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Boxing Day

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Trainer Jimmy Cvetic stood with Damion Kock in his corner. "He's a hurt fighter, but a hurt fighter is a dangerous fighter," he warned the young boxer.

Cvetic waved off water and a stool from the other cornermen. Then he got out of the ring, the bell rung and Kock finished his three-round fight against Richard Brooks, of Homestead's Steel Valley Boxing, earning a victory on points.

The bout was one of eight amateur matches that took place on Dec. 20, in Bloomfield's second annual Little Italy Christmas Boxing Event. The Saturday fights were part of a quintessentially Pittsburgh day. With the temperature hovering below freezing outside, patrons gathered inside to watch a line-up of mostly kids go at it in the ring.

It was a celebration of a place (Bloomfield) and a sport (boxing), both steeped in nostalgia. "This is straight out of the late '50s, early '60s," said James Leone, of the South Hills. "It's the American dream revived. It's wholesome; it's the way the sport was designed."

The blanket noise of audience chatter, the drumming of gloves into padded mitts, the hot dogs, the hot chocolate, the labor leaders at ringside -- "This is a slice of Americana that you rarely find," Duquesne Law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick agreed.

It was amateur fighting in an empty warehouse, the old Roth Carpet building, where the sink in the men's room was inoperable and wrapped in plastic and the front windows looked out across Liberty Avenue to Johnny Unitas Field.

"We're trying to put amateur boxing back on the map for Pittsburgh," said Marco Machi, owner of the nearby Exercise Warehouse.

Though interest has lagged in recent years, Pittsburgh has a legacy of boxing to fall back on. The original Pittsburgh Kid, Billy Conn, held the world light-heavyweight title in the late 1930s and early '40s, before taking on heavyweight champion Joe Louis in a classic 1941 fight. Even before that, Pittsburgh's Harry Greb -- the Human Windmill -- was world middleweight champion from 1923 to 1926.

More recently, McKees Rocks' Paul Spadafora started fighting his way up the ranks in the '90s, even claiming a world title, until -- as ESPN's Joe Tessitore put it in a column -- "his career was interrupted by enough personal problems to fill a month of Dr. Phil episodes." Included in these troubles was an arrest for shooting his girlfriend while drunk in 2003.

"Spadafora left the scene and so did our ESPN cameras," Tessitore wrote.

But there are signs of a resurgence. Tessitore's column last January -- titled, "Move over, football: Boxing is back in Pittsburgh" -- previewed a February match between Rankin's Monty Meza-Clay and International Boxing Federation champ Eric Aiken, a fight which Meza-Clay won.

And on the amateur level, "Boxing is better than ever in Pennsylvania right now," maintained tux-sporting ring announcer Mike Farnan, at the Dec. 20 fights. "Kids are coming back to the gym. They understand the perils of the street."

On Dec. 20, most of the fighters were too young to drink. Many were too young to smoke. In the afternoon's first fight, 80-pounder Shawn Cusick picked up a decision by points over Terrell Farley.

In the second fight, 112-pounder Aaron Cimino defeated John Graziano, earning the Fighter of the Evening award in the process.

"These are good kids," said Farnan, who lives in Bloomfield and owns several bars. "These are the kids people should be writing about."

In the third fight, Cody Smith bested Mike Scott when the referee stopped the fight. Carter Cherry won a decision against Calvin Taylor in the fourth match.

Using his height and a double-jab, 15-year-old Derick Smail beat A.J. Usner in the fifth fight. "He was tall, and he even had power," Usner said after the fight.

"The one thing [boxing] does for these young kids, it gives them a good sense of discipline," said City Controller Mike Lamb, who sponsored a local Silver Gloves tournament in the same building on Dec. 5-7.

The Silver Gloves event raised enough money to send 15 boxers to the regional tournament, according to promoters. "A lot of guys I knew growing up were active in boxing," Lamb added. "This is like the old school."

Linking yourself to the old school, in a city that is constantly trying to shake its senior-citizen brand, might sound odd -- but for Karla Owens it makes perfect sense.

"Bloomfield has second-, third-generation homes and business," says Owens, the Mainstreets manager of the Bloomfield Business Association. "You don't see that in the Southside Works."

After the Kock-Brooks fight, Tiree Mitchell defeated Hugo Garcia by decision in the day's penultimate match. In the final fight, Sir John Withrow beat Mike Wilt by points in the afternoon's only 150 lb. open-class match.

The Christmas fights raised money for Bloomfield's Immaculate Conception Church -- and gave boxing fans a needed retreat from some more tedious holiday traditions.

"It's a great event," said attorney and self-described "second-string announcer" Domenic Bellisario. "People are tired of Christmas shopping. They want to enjoy themselves."

Some supporters contend that the charitable spirit didn't stop there.

"Where would these kids be if they weren't here today?" says Lawrenceville's Ray Halyak, gesturing to the youth in the audience as well as in the ring. "They'd be on the corner."

Instead, he says, "Everybody promotes everybody, to make it a better community."

With Bloomfield boosters handing out business directories, the community itself got in on the promotion game as well.

"It's just a nice neighborhood," says Cvetic, owner of Downtown's Third Avenue Gym and trainer for the Police Athletic League, who grew up in the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville area. It's also a prime setting for a boxing revival because, "when you think of Italian, you think of Bloomfield. When you mention boxing, at one time the Italians ruled. Nobody beat them."

Bloomfield already uses its Italian roots to support business, through street décor and the annual Little Italy Days celebration. That also gives them a head start in boxing promotion, Cvetic argues.

"Everybody that's in boxing, any trainer, any gym," he says, "we've been hunting for the Rocky Marciano," the Italian-American boxer who, at 49-0, was (and still is) the only heavyweight champ ever to retire undefeated. "That's the unbreakable record. ... When you tag it, it has the Italian flag on it."

Cvetic, a frequent promoter of local boxing, can give you a long list of Pittsburgh up-and-comers or former boxers who've hit various levels of big-time success. But it was the Christmas event's kick-off bout -- a staged match between Machi and former pro boxer Joe Laquatra -- that seemed to give him the greatest joy. Playing it up for laughs, and with Santa Claus at ringside, Machi flopped in less than a minute. Laquatra retreated to his corner with a smile on his face.

"These guys have given so often in their lives," Cvetic said days before the fight. "These guys have always got my kids jobs, [even though] some of my kids didn't even know how to lean on a broom right.

"They're the kind of guys you want to meet in life."

Richard Brooks, left, and Damion Kock exchange blows at the second annual Little Italy Christmas Boxing event in Bloomfield. - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • Richard Brooks, left, and Damion Kock exchange blows at the second annual Little Italy Christmas Boxing event in Bloomfield.

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