Blood, Sweat and Cheers

 

Weigh in time is where you’ll find the lifers. Guys full of experience, stories and the scars to go along with all of them.

“The hardest I ever got hit?” a New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame trainer asked in a conversation with one of his young fighters. “It was this white kid from Minnesota.”

The trainer has a Rocky ringtone on his phone, a flattened nose and a criminal record.

Sinners can still be saints in the boxing game. But it’s boxing. The older eyes look around with suspicion while the young eyes look with confidence. Business is being taken care of.

There is no glory at the lower levels of the game. The lifers are looking just to pay the bills the only way they know in a sport that has the potential to grind the body and the mind into a pulp, in turn making these warriors shadows of the giants they used to be. Look no further than Muhammad Ali to see the brutality of the sport spares no one, even the Greatest of All Time. The effects of a lifetime in the ring have left him with an accelerated Parkinson’s condition have physically left him a shell of a man. Still, the lower levels of the game are full of hungry young fighters willing to do whatever it takes to climb the rankings.

Qu’id Muhammad doesn’t look outwardly concerned with the business of things at the moment. He’s already weighed in and he just wants to get his frozen Gatorade to thaw out. The 23 year-old bantam weight fighter from Atlantic City, New Jersey is scheduled to fight his seventh pro fight the next night in the Tri-State Ballroom downstairs at the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark. Having already weighed in under the contracted 117 pounds, Muhammad is more concerned about eating.

“In my mind, the fight is ready to go,” he said in the Essex Conference Room at the hotel. “Right now it’s about my body and reenergizing it after making weight.”

Muhammad trained for six weeks for this fight. He knows his body is ready for the four rounder.

“When I can stay on the heavy bag for four rounds, get that stamina up,” he said. “That’s when I know. As I go up in rounds, I’ll have to go longer.”

Muhammad is 6-0 with five knockouts heading in to this fight. His nickname is Kid Dynamite, taken from Mike Tyson before he switched it to Iron Mike. Despite his relative professional inexperience, he registered an 89-9 amateur record. He was an Olympic alternate and is now ranked No. 4 in the nation. His career is still in its ascendancy. He’s soft-spoken, thoughtful with his answers, polite and quick to smile as he speaks. Don’t let that trick you though. The kid is a fighter.

“I started out doing tae kwon do when I was 12,” Muhammad said. “I liked the training but when we went into competition, they don’t let you hit anybody. I wanted to see how hard I could hit someone. That’s how I got into boxing.”

Muhammad’s father, trainer and manager Abdur-Rahim, a former fighter himself, laughed while remembering those early years.

“He had these ideas of being a ninja with smoke bombs, masks and nun-chucks,” he said. “I put him in the ring, thinking he’d take a few punches and want to go back to tae kwon do but he loved it.”

Muhammad spent his teenage years in the gym, learning the craft in Atlantic City where boxing has been an important part of the local lore since heavyweight legend Jack Dempsey trained for some of his fights there, drawing as many as a thousand spectators a day to public workout sessions.

“He’s like that cat from the old He-Man cartoon,” Muhammad’s father said. “He’s all sweet most of the time but when he puts on that mask, he turns into Battle Cat. That’s what I call him.”

Vito Mielnicki runs the Elite Heat Boxing Gym on Mt. Pleasant Ave. in Newark and works with Gabe LaConte’s First Round Promotions and Greg Cohen Promotions in managing and promoting the entire event. There are a lot of moving parts involved. From finding fighters, arranging their travel and accommodations, selling tickets, running the weigh-in and counting cash while also running his gym, Mielnicki operates on the edge of a frantic pace. This scheduled fight is the first time Muhammad is teaming up with the Newark promoters.

“As quiet and polite as Qa’id is, he’s just as aggressive when he gets in the ring,” said Mielnicki. “In the ring, he’s got just a ton of speed. He’s moving up in quality of opponent for this fight but he should handle himself well.”

A last minute contractual glitch put Muhammad’s fight against St. Joseph, Missouri native Steven Johnson in jeopardy. Johnson weighed in at 118.2 pounds, two tenths of a pound over the contractually agreed weight. There was also confusion in the initial explanation to the Muhammad camp. They thought they were being forced to accept more than a pound.

“Why did I struggle to make weight when he’s just going to come in more than a pound over?” the fighter asked.

The fine print of the contract allowed for plus or minus one pound. Mielnicki explained the confusion and went into damage control with his new fighter.

“You told me that your son is special,” Mielnicki said to Abdur-Rahim Muhammad, outside the weigh-in room as he tried to keep everyone involved happy. “I believe in him, now work with me and believe in us as much as we believe in you.”

The Muhammad camp accepted the explanation and waived any issue with Johnson’s weight. The situation was resolved in the hallway in a street legal sort of manner. These are tough talking, looking and sounding men who make their living in a blood sport. Pride is paramount. It’s no different than any high powered executive board room. It’s the art of the deal.

After the weigh-in, Muhammad and his father check in to their rooms and the process of getting ready for the fight begins.

“Basically I just rest and eat now.” Muhammad said, still only concerned about the food he had to deny himself in order to make weight. “A couple nice meals tonight and tomorrow and I’ll be ready to go.”

Club music fills the Tri-State Ballroom the next night as the crowd continues to settle in as fight time approaches. The announcer is ringside in his crisp tuxedo and high shine shoes. Two ring card girls in little black dresses have changed from their flip flops to the high heels and are taking them on a test drive around the ring. Both of them struggle with their skirts stepping through the ropes and back down the steps to a pair of the best seats on the corner of the ring.

In the crowd is a mix of the middle aged that get off on the young studs wearing each other down. Some know a lot, some know nothing. The rest fall in between.

LaConte’s fights rely heavily on young club level talent in order to try to rebuild the local image of boxing. The first two fights on the card featured local Newark fighters who were making their professional debuts. Midway through the first fight, a buzz fills the crowd as local legend Chuck Wepner enters the room. Known as the Bayonne Bleeder, he is considered to be one of the toughest men to ever walk into the ring. He’s been toe-to-toe with Sonny Liston. He brawled with George Foreman long before the Foreman Grill was even and idea. He even knocked Ali down in a fight. Sylvester Stallone used parts of his story as inspiration for Rocky Balboa. He waves and shakes hands as he and his wife are led to their ringside seats.

Supporters from the neighborhood yell encouragement and instructions from the shadows of the General Admission section loud enough so that the people in the VIP seats are forced to look over.

The new kids both win in front of the hometown crowd as well as the local heavyweight who was fighting in only his third pro event. There is little downtime between fights. Each one goes the scheduled distance of four rounds followed by a quick interview in the ring with the winner for the internet. As soon as the ring is cleared, the music is cued and the Muhammad’s opponent Steven Johnson makes his way to the ring. Hardly anyone notices.

The music changes and the Muhammad camp can be seen at the entrance to the ballroom. He leads the way and is the first to the ring, ducking under the top rope repeatedly in a quick display of speed. His black and sparkly gold robe matches his trunks and sneakers. Kid Dynamite is in the ring.

The challenge for Muhammad in this fight was the fact he knew nothing about Johnson other than the fact he was a southpaw, a left-handed fighter considered to be unorthodox.

“The thing I have to worry about is figuring out how he’s going to set up in front of me, and where the punch is coming from.” Muhammad said of the lefty fighter beforehand. “After that, a punch is just a punch.”

Johnson was 7-4 with four knockouts of his own but he never quite seemed comfortable. Muhammad worked the body and caught him with a punch that wasn’t much. With his legs not set underneath, Johnson fell down in the first round but was back on his feet right away. Muhammad made a conscious effort to stay after Johnson’s midsection, using his speed to force his way inside with body combinations.

Again in the second round, Muhammad kept the pace up and acted the aggressor. Johnson tried working the jab but found himself down on the mat again. This time it was just a slip. In the third round he wouldn’t be so lucky.

“As I was going to the body throughout the fight, I noticed he was starting to lean forward and leave his head exposed,” Muhammad said after the fight. “By the third, he was thinking I’d still go low but I went high instead.”

When he did, Muhammad caught Johnson with an overhand right that put the Missouri native flat out on his back right in front of Muhammad’s corner. Johnson rolled over and tried to get to his knees but fell over into to ropes when referee Randy Neumann covered him up and stopped the fight. The crowd howled in pleasure at the first knockout of the night.

“It humbles you when you knock someone out like that,” Muhammad said. “All the work and the planning come together and you take another step.”

There’s more than just navigating your way through the ring as a boxer. The game has long been known for its dirty dealings. These fighters give up their bodies and risk their health to chase a dream. Along the way are people looking to ride on the coattails of the blood sweat and tears the fighters shed. The blows these people can land sometimes can seem worse than anything a fighter has to see in the ring. At least there, if the fighter is prepared, he can defend himself.

After the fight, Muhammad was walking through the hotel lobby with a guy in a slick black suit complete with the fedora and a smooth gait. He flashed Muhammad a business card as they walked.

“I really appreciate what you guys are doing,” he said to Muhammad. “Any way we can help you out, let us know. You’re exciting to us.”

At the top of the game everything gets bigger; the money, the hotels, the crowds and also the dangers. The more success Muhammad has, the more guys in sharp black suits will be coming out of the woodwork and flashing their glossy business cards at the kid.

For all the positivity and optimism, Muhammad is still just only beginning his journey and tap into his potential.

Neumann is a member of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and has seen many faces over a career that spans over 40 years. He was the referee of Muhammad’s fight versus Johnson. Despite Muhammad’s amateur experience, Neumann is quick to point out the value of professional experience.

“What does he have, a half a dozen fights?” he chuckled. “They’re still like young lovers at that point. They still don’t know anything. After 15 or 20 fights, they’re journeymen and will have either figured it out or not.”

For now though, it’s still a family operation for the Muhammad’s. They left town that night, hitting a Burger King for a celebration meal and then the Parkway back to Atlantic City. The feeling of satisfaction will be short-lived for a young pro that has his sights set at the top.

“You spend all that time working and the fight just flies by,” Muhammad said “It’s not like I didn’t do anything but we gotta get right back to work. The thing to do is to keep winning and wait for the call to get that title shot.”

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