Litzau’s fighting spirit borne of rough life
Jason Litzau, celebrating after a KO victory, has a fighting spirit in the ring because he's had to fight his whole life. Photo / FightWireImages.com
It’s no secret that most prizefighters worth anything come from hard circumstances, real or imagined.
That’s why so many of them are ex-cons, or future cons, or guys who have somehow managed to get away with a lot of stuff that would put them away if the right people found out about it.
You don’t find that in other sports. Ballplayers and their kind frequently are pampered divas, soft, spoiled products of too much adolescent attention and jock worship.
Fighters are a different case altogether, the good ones anyway, which is why you have to be careful when you call boxing a sport. It is a sport like cockfighting is a sport. Like a meeting between a lion and a gazelle is a sport.
Men die. They lose years of lucidity. They know this going into it and love the game anyway for the salvation and the escape it gives them from the circumstances that drove them to it, even if the escape is short-lived or illusory.
Jason Litzau, who faces perennial contender Rocky Juarez on the Bernard Hopkins-Roy Jones undercard on April 3 in Las Vegas, fights with a kind of desperate rapture that could only be borne of the hardest circumstance.
His is not a new story, at least not in this business, but one worth telling and remembering for the insight it gives us into the fighter.
At the least, it may help us to understand why Litzau is likely to stand and trade with the more powerful Juarez the first time one of Juarez’s infrequent, but thudding left hooks finds Litzau’s jaw, which sooner or later it surely will.
Litzau is taller, faster and more mobile than Juarez and a superior technical boxer. No logical reason exists that should compel him to stand and punch with Juarez rather than box him. Except for his story.
It begins in St. Paul, Minn., with an alcoholic mother and an abusive step father who make life so miserable for 10-year-old Jason and Allen, his 11-year-old brother, that the boys run away, taking a bus to their father’s home. They move in with him.
For a while, things are OK. Both boys, despite their tender ages, start boxing at a local gym. Then, two years down the road, their father makes a startling demand.
“When we were 12 and 13 he told us we had to quit boxing and get jobs,” Litzau told RingTV.com. “We didn’t know then that he was a crack head. He told us to get jobs to support him. We’re like, no, because we knew we could have some success with boxing.”
The boys, already hooked on boxing and the escape it provided, maybe a long-lasting escape down the road, did the only thing they could do. They left.
The next seven years are a mishmash of residences, none of which would qualify by any standards as a home.
“We moved from house to house. I lived in my car, I lived in the boxing gym, went from relative to relative, lived everywhere,” Litzau said. “Under trees, we did it all, me and my brother did. We just had to find a way.”
So they did. They survived. Survived the gargantuan failures of character on the part of those whose job it was to care for them, survived the murderous St. Paul winters, survived the streets and alleys and hunger and found refuge in rings and gyms, and just enough low-level glory and hope to know that someday it could get better.
Finally, when Litzau was 19 and had accomplished just about everything he could as an amateur, including 180 fights and a national Silver Gloves title, he turned pro. He felt like he had no choice.
“I should have waited for the Olympics but had to turn pro,” he said. “I was working at a gas station and living in an attic at a friend’s house and it was so short I couldn’t stand up. It was 100 degrees every day, so I would sleep in my car every night. So I turned pro.”
By that time he had already teamed up with Bob Van Syckle, who had been training amateurs in New Jersey. He’d been watching Litzau mature through the years at various amateur tournaments and believed he had something.
“He had a lot of attributes I felt were necessary to be a champ,” Van Syckle said. “Height, reach, hand speed, a fearless attitude, and a lot of heart. He’s not afraid of anybody. He was 17 years old and in the finals of the USA championship tournament. “
Van Syckle also saw his dedication.
“At 17 he didn’t have much power,” he said. “A year later I saw him again and he was much more powerful. He had total dedication. He wants to be a champion and make it in the game.”
Litzau was being recruited by all the major promoters and signed with Top Rank. Now, eight years later, he is 26-2 (21 knockouts) and is promoted by Roy Jones’ promotional company. His two losses, against Jose Hernandez and Robert Guerrero, were by knockout.
Don’t ask Van Syckle whether this is a must-win fight for Litzau.
“I guess that’s the opinion of the boxing gods, the people who make the decisions,” he said. “Was it ever a must-win for Arturo Gatti or Micky Ward? Those guys always managed to climb back. Jason doesn’t want to wait much longer to get in that picture. He knows that this is a very important fight for him and if he wins it the gods will smile on him.
“He wants it to happen now and that’s what he’s focused on and that’s why we took this fight.”
All the while, the nightmare that is Litzau’s family life continues.
“Now I been raising my two little brothers for the last four years,” he said. “My mom and step dad were going through a divorce, and I don’t like to dwell on the past but it’s a messed up situation. I can go on forever about it, but ÔÇª”
And when you ask him what was the worst it ever got all those years ago when he didn’t know where he would sleep that night or where the next meal was coming from, he reminds you that sometimes it’s easier to fight when you’re fighting for someone else rather than yourself.
“I was down and depressed at times, but I just knew that I would never let my kids go through the kind of life that I did,” he said. “That was my reason. There are times that you wanted to die — but I always knew that I could change my kids’ lives and I always wanted to do that.
“I didn’t have a kid until I was 20, but I knew that someday I would. I fight with so much passion because of that. That’s why I am who I am, so my kids will never have to go through the life I went through. That’s the reason I fight the way I fight.”
Critics will crucify Litzau if he is himself and stands and fights Juarez and gets knocked out. But this is who he is. He can no more change his spirit than he can the shape of his head or the color of his skin.
“The ‘American Boy’ comes to fight,” he said. “Make sure you put that in there.”
It is so noted. So too is the hope that, maybe this time, he boxes instead.
Some random observations from last week:
Who would have thought going into the Super Six tourney that betting favorites Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham would get their heads handed to them by Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell, a pair of under-achieving Americans? So much for European dominance at 168 pounds. If Joe Calzaghe weren’t stoned, he’d be deeply embarrassed. ÔÇª
I was convinced Dirrell would run so much from Abraham that he’d need new shoes by the fifth round. Instead, he stayed put and took advantage of Abraham’s inexplicably abysmal work rate. Abraham made Josh Clottey look like Ray Oliveira. ÔÇª
Still, I’m not entirely convinced Dirrell was as hurt as it appeared. It’s relatively rare that guys convulse on the canvas and then walk out of the ring. I think Dirrell took the opportunity Abraham presented him, even though, on my card at least, Abraham would have had to score 137 knockdowns in the last two rounds to win the decision. ÔÇª
I don’t know how much the weight made a difference in Joan Guzman’s win over Ali Funeka, but these two make good fights. How about a third meeting? ÔÇª
The form was so bad on both sides during Marcos Maidana’s knockout of Victor Cayo I thought I was watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. ÔÇª
Speaking of that fight, Maidana’s trainer, Miguel Diaz, was exactly right to tell Joe Cortez that it didn’t matter if Cortez allowed punches to Cayo’s beltline — the cup was so high it gave Cayo an unfair advantage (an argument to which Cortez offered no sensible retort). Maidana’s fight-ending uppercut to the gut was sweet justice. ÔÇª
According to The New York Post, which is the only metropolitan newspaper in the country written entirely in crayon, Teddy Atlas is spearheading the opening of a boxing gym in Brooklyn’s embattled East Flatbush section.
“We know we are not getting angels, we’re going to get a lot of kids with problems, but we see this as a chance to mold their lives in a positive way,” Atlas told the paper.
The Post also reports that Atlas is trying to save The Park Hill boxing program in Staten Island. Way to go, Teddy. Keep fighting the good fight. ÔÇª
To the writers calling on state commissions to ban Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones and Erik Morales: When the day comes that you can no longer string together coherent sentences or keep your participles from dangling hopelessly, I will support your right to keep writing, even if I don’t care to read you. Prizefighters deserve the same respect. ÔÇª
Just when you thought we were starting to run out of champions, along comes Jose Sulaiman to save the day. The first WBC World Silver Championship will be awarded to the winner of a fight between Cyril Thomas and Justin Savi in France.
According to the WBC’s website, the silver belt will “create unmatched excitement and a chance for boxers to achieve, winning a title with world recognition,” whatever that means.
Contacted for comment, Thomas and Savi reportedly said, “Vous avez le cervau d'un sandwich au fromage,” which, roughly translated, means “You have the brain of a cheese sandwich.”
I’m joking, of course. No one called Thomas or Savi. That will come later, after one of them wins the coveted WBC world silver championship.
What a business this is.
Bill Dettloff can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles every month in THE RING magazine.