This past weekend I had the unique pleasure of competing in the Sugar Bert National Boxing Championships in Kissimmee, Florida. This amateur boxing event was the last competition of the year and included age brackets from 8 to 80 years old. I fell into the men’s 178 lb Masters division. The Masters division is for those of us considered to be the “old men and women” of the sport, you know, mid 30’s and up!
I decided to start training for this event in May after hearing that my colleague, also a boxing photographer, Lester Silva, was considering the challenge. I set out to lose weight and drop below the 190 lbs I was carrying at the time.
My regimen included rowing eating healthier, getting as much cardio exercise on a Concept 2 ERG at Fit2Row, located in downtown Orlando . After four months, I moved onto Lopez Boxing Gym near the Orlando International Airport. I had been to the gym before to photograph Top Rank pro Jean “Chapito” Rivera, and the owners Alex and Millie Lopez were more than accommodating in helping me on my venture. The gym allowed me and my sons to go as often as we could make it, which was on average five times each week.
The coaches at Lopez, as well as the training boxers taught me what I needed to know; proper footwork, cardio, punch combinations and defense. The weight started to melt off and my strength started to increase over the months.
Regulations for the event stated that I first needed to become a member of USA Boxing, the main organization in the US for amateur fighters. I joined for $75 and sent in my photo. I was now a member with Masters status. To now compete was a harder step, I first had to get cleared with a physical and EKG stress test. This is where I would have EKG pads placed on my chest and I would be forced to run on a treadmill to see how strong my heart was. It took a month to get the test scheduled and I passed with flying colors, mostly because I had been running daily a minimum of 2 miles for the past 6 months. The form was signed off by my doctor and I was now able to register for my first Masters event, at the ripe old age of 50.
When you study the sport and search for videos of the Masters events across the country, you get to see the different aspects and styles of the fighters. Some of these boxers were really tough, while others seemed slower or not as strong, but let me tell you, it takes guts to even attempt to climb into the squared circle. I had to do it.
I signed up for the event and told coach Lopez that I was in. I had only sparred once, with a young kid from the gym named Isaac. He was as fast as a squirrel and hard to catch. He taught me defense, head movement, and how to chase what I couldn’t catch, he was the ideal sparring partner.
Months of hard work had gone into my training, I would lose average 4 lbs. a day and my strength and timing were so much better than the previous months. It was easier to breathe and my sessions were getting easier, that was until Lopez brought out the mitts. The mitts are hand pads that Coach uses to catch your punch combinations. He would make me memorize each punch based on a numbers system, and then throw the combos of the numbers he called out. He would not only make me throw, but taught me how to position my body better and play defense when he would throw back at me.
His decades of pro training experience was essential to me in gaining the confidence to attempt this sport, I will be forever grateful to him and his team.
Twenty pounds later and I was hovering at the 170 lb mark. I was trying to make the 165 lb. bracket, but after getting down that low I did not feel as strong, and that was a concern.
Arriving at the venue in Kissimmee on November 16th, my sons and I went to check in, I weighed 167.1. I was among hundreds of other boxers that would fight that weekend, and the atmosphere seemed like a small Las Vegas during fight week there. There was a buzz and it was fun to see each team dressed in their “colors”, from 32 different states and a few other countries.
The brackets were chosen and fighters matched up, my go time was set for Saturday.
I slept 4 hours on Friday night, I felt exhausted, mentally and physically. I was in a hotel, the temperature was fine, my stomach wasn’t too hungry and I was wide awake at 4am, never to fall back to sleep.
Weigh ins were at 8am and there were one hundred fighters in line when I arrived. I stood for about 45 minutes before I made it to the scale where I weighed in at 168.1, well below the 178 novice weight class that I was now a part of. The boys and I were feeling anxious but hungry so we went to IHOP for scrambled eggs and toast. We returned for the 10am medical check that is required every day of the tournament. I passed, but with an elevated blood pressure. The doctor said that I was within the allowed range, but at the high end, obviously, I was nervous. I would be fighting a person that I had absolutely no knowledge of, but for now,it was time to go back to the room to rest.
Who can rest when you know you are about to fight? Nobody.
The afternoon dragged on, I was bout number 36 in ring number 1 of 2. The venue itself was ideal, the spectators could watch from chairs on the floor and the action was intense. Winners were already being awarded in each age division and the professional Green World Boxing Championship belts looked amazing. I truly coveted one, but could I win it?
Many hours later my nerves would calm slightly as I was informed that my competition for the afternoon had failed his medical check. His blood pressure was simply too high to compete, he was struck from the bout and I would not be competing on Saturday. …….I was confused about my feelings, I had psyched myself up so much to throw hands only to be told it wouldn’t happen, it drained me instantly. I knew I was moved up a bracket automatically due to this disqualification, a.k.a. walkover, but it still was mentally taxing for me and all the people who came to support me. The boys and I left to eat with my friends Ed and Angela Diller and Lester. It would be an even longer night.
Upon returning to the hotel, I was full, mentally drained and excited for the next day’s bout. I was given a walkover into a championship bout, I would now be fighting one on one for that beautiful belt, and recognition.
I slept 3 hours.
Sunday morning was almost identical to Saturday. I woke in bed, laid there wide awake for hours, got up, ate, weighed in and then sat over an hour to find out I once again barely made the high blood pressure check.
The best news was that I was fighting in bout 5 out of 40. I was early in the day’s competition and I was so ready to win! The next 2 hours seemed like they passed in 10 minutes time.
Lester coordinated a fantastic team to help me in my corner since I was lacking Coach Lopez who wasn’t able to attend. Eddie Ramirez wrapped my hands with such perfection it was astonishing. He calmed me as he wrapped the gauze and helped me settle my nerves, we laughed, and I must admit I felt like Mike Tyson after my hands were done so well, how could I lose?
Pro trainer Derik Santos stepped in and said it was almost time. He guided me through the process of what to expect in the next 15 minutes and showed me a few moves to try in my three rounds. We spoke about combos, head movement, and what to expect between rounds. Surprisingly, I honestly could not have been more relaxed prior to my bout.
We checked in to the glove table, showed my mouthpiece, headgear and groin protector and were then handed the blue 16 oz Title gloves.
Walking to the ring, the butterflies reappeared as NBA President, Damon Gonzalez, longtime friend Ricky, my brother, Dion and his girlfriend Michelle cheered for me. My boys had video cameras and FaceTimed with my girlfriend, Terra and her kids, and the livestream was also on the Sugar Bert website being livestreamed to the world. It was on, months of training had concluded, and it was go-time!
I stepped through the ropes and was staring across the ring at my competition, damn was he HUGE! I was the smallest person in the category, he was surely the largest, in height and arm reach. I don’t much remember much after that. The referee called us to the middle, instructed us to listen to him exclusively and touch gloves. We did.
The bell that the arena uses is not the typical bell sound that rings, it was more of an electric screech……I paused a second as it signaled to begin the bout.
When my feet decided to run toward the center of the oversized ring, I looked up and saw a BULL in a red shirt charging me, Willard Shepard had come to fight.
My instincts kicked in and I threw a left jab squarely at him, connecting with his cheek, he stopped and I started again throwing punches. The nerves were no longer there, instantly I was thrust back in the Lopez Gym and Coach was yelling instructions to me. I squared up, moved my feet, ducked my head and threw forcefully, connecting multiple times. The bull fell about 25 seconds into round 1, it was called a slip and he immediately popped back up. We continued in our battle.
Once I returned to my stool, Derik told me to breathe and he told me to continue exactly as we had originally planned only minutes earlier, and had already proved to be working.
Honestly most of the fight was a blur, my helmet twisted after getting hit a few times, covering my eyes, but I still connected, the Vaseline got in my eye, I connected, I got walloped in the nose, it hurt, I connected, I put my guard up, I connected, I moved around the ring, circling, I connected. I was forcefully pushed into a corner and beaten, I was caught by a random shoulder to the teeth, I still connected. It continued like this through round 2.
Round three eventually ended, much in the same manner, and it was then that the crowd noise entered my ears….it was damn loud in there. My corner told me I won every round, my brother screamed “Champion” and my boys Blaze and Zane were over the moon, I had apparently survived! Terra was on the iPhone beaming, as I’ve been told!
The judges turned the scorecards in and it was now time for the official decision. I could not understand one word the announcer said as it was that loud in the arena. My hand was forced up by the referee, the blue corner had won all three rounds!
I was handed the green belt and a medal, and the title of Champ. Willard Shepard hugged me and I smiled, however I must admit that I still feel bad about not telling him thank you for showing up to fight. “MR SHEPARD, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are a true warrior and it was a pleasure to share the ring time with you. I hope to see you again and you should also be proud of what you accomplished!”
Photographers Alex Nunez, Ed Diller, and Lester Silva snapped as many photos as they could as I exited the ring and I will be forever grateful to them for capturing this milestone. Damon Gonzalez, so many thanks to you for everything you did.
I could thank so many people here, but I would surely not be able to name them all, you know who you are and I will never forget this once in a lifetime experience. I should mention Marty Hill, Nelson Lopez and Bert Wells as well as all of the volunteers who ran the event, as well as coaches and officials.
I worked extra hours, day in and out with my boys and so many others. I am now a 178 lb Masters Champion and I will represent Sugar Bert Boxing as the utmost professional. I cannot wait to do this again, after I eat heavy at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who knows, maybe I will drop down to 165?
Story: Alex Menendez
Photos: Lester Silva, Ed Diller, Alex Nunez