By Ryan Songalia
Jason Escalera does not have the amateur pedigree that usually accompanies a highly-regarded prospect. With only 25 amateur fights under his belt and a single NJ Golden Gloves title, the farthest Escalera reached in unpaid competition were the preliminaries of the 2007 National Golden Gloves.
What makes the Union City, NJ-based Escalera a rising sensation among the locals can't be placed in a trophy case or attached to a gold chain and worn around your neck.
Escalera has prodigious punching power.
People first started to notice Escalera in 2007. Competing in the 178-pound division, Escalera met two-time national champion Alan Lawrence, who was rated number four in the country at the time, in the semi-finals of the 2007 NJ Golden Gloves.
In the first round, Escalera shocked Lawrence by dropping him with a left hook. Escalera finished him in the second round, knocking out the Olympic hopeful and rendering him unconscious for four minutes. The result was so shocking that pandemonium ensued as the Newark boxer laid prone. Former NJ Boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard Sr. even conducted an investigation into whether the gloves were tampered with.
"They should have checked Jason's fists," Escalera's manager and trainer Joe Botti jests.
"After that particular fight, my life changed," says Escalera, 24, who is nicknamed "Monstruo", or monster in English.
"People were asking me about that fight every time I would go to an amateur fight. Most of the people in amateur boxing know me as the kid who knocked out Alan."
Increasingly, people are beginning to associate Escalera with his professional career, which boasts 4 wins, all by knockout, without a defeat. His opposition has been light so far however, with his opponents having a combined record of 3-9 with two of his opponents being pro debuts.
His next fight is scheduled for February 19 at North Bergen, NJ's Schuetzen Park on a show promoted by Pound 4 Pound Promotions. An opponent has not been named at time of print.
Escalera, the third oldest of eight children, never dreamed he'd grow up to be a boxer.
"I always thought I would just be a normal person who worked.
"I wanted to be a basketball player but I wasn't that good and I'm too short. I tried baseball in high school, it didn't happen. Catching the ball in the air with one hand, it couldn't be done. I tried football but my stamina wasn't good enough."
Neither Botti or his co-trainer Guillermo "Lucky" Sanabria thought he would be a good fighter when he first showed up at Union City Boxing Club at the age of 14. Escalera admits that he only went to appease his uncle who had paid for a month's membership.
"He was never in the gym," says Sanabria. "He was in the gym once or twice every two weeks. I kept telling him he could be something special and make a little money if he took it seriously. He just wanted to have fun."
"He was very quiet and just watched all the guys working out," Botti says. "Those are the ones though, the ones you don't think are gonna make it."
Escalera's attendance remained infrequent until he was 18. He began to take notice of a pro named Antonio Espinosa who also worked out of the same gym. Espinosa, still unbeaten at 9-0, opened Escalera's eyes to the possibilities boxing held for him if he dedicated himself to the sport.
Escalera often sparred with the smaller Espinosa and through those sessions began to improve his crude ability and mold his raw talent.
"Imagine someone with no experience going in there with Anthony. It made me the fighter I am today. I took his experience little by little and kept getting better."
Escalera fought as an amateur from age 19 to 23. Botti felt that his body attack and in-fighting would be best suited for the professionals.
Escalera describes his style as a mixture between Mike Tyson ("I like to throw power punches) and Jermain Taylor ("I like to box") but says that his favorite part of boxing is body punching.
"I like to go to the body and waste the person. I want to take every bit of air that they have inside them."
Botti plans on moving the 5'11" Escalera to six rounds in his next fight and eventually settling him into the middleweight division. So far his fights have taken place between super-middleweight and light-heavyweight.
"Since he's only had a few amateur fights, we're not going to move him as fast as a guy with 150 fights. By the beginning of next year I see us moving him up to 8 rounds and right after that 10. Every hurdle we've given him so far he's beaten so easily with his maturity and his punching power that I can see us moving him up quickly."
Outside of the ring, Escalera lives an unassuming life. He is married, has been since he was 19. He works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week at the local supermarket FoodBasics in the produce department. He doesn't drink or party; boxing and work occupy most of his time.
"He was never in trouble, not even as a kid," says Sanabria. "When he was younger he would be in the house by 7 or 8."
To compensate for his inexperience, Escalera's handlers arrange tough sparring for him. Notably, Escalera works with Omar Sheika and Jerson Ravelo.
"He's very strong, that's for sure," Ravelo says. "He's all about power and strength, he has to learn how to move around and give different angles. You saw what happened with Jeff Lacy and Antonio Margarito. Those guys have been doing it for a long time, Jason is still young and has time to grow."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sheika, who is styled similarly to Escalera. On one day this writer was invited to the Passaic PAL to watch a session between Escalera and the two-time world title challenger who is gearing up to fight Roy Jones Jr. in March.
Typically in sparring, a younger fighter accustomed to shorter fights has the advantage earlier, while the experienced pro takes over late. Over 8 rounds the two went punch for punch, neither giving over control of the action. Escalera held his own throughout.
While both men had their moments, it was the younger pro that had the most eye-catching highlight. In the sixth round Escalera landed a flush uppercut that elicited a "holy crap" from 1-0 cruiserweight prospect Elvin Sanchez, who was prepping for his own session just outside the ring.
"He's a real tough kid," said Sheika, 27-8 (18 KO), as he cooled down. "He just keeps coming, he's tough and aggressive. Defensively, he has skilled little movements. He is the total package."
Writer asked Sheika whether he thought Escalera was "Next Level" material.
"I think so. The more experience he gets, the better he will be. Time will tell, but he has what it takes to be a champion. He has the most important thing that makes a fighter, he has balls and courage and you can't teach that."
Escalera seems to value his sessions with Sheika, meaning regular visits to Passaic for work. Perhaps it has to do with the positive praise that the staff there shower him with as he continues to progress.
"One day as we left, [Gym director] Jorge Martinez said, 'Kid, you're not going to fight for a world title, you're going to win a world title,'" Botti says. "When we got into the car I told Jason, 'It's great that people are telling you these things but you have to take it one step at a time.'
"Without missing a beat the kid says, 'I know exactly what you're saying, I feel the same way. It's going to be a long journey and we'll do whatever it takes to get there.'"
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. All comments and questions can be sent to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .