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Sports Section March 6, 2007
 
The Renegades
Underdogs And Uppercuts In The Jersey City Underground. By Thierry Marignac Browse author
 
 

It is widely believed that, in his first fight against "Sugar" Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran made the incredible stylist dig deep for the first time -- showed him "the side of the will." Ray had always relied on his technical brilliance, dazzling speed and bolo punches. But on that night in Montreal, Duran's furious charges and ferocious hammerings shook the former Olympic medalist, rocking him so hard that he seemed on the brink of breaking down several times, ultimately conceding the bout to the slugger from Panama, hands down the victor.

A few months later in New Orleans, it was clear Leonard had learned his lesson, forcing Duran to utter the infamous "No mas" while slumped in his corner at the 10th round bell.

Back in the Renegade basement, this time to write a book in the dark heart of Jersey City about my Renegade friends' march to Golden Gloves glory, I see the same classic opposition in two fighters: Steve Felton Jr., a short, compact middleweight who fought his way to the New Jersey GG finals in 2006, and Prince, a tall heavyweight with a long jab and heavy right hand, able to shake an Olympic prospect in his 2006 fights, but too cautious to finish him off. If you combined the two fighters, you would have the perfect fighting machine. Of course, the differences between Steve Jr. and Prince go deeper than body type; one short and burly inclined to rolling thunder bodywork, the other tall and rangy better equipped for long distance destruction. There's also character and worldview, experience and plans for the future.

Renegade is a low-ceilinged basement created when an old warrior hung a few punching bags. Last year I recounted how hard it was for "semi-legal" stable training in a neighborhood basement to get any respect from the boxing community. Well, this year the young boxers still need to spar before the fights, and their conditions have improved greatly. Instead of being dissed in a fitness club, the Renegades now drive down to Lucky's in Union City, a boxing gym overlooking the Hudson River that has a few pros on board.

After hours in the cellar.

Photos by Sriantha Walpola

It was one of them, a not-so sharp Latino, short and compact, who gave Steve Jr. a run for his money, even though the pro looked like he could use a crash diet. He was still a pro though, and Steve Jr. climbed in the ring for some honest-to-God confrontation (in boxing circles God's name is Shorty, don't ask me why). Steve Jr. ate every left the Latino dished out, shrugging them off as though the punches were food.

The ring took up two-thirds of the gym's space and everybody was focused on what went on between the ropes. Under all those glares, Steve Jr. was looking for the hard punch, the heavy hook that would establish him as the boss. But the pro had a stiff jab; not so fast, not so crisp, just well timed behind a feint, and Steve Jr. caught it again and again, refusing to pay it any mind. Then the pro threw his right and Steve Jr. hit the floor. He got up right away. Next round Steve Jr. shook the pro with a right hand-left hook combination loaded with anger and hurt pride. The Latino pro hung in there on the ropes, but he was glassy-eyed for a while, hovering on the Threshold of the Room, that dark place full of ghosts playing trumpet once described by Ali.

That Friday night, as he was ironing his tee shirt obviously intending to get some from some sultry babe, Steve Jr. confided in me.

"I know what matters is not if you go down, it's what you do once you go down, but it's embarrassing," he said. "Me, I don't care if it's a pro, it's the side of the street in me, you be trying to take my heart, I'll go for yours, see what happens."

"All right Steve," I said. "But you ate all those lefts, man."

He shrugged. "Took'em on the forehead. They didn't hurt."

Prince "Smarts" Jenkins, the heavyweight sensation, in background.

Photo by Sriantha Walpola

"OK, but they dazed you. Then you were slightly off and he hurt you with the right. He set you up. So you went down. You have to slip'em even if they don't hurt. The ring is different from the street."

"I don't care about the pain. I like pain. I mean nobody does, but it wakes me up."

"Yes, but that's how you end up punch-drunk."

He just looked at me. His inscrutable young hustler's face made out of stone suddenly looked Chinese in its high yellow impassiveness. I added: "And punch-drunk doesn't help much with the ladies."

Steve Jr. laughed, and we goofed off for a while about trying to take a woman between the sheets when you're afflicted with a heavy stutter. Then the boxer told me about Thomas Hearns, seen on TV the night before. The former champ is no longer the feral bony killer of old times, the 6'2 welterweight King of the Undead. These days, when the bloated, blurred beyond-recognition Hit-Man Hearns starts a sentence, the words come so slowly out of his mouth, you could take a nap in-between.

Steve Jr. had gone to the finals the previous year (2006) in a winner-take-all kind of fight, lunging forward, throwing hooks that could tear down a building, except his opponent deftly avoided half of them, knocking him down in turn. Then in a scenario reminiscent of what we had seen during the sparring session, the knockdown unleashed the raging bull in Steve Jr., and he caught his opponent with the big punch, won the fight, and made it to the finals. Big Steve Felton, his father and his coach, had hesitated before throwing him back in the fray, even though his son jumped back up on his feet, ready to cripple the other guy. That night, the coach had been stronger in Big Steve than the father. But, said Big Steve, Steve Jr. got hit too often. "The side of the will" has its downfall. There it was. A fierce street fighter, his pride got in the way sometimes. Yet if you took his pride away, he wouldn't be fighting. So you had to work with that.

Big Steve Felton. The boxing Bush Doctor.

Photo by Sriantha Walpola

When I got out of his room, Big Steve Felton asked me, dead serious:

"You are going to help me with those guys?"

I considered telling the Professor, the old boxing coach, that I hated responsibility, but I thought better.

"I'll do my best," I said.

Make them pay

Prince has the opposite problem. He doesn't like being hit and is pretty good at slipping, or sidestepping the punches. Six-two and built like a brick shithouse (200 pounds of muscle), he has it all: range, smarts, and an overall learning ability that sets him apart. But he lacks confidence. That night at Lucky's, he put the much shorter but every bit as burly Puerto-Rican sparring-partner in the wind, but failed to act on it, even when the Puerto-Rican's murderous blind charge got him entangled in the ropes. Big Steve was appalled.

"You got everything right except you don't make him pay for his mistakes!" he said to Prince. "I don't understand, you do it to me in the basement, and you don't do it there!" What's wrong? I hit harder than them, don't I?"

Prince agreed. "You hurt me more than any of those guys," he said. Although Big Steve was in his teacher's role here, he couldn't hide his satisfaction. More often than not, the old warrior was a frivolous kid, and we loved him for it. It lightened the mood.

Renegades at work.

Photo by Sriantha Walpola

I briefly wondered if it wasn't Big Steve's teaching that was at fault here. Carrying a lot of extra weight - "I'm a food junkie," he said - Big Steve (when he was tired) had a tendency sometimes to bob and weave, slip the punches, without bothering to counter any more, moving on to the next clinch to set up a new ambush. Anyone familiar with the name Indian Yaqui (a skilled journeyman of the 80s who fought all the greats light-heavies of his day) will remember how the old fighter hardly ever got hit late in his career, dodging and ducking and moving, but lost his fights for failure to punch them when opponents missed and left the boulevard open, off-balance. It's a sure sign of the over-the hill fighter: seeing it without seizing it. How could Prince, 20-years-old and full of sap, fall into that abyss, the washed-up fighter's doom?

Part of it had to do with his persona. Prince was quiet, had a job, and lived in harmony with his mother, a feisty woman my age. He had a girlfriend and a car; he was good with computers. He had seen his relatives and his friends fall prey to the thug life, many now dead or locked-up. A week before the sparring session at Lucky's, one of Prince's gangbanging cousins had been slammed with 30 years for shooting somebody nine times with his nine after being "dissed" in the street somewhere in the terror zone between JC and Bayonne, where the gangs rule. At the time of the shooting, in the summer of 2005, the gangbanging cousin was two days out of jail. Obviously, Prince had reflected on all this and decided that blind aggression wasn't the way. At least it wasn't the way for him. That made him a "counter puncher" forever.

But it didn't make his tall solid ass a weakling. Ali was a counter puncher. And Robinson at times (against La Motta) and Carlos Monzon and Aaron Pryor and Nassem Hamed and Gene Tunney and so many other greats. They boxed on their opponents' mistakes, making them pay until they were flat broke and ready to go down.

Counter punching is reactive aggression. How you unleash the temper is another complexity of the game, since you don't only want to counter punch, but counter punch mean. That split second delay before the reptilian brain takes over and you hurt your opponent, has cost victory to many a good fighter overwhelmed by a slugger early in the fight. So whereby a puncher like Steve Jr. got hit too often in his urge to destroy, Prince might himself get shaken if he kept being too slow to react.

This happened the year before, in the New Jersey Golden Gloves. At Lucky's he had been pawing with the jab, one of the best weapons in his awesome arsenal. And I don't mean pawing to set up a trap. I mean pawing merely to keep the Puerto-Rican at bay, and Prince didn't sidestep in order to hit, he sidestepped to stay out of the way. Of course we knew him better than that and eventually he let loose that one-two and stopped his sparring-partner cold in his tracks. We were back to last year's scenario, and Prince wasn't too happy with himself. I had a couple of ideas about that: in the old days, in Europe, when I was trying to keep away from the needle by exhausting my ass in Thaï boxing gyms, there was a technique. To get the counter puncher to kick ass, coaches sometimes resorted to a time honored method: give him a shot of port wine right before the fight and loosen him up. How that would fare with Prince was a mystery, so I didn't mention it.

Later, in the car, as he was driving me home, Prince told me what was on his mind. At 205, doing little else in the basement than punching the bags and clinch with Big Steve, he dreaded running out of wind during the sparing-session if he mounted serious counterattacks. "Fatigue," said a famous Latino prizefighter, "makes cowards of us all."

So we came back to my place and started doing calisthenics, which I'm good at. Then, in the Renegade den, it became standard practice for me, as in 2006, to plan the exercise regimen, designed to fit in the narrow basement. The No Record curse - street credentials and little else - was in full effect for the Renegade. No ring, no gym, no general method. So with fights looming for Prince and Steve Jr. in the 2007 Jersey Golden Gloves, we needed a title. Because how long would the Renegades be able to make do in Big Steve's basement? There was a lot of work ahead. We had to build a record. The Renegade had to take over.

To be continued...

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