Remember When: A Card Worth Remembering

By Adam Berlin on March 27, 2012
Remember When: A Card Worth Remembering
Mariusz Wach’s eyes showed he was completely clued into the man right in front of him

Tony Soprano, Nucky Thompson, Gordon Gekko are part of a long list of movie tough guys. But that’s just Hollywood…

ATLANTIC CITY—There’s a great moment in The Sopranos’ final season where Tony Soprano, looking beat-up by life, pauses to listen closely to his friends. They’re eating and drinking and reminiscing about the good old days, but Tony, bitter about his age, tired of his day-to-day routine, wants no part of their memories. His pronouncement stops the party cold, “Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.” It’s a memorable line about memory. Reminiscing, telling stories about old times, may keep the past alive, but in that clear-eyed moment, TV’s favorite mob boss recognizes the dead part of looking back. Tony Soprano would rather be living young than remembering old.

I kept thinking about Tony Soprano’s line while my brother and I drove Tony Soprano’s highways to Atlantic City, a day trip to a daytime boxing card, a rarity these days. We were going to see up-and-coming Polish heavyweight Mariusz Wach put his undefeated record to the test against 53-fight veteran Tye Fields. Wach is a young, unscathed 32-year-old, who has built a career slowly and steadily, first in Europe (mostly Poland where he’s from) and for the last two years here in the States. Mariusz Wach is on the cusp of name recognition, but not quite there, which puts him in the creating-memories stage of his career, not the reminiscing part. I was looking forward to seeing what this heavyweight had.

As with every sport, there’s joy in seeing a rookie or an almost-rookie moving up the ranks. Perhaps this joy is most intense in boxing because it’s such an individual sport—to be there when a future legend was starting out makes for a great story and, dare I say it, a great remember-when story. Since the main event was in the heavyweight division, I replayed some of my heavyweight remember-when moments while we drove south. I saw a young Gerry Cooney knock a guy out with a left hook to the body, a harbinger of his run for the title. I saw a teenage Mike Tyson pulverize a guy, a career-harbinger defined by explosive power and internal combustion. Of course, I had other young memories, of other heavyweights, who did not fare so well. I saw Alex Stewart run a string of victories at the Felt Forum. I saw Big Art Tucker tower over lesser men. I saw Carl “The Truth” Williams jab and move to many victories. Today, Cooney and Tyson are known names. Stewart and Tucker and Williams are not. Mariusz Wach’s legacy? Time will tell. 

We pulled into a lot just outside the Resorts Casino Hotel, parked, and walked to the boardwalk, a must-do in Atlantic City. It was cold, a cold wind coming off the ocean, the gray sky bleak, gray and white seagulls circling, the setting less like a color photograph, more like an old-time black-and-white, which matched the 1920s music piping out of speakers somewhere. It seemed fitting: To Tony Soprano’s line about remembering when. To Resorts, which was Atlantic City’s first casino. To the boardwalk’s resurgence in another HBO mobster show, Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s. Down the beach, on an abandoned cement pier, were a run-down Ferris wheel and rollercoaster that seemed from another time. It was all pretty depressing. We turned from the ocean, also gray, and walked into and through the casino; the inside mood wasn’t much better than the outside mood. Saturday-afternoon dead, the slot bells ringing too hollowly, the smoke smelling more stale than sexy, Resorts had seen better days. We had an hour to kill before fight time. 

In the dressing room, the usual pre-fight tension was dissipated by space—here at Resorts, the dressing room was a vast ballroom, partitioned in two, where fighters and their crews sat at round tables spread about the carpeted floor. Some of the fighters were getting their hands wrapped. Some stretched. Some hung out, talking to their buddies, looking as if an impending fight was the last thing on Saturday’s schedule. Joe Spina, a hyped-up light heavy, interrupted the quiet with shrieks and grunts, psyching himself for battle. 

I hung out at the table of Steve Bujaj, a two-time New York Golden Gloves champion, who would be fighting the night’s first bout. Kwame Asante, one of boxing’s solid men, probably most famous for training Joshua Clottey, was wrapping Steve Bujaj’s hands while Steve listened to music, relaxing. Less relaxed was Steve’s older brother, Eli, who stood nearby. Eli was well aware this fight against Joshua Harris, a tall, strong kid from Youngstown who’d already spoiled a couple of undefeated records, was going to be Steve’s biggest test. Eli was concerned for his brother’s safety and for his brother’s happiness, recognizing that Steve (Stivens in Albanian) had given up everything, including school, for a boxing dream. Like most brothers, he expressed how tough it was to see his brother fight. I understood the worry in his eyes. When my kid brother fought in the Gloves, I was proud he’d walked up those three steps, but when the bell rang I wanted to jump in the ring to help him punch the guy in front of him. I’d seen Steve Bujaj spar before and I’d been impressed, so beyond the obvious reasons, I was less concerned than Eli about Steve’s upcoming fight. Bujaj had gone two rounds with Alexander Povetkin and not only did he hold his own against the Olympic gold-medalist, but he landed the better shots, getting in, doing damage, getting out. Eli did give me one remember-when anecdote about his brother, “When he was a kid, he’d knock his head on something hard and he’d just laugh.” Laughing through pain—a promising reaction for a future fighter.

Then Tye “Big Sky” Fields walked by and his heavyweight body took over the room. Fields would be fighting Wach, and while Wach measures in at 6’7”, a towering giant from Poland, Fields would be the bigger man for this fight. At 6’8”, 256 pounds, with powerful arms and a hydrant neck, he looked like a super-hero come to life. 

Steve followed Asante to a corner of the ballroom to work the mitts. Mariusz Wach walked through the ballroom to a corner table, his small Polish entourage in tow—the bigger Polish entourage was already outside singing. Joe Spina yelled at the imaginary fighter in front of him, or maybe the image of the fighter he’d soon be fighting, contender Jerson Ravelo. The men from the boxing commission scurried around the room making sure everyone was in place. It was almost fight time. My brother and I left the dressing room for the Superstar Theater to see, perhaps, the makings of some future stars in a show billed “Heavyweight: New Generation.”

The entire card, promoted by Global Boxing, was about young or relatively young fighters (in chronological years or in boxing years) being put to the test. Too many cards feature set-up fights, undefeated prospects fighting scrubs, hometown favorites fighting imported men hired for slaughter. Kudos to Global Boxing for composing a card of five competitive bouts—both on paper and, as it turned out, in the ring. The star attractions were two undefeated heavyweights from Poland and when I walked to press row, I felt like an American visitor surrounded by Polish fans dressed in red, waving red and white flags, singing Polish songs. It was more soccer stadium, less boxing arena, but either way, the air was alive.

The first fighter entered the ring. Steve Bujaj may have been undefeated, but he was listed as the visiting fighter, strange because he’s an Eastern European, born in Albania, and the “hometown” fighters for this card were all, save one, from outside the US. But Bujaj didn’t seem fazed. He stood calm, almost unassuming. Cruiserweights often pass for heavyweights; not so Steve Bujaj. At 21 he’s not super-defined as his Superman ring name might suggest, but a closer look at his strong legs tells the story about where his weight resides. Think Marciano and you think about massive thighs and calves—that great champion’s knockout power was generated from below the belt. Rocky Marciano, fighting as a heavyweight in the 1950s (some of you remember when!), weighed in at under 190 pounds. Steve Bujaj is a solid cruiser at 199. 

Joshua Harris entered second, well warmed-up, looking fight ready.

When the bell rang, both men went to work and both men worked as if each expected victory, the tell-tale sign of a competitive fight. There was no doubt in either cruiserweight’s head. But the better work was done by Bujaj. He stayed close to Harris, landing lefts, landing rights, landing hooks to the body. Harris landed shots of his own, mostly left hooks, and one particularly stinging hook landed flush on Bujaj’s jaw. For a fighter to move through the professional ranks, he has to punch harder than most mortals. But he must also possess the ability, partly nurtured, mostly natured, to take a punch. The young kid who’d smashed his head against something hard and laughed, was now the young man getting hit by something very hard, a wicked left hand. Bujaj didn’t laugh. What he did was step back, take a breath, accept the momentary buzz, and, instead of putting on a fake smile the way hurt fighters too often do, Bujaj went solemnly back to work. At the end of the round it was Bujaj doing the stinging. Round 2 started where Round 1 stopped—both fighters trading shots. But Bujaj’s shots were heavier, faster, more varied, and then they exploded. Bujaj landed a big right that sent Harris back and a bigger right that sent Harris down. Harris was up at 8, but Bujaj, like the best workers, didn’t quit until his shift was done. He beat Harris into the ropes. Then he beat Harris on the ropes until the ref stopped the fight. Steve Bujaj is now 7 and 0 with five knockouts. Busy, strong, able to take a shot and give back three, possessing power in both hands, Stivens Bujaj is a young fighter to watch closely. 

You know a card is excellent when the second preliminary of the night pits a wild man like Joe Spina (coming in at 26-1) against Jerson Ravelo (coming in at 20-5), a highly touted amateur who has stumbled as a pro, but remains a skilled and able 25-year-old. This promised to be an exciting fight and it delivered. Spina’s pre-fight sound effects in the dressing room were transformed into during-fight physical effects. The tough guy from Providence threw as wildly as he’d yelled, winging haymakers that caught Ravelo too many times. Spina’s wide punches may look amateurish, but they pack a professional wallop. In a bar fight, I’d choose him, first pick. But in the ring, straighter punches win points and Ravelo’s jab and straight rights did just that. At the end of eight non-stop rounds, Spina was breathing heavy, Ravelo was cut, and the bout went to the scorecards. I had the fight a draw, but Ravelo was given the split-decision nod. 

One non-fight note about this fight that affected the fight: Emblazoned on the center of the canvas was a large Global Boxing logo. The problem with putting logos and advertisements on the canvas is that the material is different from regular canvas material—it’s slick, and, when it gets wet, it becomes even slicker. And that’s what happens when fighters dance on the canvas—they make it wet with blood and snot and spit and sweat. We’ve seen too many instances of fighters losing their footing on these slippery ads. Greed may be good, according to Wall Street’s tough-guy mogul Gordon Gekko, but greed on canvas is detrimental and dangerous. Jerson Revelo kept losing his footing on the logo and so had to retreat from the center of the ring to the periphery. This happened several times during the fight—Ravelo would slip on the Global Boxing sign, step back, wipe his shoes against the regular canvas, hoping for traction, and then stay close to the ropes where he tried to move and box and punch with leverage. A maintenance man with a towel kept wiping down the logo between rounds, but it did no good. Not only can these logos lead to injury, but they can create inequality in the ring. Brawlers can do their work comfortably along the ropes, away from advertising-harm’s way. But stick-and-move fighters, who rely on boxing instead of brawling, need every square foot of the canvas to do their work. Ravelo, the boxer in this bout, was put at an unfair disadvantage. It’s high time all commissions ban advertising on the boxing canvas. Corona logos trip fighters like they’re drunk. McFit logos tumble fighters like they’ve gorged on Big Macs. The number one responsibility of every boxing commission is to protect its fighters. By allowing canvases to be tarnished with slick logos, the commissions are protecting profit margins. Global Boxing promoted a fine show, but their show would have been tainted had someone slipped hard on their ad.

The afternoon’s third bout featured the first heavyweights, undefeated Artur Szpilka from Poland going against Florida’s Terrance Marbra. When Szpilka entered the ring he went right up to Marbra, pressing his face into Marbra’s face, and Marbra, appropriately, shoved Szpilka, sending him stumbling backward. Szpilka drew his glove across his neck, the ever-popular I’m-going-to-have-your-head gesture, but when the bell rang, Szpilka put out his glove, Marbra touched it, and decorum was restored. There was nothing polite, however, about Szpilka’s punches. A left hook/uppercut hybrid caught Marbra on the point of the chin and he went down hard. Marbra got up, but he was hurt. Ten seconds later, Szpilka repeated his hybrid punch, almost identically. Marbra went down, got up, but he was done and so was the fight. When Marbra exited the theater, Polish fans, in a disgusting display of bad sportsmanship, surrounded Marbra and taunted him for going down in a round. It wasn’t like Marbra quit. He got hit hard twice and he was man enough to get off the canvas twice. The taunting fans were the opposite of brave; it’s pitifully easy to be a tough guy outside the ring when the mob is on your side and security is there to protect you. Szpilka moved to 10 (KO8) and 0. Marbra fell to 6 and 2.

Fight number four saw Poland’s Kamil Laszczyk against Philly’s Tevin Farmer for the vacant WBO Youth super featherweight title, a bullshit title if ever there were one. When the two fighters’ combined record for a title fight is 10 wins and 2 losses, something’s wrong—shame on the WBO for collecting a sanctioning fee for this one. But credit the two fighters, who threw down like a real title was on the line. After seeing the big boys fight, these 130-pounders looked quick as hummingbirds. Laszczyk was the more disciplined fighter. Farmer had the heavier hands but took too much time off between combinations. Laszczyk won a deserved unanimous decision after eight rounds and remains undefeated at 8 and 0.

And then it was main-event time. The story-line was clear: One undefeated heavyweight, looking to add an important chapter to his career by fighting a seasoned veteran, would test his skills against an older fighter looking to regain some stature by beating a viable contender. Tye Fields entered first and did something I’ve never seen done. He stepped into the ring by literally stepping over the top rope. This should be the official new litmus test for “big.” When Mariusz Wach walked into the already-loud house, the Polish fans chanted even louder. Everything is relative and relative to everyone else, these two men look like giants, but when the ring was cleared, the two men looked like men, one man against another. Tony Soprano, Nucky Thompson, Gordon Gekko are part of a long list of movie tough guys. That’s Hollywood.  In the ring, two real tough guys were about to tough it out. 

I expected Wach to dominate this fight; or more accurately, I expected Fields to fold early. He didn’t. Fields was the busier fighter for the first two minutes of every round and while his punches were ponderous (big arms do not big punches make), his jabs did land. Wach seemed in tune with the time clock. For two minutes he would wait and move and throw an occasional jab, but then in the final minute of each round, he’d throw crisp combinations that snapped the giant Canadian’s head. This was the pattern for four rounds. Fields would win two minutes. Wach would win the third minute. Since Wach’s minute was the more dramatic and brutal minute, I scored the rounds for Wach. In the fifth, Wach’s eyes showed he was completely clued into the man in front of him and at one point, he smiled. There was nothing fake about it; he knew he had his man. Wach waited for Fields to fire off some harmless volleys then switched the time ratio—in Round 5, Wach beat Fields for two minutes instead of one. Fields walked back to his corner a tired man. In many ways, because of his size, because of the shape of his head, Fields reminded me of a sad-faced Firpo, the giant Argentine who was decimated by Jack Dempsey in 1923, about the time of Atlantic City’s heyday. Yes, I was reminiscing about a past I’d never known. In Round 6, Wach granted Fields no gifts of time—he started fighting from second one. The big man beat the bigger man around the ring and finally a solid right hand spelled TIMBER. Wach rejoiced. The fans rejoiced. Fields, after getting inspected by the doctors, made his exit the way he’d entered, stepping over the top rope. 

This was a fine afternoon of boxing. Five competitive fights. A look at some of the up-and-comers in the heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions. An excited crowd. A non-egotistical ring announcer in Larry Tornambe. And a card that ran smoothly—no long breaks between bouts.  Remove the canvas logo, and Global Boxing gets high, high marks.

Remember when is the lowest form of conversation.” It’s a great line. Yet without memory—in a story, in writing, in a picture, in a frame of film, and, most important, in our heads—we’re nothing. The great playwright Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t a mobster, but did hang around the underbelly of the world, who never wrote about boxing, but did know enough about the fights to call the last drink of a bad drunk “the old KO,” could counterpunch Tony Soprano’s great line with this better one: “The past is the present. It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” Boxing reveals truth. And boxing remembers. And despite what a Hollywood mob boss might tell us, remembering in boxing is not the lowest conversation, but the highest. How else can we gauge where a fighter stands in history? How else can we gauge how a fighter stands against his own past? Some of this remembering is unforgiving—that’s the downside of truth. We can’t remember Roberto Duran without remembering “No Mas!” We can’t remember Mike Tyson without remembering Holyfield’s ear. But in boxing, most remembering is pure. Go to a Golden Gloves show and you’ll invariably see an old man walking around with a pair of gloves dangling off his wrinkled neck. Some may judge him pitiful, but most would say he’s merely remembering when he was king, if only for a night. Go to a professional bout and come eye to eye with an ex-champ and you’ll shake his hand for what he did, past tense, and you’ll both remember when. Go to a boxing card like the boxing card on 3/24/2012, and watch a fighter who truly impresses, then flash-forward 10 or 20 or 30 years, and perhaps you too will say, and should say, unapologetically, when talking about that fighter, on that day, years ago, “Remember when.”

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  1. the thresher 09:56am, 04/02/2012

    Sometimes a card like this can be way better than the BIG ones. I love these kinds of fights. Adam, thanks for this fine article.

  2. Adam Berlin 05:06am, 03/29/2012

    Thank you for all your kind comments.  I do appreciate them.

  3. Don from Prov 09:57am, 03/28/2012

    When I first saw Wach in the photo, I thought the article’s title was in reference to a card that took place a long time ago.  The Polish fighter truly looks to be old school.

    Anyway, this article is so finely written that it stopped me on what I thought was a quick peruse of the site and effectively transported me to fight time on the Boardwalk.  I went in spite of my intentions as I had/have work to do, but I enjoyed every moment of the trip.  Very fine work, this.

  4. Paul D' The Punch Professor 06:43am, 03/28/2012

    Excellent article for a great fight night to remember ! ! !

    You cause me to remember some fight shows WOW I think I’ve seen it all…
    Yet I know the next show I see could be most memorable because Boxing and the Characters involved are the Best Show in Town on any given Night ! ! !
    Paul D’Antuono

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 05:35am, 03/28/2012

    Those damn logos have got to go….they’re nothing but eyesores and hazards to the fighters into the bargain….might as well fight with roller skates on! Duct tape for the gloves….get the hell out of here…. it’s like sand paper on sweaty skin (it cost Vitali what would have been the greatest win of his career over Lennox). Protective cups that ride up to their shoulder blades. Soles of shoes that need sanding to give traction….Christ it goes on and on…it all shows a lack of care and concern for those that engage in this dangerous combat sport!

  6. Iron Beach 04:19am, 03/28/2012

    Sweet story my man you definitely captured the evening, my compliments for a fine piece of writing.

  7. paul 03:45am, 03/28/2012

    agreed, a thoroughly worthwhile read

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 08:44pm, 03/27/2012

    Heck yea! I get to grade you this time Prof.! I give you A+ for taking me to the fights. Thanks!

  9. mike schmidt 07:03pm, 03/27/2012

    Capture a moment, tell a story, take a stand and entertain—wow wow and more wow—as good as it gets right here with Mr. Berlin’s writing—loved every moment of it—Springsteen, Schulberg boxing poetry flow—all tied in—put us right on that Casino floor—great story, great write up sir!!!!!!!!!!

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