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The Boston Globe

The Right Hook Using His Troubled Past To Inspire Kids, Boxer Jose Antonio Rivera Has A Powerful Reach

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff

April 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

WEBSTER - Jose Antonio Rivera works the room the way he might work an opponent's body. Pick an opening, then - boom. Jab, dance away. Soften 'em up. Jab again.

The point is to connect. Always connect.

"Where do you want to go in life?" Rivera asks a roomful of boys and girls at North Village, a low-income housing project south of Worcester. "A teacher? Good. Policeman? All right. Basketball player? That's cool, too."

A rainbow coalition of faces looks up at Rivera, who's wearing a gray T-shirt with "Y.E.S. to Success" stenciled across the front.

"Now tell me," he says, making eye contact with a couple of grade- schoolers in the front row. "What do you need to do to get there? Anybody? OK. That's right. To work hard. Anyone else? OK, you. What? Excellent. You need to believe in yourself. Everybody hear that? To never give up. I know, because I've been there myself."

It's a Thursday afternoon. Rivera, ranked fourth among the world's welterweights by the World Boxing Association, has changed out of his regular work clothes - a courthouse guard's uniform - and into the T-shirt, whose logo refers to an anti drug program for which he volunteers.

Even in loose clothing, there is a coiled, chiseled quality to the 30-year-old Rivera. It commands attention.

About two dozen youngsters hang on the fighter's every word. It's debatable whether any have sat this close to a professional athlete before. Athletes are the guys talking smack on ESPN, with posses and tattoos. They don't show up at apartment complexes in Webster with a cop in tow, talking sense.

This one does. Pick an opening, then - boom. Jab, connect.

"I was 8 when I started pursuing my goal to be a professional boxer," Rivera continues. "I was raised by a single mom. I watched a lot of boxing with my uncle in Puerto Rico. That's when I dreamed of becoming a fighter."

The room grows quiet.

"My mom passed away when I was 10," Rivera says. One senses he might not be the only person in the room who's lost a parent.

"I had no one to take care of me. So I gave up on life. Between the ages of 10 and 15, I did the worst things possible."

He lets the statement hang there, inviting everyone to imagine what "the worst" means. Then he rolls out the list: how he quit school and moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked in the fields, at age 13, for $5 a week. How, living with an aunt in Massachusetts, he messed with drugs and hung with gang members. How he grew a chip on his shoulder bigger than Don King's hairdo, and how it nearly landed him in prison garb instead of boxing shorts.

"I hated the world. Hated everybody," Rivera says. "I did the worst thing possible, which is cheat yourself of a future."

And then the turnaround: his move to Worcester and back to school. Taking up boxing at age 16. Turning pro in 1992 and earning a shot at the International Boxing Organization welterweight championship in 1997. A wrist injury that nearly ended Rivera's career in 1998, and how he rehabilitated the wrist and came back to win North American championships in 2001 and 2002.

Worcester police officer Jim Carmody holds up a pair of Rivera's title belts. The kids gawk. Rivera tells one more story, about his last scheduled fight in February. A win would have all but guaranteed him a shot at the vacant WBA welterweight championship. In Las Vegas, two days before the fight, Rivera caught the flu. The bout was scratched.

"That won't keep me down," Rivera vows. "The reason I'm here today is to talk about overcoming obstacles in life. And the question you need to ask is, `Do I want to be successful in life or not?' "

Applause. The kids line up for pizza and autographs afterward. A 10-year-old girl asks Rivera for his phone number.

Life in the fast lane, bro.

Getting a reaction

Boxing has long thrived on the pulled-up-by-his-bootstraps saga, from the celluloid variety (e.g., "Rocky") to real-life champs such as Mike Tyson, who has turned legend into boorish cartoon. It's hard to find a more durable pair of bootstraps, though, than Rivera's.

Even if he remains largely unknown outside his hometown.

"I've brought in Hollywood actors and best-selling authors to talk to kids about doing the right thing," says Mary O'Sullivan, a guidance counselor at South High School in Worcester. "None has gotten the reaction Jose consistently gets."

Twice named speaker of the year by the United Way of Massachusetts, Rivera was inducted into the Boys and Girls Club of Worcester Hall of Fame for his youth work. His record in the ring (36 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw; 24 wins by knockout) speaks for itself. His nickname, "El Gallo" (Spanish for "the rooster"), speaks to another quality of his. As Rivera tells it, he was sent to Puerto Rico after his mother died and raised by an uncle, who bred fighting cocks. A prized bird of his was getting thrashed one night.

"His eye was hanging out of its socket," recalls Rivera, who has never been knocked down in a pro fight. "But his opponent decided to relax before finishing him off." Bad move. His uncle's bird literally tore the other cock apart, Rivera says. "I have the same never-give-up attitude in the ring. You better finish me off, or I will make you pay."

Away from the ring, the 5-foot-8 Rivera is a disarmingly gentle soul. He lives in a working-class Worcester apartment complex with his 9-year-old son, Anthonee. Two of Rivera's sisters live nearby. So does Anthonee's mother, whom Rivera married in 1993 and divorced in 1998. They have joint custody. "We struggled at first, but we get along great now," says Rivera. "The hardest part about training is spending less time with Anthonee. But I try to make it up to him."

At Worcester County Juvenile Court, where Rivera works as a security officer, court personnel routinely steer troubled youngsters in his direction, if only for a few words of wisdom on their way out. "Jose is a huge asset for us," says Carmody. "A lot of the gang members we deal with would frankly rather hear from someone like Jose than us."

Early troubles

The road to a title bout has been even rockier than the version Rivera outlined in Webster a few weeks ago.

Born in Philadelphia, Rivera is the youngest of four children. His mother married at 13 and had five children by the time she turned 22. Working as a domestic to support her family, she divorced and remarried. Her second husband was an abusive alcoholic. Rivera's mother sank into despair. Eventually she took her own life, when she "saw no other way out," says Rivera. The shadow of abuse and loss would haunt him through his early teenage years, leaving him with a deeply felt affinity for other kids at risk.

By the time he was rescued by an aunt at age 15, Rivera says, "I was broken down."

Broken down but not, miraculously, broken beyond repair. He survived a brutal beating and a drug overdose. A close friend died in a motorcycle accident. Another was murdered in a drive-by shooting. One day Rivera carried a hammer to school, looking for the kid who had beaten him. If the kid hadn't skipped school, says Rivera, who knows what might have happened. Or where he would be today.

"I see the kids who weren't so lucky walking into my courthouse," says Rivera one afternoon, sitting next to a courthouse metal detector. "I see kids who just like that - boom - are in the middle of the fire."

Boxing has been his salvation. "It's let me get out my anger and aggression and feel good about it," he says.

Rivera has benefited from the guidance of several individuals, among them trainer Carlos Garcia, manager Steve Tankanow, and attorney Anthony Cardinale, who signed Rivera to a contract with uberpromoter Don King.

Says Cardinale, "Jose is such a great person, so involved with community activities, that he endears himself to younger people." Still, he concedes it's hard for a New England fighter to reach boxing's top ranks, primarily due to lack of exposure and opportunity.

"This kid is the real deal," says Tankanow. "He's church going, doesn't drink or swear. A great father, and a hell of a fighter, too. If he ever becomes champion, the world is going to fall in love with him."

Rivera would have realized his largest purse so far, $10,000, had he won the February bout. Now he must bide his time, waiting for a bout between the WBA's second- and third-ranked welterweights before getting another shot at a title fight. This week, the same week he proposed to his girlfriend, he resumed his training regimen: roadwork in the early-morning hours, sparring in late afternoon after work. At 30, the clock is already ticking for Rivera. The opportunities to score a big payday will be limited for the boxer they call El Gallo. One shot, maybe, or it's on to the rest of his life.

"I'd like to buy Anthonee and myself a house, that's my dream," he says one afternoon at his sister's apartment, cradling his son on his lap. He musses Anthonee's hair. "How does that sound?" Rivera asks, smiling.

"Good," says Anthonee. "That sounds good."

The point is to connect. Always connect.

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