By Thomas Gerbasi
Marshall Kauffman has seen a lot in his years in the fight game. Some good, some bad, but whatever he’s dealing with at the moment at his King’s Gym in Reading, Pennsylvania, he’s hooked on boxing, and that’s not likely to ever change.
So when you ask him why 36-year-old Keenan Collins – a boxer he has coached since the day he walked into the gym in 2001 still fights – Kauffman knows why. Of course there’s the grasp the sport gets on you, but the other purpose is a nobler one.
“Sometimes you wonder, what is it that motivates you, what is it that drives you?” said Kauffman. “And for Keenan, I think it’s about setting an example, not only for himself and his family, but for the people that are around him.”
That’s probably not the description that would have been pinned on Collins when he was a wild kid getting into trouble and eventually spending three years in prison for aggravated assault back in the mid-90s. He was still a teenager then, old enough to know better but young enough to not act on that knowledge. Yet when he came out of the system, he was determined not to go back.
That’s when boxing intervened. It’s a story that’s been told countless times throughout the years, one you can always point to when someone questions the morals of sanctioning two men (or women) to punch each other in the face. Usually the stories told are like those of future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, who left the street life behind to become one of boxing’s best ever. If you want the other side of the spectrum, there’s always Clifford “The Black Rhino” Etienne, who had the chance to make something of himself in the heavyweight division post-prison, only to go off the rails and get locked up again, this time for life.
And then there’s Collins. At 36, and with a 14-7-3, 1 NC record, his immediate future doesn’t include lucrative dates on premium cable or megafights against high-profile names. For him to get to that point, he will have to get someone willing to test their hot unbeaten prospect against him, win the fight, a probable rematch, and then maybe he’ll get the momentum needed to be the B side in fight that could alter his career forever. And again, he’ll have to win that one too.
It’s a long shot, but it’s also been done before. First though, there’s the business of an eight round middleweight bout at the Rodeway Inn in Allentown, Pennsylvania against George Rivera. Rivera, 13-7-1 with 4 KOs, went eight rounds with Collins last April, with a draw verdict rendered when the final bell sounded.
Asked what happened in a bout in which one judge had Collins winning a shutout, the Brooklyn native said “mostly, he (Rivera) just ran. Truthfully, in the fight before that I fought a dude (Julio Cesar Lanzas) that came at me, so I was more or less ready for someone to come at me, and he ran. He really caught me off guard with the running, and I just couldn’t catch him. But whenever I hit him, I gave him a reason to run.”
That’s always been the scouting report on Collins. He can crack, so if you can make him miss, you can beat him. Seven people figured that out over the last eight plus years, including Delvin Rodriguez, Henry Crawford, Charles Whittaker, and Gabe Rosado, but if anything, the recent resurgence of Whittaker and Rosado should prove that a less than glossy record isn’t always the boxing version of a death sentence.
“I think he looks back on the fights with Charles Whittaker and Gabe Rosado and then says ‘wow, I can actually compete with the best of them,’” said Kauffman. “But the thing I try to get into his head is not to compete with them; you want to be able to beat them. And that’s the difference in order to get to the next level. He can still punch, that’s one thing that doesn’t go, and he’s still learning. It’s just a matter of whether he can bring it out come fight time. And that’s the biggest thing.”
Fighting a couple times a year won’t allow Collins to get the momentum and rhythm he needs though, and he knows it, so starting with this weekend’s bout, he wants to stay busy.
“It doesn’t matter who I fight,” said Collins. “The guy 20-0, the guy 15-15, or the guy 3-19, it doesn’t matter. I just want to fight. I don’t have that much time. As good as my body may be preserved, technically speaking I don’t have that much time. So I’ve got to get it in while I’ve got it. Whenever opportunity knocks, I’ve just got to answer the door. I can’t back down from anybody and I’ve got to be in the gym at all times. I’ve got to keep my weight maintained so I can be ready at any given time, and whenever my number gets called, I’m just ready to show what I’ve got. It’s getting down the line. I’m only an hour and a half away from Philly, so maybe I’m drinking the Bernard Hopkins water.”
He laughs, but he knows it won’t be easy, and that when he’s not fighting at home, he’s likely going to be “the opponent.”
“I’m ready for that,” he said. “I’m ready to upset someone. It happened to me. When I first started, I was 4-0 with four knockouts and I thought I was little Mike Tyson. Then I got upset and then I went on a little down phase. So I’m ready to upset somebody.”
Until that chance arrives, Collins will put his time in at King’s Gym. These days, he runs in the morning, gets his boxing done in the afternoon, and then he works the third shift as a supervisor at a local halfway house. It’s not just a steady gig to support him and his family, but it’s also cathartic in a way, as he tries to show that a trip down the wrong path isn’t a one way voyage. It’s also why his work in the gym isn’t just to get in shape and get better as a fighter, but to show the kids in King’s, which stands for Kids In Need of Guidance, that tough times don’t need to define you.
“It’s my job to give back,” said Collins. “I don’t have a lump sum of money where I can donate to charity or go out and take some of these kids around and do things with them. But for them to see my story and see me and know that I came up the same way they came up and I’ve been in the same mess they’ve been in, they can see that you’ve got to maintain and take your mind other ways and stay focused. I want them to see that they’re not the only ones going through what they are. I went through it and I’m still around, still surviving, and I’ve still got a dream. If you don’t dream, then what’s the use of living? Regardless if it’s far-fetched, regardless if no one else believes in it. As long as you believe in it, it’s your dream. You can’t allow anyone to take your dream away from you. You have to have something to look forward to and you have to believe in something.”
So the days of hard miles, harder rounds, and blood, sweat, and tears will continue for him. It’s a testament to the power of this sport to transcend what happens in the ring and create a role model out of someone who was something far removed from that in what seems like a lifetime ago.
“He has that sort of stamp on his head not to give up,” said Kauffman, who deserves his own set of kudos for never abandoning his fighter. The two have never even had a contract together, with the trainer describing their relationship as ‘like family.’
“There’s no quit in him, he continues to work hard, and he continues to believe that he has the ability to make something happen,” Kauffman continues. “Keenan still comes in the gym and continues to box to show these younger kids that he still has what it takes, and more than anything that he’s turned his life around. He came from the rough upbringing, he did x amount of years in jail, and here he can show them that I could still make a few dollars doing what I do here because I love boxing, but at the same time I can still take care of my family by working my job. I’ve got my kids, I’ve got my car, I’ve got everything I have, and boxing’s just something that adds to it. It’s almost like putting icing on the cake.”
And he’s still got that dream.
“The dream is still there,” said Collins. “Some people don’t see it, but if I didn’t have that dream of beating someone that’s well-known or someone that’s worth it, I wouldn’t be boxing no more. You don’t play boxing. This is real. This is war. So I still have the dream, I still have the desire, and I still have the want and the passion and I still have the hunger.”