Boxing writer John J. Raspanti takes you behind the scenes for a before, during and after look at the work day of a pro boxer, in this case light heavyweight Joe “The Punisher” Gumina.
“Boxing tonight,” says the stranger as I move through the lobby of the Fox Theater in Redwood City, California. Usually, before the fights begin, I seek out an old acquaintance and talk shop. It’s part of the pre-fight routine of a boxing writer.
But tonight it’s different.
Instead of sitting at a table jotting down catchy headlines, I’ll be working the corner of professional boxer Joe “The Punisher” Gumina.
The fight is the sixth of Gumina’s career.
He’s lost once.
His opponent, Lee Holloman, has ventured all the way from South Carolina to meet him in the ring. Holloman’s record of five losses in six fights raises eyebrows. Nevertheless, he looks confident at the weigh-in.
A velour theater curtain rises to the rafters. Rows of empty seats await the crowd. I wander past the blue ring, mounted on the stage like a flat coffin.
There are a few dozen other people milling about. It’s as quiet as a church before a service.
Down three steps and I’m inside the tiny dressing room of three professional boxers and their teams. The room is hot, sticky, and crowded enough to make a fly feel cramped.
I nod at Gumina sitting patiently while his trainer Jimmy Ford wraps his hands. We first met several years before his professional debut. He smiles easily and chats with well-wishers.
Gumina likes to fight.
“This is a great job,” he says softly. “I get paid to beat somebody up.”
Gumina stands six feet tall and weighs 185 rock-hard pounds. He played football in college before switching to boxing. He launched his career at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco two years ago.
The hall was rocking with pro-Gumina fans that night. It took the former street fighter 62 seconds to demolish Jose Jesus Hurtado. Two months later, he knocked out Harry Gopaul at the same venue.
Gumina tests the gloves he’ll wear in the ring. He doesn’t like the fit.
“They’re uncomfortable,” he tells me. “They’re too tight here,” he says, indicating his wrist.
His logic is precise. The gloves are his weapons. They have to feel right to the hand, like the grip of a pistol or sword. A few minutes later he’s satisfied.
The other fighters in the room are dressed and ready, wearing robes bigger than they are. Gumina gets up and starts to pace, but this isn’t an attack of nerves. This fight has been on his mind for months.
He’s primed to unload on whatever is out there.
“I’m ready for this one,” he says. The smile is gone.
Jimmy Ford has been Gumina’s trainer for almost seven years. Once a former boxer himself, he took up the sport as a young kid. By the time he was 18, he was well known in Bay Area boxing circles. He had it all. He could box or slug.
I ask him if he misses the thrill of fighting.
“Not anymore,” Ford says with a knowing smile.
Nowadays Ford runs the popular Ring of Fire Boxing Club located in South San Francisco. Ford has known Gumina for almost ten years. The two men trust each other like brothers.
The soft-spoken trainer worries about the fighters’ health.
“I hope all the boxers are prepared,” says Ford.
He understands both their love of the sport and the pain that comes with it.
Lee Holloman, 33, is 6-foot-1 and weighs a pound less than Gumina. He looks at me and nods. He wears glasses, reminding me of a professor I once knew. His long hair is pulled back in tight cornrows.
I ask him if he knows anything about his opponent.
“I’ve seen a few of his fights on YouTube,” says Holloman with a slight southern drawl. “I’m expecting him to press me.”
Holloman, whose boxing career was conceived in 2005, stands and begins to stretch. His dressing room is even smaller than Gumina’s.
The sizes of the dressing rooms symbolize the ranking of the fights. Down the hall the headliner of the night, Bruno Escalante, reclines in a room of seeming comfort, at least compared to the cramped quarters of the others.
Holloman explains a gap in his fighting experience.
“I took two years off to train in Vegas because I had a short amateur career,” he said. “I felt like there was a lot of stuff for me to learn.”
I ask him how crucial his fight with Gumina is. I hear a sound, like a hammer hitting a wall as Holloman responds.
“This is really important – it’s a big opportunity.”
We shake hands and I wish him well.
When I return, more fans and officials are lounging in Gumina’s dressing room.
Gumina will fight next.
“Calm, calm, calm,” says Gumina as he works the mitts with jabs and hooks. The impact is loud and sudden. I realize it’s the sound I heard a few minutes ago. Heads turn as Gumina turns up the heat on his combinations.
I wonder what Holloman is thinking.
A delay in heading for the ring has everyone on edge. Gumina’s trainer gazes up at the ceiling. His left hand taps on the counter. The chief second runs in place. Gumina continues to pace. Even I feel nervous as the time nears. Outside in the hallway muffled voices rise and echo.
Finally, we begin the walk. All eyes are on Gumina. He looks straight ahead. He’s dressed in black trunks and black shoes. No robe. There’s expectation in the air as he climbs into the ring.
The crowd murmurs after the announcer makes the introductions. The fighters touch gloves. Gumina, his eyes squarely on Holloman, rocks slightly as if listening to music only he can hear. Holloman, dressed in black trunks with a red stripe, bounces on his toes and looks down at the canvas. I’m a few feet from the ring.
At the bell, Holloman moves away and shoots a jab. Gumina counters with a long left and a right that falls short. Gumina bobs, weaves, and comes forward. His hometown crowd is yelling with anticipation. It’s obvious he wants to uncoil.
A few seconds later, he does. His right hand crashes off the side of Holloman’s head. The impact of the punch creates a sound that makes me think of eggs landing on cement. Holloman staggers and grabs on to Gumina. I’m so close I could replace the referee. The crowd rumbles as Gumina stalks forward.
After the referee breaks the fighters up, Holloman moves away. Within seconds, Gumina corners him and unleashes a double right hand, followed by a thudding left hook to the body. Holloman goes into protective mode, his left leg rising in a defensive posture. Gumina shifts his attack back to the head. A thudding right sends Holloman to the canvas. He hauls himself up at six and gazes at Gumina. Holloman fires two rights that connect. Gumina ignores the punches and marches on. He backs Holloman into his corner. Holloman looks resigned, like a skydiver who’s realized he’s forgotten his parachute. A right to the body and head send Holloman down to his knees for the second time. He barely beats the count of ten. Gumina batters him to the canvas a few seconds later. The referee glances at Holloman and waves off the contest. The roar of the crowd continues to echo.
The fight had lasted barely two minutes.
After some pictures, we return to the locker room. Gumina unwinds. The adrenaline is still flowing. Two California commissioners wander into the locker room. Everyone ignores them.
“I couldn’t hit him with the jab,” says Gumina, grinning. “He was running too much.
“He hit me with a right hand. It surprised me more then anything else. If he hit me with anything else, I didn’t feel it.”
I ask him if his intensity increases when he sees his opponent hit the deck.
“Yeah, when I hurt a guy, it accelerates the process,” says Gumina.”It’s like a hurt animal. I want to put them out of their misery.”
I search for Holloman and find him sitting alone in the corner of his locker room. I ask how he’s doing. His left cheek is swollen.
“I’m good,” says Holloman with a slight smile. “He’s got too much power. I’m going back down to super middleweight.”
I want to tell him to consider changing his profession, but who am I to give out that kind of advice.
I step back outside and listen to the sounds of the gathering crowd. The headline contest is about to begin. Holloman, now dressed, moves past me and into the hallway. Nobody pays any attention to him. A few feet away, Gumina pulls on his shirt. Surrounded by friends, he wants to watch the main event. I agree and follow him back into the theater.
Photos / Erik Killin
Email John J. Raspanti at [email protected]