The Hotel Key West where I am staying has amenities that can be counted on four fingers: a bed, a bar, a pool and a 24-hour Denny’s restaurant.
A dozen or so Harley hogs sit outside in the parking lot with license plates from Michigan, South Carolina, New Hampshire and other points north. Inside the Denny’s, their owners are holding what looks to be a cast party for Cocoon, giving rise to the notion Key West is blessed with two tourist seasons: daylight for retirement age hippies, after midnight for the party hearty.
Odlanier Solis, the 29-year-old Cuban defector who headlines Saturday’s “Fight Night in The Keys” is supposed to be staying here, but he won’t be arriving until the end of the week. So it’s a relief when Juan Arias, the affable driver assigned to cart the boxers around in his courtesy van, shows up carrying the Pound for Pound Boys. Manager Sal Alessi and trainer Mike Skowronski climb out followed by three young boxers from their stable in Jersey City, New Jersey. Before they are even checked in, the boys are bobbing and weaving in the lobby.
The headliner among them is Jorge Diaz, an intense 22-year-old whose featherweight fight has been tapped by Top Rank to lead off its Saturday night broadcast. This will be Diaz’s first national television exposure so he doesn’t want to do anything to spoil it. He declines my offer to shake hands for fear I might wrench his sore thumb.
His buddy Glen Tapia, 20, has no such qualms. He is slated for a lower card middleweight bout, only four rounds, and he is so happy to be out of New Jersey in March he would have flown down in his swimsuit if the airlines allowed it. This is only his fifth fight since he turned professional, and his first in an outdoor arena. The third boxer, Jeremy Bryant, 21, has no fight on the card, but his managers think he’ll benefit from coming along for the ride.
Pound for Pound Promotions is the brainchild of the Lynch brothers, John and Pat, two savvy fight promoters with close ties to the Top Rank people. John books events in New York and Atlantic City (Diaz is on a June 5 Yankee Stadium card) and his brother Pat develops young fighters to fill the bill. They are a paradigm for a new generation of boxing promoters that are resuscitating the sport across America with HBO’s 24/7 documentary series leading the way and its pay-per-view title matches as the gold pot at the end of the rainbow.
The Lynch brothers, Alessi and Skowronski started Pound for Pound in 2008 by cherry picking the best amateurs from the New Jersey Golden Gloves. “At first it was like picking a fantasy football team,” Skowronski recalls. “We each had to pick one guy, then say what we liked about him.” They mapped out a plan to develop each fighter, use local matches to give him experience and confidence, and look for matches that will push him into the national spotlight, and maybe a shot at a title.
How far a fighter goes up the ladder . . . that is a key phrase in boxing . . . up the ladder . . . depends on the fighter. “We can only lead the horse to water. We can’t make him drink,” Skowronski says. “When he’s in that ring, it’s just him and the other guy. That’s what I love boxers. The great ones know it’s him against everyone else.”
The Boxing Business
I’m sitting in the Key West Hotel lobby waiting for Si Stern, the impresario of “Fight Night in The Keys”, to take me to his gym when Alessi starts talking about the business. It takes only a few minutes for him to discover “you don’t know much about boxing, do you?” I have to admit I don’t. So Alessi is gracious enough to give me a short course in how the ladder works.
He has been in the fight game for 31 years (He turned his first amateur pro in 1983.) and he will be the first to tell you the path to becoming a champion boxer is anything but straightforward. Most young boxers in America start out in the Golden Gloves. The best, if they are lucky, or persistent (and usually both), find a manager who signs them to a contract. For a fee that usually amounts to 30 percent of their earnings, he provides a training facility, sets up matches and manages their career. At first, the purses are so small the managers usually waive their fee.
The purses grow incrementally as fighters move up the ladder, but only become significant when a fighter joins the ranks of a contender. Who fights whom falls to a network of matchmakers––some local, some regional, a few nationally known––who share notes and observations. Their judgment is pivotal, but also intuitive. On the one hand, their job is to create matches fight fans will pay to watch. On the other, it is to make matches that are worth watching. The subtle distinction is the difference between an over-hyped fight that ends in an early round and a match that goes the distance leaving fans wanting to see more from both.
On the championship title level, the water gets very murky, very fast. A dizzying array of sanctioning bodies – the WBA, WBO, WBC, IBO, IBF and IBC, to name a few – have been created to hand out titles; and there is seemingly no end of territories or weight classes in which a fighter can be crowned a champ. Rankings don’t help much. They are guesses built on rumors made out of lies, one manager says.
At the top of the sport, the real determinant of who gets a shot at a title are the TV networks like HBO, Showtime, ESPN, and Fox Sports who fill their airtime with matches they can promote. They put up the big money for title fights. But the only fighters who get a shot at it somehow “look good” on television, which makes a good manager more adept at managing the spin than managing his fighter in the ring.
Alessi admits he isn’t much of a spinmeister. He works in the trenches, building up young boxers one fight at a time. It all sounds so noble I have to ask him: can he make a living doing that?
“When you love the game, the money is the back end,” he says. “The thrill is getting there. It’s the ride. Trust me. Even for a hard core businessman, it’s the ride.”
Much of what Alessi says is echoed by Si when he picks me up. “In the old days, you had your clubs, your CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) and Golden Gloves. They were the breeding ground where kids who wanted to fight could bring themselves up. But a lot of those places have disappeared,” Si says. “The Elks Club matches, what they used to call smokers, are dying out. All the money is in television, but TV only wants guys who are undefeated. So most of these promoters will fight a guy against a bunch of bums to get his record to 18 and 0. And when he gets on television, it’s his first good fight and he gets knocked out, and he’s done.”
The Florida Championship Belt
Fight Night in The Keys is an attempt to reverse the trend, Si says. Top Rank’s participation guarantees national exposure for the top two fights, but Si has arranged with Tom Molloy, the executive director of the Florida boxing commission, to bestow Florida state titles at the bottom of the card for three other fights.
Molloy, 54, is a former New York boxer and trainer recruited in 2006 to clean up the sport after a series of local scandals. In recent years, Florida has taken its place alongside New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas as a fertile training ground in the sport. Year round good weather and a ready audience of Hispanic fight fans have made its gyms home to many Cuban and South American boxers.
As a result, Molloy and Si believe Florida can provide a framework of state titles young professional fighters can aspire to compete for that will allow them to fight, and lose, and fight again all the wiser for the experience. If, as Si envisions it, Georgia, Texas, California, and other states do the same, state champions could fight each other, regional champions could be crowned, and boxing would have its first playoff system.
“It would bring back rivalries like the old Chicago-New York Golden Glove matches,” he says. “But you have to have good looking title belts. These fighters are very belt conscious. So you need a belt that says, ‘This is big time.’”
The Key West Police Athletic League
Si’s boxers are working out at the the Key West Police Athletic League, where his friend Ricky “Action” Jackson runs the youth boxing program. Ricky is working with Damian Frias, Si’s welterweight. Working in the sense that Jackson is sitting in a chair watching Frias thrash away at a speed bag. His fists pop rhythmically against the leather. You’re not gonna beat me. You’re not gonna beat me. I’ve been through things you’ll never go through. You’re not gonna beat me. You’re not gonna beat me. I beat ‘em in juvie whatever they tried. You’re not gonna beat me! You’re not gonna beat me. I can only beat myself.
Frias gives the bag one last roundhouse, climbs into the center of the ring and lies down staring at the ceiling. At the age of 33, he is the kind of fighter Si is drawn to––a kid most people would have given up on long ago.
In many ways, he is the very definition of a hard case. He came to America as a four-year-old in the Mariel Boat Lift. He remembers cowering between his mother’s legs and throwing up, with sharks, meanwhile, circling the flimsy craft all the way to America. His family was sent to a refuge camp in New Jersey, but Damian’s asthma got them sent back to Florida, and that’s when things went from bad to worse.
As a 12-year-old in Miami, Damian never saw much of his father or mother. He lived his life on the streets. “I learned how to steal cars, break into houses. I stole a gun once and pretty soon I was carrying every day,” he recalls. When he was 15, he used it to shoot an 18-year-old, earning himself eight years in prison for attempted murder.
In prison, he was quiet, rebellious and explosive. He was moved around to three different prisons for bad behavior. At the last, he spent two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. It was the first time he ever contemplated––for days at a time––what he wanted to do when he got out. He was 25 before he stepped into a boxing ring, but soon put together a 16 and 2 professional record with 11 knockouts. Married with two children, Frias was well on his way to a professional career when his mother, sister and older brother were swept up in a 2006 federal drug raid and sent to prison. Even as his life unraveled around him, though, Damian stuck to his boxing. He wakes up every day at 4:30 AM, runs five miles, swims 40 minutes, eats breakfast, goes to the gym and leaves in time to pick up his kids after school. That’s the part Si admires, and why he picked up his contract when nobody else would.
Damian is lying in the middle of the ring staring at the ceiling. Si is talking on his cell phone. But Ricky “Action” Jackson has all the time in the world to talk to me about bubba boxing in Key West.
The Hemingway Connection
You might think from the tourist materials available Ernest Hemingway was a lifelong resident of Key West who wrote on the side. In fact, Hemingway only finished one novel there, A Farewell to Arms, the first year he visited in 1929. He lived then above a Ford dealership at 314 Simonton Street that now advertises itself as “The Pelican Poop Shoppe.” The Spanish style mansion at 907 Whitehead Street that tourists line up to tour was a gift to Hemingway from his second wife Pauline’s father in 1931.
The house was only a few blocks away from the colored section of town known as Bahama Village. Hemingway would walk over to watch “Iron Baby” Roberts, Alfred “Black Pie” Colebrooks and Kermit “Shine” Forbes duke it out in “bubba matches” that he would sometimes volunteer to referee.
He set up a boxing ring in his backyard and invited the local boxers to spar with his houseguests, including everyone from novelist John Dos Passos to heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. But his interest in Key West was short-lived. He left in 1937 for the Spanish Civil War. When he returned in 1939, he divorced his wife and moved to Cuba.
In the late 1990’s, Si and his partner Dave Johnson were casing an old jazz club in Bahama Village as a possible investment when an old black guy started talking to them about the good old days. “Shine” Forbes told them about fighting with Hemingway, sparring with Kid Gavalan and the various matches he had arranged. He invited them over to his little house. “Sure enough, the walls were lined with pictures,” Si recalls. “He was the real deal. He had pictures of all these fighters and could talk for hours about them.”
Bubba boxing isn’t just a memory on Shine’s wall, it’s a Key West tradition, Jackson says. “Whenever a fireman had a beef with a policeman, or a policeman and lawyer wanted to settle something out of court, we’d put up a ring, hire a ref and call it bubba boxing.” The wildest matches were in the courtyard behind Big Uns. “We turned this little stage into a ring. The only problem was it had a coconut tree in the corner. We put pillows around it, but you really had to watch out. Some of the fights were grudge matches. Most were just to see who was best. There was no scale to see who was fighting in what weight class. It was crazy.”
After a Tough Man contest in Tampa turned into a melee in 2004, the Florida state legislature decided it was time to close down unsanctioned fighting in Florida. But where some saw a crisis, Si saw opportunity. “I knew the bubba fights were getting out of hand, and I remembered Shine, and I told Dave we ought to do something.”
The Ghost of Arturo Gatti
By the time Si drops me back at the Hotel Key West, Sal Alessi has commandeered the workout room off the pool deck as a makeshift gym. Glen Tapia sits on an exer-cycle, his legs dangling over the pedals. All of Skowronski’s attention is focused on Diaz, who dances around covered neck to toe in a black rubber suit, a last ditch effort to shed another pound or two before the official weigh in. (He is teetering on the edge.)
Skowronski puts Diaz through his paces, calling out sequences of punches both know by heart. In one exchange, Diaz pummels the practice mitts with a flurry of blows so fast he looks like a Roadrunner cartoon. In another, he finishes it off with a right cross that thwops into the mitt so hard it echoes.
“He’s ready,” Skowronski whispers in Alessi’s ear.
Skowronski, 39, has been around boxing for 19 years. His pedigree is a list of fighters and trainers he has worked with. It starts with Buddy McGirt, Hector Roca and Lou Duva, famous trainers who broke him in, and ends with Arturo Gatti, the legendary featherweight that Skownronski trained for 16 years.
“I compare every fighter I train today to Gatti, every guy,” he says. “With a guy like Arturo, it was all about giving the fans their money worth. He would fight for the fans. He’d go out and stand there throwing fifty punches, you know, just trade with the guy, and he would come back and say, ‘Did you hear the fans? They’re going crazy?’”
Gatti earned his featherweight champion title five times in matches renown for their ferocity. Ring magazine named four of his bouts “Fight of the Year” before he retired in 2007. In one, he fought three rounds with a broken wrist. In another, he kept throwing punches even though he had both knees on the floor.
Diaz idolizes Gatti. He wears his colors, wears his picture on a T-shirt and emulates his style. “We fought him in Madison Square Garden last year against an African kid named Lante Addy. Before the sixth round, Jorge comes back to the corner and says, ‘Coach, can I do it?’ I knew exactly what he meant. The next round, the two of them went at it. They stood toe to toe for a minute and 15 seconds of non-stop punching. And he came back and said, ‘Did you hear the crowd?’ It was pure Gatti!”
Skowronski believes boxing is making a comeback in America. The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) – those Ultimate Fighting Championships staged in an octagonal cage – stole some of the sport’s thunder, but the excitement is spilling back into the traditional ring. Young boxers all have Facebook fan pages and use other social media to keep friends in touch with where they are fighting. “You go to some of these fights, and there are fans who follow these guys from one venue to the next,” he says.
If boxing fell into disfavor, Skowronski believes it wasn’t MMA that did it in. It was the TV networks trying to boost ratings with bad matchmaking. “If you were going to present a kid for television, certain networks would look at someone who’s 21-3 and say, ‘oh, he has three losses.’ Never mind they were all good fights. The TV network would rather go with some guy who is 20-0 and hasn’t fought anybody good than somebody who fought his way to the top. So everyone became so afraid to take a loss that it killed the sport,“ he says. “It totally killed it.”
“If you got a kid that you really believe in, you should be willing to fight anybody. I know the fight here is a 50-50 proposition. The Lopez kid is a good fighter. But that’s the kind of fight we’re looking for.”
Coming Next Week: PART III: The Weigh In.