Fayetteville, North Carolina is the home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Special Operations Forces. These hardened warriors are battle-hardened and some of the best soldiers in the world. However, this past weekend a different type of warrior descended upon the gladiator city. Over 250 pugilists from around the country registered to fight at the 2022 Christy Martin Title Boxing Invitational Tournament.
For the second consecutive year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christy’s Champs, a non-profit organization founded by Hall of Famer Christy Martin, partnered with Title Boxing, the WBC, and the Harnett County Sheriff's Department Police Athletic League to showcase one of the largest boxing tournaments in the country.
Click here to learn how the first Christy Martin Title Boxing Invitational played out.
The tournament ran from July 22-24, 2022, at the Freedom Christian Academy Sports Complex in Fayetteville in Cumberland County. The complex housed three rings where over one hundred boxing matches would take place. Boxers from 8 to 50 years old competed, hoping to win the highly coveted championship belt in their respective division.
To host an event of this magnitude takes a lot of handiwork. So, when I arrived, I wasn’t surprised to see Christy and deputy Mark Hornsby, who runs Harnett County’s Police Athletic League, busily ensuring everything was ready for the competition. I caught up with Christy and asked her how things were going. She looked like she’d been skimping on sleep, to make sure the tourney ran smooth, but smiled energetically and said, “Everything is good, and we are excited to be back in Fayetteville to do this annual Christy Martin Title Tournament.”
Her voice was hoarse, but she marched on with the interview, keeping one eye on the camera and another on what was happening around her. Christy hit the ground running on Tuesday, July 19, when she landed in Fayetteville, she told me. “On Tuesday, we went to Lillington, North Carolina, and I spoke at an event speaking out against domestic violence and shared my story,” said the former champion. “I also talked about how boxing has saved so many lives and how boxing gyms are like families. We did that on Tuesday, and we did registrations on Thursday. Then I jetted to Florida to help BoxLab Promotions with weigh-ins at the Caribe Royale for an event they had on Saturday night. Then I came back to Fayetteville on a 5:00 AM flight this morning to be here for the Christy Martin Title Boxing Invitational tournament. It has been crazy, but I love boxing, and giving back to these kids is the main thing, and that's why I'm here.” In addition to ensuring the event was going smoothly, Christy graciously autographed copies of her recently released book, done with veteran journalist Ron Borges. She also signed gloves and denied no one an opportunity to take a picture with her.
It was slowly approaching noon, and the first fights were about to start. Coaches were warming their fighters up in the dressing area with light mitt work. The pitter-patter noise of punches striking mitts and jump ropes hitting the hardwood permeated the gym.
You could tell which fighters were fighting for the first time because they were pacing back and forth anxiously. But, on the other hand, the veteran fighters were calm and collected, with a laid-back swagger suggesting, “I've been there and done that.”
Some clubs only brought one fighter, and others brought over twenty fighters. Each club identified itself with t-shirts, warm-up suits, or jackets. Like the signature navy blue and yellow of the Charter Oaks Boxing Academy and the scarlet and red of the Marine Corps boxing team. Or the red and white of the 412-boxing squad and the blue and white shirts of the Eastside Boxing Club that read “Straight Outta Eastside Boxing Club.” Like a scene out of the cult classic movie The Warriors, each team wore their colors proudly as they sized each other up, waiting for their turn to step in the squared circle at the Christy Martin Title Boxing Invitational.
The Charter Oaks Boxing Academy (COBA) out of Hartford, Connecticut, came back for the second year in a row. Led by veteran boxing referee and trainer Johnny Callas, the team gave a great showing of themselves last year and was looking to do the same this year. Some fighters were returning, like Jacob Santiago, who had his first fight a year ago at this tournament. Since then, he has fought six times, so I was excited to see his development. Also returning was 17-year-old Jada Wyatt, who had a tough battle last year against local fighter Jasmine Vick. In addition, there were some new faces on the COBA team. Emaliel Rivera made his tournament debut, and Callas says he’s a standout talent. The COBA fighters fought well, with Jacob, Jada, Emaliel, and Jahnyah earning championship belts.
Arguably the best fight of the entire tournament was the championship fight between COBA’s Jada Wyatt and Fayetteville local Jasmine Vick, who represented the Fonteneaux Boxing Academy. As destiny would have it, this was a rematch between these two fighters. Last year, Jada came up a little short against Vick. This was Wyatt's chance to avenge her loss against the reigning and defending champion. These two warriors exchanged nonstop punches from the opening bell. The crowd was jumping out of their seats. Spectators watching other fights flocked to ring number one to watch the action. The raucousness of the crowd was deafening to such an extent that the referee couldn't hear the bell signaling the end of the first round. The girls just kept on punching until the referee finally stopped them. As the boxers walked to their corner, it was evident that this fight was a war of attrition and wasn’t going to go the distance. The bell rang, signaling the start of the second round, and both fighters charged each other, trading punch for punch. Both fighters were landing, but Jada was landing the cleaner and the harder shots. Vick fought valiantly but received four standing eight counts, forcing the referee to halt the battle. Jada avenged her loss and was a tournament champion.
Another team that showed great at the tournament was the Eastside Boxing Club from Norfolk, Virginia. Led by their elder, James “Bubba” Winfield, the team had five champions by day three of the tournament. Winfield, who fought exhibition rounds against Muhammad Ali in 1972 shares his experience and knowledge with his fighters. “It's all about the kids,” said Winfield. Winfield credits boxing for saving his life and wants the same for the youth in his city. “We want to get kids off the streets. We open our doors to everyone and charge the minimum of any gym in the city. And we try our best to mentor and coach the kids,” said the veteran coach.
The rugged and menacing Marine Corps boxing team won the team belt for the second year in a row. Led by coach Joe Higgins and amateur standout Stephanie Simon, the fighters were sharp and boxed superbly throughout the tournament.
Coach Higgins is always focused on the development of boxers and told NYFights, “We had another year to develop boxers. The ones that stayed with the team from last year got better, and I have some new novices. We build them from the ground up. I am thrilled with our success.” The Marine Corps boxing team houses tremendous talent, with two women boxers ranked nationally. However, these boxers are Marines first and boxers second. For most of them, their tenure with the team is relatively short. Therefore, half of this year's team are “newbies, as Coach Higgins likes to say. So, what's the secret recipe to Coach Higgins's successful run with the Marine Corps Boxing team even though he experiences a revolving door of new fighters each year? “Patience. It's the ultimate virtue. In boxing, there is no rushing people to be good. My recipe for success is not to fast-track a novice. I think ten fights take at least two years. It's worked, that's my formula,” said Higgins.
Tournaments of this magnitude draw some of the best fighters in the country. While all the fighters fought well, some fighters' talent was clearly above the rest of the competition, like a nationally ranked boxer Sonny Taylor from team 412 out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Taylor is ranked in the top ten in both the 165 lbs. and 176 lbs. divisions. Taylor was recently accepted for the United States Air Force World Class Athlete Program and will be training to earn a spot on the 2024 Olympic Boxing Team.
Some fighters are on their way to possibly being future national standouts. Like 14-year-old Darnell Lozada Jr. from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lozada is highly skilled, and his boxing style encompasses every bit of what is known as the “Philly style” of fighting. However, his opponent was no slouch either. Lozada won a close split decision against Reading, Pennsylvania native Zamir Torres in a fight that could've gone to either fighter. With only 12 fights, 14-year-old Torres is a slick counter puncher with excellent head and foot movement.
And 16-year-old Brandon Ayala from Ultimate Gym out of Charlotte, NC, is a talented fighter who dominated his opponent from the opening bell.
I won't be surprised if all these young men are nationally ranked by the U.S.A. Boxing Associaton within the next couple of years.
Once again, Christy Martin, Title Boxing, the WBC, and the Harnett County P.A.L. put on another successful tournament. Tournaments like these bring out the best in everyone, not only the boxers. I witnessed boxing in its purest form. I saw hugs of praise for the winners and hugs of comfort for the defeated. I listened as coaches encouraged, corrected, taught, and motivated fighters. I observed the shedding of blood, sweat, and tears trying to achieve something by all the athletes. Not all the fighters shared the glory of winning, but all traveled the arduous road toward the ring, and deserve heavy props for that alone.
No, it wasn't the M.G.M. Grand Garden Arena nor Madison Square Garden. There weren't millions of dollars at stake nor a colossal production company running the show. The tournament wasn’t even televised. However, boxing thrived in a hot gym in the middle of North Carolina for three days. The event was pure, unadulterated, incorruptible, and fun to watch. For three days, this tournament and its athletes reminded me why I fell in love with boxing.