Sunday, March 30, 2008

An Underdog Gets His Shot

In two weeks, Alfonso Gomez will try to do what underdogs do in boxing - upset the champ. He'll step through the ropes and into the ring at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall and take a shot at doing what 31 other guys have been unable to do - send Miguel Cotto back home to Puerto Rico as a loser.

Make no mistake about it, Alfonso Gomez is a big underdog against Cotto, who some have dared whisper might be one of the greats.

Hailing from the dusty streets of Guadalajara, Mexico before migrating to California with his family, who were all in search of a better existence, Gomez has persevered in a life that made him an underdog from the get-go.

"I have proven time and time again, since my amateur days, that I can overcome obstacles," says the youthful Gomez, who has a matinee-idol face that looks like it belongs in a Latin soap opera.

"I did it in my first pro fight, fighting in somebody else’s backyard. I proved it against Ishe Smith fighting in his backyard. In "The Contender" against Peter Manfredo, who was ranked number three. Jesse Brinkley, Arturo Gatti, Ben Tackie - I can name a dozen of them where I’ve been the underdog. I’ve had people tell me, 'Ahh, you’re going to get knocked out.' But, you know, I just keep proving people wrong."

While he didn't ascend to "The Contender" reality show throne, Gomez became a fan favorite because of his friendly personality and engaging smile. The reality show was the platform that enabled him to tell his story to the masses of wanting to provide for his family through boxing. He's been able to make a better life for himself and his family, but he has a burning desire for more.

And he'll tell you with a serious look that, "Poverty was my motivator."

Last summer, Gomez shocked the boxing world against Arturo Gatti when he sent the human highlight reel into a hasty retirement after seven bloody rounds. With a big right hand that came all the way from the back alleys of Guadalajara, Gomez freed up Gatti's future as a prizefighter and laid open Gatti's lip like a filleted fish. He sent HBO's favorite son sinking to the floor, and on that night there would be no miracle comeback for Arturo. Gomez made sure of that.

"I prepared insanely for that fight," he says. "I didn't take any shortcuts during training camp.”

Gomez was in the zone against Gatti and knocked him out in seven rounds.

Most people laugh off the comparisons that Gomez makes between Gatti, who was a shell of his former self, and Cotto, who is a beast that is likely in his prime.

"I’m prepared for no matter what," he says of Cotto. "It’s like with Arturo Gatti, I try to make different plans. I didn’t know that night what Arturo Gatti was going to show up - the brawler or the boxer. So, I know Miguel Cotto has good boxing skills and he has tremendous toe-to-toe skills. I’m prepared for both - for the boxer or the brawler."

Others criticize Gomez' most recent opponent, the oft-beaten Ben Tackie, whom he outpointed a few months back. But again, Gomez defends the opposition and his performance. "I wasn't able to stop him," he says of Tackie. "But I dominated every round and I demonstrated that I'm ready for the world titles."

When asked about just how it is he plans on doing what Shane Mosley and Zab Judah could not, Gomez doesn't get into the hype and blather that is the norm for many fighters in this day and age. "Well, you know, I can say a million things but there is only one way to prove it - and that is April 12th. All I can do is feed on that negativity and feed on those critics just to motivate me and make things even easier for myself."

When pressed for the specifics though, Gomez delves into his thought process and sizes up the many ways he might have a chance against Cotto.

Miguel Cotto and Gomez came face-to-face at a New York City press conference to announce their fight for the WBA Welterweight championship.

"One of them is the fact that I am bigger than him. I’m a natural welterweight. And you know, on his record he really hasn’t faced a natural welterweight. They’re usually fighters that come up from lower weight divisions like Mosley and Judah and Quintana and so on. So I’m the first natural welterweight he fights and hopefully that will be something that shows in the fight. If he comes well prepared I see it playing out as a tremendous fight. A fight to remember for the fans. There’s gonna be blood, there’s gonna be a lot of sweat. Hopefully there will be knockdowns, but primarily I see myself winning this fight, a victory for the Gomez team and a new champion from Mexico."

He says that he has watched the videos of Cotto so many times that he knows what Miguel is going to do before he does it. While supporters of Cotto don't see much to pick apart, Gomez says he's seen a few flaws in the WBA welterweight titlist’s game. "

"Every fighter has weaknesses and strengths. I have both, myself, too. I just make sure that I watch the tapes over and over and over and over again until pretty much I’m Miguel Cotto. Until you know, anything he does, before he does it, I know what he’s going to do. So that’s my plan, to come in with a perfect plan to expose his weaknesses.”

"His strengths are his body shots and left hooks. His weaknesses are, you know, his chin. He’s proven that he has a soft chin and I wanna’ expose that. Also, I don’t think many people have hit him to the body, as they should. And I know in my fights that I have a great body punch. I have a good uppercut, I have a good jab and I have good boxing skills. I don’t know what to say. I just wanna’ beat him."

In listening to Gomez make his case as to why he thinks he's going to beat Cotto; he can be very convincing. With his dark brown eyes and light Mexican-American accent, the mature 27 year old talks about Cotto in a calm and deliberate manner.

Gomez is easy for fans to root for, and even though he didn't win "The Contender" show hosted by Sugar Ray Leonard, he is perhaps closer to Leonard than any of the other show participants.

Gomez and Sugar Ray Leonard have become close associates who enjoy each other's company. Leonard has offered guidance and friendship

Leonard knows a soaring eagle in boxing trunks when he sees one, and he's taken Gomez under his wing by showing him how a champion lives inside and outside of the ring. It's Leonard that has accompanied Gomez as a guest host on ESPN2 Friday Night Fights and greeted fans while standing side-by-side with him at the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Through it all, Gomez has not lost sight of his ultimate goal and he hasn't forgotten from where it is he came from. He uses all of it as motivation.

"I have fought very tough fighters in the past, ones that are very hungry to get there," he explains. "Miguel Cotto has already made it. I’m sure he wants to make it farther, so he’s pretty hungry still. But I can’t imagine him being hungrier than me. He already has the titles, he already has the undefeated record. If he already has millions, how can he be hungrier than me? That’s impossible, and so…"

And so it's this theme of eagerness and hunger and desire that are the central characters in Gomez' plot to bigger things in life. From being born into poverty in Mexico to coming to America to fighting as an amateur and pro, and then to his appearance on "The Contender". Every step has been another foot forward in his quest to make something more of himself and live what he perceives to be the American dream.

"There’s a lot of things against me," he plainly says. "But my destiny is bigger than that and I’m able to overcome all of that. You know, I’m standing here for a reason. I lost my chance to go to the Olympics as an amateur and never excelled as the best amateur. I’ve lost fights, but I’m standing here and that’s for a reason, and I believe it. And since I’m standing here now, I’m not gonna let this opportunity go. I’m gonna train one hundred percent. I’m going to be there one hundred percent."

Real underdogs always are.

March 2008

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