By KEITH McMILLAN
Like many people in their mid-20s, Jose Luis Almanzar has a mortgage and two car payments he’s responsible for. His full-time job as a carpenter keeps him busy from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. most weekdays.
When he’d most like to be home with his wife and two sons, Almanzar often finds himself in an Arlington gymnasium, working on delivering punches at particular angles or doing hundreds of crunches to strengthen his abdominal muscles. On many nights, his sons are in bed before he returns to his Woodbridge home. Almanzar is often asleep by 11 and awake before sunrise to start his routine again.
”Right now, it’s real hard,” says the Dominican-born welterweight of his balancing act. ”I’ve got too much responsibility on myself. But I can’t just leave work to do boxing.”
Orazio Robinson, who like Almanzar is a Gar-Field High School graduate, also holds down a full-time job in addition to being a promising professional fighter. Robinson’s day starts at 5 or 6 a.m. working as a laborer for the Fairfax County Division of Solid Waste.
Robinson and Almanzar don’t live the glamourous lives of the world’s most famous professional boxers, at least not yet. But their dedication to a sport each has grown to love makes the daily grind worthwhile.
BITTEN BY THE BUG
While playing on a Manassas playground, a 6-year-old Robinson spotted a boxer named Mackie Jenkins shadow boxing in the street, with hand wraps on.
”At first I was like, I want some of those,” the 19-year-old junior middleweight recalls. ”He said ‘you can’t just wear ’em. You’ve got to want to do it.”’
Robinson took Jenkins seriously, training in his backyard gym in Manassas Park and fighting in exhibitions before making his official amateur debut at age eight. After more than 150 amateur fights, nearly all of them wins, Robinson made his professional debut June 28 at the D.C. Armory. Almanzar fought his ninth pro fight on the same card.
”I never really played any other sports,” Robinson said. Giving the sport up, even in his teenage years when his peers were most concerned with chasing girls, never crossed Robinson’s mind.
”Ever since he was a kid, he has always talked about going pro,” says Theodore ”Top” Hohney, who works alongside former professional boxer and fellow Woodbridge resident Willie Taylor training fighters at Arlington’s Barcroft Fitness and Recreation Center.
After careful consideration, Taylor and Robinson agreed that he was ready to make his debut.
Almanzar’s professional debut was supposed to come while fielding ground balls. In the Dominican Republic, baseball makes the country’s heart beat, and a young Almanzar showed promise as a shortstop. He even played in a national tournament three times.
”My Dad, he [would have] liked me to be a good baseball player,” said Almanzar, who first entered the ring in Arlington at age 15. ”But when he saw how much I loved boxing, he said ‘Whatever you want to do, I support it.”’
Both Almanzar and Robinson said their co-workers and family members are some of their biggest fans.
”What helps him is he has a supportive family,” said Taylor, Robinson’s trainer/manager. ”They’re always there. And all the best fighters in my gym have good family support.”
But family members can also be against their relatives’ pursuits.
Robinson said his mother initially opposed his boxing at first, but allowed it once she saw how much her son liked it. Almanzar won’t even allow his mother to come to his fights anymore, because of how she reacts.
When a boxer was killed in the ring a few weeks ago in Cedar City, Utah, it reinforced the opposition that Almanzar’s wife Maria sometimes has to Jose’s sport.
”She doesn’t like boxing really,” he said. ”She doesn’t like me to be fighting. She heard what happened, and she said, ‘I don’t want that to happen to you,’ you know?”
But Almanzar remains as dedicated to becoming a world champion as he is to being a good father and husband. Boxing is a love he can’t get out of his system.
The D.C. Armory is nearly pitch-black, except around the boxing ring, where bright lights illuminate the white canvas and anything near it. There are no television cameras, but press photographers and loud-mouthed fans surround the ring. There are plenty of empty seats, but the decent-sized crowd gives scantily-clad round card girls louder cheers than any of the boxers. Hip-hop beats boom from speakers around and above the ring, as the announcer — decked in a three-quarter length royal blue suit — takes the microphone.
Almanzar lives for these moments. He’s certainly not in it for the money. Pro boxers start out making only about $100 per round.
Before each fight, Almanzar gets uncomfortable. But when the bell sounds, he tunes out the atmosphere.
”In the ring, oh man,” he says. ”You get excited, but at the same time you feel nervous. When it starts, all you think about is the fight. In the first round, I always take my time and watch what the other guy is doing.”
Robinson’s first round is literally his first professional round. He is a chiseled 153 pounds, sporting silver trunks and a blank look that screams ”I’m focused.”
His fight with D.C. native Spencer Harsley, who entered the fight 0-2, lacks what casual fans have become accustomed to. It is not big fighters trading punches, but rather a technical bout. At the end of the evenly matched fight, the decision is announced. The first judge scores it 39-37 for Harsley, the second 40-36 for Robinson. The third and deciding judge says 39-37 for Harsley, giving Robinson a loss in his pro debut.
”He [expletive] won,” says a Boxing Digest writer of Robinson, disgusted at the decision.
”Fighting [against a D.C. fighter] in D.C., you’re pretty much asking for it, to be totally honest,” Taylor said.
Robinson, surprisingly, is not distraught.
”I’m happy with how I fought, and even though I lost, everyone is coming up to me saying I won.”
Since making his pro debut in June 2001, the 25-year-old Almanzar has fought eight times in Washington, D.C. or the surrounding area, and once in New York City. He’s never been knocked out, but he dropped opponents in the second round in back-to-back March 2002 fights. He switched trainers, from Taylor to Hohney, about a year ago.
The first round of his June 28 fight against Rashun Parker of Clinton, Md. goes slowly, as the fighters feel each other out. They trade big blows in the second round, and boxing writers along press row say this fight could be a war. They’re also surprised it’s scheduled for just four rounds instead of six.
With no one clearly ahead as the final round begins, both fighters start with strong flurries, and the buzz in the building builds. With 90 seconds to go, Almanzar is the aggressor in the fight, but in the final 10 seconds, he slips as Parker connects on a punch. Almanzar hits the canvas, but jumps up immediately, waving his gloves as if to say ”that didn’t count.”
”The guy could have hit him anywhere,” Hohney said later. ”He could have hit him on the shoulder, he was going to fall down, because his feet were [not in the correct position].”
The knockdown, legitimate or not, doesn’t help Almanzar’s chances of winning the fight.
Parker is bouncing around in his corner when the announcer grabs the microphone, judges’ scorecards in hand. The first judge scores it a 38-38 draw, the next 39-37 for Parker. If the third judge goes Almanzar’s way, it’s a draw, but she scored the fight 38-37 for the winner, Parker.
Afterward, Almanzar is disappointed, but in good spirits. He poses for post-fight photos and tells Parker that he wants a rematch.
BACK IN THE GYM
The same way a fighter must get up following a knockdown, he or she must return to work after a loss. Neither fighter has time to feel sorry for himself as training resumes immediately.
Each fighter has a specific Monday-Friday routine.
Almanzar’s Mondays with Hohney are strictly for conditioning — 90 minutes of non-stop running, calisthenics, jumping rope, ball drills and bag work. Almanzar runs on his own, and spars on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — but Hohney makes sure to keep things fun before his guys wear out.
”A fighter can leave his fight in the gym if he trains too hard,” he says.
Robinson also spars three days a week, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays he spends most of his time working with Taylor on individual skills. Everything they do in the gym has a purpose.
It’s an exhausting routine in itself, full-time jobs not included.
”Some days when I get home, if I’m a little tired, I go up to Dale City Rec and go to the jacuzzi, just to chill out,” says Robinson.
”It’s hard, real hard,” says Almanzar of the grind. ”But I love boxing, man.”
Neither trainer hesitates when asked what they see in their fighter’s future.
”He’ll stick with it,” says Hohney of Almanzar. ”In a year and a half, two years, he will probably be the junior welterweight champion of the world. He’s [that] convicted to the sport.”
Robinson, who has earned as many as eight Virginia Golden Gloves championships and was twice runner-up in the national Silver Gloves tournament, has a section of the bulletin board at Barcroft dedicated to his exploits.
”This kid has a bright future,” says Taylor, who had more than 60 professional fights of his own. ”You’ve got to remember that he’s only 19. By the time this kid is 23 or 24, he’s going to be dangerous.”
Those are high expectations for a young man who is humble, respectful and sometimes doesn’t have much to say.
”People see me and say ‘You box?’ Because I’m a little quiet, they don’t look at me as a boxer,” he said. They look at me as a guy that chills, that doesn’t get too excited.”
But Taylor excitedly talks about Robinson, whom he calls ”special” and says is ”like a son” to him.
”He’s quick, but’s he’s got a little pop in his punch,” says Taylor. ”And he’s a smart kid when it comes to boxing. He’s been around it a long time. Sometimes I’ll say something, and he’ll pretty much [already] know what I’m talking about.”
Those moments are a product of a decade in the ring for each of these young fighters. As much as it infringes on their lives, it is their lives.
”All I think about is to be world champion,” Almanzar said. ”Since I was a little kid.”