There is nothing “Rockyesque” about this tale. No, this about two boxers who went through varying degrees of hell in their personal lives. Only one persevered despite adversity, turmoil and abuse of the very worst kind.
Middleweight Roger Phillips, out of Pittsfield, MA, fought from 1971 to 1981 and toted up a forgettable record of 6-35-2. He was TKO’d in Portland, ME, on March 6, 1981 in his last fight by highly skilled contender Vinnie Curto, 44-5-3 coming in. Roger had lost 23 straight at the time, while Vinnie had won 19 in a row. As the inflection point suggested, something was badly amiss with the matchmaking.
Phillips boxed in second-tier casinos, ballrooms, armories, and smoky union halls throughout the US and Canada and provided fodder for those anxious to notch a win. Remarkably, and with the help of intentional headbutts, he lost two bouts to Al Romano by DQ, both in the second round, but beat Romano, 53-15-1, in 1972 in their middle bout, his last and possibly signature win. It was well known that there was no love lost between these two. Earlier, he split a pair with the infamous Jose Pagan Rivera who would finish with a dismal 31-94-9 slate suffering 39 losses by KO along the way. He also lost to streaking prospect Tony Petronelli in February 1973. While hardly household names, these men were familiar to New England boxing fans. He even fought in Brazil in 1973 against Miguel de Oliveira, 32-0, and was dispatched in three rounds. Roger had no business in the ring with the elite Brazilian boxer.
The Ring Record Book erroneously had Roger knocking out rugged Mustafa Hamsho in 1976, but in fact Hamsho had knocked out Roger in the second round. Nonetheless, the error was sanitized and kept alive by matchmakers eager to give gravitas to Roger’s abilities. The Portland Press Herald, in a brief article before the fight, stated as much. When questioned about the match, John Gagliardi, aka Johnny Gags, the promoter/matchmaker associated with Phillips, also made mention of Phillips’s “victory” over Hamsho,
Shortly after his final bout with Curto, Roger boarded a bus and returned to industrial Pittsfield with one of his better purses in tow (reportedly $ 750). Upon arrival, he bought some bicycles for his three children and some new clothes for himself. Later, he went out partying, as was his wont, but then, with the money spent, he quarreled with his current girlfriend. Things escalated and she called the police. Phillips ended up in the local jail and while he had been there before, this time he seemed more desperate than usual. Something seemed different in a negative way.”
The following day, he hanged himself in his cell. He was 29. However, it does not appear that the ring loss was the trigger as much as it was one of the final incidents in a long and destructive process that reportedly included drinking and anger issues. Roger, it was said, had personal problems and a sense of general desperation.
His brother Joe Phillips, however, blamed boxing. “(It) was the final straw,” he said. “It was his only strength in life and he was manipulated. It busted his spirit.”
Discussing the suicide of his brother with boxing writer Michael Katz, Phillips, a former boxer, said, ”How does it happen? There are three types of fighters. The first is the world contender. Then you have the trial horses or club fighters. And then you have your losers.” His comments appeared in a moving and revealing article by Katz in the September 7, 1981 issue of the New York Times titled, “The Tragedy of a Middleweight Loser.”
Joe went on to say, ”My brother was in pretty bad shape, an alcoholic, an illiterate. He had women problems and family problems. I think I was part of the problem. I was educated, and he wasn’t, and I think there was some sibling rivalry or jealousy.”
Michael Katz added that “the world of boxing that Roger Phillips knew, the world of $40 paydays and bus trips to small arenas and dressing rooms the size of closets, was very real. In his world, club fighters did not wind up in championship[s]…”
Whatever the trigger, on March 6, 1981, Roger Phillips was allowed to box a tough contender, even though his home-state license reportedly had been revoked and he hadn’t won a fight in almost nine years. Indeed, there had been a lot of controversy about whether or not he had a valid license. Reportedly, his Massachusetts license had been revoked in 1973 after he had allegedly struck a referee. It was his second such offense. But this was Maine and like many state commissions during this time, it was not overly watchful.
When Roger Phillips discovered he could not win, he learned to lose. Maybe he learned how to lose because he knew he could not buck a system that allowed him to be overmatched. Maybe losing was his way to survive—his lifeline.
Meanwhile, Vinnie Curto, a defensive wizard, was more than halfway through a 28-fight undefeated streak, and had beaten ultra-tough “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, 64-20-5, at the Hynes Memorial Auditorium in Boston just three months before his fight with Phillips. As Vinnie put it, “Briscoe was by far my toughest opponent. You couldn’t hurt him with a bazooka, so my plan was to box my ass off all night. And I did, and won!” Previously he had fought to a controversial draw with Briscoe at the Spectrum in “Bad” Bennie’s hometown of Philadelphia. Vinnie said, “I would have had to kill him to win…They´d give him a draw from a stretcher…”
Curto was raised in a rough, low-income neighborhood in East Boston and became one of the better super middleweight fighters of his era finishing with a 62-10- 3 record with five of the losses coming in his last 14 fights. Managed for a time by Sylvester Stallone and trained by Angelo Dundee, he was an extremely complex individual with his own personal demons. He started out in Miami Beach with 17 straight wins and seemed destined for greatness, but never fulfilled his promise. He lost two against the great Korean Chong Pal Park, but claimed he was robbed in the first that was fought in Seoul in 1985 (one that I witnessed live at the Munhwa Gymnasium while living in Seoul at the time and one that I felt could have gone either way).
Between 1976 and 1985, he lost only one fight (to Tony Chiaverini in Tony’s hometown of Kansas City, MO) while winning 34 with one draw against star-crossed Willie Classen in 1978. Against Chiaverini, Curto was suspiciously penalized two points for holding, once in the eighth and once in the twelfth. It was not the first time that Vinnie would lose in controversial and/or dubious fashion.
The Hagler Controversy
Curto then got banned from fighting in the US after pulling out of a much anticipated fight with Marvelous Marvin Hagler on short notice. Curto alleges he was approached by unsavory (aka mobbed up) people who wanted him to lose the Hagler fight. The plan apparently was then to convince Hagler to lose the rematch, and a rubber match was supposed to be the real McCoy. Curto refused the deal, and went into hiding. As a consequence of his quick and unexplained withdrawal, all boxing commissions across the U.S. suspended his license, and he was forced to fight in Canada, where he won nine fights in a row before his U.S. license was reinstated.
In the end, Vinnie came close to winning the Super Middleweight Title, but in a strange twist of events, he actually did win a title, capturing the WBF’s short-lived Super Cruiserweight Title in 1996 with a 12-round decision over Jimmy Haynes in the unlikely locale of Lincoln, Nebraska. This was Curto’s last pro fight and he left the sport on a high note.
Today, Vinnie Curto, who was married six times and had seven kids, does some training and some professional acting and has appeared in movies such as Stealing Harvard and Equinox and many TV shows including Walker, Texas Ranger and Miami Vice. He has also written a screenplay about his life that reveals an extremely compelling and tragic story in its own right (one that deals with uniquely horrific child abuse fueled by alcoholism). Plans have been in the offing to make it into a film entitled, “Out on My Feet,’’ starring Mark Walberg and Robert DeNiro, but so far nothing has materialized. One report says the chief investor died and the funds went into probate.
Vinnie’s life is like a series of icebergs. Each segment goes much deeper than the subject matter suggests — whether boxing, domestic terrorism, Stallone, Dundee, employment at The Mustang Ranch, Thailand, Colombia, bodyguard work, New Garden Gym, Hagler, Johnny Gags, Canada, Frank Sinatra, Larry Golin, etc., etc. Most importantly, he found that victims of abuse can fight back and win and that story begs to be told, either in a book or a movie, or both for the benefit of other abuse victims.
Conversely, nobody will be looking to write about Roger Phillips but men like Roger need to be remembered too. Not because of their boxing exploits nor because their end came under tragic circumstances. No, Roger, a loving father, had the courage and nobility to enter the ring in the first place. In the end, boxing was his only strength in life; it was his anchor. And even if he carved a life out of being an opponent, he needs to be remembered for that.
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Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. He has won the EPF Nationals championship four years in a row. A member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he enjoys writing about boxing.