By Mitch Abramson
Jason Thompson smiled. The question seemed a little out of place, even inappropriate. No, he had never turned down an opponent for a fight, he said. He didn’t have that luxury. And no, he had never had a manager guide his career with an eye toward a possible title shot, he said. Thompson, a welterweight from Flatbush, Brooklyn, had for much of his career, forged his own way with a very indiscriminate eye toward his opponents. In other words, Thompson took any fight he was offered, just happy to get a fight, used principally as a step-ladder for more heralded fighters to build their records on.
And so with little fanfare and his options limited, Thompson turned pro in 2005 and faced some of the top prospects in the sport over the course of his first 12 bouts, from a young Mike Jones to the former U.S. Olympian Sadam Ali to Steven Martinez, a former National Golden Gloves champion, to the knockout artist, Jonathan Gonzalez. The results were disastrous for a fighter in Thompson who had talent and toughness but nobody looking out for his long-term interests. Thus, his record tumbled to 5-6-1. Even worse, the New York State Athletic Commission seriously considered taking away his license after he dropped three straight fights. Thompson thought about retiring.
But on Wednesday, when Thompson faces the popular Boyd Melson, a former West Point grad who has been featured in Sports Illustrated for his work on behalf of spinal cord research at B.B. Kings in Manhattan, Thompson will enter with something close to momentum and a bit of curiosity on his side.
In October, Thompson fought Melson (11-1-1, four knockouts) to a draw at the Barclays Center (naturally, Thompson was brought in as an opponent after he hadn’t fought in two years and had lost three straight). Thompson followed that gritty effort with a six-round split decision draw against the previously undefeated and heavily favored Frank Galarza in May, shocking many who viewed Thompson as damaged goods and not capable of such an effort.
Now, Thompson has a chance to breathe new life into a career that seemed all but dead and with a decent effort, will sign a promotional deal with Felipe Gomez for the first time in his colorful career.
“I have that momentum going,” said Thompson, now 5-6-3 who nearly retired three years ago after dropping his third straight fight, a knockout loss to Martinez in 2010. “And this time around with Boyd is going to be even better of a fight because the first time around I made some mistakes that I went over. So this time I’m going in there with more of a set game plan than I went before.”
The bout in Times Square on the Lou DiBella-promoted card will seek to shine a spotlight on one of the more likeable and entertaining fighters in the area, a stubborn, throwback-type who’s taken on nearly every blue-chip prospect from the region, either in the amateurs or pros, regardless of consequence, and is now, after nearly a decade as a pro, finally receiving the type of respect from the industry that had always eluded him, a reality that even Melson acknowledged on Tuesday before the weigh-in.
“I know the rap about him,” said Melson, who won a six-round decision in April and has raised $220,000 for spinal research, a figure he provided. “Everybody he spars with says he’s tough. We all spar the same guys, and they say Jason hits real hard and he’s tough. I bet if Jay had the right people backing him and started him off against the right types of opponents like other people get, backing him, to build him up- it would be night and day. But he got thrown in with guys who are very tough, so he didn’t get to grow the right way himself and get to focus just on training.”
The scheduled eight-round bout on Wednesday will be fought at a catch-weight of 155 pounds and will be featured as the co-main event. Melson weighed a pound over the weight limit on Tuesday, tipping in at 156 pounds at the state athletic Commission offices in lower Manhattan. Rather than sweat off the final pound, Melson agreed to forfeit $150 of his purse to Thompson in order for the bout to go forward. Melson will now make $2,850 plus a percentage of tickets he sells while Thompson, who tipped the scales at 153 pounds, will make a career high $4,400 on Wednesday.
Thomspon was a picture of modesty on Tuesday, sitting quietly at the commission offices, waiting his turn to weigh-in, chatting with nearly every boxer that walked through the door, while wearing a “Team Collazo” t-shirt. He also carried a small scale in his napsack just to make sure he was on weight, and he chatted amicably with Melson at the commission offices when Melson approached him.
Thompson trains at the NYC Cops & Kids Flatbush Gardens Boxing Club, just a stone’s throw away from where he lives with his two parents and also at the Starrett City Boxing Club under Nirmal Lorick. There, Thompson blends in nicely with the more established pros, sparring with Danny Jacobs, Collazo and Frank Galarza. But Thompson’s presence at the Cops & Kids gym is a bit more noticeable. For one, he was the only boxer there in early August with facial hair and he's the only pro who trains there among the amateur cliente that boasts six JO national champions, an allowance that's made because of Thompson's proximity to the gym and his friendly personality.
Thompson’s company at the tiny, bustling gym serves as both a blessing and an example of the sport’s ills. The 32-year-old Thompson is quick to tell the talkative youngsters who train there to remain humble. But he’s also an example of what can go wrong if a boxer isn’t handled with care. Aureliano Sosa, his trainer there, is blunt about the way Thompson was treated when he turned pro and the unkind results that followed.
“I believe they destroyed a possible world champion, a young talent that they didn’t know how to manage,” said Sosa, who will work Thompson’s corner with Lorick on Wednesday for the second straight fight. “They actually destroyed it little by little without them knowing it,” Sosa went on. “If the people had done the right thing and guided him down the right path, Jason would have been one of the top guys around. He has the style. He has the power and he attracts people by the way he fights. So he would have had a lot of fans.”
In fairness to Thompson’s handlers at the outset of his career, Thompson wasn’t a ballyhooed prospect. The biggest stage he fought on as an amateur was at Madison Square Garden for the Golden Gloves finals in 2005 in the 152-pound open division. Thompson faced one of the more talented boxers in the tournament in Anthony Irons, losing an entertaining decision.
In a story I wrote for the NY Times about Thompson for the fight in 2005, Thompson said of his amateur career then: “Let’s be honest. It’s been a rough road for me so far. I’m like the guy that no one expects to win, the guy who people don’t think about.”
Consequently, he didn't have managers and promoters knocking down his door asking to work with him. But a trainer at the time who worked at Gleason's Gym, Mike Smith, had this to say of Thompson's amateur career in comments that now seem prescient: “He’s gotten robbed by judges, lost close decisions because he wasn’t expected to win his fights; everything that can happen to a fighter has happened to him,” Smith said. “In the long run, though, that’s what’s going to make you a better fighter. Learning to deal with adversity builds toughness, and that’s what Jason is.”
If someone had written a handbook on how to deliberately drown a prospect, they would do best to follow the career of Thompson. His catalogue of opponents is startling for someone just getting their feet wet as a pro.
“Put it like this,” Thompson said with a huff, as he stood outside the NYC Cops & Kids Flatbush Gardens Boxing Club. “My whole career, I basically went in as an opponent. I’ve been in this game pretty much on my own. I never really had a team or anything like that, nobody who really like invested in me and not just money but time and effort like that.”
In his 2005 pro debut, Thompson announced his presence to the boxing world by facing Mike Ruiz, a fighter who’s currently 17-7 and had won the New York Golden Gloves as an amateur. Thompson stopped Ruiz in the second on a beautiful left hook. As a gift for winning his pro debut, Thompson faced Mike Jones three months later, the same highly touted fighter out of Philly who was 25-0 before he was stopped by Randal Bailey last year in a welterweight title fight. Thompson was dropped and finished in two rounds.
From there, Thompson won three straight, stopping two of his foes to improve to 4-1 with three knockouts. It was at that point that Thompson was a prospect, a good little fighter with good power and an entertaining style who was on a little roll. A resourceful manager with a little money could have plucked Thompson and invested in his career, developing him into prospect with a good record and setting him up for a decent payday. It didn’t happen. Thompson faced the dreaded Chris Gray in his next fight in 2007, losing a decision to a fighter who has served as the ultimate gatekeeper for talented prospects like Erislandy Lara to Raymond Biggs to Willie Nelson.
After the loss, Thompson later faced Ruiz on short notice in 2008, losing an entertaining decision at the Aviator in Brooklyn, dropping his record to 4-3. Though Thompson came into that fight overweight and lethargic, he still managed to hurt Ruiz several times in that fight on sheer muscle memory before losing a decision. From there, Thompson was in pure opponent mode, facing four straight undefeated fighters, starting with Marcus Willis (he fought a draw in Tampa in 2009), followed by Jonathan Gonzalez (Thompson was stopped in the third round in 2009. Gonzalez is now 16-0-1 with 13 knockouts).
Up next in 2010 was the former U.S. Olympian Sadam Ali, who won a decision. The talented Ali recently signed with Golden Boy Promotions and is now 16-0 with ten knockouts. Armed with a record of 5-5-1 at that point, Thompson faced Steven Martinez, a former National Golden Gloves champion from the Bronx who stopped him in the second round. Martinez is now 13-1 with ten knockouts.
It was after that fight that Thompson seriously considered retiring and finding a new way to make a buck. He was also being pressured by the state commission to have his boxing license revoked because of his failure to win a bout in four straight fights, according to Gomez. Only after he passed a series of neurological exams by the commission was he allowed to keep his license, Gomez said.
“I felt kind of down,” Thompson says of his attitude at the time. “After that Steven Martinez fight, I really wanted to beat him and when I lost, it was like ah, another loss. I was tired of all the losses. I wanted to win for a change. After that, I’m not going to lie, I got a little depressed. And in my head I was like, ‘Is this how it’s going to be? Like I’m just going to continue to lose?’ So at that point I wasn’t sure of myself.”
He’s glad he didn’t give up. After a more than two-year hiatus, he faced Melson in October of last year in the first pro bout ever held at the Barclays Center, earning a six-round draw in a bout in which Gomez served as the matchmaker and both fighters were dropped. Thompson received another emotional lift when Sports Illustrated covered his draw with Melson in its magazine, plush with a glossy photograph of Thompson and Melson battling in the ring. When he was presented with a copy of the magazine and he saw the photo, Thompson was nearly speechless. It didn’t matter that Melson was the centerpiece of the story Thompson had been immortalized in the magazine.
“This is something I’ll be able to show my grandkids one day,” Thompson said later.
Then in May, he fought a draw with Galarza, surprising many in attendance who expected Galarza to extend his unbeaten streak.
“I am proud of myself,” Thompson said, looking back at his career. “I feel that if I had been in the right hands early on, I would have been in a better position than I am now. But that’s water under the bridge. I’m just thankful for the experience and the lessons that I obtained being in this game. Right now, I mean, all I can do is really try to make lemonade out of lemons because what’s done is done.”
The name Eddie Gomez has been floated around as a possible opponent for Thompson, win or lose against Melson. Gomez represents another undefeated fighter on Thompson’s resume, and also perhaps another name he should avoid. At this point in his career, Thompson understands the need to be more discerning in who he fights, even if he described the brash boxer from the Bronx as “nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“At this point, yeah, I need to be more selective, definitely,” Thompson says. “Because time is precious. Instead of me just taking a big fight back-to-back, like I did before, this time around I’ll be more business minded and I will selectively take fights in preparation for bigger fights.”
And that represents progress in the rough and tumble career of Jason Thompson.
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for BoxingScene.com and the New York Daily News.