By Thomas Gerbasi
With a high school wrestling background and an unbeaten pro kickboxing career that netted him two world titles, Chris Algieri’s next step in combat sports appeared to be an obvious one – mixed martial arts.
But the Long Islander never considered chasing after a spot in the UFC or Strikeforce that some of his gym mates have already achieved. Simply put, it just wasn’t his dream.
“There was a stint where I wasn’t fighting as often as I wanted to and I asked (trainer) Keith (Trimble) ‘hey, can I help the guys and kick and punch and put on the little gloves?’” recalled Algieri. “And I tried it, and right away, the first day, he was like ‘why don’t you do MMA?’ But that’s not what I wanted to do and that’s not something I ever dreamed of being. I’m chasing a dream and that wasn’t my dream.”
Being a boxer, or more specifically a world champion in boxing, was the dream for him, and since 2008, with no amateur background in the sweet science, he’s been pursuing it. Currently 14-0 with seven knockouts, and headlining Star Boxing’s event at the Paramount Theatre in Huntington, New York this Saturday night against Raul Tovar, the 140-pound Algieri has no regrets and no second thoughts about his decision either, even if he might have been a fine fit for MMA’s featherweight or bantamweight classes.
“I grew up watching boxing, boxing is a very pure sport, I love it, and that’s what I always wanted to be,” he said. “I always wanted to be a boxing world champion, not a MMA world champion. Not that it’s not a major deal or a huge deal to be a UFC champ – I respect the sport, it takes a lot of hard work, these guys are really coming up and they’re really learning - but it’s not boxing.”
The way he sees it, there’s nothing like being in a ring with only your fists to defend yourself with – no kicks, no takedowns, just punching.
“Boxing is the fastest chess game in the world,” he explains. “You’ve got to be thinking, moving your head, there’s always strategy involved, and there are those little fine things that the casual observer can’t even see. Someone who’s trained and knows the sport can see these little subtle things, and that makes the difference at the championship level.”
It is a long road to that level though, and it’s even longer without any amateur experience. So while the 28-year old has been understandably taking measured steps in his pro fights, in the gym, he’s been put on the fast track thanks to some work out west in Oxnard, California with Robert Garcia, who has had no qualms about putting the New Yorker in the ring with world championship level fighters like Marcos Maidana and Brandon Rios.
“Brandon and Marcos Maidana, they don’t spar, they fight,” said Algieri. “I’m not sparring with Marcos Maidana, we’re fighting. So when I’m sparring with him three days a week and doing anywhere from 10 to 20 rounds with the guy, we’re fighting. That’s where the experience comes from. I’ve gotta learn in the ring.”
Being fairly new to the sport, Algieri does admit to being a little star-struck the first time he was in the gym, but as soon as the fists started flying, he began firing back instinctively and holding his own.
“They said it looked like I had stars in my eyes, and I wasn’t boxing my game,” he said. “But after the first week, I started doing what I do best, and it was a big difference. When I got in there with these guys, you see him from across the gym and I’m like ‘that’s Marcos Maidana, that’s the guy I watched on HBO, someone I look up to and say man, that’s a tough guy.’ And then I’m in the ring sparring with him.”
It’s the only way for a young fighter to learn his craft, and while getting live work against tough and varied competition is always a preferable method of getting that experience, sometimes working with a Maidana or Rios for a week or two is worth five fights of competing against lesser competition. And it’s not just to build up toughness, but to learn the subtleties a champion has used to make it to the top of his division. In the case of Maidana, Algieri found a fighter that is a lot more than just a hard-hitting brawler.
“I was actually really surprised, and pleasantly so, to see how good he really was,” said Algieri of Argentina’s Maidana. “His defense is better than it looks, he’s hard to hit clean, and a lot of the subtle infighting that he does is phenomenal. He’s got a lot of little tricks that were apparent the first round I sparred with him. After the first day, I was like ‘man, there’s a lot I can learn from this guy.’ And I did. He’s not a classic boxer and I’m not gonna learn how to fight from the outside and use my jab, which is something I do well. I’m gonna learn the other things, the rough and tough stuff on the inside, the rolling with punches, and how to generate power at a short distance.”
This Saturday, Algieri will get to show off what he’s learned against the 23-year old Tovar, a Texan with an unimposing record of 10-5-1 (4 KOs), but someone who has never been stopped and who has faced four unbeaten prospects over the course of his career, including Jessie Vargas.
“He’s a tough guy and he’s better than his record,” said Algieri of his foe. “He’s been in with tough competition, which is always important to look at, past the numbers. He’s a tough guy, he’s gonna come to fight, I’m sure he’s gonna be in shape, and we just gotta pick him apart and find a way to win, just like any other night.”
Sure, it’s a showcase fight, but if Algieri can stop Tovar, it would be a solid feather in his cap moving forward. Not that the fans in Long Island care, as a win is a win for their favorite son, one who is revitalizing the boxing scene in the area.
“Put it on me,” he laughs when asked if he’s cool with being the one to get New York fight fans excited again. “If that’s something I can pull off, that’s great, I would love to be known for that.
“I try not to look at outside pressures though,” he continues. “I put a lot of pressure on myself just to perform and do what I can do and reach the potential that I know that I have. I try not to look at what people may be thinking about me or what they’re expecting from me. I’ve just gotta go out there and do what I know I can do, and my time will come.”
As he takes that journey, it’s clear from the enthusiasm in his voice that he’s completely committed to what he’s doing. He has to be, considering that this isn’t a sport for those who go through life halfway. And when you take into account that he’s a college graduate with a master’s degree in clinical nutrition who is currently a pre-med student, it makes his devotion even more evident. So does he ever get the question ‘why are you doing this?’
“It must be daily,” he laughs.
So what’s the answer? Algieri’s trainer Garcia may have come up with it one day in his Oxnard gym.
“Man, why are you doing this?” he asked the New Yorker before pausing and answering his own question. “You know what, you love boxing. You really love boxing.”