On July 23rd, the Olympics opening ceremony aired on NBC, kicking off the 2020 Olympics. Boxing fans across the country were tuning in to see how the United States boxing team would fare.
Next to Olympic Boxing, Fayetteville, N.C., was host to probably the largest amateur boxing tournament in the country this past weekend. Christy's Champs, a non-profit organization founded by former world champion and Hall of Famer Christy Salters (Martin), partnered with Title Boxing, the WBC, and the Harnett County Sheriff's Department Police Athletic League to put together a high-quality boxing tournament that showcased over 300 amateur boxers.
You may have read this story on NYFights, and if so you got caught up on what the living legend is up to these days, how she's a full-on boxing lifer, because she's building up her own promotional company after prize-fighting from 1989 to 2012. Christy arrived in Fayetteville the Monday before the tournament, already behind schedule because her flight from Florida, her home base, was delayed on Sunday due to inclement weather.
Along with Deputy Mark Hornsby, Christy hit the ground running and tackled a loaded program throughout the week. She and Deputy Hornsby made their way around town, talking to different clubs, meeting and talking to the local fighters. She was also a keynote speaker at the Cumberland County Rape Crisis Center and shared her story as she spoke out against domestic violence.
Competitors arrived from all over the country to participate and put their boxing skills on full display. From Washington state to Washington D.C., New York to Florida, and even Puerto Rico, fighters arrived at Fayetteville, North Carolina, ready to prove themselves in battle.
I attended, there was a steady flow of boxing clubs entering the registration room, proudly wearing their unique warmup suits or t-shirts representing their club. The boxers and coaches sported a stone-like scowl on their faces as they sized each other up and walked with a swagger that personifies combat athletes. All met and were greeted by the warm smile of Christy Martin.
The fighters were excited to meet her, every one. For some of them, they were meeting their idol and a beacon of inspiration. She shook hands with most of the fighters, posed for pictures, and signed autographs. Additionally, she made time to speak out against domestic violence and give the boxers a motivational talk before the tournament.
Each fighter had a unique story, each with a different path in life that led them down the same road to the tournament. Boxers as young as 8-years-old and as mature as 46 represented small clubs like the Savage Boxing Academy out of Summerville, South Carolina…
…and larger famed clubs like the Charter Oak Boxing Academy out of Hartford, Connecticut led by Johnny Callas and former light heavyweight contender “Iceman” John Scully.
There was an array of boxing clubs that would compete and thrill boxing fans. Some clubs only brought one fighter with them, and some brought their whole team. Like Jill Vanzino (below, in Jacob Rodriguez photo), the lone warrior for Remix MMA out of Ridgefield, New Jersey. The 37-year-old New Jersey native was fighting in her first boxing match.
A Rutgers University alumna, and now the Director of Special Events and Alumni Relations at Hunter College, Vanzino first picked up MMA as a way to get back in shape. Like most fighters who stay with it for a spell, and see their confidence grow, Jill eventually wanted to test her skills in a competitive fight.
“I quickly became drawn to the sport, watching sparring sessions in the ring at the gym in awe, and knew it's where I wanted to work towards being,” Vanzino told me. “The perseverance and confidence of fighters is inspiring. Once I reached my weight loss goal after one year in the gym, the next goal was to fight,” she said when I asked her why she was competing in the tournament.
The Marines were impeccable in their appearance and stoic in their behavior, indicating the no-nonsense, all-business demeanor that embodies a United States Marine. I asked Coach Higgins what a well-disciplined Marine trained for military combat can learn from a sport like boxing. “You'd be surprised, boxing stands by itself,” he said. “Now, I know there are other hardcore things in life people in the service have to do, but boxing stands alone. It's not for everybody, even if you are a disciplined person. You have to be that unique individual that's ok with all of that work, ok with living a boring lifestyle outside the gym because getting your hand raised is that important to you. So, can we create everybody to do that? Like I said, it is not for everybody, some of my Marines we had to send back to their unit because they couldn't really handle the workload.”
Not all the fighters came from far-away states. North Carolina and South Carolina had a wealth of talented boxers who were ready to rumble against the pugilistic invasion that descended upon Fayetteville, NC. During a prefight interview, a 21-year-old native of Fayetteville, N.C., Jamacio McNeil, proudly said, “This is my city,” when I asked him what city he represents. I asked him to elaborate on that statement, and he responded, “I feel if you're coming out of the state to fight in my city, there is no way I can leave without the belt, it’s my city. I got to claim it now.”
Hankinson Boxing Gym well represented Aiken, South Carolina, and the gym's motto is “Gloves Up, Guns Down.” Coach Hankinson bought seven fighters with him ranging in ages from 8 to 15 years old.
Hankinson came off to me as a humble coach who is fully invested in the personal growth of each of his boxers.
Boxing is a unique sport in which the relationship between a coach and a fighter is paramount to the fighter's success. I would argue that it is probably the strongest bond between an athlete and coach in sports, especially in amateur boxing.
The strongest relationship between coach and fighter that I witnessed this weekend was that of the Petroglia sisters and their coach Michael Andrillo. Jillian Petroglia, a 21-year-old math major, and her younger sister, 15-year-old Antanina Petroglia represented the Inferno Training Center out of Lindenhurst, New York.
The bond between them and their coach starts well outside the ring. Aside from the rigorous training, pre-fight TikTok rituals and tattooing each other's initials on their body are some examples of the strong bond they share. The night before the fight, their Instagram and TikTok followers were serenaded to their lip-synced rendition of Neil Diamond's “Sweet Caroline.” Whether to calm pre-flight jitters or as a way to kill time the night before the fight, it's clear Coach Andrillo has created a tight bond with his fighters that they can rely on in the heat of a battle.
Fight day finally arrives, and the Freedom Christian Academy Sports Complex was divided into two wings. One wing had two basketball courts transformed into makeshift dressing rooms, where warmups and fighter preparation took place. The other branch was set up with three rings, where over three hundred fighters would compete for a belt sponsored by Title Boxing, the runner-ups will be awarded medals.
Title Boxing was instrumental in providing the equipment necessary for an event of this magnitude to take place. The rings, the gloves, the winners' belt, and even a gym-bag full of Title Boxing equipment were raffled, all bearing the famous Title logo.
Title marketing director Douglas Ward was present on both days of the tournament. He made his way around talking to and taking pictures with the fighters and their families. I asked Ward how Title became involved with Christy Martin Promotions and why an event like this important to amateur boxing.
He replied, “This one goes back a way. I have known Christy for over 20 years. So as soon as she and Mark Hornsby reached out to me and said, ‘We're doing a tournament,' I said, ‘We are in.' They are good boxing people, they have their hearts in the right place, and we knew that they were going to put on a good tournament. It's fantastic! It's a well-run event that impacts the boxing community at a larger scale. People have a great experience, fighters walk away with a beautiful belt, and they get excited for the next event. It's about momentum. If you can keep fighters fighting on a regular basis, they are going to stay in the gym more, they are going to stay motivated, and they will have something to look forward to on a regular basis. North Carolina boxing is growing at a tremendous rate, and it's thanks to events like this and people like this.”
The gym started to get packed with spectators anxiously waiting to cheer on their favorite fighter, it was standing room only in the facility. Amongst the crowds, you could find boxing celebrities like Calvin Shepherd, a Marine Corps Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, who was here as a coach.
Former light heavyweight contender “Iceman” John Scully was in attendance with his team from the COBA boxing academy. Even the 1988 Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion of the world, Ray Mercer, came out to enjoy a weekend of amateur boxing.
Ray told me that he loves coming out to events like this because they bring back so many good memories.
As the clock got closer to noon, you could feel the nervous energy and anxiety emanating from both fans and fighters alike.
The tournament commenced with the singing of the National Anthem. After the Anthem, the announcer started to call fighters to get ready to enter the ring.
The bell sounded, and the event kicked off. The nervous energy and the quietness of the arena were replaced with the loud noises of fighter introductions, cheering, coaching instructions, referees barking commands, and the winners' announcement.
Bout after bout you, the roar of cheers for the winner were accompanied with the grumbles of disappointments for the runners-up.
For two consecutive days of boxing, fighters would enter the ring with the goal of having their hands raised as a winner, a goal that only half the competitors would experience. Regardless of the outcome, there is mutual respect on display amongst rivals in the ring. Respect that can only be forged by punching each other in the face for nine minutes..
Fight after fight, interview after interview, I witnessed, felt, and shared the myriad of emotions felt by each fighter once a match was over. The pure joy of the winner, the agony of defeat, and the relief that it was finally over.
Like the emotional interview by 16-year-old Ramon Morales, from Battle Boxing out of Columbia, S.C. He fought back tears of joy while giving me the details of his fight. Ramon's first victory was a victory he wasn't sure would come after losing his first two fights. The validation he sought came by way of knockout, and he hopes to one day be a WBC world champion.
On the flip side of that coin, I was doing my best to hold back tears while interviewing 11-year-old Alina Alvarez representing Brick City Boxing out of Angier, N.C. She was devastated because she didn't win her match. What I didn't know going into this interview was that this was Alina's first fight. Losing a fight is heartbreaking for any fighter of any age, especially when it's your first match. But Alina has a great trainer and supportive parents, and she will win her first fight in no time. The weekend was full of stories like that of Ramon and Alina.
Amid the chaos that is an amateur boxing event, Christy Martin didn't miss a beat. She shook hands with everyone that approached her. She posed for pictures, signed belts, medals, and posed for photos with the fans and fighters. She congratulated the winners and gave motivational talks to the runners-up.
Behind the scenes, Deputy Mark Hornsby was working tirelessly to ensure that the event was running smoothly. I don't think there was a time where I saw him idle.
Deputy Hornsby is the foundation for the success of this event. He, along with a handful of volunteers, set up three regulation-size boxing rings on Friday night, organized the gym's layout and ensured the fighters were at the right place at the right time.
While these events provide a venue for anyone to test their skills on a competitive level. Future boxing stars use these events to hone their skills and climb through the national ranking system, hoping to compete in future national, world, and Olympics games, ultimately becoming professional boxers. Zoe Bustamante, a 12-year-old fighter representing City Boxing of Las Vegas, Nevada, dazzled us with her excellent application of boxing techniques at such a young age. (That is Zoe with Martin, and her dad, Chris, in the Jacob Rodriguez photo topping this story.)
And 16-year-old Bryan Santos Mendez, from Cupey, Puerto Rico, fought a superb match and displayed a skill-set indicative of a national amateur boxing champion. Both Zoe and Bryan have demonstrated the skills, mindset, and necessary support teams needed to reach boxing greatness; their future is bright.
Day two was an exact mirror of day one. Fighters showed up to fight, and fans showed up to watch. The fights were mostly championship bouts. The Marine Corps Boxing team won the green WBC team belt, awarded to the team that had the most individual winners. Coach Higgins demanded the very best from his team, and out of eight boxers, five Marines won their respective championship matches. Hankinson Boxing Gym out of Aiken, S.C., posted four champions, led by 15-year-old Jabreiona Hankinson, who has all the tools to be a future champion.
Fayetteville clubs gave a good showing for themselves. Jamacio Mcneil kept true to his word and kept his division's belt in Fayetteville, N.C. And Jasmine Vick, out of Fonteneaux Boxing Academy, won the women's championship for her division.
An event like this isn't JUST an all-day affair, in a small school gym or city recreational center, with limited seating, that consists of two fighters getting in the ring, and throwing punches for a maximum of three rounds. One fighter walks away victorious and the other defeated. On the surface, that is amateur boxing in a nutshell, but amateur boxing is so much more than that. It's probably the purest and most polarizing athletic event a sports fan can ever witness. Each fighter had a reason why they stepped into the ring. All the competitors have their own goals, dreams, and aspirations. Some at the tourney fought for themselves, others fought for something bigger than themselves. That was the case with 26-year-old Tanaesja Milligan, representing the Sweet Science Fitness Boxing Club out of Atlanta, GA. She and 30-year-old Elia Carranza, representing Level Up Boxing and Fitness out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, bought out the best in each other during their championship fight. Both are motivated to fight for something other than themselves. Tanaesja is an occupational therapist who works with challenged adolescents and uses boxing to show them that they can do more with their free time and put their talents to good use. Elia is a businesswoman and works in law enforcement. She initially started boxing to help her with her weight loss goals. Now she uses competitive boxing to challenge herself and be an example for other women to pursue boxing. This weekend was full of dozens of stories like those of Jill Vanzino, the Petroglia sisters, Jamacio Mcneil, Bryan Santos, and Zoe Bustamante. Not every boxer walked away a winner, but every fighter walked away with experiences and memories that they will carry with them through the rest of their life.
Tournaments like the Christy Martin Title Invitational showcase the best people society has to offer. People like Christy Martin, Doug Ward, Mark Hornsby, Johnny Callas, John Scully, and all the coaches understand that investing in amateur boxers is ultimately an investment into society.
Amateur boxing perfectly represents the diversity of America and the challenges of everyday life. The sweat, the work, the punches, the hits, the blood, the knockdowns, the defeats, and the victories are life's challenges manifested in nine minutes of boxing. Not every amateur boxer will become an Olympian or a world champion. However, in my experience, most amateur boxers do become honorable and noble citizens who utilize the lessons they learned in the ring to face the challenges of life, and that's why events like this are necessary.
You perhaps noticed that throughout my article, I never used the word “loser” or “lost.” That's because, unlike in other sports, there are no losers in amateur boxing. Each fighter is ultimately competing to become a better version of themselves. Charter Oaks Boxing Academy's motto is “A Boxing Club where Life is the Main Event,” and I can't think of a better quote that captures the essence of amateur boxing.