Brian O’Melia was admittedly a passive child while growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey. That changed when he was 14, and had gone to a local garage to find some after-school work. The owner took advantage of O’Melia in the worst of ways, which set in motion the youngster seeking to regain his lost dignity by becoming an amateur boxer.
“The catalyst to me becoming a fighter was the fact that I was violated by a grown man,” said the now 63-year-old O’Melia, who compiled a deceiving professional record of 16-32-2 (6 KOS) while campaigning as a heavyweight from 1970 to 1980.
“The guy told me he’d hurt my family if I told my parents,” he continued. “I needed a way to get over my anger, and arrest some of the negative energies I had.”
After many months O’Melia told his mother about the incident. Like him, she was somewhat passive and chose not to tell O’Melia’s father for fear that he’d seek the type of revenge that would land him in jail for a very long time. Several years later O’Melia encountered the pervert during a summer weekend at the Jersey Shore.
“I walked up to him and called him by his name,” said O’Melia. “He said he didn’t recognize me. I whacked him, and the local cops came to the scene. I explained to them what had happened and they let me go.”
About a decade after that the man was charged with molesting many youngsters in a high-profile New Jersey case. O’Melia, who by then was boxing professionally, as well as teaching school, offered to testify about what had happened to him years before. Because of the statute of limitations on his case, the authorities determined that his testimony would be unfairly prejudicial to the jurors so they opted not to use him.
“The guy was convicted, and he served a lot of time in prison,” said O’Melia. “He is still alive, and he is still living in the area.”
As a pro fighter, O’Melia was handled by the colorful and crass Al Braverman, who once graphically told a reporter that O’Melia “climaxed” every time he got hit. He also said he got angry at any opponent who missed him with a punch.
An armchair psychologist might offer that O’Melia took the presumed beatings that he did because of self-loathing brought on by the sexual abuse. Or perhaps he was trying to validate himself by showing that he was manly enough to absorb punches and always come back for more.
The reality is that O’Melia didn’t get hit nearly as much as people think he did. Despite the fact that he rarely weighed more than 195 pounds, he sparred regularly with Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and longtime friend Chuck Wepner and emerged with his faculties intact.
He also squared off against such tri-state area attractions as Paul Simonetti, John Clohessy, Randy Neumann, Pedro Soto, G.G. Maldonado, Bob Bozic, and “Wildman” Bill Carson, and more nationally or internationally renowned fighters like Joe Bugner, Jose “King” Roman, John “Dino” Denis, Terry Hinke, Lorenzo Zanon, Scott LeDoux, Johnny Boudreaux, and Englishman John Lewis Gardner, who was 22-0 at the time.
O’Melia fought 11 undefeated and 6 once-beaten fighters. Bugner, Roman, Zanon and LeDoux all received shots at the heavyweight title.
He won five of his first six fights, but the one he lost, he lost big. In early 1970 he was knocked cold in the second round by Jim Lee Elder, a murderous-punching Texan who tragically died of cancer just two years later. The fight took place at Embassy Hall, a glorious but now defunct club in North Bergen, New Jersey.
“He was the only guy who ever really flattened me,” said O’Melia. “I was out cold for a few minutes.”
He was back in the ring just two months later, fighting regularly at Embassy Hall, as well as at Madison Square Garden and the fabled Sunnyside Gardens in New York.
In early 1972, he traveled to Puerto Rico where he lost a decision to Roman, who later challenged George Foreman for the heavyweight title. Six weeks later, O’Melia was stopped in two rounds by Bugner, who twice fought Muhammad Ali, in London. Just five days after that he was again in Puerto Rico, where he dropped a ten-round decision to rugged journeyman Willie Johnson.
Despite losing decisions to Denis, Zanon, LeDoux and Boudreaux, O’Melia has fond memories of all of those fights, as well as the men he competed against.
“They were all real gentlemen,” said O’Melia. “Denis had lots of boxing skills, but he was not a big puncher. I thought I won the Zanon fight, but it was in Italy, where he was from, and he got the decision. LeDoux had a reputation as a dirty fighter, but he was very professional with me. He was a tough, tough guy. And Bill Carson, he was a rogue type of guy who was very tough but had limited skills.”
O’Melia has a special affinity for LeDoux because he is afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative disorder that also killed O’Melia’s father, and the late Carson, who before being killed in an accident several decades ago, was an outlaw biker who played that part to the hilt.
Besides Wepner, one of the best friends he ever had was the late Jerry Quarry, with whom he had sparred many rounds. They were so close, O’Melia’s now 95-year-old mother once knitted Quarry a sweater.
O’Melia is thrilled with the fact that he is still respected or liked by so many of his former opponents. One night several of his teaching colleagues went out for an evening in Manhattan, only to have a chance encounter with Bozic, who was working behind the bar at the wonderfully untrendy Fanelli’s Café in trendy Soho. They reported back that Bozic, a skilled raconteur, regaled them with stories of the two times that he and O’Melia had met in the ring.
Despite having had such a busy ring schedule, O’Melia managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College and a master’s degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
He has been a special education teacher in the Jersey City public school system for 40 years, and is still on the fence about retiring despite being told by financial advisors that his pension eligibility means it is actually costing him money to go to work each day.
Ironically, another of his 1972 opponents, Tommy Hicks, was also a special education teacher in upstate New York. In the latter part of 1971, Hicks had been stopped in the eighth round by light heavyweight champion Bob Foster.
“I have such a passion for teaching, and I really love my kids,” said O’Melia, who speaks eloquently and with great insight. “The way we interact is really important to me. I like to inspire them to do positive things. I also do lots of little fun things. I’ll say, ‘This is my pinky, this is my thumb.’ I’ll then make a fist and tell them, ‘If you see this, you better run.’”
During a recent visit to the school it was apparent that O’Melia was revered by both his colleagues and his students.
Anita Biala, a life skills teacher who is originally from the Philippines, joked that O’Melia had always been her favorite fighter, until Manny Pacquiao came along. “Mr. O is such a gentleman, the best,” she said over and over.
Dolores Jackson, his teaching assistant for 10 years, couldn’t have agreed more, and added, “He is such a well-mannered man.”
And Michele Texter, a teacher and facilitator who runs the after-school program, said, “He is a class act who always puts the kids first. The kids see him as a big play toy.”
Over the years it has not just been fun and games for O’Melia and his students. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, he would take troubled students to Rahway State Prison to show them what could happen if they didn’t get their act together.
He had a relationship with Rahway administrators because he, pro light heavyweight Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree and heavyweight Rodell Dupree, who was the first professional opponent for Larry Holmes, often went to the prison to box exhibitions against the inmates. One of O’Melia’s opponents was a much larger man who was known throughout the facility as “Stomper.”
“Some kids needed a reality check,” he explained. “They needed to be discouraged from doing what they were doing. It worked for some, but not for all. One kid came back years later and told me it worked for him. He said he learned a valuable lesson, and he was set on the right path. I was very happy to hear that.”
One of his favorite memories of his students took place in February 1977, on the afternoon before he was scheduled to battle a big ticket seller named Pedro Soto in one of three ten-rounders at Madison Square Garden. The other bouts featured Wilfred Benitez vs. Harold Weston and Emile Griffith vs. “Irish” Christy Elliott.
That afternoon, Ron Swoboda, a former outfielder on the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets, who was then working as a local television sportscaster, came to the school to interview him and his students.
“He did a really nice segment, and the kids got to see themselves on television,” recalled O’Melia. “It was a thrill for me, and it was a thrill for them.”
The fight did not go so well, as O’Melia dropped a decision to Soto. By that point of his career, he was fighting more for the love of the game than anything else.
You don’t have to be around O’Melia for long to realize how committed he’d be to his students even if he had children of his own, which he does not. Nearly 25 years ago, he and his then wife had a son who was born with hydrocephalus, an abnormal amount of cranial fluid that results in enlargement of the skull and atrophy of the brain. The baby passed away after just a few months.
Sometimes it seems as if the easiest days of O’Melia’s life were the ones he spent in the ring. He doesn’t necessarily agree with that, and he says that he enjoyed his days as a boxer as much as the years he has spent in the classroom.
He also enjoys being a referee, and he works fairly regularly throughout New Jersey. He has been the third man in the ring for fights featuring such luminaries as Arturo Gatti, Zahir Raheem, Vinny Maddalone, Ike Ibeabuchi, Lamon Brewster, Rocky Juarez and Simon Brown.
Regarding the losses on his ledger, the always self-effacing O’Melia made a quip about it, despite the fact that the punch line wasn’t factually accurate. Only 7 of his 32 losses were by stoppage, and he fought some pretty stiff competition.
“I was hurting guys hands, so they stopped the fights,” he joked. “But I’m happy to say that I’m still best of friends with some of the people I fought. That means a lot to me.”
Beau Williford is a onetime heavyweight prospect who sparred countless rounds with O’Melia under the watchful eyes of Braverman. He now runs the lauded Ragin’ Cajun Boxing Club in Lafayette, Louisiana.
He and O’Melia are both steadfast in their commitment to the youth of America, and Williford speaks for scores of others in his description of O’Melia, with whom he is still in touch.
“Brian was a beautiful guy who always had a smile on his face,” said Williford. “He was a good fighter and a tough guy. If you didn’t like Brian O’Melia, you wouldn’t like Jesus Christ.”