Fight of the year! – Paulie Malignaggi IBF World Junior Welterweight Champion
Fight of the Year Candidate! – fightnews.com
This Saturday, two gloved warriors Marcus Bianconi and Juan Zapata stepped into the ring in their quest for pugilistic fame and to settle a bitter dispute. Below is a surrealistic account of what took place.
A right cross…BANG!
Time dilates when you see life leave a man’s body exposing the whites of his eyes. The crowd’s din blurs into a deafening silence while watching a magnificently sculptured fighting machine like Juan Zapata collapse to the ground as a motionless clump of finely marbled flesh.
The crowd is hypnotically transfixed – as they primitively and instinctively wait to bear witness to the final outcome of every man’s life journey.
Fear, excitement, hysteria – call it what you want – but the emotional trauma of death’s presence or even imminence is both contagious and too much for the senses of any man to bear. And so you are numb.
And then you hear the breath of the gladiator left standing. Slowly he comes into focus: the cartilage in both ears swelled with blood, a laceration over his left eye that will require stitches to close, bumps and bruises pin pointing the vital areas of his face and head.
And then the crowd roars.
The ref waives his arms to end this contest of carnage and in in the same motion waves the ring doctor and paramedics to his aide as he pulls the mouthpiece out of Juan Zapata’s rubbery mouth.
They try to revive the fallen warrior with smelling salts – but the attempts are in vain. Still motionless – he does not respond. Ten minutes later – Zapata – still unconscious is placed in a neck brace out of fear the neck may be broken from the sustained impact of Marcus Bianconi’s right cross to Zapata’s jaw.
Carefully the paramedics hoist his body onto the stretcher, which will carry him out of the ring and into the convalescence of the ambulance that awaits him.
The victor Marcus Bianconi, whose ancestors are legend to have fought in the Roman Coliseum, seethes with hate, “I hope he dies.”
Eerily, ex-Welterweight Champion Emile Griffith who out of a similar rage killed his opponent Benny “The Kid” Paret more than 30 years ago was seated within earshot when Bianconi uttered those words.
Given that this tragedy took place only a few hours before this writing, Juan Zapata’s current medical condition is unknown. But questions abound, why was there such unprecedented hate between Bianconi and Zapata? We at magnusvermagnusson.com (MVM) interviewed Marcus Bianconi’s trainer/manager Coach Craig Smith about what led up to this tragic event.
MVM: How did all this evolve?
Coach Craig: Originally Marcus was slated to fight Richardo Planto, who was trained by Lennox Blackmore and who hails out of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. About 10 days before the fight, Robert Duffy the promoter of this bout called me and announced that Planto was backing out because he saw films of Marcus knocking guys out in previous bouts and was afraid to face him. Duffy then offered Juan Zapata who hailed out of Juan LaPorte’s Gym in the South Bronx as an alternative opponent who wanted to fight Marcus. The caveat being that Zapata was more of a natural super middleweight/ light heavyweight as opposed to being a middleweight. Consequently, Zapata would have to drop about 10 pounds just to make the 162 plus weight limit.
MVM: What ensued from there?
Coach Craig: Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with Zapata other than he had a reputation as being an intimidating and fearsome puncher who knocked out his last opponent in the first round.
MVM: What did Marcus think?
Coach Craig: That was part of the problem. Marcus said he saw the guy work when he was sparring down at LaPorte’s Gym and did not think much of him. He told me Zapata was just a guy with big arms who liked to bang.
MVM: Well why was that a problem?
Coach Craig: I should have known better than to ask Marcus what he thought of Zapata as opposed to thoroughly investigating how tough this guy really was. Marcus is fearless. When he was training at Miguel Cotto’s camp in Caguas, Puerto Rico he would call me up everyday telling me he could easily tear up Miguel Cotto – only that Miguel’s Uncle and then trainer – Evangelista was holding him back from doing so. Marcus fears no one – it’s like he was born without that one sense of survival. Unlike other fighter’s who have to worry about controlling fear, Marcus does not have it to control. I’ve never seen anything like it.
MVM: So based upon Marcus’ perception, you signed for the fight?
Coach Craig: Yes.
MVM: What happened then?
Coach Craig: A lot of things – some good and some not so good. A couple of days later Marcus sparred with super middleweight Curtis Stevens who was preparing for a big fight on July 11th. Stevens is one helluva puncher – he had a stellar amateur career as one of the best light heavyweights in the United States and a reputation as a one punch knockout artist. Super talent. Anyway Marcus jumps in on a round robin with Stevens and immediately steps in Stevens’ office by going toe to toe with him – something no one I know would dare to do. The two traded some very heavy shots, with Marcus getting the better of the exchanges. He even wobbled Stevens with that right hand of his – despite wearing 18 ounce training gloves! Stevens returned the favor with a hard right of his own giving Marcus a good shiner. No retreat, no surrender Marcus blasted back and in everyone’s estimation prevailed over Stevens in that session. Still I was annoyed that the eye was swollen before the fight and cautioned Marcus about getting cut.
MVM: Was the eye that much of a problem?
Coach Craig: No. We put ice on it and the swelling subsided some. We then went to spar a couple of days later at Pete Brodsky’s Gym in Westbury. Unfortunately Marcus got hit again in the same eye, which now opened up a pretty good cut.
MVM: Wow. How many days out was the fight with Zapata?
Coach Craig: About ten. Which meant we had to prematurely stop sparring and focus training around making sure Marcus consciously kept his left up – which was both good and bad.
MVM: How so?
Coach Craig: Good in the sense, that the fighter is now starting to learn from his own mistakes in style and now begins to make adjustments that only experience can truly instill. Bad in the sense that the adjustment is being made so close to the fight and must be made out of the necessity to survive from the fight being potentially stopped on a cut – which inevitably interferes with the fluidity of your fight plan.
MVM: Did you consider postponing the fight?
Coach Craig: Certainly. But given the progress we were making in the gym – the last thing you want to do is break this momentum – if it can be helped. In boxing, you never know when the next injury is going to happen. Given the shortage of shows, difficulty of getting opponents who are not afraid to face you – you cannot be all too selective. If you are going to make the decision to box professionally you have to accept that there are going to be hand injuries, cuts, all kinds of orthopedic problems – it’s professional sports – you have to learn how manage as best you can. We were also looking at the prospect that there would not be another fight till October.
MVM: So when did the bad blood develop between Bianconi and Zapata?
Coach Craig: At the weigh-in.
MVM: What happened?
Coach Craig: When the Commission called in Juan Zapata to be weighed, my jaw dropped. This guy was nothing what I envisioned. I mean this guy was built like Mr. America, but only better. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. Take it from me – everyone knows I know a thing or two about getting ripped – this guy was no more than 3 percent body fat. He was a specimen. I mean I really thought they called in the wrong guy. I looked over at Marcus and asked, “Is this Zapata?” to which Marcus sleepily responded, “Yeah.” I said nothing. Zapata then got on the scale and came in a pound over limit. The Commission looked over at me and asked me what I wanted to do. Marcus shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t care. Let’s fight.”
MVM: Did you let it go?
Coach Craig: Not a chance. I announced to both Zapata and his trainer that he would have to lose the pound.
MVM: What happened then?
Coach Craig: He went berserk. “You’re going to make me go out and run to lose a pound?” “Yes.” Zapata was incredulous – he screamed menacingly at Marcus, “Yo I am going to kill you.” Marcus then sprung out of his chair, “What??? You’re gonna get fu&ked up!” The two moved at each other but were quickly separated. George Mitchell, our cut man, then asked me why I was making him lose the pound. He was concerned that I really pissed the guy off.
MVM: Were you concerned about pissing him off?
Coach Craig: Not at all. In fact, I believe anger can work to a fighter’s detriment. It clouds reasoning and focus. The most dangerous weapon a fighter has is his mind. Impede that and you will most likely prevail.
MVM: Aside from the psychological aspect, was it still physiologically important?
Coach Craig: Absolutely. If you remember this guy had been suffering the last 10 days to lose who knows how many pounds – and when he arrived at the weigh-in with a mere 3 percent body fat percentage – he had nothing to lose except muscle. A pound of muscle he could use in the fight against Marcus. Making him go out and lose that extra pound would drain him only more than he probably already was – and if the fight proved to be a war, which it did – this strategy would only prove to work in Marcus’ favor.
MVM: What ensued?
Coach Craig: The following day we were told that we would be fighting sixth, which would be around 6:00 PM. Marcus had his prefight meal at 2:30 PM, which was planned to give him time-released energy at the time of his bout 3 and half hours later. When we arrived at the event at 4:05, we saw that they started the first bout exactly at 4:00 PM. The time of 6:00 PM was an approximate, not a definite time. We also learned we were on fourth, not sixth. With guys getting stopped, it became apparent we would have only fifteen minutes to get tested, wrapped, gloved, and signed off by the Commission. There was no time to get warmed up. Like it or not – we were going in bone dry. An opponent’s dream. Time was called and we were led through the crowd and into the ring. I looked at Zapata and he was big.
MVM: Bigger than he was at the weigh-in?
Coach Craig: Oh yeah. At the weigh-in he was dehydrated – sucked out from all the dieting. Although they didn’t record his weight you could see his muscles had filled out with all the water and food he must have scoffed down after making weight. He must have been 180 pounds.
MVM: Did this negate you making him go out and lose that pound at the weigh in?
Coach Craig: No. Again you have to understand – this guy was 3 percent body fat. He had no fat to lose – only muscle and water. For him to lose a pound would be like me having to lose 5 pounds. It’s very stressful for a high performance athlete. The Commission has a rule that you are only allowed to lose so much weight at the weigh-in. The reason behind this is because if you lose more than this – you can become perilously dehydrated – a state of dehydration that takes more than 24 hours to replenish. Although this would not necessarily be reflected in the early rounds, it would become a factor in latter rounds should the contest become a test of wills-which it did.
The fight between Marcus Bianconi and Juan Zapata that ensued was not only the best fight of the night, it was the best fight of the year.
Round 1: Zapata blasted out of his corner like a raging bull, unmercifully blasting Bianconi with savage rights and lefts. When Zapata threw uppercuts, he pulled up with every shot as though he were trying to lift Bianconi off the floor. Bianconi tried to punch back, but was completely overwhelmed by the endless barrage of fast, powerful combinations that seemed to explode from a variety of different directions. At the sound of the closing bell, Bianconi returned to his corner – the cut freshly opened from receiving brutal rights. George Mitchell, immediately applied an adrenaline soaked gauze patch to the eye as Coach Craig told Bianconi to remain calm and not emotionally abandon their game plan.
Round 2: Zapata blasted out of his corner once again – his charges eventually knocking Bianconi off balance, which sent him to the canvas. Bianconi rose only to be assaulted more brutally for attempting to challenge Zapata again. Zapata mercilessly blasted Bianconi with brutal rights to his affected eye in an effort to tear open the cut further. Bianconi managed to effectively slip under some of the bombs. Frustrated by Bianconi’s evasiveness and his inability to put him away, Zapata blasted Bianconi with a potentially lethal and illegal blow to the back of Bianconi’s head – which put Bianconi down for the first time ever in his 7 year boxing career.
MVM: Coach Craig what went through your mind when you saw Marcus on the canvas for the first time?
Coach Craig: My heart was pounding. Marcus is more than a friend. I consider him as a member of my family. To see him get battered like this was very hard. I kept leaping for the ring and George kept pulling me back. I was trying my best to keep my emotions under control. It was hard. George advised me that Marcus had to try to get on his bicycle – and fend Zapata off with the jab. I told him that Marcus had to try to stay with the plan – that he was too far behind on points – that if he was going to win, then he was going to have to knock Zapata out. George was like, “knock Zapata out? You should be thinking about trying to keep Zapata from knocking Marcus out!” I looked at Zapata and noticed for the first time he was breathing heavy. I screamed at Marcus – “get up!!! You can win this!!!” And then I looked back at Zapata and screamed at him “He’s tired!!! He’s sucking wind. He’s finished.” Zapata looked away uneasily. Marcus rose and barely finished the round. When he returned to the corner his cut was open again. The back of his head where Zapata punched him had a bump the size of a baseball. There were bumps and bruises on his temples, the top of his head and behind his ears – both of which swelled with the vegetation of blood most commonly known as cauliflower ears. As George applied another soaking of adrenaline to close the cut – I told Marcus he was still in the fight. I assured him that Zapata shot his load – he was done – but also I told Marcus that he had to throw – it was the only way he was going to end it.
Round 3: Marcus came out and traded punches with Zapata, blasting him with shots to the body. Zapata winced in pain and complained to the ref that the blows were low. The ref ordered him to continue. Bianconi worked him into the corner and blasted a left to the body followed by a right cross to the head that knocked Zapata out.
MVM: One of the trainers approached you after the fight and took note that you were screaming at Zapata that he was “tired, finished, sucking wind.” Were the words meant for Marcus or Zapata?
Coach Craig: Let me put it this way, “I knew Marcus was hearing me, but more importantly I knew at the moment Zapata was listening to me.”
ICL: What did you tell Marcus after the fight?
Coach Craig: Marcus was disappointed with his performance despite the win. I assured him that the skills he acquired over the year and utilized in sparring were far from lost. He said he saw Lou Dibella, the famous promoter, and apologized for his performance. I laughed. When he asked me why I was laughing I assured him that Lou Dibella, Andre Rozier (the Coney Island Strong Brothers trainer who traveled out from Brooklyn to study Marcus as a future opponent for his fighter Danny Jacobs) and everyone else who attended had the privilege to witness something rare. They saw a warrior get battered, for three solid rounds, knocked down, cut and then come back to knock out his bigger, stronger opponent – sending him out on a stretcher to the hospital. I told him that although beatings like that shorten a fighter’s career, this battle revealed to the world not only the kind of champion he will one day become – but also answered some of his own questions of doubt that every fighter has – answers that will further cement confidence in his abilities in his journey to the top.
Iron Curtain Labs’ Marcus Bianconi is now 5-0 with 5 knockouts.