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.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
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.
In the past, there have been efforts to organize fighters, and nearly all have failed. The reason, boxing insiders said, is the sport's lack of structure.
"The world of boxing is like a world of amorphous Jell-O," the cigar-chomping fight historian Bert Sugar said. "Who are fighters going to take on? The promoters? The matchmakers? ESPN? There's no single force to rally against."
Still, some try. At a news conference last month at Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the two-month-old Joint Association of Boxers (JAB) announced an affiliation with the Teamsters union. Together, they look to offer pensions, medical coverage and collective bargaining; to date, they claim to have signed up about 150 fighters.
But for the moment, JAB still has not figured out how the union will work, and many fighters -- especially journeymen like Rothberger -- are wary of dividing their purses among more people. When the former world champion Eddie Mustafa-Muhammad, JAB's president, went to Gleason's earlier this month looking for recruits, he dropped off a stack of union cards, said hello to a few friends, then left after 15 minutes.
"It's going to take a little more then that to help fighters," said Bruce Silverglade, who has been running Gleason's for more than 20 years. He has come across fighters with detached retinas, broken hands and the flu who would try everything they could to trick the commission's doctors into letting them fight for short money.
Silverglade's sober gaze extends to Rothberger, whom, he thinks, is lying to himself about his abilities.
"He simply doesn't have what it takes to be a fighter," Silverglade said.
Rothberger disagrees. "It's just been a little rough in the beginning, and unfair," he said. In his last fight, for instance, his trainer never showed up. A pudgy 252 pounds that night, Rothberger stepped into the ring and was on his knees after about a minute, and a wrenching punch to the stomach sent his mouth guard rolling around the canvas like a car's loose hubcap. He was on his feet before the count of 10, but he watched the referee stop the fight with glassy eyes, then left the ring to a chorus of obscenities.
"I need the money," Rothberger said minutes later, alone again, in a makeshift locker room at Club Amazura, an old fight hall turned nightclub near Kennedy International Airport in Queens. "I don't want to fight, the ring is the worst place in the world. But listen to me. I'll be back. You'll see. I'm just a late bloomer. All my life I've been a late bloomer. Give me a month. I'll be back."
That fight was two years ago. Rothberger has not fought since. The commission suspended his license shortly after. He pursued acting, but that business is tough, too, he said, and callbacks have been rare. Then things got worse. He split up with his longtime girlfriend. His mother died. He said that rather than pay the Jewish cemetery on Long Island to maintain the grave he went to Home Depot, spent US$80 on rocks and grass, and did the job himself.
"All my life I've had to do it myself," he said.
And now he will get in a ring again, 25 pounds lighter than in his previous fight.
"I read Mike the riot act," Ron Scott Stevens, the state boxing commissioner, said. "He's borderline. This is his last opportunity."
A week ago, when Rothberger was back in the ring at Gleason's, he was wearing sneakers as he sparred. He had come straight from work, had not had time to fetch his boxing shoes and had not slept in more than 18 hours. But for a zombie, his movements were surprisingly fluid, even speedy.
"Mike will be OK, I hope," Roosevelt Farrell, his temporary trainer, said. "You know, its never too late to become what you could have been."
After the session, Rothberger was optimistic. He had received two callbacks for an acting job, one that required him to get a Mohawk haircut. For his comeback, he did not have a game plan, he said, because when the bell rings for the first time you forget everything. You simply have to fight.
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