For a time, Izzadeen “Izzy” Burgos was one of boxing’s inspirational stories, a kid who dreamed of becoming a fighter despite the amputation of his left arm at the age of two. Despite his handicap, the then-12-year-old got the opportunity to fight at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon on June 24, 2005, overcoming an early knockdown at the hands of a two-armed opponent to make it to the final bell of a scheduled three-rounder. Burgos’ scrappiness moved many in the audience to tears.
Now Burgos is gone, at 21, the victim of an apparently intentional shooting Sunday night in the Feltonville section of Philadelphia. The young man was standing next to his father, Dennis, when he was shot in the face at point-blank range by the as-yet-unapprehended assailant. He was taken to Temple University Hospital where he was pronounced dead 2½ hours later, at 1:29 Monday morning.
But the tragic end of Izzy Burgos’ too-brief life might have been foreshadowed. Unable to be fitted with a comfortable prosthetic on the stump of the left arm that was surgically removed at the shoulder, Burgos – twice nominated for the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Courage in Overcoming Adversity Award – drifted away from boxing and into a life of petty and not-so-petty crime. He had a fairly extensive rap sheet, was incarcerated on several occasions, most recently for aggravated assault. He was released after doing time for that crime last September from Graterford State Correctional Institution, the same prison which lists former middleweight and light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins as an alumnus.
Joseph Santoliquito, now the president of the BWAA, was managing editor of The Ring magazine when he wrote about Burgos nearly 10 years ago. The story became something of a cause celebre, picked up by the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer and all the Philly television stations, as well as by The Ring and ESPN.com. There was even some talk about a possible book deal, with Santoliquito to serve as the author.
“But then things started to trickle back to me, and not good things, either,” Santoliquito told me after Burgos’ murder. “If I was going to do a feel-good story about a kid who had beaten the odds, there had to be a lot of positivity attached to it. There was a growing sense that that wasn’t the case.
“I really hadn’t spoken to Izzy in close to nine years, when he was still a kid. In my mind, I still prefer to picture him as that 12-year-old in the ring at the Blue Horizon. The kid he was fighting wasn’t pulling any punches, that was for sure. But Izzy got right up and fought back. They really went at it. Izzy – that Izzy – was a tough, determined boy.
“Did it sting me when I heard the news (that he was dead)? Yes. But I can’t say I was completely surprised. As I said, I heard some things that were disturbing. I hoped someone could get through to him in time to straighten him out. It’s like he was never given a chance, almost from birth, because of where he came from and what he was raised around. It’s a shame. The only moment he had to really shine was that night at the Blue Horizon.”
As a toddler, Izzy’s left arm was shattered beyond repair by a bullet from a high-powered rifle; his left lung was also punctured. His father claimed that Izzy had accidentally shot himself with the rifle, which seemed unlikely since the loaded weapon, carelessly placed under a bed in a home in which three children resided, was taller than he was. A jury wasn’t buying Dennis Burgos’ explanation of what had happened, and he was sentenced to eight to 20 years for recklessly endangering a child.
As little Izzy fought for his life, strangers appeared at his hospital room to extend to his family their prayers and best wishes for a speedy recovery. And the child did recover, although he faced a long convalescence and uncertain future.
Sports options are scarce for one-armed kids, but cruel putdowns aren’t when you grow up in a tough neighborhood.
“Sometimes people have told me I can’t do certain things,” Izzy said in October 2005. “That’s hard to take. Sometimes, I try (team) sports and other kids tell me I can’t play. They used to make fun of me. They never wanted to know anything about me and what I’ve been through. They don’t think I can play any sport because I have only one arm. I try to prove them wrong when I get the chance.”
That chance – and it was a long shot — was provided by a Philadelphia police officer, Edwin “Bo” Diaz, who ran a boxing program for children in a blighted section of North Philadelphia.
“We wanted to treat Izzy like any other kid and we taught him how to box with the mitts,” Diaz told Santoliquito at the time. “Izzy was well-accepted. He fell right into the pack of little kids and he performed better than most of them.”
But still … how do you risk putting a one-armed child in an actual bout? It was a conundrum that Diaz grappled with internally until he decided the boy deserved a chance to compete against another person, not just inanimate objects. With the help of Vernoca Michael, owner of the Blue Horizon, Diaz placed Izzy on the undercard of a pro show against another 12-year-old, Chris Delvalle, who had fought in several previous amateur bouts. There were no restrictions placed on Delvalle, who quickly floored Izzy. But Izzy fought back hard, winning over the crowd and a specially designed championship belt for himself.
“Izzy is a survivor,” Diaz said. “I know for a fact he taught himself how to ride a bicycle and he always had it in him that he could succeed at anything.”
He did not succeed at winning the BWAA’s first Courage in Overcoming Adversity Award; that went to Kassim Ouma, who was abducted as a child in his native Uganda and was forced to serve as a soldier with rebel forces before making his way to America, where he became the IBF super welterweight titlist and the subject of an acclaimed documentary about his against-all-odds life.
Izzy also was a finalist for the second BWAA Courage in Overcoming Adversity Award, but he lost out to someone a little better known than himself – Muhammad Ali. After that, as his brush with boxing receded into the past, he more or less faded from view, except with law enforcement officials who came to know him more for his transgressions on the street.
Interestingly, Izzy got close to his father, Dennis, after the older man was released from prison. When Izzy was shot, Dennis chased the shooter for a block or so before the man turned, fired at him, and ran off, police said.
“Everywhere he went, he made friends,” Izzy’s mother, Lisa, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He had a good heart,” she continued, telling young kids “that the streets are not the way.”
Diaz, now retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, told the Philly Daily News Izzy’s story “was like a `Rocky’ movie. Izzy had this incredible will to live, and a tremendous punch. We called him the `Bionic Arm.’”
“It’s a sad story,” Diaz said. “I’ve been getting calls from guys who feel like they should have done more for him. But in the end, everyone’s responsible for themselves.”