For more than two months now Peter Manfredo, Jr. has been doing his homework at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Ca. That's a long way from where he used to do it.
An abandoned brick warehouse by an old railroad track in Pawtucket, R.I. is about as far from Hollywood as you can get but that is where Manfredo's boxing odyssey began. It started there both inside and outside the ropes, the latter being where he would sit almost daily to do his homework when he was not yet old enough to understand what boxing really was. It was a diversion back then, not a confrontation.
In those days it was his father, Peter Manfredo, Sr., who was doing the fighting, first as a kickboxer and later as a prize fighter of unlimited enthusiasm but limited abilities. By his side nearly every day 20 years ago sat a boy, a disinterested child who learned to kickbox at the age of four and box traditionally at the age of seven, long before he had any idea where that might lead.
"As a kid I fought because my father wanted me to,'' the 26-year-old super middleweight contender said. "I didn't take it seriously until I turned pro six years ago. I had a wife and a daughter by then and boxing was all I knew how to do. It was the only way I really knew how to feed my family.''
Manfredo, like many in his trade, came to boxing before the age of consent or even true understanding. At four and five years old he would sit outside the ropes and watch his father train, reading books, pounding bags and skipping rope while working earnestly to turn a gymnasium into a playpen. Soon enough, too soon some might argue, he found himself inside those ropes not sure for years if he was a volunteer or not but clear about one thing. When he was in there it was not for a play date.
"I boxed a lot of years for my father, not so much for me,'' Manfredo admitted. "Even when I began to have success as an amateur I wasn't serious about it. But things change.''
In time Manfredo's skills became more refined and his enthusiasm for what boxing might do for him if he prepared himself properly grew until one day he looked up and he was a contender. Literally, in his case.
The moment that changed Peter Manfredo Jr.'s career path came in the spring and summer of 2004, when Sugar Ray Leonard, Sylvester Stallone and a group of boxing figures like trainer Tommy Gallagher and former Kronk Gym patron Prentiss Byrd began a nationwide search for young fighting talent to feature on a reality TV show for NBC. The idea was that from this group known as "The Contenders'' a champion might be culled. Or if not quite a champion at least a name fans would recognize and pay to watch for a time.
Kids from all walks of life showed up. Tall ones. Short ones. Fat ones. Thin ones. Buffed ones. Bruised ones. Old guys in their 50s and one young boy in Boston who had to cut school because he was only 10. His mother came with him. Go figure. Fighters and frauds all came to gyms in Boston and Dallas and New York and Chicago and L.A. and Miami. They came looking for what so few fighters ever get, what Peter Manfredo will finally fulfill on April 7 at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
They were all looking for a dream.
Manfredo became one 16 fighters paired into two teams of eight, one representing the East Coast the other the West Coast. Manfredo was considered the best of the lot when the show began because he had more experience and was an undefeated prospect with a world rating. But in his first five round fight he was stunningly defeated by Alfonso Gomez and sent home, having to literally hang up his gloves on the wall of the darkened Contender gym in Los Angeles and walk out the door into the night as the cameras rolled. When he got back home, Peter Manfredo had to decide what he was going to do next. And if it was going to include boxing.
"After losing that first fight on The Contender series I didn't know what to do,'' Manfredo admits. "I didn't know if I wanted to keep fighting. Then I got voted back.''
One of his East Coast teammates, Jeff Fraza, who coincidentally was also from New England, was diagnosed with a case of chicken pox and forced off the show. A replacement was needed and when the fighter's voted they chose to bring Manfredo back. Seeing that as an opportunity lost and then found, Manfredo wasted no time debating his future. He came back and fought his way into the finals, where he lost a decision to a Los Angeles-bred. middleweight named Sergio Mora at Caesars Palace on May 24, 2005. That cost him the $1 million winner's purse but it was a nationally televised fight watched by more than six million people, the kind of exposure few young fighters on the rise can find in today's closed door world of boxing. It was also a fight that was close enough that it led to a rematch at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, another televised confrontation with Mora which Manfredo lost by an even more hotly disputed split decision.
All three losses in his career had thus been sustained on reality TV but the true reality was that the 15-week show two years ago so enhanced his public reputation that Manfredo became far more recognizable than many undefeated 168 pounders. Like Mora, he had become a star by the limited standards of the day, or at least enough of a name that, with Leonard and The Contenders' label still behind him, he was able to parlay two quick knockouts back in his hometown of Providence over former world-rated super middleweight contender Scott Pemberton and previously undefeated local rival Joey Spina into what his father had dreamed about more than two decades ago when he first pushed his son into a boxing ring wearing gloves as big as he was.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime,'' Manfredo, Sr. says of April 7, the night HBO's lights will shine on his son for the first time. "This is what we dreamed of.''
What they dreamed of will come in front of a hostile crowd estimated to be well in excess of 25,000 Welsh boxing fans when Manfredo tries to become the first man to defeat WBO-IBF super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe. The 34-year-old Calzaghe is no ordinary Joe. He is considered by many to be the best 168-pounder in the world after totally dismantling then IBF titleholder Jeff Lacy just over a year ago, winning all but one round on all three judges' cards while turning the former Olympic medalist into little more than a punching bag.
Now it is the relatively untested Manfredo who will try to derail a train that has been rolling on the tracks through 19 straight title defenses. Long considered the most talented super middleweight in the world, a claim he quite often makes for himself when his father, Enzo, isn't beating him to it, Calzaghe is not yet a fully known commodity however. At least not in the United States. He has spent nearly all his career fighting for big money in the British Isles, having once ventured to Denmark and another time to Germany but never across the ocean into the hot rings in America. There are an assortment of reasons why and the blame always falls on the opposite side of whomever is telling the story but certainly Calzaghe has the record (42-0, 31 KO), the resume and the skills to back up his supporters' claims for him, facts not even young Manfredo disputes. What he won't have though is what Manfredo believes is his secret weapon in his corner. He won't have Sugar Ray Leo nard advising him.
Leonard came on as chief strategist when Manfredo's normal trainer, Freddie Roach, had to bow out because he's occupied in Puerto Rico preparing Oscar De La Hoya for his May 5 showdown with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. That is the most anticipated fight of the year for everyone but Manfredo and the handful of people around him so although disappointed at the absence of one of boxing's best handlers he understood both Roach's dilemma and his own. For the Manfredo's there may be a big fight on May 5 but their Big Fight comes a month earlier.
"This is everything I've been wanting all my life and it's finally here,'' Manfredo (26-3, 12 KO) said. "This is the moment you wait your whole life for. I haven't seen my wife and kids in eight weeks. I came out to L.A. early to work with Freddie because I knew he was going to leave to be with Oscar and I wanted to get time in with him.
"I got down a little bit at first after he left because I felt I needed Freddie in my corner. I don't have the same faith in my Dad, probably because he's my Dad. Freddie is a genius of the game. But since he left my father has been training me like back when I was young and having Ray there to advise me has been so important. Just his presence helps me. He's shown me a lot of things but more than that he broke down Calzaghe's tapes with me. He's come up with several plans we can use. If Plan A doesn't work I'll go to Plan B.
"Ray is cool and calm, like Freddie. That breaks up the craziness from my father. He's a strategic type of guy. Frankly, Ray Leonard intimidates me more than Joe Calzaghe because I want to impress Ray Leonard. I want him to be proud of me. Even when he's just watching me spar he raises my game to another level.''
For Leonard, his return to the corner as anything but a fighter in charge of his own fortunes has been a disconcerting yet exhilarating experience. On the day his fighter weighs in for the biggest moment of his life, Leonard will in fact be taken back to a similar day 20 years ago when he stepped into the ring to face Marvin Hagler in a fight few people outside his circle thought he could win after having fought just once in the previous five years.
He was not as big an underdog as Manfredo will be when he squares off with Calzaghe but it was a night not unlike what Manfredo will face. A night when few people felt he had much of a chance against a man who had not lost in 11 years and who had won 13 straight world middleweight championship fights. A night where he won the same way Manfredo will have to. With his head more than with his hands.
"It's very strange being in this position,'' Leonard said. "It's come full circle for me. It really has. I always felt confident having Angelo (Dundee, the Hall of Fame trainer and strategist) in my corner. Now Peter feels that way about me. I'm not a trainer. I'm here to implement a strategy. I was pretty good at that so this is like deja vu. Now I have a better idea what Angelo did. Janks Morton, Dave Jacobs, Pepe Correa and Ollie Dunlop are the ones who trained me. They held the pads. Angelo was the strategist. His presence pumped me up. It gave me added confidence having him in my corner.
"I want this kid to win. Peter is a good kid. I'm trying to give him every opportunity to win. I've tried to tell him never to show frustration. Not in the gym. Not during a fight. No matter how it's going keep that same face. Salvador Sanchez was like that. Always the same face. That frustrates an opponent. Be in control of the ring. You decide where you fight, not your opponent.
"Without sounding like I'm beating my own drum, I know how to beat everybody. I've broken down some of the greatest guys who ever fought so, yeah, I know how to beat Calzaghe. But Peter is the one who has to implement the plan and I'm very confident in him. I told him two weeks out is where I won a lot of my fights because most guys can't deal with the pressure of it. Everyone has to deal with that pressure of competing but most people can't do it. Calzaghe has to deal with that in front of 35,000 Welsh guys who are expecting him to win. Peter can deal with that. He has a bravado that gives me confidence in him. We'll see how Calzaghe deals with the pressures on him but I'm confident how Peter will handle it.''
So is Manfredo himself. Unlike his first fight on "The Contenders,'' when he was clearly tight and ill at ease because of the million dollar pot he knew would go to the show's eventual winner, Manfredo insists this time he is relaxed and confident. This is the moment he spent so many years in his father's gym dreaming about. This is the moment he was never quite sure would come. A moment when he knows little is expected of him by Calzaghe or the massive crowd that will be roaring for its Welsh countryman.
"I know he thinks I'm just a reality TV fighter,'' Manfredo said frankly. "Reality TV obviously helped me out so people who say that are right. Mikkel Kessler has two world (super middleweight) titles. He deserves a shot but Calzaghe chose me and I know why but he don't know what he's going to get. Jeff Lacy was the perfect opponent for him. Stood right in front of him. Walked into punches. I'm not the perfect opponent.
"I'm a big underdog but I'm not the perfect opponent he thinks I am. Every night I visualize the fight. Sometimes it's hard to fall asleep. He's going to find out I'm not Jeff Lacy. As a kid my dream was to win a world championship and fight on HBO. I can do both those things in one night. I'm ready for this.
"I know he's looking past me, talking about fighting other guys. That's fine. It's perfect for me. I'll be everything Lacy wasn't. I'm a big underdog but I'm not afraid of him. I got nothing to lose.''
Twenty years ago almost to the day Peter Manfredo, Jr.'s chief strategist, Sugar Ray Leonard, felt the same way. He was going to face Marvin Hagler, the middleweight no one could beat. That night, Leonard found a way to alter the equation. He found a way to win. Now he's trying to help Manfredo do the same thing.
And, just like 20 years ago, Peter Manfredo has spent his days in a gymnasium doing his homework. The final exam comes April 7. It's a test he's been studying for since he was seven years old. A test he believes he'll pass with a little help from the most famous tutor in boxing.
"What's he got that Ray Leonard hasn't seen?'' Manfredo said. "Nothing. So I'm ready for anything.''