After suffering his second beatdown as a pro, to Gussie Nazarov in 1994, Joey Gamache and those close to him searched for reasons why.
The easiest and most popular deduction to make in situations such as this, is: it's someone else's fault. That someone can be the promoter, for not giving you enough time or money to train properly for the fight; the officials working the fight, who had it in for you from the start; your wife, or ex wife, for nagging you and keeping you from concentrating completely on the task at hand; your trainer, for coming up with a subpar gameplan, which didn't play to your strengths; the matchmaker, for matching you up with a foe that didn't allow your strengths to stand out. That's a partial list, of course; historically, bad breakfasts, lumpy hotel beds, excessive Vasoline and poisoned water bottles have been affixed blame after a man's plans go awry. All are explanations–never “excuses”– the reasons given for a loss are simply explanations for that bad outing, which of course must be seen as an aberration, not a symptom of that most common disease which afflicts us all but ravages an athlete in particularly cruel fashion, aging.
Nazarov was a 28-year-old Russian who'd never fought in the US before he came onto Joey's turf, in Portland, Maine on Dec. 10th, and he got down to business in bone-breaking fashion at the outset. He broke Gamache's nose with a vicious left hook midway through the first and dropped Gamache twice in the second round. The second time, Gamache tried to beat the count, but the rest of his body over-rode his balls.
“I have absolutely no excuses,” Gamache said after. “He surprised me. He was exceptionally strong. He tagged me early and he rocked me. I just never got on track. Not at all. I came into this believing in myself. Not overconfident, but very confident. I worked as hard as I could. Sacrificed. And the better man won.”
Joey Gamache is one less afraid to buck tradition, and focus on the most logical suspect in the hunt for the reason why he'd lost another high profile bout: himself. So after Nazarov gave him the business, and he conceded that Nazarov was the superior fighter on that night, he started looking in the most logical spot for answers: the mirror.
Did I get old, he asked himself.
Do I have too many miles on me?
Has the game passed me by?
Was I really all that I was advertised to be, or not?
He wondered if it was time to pull the plug on the romance, if a breakup with boxing was the smart move. The rollercoaster ride in the sweet science had started off pleasant enough, and took some thrilling turns. The 1991 WBA super featherweight title win over Jerry Ngobeni in Lewiston was a trip. The WBA lightweight title victory over Chil-Sung Chun the next year, also in Maine, no one would ever be able to taint that memory. But the next bout was the loss to Tony Lopez, and the ride got rougher still with the Nazarov effort.
He asked himself those questions, but some people around him thought it wiser to find another villain. As so often happens, they locked in on the guy that sounded a bit different, who didn't blend in seamlessly, a fella who by virtue of a congenital inability to suppress his righteous indignation, especially when it came to the fight game, his sainted yet imperfect betrothed. Some folks around Gamache pointed the finger at Johnny Bos, the advisor who'd been instrumental in getting Gamache to a certain place. They'd been together, the soft-spoken Mainer and the easily excited Brooklyner, since Joey was 3-0 as a pro. Bos got him some gigs on undercards in France, and had stuck together ever since. “He had three fights in Maine and was kind of in limbo,” Bos said. “I got a call from the Acaries brothers in France. They were looking for an American Frenchman to build up. I didn't have anybody. I thought Joey was Italian.” Joe's dad, Joe Sr., he and Bos didn't mesh. Two men with sturdy ideas of the right way to do things, quite sure that their method is far and away the wisest. Joe the younger was caught in the middle, a nice guy not inclined to take a side, break a tie, keep both sides in line, even though it was his tuchus on the line in the arena.
The Bos-Gamache pairing worked, by and large, and it's not like Gamache couldn't have tucked in with a more mainstream advisor. Bob Arum and Don King both dangled dough and promises in front of Joey’s nose. One good thing about Bos, he knew a bit about roller coaster love affairs; he’d been married to boxing since he was about ten. He missed school many days, but never the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, the Friday Night Fights of the late 1960s. The game was a pretty good wife to him, for the most part. It kept him out of as much trouble as he’d likely have found without an intense vocational focal point, and gave him something to latch on to when his boozing and drugging threatened to overwhelm him in the 80s. “Boxing's always been a sport for the down-and-out people,” he said once. “My kind of people. Me.” But sometimes rather than faithful spouse, boxing played the part of cruel mistress. Bos loved and loves boxing so much, he wants it to be the best it can be. Instead of going along, and getting along, he’ll launch into a spiel morning, noon or night about the sports’ inefficiencies. The gloves, the number of rounds, the refusal to allow lidocaine shots to fighters with balky hands, Bos will critique his mistress mercilessly, and she has not taken it mutely. Boxing has answered back, shoved Bos back, withheld favors from the man. He will tell you he has been blackballed, and since you know the depth of his knowledge in the game, even though you have no concrete proof that he has been blackballed, you do not dismiss his claim. Knowing what you know about the game, and life, today, you don't dismiss his claim.
Back in 1994, boxing hadn't yet beaten Bos down, or brought Gamache to the the scene of the final battle of his career as a prizefighter, the New York Court of Claims. But the sport was testing him, on a daily basis, querying his mettle. He'd answered, by taking on drywall jobs, just a week after the Nazarov loss. Maybe, he thought, this is it. Maybe I was what the detractors said I was. Maybe this is my place, hanging sheetrock. I can do it in my sleep, and expectations are manageable.
But the siren beckoned. Questions weren't erased as tried out the 9-to-5 laborer life. How do I want to go out? On a bum note? Or on my terms, with my head screwed on straight, no girlfriend problems, or issues with my dad hanging in the air, distracting from the task at hand? So down went the drywall, and on went the gloves.
Gamache exiled himself to New York, and took on a new manager, New Jerseyite Lenny Shaw, to make things happen, do some dealmaking for another title shot, as Bos set up soft and semi-soft touches to get his confidence back, and get him acclimated to 140. That he did, with the help of Tim Bonds and Tony Enna, both of whom he beat twice in a one-year span in 1995-1996. Gamache won a minor-leagueish title, the WBU junior welter crown, on March 31, against Rocky Martinez, then 20-1 but with a record built on a flimsy foundation. The money was nothing to write home about, let along buy a home with. He beat Martinez in front of maybe 600 people at the Sullivan Gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine, made 20 Gs. After, Gamache still had questions. In a boxer, being a ponderer typically isn't a great trait. Having a philosophical bent, being prone to mull issues over, instead of simply accepting, and concentrating on positives, can be self destructive. After the Martinez bout, Gamache still lay in his bed at night, and stewed. “I want to take some time off and evaluate this fight,” he said. “I want to know if it was me or whether he was just that good. I was standing still too much. I don't know why.”
That question lingered, but Gamache's pride overrode some of the likelier answers. Aging was why. Mileage. The way of the world. It's a younger, fresher man's game. Gamache was 29, positively aged in the lower weight divisions, especially for someone with over 100 amateur bouts under his belt. But he submerged the questions as Bos got to work on a money fight. He employed a technique we all do, of benign delusion, and told himself that once his personal life smoothed out, his ring performances would benefit. Long term boxers often fall prey to a dangerous mindset, that of the “I am owed a fat payday.” They have devoted scads of hours, and allowed relationships to wither, and tortured themselves, and deprived themselves, and possibly harmed themselves neurologically down the line for so long…so they believe a payoff bout is owed to them. In a perfect world, it would be owed to them. But there is often no direct correlation between what someone is owed, and what they receive. That mom two doors down from me, the one with four kids, the one whose husband died of a heart attack at 44, who cleans houses five days a week, and works in the convenience store on Saturday and Sunday so she can keep her kids in a nice, safe neighborhood, she deserves a windfall. She deserves a big pile of money, if we're rewarding people based on their effort, and their decency. That friend of a friend who works for the hedge fund, the kid whose dad pulled a load of strings to get him into Princeton, and then into the firm even though he majored in cocaine and date rape in college, the guy who pulls down more in a quarter than that lady down the street will in her lifetime, this guy deserves a smackdown, so he can get a taste of how the Have Nots live. But ours is not a merit based world, and this is why so many are attracted to the idea of an after life where the scales of justice aren't tipped by power or money, where bad people get their due, and good souls receive what is rightfully theirs. A fighter who early on understands and accepts that the equation of effort + time + talent = fat payoff is the exceptional path, not the normal one, is ahead in the game.
Bos hunted it down, that back-to-the big-leagues bout, and put out some calls. Julio Cesar Chavez, the legend who was now on the slippery slope of the downside, coming off his first loss to Oscar De La Hoya, was needing a dance partner. At 34, Chavez had just two losses on his ledger, to Frankie Randall in 1994, and De La Hoya (TKO4). Chavez wanted to hold onto the baton, keep his run as the reigning idol to Mexican fight fans and to Hispanics intact. De La Hoya, at 23, had already picked up three crowns (WBO feather, WBO lightweight, IBF lightweight), but fight fans wondered if he had the stones enough to get the better of the vet taking part in his 32nd title fight. He did, from minute one, and he opened up a sick gash on his left eye which caused the ring doc to stop the proceedings in the fourth round. After the tussle, Chavez grasped for an explanation, and offered an all-time great: his three year old kid had head-butted him three days before the fight, and opened a cut on his tattered visage. Another handful of formerly devoted Chavez devotees drifted away from their icon, finding his parade of excuses unseemly. But he marched on, as there was pride to buoy, and the taxman to satisfy. Four months after he had his baton yanked away from him by the Golden Boy, Chavez was booked into a slide-stopper, a bout to arrest the inevitable snowballing slide. “The payoff, that was an element in taking the Chavez fight,” Gamache says. “That was the biggest payday of my career, $250,000.” But taking the Chavez bout was by no means purely a fiscal play. Gamache saw a fighter in decline. “He wasn't getting any younger. This is my way back, I thought, my fight back to the big leagues. It was the right time to catch this guy. I saw it as an opportunity for redemption for my two losses.”
So Chavez vs. Joey Gamache was booked, two guys looking to redefine their role in the sport, their worth as an athlete. They would fight on Oct. 12, 1996 in Anaheim, California. The bout wouldn't go Gamache's way, but he would leave Anaheim answering a question in his mind about his worth as an athlete, a fighter, a man.