Jermaine White, a club fighter out of Vegas, stood in the doorway of a ratty dressing room, only moments after being on the wrong end of an 8-round decision on this June night at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.
“That’s it for me, man,” he said, his slightly swollen eyes darting everywhere, except at the man he was talking to. “I can’t do this no more. I can’t.” He was shaking his head, shoulders dropped, in a bad place after the loss.
“You’re a good fighter, bro. This ain’t easy, but this is what we do. Keep your head up.” The man consoling him was the same man who put White on the wrong side of the decision and on the brink of retirement, a fighter who probably had similar doubts after taking the first loss of his career in his last bout at this same venue, the only blemish on his otherwise perfect record. But after tonight’s win, he was 16-1. One win can change everything in boxing, same as one loss. For Gabriel “Tito” Bracero, bigger fights and larger purses were on his mind, not hanging up the gloves and going back to the relative safety of an everyman life.
White was gone now, leaving Bracero to deal with the incidental head-butts White delivered him during the fight. He was being stitched up by the doctor in two spots, above the left eye, and in the middle of his forehead. It was hard to watch, but even harder to receive. “Ahhhhhh!” Bracero shouted when the doctor hit a nerve. Bracero’s a tough dude, a fighter turned ex-con back to fighter, and to hear him scream in pain was disconcerting. Two hours of careful stitching later, Bracero and his camp were back to thinking about the next fight, the next chance to put his well-being on the line for cash and glory, the next opportunity to move up the ranks toward title fights and marquee venues, and leave behind the days of fighting journeymen for pocket change and record-padding and local bragging rights.
The fight vs White was in June of 2012. This Saturday night, almost 3 years later, Bracero finally gets the opportunity he’s been looking for. He’ll take on a top-notch boxer at a premiere venue when he meets undefeated Dominican Olympic Gold Medal winner, Felix Diaz, at the Barclays Center. For Bracero and other fighters, this is why you put in all the work, put your body on the line every time out, for an opportunity like this – to fight on a stage that’s as big as it gets these days in boxing.
Bracero’s path to this moment is not uncommon. Setbacks and disappointments to overcome. Enduring faith. Determination. Hard work. The idea being if you stick it out long enough, persevere, things even out. Good fortune eventually makes an appearance. Opportunities arise. And if you’re ready, the moment can be yours. For Bracero, a well-documented 6 year prison bid interrupted a promising start to his professional boxing career, but he didn’t let it derail him. And now, at the age of 34, he has his shot, a shot to move up the ranks and get the best matches against the biggest contenders, a chance for the father of five from Sunset Park to fight for real purses. He thought he had that shot a year ago, lined up for a bout against Danny Garcia, but it was pulled away from him by the mysterious boxing powers that be. Now he’s finally here, here to prove himself against a fighter with a good pedigree, an Al Haymon controlled boxer in Diaz. If Bracero gets this win, it will be hard for boxing politics and behind the scenes players to deny him any longer.
Bracero isn’t a big puncher, but a good boxer. His trainer, Tommy Gallagher, goes so far as to compare him to the great Willie Pep, a defensive master who made a Hall of Fame career out of speed and technique, a record 229 wins over 3 decades, with only 65 knockouts. While Bracero is certainly no Willie Pep, there’s nothing to say he can’t climb the ranks by outboxing opponents as opposed to outslugging them. But even in a world where the elusive Floyd Mayweather is king, power is sexy, and that’s why a fighter like Bracero is still on the outside looking in. He won’t outpunch Diaz, but if he’s at his best, he can surely outpoint him and pull out the win. His career comes down to this moment, and though he certainly will fight again if he loses, it’s likely to be in a much quieter setting against a much lesser opponent than Diaz. Bracero and his camp know it. This is their shot. We all dream of such opportunities, and for the fortunate among us, such opportunities will present themselves, though we won’t have to be punched in the face and cut and bloodied to get there. I asked Gallagher about the plan against the southpaw Diaz. “Nothing special. We bleed, we fight, we bleed, we fight, and we keep going like that until the end.”
This is Bracero’s chance to take what once seemed an improbable step for him. “Anything is possible,” Bracero said in a recent presser, his mantra. “If you put your mind to it and have faith, anything is possible.” On paper, this fight could go either way. After the fight, one of these fighters will continue to dream of a title shot, while the other will have to find a way to pick up the pieces, put it all back together again. But neither one of them thinks about the outcome at this point in the week, they think about how fortunate they are to be here. They use adjectives like “thankful,” “blessed,” “excited.” And if you look at the fight from this angle and you consider Diaz with his Olympic experience, having been on the big stage before as opposed to Bracero, fighting in his hometown, a few miles from his neighborhood, waiting for so long to get to this spot, it’s just that much more special for Bracero. There’s added motivation, an edge. In a matchup that’s close on paper, that edge could be the difference.
When I think of this fight I go back to that night at Roseland. The dark and dingy dressing rooms jammed with fighters. Discolored carpeting and faded paint. A decades old stench you could never wash away. A place where fighters must pay their dues to get to a state-of-the-art facility like Barclays for a fight like this, a moment they’ve dreamed of many a night. Bracero has come so far from that June night 3 years go. Even farther than that. They say nothing in life worth having comes easy. This Saturday night at Barclays is proof that no matter the circumstance, if you keep punching, your shot can come, too. That moment you’ve dreamed of. Anything is possible.
After his loss to Bracero, Jermaine White did indeed fight again, six months later in January of 2013 at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Washington, about 3000 miles away from the Roseland Ballroom. He lost. He hasn’t fought since.