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Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Bronx Tale: Veteran Joseph Figueroa gives us an insider’s view of the real Joshua Clottey

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Las Vegas Boxing Examiner | Chris Robinson

If there was ever anything that came natural to Joseph ‘Trouble’ Figueroa, the sport of boxing was most likely it. Growing up in the Bronx, New York under harsh circumstances seemed to give the Bajan-Puerto Rican a hard edge and despite having many interests and endeavors over the years, boxing has been the one constant in Figueroa’s life.

Figueroa often speaks like an open book when discussing his life and times in the sport and his career has encompassed much. The sixty six fight veteran has squared off with five former world champions, traveled the world over, and has gotten to know some of boxing’s biggest names on an intimate basis. The sweet science is something that has forever molded Figueroa’s life and when reflecting back he admits the sport was something that he was always fond of.

“I can’t remember not liking boxing,” Figueroa says when reflecting back on his early days. “I loved Ali and Ray Leonard. I watched Ray Leonard’s hand speed in the 76’ Olympics and Ali was just Ali, need I say more? I was so hyperactive and fast at everything when I was young. I was a cool kid, but I always could fight. I was never the type to get angry and even at a young age I always stayed in control of my emotions. Hard to do for a kid but the first thing you need to know about fighting is that it’s not personal; you can’t fight mad. I was good at that. So, I was a natural.”

Boxing is the type of sport that will bring out the best in someone due to the hard work and discipline that is required in order to succeed. Coupling that fact with Figueroa’s early days in New York helped to give the low key pugilist an appreciation of not only where he came from, but also the exact role that his area had within the sport.

“I wouldn’t trade growing up in the Bronx for the world,” an appreciative Figueroa boasts. “I got all of life’s lessons right there. I learned about loyalty to family and friends, that was very important. I was tough enough to walk the streets and be respected but never took advantage of the so called weak. As far as boxing there aren’t that many places in the world like New York and the Bronx specifically. First and foremost, if you walked in the gym trying to be tough, you better ‘walk it like you talk it’. I can tell you so many stories about tough guys leaving the gym on a stretcher, in an ambulance, crying, no exaggeration! You never had to search for sparring. You might regret looking for sparring sometimes. The Bronx fight scene was always full of competition.”

Figueroa also recalls vividly how fighters would participate in smokers, also known as illegal and underground amateur fights back in the day. Figueroa claims that Mike Tyson was a regular in these type of bouts and also recalls other Bronx fighters such as Iran Barkley, Aaron Davis, Davey Moore, Dennis Milton, Chris Eubank, and Jake Lamotta all leaving an impression on him. Another fighter who Figueroa has gotten to know on a first hand basis is Accra, Ghana native Joshua Clottey, who challenges Manny Pacquiao this coming March 13th for the WBO Welterweight championship in Dallas, Texas.

The Bronx is full of people from all walks of life and several people from Clottey’s home country relocate to the gritty city upon their arrival to America. In November of 2003, as a once-beaten 26 year old, Clottey would make his professional debut at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in New York, with the Bronx eventually serving as his new stomping grounds. Figueroa has seen many fighters come and go during his day but admits that the West African left an impression upon him immediately.

“Honestly, I remember seeing him and his brother in the Bronx,” Figueroa reflects of Joshua and his brother Emmanuel. “I think they lived somewhere near an apartment I used to have on Morris Avenue. I’d see them running or in the gym. He’d come to the gym sometimes with Ben Tackie and I remember him being a cool dude. He was always with his brother and Tackie and they were genuinely nice guys. Also his training was serious. The guy does not play around in the gym.”

(Click to check out photos of Clottey and Figueroa and their time in the sport )

Figueroa would still cross paths with the rugged fighter on a daily basis at John’s Gym, formerly known as Jerome Gym, where Clottey still trains to this day. When asked about the atmosphere inside of the facility and how Clottey fit in, Figueroa claims the gym wasn’t for the feint of heart.

“Like any other gym in the hood; sweaty, real, and tough,” Figueroa claims. “You get real sparring in places like that. No white collar stuff there. So called tough guys will come in one way, and leave another. You’ll never get easy work in a gym like that. I can name hundreds of guys that have come through that gym. Chris Eubank, Mike Tyson, Juan Laporte, and last year Nate Campbell came through to train there. The list goes on and on. Clottey seemed to be an approachable and nice guy but serious about his work in the gym.”

When elaborating further, Figueroa opens up that Clottey’s work ethic has always been pristine and points out that he takes no shortcuts in training. Most likely due to his upbringing in Africa and the new environment he has adapted to in America, Clottey’s life has always seemed to be hard and his training is a reflection of such.

“First let me say that I don’t know exactly where he lives, but I do know that he does not drive to the gym,” Figueroa points out. “He does not take a cab to the gym. He runs to the gym every day with a backpack on. He trains like a gladiator and then runs back home. I was definitely impressed with his dedication and work ethic. Also, when he spars I never see him try to hurt anyone but he still dominates the sparring session. With the less experience guys, he works good with them, but still gets his work in. Even in between fights you’ll never catch him out of shape.”

While Figueroa is charismatic and outspoken in many regards he is also rough around the edges and can sometimes keep to himself. Combining that temperament with Clottey’s no-nonsense approach in the gym didn’t allow the two fighters to ever connect on a deep level but Figueroa recalls a certain moment when Clottey’s emotions boiled over.

“I can tell you that once he overheard myself and my trainer Billy Giles talking about the fight between him and Zab Judah,” Figueroa says speaking of the August 2008 clash between the two at the Palms in Las Vegas. “He overheard Billy say something about Zab could win ‘if’ – but when Clottey heard that he instantly came over. He was so serious and kept telling us that he would beat Zab. ‘Just watch, I’ll beat him easy’ he would say. Billy tried to explain that he thought Clottey would win but Joshua didn’t want to hear it. He was so focused.”

When discussing Clottey further, Figueroa recalls how close he is with his fellow countryman and former Super Bantamweight champion Joseph Agbeko and also feels that Joshua needed to do ‘just a little bit more’ to beat Miguel Cotto this past summer. When asked if he felt that Clottey would go on to have this much success in the sport, Figueroa’s response is resounding.

“Yes because I’ve seen his dedication, fearlessness, good chin, and crazy work ethic in the gym,” Figueroa claims. “What impresses me the most is that he has been in the ring with killers and seems to be unmarked. He has good defense, good hand speed and decent power. He has never turned down a challenge that I know of. I don’t think that you can name one guy that he isn’t willing to fight. That’s rare these days in boxing at a time when guys are babied and take the easy way to a title. He fights anybody, anytime, and always puts on a good performance, even when injured.”

While all of the above may be true, Clottey is going up against something he hasn’t seen before when he meets Pacquiao next month. Despite having an obvious fondness for Clottey from their time together in the gym, Figueroa’s appreciation for Pacquiao has also been apparent in recent conversations. When assessing the matchup he sees a real fight, no matter how you cut it.

“I like Pacquiao as a fighter. I think that they match up pretty evenly. I give the power edge to Pacquiao but they both are well conditioned athletes. Both have incredible chins, both have good handspeed, and neither one has “quit” in them. It is not beyond the realm of comprehension to think that Josh could win this one. If he does win I don’t see a knockout but a hard fought decision, maybe a knockdown or two both ways. I definitely give Josh a real chance against pound for pound king Pacquiao. That says a lot about Josh.”


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