By Jake Donovan
After more than 17 years in the pro ranks and with nothing else on the horizon, 39-year old Joan Guzman has opted to call it a career.
The former two-division world champion—widely regarded as among the greatest fighters ever from Dominican Republic—reached that decision earlier this month. He put off sharing the news until he was certain of what the future had in store, which for the moment doesn’t include any in-ring action.
“I’m open for a major fight,” Guzman admitted in stopping just short of a full-blown retirement. “But it’s otherwise safe to say that I’ve laced ‘em up for the last time.”
Should the retirement hold up, Guzman’s career ends at 34-1-1 (21KOs), having won titles in two weight classes.
Rather than hold out for another fight that may or may not come his way, he will instead dedicate his time to helping others reach their goals. Guzman will remain richly involved in the sport, just not taking any more punches. Conversely, his newfound role as a trainer is fueled by the desire to teach young fighters the old ‘hit and don’t get hit’ mantra.
“There really aren’t a lot of defensive fighters in New York anymore,” notes Jose Nuñez, Guzman’s longtime manager and close friend. “For most of his career, ‘Guz’ was known as one of the best defensive fighters in the sport. He wants to pass that off to the next generation of fighters.”
While critics will point out his undesirable reputation for missing weight, Guzman had long ago opened the doors for his countryman, with his success paving the way for the likes of countrymen Argenis Mendez and reigning bantamweight champion Juan Carlos Payano among many others. A stellar amateur career included his representing Dominican Republic in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
After compiling a 310-10 record and establishing himself as high among the greatest amateur fighters to come out of the Dominican Republic, Guzman set his sights on becoming his nation’s best-ever in the pro ranks.
He jumped out to an amazing start beginning with his pro debut in Sept. 1996. His first major title win took place overseas when he knocked out Fabio Oliva in three rounds to claim the super bantamweight crown in their Aug. ’02 clash in Cardiff, Wales.
It was believed that a star was born, with his first defense to come versus countryman and long-reigning champ Agapito Sanchez. The planned Fall ’02 clash was put on ice when Sanchez failed his pre-fight eye exam, a medical status that put his own career on ice for another two years.
The two eventually met in what remains in Feb. ’04. In what remains the biggest all-Dominican fight ever, with Guzman claiming a 7th round knockout win to bolster his own star status. The win came with mixed emotions, as he always held his countryman in high regard. Such heartfelt emotions surfaced more than a year later, when Sanchez was murdered in Santo Domingo.
“I knew when we fought that it would take a lot of hard work to get past him,” Guzman recalls of the fight, which he views as high among his toughest wins. “He had a granite chin and kept coming. I nearly broke both of my hands trying to knock him out.”
The win was Guzman’s last under his original team before cleaning house. The dramatic shift in personnel led to his bringing Nuñez aboard as his manager in 2004.
Over the next decade, the fighter and manager enjoyed the best and worst of times. Among the high points were Guzman continuing to build his brand in the United States. He added a super featherweight championship to his arsenal, which came courtesy of a thrilling decision win over Jorge Barrios in Sept. ’06.
His first title defense was a major event for his proud nation, outpointing Antonio Davis amidst a loaded bill back home in Santo Domingo.
“We still have great memories of putting that show together and bringing Guzman home,” Nuñez fondly recalls. “Everything was clicking in his career, and being able to defend his world championship in front of all of his fans in Santo Domingo was a blessing.”
It also turned out to be a curse in a way. Guzman’s style always reeked of high-risk, low-reward, a shame considering his run came at a time when his optimal prime was spent failing to secure the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, all of whom fought in or around his same weight class, but none of whom ever bothered to look his way.
Hopes of landing a big fight eventually led to a lengthy inactive stretch before landing an HBO date against another 130 lb. fighter nobody else was in a hurry to face. Guzman managed a hard-fought 12-round win over Humberto Soto in Nov. ’07, a night many point to as the last truly great moment of his career.
From there began his second career of sorts, one marred by his inability to make weight.
His struggles to remain motivated were aided by a number of issues beyond the ring. Aside from failing to land big fights, Guzman also spent two years stressing over his mother’s lengthy battle with cancer before her untimely passing in 2009.
What didn’t help, however, was his getting comfortable in saying yes to those he probably should have left behind.
“I’m not going to lie, there were plenty of times where training should have come first, but I decided to eat poorly and enjoy my time away from the ring a bit too much,” Guzman admits of his struggles at the scales.
Most notable at the time was his eventually cancelled title challenge of then-lightweight champion Nate Campbell. Guzman weighed more than three pounds over the limit for his planned Sept. ’08 Showtime-televised headliner in Biloxi, Miss., and pulled out the fight altogether after being treated for dehydration at a nearby hospital.
While his mother’s death was met with sympathy in regards to his struggles, less forgiving was his failure to make weight on at least three other occasions over the final five years of his career. Two more tries at a lightweight crown resulted in a disputed draw with Ali Funeka followed by a win in which he was over the weight limit by a whopping nine pounds.
The low point came in his win-turned-no-contest versus Jason Davis in Dec. ’10. A clean victory—meaning his making weight and having issues in the ring—was to lead to a future showdown with then-unbeaten super lightweight champ Amir Khan, who barely outlasted Marcos Maidana in the evening’s headliner.
Instead, Guzman not only missed weight (as did Davis, for what it’s worth), but tested positive for a banned diuretic, resulting in a nine-month suspension and all but being blacklisted by most of the industry’s major stateside players.
“It wasn’t the proudest moments of my career,” Guzman noted of his frequent issues at the scales prior to his Nov. ’11 ring return. “I did a lot of great things, but also made a lot of mistakes, and could have been more disciplined in training.”
One last title bid ended in anti-climactic fashion. A 36-year old Guzman was tasked with ushering in a new era of fighters with the formation of Acquinity Sports. What was supposed to be a showcase night for the company ended in despair for Guzman, suffering the lone loss of his career in a technical decision loss to Khabib Allakhverdiev in their Nov. ’12 super lightweight title fight.
Guzman was holding his own with the unbeaten boxer from Russia, but suffered a knockdown early and two separate injuries later in the fight. The latter was a blown knee, which left him limping around the ring before referee Luis Pabon was forced to stop the fight in the eighth round. Allakhverdiev prevailed by split decision, thus denying Guzman’s request of a world title in a third weight class.
His team remained supportive, if not to a fault. Guzman was given an opportunity to headline a June ’13 Telemundo card in what was supposed to launch one last comeback. It never came to pass, as he once again was well over weight for his planned showdown with Vicente Mosquera.
Attempts to salvage his career resulted in several plans falling through before Guzman eventually ventured on his own. The move led to his last ever pro fight, a rust-shaking win over a hapless Kevin Carter last Halloween in Nashville.
The event was originally budgeted to take place outside of San Jose Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant owned by local business mogul Ramon Arrellano, who took on the role as Guzman’s new manager. However, unseasonably frigid temperatures in the mid-South—dipping to the mid 40’s by sunset—forced the event inside.
Future plans called for Guzman to stay busy in Nashville, Mexico and Santo Domingo, but they never came to pass. Instead, he decided it was best to head home, even if it meant never fighting again.
“He did what he felt he had to do to remain a pro fighter,” said Nuñez of Guzman’s planned comeback. “I was his manager for a long time and sometimes his baby sitter as well. But we have always been friends and supported every decision he made, even when it was without me.”
It was his return to his inner circle where Guzman discovered his desire to help others more so than his own career. Perhaps it can be argued that he long ago fell out of love with the idea of in-ring greatness.
Regardless of that debate, there’s no questioning the infinite boxing wisdom he possesses. He gladly passes along that knowledge to others these days in Brooklyn’s famed Gleason’s Gym, where he honed his trade in a career spanning three decades.
“We’re going to bring in a new era of fighters,” Guzman promises. “My career had its ups and downs, but you learn from the past and move on to the future. That's what I hope to pass along to the next generation.”
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com.