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A Peek Inside Justin Fortune’s Old-School LA Boxing Gym

Rick Assad

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Stepping foot inside the Justin Fortune Boxing Gym is like taking a giant step back in time. Located in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles and situated across the street from Fairfax High, the gym could easily be confused for old-style gyms like Stillman’s or Gleason’s in New York City, the Fifth Street Gym in Miami or the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles. Because it’s on the second floor, one must enter from the street level and then walk up a dozen or so steps, fit your way through a narrow hallway before meeting Tamara Frapasella, Justin’s wife.

When I arrived at 9:30 a.m., the place was somewhat busy, but not overly so. There is one ring, but a bevy of heavy bags, a speed bag, a treadmill, several jump ropes, a shower and a steam room. A handful of professional personal trainers were working with eager students as sweat poured off their faces, arms and legs.

Over the course of the next five hours, the gym, which is adorned with old-time fight posters and signed pictures of ring legends like Muhammad Ali, Manny Pacquiao, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran, would be fairly bursting with energy.

A few hours in, one professional heavyweight was working with Fortune in the ring as he prepared for an upcoming bout at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It’s not uncommon to see celebrities at the Fortune Boxing Gym. On this day, a longtime actor, Frank Grillo, was there going through his paces with steely determination.

Fortune, originally from Perth, Australia, has been involved in a multitude of professions, including nearly two decades as a heavyweight boxer. “I’m a chef by trade so I never thought that I’d end up here,” said Fortune, who has also owned a restaurant. “I was always interested in boxing. I was heavily involved in sport. They were all one-on-one sports. I wasn’t much for team sports. Boxing I always enjoyed because it’s the ultimate one-on-one combat. That’s why I liked it so much.” Fortune said he has always liked keeping active. “Then I was heavily into power lifting and from power lifting I switched to boxing. I’m an idiot,” he said.

Fortune, who is 54 years old, knew the fight game isn’t an easy way to make money and was smart enough to exit at the right time. “I set myself time and monetary goals,” he noted. “And once I met them, whichever came first, I was out. I stuck to it. That’s why I’m not punchy or broke. This sport sucks you in. It’s really tough to get out of. You always want that one last fight.”

Fortune began his professional boxing career in 1990 and ended it in 2009. Along the way, he carved out a 15-9-2 record with nine knockouts. Fortune’s biggest fight came against future three-time world heavyweight titleholder and a two-time lineal champion Lennox Lewis in July 1995 in Dublin, Ireland, that concluded with a fourth-round stoppage. “Lennox is a very underrated fighter,” said Fortune, who had 20 wins in 24 amateur fights in Australia that included participating in the Commonwealth Games. “At that stage, in my mind, it didn’t matter. I only had 14 fights, but I would have gotten into the ring with anybody. I didn’t care.” Fortune said that he wanted the fight to continue. “I got screwed. I wouldn’t have won the fight, but in England, the judge is the referee,” he said. “I had only 14 fights, and I got hit with an uppercut, and that was it. The referee stopped it. It would have gone a lot longer.”

Fortune opened his initial gym not too far away on Sunset Boulevard in 2008 and was in business until December 2019 when it was demolished. “This is what I originally wanted,” Fortune said of the current site, reminiscent of the gyms in the 1940s and 1950s. “This style of gym. The wooden floors. The posters. The pictures. The old-time look.” Fortune’s clients range from Academy Award-winning actors to musicians and every day folks. “My clients are a good bunch of people,” he said. “They respect the place and they like coming here. It’s their gym.” Fortune also noted that 65 percent of the people who populate the gym are women.

Frapasella, a former actress and film producer, does all the behind-the-scene work at the gym, but also finds time to be a personal trainer for primarily women and some men. “I think it took us a lot of years to build that,” she said of the welcoming vibe that is clearly present. “We have every nationality you can think of. Everyone is fighting for whatever their reason, but we all get along. We built a family in here and at the end of the day, we’re a family.” Frapasella said the atmosphere and appearance are intentional. “This place is spotless,” she pointed out. “I do have a staff that helps me. I don’t do it all by myself. You want something that’s clean and is welcoming.”

Philadelphia-based heavyweight Joey Dawejko was there preparing for a fight with undefeated Frank Sanchez on March 7 at Barclays Center that will be televised on FOX. “My opponent is a prospect and 14-0,” said Dawejko, who is 20-7-4 with 11 knockouts and nicknamed “The Tank.” Dawejko is hoping to pull off a major upset against Sanchez, who has 11 knockouts. “This is a big opportunity for me because it jumpstarts this year, not only for more to come,” he said. “I’ve gotta get this win and we go from there. Bigger and better things.”

Jose Navarro is a retired World Boxing Council Continental Americas super flyweight champion and Olympian who capped his pro career 27-6 with 12 knockouts. Navarro is currently a personal trainer who works with roughly 50 clients. “It’s the same sport, but you’re on the outside,” he said. “It’s been different. Being in there you get to make your own choices. You see things from a different angle. I actually enjoy this a lot more because you’re teaching what you learned your entire career. So now you’re looking at it from a much different perspective.” Navarro said he likes working at the Fortune Gym. “It’s something you never stop learning,” he said. “You learn something every day. That’s why it’s called the sweet science.”

Joe La Russo is a onetime professional photographer whose specialty was shooting jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. La Russo has been taking boxing lessons for nearly two decades. “I just started coming here the first of the year. I was at another gym for 13 years,” said La Russo, who comes to the Fortune Gym three times a week. “I started when I was 66 years old. In April, I’ll be 80. I just got a nice vibe. I knew people. I knew trainers. I’m dropping down in weight, so I’m on a new program. I feel great.” La Russo said he has always been fascinated with the manly art. “Boxing is all around,” he said. “When I was 16 growing up in Brooklyn, I wanted to go into the Golden Gloves, but my mother wouldn’t let me go,” he said. “So, 50 years later I’m at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood with Freddie Roach. But I came here for a change of pace. Different energy. Different vibe. It’s what keeps me young.”

Originally from South Africa, Vuyo Noyce, spent years in the fashion industry and is married and a mother of two. Noyce has been coming to the Fortune Gym for about four years and pays a visit two or three days a week for about two hours. “I like the environment here. It’s super laid back,” Noyce offered. “It’s not pretentious. I think the trainers are good and Justin’s fantastic. It’s like going to a friend’s house.”

Kylie Fulmer is an Australian and the World Boxing Federation Women’s Intercontinental super bantamweight champion who lives in Los Angeles and also calls the Fortune Gym home. “I spent five years out in Las Vegas, so I was training at TMT, the Floyd Mayweather Gym and Floyd Sr. was my coach for 14 months. Then I went over to [trainer] Dewey Cooper and I’ve been with him for three years,” said Fulmer, who has pieced together a perfect 7-0 record with six knockouts. “The goal this year is to stay active and fight as much as we can. I decided to come out here for a few weeks and had a chat with Justin and I had to make the decision to move over here.”

Fulmer said the decision to stay was fairly easy. “Justin being Australian, you know I’ve got a home away from home and a family,” she said. When asked why she selected the Fortune Gym, Fulmer said that it would help her reach her goals and that she feels comfortable here. “I just really need to focus on the fundamentals of boxing and make those corrections I feel are going to take me to the next level to get these world class fights,” she said.

Frankie Lopez is a 24-year-old cruiserweight, but will drop down in weight to super middleweight. Lopez can be found at the Fortune Gym because he’s also a personal trainer. That day he left for several hours because he had a few clients at UCLA. “I like to be around what I do because I like to incorporate everything with the patients, with my clients, but also patients in the ring to allow myself to better myself and my craft,” explained Lopez, who began as a kickboxer and owns a 12-1-1 mark with nine knockouts. “I used to be trained by Virgil Hill. He’s a five-time world champion and a Hall of Famer, a silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics and his wife [Carla] as well. She’s a four-time Olympian and they trained me for the longest time. But then I went on Google and this gym popped up out of nowhere. So, I came back the next day and I fell in love with it. They welcome you with open arms.”

What takes place in a boxing gym is serious business because if one doesn’t train properly there are consequences. What Fortune and Frapasella have constructed and designed at their gym is in some way atypical. “I make sure everybody’s good,” said Frapasella. “I’m like the gym mom. I want to make sure you have someone to talk to. You want to have a good experience.”

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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