All They Want Is a Good Fight: Boxing in Greensboro Gets the Juices Flowing
Drama is wired into the ritual at the Venue, a Greensboro boxing arena carved out of a vacated big box store tucked behind the Fast Tax Refunds shop on Randleman Road, as fever grips a crowd hungry for a righteous fight, for a protagonist to prevail over the long odds of life.
The honor of this protagonist will be threatened by an outsider, sneering and arrogant, striving for his own hard-won respect. The honor of the local fighter must be redeemed. Virtue must triumph over wickedness.
Just before the final match of the night on April 9, fighter Kemal Kolenovic runs to the ring dressed in a crimson Everlast robe, his trainer and two corner men following in matching jackets. Kolenovic, a Montenegran boxer from Brooklyn, NY, who weighs in at 148 pounds and holds a 9-3 record, punches the air in a display of boastful confidence as he climbs into the ring. Shedding his robe, he struts around all four corners as if marking out his territory, ever punching. Stitched into the back of his waistband are the words ‘Little Devil.’
Then the announcer calls out the record of Matthew ‘Mayhem’ Strode, billed as a Greensboro fighter but who actually lives and trains in Morgan, a Blue Ridge Mountain town 138 miles east on Interstate 40. Strode jogs lightly to the ring, his face obscured by the hood of his black robe. A black fighter named Kevin ‘KO’ Cagle walks in front of Strode carrying the latter’s Carolina Boxing Association welterweight title belt.
Cagle of Greensboro, himself the Carolina Boxing Association light middleweight champion, will have his own moment of glory on May 6 when he fights the Belorussian boxer Yuri Foreman at Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, a match that will be aired on Showtime, the cable and satellite network owned by Viacom.
Still making his way to the ring, Strode bows before the referee and then darts to the side to kiss his 10-month- old daughter on the cheek. Strode’s uncle, Raymond Deshong, has carried little Sydney from her stroller to meet her dad on his way to the ring.
He ducks through the ropes. Strode weighs in a pound under his rival Kolenovic, though his record is far superior: 15 wins to one loss. But dancing lightly in his corner with his dad, David, mouthing encouragement behind him, Strode at first looks diminutive in comparison to the confident Kolenovic, who is still running around the ring, punching the air and preening before the audience.
Although Strode has more fights under his belt, Kolenovic at 27 is five years older. As a young fighter who has never fought outside of the Carolinas and rarely against boxers with more wins than losses, perhaps some humility is in order. It’s also the case that Kolenovic ‘— although he’s had fewer fights ‘— has been at it since 1999, while Strode made his professional debut less than two years ago.
At the bell the fighters assault each other like coiled springs or perhaps dynamos, each with controlled fury and cagey shrewdness. Squaring off, stepping in, ducking out, chasing one another around the ring or making a tactical retreat, the two men unleash relentless physical punishment on each other round after round, showing only the slightest weariness at the end.
Kolenovic is the more aggressive of the two as he drives Strode around the ring, firing his fists without discrimination. In the first round, Kolenovic drives him into the ropes, but Strode spins out of the trap and returns with a couple solid punches to his opponent’s face.
It looks as if Kolenovic is setting the agenda. Rashad Holloway, Strode’s sparring partner from Raleigh, yells to his buddy: ‘“You gotta mix it up!’”
It continues like this in the second round, Kolenovic getting in more punches but Strode connecting more solidly. There are respectable-looking women sitting at ringside whose mouths shape into ‘O’s’ in expressions of concern, women smiling lustily, men who absorb the sensory banquet with focused attention. The fighters’ athleticism and violence are not the only things that mesmerize them, also the fwish-fwish of labored breath, the harnessed rage and the cascade of sweat that rains down from the ring when a fighter reels back from a hit on the chin.
Kolenovic’s corner men roar encouragement to him as he taunts his opponent, jeering with teeth bared. The Slavic journeyman scores a string of hits to his opponent’s head, clearly getting the better of him until Strode skillfully disengages and returns with a solid blow. The two fighters’ eyes burn with real anger, and as the bell rings they keep driving at each other. Pulled apart by the referee, Strode flinches his shoulder as if to unwind one last outside hook.
David Strode sits his son down on the stool and berates him for his lapse in sportsmanship while squirting water into his mouth.
When the bell rings again, the pent-up anger explodes. Strode delivers a stunning uppercut to Kolenovic’s chin, and is suddenly bouncing on his heels with loose energy. His opponent just stands in place for a moment. In the next round, though, Strode is covering his head and taking hits. Kolenovic lands a couple of solid punches, and Strode gives him a crazy look and laughs in his face.
By the sixth round, Kolenovic is battering Strode with a sustained barrage of punches to his midsection and about his head. The Brooklyn entourage is impatient for him to wrap it up with a knockout.
‘“One shot,’” yells one of Kolenovic’s corner men in the seventh round. ‘“Let’s go.’”
But then Kolenovic misses and falls headlong into the ropes. He recovers his poise though, before Strode can capitalize on his stumble.
In the eighth and final round neither look really tired; they continue to explode with machinelike energy. Yet at the end Strode has the quicker reaction time, the cleaner movement and the greater poise of the two. As he drives his opponent into the ropes, the hometown crowd roars with approval. Kolenovic shudders with a look of dumb surprise.
The announcer calls 10 seconds, and Kolenovic begins to mount a campaign of resurrection. Strode dances away to escape the other’s fury. The final bell rings and Strode grins with assured confidence. He climbs up on the ropes in Kolenovic’s corner and raises his fists to the crowd, lording it over his opponent’s trainer and corner men. Then he steps down and shakes hands with Kolenovic’s trainer, Pastor Rafael, and with his opponent himself. Strode’s dad beams with pride.
There is an undercurrent of discontent in the crowd, possibly related to any of the 10 matches that night. A man and woman, both with beefy physiques, square off and shout at each other before security guards appear to break them up.
‘“Cool it, man,’” says announcer Bruce Foster, a swarthy and genial man who runs a private security service in Research Triangle Park. ‘“You guys will end up going to jail. That’s no way to end the night.’”
Foster climbs into the ring and announces the judges’ decisions; one calls it a tie while two call it in Strode’s favor. Kolenovic crumbles to the floor overcome with dismay as Strode beams with delight.
Some in the crowd boo. One of Kolenovic’s fans, a man with a distinct Brooklyn accent, leans into the ring and declares: ‘“You were robbed. Unbelievable.’”
Strode climbs out of the ring and walks into a sea of supporters, many of them lesser fighters from the Triad and Triangle for whom he is the champion of local boxing. Strode and the North Carolina homeboys tend to express their triumphal glee by looking at each other with looks of astonishment and exclaiming: ‘“What?!’”
Pedro Tapia, a 32-year-old welterweight from Greensboro, grabs Strode around the neck and pulls him into an embrace. Tapia has also had a good night, defeating Spartanburg, SC, fighter Emmanuel Hutchinson by knockout in one round. Tapia, like Strode, is a rising North Carolina fighter associated with Greensboro’s Cheryl Nance Promotions. He’s undefeated with a 6-0 record, all knockouts in the first round. So far, however, he’s contended against largely unremarkable fighters. The trick is to keep winning and to eventually find a worthy opponent whom he can beat in a good fight.
Now in his dressing room, a 15-by-20-foot partitioned area that has been used tonight by three other fighters, Strode is by himself except for a reporter and his father, who comes in and out with water bottles, rags and other supplies. Unwrapping his hands, he shouts, ‘“Whooo!’” as much to himself as anyone else.
No, he nods, he never felt tired. This is what he trained for, over six hard weeks for six hours a day ‘— running, lifting weights, sparring. He’s just a young’un at 22 years of age, but he doesn’t work a job. This is his job. His dad writes his workouts down for him every day before he drives off to work in Lenoir, a town in the next county over.
‘“I tried to pace myself. I tried to stay outside,’” Strode says. ‘“He was a pretty strong boy. That was a hell of a fight. I just kept coming back off the shots.’”
The crowd would have loved to see a knockout in the final round, but if he had tried he might have lost everything.
‘“We didn’t want to open ourselves up,’” he says. ‘“We said, ‘If the opportunity comes we’ll take it,’ but we weren’t going to force it.’”
His sparring partner, Holloway, comes in and congratulates him. He complains that although he won his fight tonight by knockout in the first round, he’s still waiting for a good match-up. A fight like Strode and Kolenovic’s where two fighters with roughly equal abilities go at each other for eight rounds is one to envy.
Outside the dressing room in the arena, Kolenovic is sitting at the official’s table talking to NC Boxing Commission Executive Director Roger Hutchings as the crowd drizzles out. Fighters often confer with the officials who regulate the sport under the auspices of the state’s Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. Every fight has to be approved by the Boxing Commission 72 hours in advance and it’s wise to stay on good terms with the officials.
Rafael, Kolenovic’s trainer, sits glumly in a folding chair off to the side.
He took a risk by bringing his fighter down from New York, he says. The three judges, all from North Carolina, he says, showed favor to Strode. (The judges are independent agents licensed by the Boxing Commission.) Kolenovic would have had to make a decisive show to get the decision.
‘“I told him at the beginning of the seventh round, you’ve got two rounds to do it,’” Rafael says. ‘“You gotta drop him.’”
‘“At least it should have been called a draw,’” he continues. ‘“My kid took some good heavy body shots. But [Strode is] a local kid and he has a better record than my kid. They gotta protect him.’”
Winning is everything in boxing. When you lose, the amount of money you can command for each fight begins to fall. If you lose too many times, the Boxing Commission won’t let you fight.
For most fighters, the payoff is modest, and boxing is a pursuit tucked into otherwise mundane work lives. But dreams are immeasurable.
Pedro Tapia and his opponent, Emmanuel Hutchinson, both took home $400 tonight.
‘“I fight right now for the future, and I can’t think about the money,’” says Tapia, who works for his brother Leonardo installing drywall. Leonardo, in turn, is Pedro’s trainer.
‘“A lot of guys are saying, ‘You are making four hundred dollars in two minutes!’ But they don’t know I’ve been training for thirty days, and spending money on gas to get to the gym. If I start losing, I will not make money, but if I win a championship it will be like the lottery.’”
But for one loss in his second fight and two draws, Kolenovic went undefeated for his first 11 fights. Then in late 2004, he challenged two fighters with more wins than losses on their balance sheets in upstate New York, and lost. In March, he came down to Greensboro and scored a win against a Lumberton boxer named Andre Baker who had a 7-22 record. Maybe he thought he could consolidate his resurrection with a win over a fighter of Strode’s caliber in a return visit to Greensboro.
He was denied that honor. But no one could say he didn’t give the match his soul.
‘“It was a good fight,’” Rafael says. ‘“It was action-packed.’”
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