Entertainment

Boxing in the Age of COVID

"If this is what you want," said Mikkel LesPierre, "then you will by any means do what’s necessary to make it happen.”
July 2, 2020, 3:34pm
Mikkel LesPierre trains for a fight
Photo by Ryan Songalia

The persistent beat of a speed bag and the ringing bells have been replaced by the chirping of birds and cars passing on the Pelham Parkway. Joggers and cyclists pass by, sometimes slowing to take note of the spectacle of in-sync punching on the mitts. The foliage overhead provides shade from the noontime sun, and the wind provides moderate relief on this humid summer day. Still, once the grind begins, even a second can seem like a round.

These are unusual circumstances for Mikkel LesPierre, a 35-year-old boxing contender from Brooklyn, to train under. Typically, he works out in Brooklyn's landmark Gleason’s Gym, surrounded by every piece of equipment a serious boxer could need. But with gyms still closed in New York City, conditions are far from ideal.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing professional sports teams to start pre-season preparations, that order didn’t extend to individual athletes who need gym access—like boxers. So instead of driving 20 minutes to the gym from his home, LesPierre gets in his car with his wife and one-year-old daughter to drive to Bronx River Park.

“Honestly, I liked it better because I was able to train in nature and use nature’s attributes to my advantage,” LesPierre said after a recent workout. The grassy terrain, and changes in elevation of the pavement, make for a more difficult; he believes that will serve him better when he switches to a flat ring canvas on fight night.

It would have been easy for him to turn down the offer that his promoter, Lou DiBella, relayed to him to fight former two-time world champion Jose Pedraza. He had only about a month to prepare for the fight, originally scheduled for June 18, and a single loss can set a fighter back in his career.

Boxing events in the United States resumed in June after going dark for three months due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Las Vegas-based Top Rank has been hosting twice-a-week live shows on ESPN inside what it calls “The Bubble”—a safe zone at the MGM Grand enforced by testing of all participants, event, and production personnel upon arrival in town and following the weigh-in—at the cost of over $25,000 per show.

There are no fans in the arena, and all essential personnel, save for the fighters, must wear face masks and observe social distancing. Even the traditional staredown on the weigh-in scales have been done away with in favor of glances from six feet away.

Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who began promoting shows in 1966, when he organized Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight championship defense against George Chuvalo, said this is the most difficult challenge he’s faced in all his years in the business.

A number of fighters have had to withdraw from fights, most notably 2016 Olympian Mikaela Mayer and WBO junior lightweight titleholder Jamel Herring, after their tests came back positive. Arum said even more fighters were tested in their home states before their fights were announced, and had to be removed from consideration.

The ethical question of holding boxing events during a pandemic, with fighters and trainers flying in, doesn’t concern Arum, he said because of the protocol they’ve put in place under the advisement of epidemiological experts and the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

“We felt we had an obligation to go forward both to the fighters who were able and willing to fight, and the public that wanted to see live boxing,” said Arum. “As far as the ethics were concerned, they were only in one direction, to go ahead as long as you could go ahead safely.

“This is completely science-based. It’s not boxing promoters dreaming up shit and saying, ‘Well people will be safe.’”

LesPierre is accustomed to staring down the inherent danger in the sport. Getting ready for a fight under unprecedented circumstances is all part of what he has signed up for.

“If this is what you want, then you will by any means do what’s necessary to make it happen,” said LesPierre, who has a record of 22-1 with 10 knockouts. “If it’s not, you’ll realize fast that this is not something you want to do, because your life is on the line, and this is not something to take lightly.”

LesPierre works at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, at the front desk of the ear, nose and throat department. When New York became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, his office closed down and he was reassigned to the main hospital in Union Square, bringing personal protective equipment and other supplies from the loading dock to the nursing units.

“I saw dead bodies being loaded out to the loading dock out of the morgue or truck or wherever they had them. I’ve seen nurses come in hysterical like, ‘It’s crazy in the ICU,’” said LesPierre.

As LesPierre skips rope to get a sweat going, his trainer, Joan Guzman, and his assistant, Luis Guzman, prepare the tools of the trade. Joan Guzman, a former WBO junior featherweight and junior lightweight champion, had previously worked with LesPierre as an assistant, but LesPierre elevated him to head trainer, believing he had the experience to guide him to a championship of his own.

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Photo by Ryan Songalia

“The key in boxing is when you repeat it many times the same. You can put it in your brain, like muscle memory,” said Guzman. He said that while LesPierre doesn’t have big punching power, he has other attributes to make up for it.

“Mikkel’s got good defense like a boxer needs, plus movement and a chin,” said Guzman, referring to the ability to take a punch. “You need power in boxing, but it’s not mandatory. A chin, when you got this, you can win any fight.”

Training in the park isn’t unusual for Guzman. He’d worked out in parks in places where there were no gyms in his native Dominican Republic, or even in airport terminals and hotel rooms when fighting abroad. In his trunk he carries everything needed for a mobile boxing gym, including a body protector and a foam pad he can strap on to a tree to make an improvised punching bag.

The only time a gym would be absolutely necessary is for sparring. That required LesPierre making the most of his networking skills. He found a gym in Connecticut that was owned by a boxer who could give him some rounds in the ring, which was a tough ask since gyms couldn’t officially open in that state until the day before his fight.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago, LesPierre moved to a rough section of Brooklyn’s East Flatbush section known as “the 90s.” There he hoped to play basketball for his high school. Getting into trouble in the streets hurt his grades and attendance, leaving him ineligible for his school team. His father enrolled him into a local boxing gym to teach him some discipline and give him an outlet for his mischief.

He only started taking the sport seriously at age 19. After about 50 amateur fights he turned pro in 2012, fighting primarily in small venues around New York like the Melrose Ballroom in Astoria and Millenium Theater in Brighton Beach.

He got his big shot in March of 2019, facing WBO junior welterweight titleholder Maurice Hooker in Verona in upstate New York. LesPierre says he didn’t fight a game plan that matched his counter-punching style. Despite being knocked down by a body shot from the much harder punching Hooker, he was able to make it to the final bell. He earned the respect of his opponent, who told him afterwards that he was now an elite fighter. LesPierre lost a wide unanimous decision, but gained the confidence he feels he needs to succeed at the highest level of the sport.

Pedraza (26-3, 13 KOs), of Cidra, Puerto Rico, has been to the top of the sport, winning world titles at 130 and 135 pounds since turning professional in 2011. He’s fought major names in the sport, like Vasiliy Lomachenko and Gervonta Davis, but he’s fighting at 140 pounds for just the second time in his career. The first time was last September, when he was beaten by contender Jose Zepeda, leaving some to question if he’s too small for the weight.

At 5:45 a.m. on June 18, the phone in LesPierre’s room rang. Both of the fighters’ tests had all come back negative, as well as the trainers’. But Jose Taveras, LesPierre’s manager, had tested positive at the weigh-in, after initially testing negative upon arrival. The phone once again at 6:10 a.m. The fight was canceled.

“That was heartbreaking, it felt like all my hard work went out the door,” said LesPierre. “I even called whoever I needed to speak with to see if there’s anything that could be done so that the fight could go on. But they told me according to the protocol they have to continue and cancel the fight because it wouldn’t be fair that they let my fight go on and they had other fights canceled for the same reason.”

An hour later, a shuttle arrived to transport LesPierre and his team out of the MGM Grand and check them into Renaissance Marriott, about three miles away. LesPierre spent that time doing cardio in the hotel gym, hopeful that the fight would be rescheduled.

LesPierre’s team all tested negative two days later, leading LesPierre to figure that his manager had received a false positive. They all flew back to New York the following day.

As a direct result of this incident, Top Rank changed the protocol to no longer allow managers and outside promoters into their “bubble,” in hopes of preventing another occurrence.

Once back in New York, LesPierre returned to work, and going for runs after his shift to keep his weight down. He had expected the fight to be reset for July 14, but when Herring tested positive, and his fight with Jonathan Oquendo had to be canceled, Top Rank went back to its bench to revive the LesPierre-Pedraza fight as the main event for the July 2 card. That call came on June 22, giving him just 10 days’ lead time to request more time off from work. There’s no time for additional sparring. If he isn’t ready now, then he’ll never be ready.

Even after all he’s been through, LesPierre hasn’t lost his optimism. He knows that a win here will bring him back into the world title picture, and would put him a step closer to fulfilling his championship dream.

“I feel it’s the greatest opportunity for me, I think everything works in my favor, and I’m just ready to go out there and get it done,” said LesPierre.

“I’m just tired of the anticipation.”

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