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A View Through the Ropes: The Best in the Boro

In the borough of Queens, three fighters are stealing the headlines: Monte Barrett and Chris Smith of Jamaica are both on the verge of title shots after grueling starts to their careers, and Bayside’s Vinny Maddalone, a fighter whose career is still in its infancy could be approaching top ten status in the heavyweight division this year if he continues to win. It is also worth mentioning that Maddalone is a white heavyweight, and in boxing, which puts its subjects under a demanding microscope- that is reason alone to keep an eye on him.

Vinny Maddalone is sensitive to the stares. He feels them the second he enters the gym. To get to his trainer’s office, he crisscrosses Gleason’s Gym, a slow-motion journey that seems theatrical because of the attention it draws.

Fighters watch his every step; trainers stare at him and smile. It’s a tribute to his agreeable personality and Spartan work ethic that Maddalone can prosper here. Italian heavyweights don’t usually get a free pass in boxing gyms, but Maddalone fits in just fine.

“When you’re the only white heavyweight in the gym, you have to take it to the other fighters just to gain their respect,” he said. “Either you have it or you don’t. There’s nowhere to hide in boxing.”

In the commerce of boxing, Maddalone is a golden goose. He is a Fortune 500 company with a superb balance sheet. He is a symbol of a departed era when American-born whites filled the rankings like blacks and Latinos do today.

Maddalone is a rarity in boxing: a white heavyweight who can fight.

Like Gerry Cooney, who carried white America’s hopes, impracticable as they were into his 1982 title fight with Larry Holmes, Maddalone sees his circumstances as both a blessing and a curse. The Bayside resident knows his skin color sets him apart from his peers, but he doesn’t want that to overshadow his ability to fight.

“It’s a marketing advantage for me. My promoter, Joe DeGuardia, knows I’m one of the biggest ticket sellers in New York,” he said. “From day one I’ve been known as this ‘white hope.’ It’s a lot of pressure because people come out to see me and the fans are the most important people; they’re really my only concern. I want them to enjoy themselves when they come out to my shows.”

Maddalone is a crowd-pleasing fighter, all guts and bravado with a nimble athleticism that belies his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. He was a pitcher and third baseman at Holy Cross High School and before tendinitis ended his chance at a Major League career, played for the Adirondack Lumberjacks in the Independent Northern League.

He fell back on his second love, which was fighting, a habit he formed while competing in “Tough Man” contests in North Carolina while he was a ball player at Pfeiffer University.

“I was a reliever, and I had that closer mentality,” he said. “Ya know, go right at them, fastballs, sliders. I wouldn’t back down, the same way I am in boxing.”

Two semifinal appearances in the Golden Gloves hastened the start of his professional career, which started well until he ran into a former champion named Al Cole, who won a six-round decision and taught him his first valuable lesson in boxing.

“Vinny was terrorizing Cole for three rounds, but then he ran out of gas; he punched himself out,” said Bob Jackson, who took over the training duties for Maddalone after his ninth fight. “But Cole couldn’t take him out. That’s a testimony to Vinny’s gumption.”

It also exposed Maddalone’s penchant of getting excited and fighting for the crowd instead of settling down and using his boxing skills.

Jackson compares what happens to Maddalone the second the 30-year-old hears the crowd as similar to what grips a high-strung horse.

“Trainers use ear plugs for the horses so they don’t hear the crowd and calm down, but you can’t do that to boxers,” he said.

“The fans love to see him,” said DeGuardia, who has been with Maddalone since his fourth fight. “He has a great style. Now we’re trying to get him some national recognition.”

Maddalone is scheduled to fight undefeated Brian Minto (16-0) July 23 on ESPN2. It’s another test for a fighter who is used to getting tested and judged every time he steps into the ring.

“I need to keep winning,” he said. “The heavyweight division is wide open.”

Monte “Two Gunz” Barrett

It’s a testament to Monte Barrett’s nerve that he calls the 18 months he spent out of boxing as the low point of his career. Anybody who witnessed the beating he took against Wladimir Klitschko four years ago, when Barrett visited the canvas five times, would have trouble swallowing that statement.

But Barrett swears the time away from the ring was the loneliest of his life.

“That was a long time to be out of the game,” Barrett said of promotional problems that caused him to miss 2002. “When you’re sitting around the house, you have nothing else to do but learn about yourself. I had to keep the faith that blessings would come into my life sooner or later. I had to keep believing in myself.”

Barrett, an All-City linebacker at John Adams High, eventually pulled himself out of the doldrums, survived financial ruin when a lack of income forced him to declare bankruptcy and showed that his separation from boxing was temporary — like the knockdowns he suffered in the Klitschko fight.

In a stunning turn of events, Barrett, 33, is on the brink of signing a mega deal to fight Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir’s brother, for the WBC championship. The only stumbling block is a legal dispute between Klitschko and his promoter, Peter Kohl, that has to be resolved in court.

“The brothers have been calling him out,” said Stan Hoffman, his manager.

Considering Barrett was pronounced dead in boxing following his loss to Klitschko, his recent string of success is startling. After showing surprising resolve in his fight with Joe Mesi last December at Madison Square Garden, losing a razor-thin majority decision and knocking Mesi down, he fought Dominick Guinn in his hometown of Little Rock Ark. It was a showcase fight for Guinn.

Barrett (30-3, 16 KO’s) didn’t care. He won, and HBO, in the business of creating drama, sunk its teeth into the story line that developed with Barrett the former hot prospect taking on the brother (Vitali) of the fighter who once beat him. With the biggest fight of his career in the works, Barrett, who grew up idolizing Muhammad Ali in Jamaica, is not about to undersell himself now.

“Coming from a single mother and growing up in poverty and going through the bankruptcy — if that didn’t break me, then nothing will,” he said. “I’ve been sidetracked so many times in my career. My whole life I have had to be strong. I’ve always been able to adapt to the hand I’ve been dealt.”

Barrett has been adjusting to the business side of boxing since he debuted in 1996 under DeGuardia. The former assistant district attorney promoted him on and off until his fight with Guinn, when Barrett, citing philosophical differences, signed with Lou DiBella.

“I saw he had a lot of raw talent. I saw that he had a lot of potential, and he’s proved that to be true,” DeGuardia said.

The promotional company, America Presents, handled his fight with Lance Whitaker but released him and bought out his contract when Barrett lost for the first time in his career. DeGuardia came back into the promotional picture and Stan Hoffman, skilled at rescuing veteran fighters, replaced Nick Garone as his manager before his fight with Robert Wiggins.

Hoffman, who guided Hasim Rahman and William Joppy to titles, replaced trainer Al Davis with Harold Knight, one of his former fighters, and Barrett has been on a tear ever since. Once consumed with the business of boxing, Barrett is now focused on his opponents.

“I’m getting the fights I need,” he said. “This is my last hurrah. I’m in the prime of my life. When I started boxing, I did it for the competition. Now I am in love with boxing.”

Chris “The Mechanic” Smith

Chris Smith is good at fooling people. During his fight with Luis Hernandez in June, Hernandez kept flailing about, raining punches down on Smith, a resident of Jamaica. The fight was televised on Madison Square Garden Network and the announcers kept saying how Smith was getting pelted with shots.

In truth, Smith (18-0-1, 11 KO’s) was employing his odd-looking, windshield-wiper defense where he holds his elbows close to his face and parries incoming punches by moving his arms up and down, kind of like playing peak-a-boo with his opponent.

After the fight, which Smith won by knocking Hernandez through the ropes in the 12th round, aside from a head-butt, Smith was unblemished. He answered questions in the post-fight interview in a cool, relaxed manner that was a bit eerie in its tranquility.

He could have been talking to someone on the street. The biggest question now facing Smith is if his crowd-pleasing style will land him a fight against a big-name opponent.

“He does absolutely nothing great, but he does everything good,” said his advisor, Johnny Bos. “Julio Cesar Chavez was the same way. He had a pretty good career.”

Smith, the current NABA welterweight champion, does not rattle off five-punch combinations, nor does he usually knock his opponents through the ropes. The Hernandez knockout was an aberration, not a recurring theme. Smith patiently stalks his opponents like an approaching storm, flicking jabs and body shots to move in and then unloading power shots.

“He does a lot of things today that most fighters don’t do,” Bos said. “He feints his opponent. He catches punches with his gloves. He keeps his gloves high.”

It’s thrilling stuff. To compensate for his less than gaudy style, Smith throws punches in bunches and is always involved in entertaining fights. He came close to making his last fight against the pedestrian Darien Ford into a barn-burner. That’s good news for the cable networks and good news for DiBella, his promoter, who has the connections to make him a star.

“He’s going to get me the fights that I need to get to the next level,” he said.

For now, Smith is in a holding pattern of sorts. Currently ranked No. 14 by the International Boxing Federation, the graduate of August Martin is on the threshold of losing his anonymity. Having learned the art of self-defense, Smith is now mastering the art of getting recognized on the streets of New York.

“These two people walked up to me the other day and introduced themselves to me,” he said. “I really didn’t know what to say to them, but afterward when I thought about it, I realized that I could have been a little bit looser, conversation-wise, with them. I guess they saw my last fight. It’s tough because I don’t look at myself as a big star. I see myself as a regular person.”

Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 130.

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