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Title Defense Is No Vacation For Rivera…He Is In A Fight To Get Paid

Title Defense Is No Vacation For Rivera

Ron Borges, Globe Staff

April 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The Boston Globe

NEW YORK - The welterweight champion of the world had to take a vacation this week to be able to go to work Saturday night. Such is the life Jose Rivera has chosen.

Rivera, of Worcester, will defend the World Boxing Association 147-pound title at Madison Square Garden against fierce-punching Ricardo Mayorga in a fight Rivera is supposed to lose, but that is not a new position for him. It is the background to every story of his life. He was never supposed to win but, against the longest of odds, he has.

Not always but often. Far more often than anyone would think possible. Often enough to be a world champion when no one suspected he would be. Often enough, he hopes, to live a life no one expected either.

Now he is not supposed to come to New York and beat Mayorga because there is no money in that for promoter Don King and no big- money fight for anyone if he does. There is nothing in it but another achievement that will be ignored by too many people, and a return on Monday to Worcester Juvenile Court, where Rivera works as a security officer when he's not training to defend the title he won in Germany during another week when he had to use up vacation days to do what no one thought he would do - win.

That's how it is for guys like Rivera, honest workmen the public pays little attention to who come to fight and then go home to work. That, in a sense, is his story, a story hammered home again yesterday when Rivera was late for a press conference at the Garden to hype Saturday night's pay-per-view show headlining two heavyweight title fights, as well as Mayorga's return to the ring after his upset loss to Cory Spinks in December that derailed a planned showdown with Shane Mosley.

Rivera was late not because he had suddenly become like so many overhyped professional athletes, obsessed with the sound of his own voice and working by his own schedule. He was late because while everyone else on the card was flown into New York a day early, he had to go to work at the courthouse. After all, you can only use up so many vacation days to make a living.

"I had to take all my vacation time and personal time to be here," Rivera said. "That's the type of person I am. I'm not into material things. I'm a single parent raising a son [10-year-old Anthonee], so I hold a job that gives me health insurance and pays the bills. Boxing eventually ends but your responsibilities don't.

"Boxing saved me. No doubt. Focusing on boxing kept me out of trouble. Believe me, I had plenty of opportunities."

Rivera's life began with plenty of opportunities to take a wrong turn, until boxing intervened. Obsessed with the idea that prize fighting might do for him what it had done for so many other kids whose first address is the hard side of town, Rivera left his home and family in Springfield and moved to Worcester to pursue a perilous sport. He was barely 16 years old, a kid on his own, when he made a decision that changed a life sliding slowly and then quickly toward disaster.

"I had nobody but my trainer, Carlos Garcia," Rivera recalled yesterday. "My mother died when I was 10 [at her own hand after a difficult life of abuse and broken dreams]. There was no one to take care of me. I gave up for a while. I did bad things. Then I found boxing. I'd heard of Carlos, so I found him and told him my story."

Like most stories in boxing, it was a sad one. He had gone to Puerto Rico at 13, three years after his mother died, and worked as a farm hand. He returned to Massachusetts and began to slip into street life. Drugs. Gangs. Cops. Trouble. The usual tragedy. Then he found boxing and Garcia.

"Carlos told me if I moved to Worcester he'd work with me," Rivera said. "I was on my own so I moved. I lived with Bobby Harris [a successful Worcester amateur but a kid himself who nearly made the Olympic team a few years back before embarking on a short and unsuccessful pro career]. I went back to school. I went to the gym. I trained. I fought. We did it on our own."

What Rivera did was begin his professional career 12 years ago at the age of 19 with a win in New Hampshire. He would keep winning for four years, winning until he came up on the wrong end of a split decision against a veteran named Willie Wise, and followed it with a disappointing draw against someone named Troy Smith.

Those are the kinds of decisions that send many young fighters off the tracks, never to return. But Rivera kept pushing until the same thing happened again four years later. This time it was back- to-back losses to Pat Coleman and Robert Frazier, the second a razor- thin defeat that seemed to label him as forever a guy who would work for a living and fight on the side.

Then, six wins and one wrist injury later, the kind of opportunity a kid like Rivera seldom gets came along. The WBA title had been vacated because Mayorga had become a double title winner and hence what is known as a "super champion."

The WBA was looking for a kid willing to travel to Germany to face undefeated Michel Trabant last September, willing to fight a fight he could not win. Rivera knew all about that.

The court officer wasn't supposed to win. Not in Germany, which has become notorious among American fighters for the oddest of occurrences and the most disappointing of decisions when foreigners go there to challenge a German-promoted fighter. It is the kind of place, boxers say, where you need to knock out their fighter to get a draw. Rivera understood. He also didn't care.

At nearly 31, this was his chance, and so he grabbed it. He asked for vacation days, packed his gear, and went to Estrel Convention Center in Berlin to fight Sept. 13, 2003. When he came back he had the WBA title belt with him, a belt he did not wear to the courthouse two days after he'd won it. He was, after all, there to work.

"I'm not the kind of guy who has to be king of the castle," Rivera (37-3-1, 24 KOs) explained. "I don't need to be in the limelight. I just want the opportunity to show my skills. If I do my best, that's enough."

It has been enough on most nights. Saturday, though, few in boxing expect it will be. Mayorga is one of the most feared punchers in the welterweight division, a free-swinging knockout artist with no respect for his opponents. He is here to destroy Rivera. That is what boxing expects. It is also something Rivera is used to ignoring.

Yesterday, Mayorga claimed Rivera had disrespected him and the rest of the fighters on the card by not showing up until the four- hour press marathon was nearly over. He had no idea Rivera was mired in traffic, driving to New York from Worcester in the back of a car sent for him by King so he could minimize the days he would miss at his real job.

Mayorga insulted Rivera in Spanish when he saw him, questioning his manhood and promising to knock him out. Rivera did not answer with anything more than a silent acknowledgment before walking away. He was not there to debate with Mayorga or to make headlines until Saturday night, when he will be paid far less than his challenger to defend a title few people ever believed he'd own.

Win or lose, Jose Rivera will be back in the car Sunday and back at the courthouse on Monday. He will be there to do what he has come to New York to do against the long odds he has grown so comfortable facing. He will be there to do his job.

"My goal is to let kids know you can overcome setbacks in life," Rivera said. "I've been through a lot of hurdles. It's been a rocky road, but I'm here."

Win or lose, Ricardo Mayorga is going to have to deal with that Saturday night and one thing is sure. Jose Rivera won't be late for work that night . . . and he won't be taking a vacation day either.

Rivera Is In A Fight To Get Paid

By Ron Borges, Globe Staff

April 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Globe Newspaper Company. All rights reserved.


NEW YORK -- Jose Rivera didn't fight last night at Madison Square Garden, so now his real fight begins.

The Worcester, Mass.-based World Boxing Association welterweight champion was slated to defend his title against former WBA-World Boxing Council champion Ricardo Mayorga on the undercard of the John Ruiz-Chris Byrd heavyweight doubleheader, but Mayorga decided to come in as a junior middleweight, although he missed that weight class, too.

Officially, the former welterweight champion tipped the scales at 6 1/2 pounds over the 147-pound limit 90 minutes after he was supposed to arrive Friday. He first appeared at the commission scale at 9 a.m. Friday and reportedly weighed in at 156, which meant he not only missed the welterweight limit, he also missed the junior middleweight division.

Mayorga told promoter Don King he would try to make weight but never returned to the scales Friday night.

Instead, Mayorga was given a new opponent and he won a unanimous 10-round decision last night over substitute Eric Mitchell.

The crowd booed the fight, but Mayorga won by wide margins on all three scorecards.

A contingent of Rivera fans chanted their fighter's name and held up signs protesting the fact he wasn't fighting.

As a result, Rivera was a champion without a challenger or a payday.

This was particularly irksome to Rivera because he is a working man, a security officer at the juvenile court in Worcester who had to take three vacation days to come to New York to defend the WBA title he won last year in Germany when he upset undefeated Michel Trabant.

According to Rivera's manager, Steve Tankanow, Rivera agreed to fight Mayorga if he lost 2 pounds and agreed to pay a WBA-imposed 15 percent penalty out of his $200,000 purse as mandated by its rules.

For a moment, Rivera thought he had a fight, but by 10 a.m. yesterday, nothing was settled. Tankanow pulled Rivera out while attorney Tony Cardinale sent out faxes to the WBA and the New York State Athletic Commission putting both on notice that he wanted their rules followed and Rivera not penalized for Mayorga's misdeeds.

King, who has more invested in Mayorga's future than Rivera's, even though he is technically Rivera's promoter as well, imported Mitchell to step in with Mayorga at 154 pounds, a weight he had already intended to fight at in the future, while Rivera began a bigger fight -- the fight to get paid what he was owed.

"Under WBA championship Rule 2.3, Jose made weight and Mayorga didn't," Cardinale said. "He didn't even try. There is a penalty to be assessed that's equal to 40 percent of his purse. Jose's entitled to 15 percent and the promoter 25 percent. The New York State Athletic Commission rules say if one participant fails to make weight in a championship fight, the opponent is entitled to half his purse from the promoter. We want those rules enforced."

New York State Athletic Commission chairman Ron Scott Stevens said last night he intended to hold an informal hearing tomorrow if a deal satisfactory to all sides couldn't be worked out.

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