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The champ next door

St. Petersburg exults in the world boxing victory of 154-pounder Winky Wright.

Published March 16, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Sax Holmes, 16, munched pork skins Monday and spoke of his first amateur fight. It hasn't happened yet, but it will. And he'll be just like Winky Wright.

Holmes glanced at the St. Pete Boxing Club, a pale bunker among commercial strips on 49th Street S, where delivery trucks spit fumes and churn grit. There, Winky Wright, hometown kid, practiced to become one of the best fighters on the planet.

Saturday night in Las Vegas, the practice paid off.

Wright befuddled Sugar Shane Mosley for 12 rounds, winning the championship of the world's 154-pounders, a boxing division that has included such legends as Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran.

Monday, the afterglow spread through St. Petersburg, a city still chattering about its newest hero.

Said Sax Holmes: "I love Winky."

Such sentiment flows not only from a community exulting in the triumph of a favorite son, but one feeling a kindred spirit with the local kid who made it to the top.

"The kids can look at a guy like Wink who didn't give up. He could easily have said, "This is enough.' But he didn't quit," said Milton Mobley, who owns the Sports Cuts barber shop on 18th Avenue S.

Wright's appeal sometimes suggests the kid next door.

He lives in an unpretentious house off Fifth Avenue S with partner Tammye Ryan. They are rearing Wright's preteen children, daughter Raven and son Roemello. A basketball goal stands in the driveway. A pair of inline skates rest on the porch.

Wright has worked long and hard to get where he is.

Perhaps too slick and skilled for the good of his career, the 1990 Gibbs High School graduate had a difficulty finding top boxers willing to do battle when he turned pro 14 years ago.

Now 32, Wright endured 49 professional fights before striking his biggest payday Saturday. He earned about $800,000 in a dominating defeat of Mosley. Now 47-3, Wright is certain to earn more money in expected fights with the world's top three contenders.

For now, supporters are still basking in Saturday's glory.

"It was electric. Everybody was so happy for Wink. Everybody wanted to see him succeed," said Dan Birmingham, the Seminole painting contractor who has trained Wright since the fighter's first amateur bout in 1987.

Wright's is a story of homegrown loyalty and eclectic alliances.

Birmingham's brother, Mike, is the boxer's cut repairman and strength coach. Andy Lockhart, owner of C.D. Roma's restaurant on 66th Street N, has provided financial backing for years. Keith Stewart, an Uhuru member, is among Wright's best friends.

Hundreds of St. Petersburg fans went to Las Vegas for Saturday's fight.

They bet money on Wright, a 3-1 underdog. They wore Winky T-shirts and chanted their champion's name. They bantered with Mosley's contingent.

"We had the Latin community, white, black, everybody," Stewart said.

The postfight party took over the M&M Soul Food restaurant on Las Vegas' S Jones Boulevard.

Wright, still in Las Vegas with relatives, wasn't expected back until late Monday or early today.

"There'll be a party. When and where exactly, I don't know,' Birmingham said.

City Hall chat Monday carried hints of a proclamation to honor Wright, believed to be St. Petersburg's first undisputed world champion.

In the late 1980s, Wright wasn't sure he wanted to stay in St. Petersburg.

Born an only child in Washington, D.C., he grew up with his uncle Byron Dorsey, nearly the same age. The toddlers' grandmother gave them nicknames: Ronald Wright became Winky and Dorsey drew Winny.

There they remained for about 16 years before the family moved to St. Petersburg. Wright attended Northeast before going to Gibbs, where Herb Dixon, assistant principal in 1990, recalled a friendly, smiling youngster.

"He was a guy that never caused any problems. He took care of business. You'd never think he'd be a world champion to look at him," Dixon said.

St. Petersburg was nearly too quiet. Wright longed for an urban life with a quicker pace. He even thought about the Navy.

About then, a friend told him about Birmingham's St. Pete Boxing Club. He started training and liked it. David Santos, another of St. Petersburg's acclaimed boxers, encouraged him. Jim McLoughlin, who runs the Fourth Street Boxing Club, was also in the mix.

Wright has never shed his nice-guy persona.

During the fight, he accidentally elbowed Mosley.

"There he was, standing in the middle of the ring, trying to apologize," Lockhart said.

"Dan was yelling, "Don't be friends, you're in the middle of a fight. What're you doing?"'

Monday, the club where Wright learned his craft was closed and Birmingham said it will be a week before he's ready to open it for training again.

The closed doors didn't discourage passersby.

Some, like Sax Holmes, came dreaming of future ring glory.

"I've got to weigh under 145," he said. As Wright did, Holmes attends Gibbs, where he said his friends talked about the boxer all day.

Chris Rizzo of St. Petersburg drove up in a lawn service truck. A former boxer who trained at the club, Rizzo wondered when it would be open and when the champ might be around.

"I can't wait," Rizzo said, "to slap him five."

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