Boxing has always been a catalyst for change for troubled children. The sport is full of fighters who managed to rise above their hard and often violent upbringings and live healthy and productive lives. However, WBA super welterweight champion Jose Antonio Rivera is quick to point out that the change must initially come from within oneself.
“You just can’t rely on boxing because there are so many guys who come from the streets who come into boxing and do good, but they don’t make the change in their life and it catches up to them,” said Rivera. “You have to do both. You have to want to make a change in your life and the boxing does the rest.”
Rivera returns to the ring this Saturday night on the undercard of the Sam Peter/James Toney rematch at the Seminole Hard Rock Arena in Hollywood, Florida (SHOWTIME), and will defend his title against the WBA super welterweight “champion in recess” Travis Simms.
“I think Simms is coming ready to take my title and I’m coming ready to defend it so I think we’ve got a great exciting fight for Showtime,” said Rivera.
The battle for the WBA super welterweight championship seems to have been recently fought more through litigation than with hooks and jabs. Simms initially won the title from Alejandro Garcia in 2003. However, his dispute with the WBA over his next mandatory opponent led him to sue the organization and be stripped of title. In the meantime, Garcia regained the interim title in 2005 and Rivera won the belt from him with a decision in May of last year. In August of 2006, the WBA reinstated Simms as the champion in recess and mandated that he be Rivera’s title defense. The whole fiasco forced Rivera to wait eight months to defend his title.
“I wish I had fought sooner but I take it when I can get it,” he said.
For Rivera, a focused, persevering attitude helped him change his life and enabled him to win two world titles in a life and career with more than its fair share of obstacles.
Rivera was born one of five children in Philadelphia in 1973, and his mother died when he was ten years old. As a child he lived in Philadelphia, Tampa, and Puerto Rico before finally settling for good in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the age of 14.
“I was a troubled kid,” said Rivera. “I had a lot of problems when I was younger and was heading in the wrong direction. Boxing was something that I always wanted to do. When I was 15 years old, a friend of mine, Felix Lopez, told me there was a gym in the neighborhood, and we went there and I’ve been there ever since. It got me off the streets. It kept me out of trouble and away from gangs and drugs.”
He turned professional in 1992 and won his first 23 fights before losing a close split decision to Willy Wise. He then reeled off three straight wins to secure a high-profile bout with Fernando Vargas. Unfortunately, Rivera injured his wrist while training and the fight was cancelled. He was inactive for all of 1998.
Rivera returned to the ring in 1999 and won four straight bouts, before dropping back-to-back decisions against Pat Coleman and Robert Frazier. He then regained his footing and won six straight fights, earning the opportunity to face Michael Trabant in Germany for the vacant WBA welterweight title in September of 2003. In that bout, Rivera won the title with a majority decision over Trabant.
As champion, it seemed that earning a title shot was less complicated than setting up a defense. He was initially supposed to face Thomas Daamgard but the Dane had to pass on the bout due to family health reasons. Then he was supposed to defend his belt against Ricardo Mayorga at Madison Square Garden on April 17, 2004, but Mayorga showed up six and a half pounds over the 147-pound limit. Instead of witnessing a title bout, the crowd at Madison Square Garden watched Mayorga win a lackluster 10-round decision over Eric Mitchell.
“That was frustrating,” said Rivera. “You train hard. You prepare your best and for that to happen was really frustrating. But, you know, what can you do about it? Life goes on.”
Rivera was then scheduled to again face Daamgard on the undercard of the Mayorga/Felix Trinidad bout in October of 2004, but Rivera injured his thumb on his right hand and the fight was postponed. The bout was then cancelled after Daamgard developed a respiratory illness.
Finally in April of 2005, Rivera truly defended his title for the first time against Luis Collazo. The bout was close and the margin was razor-thin on all judges’ scorecards, but in the end, Collazo won a split decision.
Following the loss, Rivera chose to move up in weight. In his next bout, he defeated Garcia for the WBA super welterweight championship. Now, at the age of 33, Rivera has no misconceptions about the magnitude of his meeting with Simms.
“Every fight from here on out in my career is crucial,” he said. “I’m on a one fight at a time basis at this point in my career.”
Needless to say, Rivera offers no insight on what he plans to do if he wins Saturday night. He also will not let the fact that Simms has not fought in two years affect his preparation.
“Simms is a guy that keeps himself in the gym and stays in shape,” said Rivera. “You can’t really go by that he hasn’t fought in a couple of years. I’ve got to prepare for the best.”
Win or lose, Rivera will move forward because the skills he has learned through boxing have helped him to build a solid foundation for the rest of his life. He is married with a 13-year old son and 11-month old daughter. He is also self-managed, and already has a job as a full-time court officer in the Worcester Juvenile Court. When asked if being a world champion with a “day job” is awkward, Rivera tells it like it is.
“I’m not making million dollar fights,” said Rivera. “I’m not making [Oscar] De La Hoya kind of money. I’m making enough money where I can pay some bills and enjoy my career. I’ve been working all my life since I was a kid. Plus, I have to do it. I don’t ever think this is weird or that I shouldn’t be working. It is what it is.”
In his spare time, Rivera also works with the Boys and Girls Club, telling his story and working with the kids there.
“There are a lot of kids in the Boys and Girls Club who come from single-parent homes or some of them have no parents,” said Rivera. “I like to mentor and touch those kids’ lives and let them know that, ‘I’ve come from similar odds. I was able to make it. You’re able to make it.’”
His efforts in the Worcester community have not gone unnoticed. In May of 2006, the Worcester Rotary Club named Rivera, “Citizen of the Year,” an honor that, in the end, he feels is more rewarding than being a world champion.
“They don’t have comparison,” said Rivera, “but if you were to ask me would I rather be a world champion boxer or a person who gives back to the community and helps change kids’ lives, than I would rather [be the latter] any day. It’s more fulfilling.”