By KEITH McMILLAN
Depending on availability, any child or adult could walk into a gym and say ”I want to learn to box.” Before long, they could be in the ring for an amateur bout.
But the road between amateur and professional fighter is one with plenty of twists and turns.
”It’s a long process from saying ‘I want to turn pro’ and getting your federal ID card,” says Theodore ”Top” Hohney, a Woodbridge resident who trains five amateurs and professional Jose Luis Almanzar.
Amateur fighters work their way up the ranks, and as they do, their fights become longer. Novices begin with three two-minute rounds. Later they’ll go to four two-minute rounds, and even later to three three-minute rounds. Standard professional rounds are three minutes, and bouts are a minimum of four rounds long. Amateur fighters also wear headgear while pros do not, and the standard glove sizes are different.
The very decision to turn pro is something a boxer should weigh heavily. Success in the amateur ranks is a good indicator, but the decision should really only come when a boxer, his trainer and his manager — in some cases the same person — feel the time is right.
”You’ve got to work your way to it,” says Woodbridge junior middleweight Orazio Robinson. ”If I wasn’t real good as an amateur … I don’t see why it would make sense to go pro. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, just give it time.”
Boxers love to fight, and sometimes may be too anxious to make the jump.
”If you have a guy who can’t [pop] a pimple on a pro,” says Hohney, ”as his trainer, manager or coach, whatever you want to call it, you’re the one who has to look at him and tell him he’s not ready.”
When the decision is made, there are several hoops to jump through before the fighter can step into the ring. Robinson remembers getting blood tests, including one for HIV. He also had to fill out quite a bit of paperwork, including signed contracts with his first fight’s promoter.
”Most states require certain physical tests,” said Woodbridge resident Willie Taylor, who fought 60 professional fights in the 1980s and ’90s. ”CAT scan, blood tests, eye tests. You have to be healthy before you get in the ring.”
But as D.C.-based promoter J.D. Brown of World’s Finest Promotions says, ”each place is different.” In other words, the exact rules vary from state to state. Boxing does not have a single governing entity. It has state boxing commissions and worldwide sanctioning bodies.
Hohney says a trainer may have to register in every state, but once a boxer is approved by a local boxing commission and gets his federal ID card, he can pretty much fight anywhere.
A manager or trainer also depends on the judgement of a professional promoter like Brown to set up fights for particular boxers. Both entities, in essence, play matchmaker.
”J.D. is a good promoter in this area,” says Hohney, ”and he’ll tell you quick: ‘I want to see him fight as an amateur before I take him.”’
Hohney says a promoter with that kind of discretion keeps the promoter, boxer and trainer from looking bad.
”You don’t want it to seem like you’re running a meat market, where you’ll just throw anybody in the ring,” Hohney says.
To get on a card like the one World’s Finest put together for ESPN2’s Tuesday Night Fights, with Hector Camacho, Jr. as the headliner and Robinson on the undercard, a fighter must show some serious promise.
Fights are often arranged with a few phone calls.
”I might call a promoter and say ‘I’ve got a kid that’s ready,” says Taylor, who plans to promote fights himself someday. Or, says Hohney, the promoter might call the manager with an idea.
”He’ll say ‘is Jose ready to fight? I’ve got a guy up in New York whose record is so-and-so.”’
Hohney will check the date and location of the planned fight, look up whatever details he can find about the proposed opponent, then get back to the promoter with an answer.
Hohney has recently turned down fights on behalf of Almanzar because they were either on short notice or too few rounds. Almanzar, who has nine professional fights under his belt, is looking to move from standard four-round fights to six-rounders. From there, he should move up to eight before graduating to 10- and 12-round fights, the length championship bouts would be.
It’s also necessary to match a boxer with a fighter on his level.
”They don’t put you in fights where somebody can beat you, [even] if they have confidence in you,” says Robinson.
For instance, says Hohney, ”if we could get some sparring with [former junior welterweight champion] Zab Judah, we’d do it. It would be great experience. But would I take a fight with Zab Judah [right now]? Not for a million dollars.”
”You want your fighter to have the mental and physical advantage,” says Hohney of how he selects opponents. ”Everybody wants that. But you also want him in a fight he can learn in.”
Almanzar would like to fight once a month, but realizes that it’s necessary to take quality fights instead of quantity.
”I need money, but it’s not that I need it that bad,” Almanzar says. ”I do it for the sport. I think boxing is a beautiful sport [even though] a lot of people don’t like it.”
According to Taylor, professionals start out making about $100 per round. Almanzar says he was promised $600 at most for his four-round fights, but once was paid $2,000.
”I’ve been lucky,” he says. ”I don’t know if they like the way I fight or what.”
The paydays that allow a boxer to quit his day job aren’t easy to come by.
”In my career, it was around my 15th, 16th, 17th fight,” says Taylor. ”But it could be your fifth fight. It depends on who you fought and how much you made.”
Taylor’s biggest payday came in a 1989 fight against two-time welterweight champion Buddy McGirt. He made $80,000 in a 10-round loss.
Taylor says after the trainer, manager and promoter take their shares, the fighter ends up with about 40 to 60 percent of the original payout. In addition, fighters are often reimbursed for travel and meals when they fight out of town.
Celebrity sometimes comes along with the territory as well. Almanzar, though far from a household name, gets recognized by adults and children in the U.S. who ask for his autograph and tell him he’ll be famous some day.
”That makes me feel good,” he says, ”like I’m doing something for my community.”
In the Dominican Republic, where Almanzar’s fights can be seen on cable TV, he feels like a full-blown celebrity.
”They’ll come up to me and say ‘I just can’t believe it. You were so little, and now you’re famous.’ I tell them ‘I’m not famous yet.”’
But if a boxer goes pro at the right time, handles his paperwork, finds a worthy opponent and agrees on a fee, his first pro fight may be the first step on the road to fame and fortune.