By Thomas Gerbasi
Often called the forgotten borough of New York City, Staten Island’s usual reputation can be boiled down to it formerly being home to the landfill where all the city’s garbage was dumped, as well as the VH-1 reality series Mob Wives. Neither is worth bragging about for residents.
But then came Marcus Browne, the 21-year old light heavyweight boxer whose newly won status as a United States Olympian puts a positive light on an island with too few stories of that ilk. And he’s taking all the positive attention in stride.
“Life just got hectic,” laughed Browne, who recently returned home from the Americas Qualifier tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he not only earned a spot in the London Games this summer, but also took his first international Gold medal. “I’m taking it one day at a time, but most importantly I’m just staying focused and keeping my eye on the prize and not getting consumed with all of this pre-Olympic celebration.”
The number one ranked US light heavyweight, Browne has also won three pairs of Golden Gloves in New York and earned a pair of National championships, but after missing the top 10 in the World Championships last October, he was all of a sudden on the outside looking in when it came to going to London. It was then that Browne had to decide whether to pursue a pro career or stick around and chase his Olympic dreams. That wasn’t an easy call.
“I’m not gonna lie, I considered doing that (turning pro), but then I sat down with my team and the people closest to me and we really thought it out,” he said. “We decided to make the sacrifice and do what we had to do – and that’s exactly what I did. I sacrificed and told myself that if I’m gonna go through this, I’m gonna go through it all the way and not let it be a waste of time, and look where we’re at today.”
There’s something to be said for taking the long way around, not just to take in the sights and pick up experience, but to also build the mental toughness needed to go the extra mile when necessary. Some would say Browne already had that part down, though it needed to be brought out of him as a 13-year old who walked into the Atlas Cops & Kids Boxing Club in the Clifton section of Staten Island.
“I was a knucklehead coming up,” he laughs. “I used to bully older kids, so it wasn’t nothing new. I just walked into the gym and thought I was a tough guy until reality actually hit me.”
“I got dropped with a body shot that same day I walked into the gym, and I just took on the challenge because it wasn’t something easy, it wasn’t something you learned in a day; it was something that takes years.”
He was willing to make that commitment though, calling his reason for staying in the gym after that embarrassing first day simply a love for “the art of war.” And as days turned to weeks to months to years, he slowly became one of the city’s best young boxers. By this time, there was no time to be “a knucklehead,” because now he had the younger kids of the neighborhood looking at him as an example.
“After my first Golden Gloves exposure on TV, and being in the papers and stuff like that, that’s when I started realizing that people would look at me in a different light,” Browne recalled. “So I had to carry myself differently, I had to speak differently, and I had to be able to show kids that there’s more to life than the negative things and that they should embrace the positives.”
Browne also practiced what he preached, avoiding the pitfalls of many teenagers living in the city.
“I spent so many of my young years boxing, with me wanting to go out and hang out with my friends when I can’t because I gotta train early the next day,” he said. “Things like that always went through my mind and let me know that I’ve sacrificed a lot for boxing. And it takes a lot. You gotta be willing to sacrifice those things and make changes in your life because boxing is not just a regular life; boxing is a lifestyle. You go home it’s boxing, you’re in the gym it’s boxing, everywhere you go it’s boxing.”
So when the 6-foot-2 southpaw took the trip to Brazil with everything on the line, he didn’t let himself get emotionally involved or distraught. Despite being only 21, he fought like an old pro. This was business, and Browne took care of it, defeating the Dominican Republic’s Felix Valera in his second bout to earn his spot in London. More impressively, he didn’t take his foot off the gas, winning two more bouts to take the tourney’s Gold medal.
“It was do or die,” he admits. “There wasn’t any pressure, but there was definitely a lot on my mind just to qualify. So I got that out of the way first, and then after that, it was about finishing off the tournament strong, and that’s exactly what I did. I felt like I was progressing with each fight and looking better and better.”
In the process, he sent a message to the international community that he was ready for anything.
“I’m just taking everything personal. It was a long journey to get to where I’m at today, so I’m not gonna allow anybody to take food off my family’s table,” said Browne.
The tournament win was a feel good story for the local boxing community, and seeing it made you excited not just for Browne, but for his longtime trainer Gary Stark Sr., one of the game’s true good guys. The fighter undoubtedly agrees.
“He (Stark) met me when I was a little kid and he played a major part in grooming me into the man that I am today,” said Browne. “And the whole thing about it is that he wants it as bad as me. To work with someone like that, who is never satisfied and who always feels that there’s more room to improve, there’s no way you can’t be the greatest at what you do when you have someone like that to work with.”
With the first step of Operation Gold Medal finished, Browne earned himself a victory lap, and at a Wednesday press conference / workout with Stark Sr., as well as ESPN’s Teddy Atlas, the pride the people of Staten Island have for their newest Olympian was clear. Simply put, Browne provides hope.
“Boxing ain’t for everybody,” he admits. “It’s a rough sport to be in and a lot of people don’t want to make those sacrifices, but now that I’ve showed the kids that it’s possible, hopefully there will be some changes and in the upcoming years there will be people better than Marcus Browne.”
That mix of humility and charisma makes Browne instantly likeable, and when you mix in a lanky frame, southpaw slickness, and some serious pop in his fists, his future seems bright way past the summer of 2012. But again, there’s business to be taken care of first, and he’s already pictured himself hearing the National Anthem while wearing his Gold medal.
“Most definitely,” he said. “I’m going in there with nothing but gold on my mind. I’m focused on that, and Lord willing, I’m healthy enough to finish and go through the competition and do what I gotta do. But for now, I’m just gonna stay in the gym, stay sharp and focused, do exactly what we’ve been doing to get me to this level, and just get ready for the Games and make it like any other tournament and not let it be something bigger than what it really is.”
But this is big, Marcus Browne. Really big. Then again, it looks like you’ve got everything under control.