuardia was an attorney, working in the DA’s office in the Bronx. I hoped DeGuardia’s show, held in midtown Manhattan, broadcast by ESPN, showcasing two solid fighters and a number of New York kids moving up, would argue the case for more local shows and argue it well.
Delvin Rodriguez from Danbury, Connecticut, by way of the Dominican Republic, has a loyal following, probably because most of his fights have been staged in the tri-state area. Four years ago, when he fought on another DeGuardia card a few miles north of the Roseland (at another old-time venue, the Paradise Theatre in the Bronx), Rodriguez’s fans came out. Delvin Rodriguez is 25-5-2, a tally that’s deceptive. Of his five losses, four of them could be contested. His fight in Poland against a Polish favorite for the IBF’s number one spot ended a few points shy of victory. By all accounts, Rodriguez, who’s a boxer first and a puncher second, was the better boxer that night and won the fight. I’d seen his other close losses (two split decisions and a majority decision) and on my unofficial scorecard Delvin was never the loser. With better judging, Rodriguez would have entered the Roseland with a 29-1 record.
Before the bell rang, 29-1 was the actual record of Pawel Wolak. Wolak is a worker, a young man who prides himself on his blue-collar approach to boxing and rightfully so. Before I ever saw Wolak fight, I’d heard stories about his training regimen. In the gym, he was the last man standing. On the road, he ran until he puked. Stop and think about that for a minute. To push your legs is one thing. To run until you’re desperately sucking wind is another. To keep going until your body rebels, until your insides come out, well, that’s complete dedication, an exhausting and exhaustive commitment that has translated well in the ring. This work-out story may be boxing’s example of an urban legend, but even if fiction, it points to a truth, as all fiction points to truths, about Pawel Wolak’s discipline. Nicknamed the Raging Bull, Wolak shows La Motta-like will whenever he fights, wearing his opponents down, blow by blow by blow. Originally from Poland and now living in Mount Arlington, New Jersey, Wolak, like Rodriguez, has a loyal fan base. I’ve heard them chanting in the Garden. I’ve seen them waving Polish flags at Yankee Stadium when Wolak fought on the undercard of the Cotto/Foreman bout. There was no doubt the Roseland Ballroom would be hopping when Wolak and Rodriguez faced off.
A week before fight night, Brian Kenny talked to the two fighters, who sat side by side in ESPN’s studio. ESPN rarely interviews the combatants for its following week’s show, which proved how excited the network was to televise a main event that was truly competitive, a pick-‘em fight according to many I spoke with. Both fighters were polite and candid. Both knew this was a crossroads fight, that a victory could mean a title shot—Wolak’s first, Rodriguez’s second. “If I want to prove myself, if I want to get back in the public eye, I have to fight this guy,” Rodriguez said. Wolak echoed that need for visibility, a visibility easier to gain in years past because, quite simply, fighters fought more often. “I want to be seen by everybody. Blue-collar guys. Every day fans.” On Rodriguez, Wolak said, “He’s a nice guy,” to which Rodriguez countered, “Once we step in the ring, we don’t know each other.” Rodriguez’s eyes went hard, anticipating the contest with confidence. Wolak’s eye sported a shiner; clearly, he’d been training all-out.
One of the joys about covering smaller, local shows is that boxers are accessible, especially at the weigh-in. So I took the subway downtown to William Street, took the elevator up to the twentieth floor where the New York State Athletic Commission keeps its offices, and took out my pad and pen. A day before fight night and all the young men looked fight ready. Headline fighters are usually weighed first; after all, without them, the show won’t go on. And getting weighed first has its advantages—the first fighters weighed are the first fighters who can rehydrate and eat. Wolak and Rodriguez were called to the front of the room. Last week, in the comfort of ESPN’s studio, smiling for the camera, the fighters’ faces had been calmer, softer even, but as they stepped up to the scale, stripped down to their underwear, their faces were gaunt and their eyes steeled for what lay ahead. Wolak weighed 153½. Rodriguez, moving up from welterweight so he wouldn’t have to drain himself for the scales, weighed 153. I asked each fighter how he felt about fighting in his proverbial backyard. Pawel Wolak, as measured in his words as he is relentless in his attack, said, “Of course I like fighting here. The fans come out. The Roseland is easy to get to, all my fans will get there early, and they can use public transportation. It’s a perfect spot.” A perfect spot, at the center of Manhattan, at the crossroads of practically every subway line in the system. Delvin Rodriguez was more visibly excited, “It’s such a big motivation. It’s a great feeling. We’re both close by. We both have a big number of fans. It’s going to be jumping and noisy at the Roseland Ballroom tomorrow night.”
I hadn’t been to a New York City weigh-in since Melvina Lathan took over as New York State Athletic Commissioner, and while the weigh-in room was more cramped, the process went smoothly. In fact, before the official weigh-in began, Lathan encouraged the fighters to weigh themselves unofficially so there’d be no surprises. And there were none. Physicals were passed. Weights recorded. Friday night’s card was set in stone.
Before I left the Commission’s office, I spoke with ex-champion and current trainer Joey Gamache. His son Steven was on the card, fighting his second pro fight and his first in New York City. Joey Gamache, always thoughtful, always insightful, remembered the fighters from the Felt Forum days, and remembered when New York held its own as a boxing capital. And he had his own ideas about why New York City boxing has waned in recent years. “The city is trying to make a comeback, but it’s a tough place. It’s expensive to be a promoter and it’s expensive to be a fighter. You have to pay gym dues. You have to pay a trainer. You almost can’t afford to be a fighter. And you almost can’t afford to be a trainer. We have to keep New York as the mecca of the world. There’s talent here in the amateurs, but where are you going to develop them in New York? Fighters have to sell tickets. Besides training, besides working hard, you have to sell tickets to be on these shows.” What Gamache is referring to is a common practice. Promoters, needing to fill seats to make a profit, require fighters to bring fans. Joey Gamache trains fighters at the Mendez Boxing Gym on 26th Street and, naturally, Steven Gamache, who has lived in the city for the past six years, trains there too. So there are plenty of loyal Gamache followers from Mendez, many of them white-collar boxers whose boxing is an avocation rather than a vocation. Steven Gamache brought in thirteen grand worth of seats, earning his keep and insuring he’ll be on future Star Boxing cards. But if a fighter is not so popular, or a poor self-promoter, the chances of being featured, consistently, on local cards is slim.
“Let’s look at the picture,” Joey Gamache said. “Let’s see where the particulars are. You want to get involved in New York boxing, but wait. You’ve got to break down the cost for everything. To put on a show. To rent a gym. To buy equipment. To pay a trainer. New York City is expensive. Boxing used to be a poor man’s sport. Now it’s tough to be a promoter. It’s tough to be a trainer. And it’s tough to be a boxer.”
This is a realistic portrait of New York boxing’s current face. Times are indeed tough. I’ve met too many promoters who invariably lose money. I’ve watched too many cards where empty seats outpointed patrons.
Not so tonight. As soon as I walked into the Roseland Ballroom, it was clear Star Boxing would turn a profit, that empty seats were down for the count. The local fighters on this local card had packed the hall with their local fans and the joint was jumping. Perhaps fittingly, the first bout of the night was an amateur bout, young kids coming up, and when they started going at it, they seemed the perfect preview to the main event. One kid was a boxer. One kid was a brawler. When the decision was announced to this very close fight, the nod went to the brawler.
Pawel Wolak entered the ring wearing army fatigue shorts emblazoned with the Everlast seal, and why not? He’s built like a tank and he fights like a tank, always forward-moving, bell-to-bell. Then Delvin Rodriguez came through the ropes, the more debonair dancer in tonight’s dance, looking regal in a silk blue robe. The crowd stood and cheered during the ring entrance. The crowd stood and cheered during the delay that comes with televised cards, as viewers at home watch commercials. The crowd stood and cheered during the introductions. All the while, the two fighters, standing at opposite corners of the ring, moved side to side, getting into rhythm for the night ahead.
When the bell rang, the crowd exploded and the bull Wolak, as if released from his chute, charged forward, immediately smothering Rodriguez. There would be no feeling out in this first round. Rodriguez stayed in the pocket, absorbed some shots, landed some punches of his own, but the round went to the busier Wolak.
In Round 2, Rodriguez came alive. Remaining in the pocket, taking Wolak’s blows to his arms and shoulders, Rodriguez would step back and punch. He wasn’t far enough away from Wolak to get any extension on his punches, but the punches he landed were far cleaner than the wider shots Wolak threw. It was a close round but Rodriguez took it. As he took rounds 3 and 4 on my card. While Wolak was the busier fighter, Rodriguez was the better fighter. He landed a right uppercut followed by a left cross time and time again, crisp punches that snapped Wolak’s head. Wolak was unable to defend himself against these shots and while he continued, tank-like, to push forward, his momentum did not offset the damage Rodriguez inflicted.
Rodriguez sat in his corner between rounds, breathing heavy, but looking confident. His game plan—and it was a clear game plan to stay close to Wolak, to smother the smotherer, and to land the uppercut-cross combination—was working. Wolak, still full of fuel, was up before the bell rang to start Round 5. Wolak pressed. Rodriguez stayed close, countering wide shots with straight shots. But in the middle of the round, the rhythm changed. Rodriguez’s legs turned heavy. He stayed on the ropes too long. To beat Wolak, a fighter needs to be in supreme shape, and Rodriguez was looking like a tired fighter. Wolak threw punches at every target—gut, chest, head. And right before the sixth round ended, Wolak dug a shot to Rodriguez’s mid-section that thudded above the dance hall’s noise. The fight was even.
So far, this was a very good fight and the crowd was in it, cheering every minute of every round. But great fights require more than constant action. They require ebb and flow. They require brutal, shocking exchanges that shift the balance of power. They require both combatants to abandon caution and fight for their lives. The fight turned great in Round 7. Instead of succumbing to what seemed like inevitable fatigue, Rodriguez gathered himself and forced himself to fight hard. He was breathing heavy, and Wolak was coming forward as he always comes forward, working to break his opponent’s will, but instead of breaking, Rodriguez rallied. He landed a big uppercut that shook Wolak. He landed clean combinations that bent Wolak over and created a massive swelling over Wolak’s right eye, a grotesque knot that spoke of boxing’s brutality. I was reminded of the famous George Bellows painting Both Members of This Club, which shows two fighters in a dance of exhaustion, holding on to each other for life because to separate would mean death. When this round ended, the crowd was standing, screaming, plugged in completely.
The minute between rounds extended into two minutes as time-out was called for the doctor to examine Wolak’s eye. Wolak shrugged off the pain and, warrior that he is, went charging into battle once again. Round 8 was violent. Wolak landed vicious body shots. Rodriguez stayed too long against the ropes, throwing punches in spurts, then covering up. One fighter’s body was exhausted. One fighter’s face was destroyed. It was a close round, but Wolak’s impressive energy won him the eighth.
When Round 9 started, Rodriguez, sitting on his stool, looked like a broken man. Wolak, as he was before every round began, stood waiting, ready to jump back in. “Come on, come on,” he yelled impatiently. His right eye was practically closed, but his gaze was fixed forward. Rodriguez, the tired warrior across the ring, stood, raised his hands to protect his face and came forward. What followed were three minutes of exhilarating boxing. For the first half of the round, Rodriguez couldn’t escape the ropes and he took a vicious pummeling. For the second half of the round, Wolak couldn’t escape the clean shots Rodriguez delivered, stinging shots that buckled Wolak’s knees in the center of the ring. Ebbs and flows. Round 9 made it official on my card. This fight was great.
Round 10 went to Rodriguez as I thought it would. Like a runner approaching the finish line, a tired boxer is often able to pick up the pace when he makes it to the last round. Second winds have been dismissed as physiologically impossible, but as this fight clearly showed, a strong mind, a strong will, can control the body. The pace was furious and remained furious. Wolak’s will was strong. But in this last round, Rodriguez’s will was stronger. He punched and punched, staggering Wolak just before the bell rang, and he continued punching after the bell rang. Steve Smoger, the referee for this bout, jumped in and held Rodriguez against the ropes. Finally, Delvin Rodriguez could rest. Finally, Pawel Wolak could tend to his eye. It’s a testament to Steve Smoger’s experience and skill that he wasn’t noticed, not once, during the entire fight until the very end when duty called him into the fray.
The fight was over, but the fight crowd remained in a frenzy. “Brings us back to an era we haven’t seen in a long time,” one fan yelled. People shook hands, high-fived, adrenaline in their blood. Teddy Atlas, famed trainer and ESPN commentator, turned to us and said, “That was a fight.” He didn’t need to say the word great.
The fight went to the scorecards. Tom Schreck had it 97-93 for Rodriguez. Judges Lederman and Weisfeld had it 95-95 each, which made the decision a majority draw. I had the fight for Rodriguez, 96-94. Delvin Rodriguez hasn’t gotten the breaks in too many of his bouts and tonight he deserved a win. Yes, many of the rounds were close, but had the fighter who landed the cleaner shots been rewarded instead of the fighter who threw shots more frequently, the referee would have raised the real winner’s hand. Still, this decision did not temper the thrill of the fight.
The other bouts on the card did not live up to the main event, how could they, but they were good fights and they showcased some of New York’s talent. Kevin Rooney from Catskill, New York (and son of boxer Kevin Rooney Sr.) knocked out a game, but outgunned Elmer Vera from Queens. Raymond Serrano decisioned another game New York City fighter, Daniel Sostre from Harlem. Brooklyn’s Reggie LaCrete lost to Lionel Thompson, a slick boxer from Buffalo. And Joey Gamache’s son, Steven, who was matched tough against Rogelio Sanchez, scored a knockdown in the first and showed heavy hands, winning a lopsided unanimous decision.
Among the Roseland crowd were many retired fighters, most from New York, including some who’d made names for themselves at the Felt Forum’s monthly shows. I went over to one of the Forum’s favorites, Larry Barnes, who grew up in New York, cut his teeth in the Golden Gloves, and fought for the title once upon a time against Felix Trinidad. We shook hands and I asked how he, a local fighter, felt when he fought in the city. “People rooted for me. I had nothing but tenacity in my heart. After the fight, the hometown fans, it was camaraderie. So many people who you knew and grew up with watched you become a pugilist.” And then he added, “I didn’t think anyone remembered me anymore.” I remember Larry Barnes, the way I remember so many of New York’s pugilists, the way everyone at the Roseland, years from now, will remember Delvin Rodriguez and Pawel Wolak and the night they danced under the ballroom’s lights. Even if they never win a title, we’ll remember them.
Tonight was a throwback—two hard-nosed fighters fighting each other, struggling the way contenders need to struggle. Perhaps most old-school was the exuberance that filled the space around the ring. The fans, loud and excited, especially so because they were watching two local favorites rising to the test, sounded like years ago when boxing was a sport for the masses, when weekly fights filled New York City’s nights.
If competitive cards could be staged throughout the city on a weekly basis, if homegrown fighters could learn their profession slowly and steadily, there would be a resurgence of boxing interest in the city and a resurgence of boxers who knew, by fighting frequently, by honing skills, all the tricks of their trade. And if other cities took New York City’s cue, local prospects would be cultivated throughout the country while the nation’s fan base would prosper and multiply. Grassroots campaigning won a presidency. Grassroots promoting could win mainstream attention for a sport too often pushed to the margins.
Local fighters. Local fights. It’s a simple formula. So simple, it feels like more than just a pipe dream. The result: Boxing would be back.