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The Philadelphia Daily News

Tragic End For Rising Ring Star


November 19, 2003
Copyright ©2003
The Philadelphia Daily News. All rights reserved.

At 125 pounds, John Santiago was considered a featherweight in boxing.

But he had the heart of a heavyweight.

"John was a Rocky-Marciano-type of fighter," said boxing impresario Joe Hand Sr., who owns the North Philadelphia gym where Santiago trained.

"He wasn't a Muhammad Ali, nothing slick. He just went in and banged, just beat the hell out of you. He was a crowd favorite.

"I always told John, 'You take too many shots. If you're going to stay in the business you might as well turn pro.'"

Santiago did turn pro, winning his first bout early this year with a second-round knockout.

But early yesterday morning, somebody took a shot at John Santiago.

It was a cheap shot, outside of the ring, that landed in Santiago's home in the form of an arson fire. It killed Santiago and his mother, his teen-aged girlfriend and the couple's infant daughter.

Yesterday, people in and around the Philadelphia fight community mourned the loss of another promising kid to a city where the fights are never fair, and the gloves are always off.

At Joe Hand's Gym on Howard and Master streets, there were tears in the eyes of some fighters as the evening news told Santiago's story.

"It's like a champion going down for them," said one man.

Santiago first showed up at Hand's Gym around 1996 with his father, John Sr. - a native of Puerto Rico and musician who was devoted to boxing and his son.

Father and son spent hours in the gym together as best friends, as trainer and fighter. Santiago soon blossomed into a top amateur, winning three state championships in the Golden Gloves boxing tournament between 1999 and 2001.

"One of the greatest fights we ever had was when John Santiago beat Tiger Allen at the Blue Horizon for the state championship," said Frank Cariello, president of Pennsylvania Golden Gloves.

"This is a loss - not just because he was a great boxer, but because he was a nice kid."

Later in 2001, Santiago made it to the finals of the National Golden Gloves tournament in Reno, Nevada, before losing a decision to future Olympian Aaron Garcia of Vista, California.

He was named Most Outstanding/Courageous Fighter of the tournament.

"He didn't have the talent of a Tiger Allen or some other fighters," recalled a boxing friend of the family who asked not to be identified. "But he had tons of heart in the ring. His heart couldn't fit in his chest."

But when his father died unexpectedly two years ago, friends said Santiago's heart broke.

"When his dad died, he lost all motivation," Joe Hand said. "He wasn't the same person. He was still a good person, but he was not as interested in boxing.

"You lose kids to the streets if you don't keep them in the gym and motivate them all the time," he added.

Santiago had a large, lifelike tattoo of his father's face put on his back. Santiago's training sessions at Joe Hand's dropped off.

Those who know Santiago said he also became more distracted by the notoriety his reputation carried in the neighborhood.

"He was a sharp dresser, he liked the nightlife and he liked to party," said one local boxing insider.

The combination made it more likely that people would want to take a shot at John Santiago when his hands were not up.

"There are always people out there who want to beat them," said the insider.

Santiago, he said, did not know how to back up - not in the ring or on the street.

"He didn't look for it, but he never turned his back on it."

Staff writer Ed Barkowitz contributed to this report.

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