Special report: Balancing school and hard knocks
Branden Pizarro was sitting with his eyes closed while propped in a corner of the congested, backstage area outside the blue dressing room of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino. The 17-year-old junior welterweight was trying to shut out the noise around him, swaying his head and tapping his right foot to the beats coming through his headphones, focusing on what he was about to do an hour later.
There was no sign of tension, no anxiety, just an easy calm.
That’s the way Pizarro fought in his third pro fight. He ended up winning that frigid February night, knocking out his opponent in the first round. Surrounded by back-slapping, cheering and hugging family members and friends, Pizarro was unwinding as one of his handlers pulled off his gloves and cut the tape from his hands. It was then that his other reality crept into his victory picture. Pizarro kiddingly jolted his head back – as if he had just taken a right uppercut – as he peered down at the real peril he’d eventually have to face.
Poking out of his gym bag, next to a pair of stained hand wraps, was the corner of a math book. Pizarro still had to study for an exam on Monday.
“It’s the life that I’ve chosen and the life that I lead,” Pizarro said. “If you want to be a professional fighter, especially when you’re my age, sacrifices have to be made. I wasn’t about to get lost on these Philly streets. It’s why I did what I did.”
What Pizarro did is what a number of teen-aged fighters are doing across the country – turning pro while they’re still in high school. THE RING interviewed three boxers who have experienced life as a boxer and a student, although only Pizarro (7-0, 3 knockouts) is still in high school. He just started his senior year. The other two, Brandun Lee, a welterweight from La Quinta, California, and Mykquan Williams, a junior welterweight from Hartford, Connecticut, graduated this past June. Here are their stories.
Williams was introduced to boxing through Addy Irizarry, a family friend who Williams, then 7, saw fight as an amateur. Through Irizarry, Williams met his eventual trainer, Paul Cichon. He turned pro when he was a junior at A.I. Prince Tech High School in Hartford.
When he was barely a week old, his father was murdered, a victim of gang violence. When he was in fourth grade, fire claimed the family home and everything in it.
Williams, however, always had boxing.
Five days after he signed with Jackie Kallen, the noted manager who represented James Toney in the early 1990s, Williams was fighting for money – and still going to school.
“I just didn’t think my style was beneficial in the amateurs, so I decided to go pro,” Williams (7-0, 4 KOs) said as he prepared for a fight scheduled for mid-September. “To be honest, I didn’t like some of the politics in the amateurs. I didn’t think the scoring system was fair. I think the judging was based more on who was busier, rather than who landed the more effective punches. That’s where most amateur losses came from, activity. I understood the decision, but it was still frustrating.”
After his last amateur fight, in the 152-pound finals of the Western New England Golden Gloves, Williams had had it. He thought he had won, but the decision didn’t go his way.
“I was walking out of the venue and Paul Cichon asked why I just didn’t turn pro,” Williams recalled. “There was nothing more for me to accomplish in the amateurs. The interesting thing is I signed my pro contract at my high school with Jackie. No one was starstruck by it, though. Everyone knew that I boxed, and people would joke around with me about it.”
Williams, who turned 19 in April, had a good reputation in high school, viewed more as a jokester than a jock, he says. Still, no one was foolish enough to challenge him. A typical school day was getting up around 6:30 a.m., getting to school by 7:30 a.m., leaving at 2:18 p.m. and routinely arriving at the gym by around 3 p.m. Training would wrap up roughly at 7:30 p.m. He would return home for dinner, do school work, go running and then go to bed. That’s pretty much the schedule all pros still in high school keep.
Williams has a promotional deal with Lou DiBella, who stages shows at Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Mashantucket, Connecticut, which is close to Williams’ home. What attracted DiBella’s keen eye was Williams’ speed and athletic ability. He trusts and respects Kallen’s opinion and he’s willing to be patient as Williams matures physically and psychologically.
“There are chances that you take when signing a fighter that young,” DiBella said. “In Mykquan’s case, I went by what Jackie told me about him. I trust and respect Jackie. She has a great eye for talent and marketability. I also like what I see from Mykquan. He’s grounded. We’re not rushing him. When a kid is still growing and his body is changing, and he’s changing as a human being, certain guys are able to fulfill high expectations; some other guys are not.
“It’s totally about the athlete and situation that you’re dealing with. Mykquan is not a kid who goes into the ring and gets into brawls; he’s an athlete and a boxer. Your chances vary for young kids starting so young, but honestly, they’re at a little more disadvantage sometimes. High school kids deal with a lot. Mykquan is fortunate because he has good people around him. He also has a good fan base at Foxwoods. We can continue building him and making him an attraction as he slowly climbs up the ranks.
“Here’s the other thing about high school kids that are fighting pro: It’s happening more because they don’t trust the fairness of international amateur boxing. A lot of these kids aren’t into rolling the dice in that amateur system that hasn’t been so good to them. You see guys getting ripped off, so there is an inclination to decide to turn pro. Mykquan is smart and he’s improving, and I think this is working well for him.”
Some of DiBella’s “Broadway Boxing” shows have been on Thursday nights. That meant a half day of school on Wednesday for an early-afternoon weigh-in and a full day off on Thursday, then back to school on Friday.
“My teachers were great, they allowed me to take work with me and worked with my schedule,” said Williams, who enrolled as a freshman in a local community college. “I do see more Olympic-level fighters turning pro in high school in this country. The Olympics are allowing pros (to compete) and I don’t think amateurs will be waiting around for the Olympics anymore. I’m pleased with the decision I made to turn pro in high school.”
Lee (5-0, 4 KOs) would be on a plane going cross-country for a fight – his head buried in a book – while other teenagers were playing video games on their phones or blaring music through their headsets. Like Pizarro and Williams, the 18-year-old graduate of La Quinta High School in the Southern California desert had to balance boxing and school.
Because the California State Athletic Commission doesn’t permit fighters under the age of 18 to fight professionally, Lee and his father, Bobby, had to trek all over the country to find fights before he became an adult. Brandun’s first five fights took place in Philadelphia (twice); Scottsdale, Arizona; Charlotte, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C. He had to get a special exemption to fight in Pennsylvania because he hadn’t turned 18.
That made it difficult to keep up with his studies, but he was accustomed to the lifestyle.
“I’ve been traveling since I was 8 in the amateurs,” said Brandun, who is a freshman at the College of the Desert in the Coachella Valley. “Because I was in high school and fighting professionally, I did have be more disciplined than what normal pros have to be. It’s challenging, but it’s also something that I have been doing all my life. I started boxing when I was 7. I love it.”
The grind of a professional boxer is far greater than that of a high school football or basketball player because fighters push limits year round. There were times when mental and physical demands got the better of Brandun, he admits, when he had to fight to keep his eyes open in math or science class.
“But I wouldn’t change anything, because I know the road I traveled is going to make me better,” Brandun said. “Once they decided to take off the head gear at the Olympics, my dad and I decided to make the move to the pros. Why fight the best of the best without any head gear and not get paid?”
Brandun signed with one of the most-established managers in boxing, Cameron Dunkin.
“Oscar De La Hoya and some other big-time promoters called several times, and I told them then that Brandun was only 15 years old,” Bobby Lee said. “Brandun was 17 when he turned pro. We traveled to different states and Cameron really took care of us and paid us very well. My choice was Cameron, because I wanted someone to take care of Brandun for a long, long time.
“It has been difficult, I will admit that, on Brandun, because his life has been going to school, coming home and then going train. He did his homework every minute he had to spare. He’s been doing that since he was 7. It’s paid off in the end. We’re being patient and Brandun is still working on his education. We have complete faith and trust in Cameron.”
K2 Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions have expressed interest in signing Brandun.
Ten days after turning 17, Pizarro, who will be entering his senior year at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Philadelphia, turned pro. As with Williams, Pizarro received what he believed were bad decisions as an amateur. And as with Lee, Pizarro felt it necessary to go pro with the head gear coming off at the amateur level.
Pizzaro also needed a special exemption to fight in Pennsylvania, which normally requires its boxers to be 18.
“Why fight for free without the head gear; it made no sense to me,” said Pizarro, who is a straight-A student at Swenson. “We went through the process in Pennsylvania … through the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and Greg Sirb (executive director of the PSAC) to file the paper work, because you need to be 18 to be a pro fighter in Pennsylvania. I spoke with my team about it and we made it happen.
“I was 13, 14, sparring pros here in Philly, like Victor Vasquez, Jason Sosa, and holding my own against them. That convinced me the pros would be much easier because you have more time (than as an amateur) to prepare and get your body right. In these amateur tournaments, you have to make weight five days straight. As a pro, I weigh in the day before the fight and I know who I am going to be fighting.”
Unlike Williams and Lee, a few kids tried to mess with Pizarro in his rough North Philly neighborhood even though they knew he was a fighter.
“Some kids will always think they can get you outside of your character,” Pizarro said. “But I kept walking, because I know what I could lose and what they have to lose. I shrug my shoulders and keep it pushing, because I have way too much to lose than they do. They would lose street cred. I could lose my career.
“I don’t like talking at all. I let my hands do all of the talking. I treat school like it’s a business. I do my job, which is the school work, and I get paid with my grades. I don’t play around like that. Once you start joking around with guys … you get pulled into something. I’ll crack jokes and stuff, but I’m a serious person and the kids I go to school with, they know that. If a kid tries to get stupid with me, I have enough good friends around me to take care of it.”
Pizarro was in one street fight when he was in eighth grade, at 14. The kid picked at Pizarro relentlessly before taking a swing at him, which wasn’t a good idea. Pizarro cut the kid up and that was that.
“I beat the kid up pretty bad, and he needed a few stitches, and he tried to apologize to me,” Pizarro said.
Pizzaro was raised by his father, Angel, since he was 8. The boy was devoted to his dad, which kept him on the straight and narrow.
“It was tough growing up,” he said. “We hit rock bottom. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment and there were days when I wouldn’t eat so he could eat, and vice versa. There were times I was so hungry that my head hurt. It’s when I told my dad that I would never leave his side. My father got mugged and they broke his arm. He was out of work on disability. We had nothing coming in. He told me to go and move in with my mom.
“I couldn’t leave my father. I had to learn to pay bills at 10-year-old. I was never outside. I never had a chance to really be a kid. I sometimes look at it in a good way, because a lot of kids from my area who I grew up with are doing nothing with their lives. They’re smoking, drinking, out in the streets. I had my father’s hand on my shoulder. That made me determined to make something out my life, to do whatever it is I have to do.”
Pizarro now helps his family with their bills from the money he makes boxing. He bought his older sister a car after she was in an accident. He helps his father maintain their house.
“I fight hungry; it’s why boxing literally means everything to me,” said Pizarro, who signed with Philadelphia’s Hard Hitting Promotions. “I’m 17 and support my family. I know I’m fighting for more than myself, and my family is in a way better position than we were a few years ago. If I got it, they got it.”
Suddenly balancing a regimented high school schedule and life as a pro fighter doesn’t seem so daunting.