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An inside look at the rise of boxer Chris Algieri

Chris Algieri works out at his training camp

Chris Algieri works out at his training camp in the Palazzo Las Vegason. Oct. 29, 2014 in preparation for the Nov. 22 fight against Manny Pacquiao in Macao, China. Credit: Newsday/Jeffrey Basinger

"Raging Bull" Chris Algieri is not.

The WBO light welterweight champion of the world wasn't bred on the "mean streets" unless you find a bucolic cul-de-sac in a North Shore suburb on Long Island threatening.

He doesn't fit the stereotype of the uneducated boxer with a troubled childhood fighting his way out of poverty.

On the contrary, Algieri is trained as a classical boxer, a devotee of the "Sweet Science" who actually has intimate knowledge of the natural sciences after completing a bachelor's degree in health sciences at Stony Brook and earning a master's degree in clinical nutrition from NYIT.

Algieri's story could be a G-rated version of "Rocky" in the sense that he was a virtual unknown until his upset of Ruslan Provodnikov on June 14 thrust him into position to fight all-time great and WBO welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao on Nov. 22 in Macau, China.

When the Provodnikov fight ended, Algieri certainly resembled the fictional Rocky Balboa with a right eye that was grotesquely discolored and swollen shut as a result of two first-round knockdowns.

But rather than follow a Hollywood script by brawling, Algieri collected his wits and smartly boxed his way to a split-decision victory.

Critics howled that Provodnikov was robbed because he did more obvious damage than the hundreds of punches Algieri landed. No matter. The ink is dry on a Pacquiao contract that will pay him nearly $1.5 million for what many of those critics are calling a mismatch.

"I don't relish shutting up critics," Algieri said recently before moving his training from Long Island to Las Vegas. "I don't think people believe me when I say, 'I don't care what people think.' It doesn't matter.

"I matter. Ruslan matters. Manny matters. People who tell me I lost the fight, I don't care what you think . . . For me, it's good my coaches [Tim Lane and Keith Trimble] were recognized for coming out of nowhere, but I don't have to say, 'I told you so.' I just like to win. It was about being 20-0, not getting a title or beating Ruslan or fighting on HBO. I wanted to win."

 

His long road to the top

 

That ability to distill extraneous thoughts and actions to focus on the essentials is the talent that defines Algieri. It sustained him on the improbable road from youth kickboxing champion to late-blooming club fighter suddenly emerging at age 30 near the pinnacle of the sport.

The idea of Algieri upsetting Pacquiao requires a suspension of disbelief, but those who know him best never have seen Algieri fail at something he set his mind to achieve.

"Me, Tim and Chris were the only three who felt from Day 1 that we could be where we are," Bellmore-based trainer Trimble said. "We went through different promoters or managers. They really didn't take him seriously.

"It was tough to get fights in the beginning. It was people blowing you off because you don't have that amateur boxing background. You're smart . . . you have a nice home and grass and a pool; you have a mom and a dad. I never understood how, just because you come from a nice upbringing, you can't be a tough kid."

 

Family ties & the karate kid

 

It might not be evident on the surface of Algieri's boy-next-door childhood, but the roots of his inner strength are drawn from his intensely tight-knit family. His jovial father, Dominic, is a supervisor in the Town of Huntington highway department, where he has worked more than 30 years. Mother Adriana was a young girl when her father, Carlos Colomba, moved the family from Argentina to Long Island around 1963. He owned a tool and die business and worked as an independent contractor for Grumman Aviation.

Education was first and foremost for Adriana, who not only raised Chris and older brother Michael, who is a New York City policeman, but also worked as an insurance auditor before switching to her current job as unit secretary in the emergency room at Huntington Hospital. Her family still lives in the same duplex-style home with Michael, his wife and three children on one side and Chris living in the basement apartment when he's home.

Chris grew up playing the usual array of sports from baseball to basketball to swimming. Adriana didn't want Chris playing football because of the contact, but then he found karate and was hooked by the individual nature of the sport.

"It was such an enigma to me and my husband," Adriana said of her son's taste for combat. "We thought it would fizzle and go away. Chris wanted to be a doctor because that's what my dad wanted him to be. When they watched boxing together, my dad would say, 'Don't be a boxer. Be a doctor.'

"They used to sit and watch all the fights. In broken English, my father would tell Chris about all the big-time boxers. He knew the history and the big fights. It was always a boxing kind of house in that respect, but education was No. 1."

Algieri's parents apparently weren't aware how much of a boxing house it really was. "Michael was five years older, and he used to beat the hell out of me any chance he had," Chris said. "I hated him at that time. I was used to getting hit and being very physical. Michael is my best friend now."

But it wasn't an instinct for self-preservation that drove Algieri to learn self-defense. When his parents dropped him off at instructor Robert Mauro's U.S. Karate Academy in Huntington, Algieri found he loved everything about the sport.

"I had to internalize a lot of things, focus on my inner self and be disciplined," Algieri said. "It taught me things I use in every aspect of my life. I liked the physical contact when we sparred. I wanted to hit people hard and be in fights. I was just always that way.

"Something else about the karate that grabbed me was that I had homework. I'd leave the dojo and come home, and I had my sheets with my moves on it and I had to go practice them. I liked that. I was the kid in school, even in kindergarten, who asked for extra homework. Yeah, it was weird."

Mauro recalls Algieri as a "chubby-cheeked" kid who would spend up to eight hours there on a Saturday when most students went home after two hours. "Chris had the discipline to do what it took to become great, and almost everybody doesn't," he said. "He was a rare one. You didn't have to ride him. You just sent him in the right direction, and he would keep going until you told him to stop."

 

Kickboxing years: 'This kid is going to be a champion'

 

In a few years, Algieri was teaching classes, and Mauro told Algieri's parents they didn't have to pay for training because their son was doing so much to help him. It was Mauro who encouraged Algieri to wrestle at St. Anthony's High School, and when Algieri went to Stony Brook, Mauro guided his kickboxing career as an amateur and a professional.

"He was a huge influence," Algieri said. "He was like a father figure to me."

Mauro had the complete trust of Algieri's family. When Algieri began competing as an amateur, his father and brother attended all the fights, but his mother said she "didn't have the fortitude" to watch. She waited for the telephone call with the result.

"It's funny," Adriana said. "But I would visit Mauro when my son wasn't there and ask, 'How's he doing?' When Chris was about 13, Bob says, 'This kid is going to be a champion. He's so determined and focused.' At that point, I was like, 'Oh, boy.' I kind of buckled up for the ride."

It was rough, to say the least. Algieri was in high school when Mauro introduced him to Lane, who was training boxers at the time and pursuing his own kickboxing career. When Lane needed a sparring partner, Mauro put Algieri in with him.

"The first time we sparred is the worst beating I've ever taken -- ever, in anything," Algieri said. "Tim was an absolute buzz saw. I was 17. He was 28 or 29. We did seven rounds and I didn't go down. And I was tempted because he used to knock everybody out."

Recalling that session, Lane said he wasn't surprised years later when Algieri weathered the first-round onslaught from Provodnikov because he knew his fighter had survived worse. "When I kicked him in his liver when he was 17 years old and I heard him make the noise that I've heard a thousand times and he didn't go down to a knee, that surprised me," Lane said. "The eye was not surprising.

"I used to beat him up solid for about a year. He never went down once, not once. Then he started getting better."

Algieri planned to turn pro in kickboxing at 18, but a hand injury forced him to postpone it a year. By then, he was a full-time student at Stony Brook, commuting to school and juggling a heavy study load with his training.

"It taught me time management," Algieri said. "I was taking high-level science courses -- anatomy, physiology, chemistry, physics, all the bios, calculus. Those were tough years, a lot of sacrifice. I didn't have much of a social life in college."

Algieri was at Stony Brook in 2005 when he won the WKA world super welterweight title, and he achieved his ultimate goal in kickboxing just after graduation in 2007 when he captured the more prestigious ISKA welterweight world title, which was worth $3,000, his biggest purse in kickboxing.

 

Mastering boxing

 

Having achieved his goals at great risk for little reward, Algieri decided to turn pro as a boxer. "I was a two-division, undefeated world champion [in kickboxing], and nobody knew who I was," Algieri said. "What was the point?"

By then, he had met Trimble, who was training Lane in kickboxing but also working with boxers. Mauro stepped aside, knowing he lacked the boxing connections to advance Algieri's career.

Chris took his mom to dinner to tell her about the career move. "I told him he had to balance the physical stuff with education," Adriana said. "He had to go get his master's. There was no discussion, and he went to NYIT."

By the time Algieri completed the academic grind in 2010 with his master's from NYIT, he was 10-0 as a boxer. Trimble said it was difficult to find fights because of Algieri's lack of amateur experience, but he knew he was working with someone who had the drive and determination to succeed.

"It was his mental attitude," Trimble said. "If he didn't get a 4.0 when he was doing his master's, he was mad. Once, we were at Gleason's Gym sparring. We start driving home [from Brooklyn], and we're stuck in traffic. He starts reading molecular compounds and neutrons and protons to me. I'm like, 'What are you doing?' He's so mentally tough that you can't frustrate him, you can't get in his head, you can't psych him out."

That story prompts a laugh from Algieri, who explained he was studying for an organic chemistry test and it helped to read aloud. It also demonstrated the single-minded purpose he brought to boxing, as well as his studies.

"The two prominent things in my life were school to get my degrees, which were goals I had set early in my life, and my boxing or kickboxing," Algieri said. "Nothing came before those things. The friends that I made then are the ones that I still have because they understood that. The people who couldn't understand that aren't my friends and aren't around anymore."

 

'I needed people to see me'

 

The one thing that did frustrate Algieri was the slow pace of progress in his boxing career. Twice he financed attempts to make it on his own in the boxing communities in Las Vegas in 2010 and California in 2012, and twice he wound up broke and back home in his basement apartment.

In 2011, Algieri signed with New York promoter Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing. Late that year, he fought the first of eight straight bouts on one of DeGuardia's cards at the Paramount Theater in Huntington. Even so, he grew impatient and demanded bigger fights.

"I was making lateral moves and fighting off TV all the time," said Algieri, who was supplementing his income working as a nutritionist and physical trainer.

"I needed people to see me."

Algieri threatened to quit boxing, and that's when DeGuardia lined up an ESPN fight against Emanuel Taylor, a feared contender who was 17-1 with 12 knockouts. Algieri admits he was full of self-doubt before that fight.

"Watching Taylor's fights was pretty nerve-wracking," Algieri said. "He was knocking people dead. Taylor is one of those guys that you wake up, and you're in the dressing room."

In previous fights, Algieri had a tendency to stray from using his jab to mix it up, but Lane and Trimble insisted that he stick to boxing Taylor and avoid danger. The result was a decisive unanimous decision that earned the title shot against Provodnikov.

"He had never boxed a whole fight before," Lane said. "He would rumble and get hit. Emanuel Taylor was the bridge that took him to the other side. He did 10 rounds of being a master boxer against a guy who knocks people out, a guy who had 200 amateur fights."

 

Fighting back on big stage

 

If skeptics doubted Algieri's ability to beat Taylor, they absolutely were convinced that Provodnikov would walk through him. That view was reinforced powerfully when a left floored Algieri in the first round, turning his right eye purple. Under pressure, Algieri took a knee for a second knockdown later in the round to clear his head and assess the damage.

Algieri's old kickboxing coach Mauro was out of town at a tournament but was watching on television. "Taking a knee was intelligence," Mauro said. "I knew that right away. I was with a crowd of people and I said, 'He's being smart.' Chris was always calm no matter what."

It was an uphill climb the rest of the way, but Algieri not only outpunched Provodnikov 288-205, according to CompuBox stats, but had a slight edge in power punches landed despite appearances. Algieri's mother, of course, stayed home from the fight but admitted she peeked at the TV when she thought the fight was over and saw her son's ugly eye.

"My husband was up on the ring crying, 'Chris, your eye!' " Adriana said. "He's very Italian, very emotional. Chrissy comes home from the hospital the next day, and I see that eye. I said, 'Can you see?' He said yes, and I said, 'Then you're good.' I think a lot of that toughness comes from me."

That toughness was just enough to earn Algieri the WBO belt and a shot at the 35-year-old Pacquiao.

Mauro said some of Algieri's confident prefight statements might sound arrogant, but he added: "Chris can back it up. I have no doubt those guys over at the Pacquiao camp know there's a big chance this could go bad for them. If they don't, they're really foolish."

It might be a long shot, but those closest to Algieri know he will go into the ring with a plan and a firm conviction he can execute it as precisely as the karate kid who couldn't wait to do his homework.

Before heading to Vegas six weeks before the fight, Algieri was doing just that, studying video of Pacquiao's last two fights.

"I'm not going to do that anymore," Algieri said of the video sessions. "I feel way too confident. Way too confident."

Asked if his jab can make the difference against Pacquiao's experience, Algieri shook his head no, smiled and pointed to the space between his ears.

New York Sports