To grow up a boxer in Rhode Island is to know your enemy so well that he ceases to be your rival. Ask young boxers about the local scene, and each one tells you they don’t care who trains where, they all know each other, they’re all cousins. The density of good gyms and talented sparring partners is a main factor in Rhode Island’s promising amateur landscape, but it also leaves the trainers grasping for reputation supremacy. Gyms battle one another not only for membership commitments but for the chance to ride the right talent to the pros, where they can profit off him.
Manfredo’s Gym in Pawtucket is top dog in southern New England, along with 401 in Cranston and PAL in Fall River. All three have produced world-class professional fighters. At Gary Balletto’s gym in West Providence, trainer Paul “Stingray” Shorts refuses to acknowledge the rightful supremacy of the Manfredo machine. Channeling his Don King, he spends most of his time bashing the gym’s owner, Peter Manfredo, Sr. for downplaying everyone else. Last week, Stingray was leaning on the ropes of the ring, telling the story of his last fight.
My last fight was October 12, 1990, where my trainer died that evening while I was fighting. Here’s the catch—as I’m fighting, I see the crowd moving, but I didn’t know my trainer died—he collapsed behind me. He was 72 years old, he was Italian. Peter Manfredo Sr. is in my corner now. I’m lookin’ at him like what you doin’ here. He said “aw, big Louie had to take care of business” so he was covering for me… He was just in the audience and he took over. I have respect for him for that day.
Twenty years later Stingray’s talking to a reporter at Manfredo’s. He’s here to find a sparring partner for his best amateur, 20-year-old Nick Columba. It’s the most popular gym in Rhode Island, half filled with Manfredo’s kids, half with outsiders looking for practice. Stingray, as usual, is stirring the pot.
Rhode Island boxing, Stingray says, is just “a lot of jealousy, a lot of blackball, a lot of cutthroat.”
A bell dings, and Manfredo walks by Stingray. “Why you interviewing him, he’s not from my fucking gym,” Manfredo huffs. “You’re interviewing all the wrong guys. I’m the fucking best in the country.”
Stingray shakes his head. “Let me tell you something, he thinks he’s big, but I’m coming up.”
AJ Liebling, the greatest of all boxing scribes and former Providence Journal reporter, once wrote, “A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone. If he loses, he cannot call an executive conference and throw it off on a vice president.” The raw individuality of the professional game, however, is undermined by its back-room underbelly. Pro fighters are Rock’em Sock’em Punch and Judys while their promoters and managers pull strings, promising easier opponents and more cash.
It became evident early this year that the dream welterweight match between consensus toughest-man-alive Manny Pacquiao and undefeated chatterbox Floyd “Pretty Boy” Mayweather Jr. would forever remain boxing fantasy. Foreseeing a blemished 52-0, Mayweather Jr. and his people delayed the fight indefinitely with cowardly rigmarole concerning drug tests.
Paydays don’t reflect supremacy, either. Boxers are paid per engagement, like movie stars. The paycheck comes from their promoters and fluctuates based on details in the individual match contract. Different venues are more profitable than others (MGM Grand vs. Dunkin’ Donuts Center), as are broadcast options (cable<HBO<Pay-Per-View). In 2007, “Pretty Boy” defeated “Golden Boy” Oscar De La Hoya in the highest-ever rated Pay-Per-View boxing event. De La Hoya collected $52 million, Mayweather $25 million. One of the reasons De La Hoya was paid more (in advance) was because it was the only way to get him to fight the heavily favored Mayweather.
The unpaid amateur climbs his way up through the regional ranks of national tournaments, unaffected by the slant of Atlantic City spin doctors. The proving ground of the amateur fighter is the boxing gym—one of the last vestiges of the sporting old school. In Rhode Island, the surplus of well-respected gyms and talented young boxers has created a strained family atmosphere. While the Manfredos, son and father, are together the smug face of Rhode Island boxing, Balletto and Stingray seem unable to fully stomach the reality of boxing culture in Rhode Island, its low pay and close quarters in particular.
Manfredo’s gym occupies the second floor of an old, red brick mill building in an isolated Pawtucket neighborhood. The ceilings are low to allow for hanging punching bags. Forty or so people wander around at six o’clock on a weekday evening. You could hang around for days, and no one would ask what the hell you thought you were doing there.
A long-time East Sider with no real boxing past, Tony sways in place, dressed in a green Cosby sweater, and offers advice to whomever takes it. Manfredo, head-to-toe in velour, shrugs and says he’s “good for the kids.” Next to Tony, Vla Ladine, a pro of infantile proportions (5’0”) hammers at a big bag—one of the tubular ones that hurt when you punch them bare-knuckled.
Ladine is shirtless, his dark black skin twinkling with sweat. With each blow, the heavyweight lets out a harsh toothy exhalation—“tchah”—the language of shadowboxers and sparring partners everywhere. Manfredo Sr., who founded the gym out of his basement in 1979 before moving here in 1995, says Vla’s got the conditioning and discipline but “lacks the basic tenets of the game. He’s trying to learn on the job…17-0, 20-0, then we’ll see how he does.”
The gym’s highest-profile alum is Peter Jr., Manfredo’s son. “The Pride of Providence” and the biggest local star since Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Paz, Manfredo Jr. was runner-up on NBC’s The Contender.
“I just don’t want to see [Peter] get hurt,” Manfredo said. “I just want to see him make some money.” Too often, Manfredo said, fighters bow out of the sport because they were casual with their millions (see, for example, Paz, who’s in debt with the federal government) or because their winnings were heavily diluted by contractual obligations.
There are two practice rings at Manfredo’s. On the right Maurice Cole, a 26 year-old amateur boxer and Brown University Dining Services employee, sits outside the ring, lacing up Kyle, his trainer’s grandson. Kyle spars three trying rounds against a Puerto Rican kid with three coaches of some kind looking on. The Puerto Rican is a new face at Manfredo’s. Neither fighter is any older than twelve.
Maurice started boxing late. He moved to Providence’s East Side from Springfield, Massachusetts when he was seventeen. At nineteen he met a girl in the playground on the corner of Brook and Arnold, next to where he and his family live. She was a boxer, and he followed her to Manfredo’s. “I wasn’t down, but she came every day, so I came every day.”
Six years later, Maurice has won five Southern New England Golden Gloves and two regional Golden Gloves championships as a heavyweight. The Golden Gloves is the most prestigious amateur tournament in the country. Maurice also won the 2006 US Open title, which put him in contention for a spot in the ’08 Olympics. Most fighters with his experience would have turned pro. But his Ferdinand the Bull vibe suggests he lacks a killer instinct, or at least the will to leave his job, his family, behind.
At Manfredo’s side is Rhode Island’s best amateur, seventeen year-old prodigy Toka Kahn-Cleary. An orphan who began boxing at thirteen, Kahn-Cleary was runner-up last year at the National Golden Gloves. Khan-Cleary says gratefully, earnestly, that boxing saved him from the streets. After two days of training, Peter Manfredo saw his potential and waived his membership dues. “I got lucky,” Khan-Cleary whispers. “Don’t tell nobody!” This summer he’s going to nationals again, as well as his first US Open Olympic trials, to compete for a spot on the 2012 squad. Fellow Ocean Staters Jason Estrada and Demetrius Andrade competed in ’04 and ’08, respectively.
Stingray’s guy, Nick Columba, headed to the national golden, unwraps his wrists and sits in silence, watching the twelve year-olds spar. Moments earlier Stingray unsuccessfully tried to convince Manfredo to let Columba spar, despite a burgeoning gash above his eye.
“See that’s where Stingray’s knowledge is very primitive… [Columba’s] going to the national title, and why, why would you put him? You’re going to jeapordize that?” As Manfredo continues, jabbing both Stingray and his fighter, it’s unclear whether the rant is legitimate or brand propaganda. “This kid’s limited—he might win a fight, he might get beated—he’s not visible,” Manfredo says, shaking his head, looking off. “Tough kid, good heart, but he’s with the wrong guy. Stingray’s not gonna take him anywhere. Shoulda been with me.”
To walk Silver Lake’s weeded sidewalks is to enter a neighborhood preserved, for better or for worse, from brand-names and high-rises, a sparse outlier of the dense city center. A section of West Providence, Silver Lake was historically an Italian-American community composed primarily of manufacturing workers. Today, it resembles the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, with a growing Hispanic demographic and an abundance of one and two-story architecture.
Along empty Silver Lake Avenue, past the Silver Lake Sausage Shop, whipping jump ropes and machine-gun speed bags resonate from within a modest brick façade. Up a steep flight of antique steps, a largely adolescent set trains at Gary Balletto’s Gym. Today, Stingray is master of his one-room school house. As head trainer, Stingray earns no salary, is satisfied to serve as trainer and mentor to dozens of young local boxers. Asked what separates good fighters from great fighters, Stingray responds, “The great fighters sacrifice more,” he says, a sentiment he instills in his disciples, asking an ensemble of resting fighters, “How many guys have discipline, raise your hands.” No hands are raised; a light-hearted mock. Stingray responds with a charming cackle: “I guess they all do.”
Stingray’s telling boxing stories from outside the ropes over the pulsing thuds of shoes against canvas. Someone asks Stingray why his youngsters are sparring unprotected. “How come you guys don’t have headgears on?” Powell turns back and says, “Or mouthguards?” Fourteen-year-old Ronnie Marcelo, in an already impenetrable Rhody dialect: “Who cares?” Stingray, expecting the deafened response, shrugs before acknowledging: “That’s why they call them boxers.” A pause in action. Stingray’s finished telling why they call it boxing (you fist is a box), the kids resume sparring. “Getting back to Manfredo, you saw what he did back there,” Ray says, like a disappointed parent. “He’s got a lot of growing up to do.”
DOWN FOR THE COUNT
Give me a stage, where this bull here can rage. Though I can fight, I’d much rather recite. That’s entertainment.
That’s De Niro’s bloated Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, rehearsing his one-man show. In sports, there’s no more common, helpless tragedy than the desperation of the ex-prizefighter, unable to live up to his past. Vinny Paz, Providence’s La Motta, is currently promoting his own “best of” DVD and charging for public appearances. He’s been in a constant state of comeback mulling, since his last fight in 2004. This is one path. Stingray and Balletto follow the other: to protect and prepare the youngsters for the amateur game, unsure if you even want to them to turn pro.
Retired and disillusioned, Gary Balletto runs a gym in spite of himself. One side of the business card is the gym; on the other side, his construction company. He says he’s more successful in real estate than he was in boxing. It’s a depressing outlook for a 31-3-2 fighter, and season two Contender.
Balletto does not train fighters. Too much work. Not worth it unless you find “that special guy” to nurture. He’s got a decent head of blond hair and a nice flattened nose. At 5’8” he’s all lean muscle, and his arms are too long. He looks like a boxer, except that the fight’s gone out of his eyes. Balletto’s only real shot at fame and national success was The Contender, which he got in large part because of his looks, his race, his go-for-broke right hook.
“A white guy at a fight is much more marketable than a black guy, but it depends on the personality too—a good looking guy at a fight is more marketable than an ugly guy. A guy who can talk is more marketable.”
Take Little Peter Manfredo, fresh off his role on The Contender, fought undefeated Welshman Joe Calzaghe in a middleweight world title in 2005, in front of a seventy-five thousand person Cardiff audience. Manfredo hardly landed a punch in three rounds and lost by technical knockout after nearly falling out of the ring, unable to retreat any further. Manfredo’s new fame and swagger (instead of shorts he wears a sort of flag/kilt which comes in USA and Italia flavors) belied his level of talent.
Balletto tells his son not to box, that it’s a “scumbag sport.” He says the fans watch the sport for its violence, a bunch of “wiseguys…not a good group of people.”