Eight decades on, NJ Golden Gloves keeps fight alive for state bragging rights
PATERSON, NJ — The line reached down the winding staircase leading up to the main gymnasium of the True Warriors Boxing Club. Approximately 300 people were inside already by the time the first bout started on opening night Saturday, and regulations dictated that some exited before more could be admitted.
Pro boxing may be nonexistent in North Jersey over the past several years, but at $20 a head, the New Jersey Golden Gloves can still draw a crowd.
Nerves were in the air as fighters stepped between the ropes, many competing for the first time ever (sub novice is limited to those with a maximum of two fights). The excitement of the moment gave way to exhaustion. As fatigue set in, skill and craft subsided, and the will to win became the greatest determining factor in victory.
There were a couple blowouts, like the power-punching display that propelled the unattached Mike Pacheco to score two standing eight counts against Christopher Grieco and an RSC (referee stops contest) in their 152-pound bout, but the majority of bouts – eight of eleven – ended in split decisions after their three-round, two-minute contests.
The action was reminiscent of the club fights of long ago, when representatives from different cities battled weekly at venues that have long since been razed. On the other side of the 152-pound bracket, Jeremy Guevara of Doxing Boxing Club and Pedro Diaz Jr. of the Southpaw Gym in Neptune City, battled it out for three contentious rounds. Just when it appeared that Diaz had Guevara in trouble against the ropes, Guevara exploded out with a left hook that rocked Diaz and brought cheers from his supporters. Seconds later Guevara went down for a count, but came back to win a decision.
Wild opening round: Jeremy Guevara (Blue) and Pedro Diaz (Red) trade punches in their 152-pound sub novice match in the NJ Golden Gloves. Guevara went down, but came back to win a split decision in Paterson, NJ. @NJGoldenGloves_ pic.twitter.com/EOZTJ1CNjR
— Ryan Songalia (@ryansongalia) February 25, 2019
The sub novice and novice classes are in double elimination format, NJ Golden Gloves director Jose Rosario says, to show the fighters that there are second chances in life.
“I have kids that lost the first night of the Golden Gloves in previous years, and they come back and win the whole tournament,” said Rosario.
Viewed as a fistic rite of passage since 1938, the tournament had long been the little cousin to the more famous New York Golden Gloves across the Hudson River. But since the NY Gloves were “postponed until further notice” in 2018, and then subsequently replaced by the Ring Masters Championships which launched a couple of weeks ago, the urgency to keep one of the country’s longest running competitions alive has heightened.
“It’s just a tradition that we try to continue,” said Rosario. “Our main concern is trying to help these kids in the street and trying to get them a better life.”
Rosario, who won the NJ Golden Gloves five times at 106 pounds, and then won the National Golden Gloves in 1982, was one of the state’s greatest amateur boxers ever, and narrowly missed out on making the 1984 U.S. Olympic squad after a pair of disputed losses to eventual gold medalist Paul Gonzales, according to his bio in the NJ Boxing Hall of Fame. A pro career was derailed by a car accident shortly after, and he instead turned his attention to training fighters.
His “real job” was as a supervisor at the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center, a career he recently retired from after 29 years. He has seen firsthand how having a positive adult influence can steer at-risk youth away from destructive behavior, and how boxing gyms offer the sort of discipline and guidance that they may not find elsewhere.
“I just put my time the same way somebody put time to get me on the right way,” said Rosario, who runs the tournament alongside NJ Gloves president Dan Doyle. “You’re not gonna save them all but if you save the majority of them, then I’m doing my job.”
In the eleven years Rosario has been the director of the NJ Golden Gloves, the state has produced seven different National Golden Gloves champions. Prior to Rosario’s tenure, there had only been six titles won between 1958 and 2005, when Jeremy Bryan went back-to-back as 141-pound champion.
Evidence of boxing’s ability to turn around young people’s lives can be seen in Mike Hilton, a resident of East Trenton who had been a “five star general” in the Bloods gang, who had been arrested on drugs and weapons charges and had lost his friends to the streets. Boxing gave him an outlet for his aggression, he says, and in 2015, Hilton won the National Gloves in the 201-pound division. Now the 32-year-old has a 9-0 (7 knockouts) record as a professional since turning pro in 2016.
“Boxing, it really helped me out in so many ways as far as leaving that lifestyle alone,” Hilton said in an interview with Rider University TV.
Operating as NJ Golden Gloves Partners, the tournament obtained tax-exempt non-profit status in 2018, with all proceeds from the event going towards the $35,000 to $40,000 in anticipated expenses to bring the open class champions and team totaling 60 people to the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. Without major sponsors, and limited media mileage, entrance fees and t-shirt sales go a long way to subsidize meals, uniforms and accommodations costs.
During the NJ Gloves’ heyday of the 70s and 80s, Rosario says about 500 fighters used to enroll in the tournament, with 24 fights scheduled for each night. This year he estimates that about 275 from 56 gyms have signed up, continuing a pattern of decline.
But for fighters like Semaj Diggs, a 21-year-old warehouse worker from Willingboro, the opportunity to fight has been one he’s waited for since he first wrapped his hands at age 13. Diggs, who boxes out of Hamilton Township’s Primal Gym, began taking the sport more seriously three years ago, and says he had to tune out the crowd noise and the butterflies en route to winning a split decision over Austin Dewise of the Middletown PAL.
“I don’t believe anyone can stop me right now,” said Diggs, who competes in the 201+ heavyweight class. “I’m consistent and I’m dedicated right now.”
The Gloves continue weekly, with the next two shows set for March 2 and March 9 at True Warriors Boxing in Paterson, followed by March 16 at Ace’s Boxing Club in Boonton; March 23 at Aldersgate U.M. Church in East Brunswick; March 30 at Waterfront Rec. Center in Newark; April 6 at Linden High School; and April 13 at Hackensack High School. The novice class finals take place April 26 at Union County Performing Arts Center with the open class finals taking place the next night at the same venue. All shows begin at 7:30 PM, except for March 30 which starts at 1.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].