By T.K. Stewart
Joe Parella, the feisty manager of featherweight Rogers Mtagwa, says nothing would please him more in life than to see his man win a world championship tonight in his WBA title tilt against Yuriorkis Gamboa.
“He can hang with the best of them,” says Parella, who has served as Mtagwa’s manager for nearly 10 years. “If he listens to instructions, sometimes he doesn’t always listen; but if he listens he is quite capable of being a world champion and I’ve told him all this before.”
Mtagwa was born in the dusty and impoverished country of Tanzania in East Africa. He now operates out of Philadelphia under the promotional guidance of J. Russell Peltz and trains at Joe Hand‘s Gym with former middleweight contender Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts serving as his chief second.
With a wife and two children, Mtagwa has a lot to fight for. He either makes it as a prizefighter or he goes back to Tanzania to work in that country’s agricultural industry. Despite 13 career losses, Mtagwa is perhaps the most feared and respected fighter in the world with that many black marks on his ledger.
“We’ve fought everybody,” says Parella in defense of his man’s spotty record. “He’s fought Agapito Sanchez, who was a former WBO champ. He fought Joe Morales, Martin Honorio, Fernando Trejo. All the proof you need about how good he is was seen in the fight against Juan Manuel Lopez. Nobody ever did that with Lopez before.”
The fight to which Parella is referring took place this past October versus then WBO super bantamweight champ Juan Manuel Lopez, who came into the fight riding the crest of a wave of success. With a record of 26-0, 24KOs he was being groomed as the successor to Puerto Rico’s favorite sons in Miguel Cotto and Felix Trinidad. But Lopez ran headlong into Mtagwa and was very nearly knocked out late in the fight.
“I told Bruce Trampler before the Lopez fight that anybody that Russell Peltz promotes would be a tough, tough fighter,” said Bob Arum who is promoting tonight’s card from The Theater at Madison Square Garden. “I told Bruce after that fight to lose Russell’s number and not to answer his calls. But the truth is, Mtagwa put up such a sensational performance against Lopez that he deserved this fight against Gamboa.”
Peltz, who says he saw his first live boxing match over 50 years ago and began promoting fights 40 years ago, claims that Mtagwa is one of the most exciting fighters in the world today and that his bout against Tomas Villa was one of the ten best he has ever seen. Based on that, Peltz says that Rogers deserves his second title shot in a row.
“Rogers earned this shot. Well, he earned both shots for himself, but he certainly earned this one on his performance against Lopez that night Hopefully, if he wins this fight against Gamboa, maybe he can get another shot against JuanMa if he also wins his fight.”
What is clear is that no matter who you talk to about Mtagwa, they all see something special in him. With his angry looking won-loss record, most casual boxing fans would summarily dismiss his chances against Cuba's Gamboa. But those that know boxing know of Mtagwa and they know that his ability to hang in there when all seems lost is legendary. Not many fighters with 13 losses make it onto HBO nor do they earn two title shots in a row. That alone says all one needs to know.
But there is more. Mtagwa turned professional in 1997 at only 17-years-old and he fought a 10-rounder in only his third professional bout. Within three years he made his way to Philadelphia (he heard that was the best boxing city in America) and since then he hasn’t looked back. With the “City of Brotherly Love” serving as his new base of operations, Mtagwa accepted fights with little or no notice. He lost three of his first four fight on American soil and he barnstormed across the U.S. while fighting everywhere from Hampton Beach, New Hampshire to Choctaw, Mississippi to Evansville, Indiana.
For Mtagwa, 30, poverty and the prospect of returning to Tanzania without success is perhaps his strongest motivator. In his home country, the average life expectancy is 60-years-old. HIV kills tens of thousands per year. He wants to return someday - but as a winner and a world champion.
He seems to have found a wonderful set of allies in Peltz and Parella who both believe in him. Parella, who does most of the talking for Rogers, “He doesn’t like to talk in front of everyone, he does most of his talking in the car or in the hotel room,” is not your conventional, run-of-the-mill boxing manager. He understands the implications of what a win tonight would mean for Mtagwa. To say it would be a game changer is an understatement.
Parella’s message is that what he most desires for Rogers is success. He is out for the best interests of his fighter and not the other way around.
“The truth of the matter is that I want to see him succeed,” Parella explains. “I’m O.K., you know what I mean? I’m O.K. But for Rogers? Well, this is all for him - it’s not for me. He’s got a family, he’s got a couple of children, he’s got a wife and he’s got responsibilities. If he wins, it will change his life and it will make a better life for him.”