By Ray Kilgore: Ask some boxing writers, and many will tell you that boxing is a difficult sport to cover. It’s not uncommon for fighters to take what they perceive as a negative article and get irritated and refuse interviews.Writers can be in a no-win position.
Then there are men like Joe DeGuardia: a person who likes, even loves, to rush head first into the madness of the “other side” of the sport. Why would a vibrant, handsome, 48-year-old want to take on additional stress? Simple: because when DeGuardia was an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx, he took lumps, definitely mentally and almost physically.
“I was a very good trial attorney,” said DeGuardia, who graduated top of his class at Hofstra Law School. “Once I had a case where my client was on trial for assault. I was cross-examining the alleged victim, and I could tell he was getting agitated,” DeGuardia recalled. “I pushed some verbal buttons and the guy jumped off the stand and tried to attack me with his cane.” The case was not only an instant victory for DeGuardia’s client, but for him as well. Deguardia figured why not work in a field, full-time, where physical aggression is understood and where he had built something of an identity from an early age.
Boxing is in DeGuardia’s bloodline. His father, Mr. Joe Sr., fought in the welterweight division, and by the time he retired in the 1950’s, he fought around 30 fights. Sr. studied the game inside and out; in fact, his affinity for the sport took him so deep that in 1978, he opened The Morris Park Boxing Club, to the delight of Joe Jr., who could now indulge in his obsession.
“I never had drug or alcohol problems,” DeGuardia said. “My issues were that I loved the sport. Being around my father, he gave me a good appreciation for what a boxer as an athlete goes through. I really internalized that.”
At the age of five, DeGuardia gravitated to the ring, but at the age of 17, his plan to take boxing to the next level (turning professional) failed to materialize after he suffered major injuries as a result of a car accident. A friend lost control of the car in which DeGuardia was a passenger and ran into a tree. So instead of conditioning his mind and body for his next fight, young DeGuardia was left with the task of rebuilding his strength through months of physical therapy, while helping his mind psychologically adjust to the situation.
“The other day I had a conversion with a guy I respected in the field and who knew me when I was fighting,” DeGuardia said. “He said, ‘In life you can never have regrets. You got to move forward.’ And that’s the way I try to live.” But DeGuardia added, “I was tormented when I stopped boxing. I can vividly feel what a fighter goes through when he [is] not fighting or is ready to retire and want to get back into that ring.”
Shortly after he graduated from high school, DeGuardia, who was raised in the Bronx, focused on college—a move that left him in uncharted territory, given that he would be the first one in his family to attend college. DeGuardia had been told by his father that a college degree was his way out. And while son heeded his father’s advice, both men knew that Sr. had planted a seed in DeGuardia which wasn’t easy for him to get rid of.
By day, DeGuardia learned the theories, strategies, and maneuvers that would help him to break a witness down; on the weekends, he applied similar skills, breaking down his opponents, giving bloodied noses and black eyes. By the time he finished law school in 1989, he had won amateur titles, including the New York Golden Gloves Championship in 1988, defeating Larry Barnes, the first fighter he promoted when Barnes turned professional.
However, reality set in, and DeGuardia wasn’t blind to the facts. “I was in law school and I had to make a decision,” he said. “And I made a decision to focus on my law degree instead of boxing.” But he kept his foot in the door.
By 1991, he was the owner of the The Morris Park Boxing Club, and the more he dabbled in it, the clearer his vision became. “I went with the name Star Boxing because I wanted to develop stars,” he said. And in 2000, DeGuardia made a move (which frankly didn’t seem logical until you understood his passion for the game) and left his hundred-thousand yearly salary for the unknown.
“I always imagined that I’d stay in boxing,” he said. “I never imagined it would replace my law business. It was not an easy thing to do; boxing doesn’t hold any guarantees. You can go years without making money. I always made money in my law practice.”
Shortly after starting the company, Star Boxing earned revenue, and for the most part, DeGuardia was also satisfied with giving the men and women who made their way in and out of his gym a second home.
In late December of 2009, DeGuardia and his family had hoped to celebrate the upcoming holidays. But they instead had to deal with the aftermath of a crippling fire which destroyed the boxing gym where DeGuardia formed a tight-knit bond with many members of his community as a way to honor the legacy of his father. No one would have questioned if DeGuardia had wallowed in depression in the days after he learned the gym had burned down. DeGuardia had the ability to earn an income through his private law practice, so it would be just as easy for him to reflect on the memories and move on.
Instead DeGuardia focused on rebuilding the gym; in fact, it became his obsession. And in 2010—after the gym had been closed for nine months--he proudly opened its doors, and the gym has remained open since. “To follow through when you have a love for something,” he said. “You are going to put that dedication, discipline, and hard work in to it.”
DeGuardia didn’t have names like Arturo Gatti or Mike Tyson under contract, but he did have several who found some success, including an unknown fighter by the name of Antonio Tarver. Tarver got a late start in boxing, and few were interested in him. In 2000, when he stepped up in competition, he lost to Eric Harding, and outside of ESPN 2, major networks were not interested.
DeGuardia saw that Tarver, who DeGuardia had signed to a multi-year contract, had some positive qualities, and in July of 2002, Harding and Tarver met again; this time a more confident Tarver stopped Harding in round five. But it was in April 2003, where DeGuardia’s investment in Tarver really paid off. DeGuardia had negotiated a deal for Tarver to challenge then WBC & IBF champion Montel Griffin. It was Tarver’s first shot at a world title, and he took advantage by defeating Griffin by 12 round unanimous decision.
However, the man Tarver had long wanted was Roy Jones Jr. Jones had moved up to heavyweight (his only fight in that division) to challenge and win the WBA title from John Ruiz in 2003. Since that time, Tarver had picked up Jones’ titles with his victory over Griffin.
Tarver irked Jones so much so that Tarver, who goes by the nickname “Magic Man,” talked his way into a Jones fight in November of 2003. Jones took a razor-thin majority decision, but at a cost. In May of 2004, Jones-Tarver II took place. Jones had given the impression that he was doing Tarver a favor, but the truth was, Jones, like many boxers who gain his status, had an ego, and the mere fact that many questioned his victory over Tarver hurt his pride. In hindsight, Jones would regret his decision when Tarver knocked him out, the first man to do so, in round two. In October 2005, the men met again, and this time Tarver took an easy decision over a Jones who had lost all confidence as a fighter.
DeGuardia promoted the fights, and he finally got well-deserved paydays. But he wasn’t content to rest on his laurels. Tarver-Jones was a hit on pay-per-views, and Star Boxing was still dedicated to finding lesser-known boxers. “A lot of people don’t realize it makes it difficult to take care of a fighter when they don’t make a lot of money,” DeGuardia said. “I have done it, and I enjoy it. I like to develop a fighter, getting him from no place to some place.”
Even with that mindset come inherent risks.“One of the problems that happens in our business is the less opportunity you have with a fighter, the more it inhibits your ability to invest in him. If it turns out you only have a limited period of time with a fighter, you’re going to be careful,” he said. “I like to get extensions [contacts] in the middle of their careers so I can invest more money in him.”
But that’s a delicate topic and balance, especially when two of his contracted boxers are forced to fight one another. “In order to develop a fighter, you can’t keep padding his record…Other guys are saying, ‘Let’s build his record up.’ I believe ultimately you are doing a disservice to a fighter if you continue to put him in with complete tomato cans.”
The title of boxing promoter comes with both good and not so good connotations. For the longest time, some fighters and fans have questioned the motives and practices of some boxing promoters. And if that wasn’t bad enough, lawyers are also sometimes viewed as money-hungry opportunists.
“Both professions are perceived as bad guys. That appearance is very jaded,” said DeGuardia. “They [promoters and lawyers] are the gas, oil, and wheels of their industry. [But] I believe if I do the right thing, and I can get up and look at myself in the mirror knowing that I conducted myself in a proper manner, it pays off.”
DeGuardia might never shake the image some people have about promoters and attorneys, but that’s OK because he says his focus, when it comes to boxing, is what matters most. “Family values. I really do have a sense of family,” he said. “If a guy loses, they are like your family. You don’t just kick them out. You try to bring them back, [although] the realities of the business, and sometimes the fighter’s own mental makeup, make it difficult to do that.”
And then there are other issues. “The nature of the business is brutal. Often time people who make the decisions don’t have a clue of what’s happening,” DeGuardia said. “Yet they give advice to fighters and networks. The fact that the industry isn’t consolidated enough. I get frustrated.” He added, “The fact that we take a secondary position to other sports is frustrating. Our sport is a much better sport, and despite what the public thinks, it is much more regulated, and it has more fans than you would think.”
DeGuardia informed this writer that he had about 30 minutes left for the interview. It was clear he enjoyed talking about his role in the sport, and was honored to have been sought out for a profile. But there are people in his life who come first, and two of them are his sons, 15-year-old Joe the third, and 10-year-old Andrew. On the night of this interview DeGuardia was headed to Andrew’s basketball practice, in which he is one of the coaches. And tomorrow, he was set to leave the office early so that he could attend Joe Jr.’s baseball practice. “They are great athletes and are doing well in school,” DeGuardia said when asked why he doesn’t look to relocate his business to a place where he could earn more. “They have friends, and the fact that I could make more money somewhere else doesn’t interest me.”
So, for a brief moment, his boys gave him a break from trying to balance his personal and professional jobs. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. “Do I have to work in the middle of the night? Yes,” he confessed. After all, growing sons and up-and-coming boxers both require a lot of guidance. “I personally [see] myself involved in boxing for a long time. I provide boxers with a living. The more action [fights] I give fighters, the more exposure they get,” he said. And helping a fighter along the road to success is something that makes him proud to show up every day for even when some might question it.