If boxing still packed just 1 percent of the punch of Al Valenti’s undying love of the sweet science, we would rush home from work on Friday nights, gather ’round our Victrolas, and rip off a rapid series of shadow punches as we imagined the fury of two behemoths clashing in some smoke-filled arena in Detroit, Chicago, or Philadelphia.
“Let me ask you this,” Valenti mused the other day, “if boxing’s dead, then why do we have 35,000 amateur boxers in the United States? By the way, 4,000 of them are women. Why do we have 11,000 coaches and trainers and refs and volunteers . . . and 2,100 boxing clubs? Why are there 1,600 amateur boxing events a year in the US?”
Impressive data, for sure. For those of us living the sheltered life in Pleasantville, USA, it’s easy to ignore the fact that we still have legions of kids and young adults across the nation pulling on gloves, climbing in rings, willing to risk getting smacked in the face for a chance to get smacked in the face again.
They do this for many different reasons. Some just want to get off the streets for an hour or two, because the prospect of a broken nose is less painful than the reality of what awaits them outside the gym doors. Some seek safe haven from the paralyzing punch of unremitting emotional pain. Some have an Olympic dream. Some want to be the next Floyd Mayweather Jr., with all the cars, jewelry, and cash, bags and bags of cash, and enough baggage to fill a 100-car freight train.
Others simply like the sport for the sake of the sport. Or the coach. Or the trainer. Or the camaraderie built around what it takes to stand, fists raised, alone in the middle of a patch of canvas. Better, they find out, to be dragged out by the feet in failure than to bolt through the ropes in fear.
Valenti, 67, has been promoting the fight game in Boston for more than 30 years. It has been a family business dating back nearly a century, started by his grandfather Rip in the 1920s. Al’s dad Fred also ran it for decades. Al, who spent a very brief time at Saint John’s Seminary, pondering a life in a Roman collar instead of a gym, finally bought in with both gloves in 1986.
“The priest thing, I never felt the calling, I guess you’d say,” said Valenti, a 1969 graduate of Dom Savio High in Eastie, where the school motto was, “Death Rather Than Sin.” “But in ’86, I got the call . . . and it was from Bob Arum.”
One of the sport’s greatest promoters, Arum called that day because Rip had just died and Arum wanted Al to “pick up the pieces” and promote an upcoming fight between “Irish” Micky Ward and “Rapid” John Rafuse.
“We held it at the Lowell Auditorium,” recalled Valenti. “Great fight. The place was packed and I made $5,000. Amazing. I was hooked.”
Some 30-plus years gone by, the fight game and its promotion greatly changed, Valenti’s next Boston gig is about to unfold. In tandem with USA Boxing, which is Valenti’s main devotion these days, he is bringing what sounds like half of Ireland here to the Hub of Hardknocks.
On March 12, many of the best amateur fighters in Ireland, men and women, will take on some of the top US amateurs at the intimate Royale Entertainment Complex in the Theatre District.
It’s stop No. 1 in the “USA vs. Ireland Northeast Boxing Tour” that also will include exhibitions in Springfield (March 15) and Manchester, N.H. (March 21). Tickets for the Boston stop, at $20 and $30 apiece, can be purchased at royaleboston.com.
There will be 11 or 12 bouts at each stop, with the men fighting three three-minute rounds and the women going four two-minute rounds. The Royale is the former Roxy, its dance floor once the main attraction. For one night, it will give way to real footwork.
“The leprechauns are on their way,” said an admiring Valenti, convinced that some of the Irish and USA fighters here ultimately will continue on to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. “And good timing, right . . . right around St. Patrick’s Day? But probably a good thing they won’t be here by the 17th. That’s a Saturday. So the parties will begin Friday night, and I mean, there’s only so much beer in the city, right?”
Valenti, 67, has been promoting the fight game in Boston for more than 30 years.
Valenti, who grew up in Medford, moved to Maine about 10 years ago.
“Yeah, cleaner air,” he said, with a touch of melancholy, “and cheaper lobster.”
For decades, the Valentis ran their cozy promotions office just across from the Garden, be it on Friend Street, beginning in the 1930s, and later on Canal Street (1968-2004). It was an area full of screeching subway cars, propped up on “The El” tracks, and barber shops, bars, and all manner of hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops.
Today, with the Central Artery gone underground and “The El” tracks torn down, the old West End is spruced up and professional. It mirrors the promotion business, with the Valenti-like family shops giving way to bigger, glitzier, more polished operations. Long gone are the days of Rip, Fred, or Al dashing over to the local newspapers, or TV and radio stations, with a stack of press releases and a promise of a great night ringside.
For now, Al Valenti carries on, not offended by the suggestion that he is the death-of-a-salesman version of the fight promotions game. He loves the sport, will believe in it forever. But he well recognizes that, beyond the cartoonish Mayweather, there isn’t a household name to make Americans stand up and throw shadow punches in the family room. Oh, his kingdom for an Ali, a Frazier, or a Hagler.
But keep an eye on Shakur Stevenson, an exciting 5-foot-8-inch featherweight from Newark, says Valenti. There is always another fight, another hope that glory returns to the ring.
As for the family biz, he figures it ends whenever he’s done.
“No!” he said emphatically, asked if another Valenti were ready to take his corner. “Because most of the people in my family are stable enough not do it.”Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.