To Fight Off Hard Times, Former Boxers Enter A 'Ring' Of Support

May 5, 2016
Originally published on May 15, 2016 8:59 pm

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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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Boxers are some of the most vulnerable athletes in sports. In the ring, they endure jabs and hooks and sometimes knockouts. And then they have to deal with the aftermath, which is both physical and financial. Ex-boxers in New York City have formed a group to support each other through the hard times. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: I pledge of allegiance to the flag...

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: For some of these veteran fighters, the final bell of their boxing careers has long stopped ringing.

MATT FARRAGO: Please remain standing for our 10 count.

WANG: But on this night in the South Bronx, they're back on their feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

WANG: They've come together to start a meeting of Ring 10. Some here have left the game by choice, others were abandoned years ago by their trainers.

FARRAGO: You know, the sport is very unforgiving. When you produce, we love you, and when you don't, I don't remember your name.

WANG: This ex-boxer's name is Matt Farrago. He started this 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 who are no longer in the spotlight.

FARRAGO: Somebody's got to win. That means somebody's got to lose. Why do people only care about the guys who won?

WANG: Some of those guys are part of their ranks too, including the World Boxing Council middleweight champion of 1988, Iran Barkley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What a turn around.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's over. Iran Barkley has upset Thomas Hearns in the third round.

WANG: The match was broadcast on Showtime, and close ups show blood streaming from Barkley's eyes as he's lifted into the air, his hands raised in triumph.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And new middleweight champion of the world, Iran The Blade Barkley.

WANG: Barkley says that win was his ticket out of the Patterson Houses, the public housing development in the Bronx where he grew up.

IRAN BARKLEY: I got to see most of the world free. The only thing that took me there was my two hands and the people that I met along the way. And that's the greatest thing in history.

WANG: More than two decades later, though, he was back in the neighborhood at what he calls the lowest part of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Train two.

WANG: Living in the subway station, homeless, carrying a bag of clothes and the championship belt he won from Thomas Hearns.

So you would sleep down here?

BARKLEY: Yeah, being down here, you thought you was just one of those guys that you always used to see on the trains.

WANG: I mean, how did you end up at such a low point?

BARKLEY: Spending money, messing around, just not managing it, you know what I'm saying? That's how you end up - taking care of everybody else but yourself.

WANG: Barkley 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.

BARKLEY: After you lost the boxing, what do you do then? You say where do I go? What do I do? You don't have all of that rah-rah-rah (ph) around you, you know what I'm saying? So this is what we need.

WANG: Members of Ring 10 got him off the streets and eventually helped him find a studio apartment. Now Barkley's remarried and says he's looking for a job and wants to write a book about his life. And on the second Tuesday of most months, he's with his family from Ring 10. Support groups like this are filling a need that's always been part of boxing, according to Gerald Gems. He's a sports historian at North Central College in Illinois.

GERALD GEMS: It's a very corrupt business. 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.

WANG: Gems says that now that boxing is not as popular as it once was, there's even less public concern about how it's run. That also worries Ring 10 founder Matt Farrago.

FARRAGO: Football has the NFL and MLB for baseball and basketball and everybody. Boxers have nothing. They come from the streets, and that's where they go back to.

WANG: Farrago says he wants to form a union for boxers. Until then, he's on the lookout for more lost fighters. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.