A first time for young eyes at ringside ... priceless
On a rare day off from Friday Night Fights, announcer Joe Tessitore gave his son the gift of boxing at ringside.
It seems we always hear the same thing about hockey: "Bad TV sport, but it's great in person." I don't necessarily disagree.
Not all sports are created equal. Ever since the old Hartford Whalers Brass Bonanza theme song went the way of the audio cassette, hockey lost me. I will admit the sport that drops the gloves is a wonderful watch from center ice, but it's the sport that gloves them up that I think delivers the most.
With cameras and microphones anywhere you could imagine, boxing was all-access reality television long before some MTV techy put a lipstick cam near a hot tub. Still much like hockey, and the hot tub, there's nothing quite as good as being there live.
This week, "Friday Night Fights" is in Boston to celebrate St.Patrick's Day (ESPN2, 8 ET). If you're in New England, buy a ticket, tap me on the shoulder and say hello. Then get ready to experience possibly the best sporting event you might ever attend. The matchup of Vince Phillips versus Jesse Feliciano might not sound like such a spectacle, but you never know what you're going to get with this sport. Trust me.
I'm spoiled with my blood-splattered job. Sometimes, I forget just how good it is to be ringside -- where it's out of control -- instead of couch side with a remote control. This past Friday, I surely knew how good it was.
"Friday Night Fights" was on hiatus for a week, but that didn't stop me from getting my fill. There was a card at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. It's just an hour drive from my house and in recent years, the famed Fox Theatre has had a reputation for barn burners. It's been host to 43 world title fights.
This wasn't a night of world champs or live TV coverage. It was just a fight fan's fight card. I couldn't resist. Plus, I somehow justified this thought: What better way for my son to celebrate his sixth birthday than a fight night with Dad?
OK, I admit it reads like the sort of thing that will have child psychologists throwing their keyboards through framed degrees. Don't tell 6-year-old John Tessitore it wasn't good for him. He loved it.
When I was John's age, I was spending most of my summer days at Saratoga race track. From both my grandfathers to my parents, aunts and uncles, somebody would be bringing me to the track.
They were all passionate players of the ponies. I swear, I aced math throughout grammar school because of the track. I was calculating payouts off the tote board before any teacher showed me multiples on the chalkboard.
We had a saying at the track, "The hook is in the mouth." It pertained to first-timers winning on their first day, thus getting roped into the sport. Let me confirm that my son got the boxing hook in the mouth. And by the end of the night at Foxwoods, he was reeled in.
We sat down in balcony seats overlooking the ring, just 30 feet away from the canvas. The card was great. John was wowed by good action from hopeful prospects letting it all hang out. With a big soda in his hands, and eyes wide open, he took it all in. He never looked away from the ring.
He asked questions. "Why do the judges sit there? Who is that guy holding the ropes for the ring card girls? What's the ref saying to them?"
His youthful curiosity was about to go into overdrive.
Willie Gibbs was fighting in the main event for the USBA middleweight title. He has become an ESPN regular in recent years and fought in our 2004 fight of the year. On this night, he was taking on Lenord Pierre. Pierre is a come-forward middleweight. Trained by Kevin Rooney at the old Catskill gym, Pierre does indeed employ that Mike Tyson style. On this night, Pierre also had a little Arturo Gatti, Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio and Meldrick Taylor in him.
My son was stoked. Gibbs came in looking like shredded steel and, as always, intimidating wearing his signature gladiator mask. "Imagine if he let me put that on," John said. Yes, the hook was set in the mouth firmly.
Moments later the mask was off and the fight began. Gibbs landed the flushest right hand you'll ever see. The crowd was on its feet, and somehow so was Pierre. He survived it. Unreal.
Pierre looked as if he was going to be out in the first round. The next thing you know, he was on the attack.
"How the ? What the ?" Now I turned into the six-year-old asking the questions.
The fans couldn't get enough. Round 2 had more excitement. Gibbs was mounting attacks with the right hand. Pierre was still coming forward; bob and weave, slip under and punch. The crowd erupted again. Gibbs appeared as if he could take Pierre at any moment, but it wasn't happening.
The middle rounds were all Pierre. He dug to the body like it was his job. He landed a right hand that nearly took all the air out of Gibbs. There was no way they could continue this pace. In the sixth round, matchmaker Ron Katz sat next to me. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. Katz has put together as many matches in the last quarter-century as anyone. If Katz couldn't get over it, imagine what little John Tessitore was thinking. Yes, the line was being reeled in. The kid was on his way to boxing addiction.
At the end of the sixth, the crowd gave both fighters a standing ovation. It was only the beginning.
Pierre went on to win more rounds but Gibbs never went away. He was still dangerous. Every so often, he would display some serious head-hunting power. At one point, Gibbs scored a fierce right hand that opened up a bad cut over Pierre's left eye.
The cut was flowing with blood. It ran down Pierre's face like a sloppy paint job, turning his white trunks pink streaked. Still, Pierre fought on and won a few more rounds.
By the 12th round, we were all in disbelief. Everyone ringside felt Pierre had come back from that first-round disaster and mid-fight cut to take a clear lead on the scorecards. Gibbs likely needed a KO.
It was the final minute of the final round. Pierre was still being the brave warrior. He was moments away from his career-defining victory. And then it happened. Gibbs floored him. Pierre was hurt badly.
My son was on his seat jumping up and down. Grown men in striped suits smoking fine cigars had their hands on their heads in utter shock. Could Pierre beat the count? Wow, he did. That was close. Now, could he survive the round?
The timekeeper's hammer thumped the wood. Ten seconds left in the fight. Pierre stepped back. There was one last chance for Gibbs. Here it comes. A huge sweeping left hook. It crushed the side of Pierre's face. Before he even hit the canvas, you knew Pierre was out. He went straight back. Like a snow angel, Pierre was planted in place flat on his back.
It was over. Fight of the year from rounds one thru 12 and with 7 seconds left, a miracle finish.
I'll never forget the look on my son's face. Like the young baseball fan whose first game was a walk-off home run, John was just stamped a fight fan for life.
We watched the celebration unfold in the ring. We watched Pierre eventually get to his feet. Then, we made our way down to the locker rooms.
Gibbs came into the hallway. He saw me right away. I congratulated him and introduced him to John. He thanked us for coming to the fight and told me I'd see him again, and it will be with a world title.
When you see a fight like that on TV, the announcers and corner audio play it up as big as it can be. And it's great. But when you are there live, and the announcers' crescendos are replaced by the fans' natural reactions. And when the corner audio is replaced by your own thoughts of wondering how these warriors are surviving this, it is unparalleled.
It was one of those moments that makes you feel alive. The fight folks backstage knew what they just witnessed. They also knew what little John just witnessed. The hook was in his mouth.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."