While attending the State University of New York at Brockport back in the late seventies, I had several experiences and met some unique people who would have much influence on the direction that my life would take.
A fellow journalism student named Joel Rifkin acted as my photographer on my very first paid assignment, which was coverage of a local boxing hero named Rocky Fratto for the now defunct magazine Hank Kaplan’s Worldwide Boxing Digest.
More than a decade after we both left Brockport, Rifkin would be convicted of killing 17 prostitutes over a four-year span, making him the most prolific serial killer in New York State history and the subject of my first book, From the Mouth of the Monster: The Joel Rifkin Story, which was published by Pocket in 2001.
Another fellow student, “Gentleman” John Griffin, was an undefeated professional middleweight boxer with four wins on his ledger when I accompanied him to his Troy, New York, training camp during the month-long Christmas break in 1979.
He was trained by Dave Zyglewicz, who had unsuccessfully challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title in 1969, and Bob Miller, whose son Shannon was still in diapers but is now a heavyweight prospect who recently engaged in a battle royale with Vinny Maddalone on ESPN2.
The plan was for me to go through all of the training paces with Griffin, and then report on his camp, as well as his January 1980 bout in Hartford, Connecticut, for the school newspaper. Although I had never boxed before, the thrill of the assignment was exhilarating.
One of the amateur fighters at Miller’s gym was Ray Barone, a muscular heavyweight with a head like a lion. I sparred several rounds with him and, if not for his benevolence, would have been deposited on the canvas whenever he chose to put me there.
However, I persevered and immersed myself in the training so intensely that I pleaded with Miller and Zyglewicz to find me a slot on the card. Back then becoming a “professional” boxer was a lot easier than it is today.
The night before my departure for Hartford for a fight against local ticket seller Dick Embleton, I received a call from Barone. Although we were the same age, he spoke to me as an older brother would while warning me that I “wasn’t ready” to fight professionally, regardless of the level of my competition.
Being young, cocky and charged-up, I ignored his advice. After putting up some obligatory resistance in the first round, I was stopped by Embleton in the second. Griffin also incurred his first loss, and another stable mate, welterweight Tim LaValley, also went home a loser.
I went on to have a few more fights, but would have been better off heeding Barone’s advice. In 2004, when a boxing magazine asked me to write a feature story on the United States Military Academy at West Point boxing program, I was elated to learn that my contact person was retired Lt. Colonel Ray Barone, who was now the Academy’s director of boxing. I did not even know he had joined the army.
After reacquainting ourselves, Barone explained to me that boxing is a mandatory class for all freshmen. They are required to take at least 19 classes and are given a letter grade. This was in addition to a 22-credit curriculum course load that included physics, calculus, and daily drill instruction.
Boxing, said Barone, “enables the cadets to learn something about themselves by addressing their natural fears in a controlled, safe environment. Combat is the ultimate contact sport because it produces fear and injury and is life threatening. The difference between success and failure in combat is determined by one’s ability to stay poised and continue to function while feeling fearful.”
I ran into Barone again in August 2005 at one of promoter Lou DiBella’s boxing shows at the Manhattan Center in New York. He was accompanied by four members of his team, none of whom had done any boxing prior to attending West Point. It was obvious that they thought the world of Barone, and that the feelings were mutual.
Team captain Matthew Pride, a tall and lithe 156-pounder, hails from Staten Island, New York. Soon after donning gloves in his freshman year, he knocked out two opponents without even trying. “That got me validated out of the class,” he said before explaining that that meant he received an automatic grade of A and was also recruited for the boxing team by Barone.
Now 22 and with graduation soon upon him, Pride, whose record is 14-8, says boxing has changed his life in ways he never could have imagined.
“The confidence and discipline I derived from boxing has helped me in every area of my life,” said Pride who will earn dual degrees in environmental geography and engineering.
Asked how he is handling the stress of knowing he could be serving in Iraq or Afghanistan by the middle of next year, Pride’s response was unequivocal. “Of course there is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty,” he said. “But the preparation we go through and the confidence the Academy instills in you makes things much easier. I have extreme faith in the training I’m receiving at the Academy, and boxing is a very important component of the overall training.”
David Tyson is a 21-year-old, 165-pounder from Destin, Florida. He is called “The White Mike” by his teammates and, while visiting his hometown during school recesses, works out at Roy Jones’ gym in nearby Pensacola.
Although his father is a Presbyterian minister, and Tyson had thought about choosing that vocation as well, he says the adrenaline rush he gets from boxing is like nothing he has ever experienced.
“I love to turn the switch on and get mean, and then turn the switch off again,” said Tyson, a management major with an 11-3 record who has competed at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, as well as in Detroit, Washington, and New York.
He too has no qualms about being assigned to a battle zone and is comfortable with the training he has received. “I’ll lead people and do the best I can,” he said. “One thing the Academy teaches you is to do your best. If you do your best, there’s no more that can be asked of you.”
Nineteen-year-old junior Reggie Smith, 8-1, is an economics major who hails from Rockville, Maryland. His sole loss came in the finals of last year’s national collegiate competition. Like all cadets beginning their junior year, he had the option of leaving West Point with no debt owed to the institution. However, once a junior takes their very first class they have a mandatory five-year commitment upon graduation.
“That was one of the biggest decisions of my life,” said the 185-pound Smith. “But the discipline of boxing helped me make my decision. Boxing has taught me a lot about myself, and given me more insight into what I want out of life. It has been a great experience.”
Although 112-pound junior Michael Benedosso of Milford, Connecticut, is somewhat short in stature, he is a giant among his teammates. The philosophy major with a 5-5 boxing record has no hesitancy about regularly sparring with much bigger men because there are no other team members in his weight class. Among the places he has competed are Detroit, Louisville and Virginia.
“It’s a good feeling to get in the ring after all of the hard work and practice,” he said. “The practice is intense, but it helps make us good warriors. It’s very empowering to face your fears head-on.”
When asked about the possibility of being sent off to war in the not too distant future, Benedosso responded like the true warrior that he is.
“War is always on my mind, like it is on the mind of all of us,” he explained. “But we signed up for this. We knew what we were getting into before we got into it.”
One of Benedosso’s two brothers, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is also a graduate of West Point. It is obvious that he is continuing a proud family legacy.
All of these fine young men were thrilled to be at the boxing show, hobnobbing with such celebrities as Joey Gilbert, one of the fighters on “The Contender” television series, and former heavyweight title challenger Renaldo Snipes, who thanked them for their service to their country.
Future First Lieutenants Pride, Tyson, Smith and Benedosso represent America’s best and brightest. Moreover, the experiences they garnered through boxing exemplify all that is truly sweet about the sweet science. Knowing that they are the country’s leaders of tomorrow, even long after their military careers are over, brings a measure of reassurance to ordinary citizens like me. It is obvious that the future is in very good hands.