Sun, Jun 29, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Journeyman boxer fights hard times in the Bronx

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Michael Rothberger, a stocky heavyweight who goes by the self-imposed nickname Shake and Bake, has lost his first four professional fights. If Rothberger loses one more time, the New York State Athletic Commission will perminantly revoke his license.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Michael Rothberger works the night shift driving a truck for a fruit company in the Bronx and fights for US$100 a round. He sleeps during the day, when he can, in his apartment or, in tougher times, in the back of his Chevy Blazer parked in the street because bad luck does not seem to change when you wake up in the dark.

But Thursday night, in a comeback-from-nowhere four-rounder at the nightclub Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, a journeyman's ring misfortunes will change, he says. If not then, then never.

Rothberger, a stocky heavyweight who goes by the self-imposed nickname Shake and Bake, has lost his first four professional fights. The last three bouts ended in the first round, all by technical knockouts. If Rothberger loses one more time, the New York State Athletic Commission will revoke his license again. For good.

This time, Rothberger is matched against Mike Kelly, an airport supervisor from Philadelphia who will be making his professional debut.

"I've been given a second chance, and I'm fighting to win," Rothberger said last week before a workout at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, a stint in which he sparred in the ring for the first time in a year. "I have to win, no question about it."

In the last five years, Rothberger, who is from Brooklyn, became one of only four fighters to be suspended by the state for poor performances, an action the state commission takes to prevent injuries or dives. The other three fighters who were suspended were has-beens, taking too many fights late in their careers. Rothberger is alone, the only fighter in the sport's recent history in New York to have been suspended at the beginning of his career.

Of the state's estimated 300 licensed fighters, Rothberger, who turns 31 next month, is also one of the many part-time pugs who often challenge rising talents, and their own better judgment, for paydays that have not really changed much in more than 20 years. On the East Coast, for instance, the standard payment for a journeyman is still US$400 for a four-round fight and US$600 for six; in states like Mississippi, the pay can be as little as US$75 a round.

Sometimes expenses are covered. Sometimes they are not.

"The public doesn't buy into fighting itself anymore," the local promoter Sal Musumeci, who is putting on Thursday night's card, said. "If the public was interested in the competitiveness of the bouts, in the sport, then purses for four-round fighters would go up." Inflation in boxing, he says, only touches the sport's silk-pajama champions, with their cable-television contracts.

Last weekend, for instance, a tubby Lennox Lewis earned more than US$7 million for 18 slumbering minutes of action in his title defense against Vitali Klitschko. When Lewis fought Mike Tyson last year, both earned more than US$30 million.

For journeymen, whom all champions at some point must pass and punish to pad their records, transportation to bouts is rarely covered. State laws mandate that promoters provide fighters with medical insurance, but only on the night of a fight. But injuries can linger.

After one of Rothberger's fights, when he was shattered by the heavy-hitting prospect Dominick Guinn (22-0 with 17 knockouts), stitches under his eye cost Rothberger US$380. The promoter would not pay the bill, he said, and after paying his manager, his cut man, and losing, again, in one round, Rothberger said he was in the hole for more than $100. "It's horrible, the pay is peanuts, but what are you gonna do?" Rothberger said.

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