Update: Contender no more. Danny graduated. He won his fight on Saturday night, via KO in the sixth, with a body shot. Took out the liver belonging to Ronnel Esparas.
Four punch combo, top to bottom, Arturo would have smiled.
“It just happened a few hours ago, and I feel like I'm dreaming,” Danny told me Saturday night. “It's amazing, WBU World and International light welterweight champion!”
Having Manny's guy Buboy Fernandez wrap his hands, work his corner, made it that much more special, he said.
“This was all for my boys. I wanted to show them they can do anything they want. Nothing is impossible. Anyway, it's not about the title, WBU, WBC whatever..It's the story I guess people care about.”
There are too many good people in New Jersey for it to be rightfully derided as The Armpit of America.
Yes, yes, so the brand of moron specific to that region can possess a specific blend of nacho-cheesy exterior, and speech betraying a gleeful distaste for intellectual curiosity, and an un-earned and grating tendency to possess an elevated sense of worth commensurate with the circumference of out-sized biceps, in direct counter-proportion to the underdeveloped calf muscles which lay flat with vestigial flare.
The propensity to confuse the color “tan” with “orange” and fondness for spray tans maybe makes some of their citizens deserved of snickers, but all in all, Jersey receives too much scorn per capita.
The world has known too many kind souls from that place on the map to see that parcel of land as one big town full of losers.
Please allow me to introduce you to a Jersey guy, a fighter whose charm and wit and heart leaped out at me right away. I had no way of knowing, since our relationship was so casual, how trying the life of Danny McDermott had been, how much he'd needed to employ the traits and strategies of the best prizefighters outside of the ring. And since Danny possesses immense pride, the sort that can alternately lift you up, and also spur you to not reach out when asking for help is the wisest play, I had no way of knowing the soul-piercing issues which had plagued him recently, and left him an emotional robot, lights barely flickering, really nobody home but a sad ghost. After absorbing blow after blow outside the ring, in the manner of the most ubiquitous record-padding specialist, the traveling salesman of losing who travels from town to town to do his thing, which is lose to the up and coming golden boy, McDermott's mind is today in a far better place, and he will in fact be fighting for the WBU light welterweight title on Sept. 13. Boxing, it's fair to say, could well be responsible for saving his sanity, and helping him keep chugging when he'd be partially excused if he sleep-walked through life, or worse yet, opted out through a slow-motion slide featuring a sad symphony of bar-stools and popping pain pills, which would probably lead to a coda of an existence that reeks of confirmed desperation, and sad summations by family and friends when the music ends.
Here is Danny's tale, one familiar to people who know the sport intimately, and don't succumb to the easy path to omnipresent cynicism and critique….
Danny McDermott, a 35-year-old New Jersey resident, came from a blue collar family which had boxing in the DNA. Dad boxed in the Marines, and when fighting was on the tube, everyone clustered around and watched. Grab the TV dinner, don't spill on the carpet, but don't take eyes off Tyson…
Ring mags lay around the house, and while other small fries would pore over Spiderman comic books, little Mac would read from the boxing Bible. “My dad hung a heavy bag and speed bag in our backyard in New Jersey,” he tells me, “and we would learn a little here and there and workout.”
At 12, Danny picked out his profession. Prizefighter it would be. Mattingly is cool, but c'mon. Firefighters are to be admired, but fighters are to be adored, and respected at another level, OK?
Living with his aunt and uncle in North Bergen, NJ during the week, and dad on weekends, and with his mom once a month, he learned a most useful trait for boxers…to adapt. He had to, had to learn to deal when he was hit with an out-of-nowhere uppercut, the death of a beloved cousin. “In 1991, I lost my 23 year old cousin, who was like an older brother to me, from heart failure in his sleep, ” Danny says. “My brother and I found him in his room. He was a lead singer for a rock band. A few weeks after he passed away, a record producer from a big label came looking for him to talk about his band signing a record deal. It was heart-breaking. His dream had finally came true but he wasn't there to live that dream. I realized I needed to create my dream.”
A documentary on the greatest boxers of all time pushed him to get more serious about becoming a pro fighter, rising in the ranks, and snagging a title. He went from training in dad's backyard, to the gym. Jersey boy Arturo Gatti, a Canadian transplant, was a considerable influence on young McDermott.
“My first fight I attended was him winning his first world title against Tracy Patterson at MSG in 1995. I was actually given the hand-wraps he wore in that fight–I have them in a glass case in my home. If you were to tell me I would have been making my pro debut on his card 10 years later I may have thought you were crazy. He was from my area in New Jersey and I wanted to be as exciting as him.”
As Gatti was edging closer to the finished line, Danny kicked off his pro career. Some Jersey boys grab a guitar, try and learn how to make it sing. Danny grabbed gloves and tried to learn how to throw his fists to make 'em sting. He debuted in January 2005, far down on a card topped by a Gatti/Jesse James Leija face-off. Gatti won by KO5, and Danny beat Jason Chacon via UD4. He won three straight, and there were post-win toasts, and so much promise, and so much tavern optimism. Too many toasts? There was a draw with Ed Valdez in November 2005.
He rebounded with a win, and lost to Manny Garcia in November 2007, but was started on a solid run, momentum and confidence building when he beat Floriano Pagliara in May 2009. Then the Fates—or was it God trying him, or is there a God and if there is, why does he dispense tests in such flippant fashion?–tucked their talons into McDermott.
“I felt like life was good and only was going to get better going into the summer of 2009. I had an 8-1 professional record,” he recalls. “I was coming off the biggest victory in my career, over Pagliara. I had plans of fighting for a regional title in the near future. I had just started a family. (Danny Jr. is now five years old.) I moved into one of the best neighborhoods in New Jersey, Fort Lee. Everything seemed like it was great. I was living 'the American Dream.' Then, in July I was at a family BBQ down the shore when I got the phone call about Arturo, I'll never forget it. My heart sunk. I just couldn't believe it. I had spoken to him a few weeks before he had left for Brazil. We had planned to get our boys together to meet in the summer when he got back. Both of our sons are the same age. It sunk in when I saw the reports on TV later that day. From that point on the downward spiral began. A week later my uncle who helped raise me had a severe heart attack while at physical therapy. He held on for a few days but didn't survive. I watched him leave us as I held his hand. It was heart-breaking, I can't describe it. He was my baseball and football coach as a kid. He taught me toughness in sports, to get up when knocked down and come back harder the next time. He was very proud to be from North Bergen, NJ. He said you had to be tough if you're going to say your from that neighborhood.”
Danny would need that toughness, but more so from an emotional standpoint, as the flurries of hard to hear news, following the death of his mentor, Gatti, and his uncle, did a job on his head. Punches were way easier to absorb, shrug off, than this stuff. Broken nose seemed like a hangnail compared to this stuff…
“During this time I was having some turmoil at home with my significant other. We weren't on the same page with a lot of things. The in-laws were involved too much, typical problems for many new families, I'd say.”
McDermott lost back to back fights, against Brian Miller (SD8) and Osnel Charles (UD6). It's fair to say that the home front was not helping him gain the focus needed to train right, and be ready to rock on fight night. “I needed an escape and thought taking this fight against Miller was it,” he continues. “I was depressed after that. I didn't care that people had said it was a great fight and I looked great. I lost. I guess I felt a bit better months later when some of the local writers voted it the 2010 New Jersey Fight of the Year.”
A second son, Kain, born to the missus provided a bump, but the dynamic at home was subpar. Moving in with her parents, in order to 'save money to buy a house' proved counterproductive.
“Things were so bad that I had made a terrible choice to use prescription pain killers after work so I could deal with (the atmosphere at home). Months later things got so bad that I had moved out. I refused to fight and argue in front of my babies. I had no idea were I was going to go. I didn't tell my aunt, father or mother because I didn't want them to worry or to get involved. I slept in the park a few nights until I spoke to my step-brother who let me live with him in the Bronx. I stayed there for four months. It was during this time that I took the fight with Osnel Charles. I was in no way ready for this fight. I was 165 a week before the fight which was contracted for 143 pounds.”
Fighting with the mother of his kids, feuding with a co-promoter, this is the sort of stuff that many of us fightwriters don't know about when we analyze a fight, and focus solely on technique, and such. Being right mentally is maybe as key as being physically ready, right? Perhaps more, because you can be body beautiful but have a hidden head full of fear, doubt and insecurity.
“So now I was 8-3,” says the hitter, who will glove up at his new boxing 'home away from home,' the Philippines, in General Santos City on Sept. 13. “To make ends meet I was working as a day laborer, riding on the back of a pick up truck with immigrants. I couldn't find work. The friends that were around when I was up and coming were nowhere to be found.” Another hard lesson learned for those that see their bandwagon get crowded with new friends who want to be in the mix when the parties getting cooking, but blow off cleanup duty. Who's left picking soggy cigarette butts off the beer-soaked, butt-stained carpet?
“A few moths later my Aunt Maureen went in for minor surgery and never left the hospital. Her kidneys failed. I again watched another loved one take her last breath in front of me. This woman was my mom. She was there at every moment for me, supported me, loved me, raised me. At the time of her death we weren't talking to each other for about month. We had gotten into an argument. Mind you she didn't know about the problems I was having. She didn't know about me living in the Bronx. So that was added sadness. I felt like a jerk after she died. I can totally value the lesson of never holding a grudge. We had a stupid little argument. Her birthday was the week after she had died—before she went in to the hospital I had planned to bring my kids over and surprise her and make up with her. I never got to do it.” More swift and severe combos whacked McDermott. Someone up there don't like me, he had to think.
“Later that year I found out that my father had liver cancer. My brother and I stepped up and moved in to help him try to beat it. We took him to doctors, chemo, radiation. Tried to do the right thing. It was around this time that I linked up with Tommy Gallagher and Rich Komissar. I had a fight against Bryan Abraham in my hometown in North Bergen and won. I forgot what it felt like to win.”
Around the time he lost a majority decision to Carl McNickles at the MSG Theater, underneath the Sergio Martinez-Matthew Macklin main event, the phone brought more bad news. “It was about this time I got the phone call from my brother that my mother died of an apparent heart attack,” Danny said. “I couldn't believe it. Here we were, trying to get ready for our father to check out and mom checks out on us first. It was a little more depressing, to say the least. “
Real-deal friend Komissar helped him get a job as a maintenance worker and doorman in NYC, and chats with boxing lifer Gallagher helped him process the anxiety and sadness some. But another defeat was added to his record, when he lost to Andre Baker in North Carolina, in September 2012. Danny says his foe was 13 pounds heavier than him, and he agreed to fight him as an exhibition. He was surprised and irked when the fight showed up on Boxrec as his fifth loss, and is fighting the W with the aid of an attorney.
Then, another loss.
“Last September 9th my father lost his battle with cancer. He died at home with me and my brother by his bedside. I got to tell him everything I wanted to and it felt good to know that he knew how much he meant to me before he died.” But all those losses, in the ring, out of the ring, so much despair and death. McDermott was in rough shape, emotionally and physically. Listless mind, inert body, an American Dreamer reduced to sleepwalker. Eyes open but always clouded by the wafting fogs of despair that would only break for spells when the boys did something or said something cute.
“So here I was in January 2013, I was a fat out of shape mess. I was tipping the scales at 195. One morning I had terrible stomach pains and I didn't pay mind to them until I was vomiting pure blood later in the day. I figured I should go to the hospital,” he said, making me almost grin, as I noted how sometimes “toughness” can be an impediment to sensibility.
“It was 4 AM. The doctor had informed me that my appendix burst hours earlier and 'peritonitis' set in, which infected my liver and kidneys. This is the same infection that killed Harry Houdini. The doc told me if I hadn't sought medical attention I would have been dead within two hours. I had to go into surgery to remove the appendix. I thought this was it. I know how surgeries go, sometimes infections spread during surgery like what happened to my aunt. I cried thinking about my two kids and how they were upset when they learned about my father's death and how he was 'up with the angels.' I spoke to my boys, who are 5 and 4, before surgery and his mom had told him that daddy was in hospital with a bad stomach ache. So they were both on the phone crying and telling me I can't go to the angels, which started to make me cry. After I hung up the phone, I said a prayer to God that I would change my life around. I will do all the things I promised myself I would do if He got me through this.”
He started out on a regimen which is prototypical for a before and after weight loss product advertisement. “I reached out to my friend, trainer Mike Rodriguez who lives in Florida and works with today's top MMA fighters from UFC and Bellator. I asked him if I could come down and train with him for two months. He said absolutely. Mike has worked with great boxers like Agnaldo Nunez, Freddie Cadena and Archak TerMeliksetian. He's a great strategist when it comes to the fight game. So for two months I was in the gym two or three times a day, boxing, strength and conditioning and cardio. And of course diet was key as well.”
After two straight losses, McDermott got back on the bright side with a DQ1 win over Jesar Ancajas in the Philippines. Wait…in the Philippines? How'd that come about?
“My last fight was in Manny Pacquiao's home town in General Santos City, Philippines, thanks to my dear friend Ryan Songalia (a writer and editor who grew up in NJ and now lives in the Philippines). The fans were very receptive to me. The children in the arena surrounded me and were coming to give me hugs, chanting my name from my ring walk till the end of the fight. It was just an overall humbling experience and it was even better after I won. I'm looking forward to going back for sure and winning this world championship.”
But wait…isn't if for one of those cheapie titles, for a subpar sanctioning bodies, the WBU. That's what I read on Twitter, anyway…
“Everyone has an opinion,” Danny says. “Especially the non-fighter. Don't get me wrong, I'm not under the impression that this WBU world title is on the same level of a WBC, WBA, IBF or WBO. I know what this “world” title is. It's a stepping-stone title to that next level, but in the same respect it's a portion of the light welterweight championship of the world, even if it's a little portion. By no means do I think people, fans or writers should discredit or take away the accomplishment any fighter achieves when winning any championship. Many great fighters have held the WBU title. Granted, it was more popular in the mid-to late 90s and early part of this century when it was in England. This particular title is special to me because it is the “WBU Light Welterweight title.” The same world title and only world title “Irish” Micky Ward won. Shoot, they made a damn movie about him winning this title. It was also held by Ricky Hatton for years. So that right there makes it very meaningful for me. Let people talk s–t, if it was good enough for these two legendary fighters, it's good enough for me.”
McDermott offers some insight which can be useful to us all. His words spill faster, hit harder, like he's stepping it up on the heavy bag. “I don't care about the opinions of anyone except my two little boys at home,” he says. “That's my motivation to do what I'm doing now. For the people to say its a s–t title, go tell Micky Ward that or Ricky Hatton or even Mark Wahlberg and the producers of the movie 'The Fighter.' It would also highlight me being the first North Bergen, NJ native to win a “World Championship” since James J. Braddock, which is special to me for historic reasons. Those components make this very meaningful and the fact that I'm fighting in Manny Pacquiao's home-town, thousands of miles from US soil for the title, makes it even more special. It will feel good winning it and bringing it to the US. Which is what I plan on doing.”
We all live our own memoir. We admit to just enough personal deficiencies to keep us honest, ideally, while deflecting enough so we're able to get out of bed, some of us. Allow me to shift from a memoir-ish POV, to an unauthorized auto-bio slant, compliments of two men who McDermott relies on to dispense tough love when he needs it. And sometimes doesn't want it, but needs it anyway. Trainer-manager-father figure Tommy Gallagher gave me the crack on the kid. Punches weren't pulled…
“He's got a lot of things going for him, but he also has that Irish tough guy syndrome,” Gallagher says. “He can do thing to get noticed besides getting his head bashed in.”
Gallagher, if you don't know, has been in the game since diapers, basically. Hooking off the jab before potty-training kicked in…
Many of his types are long past their 'see no evil' period regarding boxing. They've seen too much, seen ring deaths, seen blatant theft of money and spirit, to look the other way, and not let some earned cynicism influence them. He says some guys, cough cough, would be better off spending less time sitting on stools and being caught in the whirl of mood lighting and amber liquids and the intoxication of impending successes.
“You can be a playboy and a drunk and be a writer. You can't be a playboy and a drunk and be a fighter,” Gallagher says. By all accounts, McDermott can't be reduced to be labeled those things, but it can be said he's done his time chasing tail and ale…Remember how he said he “wanted to be as exciting as” Gatti? Fast and furious, inside ring, outside ring, that's a young man's game and it turns you old pretty quick. “I think he's pretty bright,” Gallagher continues. “I think he will shine somehow, something will click and he'll get on track. He could have maybe been special as a fighter…He deserves something, but he did it looking for shortcuts. You root for guys like that, hope they make it. Yeah, he could have been a great fighter, but he wasn't respectful to the game. He was caught up in a sparring partner mentality. He had the,'The “On the Waterfront” thing, Terry Malloy, “I coulda' been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am – let's face it.”''
Gallagher has seen too many Terrys and Dannys toss it away. So he has a street brand way of looking at people who waste potential. “I'd rather see someone go to jail, make sure their kids get fed, rather than be drunk on the street, or whatever. Anyway, I think it'll happen for him, somehow, and I'll be rooting for him.”
Mentor Rich Kommissar, son of Stanley Kommisar, who co-founded the fabled Starrett City gym in East New York, Brooklyn roots for McDermott, and since he has more hair to pull out than Gallagher, has lost a few strands in exasperation.
“Danny's had a tough life… Irish twin, brought up in Hell's Kitchen and North Bergen by a compilation of people,” Kommisar synopsizes. “He was a good amateur, Gatti sparring partner, but life always seemed to get in his way. He seems to finally be eliminating his excuses for failure and maybe starting gutting it out emotionally. Boxing-wise, he has a tough chin, is a good puncher. Danny has been a bit lazy in his training and likes to 'hustle' into his own situations, which frustrates me tremendously because I love him.”
This being boxing, where maybe the most useful trait to possess, both inside and outside the ring, is the ability to adapt, McDermott has had to wrap his brain around a couple foes as he looks to Saturday. On Sunday, he posted to Facebook this update for fans and friends.
“After 2 opponents pulling out for my fight, the promoter had no choice but to scramble and get a local fighter or scrap my fight,” he wrote. “So Ronnel Esparas 10-14 will be my opponent. Despite his record, Esparas, a crafty southpaw was a Filipino amateur standout who built up a pro record of 6-1 before going on a roller coaster of a career. He was also a sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao. I wish he looked better on paper to silence the critics that no doubt will come at me win or lose but it's out of my hands at this point. I'm just coming to win my titles, and journeymen that have nothing to lose like Esparas are dangerous fighters. I'm expecting a tough fight regardless of his record.”
Kid knows tough fights…He has the ability, those close to him maintain, to succeed and it seems like the maturity has kicked in so that chapters yet to be written will feature a more upbeat tone. And doesn't he deserve, if nothing else, the chance to have the last words here?
“Boxing HAS given me a reason to live, if I can tell my kids to shoot for their dreams, that they can be whoever they want to be in life, I want it to ring true,” McDermott says, indicating that he sees the door is open, and understands that the ride ain't free. “If Daddy can do it, so can you. Nothing is impossible.”
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