Boston was once one of the great boxing towns in America. Could it be again?
Ryan Kielczweski was 6 years old when his father handed him a pair of boxing gloves and pulled the ropes apart so he could climb into the ring at the Muni, a sweaty, claustrophobic old gym in South Boston.
It felt like magic, like walking into Fenway Park with his dad for the first time, the colors, the smells, the sounds seared into his brain.
Mark DeLuca Jr. beat Kielczweski to the punch. He was 3 years old when his father, a boxer of considerable skill, gave him his first pair of gloves.
In some ways, DeLuca, 30, and Kielczweski, 29, were born to box, the love of the sport passed down to them like DNA, and that’s why they’re still at it. This despite mounting evidence that repeated blows to the head — the stock in trade of boxers — can cause life-altering damage. And despite the rise of mixed martial arts as a spectator draw, siphoning off much of the money and attention once lavished on boxing.
“Boxing is more than a sport,” DeLuca said, sitting on a folding chair at a gym in Braintree. “It’s a lifestyle.”
On Saturday night at TD Garden, DeLuca and Kielczweski will take part in the most ambitious boxing card in Boston in a generation. At stake are no fewer than three world titles — and also the question of whether Boston, once considered one of the great boxing towns in America, is prepared to resume its embrace of a blood sport that is fighting for its life, and for relevance, in these times.
There is an emerging effort underway to make that happen, by bringing local money and enthusiasm to bear. Success, however, is far from certain.
Boston can trace its boxing pedigree back to the 19th century, as the city and its surrounding communities produced champions the likes of John L. Sullivan from Roxbury, right through the 20th century with Tony DeMarco from the North End and Paul Pender from Brookline, and more recently Dana Rosenblatt from Malden and John Ruiz from Chelsea.
When you throw in Brockton — Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler — and Lowell, home to the legendary Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament and the irrepressible light welterweight Micky Ward, the Boston area always punched well above its weight when it came to producing champion boxers and a thriving boxing culture.
Much of that luster dimmed in more recent years, the casualty of a combination of medical science and cultural shifts.
The emerging evidence, much of it produced at Boston University, of how repeated blows to the head can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, has made the pursuit of boxing a more obviously risky career choice.
Meanwhile, mixed martial arts, in the form of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, headed by Boston native Dana White, has sucked up much of the money and attention formerly associated with boxing. HBO, which for a half-century was boxing’s biggest promoter, last month announced it would drop its boxing coverage entirely at the end of the year.
But for those who consider boxing as ingrained and essential to American culture as jazz or baseball, bringing the sport back to Boston in a big way is something of a vocation or a cause, inspired more by passion than money.
Still, you can’t do anything without money, and Ken Casey, leader of the Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys, is putting his money where his mouth is, convinced that Boston can regain its stature as a boxing mecca. Casey is among the promoters who have put together Saturday night’s boxing show at the Garden. Casey’s group, Murphys Boxing, is working with Matchroom Boxing, which made its name promoting fights in the United Kingdom, and they hope the Boston event is the first of many.
The question is, will enough people care enough to pay anywhere between $40 and $80 a seat and, more importantly, to keep coming back? Without getting into specific numbers, Casey said advance sales, including the $200 floor seats, have been good, especially given that the Red Sox playoff run is eating up so much of the oxygen of publicity.
But it has not been all smooth sailing. Casey said when they tried to put up a poster promoting the fight show at a local gym where women use boxing regimens to work out, they were shooed away.
Maybe they should have had Katie Taylor put the poster up.
One of the title bouts pits Taylor, an Olympic, European, and World champion as an amateur, defending her professional lightweight title against Cindy Serrano, a Puerto Rican boxer with more than three times as many professional fights.
Taylor is a native of Ireland now living and training in Vernon, Conn. She is hoping to follow in the footsteps not of Conor MacGregor, the Irishman who has become a multimillionaire and international megastar as the face of UFC, but of Steve Collins, an Irish boxer who became a champion after moving from Ireland to Boston. Serrano, meanwhile, says this is her last boxing match and hopes to focus on mixed martial arts.
Taylor acknowledges that more money and media attention seems focused on UFC, but she has resisted the lure.
“Boxing is a more noble sport,” she says.
That is a theme that resonates with many boxers.
DeLuca, a former Marine who grew up in Whitman, and Kielczweski, who grew up in Quincy, wince at the disrespect some UFC fighters show their opponents. They consider boxing more a brotherhood, and increasingly a sisterhood, as more women get involved. DeLuca’s rematch with Walter Wright on Saturday is being billed as one of several involving first responders, including Danny O’Connor, a Framingham firefighter, and Niall Kennedy, a police officer in Ireland.
Kielczweski knows that CTE is an occupational hazard. Asked whether he thinks about it, he replied, “Every day.”
But both he and DeLuca said the sport takes the risk of head injuries more seriously than most, including football.
“The guys that stick to boxing, no drugs and drinking, they do OK,” DeLuca said. “You mix the two, it’s a deadly combination.”
Kielczweski has 30 pro fights under his belt. While there is more money in UFC, he has resisted the siren call.
“I’d rather risk long term brain damage than getting dropped on my head and kicked in the face,” he said of UFC, where they like to say the only rule is that there are no rules.
Casey acknowledges that some see the effort to restore boxing’s luster in Boston as quixotic. But he believes boxing is so inextricably rooted in American culture, especially in its films, that there is an untapped demand for it, that the main challenge is packaging and marketing it correctly.
Still, the question hovered: Would you encourage your own kid to do it?
“I’d rather have them play guitar or wrestle,” DeLuca said.
“When I’m 65, and I don’t have a pension, my kid’s going to have to take care of me,” Kielczweski said.
Casey is more sanguine. He draws a hopeful lesson from the two worlds he now straddles, of music and boxing. With both, the draw is passion.
“I’ve seen the pitfalls of the music industry,” he said. “There are so many similarities between boxing and music, the way they are promoted. But also the way people love it. If you love music, you want to be involved in it the rest of your life. If you love boxing, it’s the same.”