About an hour after being shutout over eight rounds on all three judges scorecards by undefeated local hotshot Paulie Malignaggi at the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan on August 25th, a bruised and battered Jeremy “Carolina Kid” Yelton of Forrest City, North Carolina (population 12,000) was walking towards the New Yorker Hotel on West 34th Street, where he had spent the past three nights.
Walking hand-in-hand with Ashley Fowler, his girlfriend of six years, he couldn’t take three steps without another fan lauding him for his gallant effort. Although the 23-year-old Yelton appreciated the recognition, it didn’t erase the sour taste he had in his mouth.
He felt that the flashy Malignaggi – who later learned he broke his often-injured hand once again in the fight – did more shucking, jiving and dipping than actual fighting. It was obvious that quite a few people in attendance agreed with him.
“I didn’t come here to lose,” said Yelton, whose record now stands at 16-2 (8 KOs). “I came here to fight and I feel like I did all the fighting. He spent the whole night ducking and showboating.”
While I am in no way questioning the integrity of the judges, I can’t help but wonder if the fight would have been so one-sided (on their scorecards) if Malignaggi was the outsider who was brought in as the opponent for the hometown hero.
Although Malignaggi, now 20-0 (5), is an immensely likeable fellow, his pecking, pawing and smirking can be extremely frustrating to watch. Even though he has injured his hand many times during his relatively short career, one ringside wag joked that, “even when he has two good hands, he fights like he has one.”
The tall and slim Yelton, on the other hand, is a scrappy fellow who is more than willing to gut it out in the trenches. Even though he realized that he was traveling to the lion’s den, he had no compunction about doing so.
“I’m a fighter so I have to go where the fighting is,” said Yelton who, through his association with Bartonsville, Virginia, fight handler Jimmy Adams, is promoted by Don King. “Coming from a small town [where] there’s not much boxing going on, I have to go on the road. Next time, I’ll just fight harder and try not to leave it up to the judges.”
A tree trimmer by trade, Yelton had only been to New York once before, and that was just to pass through on the way to somewhere else. Three days before the Malignaggi fight, he and his father Eddie Yelton, a former professional kickboxer, were flown in for the final press conference of a card featuring four New York stalwarts: Malignaggi, Dmitriy Salita, Sechew Powell and Edgar Santana. All were going against out-of-town opposition.
Although father and son had hoped to visit Ground Zero, they never got the chance. And because they were leaving their hotel at 4:30 A.M. the next morning to catch a ride to the airport, it didn’t look like there would be any sightseeing on this trip to the Big Apple.
On the day of the fight, Yelton’s girlfriend, brother Jarred, and friend Chris Grant arrived by car. Not surprisingly, they were the only people in the arena who were rooting for him.
“That didn’t bother me all that much because I expected it,” said the soft-spoken, low-key Yelton. “What bothered me was how much he (Malignaggi) was allowed to get away with. If I fought like that, they’d would have warned me or disqualified me.”
This was just the latest bump in Yelton’s professional career, which began in April 2001 with four straight first round knockouts. Several months before he faced Malignaggi, Jimmy Hodge, who had been his trainer since he first started boxing at Red’s Gym in his hometown, had died of cancer. Yelton was devastated.
“We had a great relationship and it was very difficult when he died,” he said. “It was very hard to deal with. It still is hard to deal with. I think about him all the time.”
Yelton is now trained by Lamar Parks, who once fought out of New York but was originally from Greenville, South Carolina. Between 1988 and 1993, Parks compiled a 27-1 (21 KOs) record. Included in that ledger was a unanimous decision loss to WBA middleweight champion Reggie Johnson in an October 1992 title fight.
Talking with Yelton, it was easy to see the not-so-casual ambiguities associated with professional boxing. In some ways, Yelton should have been proud for putting forth a gallant effort in such hostile territory. One might think that earning the respect of so many fans would have brought him at least a small measure of personal satisfaction.
However, because he is such a committed professional, all of the congratulations, high-fives and conciliatory back slaps only exacerbated the negative feelings he was already experiencing.
“A loss is a loss,” said Yelton in a southern drawl that is as thick as it is honest. “It don’t matter how or why it happened. It still goes on your record as a loss. Once I get satisfied with losing, it’s time to quit fighting.”