The classical Greek bronze, Boxer at Rest, dates to at least 50 BC, and attests to the ancient challenge, and beauty, of boxing. The work of art, says Newton’s Marc Gargaro, “resonates” in his role as assistant coach of USA Boxing.
“I always say, you’re making a sculpture,” Gargaro said. “You’ve got a big block of granite. You have to cut off big chunks, make it a good shape, then chisel it. You can always do a little more. Grind more, shape better, detail more. You’re never done as an artist. That’s how I look at it as a coach.”
Gargaro’s love of art is seen in the acrylic murals — of boxers Joe DeNucci and Willie Pep — he painted and hung on the walls of his Nonantum Boxing Club. Now, with the Summer Olympics approaching, USA Boxing’s newest creation, with Gargaro’s input, is about to be unveiled. Nine Americans — four women and five men — have qualified, under ad hoc pandemic guidelines. They will seek to restore US boxing to its lost glory.
In the not-too-distant past Americans dominated Olympic boxing. Cassius Clay (1960), Joe Frazier (1964), George Foreman (1968), Ray Leonard (1976) and Pernell Whitaker (1984) were iconic gold medalists. Americans won five golds, a silver and a bronze in 1976, and nine golds, a silver and bronze in 1984. Then the program fell behind, and Andre Ward won the last men’s gold in 2004. In 2012 the men were shut out while Claressa Shields won gold and Marlen Esparza bronze in the first Olympics with women’s boxing.
“It’s been lackluster,” said Gargaro, 42. “That’s partly on the administrators for not getting the boxers international work. It’s partly on the boxers for turning pro too quickly, for the quick bucks. We’re trying to change that culture, to get them to stick around longer.”
As USA Boxing foundered Gargaro’s career took shape. Growing up in Newton, he boxed at Boys & Girls Club, inspired by a local patriarch, the late Joe DeNucci, whose career as a pro middleweight preceded his 24 years as Massachusetts state auditor. Gargaro worked in the auditor’s office and fought as an amateur heavyweight before he and a cousin, Nathan Busa, started a boxing club in a basement in 2004.
Participation grew and the Nonantum Boxing Club moved into a former factory building at 75 Adams St. in 2008. Gargaro tutored several national-level amateurs and served as New England’s coach at the nationals.
USA Boxing began a rebuild in 2015 with the hiring of Ireland’s Billy Walsh as head coach. Three Americans medaled at the 2016 Olympics, with only Shields winning gold, and subsequently turned pro. In 2017 Gargaro applied and was hired by Walsh to be an assistant coach.
“He was young and enthusiastic and energetic,” Walsh recalled. “You could see he had boxed, and was a quick adapter, and was able to deliver skill sets to athletes.”
Gargaro began to work with America’s elite amateurs, such as Lynn’s Rashida Ellis, and to travel to international tournaments. In 2018 he went to Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, India, Spain and Siberia. Along the way he earned the respect of his boxers and fellow coaches.
“You can’t teach people goodness and warmth and being a team player — his personality is exceptional,” Walsh said. “Marc is able to mix being a friend and a disciplinarian, and that’s not an easy thing. He’s grown so much in four years he’s now a key part of our performance team.”
Says Arika Skoog, who trains under Gargaro and won a 152-pound national title in April: “Marc treats all of his fighters differently but in a good way. He knows what we need individually. He knows technique and foundational things, but also about getting into our heads, whether to be humbled or pushed more. A coach who can connect on that level is a great coach.”
Gargaro describes his approach as “flexible” to suit the talent and temperament of each boxer. Asked what boxers need from a coach, Gargaro said, “It’s a gladiator sport, and there are things you might not see in the ring, because you’re too caught up in your fight. You need perspective. Outside the ring it’s lonely, with all the training. Having a coach as a mentor, for the mental part, is a huge thing.”
The pandemic took a toll on Gargaro. He suffered a mild case of COVID and had to shut down his club for several months in 2020. Competition in New England was canceled for more than a year. An upside was that he got more time at home with his wife, Christine, and two young children. But the one-year Olympics postponement has cost him precious family time in 2021 — he went to the Colorado Springs training site in early June and won’t return home until the Games conclude in August.
“You can’t ask for anything better than to do what you love every day, but last year was terrible,” Gargaro said. “When the Tokyo Games were postponed that was a dagger in the heart. My wife said, ‘You done traveling yet?’ I said, ‘Nope, one more year.’ A lot of things got shook up. It was stressful.”
Now as the pandemic recedes and Tokyo lies ahead, Gargaro believes the Americans can medal if they play to international judges, who favor boxers who “are bouncier on their toes” and who throw “longer faster punches.”
For his part, Gargaro will do his Michaelangelo thing.
“My job at the elite level is fine tuning,” Gargaro said. “There’s always a little polishing to be done. Sometimes that’s the difference between a gold medal and silver.”