Live! Boxing! On Two Pennsylvania Fridays

There are few events in the sporting world nowadays where it is easy for the fan to arrive at the set time and place without any preconceptions about the contest in question. Context, analysis, opinions: all are spewed at the media consumer, from the AP updates on college radio to the 11 o’clock news all the way through the iPhone implanted in your 15-year-old cousin’s right eye.

It’s somewhat refreshing, then, to attend an event with little prior knowledge, hoping only for good action. The average local boxing card, in my limited experience, is a good place to find athletic competition without any sort of preceding hype or spin, at least until you step through the doors of the club or gym. Once you get there, there are guys who’ll talk your ear off about the history and merits of a 35-year-old guy with a 10-12-2 record, but before, good luck finding much more than an online record and maybe a short interview or write-up on one of the many near-unsearchable boxing sites online. Even Golden Boy, one of America’s two superpromoters, can barely keep its website updated. The promoter(s) of a local event, who also often double as the hometown trainer, don’t have time for running a slick PR operation, what with hours in the gym and usually another job on the side.

The downside to the enforced information fast are nights like the recent Friday when I headed over to the Philadelphia Armory, expecting that arriving an hour after first bell would leave me with seven or eight fights still to come. After parking a long couple blocks away, between the Plumbers’ Union and some factory, then walking in through the mostly empty lobby past a kid hustling signed and framed posters of local sports luminaries (Rocky Balboa!) there’s a four-round fight beginning.

Afterward, the ring announcer starts calling out names: “There’s Isaiah Seldon (yes, son of Bruce), and there, where’d he go, there’s Tim Witherspoon—they were were scheduled to fight tonight…and where’d he go? Where’s he hiding? Oh, if you have not seen it, you have to look up this man’s first fight with Arturo Gatti, there’s Ivan Robinson hiding in the back. And we have Harold Lederman with us tonight!”

Nice as it was to have Harold there—his face peeking over the ring looks just as intent from fifty feet away as it does on TV—a couple fighters sitting with their girls in the fold-down high school gym-style wooden bleachers didn’t seem a good omen for the card’s durability.  Sure enough, after the eight-round main event that followed, the crowd started walking out; two fights was all I was getting this evening.

The action that did occur made the trip worthwhile. The main event was a lightweight rematch of a supposedly heated January draw between Camden’s Jason Sosa and Philly’s Angel Luis Ocasio; the extant footage online is about five seconds in a flame-heavy promo preview, and so forming incoming opinion on the fight’s quality or Sosa’s claim that he was robbed because he “crossed the river” was impossible. This particular night, the fights were being streamed somewhere online—there was even a boom camera on one end of the floor, heavily wrapped in electrical tape, along with two cameramen in the ring.

What’s nice about your neighborhood fight card is that the fighters bring along some friends.  Sosa had several dozen supporters in T-shirts printed in a Cooper Black font rarely seen in these Internet design days, and though no one printed up shirts for Ocasio, he had a competing amount of vocal support. In a venue that is, essentially, a high school gym stripped of all banners and climbing ropes and basketball hoops, with all hard tile floors and concrete block walls, all these people who care can make the proceedings quite loud. There were a few stout white guys in ringside seats wielding a swing-around wooden noisemaker, its echoes clicked throughout the hall: one of them got so excited that he hit himself in the face with the thing.

Loudness is not the same as good acoustics, so the bald-domed rapper serenading Sosa during the ring walk could have been dropping rhymes of great brilliance or muttering in Elvish—I couldn’t tell you.  Dozens of smartphones shining their recording lights on the ringwalk, the boxers walking in through the riot gates set up to partition off the reserved and ringside seating from the bleachers, behind the ring girls in their tight red T-shirts and black compression shorts,  stumbling a bit on absurdly high heels.

The bell rings: Immediately someone screams “Hit him! Thank you!”

The two did a decent amount of hitting through eight rounds. I scored it six rounds to two for Ocasio. Sosa was the coming-forward fighter, but his jab didn’t seem to connect often and he rarely released his right. Most of the fight, Ocasio kept Sosa off balance and hit him with some decent body shots; he was quicker, but never really set up Sosa—he made a few vague feints in the second and third rounds, but never laid a trap. Sosa showed his style in the fifth,  going to the body aggressively and then tying up when his attack was spent, keeping Ocasio from dancing at all, and then in the eighth, Sosa looped a right that knocked an off-balance Ocasio into the ropes.

When the decision was announced—a majority draw, one judge giving the decision to Sosa—bull-shit became a common refrain, there were some boos, that sister-kissing deflation took over both sides of the gym.  In the men’s room,  the argument continued:

“They robbed the shit out of him, out of Jason ‘El Carnito’  Sosa” says one man who I didn’t look at because we were next to each other at the urinal.

“No, they robbed my nephew, man, Ocasio,” says a man washing up.

“Sosa knocked him down, man,” says the first.

“That wasn’t no knockdown,” says the second.

“Time for the trilogy,” says another.  He’s likely to be proved right. Try it again, and maybe one of them will crack.

The one four-rounder I did see at the so-called “Philly Barnburner III” featured the bantamweight prospect Miguel Cartagena, who won the award for best-dressed contingent, with a score or so in hand-made shirts emblazoned with the slogan NO FEAR, including one adolescent girl whose Elmo handbag and Elmo hat were accompanied by a spray-painted Elmo shirt, the puppet’s goggling eyes right above the textual declaration that she lacks any anxiety whatsoever.

Cartagena fought with some trepidation, never appearing to throw very hard, but he continually popped late replacement Luis Ortiz with left hooks and a twisting jab, even as he let his opponent back him into stanchions several times. His people finally yelled “GET OFF THE ROPES” in the fourth and final round.

After his fight, Cartagena walked up to talk to a friend who was leaning next to me on one of the gates.

I heard him say “He hit me in the back of the head; I started to get a headache, man.”

A few minutes later, the prospect off to work the crowd, his friend notices my notebook and asks me “What you going to say about Cartagena, man? For 19 that wasn’t bad, you know. That was his fifth fight.”

I told him I was impressed, but thought he needed to sit down on some punches.

“He didn’t want to sit down,” said the friend, with a laugh. “That guy was strong. He hit him on the back of the head. That never happened before.”

My initial thought was that the truly elite prospects throw their heaviest leather against a fighter with a 2-10 record, but what do I know? At 19, there were plenty of nights I couldn’t sit down on a couch.

The next Friday, I didn’t make the mistake of showing up late for a card put on by King’s Boxing at Reading’s Reverb Club. The Reverb is a warehouse club: there are high ceilings and concrete floors; big screens strung up between rafters; a bar in the middle, with the ring off to one side. Ringside seating is about three rows of folding chairs; standing at the bar seemed the way to go for elbow room.

One guy in a Roger Waters “The Wall” tour T-shirt is talking in my general direction as the show is getting underway: “Forty bucks for this many fights, man. What a deal? Why aren’t there more people here?”

There were a couple hundred people in the club, but with everyone crowded around the ring and then a big old dance floor covered with a handful of bar tables, it looked emptier than it was.

My Floyd-loving friend proceeded to have a long discussion with another guy about street racing,  then he played some video poker, all with his back to the ring.  He should have watched the early smokers; the four-rounders were the best fights of the night.

The opener was a professional debut for a fighter named Jeremy Miller, of Baltimore, taking on the 30something local Cesar Gonzalez, winless in four pro fights. The fight was sloppy and pushy, but enthusiastic. Miller moved forward more, his torso always a little ahead of his legs, and so he got the decision. It could have gone either way—I had it for Gonzalez—but it didn’t matter which way it went, honestly, except to those involved.

The second fight was at 140, between Lancaster’s Rolando Chinea, twice a winner by KO, and a southpaw from Rochester, NY named Jamell Tyson, who had a losing record in nine pro fights. Tyson took the first round: from the bell it was obvious Chinea had more skills, but he was facing his first lefty and first fighter with more than one bout’s experience: the first time Tyson’s left snuck through Chinea’s face took on a “whaawhaaa” Urkel look for about three seconds. Chinea’s trunks said “Ironman,” an interesting claim for a guy coming in with four rounds of pro experience, but he did fight through a freeflowing headbutt-induced gash over his right eye for a deserved majority decision.

Then it was to the featherweights for another four-rounder between Philly’s Derrick Bivens and Harrisburg’s Josh Bowles. Bivens hadn’t fought since March of ’09, and Bowles made sure he looked it while sweeping the cards; Bivens was near a head taller, and the 5-foot-5 Bowles stayed in a crouch that made him a small target. The 25-year-old Harrisburg product might not have the power to become an elite fighter, but he has some excellent, subtle footwork, and he focused on the body well for a guy who was in the amateurs 14 months ago.

Two women from King’s go on next to put on a charity exhibition bout, unfortunately titled “for breast cancer” with no foundational qualifier.  One of the ring girls did support them, though, wearing shorts that say “GO GURLZ” bedazzled on the behind. Marie Robson must be very popular in the area, because, besides being  pictured in the program, there were a couple guys asking me “You know when the girl fight is up?” and then indicating their girlfriends to say that “her” friend’s fighting. Once the bell rings, I hear one of those guys screaming: “Stop screwing around Marie, go AFTER her!”

In the moments of relative silence that prevailed between some intermission singing, I overheard at least one pharmaceutical idea that I pass onto you at no cost:

“I’m at the age now where I don’t need Viagra but I can’t multitask. I’m going to invent something that does Viagara and FloMax. I’ll call it Niagara.”

There was then another decent four-rounder between two lightweight southpaws, Reading’s Frank DeAlba and Jersey City’s Andrew Bentley that went to the hometown guy as a split decision, then the six-round 154-pound co-feature, featuring 22-year-old Glen Tapia (12-0, 6 KO) of Passaic, NJ against Lancaster’ s Manuel Guzman, who, according to the gentleman standing over me at the bar, was a late replacement and usually fights at 140, and, I learn later, had lost his last six. Tapia’s punches from the get-go thud in a way no one else has on the night; he looks like a boxer, very cut, and he throws a straight punch. Guzman takes a forced knee after a wicked body shot early in the third and doesn’t get up; he’s well within his rights. A few locals yell “Come on!” at Guzman, but he earned all the paycheck he signed up to get.

Our main event of the evening was a fight at super welter between local Keenan Collins, a sparring partner for Kermit Cintron back in ’05 and ’06, and Charlottesville’s George Rivera. Not a great fight, not bad; each guy took a wide decision on one judge’s card and the third scored it a draw. Neither guy took over and threw enough punches, and both knew it afterward.

My attention through part of the final bout was focused on the photographer incessantly snapping at ringside; he had been there all night. The gentleman at my elbow informed me his name was Jeff Julian, and he’s been shooting since the Ali days. I’ll leave you with a link to his work from one night in Reading, rather than writing another 60,000 words or so.

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