The “Philly Special” was a homegrown night at the fights that ended with almost nothing going as I expected it would, a night wherein fans’ heightened emotions were deflated in the strangest ways, as contests that went overlooked in the lead-up to the show became battles I’ll never forget, while other aspects of the show revealed both the best and the worst of boxing.
The big story going into Friday’s card was the return of Michelle “Raging Babe” Rosado, a hard-working fight promoter and Philadelphia native who I had the pleasure of interviewing for this site. On my way into the arena I happened to spot her. She wore her trademark hoop earrings, which feature prominently on her company’s logo, and had a distinct air of confidence, and why wouldn’t she? The show was sold-out, the venue was filling up half an hour before the first bell, and most fans proudly wore t-shirts emblazoned with the name of their favorite fighter. The show started off without a hitch, and after a final ten count in honor of recently passed former champ Rocky Lockridge, the matches came at a perfect pace, giving a nice ebb and flow to the evening, and for all this I give Rosado a lot of credit.
The first fight of the night saw bantamweight Jonathan Torres shutout Dallas Holden over four rounds to improve to 2-0. Torres wasn’t supposed to be tested hard here, but I thought he was, and while he deserved a win Holden landed some good shots and took at least one round. It was one of those fights where I wondered after if the judges had their minds made up before the bell rang, though there was nothing unjust about the final decision.
If that first duel had an anticlimactic feel, the next bout more than made up for it as Gerardo Martinez took a majority decision win over Osnel Charles in a hard-fought battle. The crowd was not keenly interested in this match as it got underway, but I was, as Martinez used to workout at my gym. I had watched him train many times and even did some light work with him, so it was a unique experience watching a someone I knew do battle. Charles put up a good fight, landing some well-placed body blows and bloodying Martinez’s nose, but my friend from nearby Coatesville fought through it and was the better man over four rounds. The judges awarded him a majority decision.
Next came what was essentially the first main event of the evening, heavyweight Sonny Conto’s pro debut. He was always supposed to win, and he did without trouble, but the manner of the fight left few of his many fans satisfied. A former college baseball player out of South Philadelphia, Conto has the kind of muscular, big man physique you usually only see in the movies, and his opponent, Jimmy Levins, who came into the ring with an 0-4 record, did not. Suffice to say, Levins was completely overmatched and offered virtually no resistance, doing little more than falling to his knees as he tried to lean forward and clinch in avoidance of Conto’s attack.
While no knockdowns were called, I counted three spills to the canvas from Levins who was eventually escorted over to the ringside physician. The doctor called off the fight, likely out of mercy more than anything else. Conto gave a perfunctory celebration, and his throng of fans responded with a muted cheer, but it was a disappointing match as Conto could not demonstrate his skills. He moves quickly for a big man, which can be expected from someone who has legs developed from years of competitive pitching. I look forward to his next bout.
We stayed with the heavyweights for the next match as local prospect Darmani Rock (13-0) took on Steven Lyons (5-3). This pairing was the opposite of the previous one with the crowd favorite looking like anything but an athlete, while Lyons had the physique of an amateur bodybuilder. However, Rock, who has surprisingly quick hands for such a big man, was clearly the superior boxer. I give Lyons credit for lasting four rounds against a fighter who outweighed him by some 70 pounds and he did tag Rock a number of times, but the result was never in doubt. It was only a matter of when Rock would catch the smaller fighter, which he did in the fourth for a knockout win.
Up next was the most unexpectedly heartwarming fight of the evening. Edgar Cortez of nearby Vineland, New Jersey took on Alejandro Jimenez of nearby New Hope, PA. The two local boys could easily have gone unnoticed on this card except that Jimenez is a “Dreamer.” He migrated from Mexico when he was fifteen, and resides in the United States as part of the controversial DACA program. Jimenez’s fanbase was evident all around the arena, sporting t-shirts emblazoned with the green, red, and white of Mexico and the word “Dreamer.”
It was as if all the energy and passion of the ongoing national struggle regarding illegal immigration imbued this match with both added significance and extra intensity as for six rounds Jimenez and Cortes battled with everything they had, giving the fans plenty of action. Cortes of Puerto Rico was no antagonist or villain, but the crowd was inspired by Jimenez’s story and rooting for him all the way. However Cortes was a worthy foe, always attacking and willing to take two shots to land one. No doubt Jimenez and his fans wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The final result was a split draw and, in my opinion, a fair decision.
I expected the penultimate fight of the evening to largely serve as filler before the main event but to my surprise it proved to be one of the show’s highlights. North Philadelphia native Marcel Rivers (7-0) took on Derrick Whitley of Springfield, MA (4-0-1), and the standing room area near the press table revealed itself to be made up almost entirely of Whitley fans who had come down from New England to support their man. For a fight between two inexperienced and unknown super welters, the match in fact added more energy to the already charged atmosphere in the 2300 Arena. While everyone around me shouted at Whitley to stay behind his jab and use his legs, Rivers largely controlled the match and scored more telling blows and all three judges saw the man from North Philly the winner.
Now it was time for the main event, where touted South Philly prospect Christian Carto (17-0) took on two-time world title contender Victor Ruiz (22-10-1) of Tijuana Mexico. Everyone knew this was a step-up fight for Carto, since Ruiz had experience, grit, and a southpaw stance. As Rosado told me before the fight, if Carto wanted to be ranked, this was the type of match he had to win.
I had my misgivings, having seen Carto struggle against another grizzled Mexican journeyman in Javier Gallo last August, but nonetheless an undefeated prospect at some point has to step up and see what he’s made of. This was a test, but one Carto had to take.
In the first round Carto clearly struggled with the lefty, Ruiz appearing to land his power hand at will, though not with so much force as to do real damage. But it was clear that in order to win, the young man from Philly would have to adjust. However, the fight didn’t last long enough for us to see if he could. In round two Ruiz pounced and landed a brutal power left to Carto’s jaw, the blow slamming the local hero to the canvas, where he lay with his eyes closed and his left foot twitching and vibrating like an electric toothbrush. The referee took one look and immediately waved off the bout without a count.
The crowd let out a gasp, then the arena went silent as the mood of excitement shifted to anxiety and concern for Carto’s welfare. Within seconds his cornermen called out for emergency aid and after a minute or so they brought in the stretcher. The medics put Carto in a neck brace and gave him oxygen as everyone in the arena looked at one another with little to say. There was a lot of milling around, a lot of heavy exhaling. Of course there was the shock defeat of the local favorite, but mostly the few thousand people in attendance all had a grim reminder of the aphorism Michelle Rosado had reminded me of just a few weeks ago: you don’t play boxing.
It would later be reported that Carto was out cold for just under a full minute, having hit his head on the canvas after taking that huge left hand. People were saying that Carto had walked into Ruiz’s left as he prepared to throw his own punch but in looking at the replay it’s clear he had a momentary lapse in concentration as he dropped his guard when the two fighters separated and was too slow in getting it back up. Ruiz saw his chance and didn’t hesitate, catching Carto clean with a devastating shot. It was a sharp, veteran move to anticipate Carto’s mistake and take full advantage, a single, perfectly-timed blow putting the younger man’s health and career in jeopardy.
When they took Carto out of the ring, still on the stretcher and still with the oxygen mask on his face, he raised up his gloves as best he could, and the crowd roared its encouragement. But then security started to clear the building with more urgency than usual. Even the press was shuffled out without much of a chance to talk to the remaining players in the event. It seemed like everyone just wanted the night to end as quickly as possible as we all feared the worst.
As I exited the arena with another writer we chatted about how Carto had used “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC as his ring walk song. Just the other week Eleider Alvarez had used that same tune before being dominated by a resurgent Sergey Kovalev. And the last time I remembered hearing it in person was when Mike Gavronsky had it played before being knocked out in three rounds by Jesse Hart. That was part of the same card where I last saw Carto grind out a hard-earned win against Gallo. As I went out into the cold Philadelphia night, I felt certain — as if it would make some kind of difference — that Carto would never use that song again. Athletes and fans are superstitious to a fault, and while later we would learn that Carto was okay, in that moment I was in favor of any superstition I could find as I hoped for my fellow Philadelphian’s full recovery.
— Joshua Isard