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Bosco’s Corner: A night of boxing at the Garden

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I can’t be sure of this, but I’m pretty confident that I had not been to a fight in about three years before attending the finals of the Golden Gloves Friday night. I definitely did not remember the kind of impact watching a fight from ringside can have on me.

But I was reminded of that feeling straight away, a feeling of complete nervous tension, bordering on out-and-out anxiety unlike anything else I have ever felt at any other sporting event, bar none.

I was attending the tournament to cover a bevy of Queens fighters who had made it to the finals, among them Billy Finegan, a 20-year-old world-class martial artist whom I have written about for the better part of four years. It was Finegan’s first trip to the finals, after having lost in the semis two years before.

Usually the TimesLedger doesn’t cover the Gloves, but the allure was too great this year with Finegan fighting, not to mention, I have been away from the sport for far too long.

During the first half of the last decade, it seemed I could not go a few weeks without writing a boxing article, covering several top-notch fighters who called Queens home, among them Kevin Kelley, Freddie Liberatore and Holland-transplant Regilio Tuur. All three won some sort of professional title and all either challenged for or won a world championship.

In fact, the last time I attended a boxing match was when Kelley was chosen to be the first opponent on American soil to take on England’s Prince Naseem Hamed. The bout, held at Madison Square Garden before more than 13,000 people, was a brutal affair, with both fighters tasting the canvas three times apiece. Unfortunately for Kelley, it was he who was the last to be knocked down, failing to rise before the count reached 10 in the fourth round.

There have been Queens fighters since that fight who I have profiled, like heavyweights Michael Bent and Ray Anis, neither of whom climbed the contender’s ladder all the way to a title.

Kelley has flirted with the top-10 since he was dispatched by the Prince, even challenging for the World Boxing Council’s 126-pound interim title last year against Erik Morales. Kelley fought gamely, but his best days were behind him by that point and he lost by TKO in the seventh.

I always found it vexing to watch a fight, either live or on television, when I knew one of the combatants. I have seen enough boxing to know that these guys really do put their life on the line every time they step through the ropes and I always found myself hoping, not so much that they would win, but that they would leave the ring with their faculties intact.

To say I have a respect for fighters would be an understatement. From chump to champ these guys have a courage most of us cannot truly imagine. It is said the loneliest moment in all of sport is the moment before the first round, when a boxer is left alone by his handlers, his opponent waiting to inflict bodily harm. I could not agree more.

Friday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, amateur fighters from all over the tri-state area came together to find out just who is the best. And all the while I was sitting at ringside, in perpetual panic.

It didn’t take long for that old feeling to creep in. The very first fight featured two boxers with Queens ties: Elias Caban, a 19-year-old baker who lives in the borough, and Robert Semidei, an 18-year-old senior at Franklin K. Lane High School.

I had never met either before the bout, but sitting so close to the action, getting to hear every blow and the cries of family at friends within earshot, stirred it up. In no time I felt like I was bobbing and weaving for each of them, wanting neither to get hurt and both to put up a good show.

And that’s what happened. Caban seemed to get shaken in the first round by some of Semidei’s power shots, but bounced back in the second round when his opponent began to tire.

The aggressive Semidei got the win in the end, but it could have gone either way. When the opponents left the ring, I finally took a breath.

The same scenario followed fight after fight, until Finegan stepped into the ring. He was fighting Robert Williams, an absolute tank of a man three years his senior. Just looking at the two, I thought Finegan had a tough job ahead, and he did, but still he managed to pull it out.

Three very competitive, well-fought rounds later Finegan’s hand was raised in triumph. There was little disputing the verdict and I soon found my way backstage to the dressing rooms, hoping to get a few words in with the victor.

While waiting outside Finegan’s dressing room, I noticed Williams walking toward me down a corridor. He did not look like a guy who had just lost a fight, nor did he act like one.

I stopped him and got a few words from him about the fight. He was obviously disappointed, but he was also straightforward about his performance, open, honest and downright nice, an attitude I have come to expect from boxers, who really are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

After I spoke to Finegan there were a few more fights left on the card, but by that point I was exhausted. It took me a good half-hour to come down from the adrenaline high of the bouts, but the LIRR cured that.

And now I am left to ponder whether or not I will ever cover boxing again. It is a true love of mine, but quite honestly, I don’t know if I can handle it. At least the next Golden Gloves are a year away.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

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