By Jeff Jowett: The sign over the gym reads “Laundromat”. But if you can’t fight, all you’re likely to get here is cleaned up. This is the home of the Dream Team Boxing Academy in Runnemede, NJ, still under construction. About two dozen boxers, amateur and professional, train there. The walls are covered with old fight posters bearing familiar names of the products of the sprawling Philadelphia-area amateur system. Many have come and gone, some after a defeat or two, some because their goals weren’t being realized as expected. But the rising star of this gym has remained undeterred, combining studied determination with opportune development to become 2016’s Breakout Fighter of the Year: Jason Sosa.
In the bygone era of true champions, fighters had to prove themselves. In the modern era of fast-track multiple titles, the accepted formula is to sign amateur standouts, pay promoters to put them on against compliant opponents, and run up glossy numbers to a foregone title shot. There’s nothing to break out; only to break down. Jason Sosa was never on this track. He didn’t even box in his teens. Born in Camden, NJ, right across the river from the boxing mecca of Philadelphia and with roots and family in Puerto Rico, Sosa was at a crossroads and looking for direction in his life when he went to the Figueroa Gym (now defunct). His amateur career lasted only three bouts, with two losses.
Not fretting the details and with an offer to fight pro popping up, Jason took it…and won, stopping 0-5 Jonathan Ocasio on 11/20/09. But this was no fast track, this was learn by experience. Four fights later, an opportunity developed when a gym mate fell off a show. Jason took it, against a 1-0 opponent two weight classes higher, and was stopped. It remains his only defeat. He was an uninspiring 3-1-1 and took a year off to re-evaluate his prospects. But he stuck with boxing. Still trained by Miguel Figueroa and handled by “Doc” Nowicki, Sosa boxed fours and sixes around the active Philadelphia club scene, appearing on cards promoted by the now-inactive Greg Robinson at the Northeast National Guard Armory. “I didn’t expect to be where I am today,” he described his situation. But it was here that he engaged in two local club classics with hot Philly prospect and ticket seller Angel Ocasio that caught diehard fans’ eyes. After a storied amateur career, Ocasio was well known to fans. He had the stylish moves almost definitive of Philly fighters and threw long, eye-catching punches. But Sosa forced the fight, kept up a constant pressure while Ocasio fought in spurts, and won the respect of the demanding Philly fans. Back to back battles both ended in draws. And where is Ocasio now?
The Ocasio classics highlighted both the strengths and drawbacks of Sosa’s style: a tough guy to fight and a hard guy to score. Jason keeps up a constant low heat without charging in recklessly, throws short, inside punches from just enough distance to generate power and break an opponent down, but easy to miss by judges. Going 6-1-3 in three years, Jason reflected, “…that’s what happens when you don’t have the right team.” He might still be racking up wins on Philly club shows, but enter J. Russell Peltz…by the side door. The legendary Hall of Fame promoter wanted to sign another touted prospect with a headline amateur career, Anthony Burgin. But Sosa’s savvy trainer Raul “Chino” Rivas insisted that the promoter sign Jason as well. In December of ’12, Jason appeared at McGonigle Hall of Temple University and stopped 7-1 Isaac Suarez, and has gone 14-0-1 since signing with Peltz. But don’t think these are setups! Observed famed trainer John David Jackson, “When you fight for Russell Peltz, you don’t get easy breaks. You’re gonna learn something in every fight.” To which Bernard Hopkins quipped, “I fought under Russell Peltz twice, and my career’s spanning three decades.” Or as trainer Fred Jenkins once put it, “When you fight for Peltz, if you can’t fight, you find out real fast!” With Peltz and Rivas, Sosa reeled off twelve straight wins, in area venues and Puerto Rico. At the 2300 Arena in South Philly, he battered difficult lanky southpaw Bergman Aguilar, 12-1-1, into surrender and methodically broke down 14-8-1 Mexican Jorge Pazos. Peltz observed, “I believe Chino is as good a trainer as there is in boxing.”
The promoter-trainer-boxer team’s perseverance inevitably led to a major fight…as the underdog. Sosa met the outstanding former featherweight titlist Anthony Walters, who was moving up in weight. The bout was at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY, on HBO, and intended as a coming out party for Walters at the heavier weight. It wasn’t a pier-sixer but it was a good fight, with constant mixing at just enough distance to put power on the punches. The touted former titlist was classy, economical and sharp. But Sosa was persistent, made the fight and threw many more punches. Typically, they were all short and straight, no wild home run shots. But it was all about the favorite. As Jason observed later, “When they favor a guy, they want the guy to win.” Indeed! The commentary concentrated on the star power of Walters. But while putting up a good fight, the underdog drew mostly faint praise, like, “…who’s there to be hit [Sosa]”, and “…if he’s [Sosa] matched at the right level.” Max Kellerman scored the fight a shutout…for Walters. What a shock when the official scores made it a majority draw, with one score going to the underdog! Characteristically, Jason put a positive spin on it. “It only benefits me,” he advised, “because then all the opponents think they can beat me.”
It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t the fast track. But it garnered for Sosa a shot at Dominican Javier Fortuna for the WBA 130-lb title, in the unlikely location of upstart and eager Beijing, China. It wasn’t pretty. The long and lanky southpaw style of the title holder, plus a reluctance to mix often criticized by the commentators, made it periodically dull but with bursts of exchanging that kept it a close fight. Letting long punches go at last, Fortuna rocked Sosa with a big left in the fourth and scored a flash knockdown with an awkward right-left in the fifth. But characteristically, Sosa was always there, applying pressure, forcing the contest, scoring with short, solid inside punches that take a cumulative toll. The commentators observed, “The composure he shows under pressure is quite refreshing. Why would you want to fight this fellow?” By the late rounds, Sosa had gained control over his less disciplined opponent, and in the 11th, a right and left dropped the unraveling Fortuna. The referee stopped the fight and Jason was WBA Super Feather champion! “After I won the title, I thought, ‘Wow! We really did it!’”
In his only other fight of ’16, Jason journeyed this time to Monte Carlo to defend against England’s Steven Smith. Where the previous two had been close, see-saw, and in some ways controversial, this time Jason looked like a champion, against a worthy and dangerous challenger. The challenger tried classic boxing early, but couldn’t hold Sosa off with the jab. In a relentlessly rugged contest, Smith was down in the second and severely cut in the third. The British commentators, while pulling for Smith, were complimentary of the American. “He needs something just to keep Sosa under some sort of control.” The “something” proved to be to stand and trade, rattling Sosa in a desperate fourth. The challenger put up a game effort that made the fight an exciting crowd pleaser from bell to bell. But Smith was fighting Sosa’s fight, and Jason retained his title by a commanding unanimous decision.
Confident without arrogance, Sosa rarely uses the word “I” in preference to “we” for the team effort. “I’m in the gym 24-7, learning 24-7,” he advises. “We can’t be beat. I’m always getting better because we put the work in.” Over the past twelve months, “they’ve” gone from relative anonymity to a world title, Beijing, Monte Carlo, and HBO. So it’s a safe bet that Jason Sosa will be a major player in ’17!