When Cuban amateur star Robeisy Ramirez lost his professional debut, nobody mentioned Henry Armstrong. Nobody mentioned Bernard Hopkins. Nobody thought about the past. Elliot Worsell examines false starts in boxing
WHEN Cuban amateur star Robeisy Ramirez lost the first fight of his professional career, nobody told him it was okay, nobody said, “It happens,” and nobody reminded him that it had happened to the best of them.
What he heard instead were phrases like “disaster” and “fraud” and “hype job”, as well as suggestions that he had either left it too late to turn pro or that the disparity between the amateur game and the pro game had never been greater. Nobody mentioned Henry Armstrong. Nobody mentioned Bernard Hopkins. Nobody thought about the past.
In all likelihood, the knee-jerk reaction to a prospect losing their first fight – deemed the most straightforward of their career – says as much about the price of an undefeated record as it does the prospect’s overall potential. Conditioned to believe a defeat means disaster, it is easy, in those moments, to forget not only that Bernard Hopkins and Henry Armstrong lost their professional debuts but that the following did as well: Wilfredo Vazquez (PTS 4, William Ramos); Juan Manuel Marquez (DQ 1, Javier Duran); Rafael Marquez (KO 8, Victor Rabanales); Jose “Pipino” Cuevas (KO2, Alfredo Castro); Jhonny Gonzales (PTS 4, Mario Perez); Victor Callejas (PTS 4, Jose Parrilla); Orlando Salido (TKO 4, Ivan Cazarez); James “Bonecrusher” Smith (KO4, James Broad); Johnny Nelson (PTS 6, Peter Brown); Michael Bentt (KO 1, Jerry Jones). There have been many others, also, each of whom later reframed their debut disaster as a minor hiccup when finally achieving success. And there is every chance Robeisy Ramirez will one day add his name to the list, too.
For now, though, since losing his debut against Adan Gonzales in 2019, the gifted two-time Olympic champion has managed to win seven fights in a row and remains hopeful of securing a professional world title when good and ready. Whether that becomes a reality is anyone’s guess, but what is already clear is that Ramirez, 27, will neither be defined by a four-round split-decision loss on his pro debut nor adversely affected by it (beyond the inevitable cooling down of the hype which preceded his turning over, that is). The upset happened. He learnt from it. He has now moved on.
Michael Bentt, another one-time amateur star tipped for big things in the paid ranks, tried to do the same after losing his pro debut to Jerry Jones but took a little longer to rediscover his bearings. Unlike the loss suffered by Ramirez, Bentt’s loss in February 1989 was considerably more decisive and devastating. It saw him not only beaten in his first pro fight but stopped inside the very first round.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t take Jerry seriously but I was a five-time national champion,” Bentt said. “I was Michael Bentt and therefore every shot I threw was supposed to make this cat crumble. Or at least that was my thinking. But Jerry Jones did not read the goddamn script.
“I have a lot of friends in DC, the area he was from, but I’d never heard of Jerry Jones. Now I can’t forget him.
“What I didn’t know going into the fight was that Jerry was a switch-hitter and at one point I walked into his right hand and it completely unplugged my computer. I was out. The referee, Rudy Battle, did a good job of stopping the fight because I was out.
“From time to time, to keep myself stable in life and level, I’ll go back and watch the Jerry Jones fight and it humbles me. I think to myself, Yeah, see, you ain’t that f**king great.”
Despite the unsightly stain it leaves on a record, a debut defeat is not the end of the world and, moreover, fighters like Johnny Nelson have shown that even three losses to start a career doesn’t have to spell the end. As unthinkable as it seems now, and as unlikely as it seemed back then, Nelson lost each of his first three pro fights yet still somehow went on to win a sanctioning body cruiserweight title, defend it 13 times, and was, by the time he retired, undefeated in 10 years.
Looking back, the Sheffield fighter admits his response to coming up short had as much to do with his indifference towards the sport as any superhuman determination or stubbornness. or stubbornness. “Brendan [Ingle, coach] used to say I wouldn’t have the confidence to match my ability until I got into my thirties and that’s what happened,” Nelson said. “He goes, ‘I can get anyone super fit, but if your mind isn’t ready or isn’t right, I might as well leave you in a burger bar somewhere. You’ll be of no use to me.’
“I didn’t have any natural talent or ability. But once my mind was created, I could adapt it to anything.”
That took time, of course, and plenty of work. A tougher project than most, Nelson initially saw boxing as a frightening proposition impossible to enjoy, much less master. “It terrified me,” he said. “There were guys half my size who loved sparring me because I was like a big old giraffe. They’d be all over me. They terrorised me. They wanted to get in the ring and chop me down. I did that day after day and it got to the point where I was so frustrated getting punched from pillar to post by the likes of Herol Graham and Brian Anderson that I one day left the gym almost in tears.
“I still kept coming back, though, because I loved the community. Brendan said to me, ‘Look, you’ve not got your man strength yet. I want you to start doing weights a little bit and increase your man strength. But the other lads will tell you not to do it because it will make you stiff like Frank Bruno. When they tell you that, it means you are starting to give them trouble.’”
Led by his mentor, Nelson began lifting weights to accelerate the process of gaining ‘man strength’ and, sure enough, had soon bulked up to such a degree Herol Graham and Brian Anderson were taking it in turns to interrogate him. They used the word “stiffness” a lot. They referred to Bruno. Nelson knew then that he was on the right path. Still, that was just the beginning. In March 1986, Nelson, now all grown up, turned pro and lost to Peter Brown in his first fight, which, regardless of man strength or the lack thereof, wasn’t meant to happen. Nor was Nelson meant to follow that disappointment with a defeat to Tommy Taylor two months later and another against Magne Havnaa in October, the three combining to leave him 0-3 as a pro.
“Because I didn’t love boxing, when I lost, I actually didn’t care,” Nelson said. “It was a bigger deal to other people than it was for me. When they said I was rubbish, or no good, it really didn’t matter or have any effect.
“Obviously, though, the abuse, and being the butt of the joke, does eventually hurt you. I can remember at times thinking, Why am I even doing this? Why don’t I pick an easier sport? But I didn’t actually care whether I won or lost, which was a problem. It didn’t define me. Boxing didn’t define me. Now, with hindsight, I’m probably fortunate that boxing never defined me.
“I knew once I won the [WBO] title, however, that I wouldn’t lose again because I didn’t want to lose again and because it would hurt to lose again.”
In truth, the Johnny Nelson he later became shared very little in common with the Johnny Nelson beaten by Brown, Taylor and Havnaa in consecutive fights. He was, by then, bigger. He was better. He had found more than just his man strength. The same can probably be said for James “Buddy” McGirt, who, in 1982, began a pro career defined by major belts in two weight divisions with an inauspicious draw against Lamont Haithcoach and, at the time, thought nothing of it.
“I was still in high school and I even went to school that day,” McGirt said, laughing. “My manager picked me up and took me to the show. When I got in the ring, the referee touched me to see if I was wearing a cup but all I had on was a little jockstrap. He said, ‘This is the pros. You can’t wear that.’ I had to go in the back and get a cup off somebody. I then got back in the ring and looked across the ring and when this guy took off his robe I was like, ‘Damn, that’s not the guy I saw at the weigh-in yesterday.’ He was huge. I said to myself, ‘Buddy, you’ve got to go for broke,’ and that’s what I did. There was no boxing; no stick-and-move. We went to war for four rounds and I was happy with the draw and the 200 bucks I got for it.”
As well as drawing his first pro bout, McGirt also happened to draw his first amateur bout, which is a sign, he says, of a man forever destined to “start things slowly”. It can be argued, too, that McGirt’s tendency to start slowly grounded him and made him a realist and now allows him to look back and say things like: “He was undefeated, my opponent, it was his promoter’s card, and, to me, the draw was a win. I would rather start 0-0-1 than 0-1-0.”
If this kind of philosophical approach to the sport helped McGirt cope with setbacks, however minor, and then later helped him become a coach, it was nevertheless at odds with the ambition coursing through his veins. For, make no mistake, McGirt, though relieved to draw his first fight, was no also-ran resigned to becoming a journeyman or fringe contender. Instead, Buddy had eyes only for world titles and was therefore determined not to let an early stutter dent his ambition. “Oh, I wanted to be a champ more than anything,” he said. “That was my dream, to be a world champion. I just wanted to do something with my life. I didn’t want to struggle like everybody else. I watched my mum bust her ass for years, working from pay cheque to pay cheque, and I wanted to be able to come home and give her some money and say, ‘Here, Mum, don’t worry about it.’
“I knew the only way I would be able to do that was by becoming champion, so I kept grinding and grinding. There were times when people didn’t think I could accomplish it, but I did. It was hard. It wasn’t easy. I used to travel three hours just to get to the gym and then travel three hours back. In my senior year at high school, my seventh period teacher would let me leave early so I could catch the train to Jersey. I’d then take two trains to Manhattan, a fast train to Jersey City, and walk a mile and a half to the gym. Rain, sleet or snow, it didn’t matter. I did that for six years.”
Whether it was the defeat itself, or the manner of defeat, Michael Bentt’s first-round loss to Jerry Jones in Atlantic City haunted him for almost two years. He, too, had the option been available, would have happily taken a draw that night. He, too, had lofty ambitions when turning pro. “It was level 9.95 psychological damage,” Bentt said. “The only way to deal with that is to face it. Everyone is judgmental. Everyone has an opinion. I had an aunt who would often take me to where she worked downtown in Manhattan and she had this friend who was a boxing fan. Every time I would see him, he would be like, ‘Hey, Mike, how’s it going? When are you fighting next?’ After I got knocked out by Jerry Jones, however, I accompanied my aunt to her work and saw this guy give me this look of complete f**king disdain. It was so painful for me.
“I couldn’t comprehend disrespect then, but now I can. He was judging me. There’s a certain part of us as human beings which means we will root for someone doing well and celebrate them yet also resent them because we’re not doing as well. So, when I lost my debut, this guy got his chance to say, ‘Yeah, turns out you don’t have it like you said you did, my friend.’”
The Jones defeat left Bentt feeling suicidal and, on brighter days, questioning whether he had done the right thing turning pro – something he never wanted to do – in pursuit of fame and fortune. It also kept him out of the ring for almost two years, a testing period during which all he wanted was for someone to put an arm around him and tell him everything was going to be okay. Better yet, Bentt wanted someone to take the time to list the numerous others future world champions who had been struck down on their opening night. He wanted to know he wasn’t alone.
“The intriguing thing about boxing is that nobody knows how to relay that message to their fighter,” he said. “Emanuel Steward was an A-list coach, and I loved him; he related to me the way I wished my father would. But he still didn’t have the mechanism to say to me, ‘Look, Mike, if this happens, it’s okay. It’s part of boxing. It happens.’ He was supportive but he wasn’t able to speak that language to me. I absolutely needed that. I needed to be told it was okay.”
Unsure if it was okay or not, Bentt would nevertheless return to the ring in December 1990 to register the first win of his professional career against James Holly (via first-round knockout). It was mainly during sparring sessions, however, that Bentt’s fractured confidence – a word he dislikes – started to heal.
“I was afraid,” Bentt said of his delayed ring return. “I was afraid of being humiliated again on that level.
“I was engaged to a woman at the time and she got me a job at a hospital in Queens, New York. I loved the experience because I was dealing with people who didn’t see me as ‘Michael Bentt, The Boxer’ and I was comfortable with that. But one day a little voice said to me, ‘You don’t belong here.’
“It wasn’t that I didn’t belong with them, it was more that I didn’t belong there and should be doing something else. Maybe a week after that, my old amateur sponsor calls me and says to me, ‘Michael, I know you’re not high on boxing right now but there’s a chance for you to be the sparring partner for the number-five ranked heavyweight in the world, Gary Mason.’
“I turned the chance down initially but then said, ‘You know what, I need to get out of here.’ I couldn’t work in a hospital all my life, so I took a plane down to Florida where Gary was training and we started sparring.
“At some point I began questioning myself and one day Gary and I were at breakfast and I said to him, ‘Gary, don’t bulls**t me, man. When we’re sparring, are you taking it easy on me?’ He just started laughing and right there, in that moment, I got a sense that I had something. If I’m sparring with the number five guy in the world, and there were times when he couldn’t touch me, I must have something to offer.”
What Michael Bentt had to offer the sport after his debut loss to Jerry Jones were 10 straight victories followed by his pièce de résistance: a first-round knockout of Tommy Morrison, the WBO heavyweight belt-holder, in October 1993. With that, things came full circle. Bentt, against the odds, had successfully bookended his career with first-round stoppages and now stood as living proof that a boxer didn’t need to be unmarked to be on top.
“When I won the [WBO title], Jerry Jones, who was by now a friend of mine, was one of the first people to congratulate me,” Bentt said. “But there was no way in the world I wanted to see him again in a ring. I couldn’t admit that as an active fighter – which is why we have publicists, right? – but I didn’t want to fight him again and I had absolutely no desire for revenge. He wasn’t a big name, Jerry Jones, but if you look at the people he fought, it says a lot. He gave Ray Mercer hell.
“The truth is, if I had to fight him again, I’d have turned it down.”
In the end, Michael Bentt didn’t need another person, be it Jerry Jones or someone else, to achieve what felt like redemption. All it required was for him to keep going and never give up.