By Thomas Gerbasi
This is the greatest story ever.
You can agree with me or not, but at least read it first before making your decision. From my point of view, what 31-year-old Venroy July does has little to do with his 16-1-2 pro record, his fight this Saturday against Quantis Graves, or his status in the cruiserweight division.
But it has everything to do with living a dream; not just his own, but those of every one of us who has wondered what it would be like to be a professional athlete. It’s a role he’s proud to have.
“People can live vicariously through me if they want,” he laughs.
Boxing is no laughing matter. For every fan that looks at the fights on the weekend and says “I can do that,” there are those who actually take that courageous walk up those four frightening steps to fight.
The Jamaica-born July was one of the latter. He didn’t pick up the sport as a child or teenager though. He began boxing in 2008, not having his first amateur fight until he was 25.
Normally that wouldn’t be the most outlandish notion, but let’s fill in the blanks a bit with the fact that he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina in 2004, with a law degree from Duke University following in 2007. So by the time he put on the gloves, he wasn’t a hungry kid with no other options hoping to find salvation in the ring; he was a former wrestler and corporate lawyer looking to stay in shape.
Of course, anyone who has put on those gloves knows that it can be addicting. But that addiction usually fades when you find out that heavy bags don’t punch back, but opponents do. That didn’t deter July. In fact, he figured that he loved the sport so much, he was going to take a couple amateur fights, just to see what it was like.
In those lonely hours when it’s only you and your thoughts, you never think about having a fight and losing. You think about winning, often in spectacular fashion, and where it can go from there. Because you don’t quit after one win. You keep going, and if you keep winning, then what? Golden Gloves? Olympics? A World Championship? Sure it’s far-fetched, but what dream isn’t? That’s why most people don’t chase or achieve theirs.
Venroy July did. He was going to fight once and see how it went.
“I enjoy it, but if I had gone in and gotten knocked out in my first fight, I wouldn’t be boxing,” he laughed. “There would be no story. I would have said it’s not worth it. My brain is the most important thing that I have right now, and I’m not willing to get it rattled. I was never going to be the guy that was going to learn in the ring, get into wars, and get to be a better boxer from experience. I had to have the initial success, and that’s what I experienced.”
July won his first three amateur fights before his coach at the time believed he had the next big thing.
“My coach was very arrogant,” he recalled. “I was supposed to be fighting a guy that was 2-1 and my coach said ‘we have the best heavyweight around, call whoever you have, we’ll fight anybody.’ I was at 205 at the time. They end up calling Abodunrin Akinyanju, who has actually passed since. He was like fifth on the Olympic ladder, weighed 267 pounds, and I fought him. I just bought in.”
Things didn’t go so well in that fourth fight, and afterward, he decided to reevaluate things.
“Honestly, after that fight, I took some time off. Part of it was that I wasn’t happy with my coach, but I took six or seven months off and said I need to rethink what I’m doing here. If I’m not gonna be good, then I’m not gonna do it. And then I switched coaches, and that didn’t work out – I lost my first fight with that gym - and I switched coaches again because I felt I wasn’t getting better. And with my new coach (Adrian Davis) it felt like I was getting better, and I went on a streak.”
When Venroy July’s boxing career began, he kind of kept it to himself. His father loved it, his mother hated it, and when it came to his job at the law firm, he only told one of his co-workers.
“I started boxing when I was at my prior firm,” he said. “The first four years of my boxing career, I kept it a complete secret. Only one guy at my firm knew and I didn’t tell anybody else. You don’t have to think too hard about why someone would have an issue with you boxing – I’m an attorney, my brain is what I’m getting paid for and I’m getting hit in it.”
He was good though. He won a Golden Gloves title and suddenly he was at that point where he wondered just how far he could go. So he turned pro.
“I never went the conventional path,” said July. “You like what you like, and I like knowing that I put the work in and not being able to blame anybody else. It’s what I’ve done that’s causing me to win fights. I could have gone with just taking a couple amateur fights or something else, and that honestly was what my plan was. It was never to become a professional boxer. But I started as an amateur, started winning and I said let’s try some pro fights.”
Making his debut in the summer of 2009 with a decision victory over Melvin Miller, July kept fighting, kept winning, and kept his day job at the same time.
You can figure out what was going to happen next for a talented young man with an unbeaten record, yet the managers that approached with offers of fame and fortune had no idea who they were dealing with.
“I got people who wanted to manage me, and honestly I would have signed, other than the fact that I’m an attorney myself and I looked at the contracts and said ‘this is slave labor,’” he laughed. “I watched boxing as a kid and I watched the fights coming up, but I never really understood it because I hadn’t been around boxers. But I remember the first guy that offered me a contract, he had come and seen me in the gym twice. He never saw me fight, but he saw me train twice and he offered me a contract, and I read the contract, and it was so shocking. I’m giving 33 and a third and that was separate from any amount that I was going to give to my coach. By the time I’m done, I’m giving up 50 percent of everything and I’m the one getting punched in my head. There was no way.”
Fighters like Venroy July are dangerous. Not just in the ring, but in the real world, and that doesn’t mean dangerous in a negative way, but dangerous in that you can’t and won’t take advantage of him. It’s an edge a lot of fighters don’t have in a sport where the most talented are often the most desperate and the most in need of a way out.
“I wasn’t desperate,” said July. “I can certainly understand how people see this as a way out and they’ll sign a contract because it’s an opportunity. I get that. But for me, I’m like ‘I have a job.’ I don’t need to put myself at risk AND give away 50 percent. And that’s what it really came down to.”
In the ring, that danger takes a different form. Conventional wisdom is that the fighters with no other options in life are the best, with desperation fueling their fists. But what about those who don’t have that pressure of wondering where their next meal is coming from if they don’t win a fight? What about those who do this for no other reason than for the love of the game?
“At some point the theory that you can only do this if you don’t have any other options and you’re starving runs out,” said July. “How can you explain guys that are multimillionaires who continue to win? Clearly (Floyd) Mayweather doesn’t need this anymore. He’s not hungry, but he’s motivated, he likes to do it and he wants to do it. I’m doing this because I made a choice to do this. The person who says I’m okay with getting punched in my face so long as I get to inflict some punishment back, that person’s just as dangerous.”
As 2013 dawned, Venroy July was 13-0-2 as a professional boxer. Sure, there were the usual suspects on his record, but he also knocked out former Olympian Dante Craig in two rounds and was starting to gain positive notices in the Washington, D.C. area.
Then he lost his biggest fan.
July’s father, Venry, passed away at the age of 61 on January 18 of last year. July was devastated, but after returning from burying his dad in Jamaica, he received a call about a fight against Elvin Sanchez. The bout was on the undercard of Lamont Peterson’s matchup with Kendall Holt, just three weeks away.
“I wasn’t in the right mental state,” said July. “I hadn’t been training, I’d been depressed because my father just passed. But for someone who had been struggling with getting fights, how do you turn down an opportunity to fight on Lamont Peterson’s undercard? So I took the fight.”
After accepting the bout, July went to the gym to start preparations for Sanchez. He ran into one of his gym mates, and the conversation turned to his father’s passing. His friend recalled how he just saw Venry July at one of his son’s fights. Venroy had to excuse himself.
“I literally broke down,” he said. “I walked away and started crying. And for somebody fighting in three weeks, that is not healthy.”
At 2:55 of the third round, July lost his first pro fight, getting stopped by Sanchez.
“It was just a bad idea and poor judgment on my part,” he said of the bout.
Despite his solid pro record, staying as a free agent doesn’t exactly send promoters rushing to your door, especially when your day job is as a corporate lawyer. July could have packed it in and decided that he just didn’t want to compete on this playing field, but instead he decided to take another route.
He became a fight promoter.
“For the promotion company we wrote a press release, and the second paragraph says that this is a company that was formed out of a desire to allow fighters a chance to fight and not have to deal with the injustice that I saw,” he said of the aptly named Hardwork Promotions. “I have a problem with situations where people who are privileged try to use that to take advantage of those that are not privileged. The only reason why a 33 and a third percent contract is even acceptable is because either boxers don’t know better, they don’t understand what they’re signing, or this is just an opportunity for them and they don’t have any other options. And the people that are getting them to sign these contracts understand exactly what they’re telling them to do, and they inherently know that they’re taking advantage, but it’s a benefit to them because financially they’re trying to cash out. There has to be a middle ground. The promoters or managers are putting up their own money, so you certainly want a return. That’s just business. But it doesn’t have to be as extreme as it is. I recognized that without a manager, it was like you couldn’t win. After you win a couple fights, fighters didn’t want to fight me, and the promoters were unwilling to pay for the fights that would help my career move forward. So you’re just stuck. It’s really a trap game.”
July found the exit though, and on Saturday, he promotes his fourth show, this one at the Patapsco Arena in Baltimore. And while he’s been able to keep himself busy on the Hardwork Promotions events he’s promoting, that’s not always ideal for him.
“This is the third show that I’m promoting and fighting on, and I’m not trying to act like it’s easy,” he laughs. “I absolutely hate it. It’s too much of a hassle. My goal has always been to not have to fight on my promotional company’s shows. But I also recognize that I’m 31 years old. I can’t sit around and wait for people to give me opportunities anymore. I need to stay active.”
These days, Venroy July works at the law firm of Hogan Lovells, and unlike his last firm, they knew when they hired him that they were getting a lawyer with a unique hobby.
“When I moved to my other firm, I was shocked,” he said. “I try to play it down as much as possible, but by that point they had already read some articles about me on the internet, and when you’re interviewing for a job, they’re Googling you, so they already knew that I had boxed.”
July’s side gig hasn’t become an issue on the job yet, but he admits that what started out as an interesting conversation starter around the water cooler has turned into something different with each passing fight, especially after the loss to Sanchez.
“Initially, everybody thought it was cool, but I think after a while that kind of wore off and people have recently been expressing ‘when are you gonna stop?’” he said. “The competition is stepping up and I did lose that one fight, and people don’t care about why you lost or what other circumstances there were, they just know you lost.”
July isn’t ready to walk away though. Not even close.
“I do boxing because I enjoy it. There’s just a rush that you don’t get from anything else. You can negotiate deals and it’s cool when you’re doing a big deal, but at the end of the day there’s just a rush that you get when you face someone one-on-one in a fight. And when you win, there’s nothing like it. I wish I didn’t have to do both of them at the same time, but boxing just gives me something I don’t get from being an attorney. If all I was doing was sitting around reading contracts every day, I think I would be miserable.”
Venroy July is every one of us. No, you don’t have to be a boxer or a lawyer, but you do need to be a person with a dream. And July has already heard from his fellow dreamers.
“You have no idea how many contact me,” he said. Before I fought on the Main Events show (in January against Sevdail Sherifi), they were writing up articles about me and talking about what I’ve done. And I just got an influx of people on Facebook who added me as friends, and they asked me the exact same thing. These were guys who were 28, 29, 30, who were doctors that wanted to box, and they asked me what I thought about them boxing. So there are guys that think what I’m doing is cool, and they would love to do it too.”
July admits that boxing isn’t for everyone, noting that he had an athletic background and started young enough where he could make an impact, but he has no problem being that guy we live vicariously through. He also wants to let kids know that it’s possible to be an athlete and a scholar at the same time, with one not exclusive to the other.
It’s quite a life, isn’t it? Yet when you tell him that, he says thanks, but then adds that most of the time his life feels boring and tiring.
It’s not even close to boring. It’s the greatest story in boxing today. So how does it end?
“I’m gonna be cruiserweight champion of the world.”