“I felt the satisfaction, because it proved the world isn’t going backward; if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like, when you were really young.”
AJ Liebling, reflecting on Archie Moore vs. Rocky Marciano
Life is short, so goes the dominant cliché about mortality. But there’s another way of framing it altogether, if you consider the stature of a tree you planted in your youth and see how it has grown while you haven’t been paying attention.
Driving to the Turning Stone Casino through intermittent rain on the Thruwaylands of Upstate New York, I reflected on a piece of family trivia my wife’s aunt had uncovered about her ancestors that she revealed to us that afternoon. Somewhere among these wetlands bleeding into saturated onion fields, there’s a longhouse-shaped shack still standing that once crowded the newly immigrated Italians on the brink of the fields. The same soil that germinated the Onion Farmer himself, Carmen Basilio. Several of these ancestors are still alive, and a sojourn to the humble beginnings is being planned. The distant world is always touching this one.
Our lives are long, and boxing often offers us a glimpse at what might be the defining moments of that life, even if as metaphor.
It’s a brilliant idea, actually, for the ESPN-sanctioned minor league of boxing that is its Friday Night Fights series, to arrange a tournament between evenly matched but mostly obscure boxers to duke it out to the top with three fights over thirteen weeks. It’s a throwback, of sorts, to a time when purse money was generated by ticket sales and not television and fighters fought much more often.
Now, of course, the opposite is true and ESPN can get away with holding its Boxcino tournament in such far-flung places as rural North Dakota and along the I-90 in small-town upstate New York, with little concern for any fans to show up for their hometown fighters (raise your hand if you’re a days’ drive of 4 Bears Casino).
Beyond the level of competition that a tournament portends, the upside is that there is something at stake the winners of the lightweight and middleweight ESPN titles. Last month, we saw the light-hitting but relentless 2013 ESPN FNF alumnus Arash Usmanee compete on the co-feature of the Pacquiao-Bradley card. Although Usmanee’s appearance on a PPV was an injury substitution, his showing on short notice against Raymundo Beltran certainly made an impact on his career and his bank account.
Hope and exposure is maybe the most valuable commodity these ESPN fights can offer the boxers themselves, because they can’t stand to make that much money. It can’t be avoided that Friday Night Fights is something of a red-headed stepchild for ESPN2, slotted right after a college softball contest. It’s small potatoes.
ESPN, in collaboration with Banner Promotions, won’t say how much the fighters receive from the tournament, and it’s curious that the prizes aren’t a central part of the scriptwriting. The word ringside was that the winners stood to win $50,000. Why wouldn’t ESPN divulge the figure and use that in its marketing, marrying a sports competition with a reality TVesque get-rich-quick narrative that focuses on the modest lives of the boxers and what a difference a little money would make? For the love of God and money, middleweight contender Willie Monroe Jr. supports his young family working with autistic and developmentally delayed children, fifty grand would go a long way.
The first fight of the Boxcino finals had the California sharp-shooter Brandon Adams in against Willie “El Mongoose” Monroe Jr., who brought a few hundred strong from his 585 homelands of Rochester, NY. It was clear from the outset, that Adams didn’t want to move into Monroe’s counter trap, and the two stalked each other in relative silence, except one ringside matchmaker in attendance calling out “boring.” Monroe landed more grazing jabs than Adams in a feeling out Round 1.
The sweaty mist hanging under the lights somehow perfumed by the four ring girls broke for a moment in the third when Adams finally got inside with body-head combos, giving the Mongoose what would be the only thing he would have to worry about the rest of the night.
Monroe paid some serious homage to his nickname’s heritage, and got crafty. He picked him off from angles on the outside and when Cannon Adams was finally able to enter the phone booth, Monroe called him collect with uppercuts and hooks, weaving out of danger and leaving Adams bearing the unmistakeable smile of frustration. Monroe was elusive, and while not exactly dangerous, did plenty of damage and controlled the bulk of the fight on the outside.
As the fight began slipping away, Adams became increasingly desperate to land something solid. A right hook was his best weapon, and after the fight Monroe admitted he hit him with a few shots that made the whole right side of his body numb, but it only served to give Monroe motivation to go back to into the toolbox and pull out the chisel, the hammer, and measuring tape and get back to the work that earned him his washboard 8-pack. At the end of ten, the longest either fighter had spent inside the ring, the judges gave him the obvious turn of unanimous decision.
With the Rochester roadie contingent satisfied with both Monroe and his cousin Marcus Hall winning a preliminary bout, the air was sucked out of the room a bit as Petr Petrov- Fernando Carcamo lightweight bout got off to a stuttering start. Carcamo carried the first round with his substantial length advantage on his jab, but Petrov sprung a leak in the damn with his right hook over the top early in the fight that opened the flood gates for the volume-punching Russian.
Carcamo’s footwork seemed a bit uncertain, and he complained after the fight that cutting his 5’11” frame down to 135 pounds took too much out of him, that he would have to move up in weight in the future. Petrov, crouching in a style befitting Carcamo’s Mexican countrymen, took over the fight from the third round on, beating him to the punch. By the sixth round, Petrov looked comfortable throwing any punch from anywhere, and landing many of the hundreds of volleys he tossed Carcamo’s way, opening up the flood for real late in the seventh beginning with a wicked straight right, and ending with the Mexican barely surviving the round on his feet.
Referee Billy Johnson approached the embattled corner between rounds heading into the eighth, giving the Yaqui Warrior a last chance to show something before interjecting official mercy, and his corner pleaded over the hushed crowd, “Come on Fernando, nothing to lose! Throw it! Everything you got.” But it wouldn’t be enough, forty seconds in after Petrov returned the fight to it’s default form. Much to the consternation of some suddenly vocal fight fans who prefer to see the man hospital-ready, the fight was stopped immediately.
More comfortable in his native Russian or his adopted second home’s Spanish, Petrov did his talking with his raw exuberance the moment the fight was called. Even ten minutes after the fight, the man had still not come back down to earth and thought to remove his gloves. And fifteen minutes after that, he took his place on the long table for the presser still shirtless, wearing only the Boxcino belt he had won. A second came by quickly and donned him in his sponsor’s hoodie.
The loquacious and polite Willie Monroe Jr. stole the show at the press conference, too, speaking to how his Afro-Cuban and African-American roots have informed different sides of his boxing style. He said it was his ring experience that carried him over Brandon Adams, ultimately; his ability to give him looks he hadn’t seen and keep the young slugger guessing. When asked about the Mongoose nickname, he resisted any mention of Archie Moore, but lit up at the opportunity to speak of his friend, Sammy Torres, who gave him the nickname. When a mongoose hunts a cobra, he said, he has to sneak up and strike with speed.
Banner Promotions’ Artie Pelullo stood over the fighters like a proud father, and correctly upheld the virtues of the tournament format. “This is what athletics is all about, you don’t know what’s gonna happen.” Despite the two mostly one-sided fights, he’s right in contrasting Boxcino to vast pool of subpar match-making that dominates the sport. Pelullo insisted that nobody lost in the tournament, that all of the under-exposed fighter gained a name for themselves, they all earned moments of courage that define their character and will lead them to new opportunities.
Sitting next to former bantamweight champ Downtown Leona Brown for most of the fight, somehow conversation took a turn to lead her to tell me that at the end of the world, when the devil is vanquished and humanity redeemed, only certain people will be lucky enough to see it. “I plan on living forever,” she told me.