Glitz, grit and a fleeting shot at glory. It attracts all kinds.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published September 28, 2003
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Jason Barnett of St. Petersburg suffered a cut over his right eye during the first bout on Aug. 1, which he lost. Go to photo gallery
The door swings open and a man enters with a bucket of ice.
Other men, wearing headsets and polo shirts bearing the Florida Boxing Commission logo above the heart, dart in and out. An assortment of people, from fighters and trainers to security personnel, come and go.
At 7:15 p.m., the A La Carte Event Pavilion's packed dressing room has the feel of Dale Mabry Highway at rush hour. Cool air bursts through the vents, but as the area becomes increasingly crowded the temperature rises and beads of sweat roll off a man's face.
One boxer sits on the floor.
He stares straight ahead at nothing in particular.
Another, standing a few feet away, is in an animated strategic session with someone who looks to be his trainer. One person begins to apply tape. Others lean against the wall.
Theo Kruger rests in a chair while Ruben Alvarez, one of his trainers, carefully wraps the boxer's right hand. Phil Knight, a commission inspector, stands over Kruger's right shoulder. Tampa's Danny Otero, 65, a commission member, enters the room, shakes hands and says a few hellos.
He pulls on a pair of gloves and practices his jabs, mentioning he once worked in law enforcement and later became a private investigator. Otero and trainer/co-owner of Starfight Productions Pete Fernandez are longtime friends who grew up in Ybor City. They share a few childhood stories, but Otero insists "friendship has nothing to do with this. You've got to do your job." That means making sure things are on the up and up.
Referee Max Parker Jr. enters at 7:41 and calls for attention. He says the three-knockdown rule is in effect and reminds fighters not to leave their corners until the bell rings. "Don't do that, or I'll send you back to your corner, so don't waste your energy."
He tells of the fighters in recent bouts who took "unfair advantages" of someone who had been knocked down. "Do that tonight," Parker warns, "it's two points automatically, and possibly a disqualification." Later, he says, "Understand something, safety is paramount in these fights. If we see a possibility of someone getting injured, we're going to stop the fight. If you can fight, let's see you fight."
* * *
Bob Wilcox, 31, has the job many want. He is a friend of Starfight co-owner Randy Feldman, and friendship has its advantages. Wilcox finds and directs the ring card girls. He recruits them from the Brandon Hooters, which he manages.
"They have fun," he says. "They like it. They like going up on stage and being seen."
Being a ring card girl isn't difficult, but does require instructions. "I tell them, "Take your time,' " Wilcox says. "A lot of them have a tendency to run around and smile. But you're trying to kill time."
Jolene Weikel, 23, works at Hooters and is Wilcox's girlfriend. She says she recently finished real estate school and does some modeling, but hasn't made any career decisions just yet. Wherever the leggy Weikel goes, dozens of eyes follow. A striking blond, she wears 5-inch heels, a tiny Brazilian bikini and a white sarong she bought for a recent photo shoot. "It came in handy," she says. Weikel just returned from a Hooters pageant in Las Vegas.
"I came to the last fight and absolutely fell in love with it," she says. "I told Randy Feldman, "I think I just found a new sport to follow.' "
Weikel has yet to enter the ring and is nervous, saying, "There's always that chance of slipping and falling." Her debut a few minutes later goes off without a hitch. She slowly walks into the ring, holds her card proudly and struts around each corner. Some fans cheer. Others whistle.
* * *
Kruger, 27, is 1-1 as a professional. He is 5 feet 11 and 174 pounds, but his weight is distributed uniquely. His upper body is rail thin, but his calves are incredibly thick. He has a buzz cut on top, and facial hair around his mouth. The hair on his chin hangs a few inches. Kruger's wife, Esperanza, is in the crowd, but their five children are at home in Port Charlotte.
Kruger, who installs doors and shutters to pay the bills, makes between $400-$600 a fight.
"I was stabbed (four years ago) and built up a lot of frustration," he says, lifting his shirt to reveal a 2-inch scar above his left abdomen. He says it happened while helping a friend in a fight, but doesn't elaborate. "I had never boxed, not even amateur. Someone said, "Hey, there's a Toughman competition, why don't you enter just to get out some of that frustration?' "
"I lost by decision," Kruger says. "But I came back the next year and came in second. So then I got into amateur boxing about three years ago."
As the first bout approaches, the ring announcer calls the fighters to the ring, and Prodigy's techno hit Smack My Bitch Up blasts through the sound system. Meanwhile, Kruger heads into the hallway to shadowbox with Alvarez. "Nice and easy," the trainer says. "Step out - kind of glide out." Kruger's head bobs and weaves. As he moves, the trainer's hand goes up and around his head. A few waitresses picking up drink orders about 25 feet away take a break to watch. At 8:27, Kruger slips back into the dressing room, sips water and sits down.
St. Petersburg's Jason Barnett, the first-bout loser, enters with a sizable gash above his right eye. He takes one glance in the mirror and quietly sits down, wearing a disappointed look. Kruger stares at Barnett for a moment, then turns his attention to his other trainer, Tony Spain. At 8:55, it's time to fight.
"All right, let's go," Otero says.
Kruger heads to the ring as a popular rock tune is cranked.
Let the bodies hit the floor
Let the bodies hit the ... FLOOR!
One ... Two ... Three ... Four
Beaten why for? (why for?)
Can't take much more
"It's kind of an aggressive song," Kruger says. "It gets you pumped up."
* * *
Sitting in the front row, dentist Ron O'Neal and his fiance, Blair Gordon, a staffing coordinator, look the part of a celebrity couple. Wearing a white shirt and a black jacket, it's as if he stepped out of GQ. She has on a low-cut white dress, and many men gaze at the statuesque blond throughout the evening. This is their first night at the fights. "We're virgins," Gordon says.
They say on a normal night they would rent a movie. But when Feldman asked the couple, who live one block off Tampa's posh Bayshore Boulevard, to be his guests, they jumped at the chance. "It's way better than I thought it would be," Gordon says.
About 1,100 fans fill the arena, and the group is eclectic to say the least. The people closest to the ring wear expensive outfits. They walk around and socialize, often during the fights as waitresses sift through the crowd taking orders. A gate separates the high-priced seats from the jeans and T-shirt crowd in general admission. This group also mingles, but there is more intensity when the boxers enter the ring.
Real estate developer Mike McGuinness, 39, and his girlfriend, Vaneeda Trukowski, a 28-year-old Tampa Bay Storm cheerleader/sales rep, both of Tampa, order cocktails. While a fight continues, they chat with friends. McGuinness has been a fight regular for about two years. He too is friends with Feldman. "To me, it's a big social event," McGuinness says. "It has gotten to the point now where it's fight night and everybody wants to be here."
As the two return to their seats, they pass Josh Fleming, who doesn't notice them. Fleming, a 26-year-old working in airline maintenance, sits alone in the back row of general admission. His ticket was $20. He isn't here to people watch. "I'm here to see the fights, man," he says while sitting on his seat's edge with his eyes locked on the ring.
Fleming says he fought amateur bouts when he was younger and he studies the moves. "You get the Mike Tyson kind of guys that come in and just throw whatever," he says. "Then, you've got the guys that know the sweet science of it."
* * *
Kruger is blasting Ari Shabazz with jabs.
By the third round, he appears to have the advantage. He lands a hard left in the fourth and sweat flies from Shabazz's head. Shabazz has the better physique, but Kruger has superior technique. At one point, a few fans chant, "Theo, Theo, Theo." Kruger continues to pick apart his opponent. At 9:16, the bell sounds to end the match and Kruger raises his left hand.
Two judges score the bout 40-36. A third has it 39-37.
"And your winner," the announcer says into the microphone, "Theo Kruger."
Back in the dressing room, Kruger takes a towel and wipes his face. "He caught me one good time, but it didn't hurt. It was a straight left. I walked into it."
His left eye is bruised, but he says it's nothing serious. Kruger seems energized by his effort. "I was just trying to throw as many (punches) as possible. I knew I hurt him, I think it was in the third round. That made me jump on him. ... I'm not tired. I wasn't tired at all."
Kruger later is greeted by his wife, who looks relieved. Esperanza Kruger, 26, gets butterflies "the second I sit down in the seat." She's as scared today as she was for Kruger's first fight. "I don't think I'll ever be comfortable," she says. "When it's over, I'm just happy, relieved that it's done. Every time he gets in that ring you know that one shot, one wrong hit and he could end up on the floor."
* * *
Feldman is everywhere. With a Malibu and Diet Coke in one hand, he shakes hands with the other. He wears a black tuxedo and his fiance, Kelly Bocknor, who looks like a model in her custom-made, black leather and lace dress, accompanies him throughout the night. "You think I'm mingling?" Feldman says. "People have issues."
Feldman is Starfight's face man.
A South Tampa orthodontist (he makes all the mouth guards for the fighters), he, Fernandez and Terri Brand (Fernandez's wife) formed the company in 2001, each kicking in the same amount of money.
"One day I was doing some boxing and Peter said, "Will you help me have some fights?' " Feldman says. Aaron Jacobs, who attends Stetson Law School, later became the fourth partner and is now director of operations.
"He will become the next fight lawyer for the country," Feldman says of Jacobs. "He knows boxing inside and out."
A card earlier this year produced a net gain of $1,000. Another made $4,000. "They're not making anything," Bocknor says of her fiance and his partners.
Because Feldman and Bocknor are constantly on the move, they have little time to watch the fights. Still, he says, "It's a lot of fun. There's a lot of energy. This is Tampa. It's a huge event."
* * *
The co-main event pits Tampa's Oscar Gonzalez against George Walker, a highly touted fighter from St. Petersburg, in the 140-pound junior welterweight division. In one front section of general admission, a few dozen Gonzalez supporters cheer wildly, standing throughout the fight and jumping into the air every time he connects. "This whole corner is locked down," says John Gonzalez, Oscar's cousin. Oscar Gonzalez lands a punch, and John shouts, "C'mon Oscar, put that jab in there." He turns back around to finish his earlier thought: "You don't have to worry about this one. He's going to win."
As Gonzalez pounds on Walker, his supporters grow increasingly loud. They dance to 50 Cent's In Da Club between the first and second rounds. Some shout in Spanish, some in English. A few wave the Puerto Rican flag. Gonzalez was born there. "We're keeping his head up," says Jessica Rodriguez, another cousin. "He works so hard not to disappoint us."
Blood trickles from above Gonzalez's right eye, but he continues to fight. After he lands a hard jab in the second, someone yells, "There you go, there you go!" In the fourth, Kruger offers this assesment: "Gonzalez is winning. He has Walker moving. He has to keep the pressure on. Walker can't handle the pressure. Oscar is taking it to him. (Walker) is really unsteady."
Gonzalez lands a right in the sixth that sends Walker to the floor. Walker gets up but it doesn't matter. Gonzalez wins by unanimous decision. His family and friends erupt and the flag is raised so all can see.
* * *
At 10:40, Gonzalez celebrates in the dressing room with a trainer and 9-year-old son Oscar Joel Gonzalez, one of his two children. "He can't take the pressure. He can't take it," Gonzalez says of Walker as he bounces around, wearing nothing but shorts. The gash above his eye was the result of a head butt. "That ain't nothing," he says.
Gonzales moved to Tampa as a child. He wasn't a good kid, a fact he isn't afraid to admit.
"I was selling drugs and on the streets," he says. "It wasn't no good. I've always been a fighter. I've been fighting since I was 12, but I've always been back and forth. Finally, I got caught in a big thing and I learned my lesson."
The big thing? "A drug bust," Gonzalez says, unashamed of his troubled past. "I did a year and half (in prison). When I got out I found the Lord and I knew that I couldn't lose my family again."
Both his parents are dead. "In 1988, my mother was murdered and raped," Gonzalez says.
A story published in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 19, 1988, detailed Elena Garcia Gonzalez's horrific murder. She was 34, had just lost a 13-year-old son to leukemia and been through a divorce. "I saw the body, then the blood on her arms and legs, and I hauled a-- out of there," Eric Akines, who found Mrs. Gonzalez, told a reporter.
Gonzalez, then 16, was quoted in the same story: "She was tough, she was smart," he said of his mother. A Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman says the crime remains unsolved. "My mother was the one that started me (in boxing)," Gonzalez says.
Oscar Joel Gonzalez gets scared watching his father fight. Before matches, the boy wishes him good luck and tells him, "I love you."
Gonzalez is handed a check for $800 and signs a few government forms. He has no day job, but gets financial support from his family. "This is it," he says. "I'm doing this because I know I can do it." Gonzalez doesn't think he is too old to become a nationally known fighter, but realizes his window of opportunity is small.
In an adjacent dressing room, Walker, 33, sits in a chair and places a few personal items into a bag. His gloves are off, his hands cover his face and he slouches over. "I just fought the wrong fight," Walker says with a disbelieving look. "I brawled a little bit instead of boxing."
Walker is a technical fighter who picks his spots and patiently attacks an opponent. Gonzalez is a hurricane, a ball of energy who continually assaults. Walker says Gonzalez's style threw him off. If Walker fought Gonzalez again "I would box, and I would try to mix it up," he says.
Walker pauses and mutters an obscenity.
This is his first loss.
"Ain't no better fighter than George," says John Sciandra, one of Walker's trainers. "He'll be back."
Only weeks earlier, longtime area trainer Jim McLoughlin said Walker had a potential fight in Las Vegas looming, and that Bob Arum's Top Rank had shown interest. How would this loss affect that? Were larger paydays still possible? Walker wonders, but has no answers. The fighter says he will return to the gym in a few days.
Right now, he just wants to sleep.
He buries his face in his hands.
* * *
After the final fight, a disappointed Fernandez sits with his boxer, Gene Molen, 29, of Clearwater. A draw was called in Molen's bout with Tyrone Glover and all in this dressing room are convinced the judges messed up. "I don't think it was a draw," Fernandez says. "I thought we clearly won the fight. The body work was fabulous. The guy butted us." Fernandez points to a cut on Molen's head. "Look, those are not punches."
Fernandez, 58, trains fighters at Xtreme Total Health & Fitness in South Tampa. Boxing is his passion. He looks younger than his age and he walks with a slow, confident, bounce. He is stocky and muscular, looking as if he'd do okay for himself if he stepped in the ring. He says he was 78-2 as an amateur, then 22-2 as a professional with 17 knockouts. He once traveled with Sugar Ray Robinson.
Fernandez, wearing black pants, a black cornerman's jacket and his trademark black cap, goes in and out of the dressing room throughout the night. "I love this," Fernandez says as he leaves the dressing room with two young men he calls "hot prospects."
While exiting the building at 11:57, Fernandez passes Brand, a 54-year-old teacher at the Pinellas Technical Education Center near Largo. She arrived well before any fans, and was so busy handing out credentials and tickets she watched one fight. "I've learned to appreciate boxing," an exhausted Brand says. "It's not just a bunch of guys in the ring punching each other."
She counts money, pays an employee and boasts of the company's growth.
"What makes it the most worth it for me is that my husband is fulfilling a dream," she says. "This is his dream come true and that makes me happy."
She adjusts her glasses and resumes counting.
It will be another hour before fight night is over for her.
WHERE: A La Carte Event Pavilion, 4050 Dana Shores Drive, Tampa.
WHEN: The next card is Nov. 14.
TICKETS: From $20-75.
SEATING CAPACITY: 1,106.
FORMAT: Usually 6-8 fights, featuring several weight classes.
WELL-KNOWN FIGHTERS: Michael "Gold" Rush, a light-heavyweight who has fought on ESPN2.
INFORMATION: CALL (813) 259-9269.
ODDS AND ENDS: The Nov. 14 lineup is expected to include female fighters. elip Starfight Productions is planning to hold six events next year. A complete schedule can be found online at www.starfightproductions.com