"Boxing Is Just My Thing... Can't Tell You Why" Part 1

BY Michael Woods ON June 25, 2014
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Morales-Barrera

There is no one certain type of person who gravitates towards boxing, but if you ask around, dig down, you will often find that frequently, persons who come from dysfunctional upbringings drift toward the fight game.

Vince Caruso (seen in above pic, headed toward the ring with Marco Antonio Barrera before first fight against Erik Morales) will tell you point blank that he fits this bill.

"I didn't have a real father. The guy (seen in the pic below, at age 7) who said he was my dad kicked my ass 900 times," said the manager who has just re-entered the realm populated by a sometimes loony and oft lovable melange of square peg types who find themselves out of step with societal norms and conventionally acceptable behavior patters. He was too young to know it, but the psychic trauma he was experiencing at home would be minimized some by the people in the Cus D'Amato circle, like his uncle Al Caruso, an ex amateur standout in New Jersey, who was best friends with Tom Patti Sr., a Cus guy up in the Catskills.

Woods7

It wasn't immediate--in July of 1982, little Vince went to see Alexis Arguello fight Kevin Rooney, a Cus guy, in Atlantic City. "I fell asleep," he recalls. "I wanted to see the new Superman movie."

Vince modeled himself after Pete Rose, an undersized runt always clutching a wiffle ball and bat, but that boxing beckoned to him. Donnie Lalonde's upward arc infected him, when the Canadian boxer was working out in the NYC area, after hooking on with manager Dave Wolf and trainer Teddy Atlas. Lalonde's determination to ditch the emotional baggage accumulated when his dad left when he was 3, and his step-dad knocked him around. "I took to the story," says the New Jersey resident Caruso now living in Hollywood and Arizona, echoing something we hear all the time, that a certain sort of person is attracted to other certain sorts of persons who seek emotional and physical stability from the structure of the fight game.

Caruso got it when Lalonde would say that the person across from him looking to take his head off wasn't so scary, not as compared to the terror felt when an adult is roaring at you, raining blows down on your face, exhibiting a fury which is incomprehensible to a little being. The game grabbed ahold of Caruso, and he started attending more fights. Razor Ruddock bouts….and the 1990 Nigel Benn-Sanderline Williams rumble in AC dug into his soul deeper, made him reach out to Benn, the Londoner who would soon win a middleweight crown.

One day, he announced to all, Eff it.

***

He grabbed a suitcase from the attic in the South Amboy, New Jersey house he was living in, snagged $80 bucks, and his two pairs of jeans, and Caruso jetted. It was January 1993. Hollywood was the eventual destination. Another statistic, another dreamer with high hopes and little in the way of concrete plans how to activate them. Owing three grand to a Staten Island bookie, the sort of guy who'd go after $3 bucks like it was $3 mill, also helped him decide to relocate. He landed in Chicago, met a girl who liked his rough charm, and she was off to Colorado, with a bountiful checking account. Fate smiled, when he met Eazy-E, a celebrated rap artist who told Caruso, doing some DJ work at a college radio station in Colorado, that he had about 20 act signed to his label, but that they weren't being properly promoted by Sony, his label. "Come to LA and help me get the word out on these kids," Eazy, of NWA fame, told Caruso. He did, and started getting the hang of promotion, which by the way is a most useful skill to have when you're a manager and you want your kid to elevate in the rankings, so he can start getting those more meaningful bouts.

Eazy, who would die from AIDS in March 1995, was pals with notables like James Toney, so Caruso's love for boxing stayed aflame. He hit shows at the Forum, and fell truly and madly in love with the possibilities of drama and heroics and other-wordly stubbornness while watching a fight between two Hispanic guys known only to fight game hardcore. The manager of one of those fighters, Carlos Gonzalez, was a man named Ricardo Maldonado. He clicked with Caruso, and Caruso says, took the young fella under his wing. Maldonado, based in Mexico City, helmed fighters like Gonzalez and Nestor Garza and Jorge Julio…and Marco Antonio Barrera.

Maldonado told Caruso he had a future star coming to the US from Guadalajara, a kid named Barrera. OK, Caruso said…and then had his jaw smack his sneakers when he saw Barrera in a gym.

"I was 24. He was 19. No English. I had a "Doors" t-shirt on, liked Jim Morrison. Marco said, 'I like Guns 'N Roses."

They clicked.

***

Barrera was then indeed a baby-faced assassin. He turned pro in Mexico in November 1989, and was at 20-0 when he came to the US, to fight Esteban Ayala at the Forum. They experienced highs and lows together, while Maldonado showed Caruso the intricacies of the deals and the methods to not get gobbled by the sharks in suits. Some lows came in 1996 and 1997, with back to back losses to Junior Jones, so Caruso started branching out. He did matchmaking, tutored by Sean Gibbons, and put together a lot of Mia St. Johns' scraps. In 1999, Barrera had done some re-building, and was in a position to have a intra-national showdown with Erik Morales, then 35-0 and a super bantam titlist. Maldonado called Caruso, yanked him back into the circle, and the budding boxing lifer saw how the promotion short-changed Barrera. "His full name wasn't even on the tickets they were selling. Promoter Bob Arum didn't like Ricardo," Caruso recalls. But Barrera filed that stuff away, as fuel. "He said to me, 'I need five years from you.' He wanted to clean up the division and get to the Hall of Fame.''

Caruso, then a newlywed, said what the heck and dove back in, full on. "Ricardo gave me a Harvard education in boxing, in six years." Asked why he thinks this boxing is in his blood, and attracts and entrances him, he says, "Boxing is just my thing. Can't tell you why."

I have some theories...

Anyway, the big city lights, the buzz that can blind you when you're in the mix of fame, notoriety, big piles of cash also got their grips on Caruso. "I got hooked on drugs," he says. He was also dabbling in the pro wrestling world, hanging out with loose-cannon sports entertainer Brian Pillman, and they all were popping Percs and Vicodins and Somas like Tic Tacs after a meal at a red-sauce Italian joint. He did some commentating for wrestling promotions, took bumps, saw how that business consumed people, or started the process, in pals like Eddie Guerrero. "If I didn't leave that scene, I would have died," Caruso says. Gobbling ten Somas, dealing with bad back from a bump gone awry, with no health insurance to help deal with it properly, yes, ten Somas a day would be a way to do it…

***

Fans, meanwhile, adored the first Erik Morales-Barrera fight, which unfolded at the Mandalay Bay in February 2000. Morales got the W, via split decision, though most thought Barrera won. A 2001 win against 35-0 Naseem Hamed upped Barreras' rep even higher and led to a rematch with Morales, in June 2002. This time, Barrera got the W, but Caruso gave him some real-deal talk right after. "I told him I didn't think he won, and told him this was not him, that he was not as hungry." Caruso says some new pals of Barrera used that against him, split them apart emotionally…and it didn't help that he was using drugs all the time. "I was a junkie," he admits. "I was let go in 2003."

Reliant on drugs, Vikes, Percs, whatever he'd grab on trips to score legal dope in Mexico, enmeshed in a personal soap opera because he left his wife for Barrera's sis, Caruso was in a ditch. "Dating the bosses sister never goes over good," he says. And he really couldn't even so much as watch boxing, even on TV, because it ripped up scar tissue in his head. "If I watched Marco on TV, I'd cry," he says. It isn't as if Caruso had a real firm emotional foundation to fall back on. His dad, he says, cheated on his mom when she was in rehab for boozing. She died in 1989, he says, and dad remarried in less than seven months, probably, he says, to the gal he was cheating with.

Boxing was no longer a soft place to land, a meeting ground for kindred spirits with holes in their souls; the sport and the scene was acid in a still fresh wound. The wounds actually needed to be attended to in earnest; Caruso entered a rehab in 2003, right after learning his new wife was pregnant with their son. He got out, kept his nose clean, and got a job in telephone customer service at a phone bank run by Freddie's brother Joey Roach.

***

It would be ten years before he could even conceive of re-entering that fray, which had both soothed and help to bring him to state where he needed to do rehab to clean up. An actor friend would be the one who'd re-spark the flame of attraction and repulsion to this theater of the unexpected, home to the soul-wearied and folks whose options beyond the ring are bleak and bleaker. The guy told Caruso he knew a kid who needed some managerial wizardry.

Kid can punch like a pissed off mule, just needs someone to help steer the ship, Caruso was told.

Anatoliy Dudchenko is his name…

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Comment on this article

The Commish says:

That's some great boxing journalism! Loved it!

-Randy G.

DaveB says:

I love these types of stories. I can't wait for part 2.

stormcentre says:

Brilliant.

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