By Mitch Abramson
When Sadam Ali decided to market himself as a boxer, making the bold decision to promote himself instead of using a conventional promoter, the goal was to take control of his career. But a consequence of that decision is that he’s now a player in the city’s boxing market, making him an important person for up-and-coming boxers looking for opportunities.
One of those boxers is Michael Costantino, who was born without a right hand and made his professional debut on the undercard of Ali’s show on Saturday at the Aviator Arena in Brooklyn. The 33-year-old stopped Nathan Ortiz at 2:16 of the second round when Ortiz quit and walked away from Costantino in the middle of the round after absorbing a barrage of left hands. Ortiz complained to his corner that he was fatigued, causing the referee to stop the fight and giving Costantino a TKO victory.
The Queens native is probably the first one-handed professional to ever fight in New York, though he had to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops laid out by the New York State Athletic Commission before he was allowed to fight. Costantino was blindsided by the request to see a doctor on Thursday, just three days before the fight after he had already seen a commission doctor earlier this month. He was also made to wrap his hands in front of commission members on Friday, just hours before the weigh-in, so the commission could see how exactly he wraps his right limb.
"This is a little crazy," said Costantino, who received word of the 11th-hour physical on Wednesday. "I don't know why they're making me do this now after I already passed a physical. I hope I'm allowed to fight."
Ralph Petrillo, director of boxing for the commission, explained that the commission was just doing its due diligence and the additional doctor’s appointment was just part of a thorough process to make sure he was physically fit to protect himself.
“These are just extra steps we're taking to make sure he's going to be safe on Saturday,” Petrillo said.
Costantino, who pulls his right glove tight over his wrist, making one arm shorter than the other when he boxes, has faced resistance in terms of plying a trade before.
He filed a lawsuit last year against the federal Transportation Security Administration for medically disqualifying him from becoming a baggage screener on the basis that he couldn’t open the bags with one hand. His attorney in the case, Jonathan Bell, said that he's in settlement negotiations with the TSA and that a resolution may be reached within 60 days "to the satisfaction of both parties." He declined to get into specifics, however, citing a confidentiality agreement with his client.
Costantino said he was inspired to fight by the performance of the cancer-survivor Danny Jacobs, who fought on Oct. 20, returning to the ring after a long layoff with a first-round knockout at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Costantino was also inspired by the loss of his father. He said he shed close to 100 pounds after the death of Carmelo Costantino on June 29, 2010 from leukemia. He's now back to his fighting weight and wants to show skeptics that he can box with one hand, too.
“There’s definitely a lot of pressure on me to perform well,” he said during an open workout at Ali’s gym in Bay Ridge last week. “I want to win and show people that if you put your faith in God that anything is possible.”
Costantino used his good left hand to pummel Ortiz (0-3) on Saturday, stunning him with a looping left that caused Ortiz to walk away from Costantino toward his corner. After a few strange moments when it was clear Ortiz didn’t want to continue, referee Randy Neumann halted the bout at 1:16 of the second round.
“This is pretty much what I expected it to be,” Costantino said in his dressing room after the fight. “I felt comfortable out there. I liked not having to wear head gear, but you still have to be careful because of the smaller gloves. But I felt great. Hey, if all my fights are going to be like this, why wouldn’t I want to continue my career?”
Ali, who first saw Costantino fight in the Golden Gloves, was honored to give Costantino a chance to perform when other promoters wouldn’t.
But Giving Costanino a chance to fight is one thing. Actually getting him a license and finding an opponent willing to fight him was another. The show’s matchmaker, Felipe Gomez said he exhausted his rolodex trying to find a suitable opponent.
“Nobody wanted to give him an opportunity,” said Ali, who improved to 16-0 with a second-round stoppage of Ronnie Warrior in Saturday’s main event. “I told him about my card coming up and it would be a pleasure to have him on mine because he’s bringing something new to boxing. That’s how I look at it. It’s a beautiful thing to me.”
First, however, Costantino had to get licensed by the state commission. To do so, he had a number of boxers vouch for him, including the popular Queens heavyweight, Vinny Maddalone, and Brian Adams, a former fighter who now works at the New York Daily News.
Adams saw Costantino reach the quarterfinals of the New York Golden Gloves in 2002 in the 178-pound novice division, once knocking out his opponent and earning the "Fighter of the Night" award for his performance. Adams, director of the Golden Gloves, was in attendance that night.
"I mean, how can you not see the left-hand coming if you're his opponent?" Adams quipped. "He has a short right arm. But he can fight. He knows what he's doing. That's why I spoke on his behalf, because he knows how to fight. He can punch."
The commission also had to approve the type of opponent that Gomez brought in. Gomez said he called between 10-15 boxers before finding Ortiz.
“He thought I was joking when I told him that he was fighting someone who only had one hand,” Gomez said of Ortiz. “But he took the fight. He’s 0-2. I guess he’s looking for any advantage he can get.”
Costantino was then examined by Dr. Dale Alexander at North Shore Rehab Associates in Great Neck, NY on Thursday, the second time he was examined by a commission doctor as part of the meticulous process by the commission to issue him a license.
After examining Costantino, Dr. Alexander said on Thursday: "I will discuss the case with the Commission and with Dr. Barry Jordan [chief medical officer of the commission] and we'll take it from there. But I would say I'm 70% sure I'm going to approve him [to fight on Saturday]. I would say it's inspirational what he's doing. I would love to give him a shot, as long as he's safe and he can defend himself."
Dr. Alexander said the decision hinged on two things: Whether he thinks Costantino's amputated right arm gives him an advantage in the fight over his opponent and whether he can protect himself in the ring. If the commission finds that his shortened right arm gives him a decided advantage, he may not allow him to fight.
Dr. Alexander said the commission would arrive at a decision by Friday morning, before Costantino has to weigh in for his fight. Before that happened, however, the commission called the 33-year-old in to watch as one of his trainers wrapped his right limb just to see how it worked. Following that, and a successful weigh-in, the commission finally cleared him to fight.
In the end, Costantino’s process of getting approved for the fight was probably tougher than the fight itself.
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.