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"When We Were Kings" Pro-Boxing Back in the Hood

No man-eaters imperil me. No, there isn’t much chance I’ll one day find I have to fight for my life versus a roaring, flesh-eating monster unless there’s an escape at the Bronx Zoo, or I go looking for trouble on the Great Barrier Reef, the African veldt, or in the Kodiak range. The peril lurks in men—insurance clerks, Ponzi men, bad doctors, feral lawyers.

Photos courtesy Damon de Berry.
Photos courtesy Damon de Berry.

I imagine my death coming by way of a technological mistake or human error within the workings of a well-meaning or passively malicious bureaucracy: broken elevators, a collision at 28,000 feet, a car accident, wrongful arrest, complication during a routine medical exam, or a mixup at customs.

Between and before these moments of terror and forgetting is pretence: emasculating devices masquerading as tools for “personal empowerment”; the endless infantile marketing messages; my buried rage over the feckless stupidity of my life and sorry finances; bad books; cooked books; forced conversations at bars about professional sports teams with toddler-friendly names (Steelers, Browns, Buccaneers, Patriots, Saints, Senators, Nets, Jets, Mets, Vets, Rams, Lions, Eagles, Bulls, Red Bulls, Red Sox, Red Skins); games as war; porn as sex; pills as happiness; business acquaintances as friends; online auctions as euphoria.

But if I were a boxer—a prize-fighter—there would be no pretences; at least not in the squared ring. Professional fighters, amateurs or any kind of boxer at all fights not only to win but, in some senses, to survive. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her book On Boxing, there are no real time outs in boxing. Just the 30 seconds between rounds to catch your breath and get enswell-ed and nitroglycerin in your cuts.

“Boxing is about hitting without getting hit,” says Damon de Berry, an ex-fighter turned manager and agent based out of Gleason’s gym in Dumbo. A New Zealand native, de Berry came to the States in 1993 in a bid to go pro after boxing as an amateur in the Oceana and Commonwealth Games. He trained here then went to Europe to fight, broke his hand, let it heal, then broke it again in a bout. He had to hang up the gloves after shattering that right-hand bone another couple of times. (There’s now what can best be described as a hillock on the back of that hand). He headed back to New York and started managing fighters.

On an ice-riven Tuesday night in February de Berry was among a few hundred people at the Masonic Lodge in Fort Green to watch the first professional boxing match in Brooklyn in 20 years promoted by Gleason’s. Gleason's president and promoter Bruce Silverglade developed the pro fight series along with de Berry. They hope they will become monthly first-Tuesday events.

“It’s whether the public is going to support us,” says de Berry. In addition to drawing a crowd, the gym hopes that some of their fighters will get noticed. “What we are trying to really get across is that we can give an identity to the fighters, and I guarantee of those fighting here, there are two or three who will go far in boxing.”

Keisher Mcleod-Wells from Bushwick hopes to be one of them. She started boxing in 2002 as a way to get in shape for acting and modeling, but got pulled into the sport and has since clinched 12 amateur titles, including the Golden Gloves. Mcleod-Wells—managed by de Berry—was on the card that night making her pro debut at the Masonic Lodge.

She definitely has a following: there were a couple dozen of her fans there who rose from their seats as one when she entered the ring, shouting her nom de guerre “Fire” and brandishing banners and billboards that read things like “Fire is the Shit!” She didn’t need much help. In her flyweight bout Mcleod-Wells so overwhelmed her opponent, Treasure Saunders from Chicago—who crumbled in the face of Mcleod-Wells’s quickness and the pressure of the bout—that the fight was stopped in the first round.

“My goal is to see my name on a banner in Gleason’s,” she said afterwards. She added that she was surprised there weren’t more women on the card, and also that she won her fight so easily, given it was her first pro bout versus someone who had stepped under the ropes with five professional fights in the bag. “I don’t understand it; she was backing up, gloves up, so it never was a fight.”

There were seven pro fights that Tuesday evening, with all but the headline bout going between four and six rounds. The fighters fought in a variety of weight classes, from Super Flyweight to Light Heavyweight. Most of the pugilists from Gleason’s with most of the rest coming from other New York gyms like Church Street and Kingsway.

Israeli boxer Eilon “No-No” Kedem fought Joe Rosa, a fighter sporting a dreadlock/mohawk hybrid that made him look like a diminutive version of the creature from “The Predator.” I would have lost just looking at him. “No-No” was cheered on by North American Boxing Federation light-middleweight title holder Yuri Foreman. Kedem won a solid decision: he worked his opponent with superior lateral moves, powerful straight rights, and more accurate punching. By the end of the four rounds Kedem left Rosa’s face slightly off color.

Ahmed “The Prince of Egypt” Samir fought the penultimate bout versus a stand-in, Jerry Spiegel, a journeyman with mixed-martial-arts and absolutely no chance versus the seasoned Samir. “The Prince of Egypt” is a former Egyptian national champion at the World Games who, like de Berry, came to Gleason’s to broaden his horizons. “The Egyptian government invested a lot in him as an amateur,” said de Berry. “But he has sort of defected from Egypt.”

It lasted slightly longer than Mcleod-Wells’ fight, but was more of a beat-down with Samir in top fitness against the out of shape Spiegel. Samir nearly sent him through the ropes within 20 seconds of the end of the first stanza.

The headline bout had the feeling of a showcase with two world-class pros in the flyweight division—Kermin Guardia and Rafael Concepcion—dancing around each other for eight rounds like Energizer bunnies, throwing prolific arrays of jabs and hooks that never seemed to connect. The match-up had potential electricity but turned out to be an oddly static affair as is so often the case when a pair of fleet-footed tactical stylists meet in the ring.

De Berry said that while New York is one of the top boxing centers in the country—with prominent local promoters making fights—the opportunities for up-and-coming boxers are limited because these promoters give fighting slots to the gladiators they have under contract. “So their first priority is to get their own fighter on card. That means an outside fighter needs to bring something very special to the table to get on the card, or they have to either fight for free or sometimes even pay their opponent,” he said.

“Not only in New York, but everywhere, it’s just very hard to get fighters on cards,” he says, adding that the Gleason’s-backed fights will “Give opportunities to regular fighters in four- to six-rounders, and regular fans and neighborhood people a chance to see careers develop.”

He says the fights will also promote the gym. “Our whole idea is to show that Gleason's is a one-stop shop, where a kid can come off the street, learn the fundamentals of boxing, hook up with very good trainers, and if they want to take the next step and move to amateur boxing we have the facilities to do that, and if he wants to turn professional, we have managers and promoters,” said de Berry.

Yuri Foreman, with a 25-0 record, including 8 knock-outs, trained at Gleason's for his bout last year versus Mexican jack-hammer Saul Roman. He said he was pleased by the turnout for the Tuesday night fight. “Definitely more fans than I thought would come. There are so many fighters at Gleason’s that just don’t have an opportunity to fight professionally, so it’s good that Silverglade is bringing it back to Brooklyn.”


Karl Greenberg


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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