To Fight Off Hard Times, Former Boxers Enter A 'Ring' Of Support
Boxers are some of the most vulnerable athletes in sports. In the ring, they endure jabs, hooks and sometimes knockouts. Then, many have to deal with the aftermath, both the physical and the financial.
In New York City, a group of veteran fighters have formed a group to support each other through the hard times. They call themselves Ring 10. Some have left the game by choice. Others were abandoned years ago by their trainers.
"The sport is very unforgiving. When you produce, we love you. And when you don't, I don't remember your name," says former boxer Matt Farrago, who started the group in 2010.
Over the years, they've raised money to help members pay for groceries, checked in with fighters who are now debilitated and homebound and attended each other's funerals. Farrago says they're keeping an eye on would-be contenders no longer in the spotlight.
"Somebody's got to win. That means somebody's got to lose," he says. "Why do people only care about the guys who won?"
Some of those guys are part of their ranks too, including the World Boxing Council middleweight champion of 1988, Iran "The Blade" Barkley.
In his breakout fight that year, Barkley defeated the reigning champ, Thomas Hearns, after a surprise turnaround in the third round. The match ended with blood streaming from Barkley's eyes as his supporters lifted him into the air with his hands raised in triumph. That win was Barkley's ticket out of the Patterson Houses, the public housing development in the Bronx where he grew up.
"I got to see most of the world free. The only thing that took me there was my two hands and people that I met along the way," he says. "And that's the greatest thing in history."
More than two decades later, though, he was back in the neighborhood at what he calls the "lowest part" of his life. He was homeless, sleeping in a subway station while carrying a bag of clothes and the championship belt he won from Hearns.
Barkley says he didn't manage his money well. "That's how you end up taking care of everybody else but yourself," he says. He also puts some of the blame on the advisers around him at the time. He says many boxers — even the ones who win — end up having to fight financial troubles in the later years of their lives.
"After you lost the boxing, what you do then? You say, 'Where I go? What I do?' You don't have all that rah, rah, rah around you," he explains.
Members of Ring 10 got him off the streets and eventually helped him find a studio apartment. After two divorces, he got married again last year. He says he's looking for a job and wants to write a book about his life. And on the second Tuesday of most months, you can find him having dinner his family from Ring 10 in a back room of an Italian restaurant in the Bronx.
Support groups for former fighters are filling a need that's always been part of boxing, according to Gerald Gems, a sports historian at North Central College in Illinois.
"It's a very corrupt business," says Gems, author of Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science. "There's a lot of payoffs that take place. And boxers often trust their managers, trust promoters, which is not the best thing to do. They're simply used."
Now that boxing's not as popular as it once was, Gems says there's even less public concern about how it's run.
"Football has the NFL, and the MLB for baseball," says Farrago, Ring 10's founder. "Boxers have nothing. They come from the streets, and that's where they go back to."
Farrago says he wants to form a union for boxers. Until then, he's on the lookout for more lost fighters.
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