Boxing is filled with stories of troubled, rebellious kids finding hope and opportunity at obscure, dilapidated gymnasiums. The history books regale us with the triumphs of hungry young men driven to escape the slums and the poverty that created them.
Typically, these wilful, often irresistible fighters are born to the urban jungles of Philadelphia, emerge dark eyed and predatory from the ghettos of Mexico or perhaps the dusty shantytowns of Africa; but from the rough Guachupita neighbourhood of Santa Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, boxing has unearthed another rough diamond: Joan “Lil’ Tyson” Guzman.
Perched between the boxing hotbeds of Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Dominican Republic is better known globally for its all-inclusive resorts and Caribbean climate. Whilst Guachupita doesn’t have the infamy of Mexico City or Brooklyn, New York according to Guzman, the former WBO super bantamweight champion, it breeds a similar type of hunger. “It’s a very tough area,” Guzman says. “You have to know how to fight. It’s part of every day life growing up. My childhood was rough. I was poor. If it was raining, my home’s roof had so many holes, I would get more wet on the inside than out!”
Few escape the type of streets Guzman describes, of those that do, sport – and particularly boxing – is often the saviour. For some it serves as just a fleeting diversion from a descent into crime and despair, for others like Joan, it provides opportunity to escape for good, something he grasped with both hands. “I was a rough kid. I remember, on my block, parents of other children would not let them play with me, [because] they were sure I would grow up to be a criminal, a low life, a nothing. I was always in the gym working. That kept me out of trouble. Also, seeing how other people ended up when they lived a ‘street life’ – dead, in jail, injured – looking at that, it kept me motivated to stay out of trouble and to succeed.”
Now aged 29, and on the cusp of a breakthrough into championship class in the lucrative featherweight division, Guzman can look back on the responsibility he had as a youngster and the different responsibilities he carries now. ‘I have two sisters and three brothers; at an early age I had to cook my own food and look after my brothers. I didn’t work much because I was very dedicated to boxing and stayed in the gym, but when I did I sold bread or candies on the street. But [despite the hardship] the people of the Dominican Republic are loving and love life,” says Guzman. “It is a beautiful island and has a vibrant culture and I want to be a Dominican boxing idol, something like Julio Cesar Chavez was to Mexicans.”
Guzman certainly isn’t afraid to aim high, but despite the baseball obsession that grips his country he’s already beginning to carve a place in the consciousness of the Dominican Republic’s people, even though he spends much of his time in Queens, New York. “Without sounding snobby, I am pretty famous down there, something of celebrity in the Dominican Republic,” Guzman points out, a little uncomfortable with the revelation. Given his outstanding amateur career and professional success it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Clearly proud of his achievements, Guzman outlined his career before turning professional. “I had over 300 amateur bouts. I was a three time Central Americas Champion, Pan-American Champion and represented the Dominican Republic in the 1996 Olympics. What inspires me now is to be an idol to the Dominican Republic people, someone they can look up to and be proud of.”
Usually fighters fall into two broad churches of personality. There are the loud, brash, self-promoting types, and the quiet, confident magnanimous professionals. On the evidence of this interview at least, the unbeaten former champion clearly falls into the latter category. Pressed about his contribution back to the society that created him, Guzman is refreshingly reserved: “Well, I love working with the young kids in the Dominican Republic. I do some things, but I am not really into bragging. I do those things from the heart. I am interested in working with young boxers when I retire and further developing the Dominican Republic’s boxing program.”
His own introduction to the local boxing program was indicative of his surroundings, from baseball to boxing in a single afternoon. “The first time I fought I was eight years old. I was playing baseball out in the streets. When some guys from a local boxing club, asked if I wanted to fight for them … that was it. I was fighting another kid with the gloves the exact same day.”
Although now enjoying the fruits of his toil as a professional, a career blighted by inactivity at different times – Guzman has just 23 fights in 8 years – the heart of the youngster from the streets of Guachupita still beats strong. Boxing is natural to his personality. “Aside from it being my career, it is something I love to do an [is] very much alive within my soul. I do not think you could take boxing from within me.” On the subject of his inactivity Guzman is typically pragmatic. “I have had a lot of bad luck, and without getting into the negative aspects of my career, I like to look at the positive, I just say they were promotional and managerial issues.”
And so conversation turned away from the past and toward the future – specifically Friday’s WBO featherweight title eliminator against virtual unknown Terdsak Jandaeng. The fight will unveil a mandatory challenger for Scottish powerhouse Scott Harrison and a route to the top of the classic 126-pound division. I was grateful to learn that the fighter tagged “Lil’ Tyson’”knew little more than I about his opponent. “I know he is a lefty and he is tough. Watching him on video, he is tricky and will come to fight.”
Heavily favoured, Guzman is happy to discuss his aspirations beyond the fight, whether that leads to Scot Harrison, Juan Manuel Marquez, Injin Chi or the even greater attractions at 130 pounds.“I am looking for the biggest fights out there. The top guys at 122, Oscar Larios and Israel Vazquez, showed no interest in fighting me. Of course it is easier for me to make 126, but the bigger fights are there and at super featherweight. I want the big fights, with guys like Pacquiao, Barrera, Marquez, Harrison … I want my opportunity to shine,” explains a determined Guzman, adding, “I moved up because I want to fight men the quality of Chi, Harrison and Marquez. I want the biggest fights. Of course, I was the WBO super bantamweight champion. When I vacated the title and moved to feather, it put me in a good position to fight Harrison, if I win the upcoming bout.”
Harrison, a lightweight carefully squeezed into the 9 stone division, appears to be an increasingly hard fighter to match. Manager Frank Maloney has mooted profile clashes with Chi and Marquez for many months but neither appears close to materialising. What does Guzman, should he be victorious on Friday, think of the fight with the WBO champion? “I hope it (the fight) happens. Scott is a good fighter, and I just hope he will give me the opportunity to contest his belt. I’d be honoured to travel to the UK and battle him.” Harrison’s disappointing performance versus veteran Manuel Medina will not mislead either. “You cannot judge Harrison on one fight. Medina is a fine boxer. Harrison throws a lot of punches and is tough. He would present a difficult challenge, but one I would like to conquer.’
Style wise would Guzman cause problems? Harrison has notoriously struggled with movers like Medina and Victor Polo, against whom he was fortunate to escape with a draw, but his nickname “Lil’ Tyson’” suggests not. “It is fun (the nickname), but really, I do not like it too much because it focuses on my power. In reality, I love boxing, showing speed and movement and defense. But I take it as an honor. I was familiar with Tyson, but a bigger fan of Marvin Hagler. I am a slick boxer, with good movement, defense and speed. At the same time, I have excellent power. In all honesty, I believe I am the total package.”
Before anyone of this fanciful matchmaking can take place, Guzman has to negate Thailand’s unbeaten contender Terdsak Jandaeng, a fighter who this month enjoyed his second anniversary as a professional and has never fought outside his homeland. It looks like the gulf between the two will be evident from the outset, but Guzman has left little to chance. Training in Vegas, Guzman has dropped Roger Mayweather and teamed up with Don House and employed some quality southpaw sparring ahead of this crunch encounter. “I was training in Vegas, with Mayweather,” Guzman says. “After a few weeks, we respectfully parted ways; I started training with Don House. Working with him in Vegas has been great. We are working on fine-tuning my head movement and speed, not just a focus on power. Also, being in Las Vegas, I have sparred with southpaws Kevin Kelley and Steve Luevano.”
It seems the featherweight division is about to welcome a new force amongst its depleted ranks. Considering the deprived nature of his formative years, the established champions will struggle to repel this hungry product of Santa Domingo’s mean streets.
Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?
(I’d like to thank Jim Hunter for his assistance in setting up this interview and to Ricardo Lois for interpreting Joan’s responses, and of course Joan himself for affording me his time.)