It is the plight of "up and coming" boxers — any boxer who has not yet up and come — to be treated like circus performers. Their task is difficult and dangerous. Their very health is at stake. But the market for fights is only so big, and many young fighters find themselves alone in a ring fighting for survival while, mere feet away, drunken crowds of people eat catered food, talk business, and generally cavort as though they were spending an evening at a half-assed dinner theater, rather than witnessing highly trained young men trying to knock each other unconscious, just to climb one more rung of that ladder that will eventually, with luck, take them to arenas where people actually pay attention to what they're doing and not to the fact that Darryl Strawberry is playing in a celebrity poker tournament in the same building.
Such was the scene last Wednesday at Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom. Tables set for formal dining ringed the floor. Artificial haze floated in the lights. Enormous letters spelling "BOX NYC" hovered in the background. DJ Cipha Sounds was on the ones and twos. In the back of the room, a silent auction; beside it, a celebrity poker tournament, where Doc Gooden, Curtis Martin, and other retired athletes who appeal to the type of Wall Street employees who listen to lots of sports talk radio were shuffling chips. And in the middle of it all, as if there wasn't enough going on, a boxing ring. Shit. At least circus performers are the main attraction.
No matter! Fighters gotta fight, the crowd be damned. And the crowd was damned: attractive young ladies in their finest evening wear, accompanied by young men in their finest suits. The real boxing gym denizens and mobster types who make up the usual local fight crowd were relegated to the edges; the crowd dining on thinly sliced beef tenderloin at the tables surrounding the ring seemed to be cockstrong young Wall Streeters, out for a testosterone-soaked night on the town. I arrived just as Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller was securing a TKO in the third fight of the evening, and found a spot on the benches along the outside wall, next to an elderly couple that looked befuddled by the whole garish scene, and a young guy in a polo shirt and a baseball hat who tried to holler at every one of the parade of beautiful women strolling past in a studiedly nonchalant manner. "They don't know how to talk," he lamented as yet another modelbot ignored him. "I be like, 'Hi!'"
Deano Burrell, a young prospect out of Brooklyn who lost his last fight unexpectedly thanks to poor matchmaking, was here for redemption against George Santiago, a shorter and softer-around-the-middle fellow Brooklynite with a vivid Puerto Rican flag tattooed vertically on his arm. Deano was taller, and in better shape, and faster — not super fast for a 135-pounder, but decently fast — and his cornrows appeared to have been done specially for the fight. Santiago was a game fighter, but no match. This was Deano's fight to win. He needs to reel off about a dozen more victories in a row before he'll be in a position to make any real money, and this one was set up for him on a platter.
Oddly, he just couldn't land punches. He could throw punches; he could throw combos; he wasn't getting hit very much; but his punches just missed. Santiago was not especially elusive, which made it that much stranger. Deano was just a remarkably inaccurate puncher. About three of every four punches just whiffed, whistling over Santiago's head, or past his ear, or over his shoulder, jabs, straights, and hooks all finding only air, as if Deano was practicing for a future career as a Hollywood stuntman. He won a unanimous decision easily, but the lack of knockdowns was a troubling sign. Hey Deano, this is supposed to be the easy part of your career! (Kidding; there is no easy part.) The lack of satisfactorily cracking shots landed had failed to woo much of the crowd's attention. "I just Wikipediaed Darryl Strawberry," one be-suited bro standing next to me explained to another about halfway through the third round. "I read that he wrote a book called Finding My Way, and he once got in a fight with Keith Hernandez. So I went over there and I said 'Darryl, two things: Finding My Way? Awesome. And Keith Hernandez? Asshole."
"What did he say?"
Meanwhile, in the very same ballroom, against all odds, boxing was occurring. Thomas Hardwick is a white heavyweight who I assume is Irish, because he was wearing green trunks and had a large cheering section. He was making his pro debut. Derek Williams is a black heavyweight from Georgia who should consider making his pro retirement. He entered the ring in a dirty gray tank top with his trunks hanging halfway off his protector, in the ass region. He was taller and 30 pounds heavier than Hardwick, but fought like a timid, timid bird. Williams had a habit of raising his front elbow straight out in some misguided form of defense, which exposed the entire front side of his body. Hardwick, raw but energetic, proceeded to land at least 10 hard straight shots right there in the first round. In the second round, both men fell down, at different times, by accident. In the third, Hardwick backed the meek Williams into his corner and unleashed a very deliberate series of blows, which he could do because he didn't have to worry about any punches coming back in his direction. He'd peer at Williams's inept defense, then load up and crack him in whichever open spot was most convenient. After a while, the ref called it. Later in the evening, a comedian would spend 10 straight minutes on stage clowning Williams's performance. "What the fuck was that fight? It looked like he was telling the white dude, 'Look out, I'm about to swing.'"
Boyd Melson is the Peyton Manning of boxing — he looks like Peyton Manning, he talks like Peyton Manning, and he's so god damn all-American that you just want him to fail in the most spectacular way possible. He went to West Point, and he gives the prize money from each of his fights to some worthy charity for paralysis victims, even making a speech in the ring after he fights, exhorting the crowd to donate money. I'd seen his act once before, and I was sick of it. If I wanted to see inspirational all-American success stories plugging worthy causes, I'd watch G.I. fucking Joe. This was boxing, where kind men get hurt and dreams get soaked in blood. It just wasn't right.
Boyd Melson is not all that good, so I had high hopes that his opponent, Hector Rivera, might put an end to Melson's reign of uprightness and cookies and milk. Rivera was ripped. He had his very own spangly customized outfit. Everything was looking promising — until about 40 seconds into the first round. That's when Rivera leaned in with a jab that came up short, and Melson jumped in from the outside with a jab of his own followed by an absolutely goddamn beautiful straight left over the top of Rivera's outstretched arm, right to the tip of his exposed chin, which caused him to wobble and drop in an exaggerated slo-mo crumble. The fight was over.
Then Boyd Melson gave his charity speech. Over at the VIP table, Anthony Mason, now an enormous mountain of a man covered in a billowing yellow turtleneck, posed for pictures. And all around, big tall young men who might've been ex-college athletes peacocked around in their Oxford shirts looking as if they didn't quite know how they'd gotten there, like somewhere their life had taken a puzzling turn that ended up with them, here, dining on beefsteak, getting Darryl Strawberry's autograph, escorting their blonde girlfriend in her Chanel dress, backslapping with middle-aged law firm partners, like boys playing dress-up in their dad's closet who'd all come down to present themselves to the adults, a sideshow to be approved of. When maybe they should have been running around and pouring sweat and strapping on gloves and punching each other until they all fell down from exhaustion, instead. But the Ralph Lauren suits had taken them, just how that black suit took Evil Spiderman. They were 27 and the fun was over. It was too late.
Mikey Ruiz looks almost exactly like Benicio del Toro, if Benicio del Toro were shorter and much, much more fit. He comes with one of boxing's 653 welterweight title belts, a loud hometown cheering section from Long Island, and trunks that appear to made from just an assortment of hanging scraps of mismatched blue fabric. He has a tight defense, his hands clamped high around his face, and throws a hard, fast, sweeping right hand, like a pirate snatching all the gold off the table. Mikey Ruiz was the main event, and his right hand is why people watched him.
Martin Wright is taller, black-robed, dark-skinned, with long arms and a long jab and an 8-1 record, but without a Ruiz-esque cheering section. Ruiz is very, very smooth in the ring, and Wright is slightly less so, his body flying open and squaring up when he throws a straight left to the body from his southpaw stance. But it quickly becomes apparent that Wright, unlike a surprising number of fighters, knows how to use his reach advantage; he keeps his jab in Ruiz's face, poking and circling cautiously, always maintaining the distance. Ruiz fights like a lion, jumping in and shooting his terrifying right hand over and over again, like an animal waving his paw through the bars of a cage. But it comes up short, repeatedly. A few inches short. Ruiz's arms are too short to box with God, played on this night by Martin Wright. Wright is not a notably aggressive counterpuncher, but he works his jab, and never forgets it, and it keeps Ruiz just far enough away to render his headcracker right hand moot. It's a task roughly equivalent to keeping a rattlesnake at bay with a long stick. Ruiz's frustration builds as the rounds go on, and he leaps in with increasing ferocity, but that serves only to tire him out, and by the sixth he's heaving, feeling the pain of exhaustion. By the seventh round, both men's gloves are glinting in the hazy lights, coated with each other's sweat. Wright makes it through the last round, holding fast to his jab, and wins the fight, and the belt, in a split decision. It was a close call, but he deserved it. It's a minor belt, but he'll take it. For us, it was a night at the circus. For him, it was a fight. And he, at least, can walk out proud.