To knock a man out takes a combination of strength, precision and luck. You have to hit him in the right place, and if you do he’ll go down, no matter who he is. Getting knocked out doesn’t hurt. “It’s a good feeling, actually,” boxing great Floyd Patterson once said. “It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess.” Patterson was 28 when Sonny Liston beat him senseless a second time, ending his career. George Rivera is 30, and the one time he was knocked out (a lucky blow from an opponent he was whipping easily), it didn’t hurt at the time. “It hurt after, your pride and all that,” he says.
George “War Time” Rivera picked his nickname because of his building back in New York City. The Vietnam building, it was called, though the name kinda fits the times in which we live. When he was 17, he moved to Virginia. “My aunt had moved down to Virginia. My family came down to visit, and once we found out how much rent was, everybody packed out.” He laughs.
At Fluvanna High School, Rivera played football but he was maybe a little too fond of the hitting part. War Time got kicked out for fighting, but they let him back in and he graduated in 1996.
As a young man, Rivera got in fights “goin’ to the clubs in Charlottesville,” until someone introduced him to Joe Mallory, who was trying to start a gym downtown. It failed, but Rivera fell for boxing—the way it takes something brutal and turns it into a sweaty science—something more than just trying to, you know, take your opponent’s head off. “There’s actually an art to it. You got to know where to hit ’em, what angles.”
And if you find the sweet spot, then you knock him out. Last Saturday night, at the same Fluvanna High School that booted him for fighting, I saw George Rivera fight professionally and I saw a man get knocked out. That happened 42 seconds into the first fight on the undercard, a cartoonish battle between two doughy fighters, one of whom seemed to stumble into his opponent with a clumsy punch, but the man went down to his knees and his eyes went blank and his face flickered like a busted light bulb. He went down, tried to get up, and floated in space dumbly as the referee counted 10. And then he was up and awake, slowly realizing that he had lost.
“Some sports are different,” Rivera says. “Basketball, football, baseball—you got your teammates to help you out if, you know, let’s say it’s not your day. But in boxing, all you got is yourself.” He laughs again, talking on the phone a few days before the fight. “You’re the offense, the defense, the special teams. You all that rolled up into one.”
Saturday night’s all right for fighting and several hundred people arrive at the school in high spirits to watch the former troublemaker box. There isn’t a lot of boxing around Charlottesville these days, although promoter Joe Hensley puts on a lot of fights in Staunton, Fishersville and Lynchburg. Hensley promotes a stable of local fighters. Bruce Frank, owner of the Staunton Boxing Club, manages them. Three of them are here tonight: Scott “Cujo” Sigmon from Bedford, Juan Carlos “El Guerro” Robles from Waynesboro, and Rivera, who is tonight’s main event and who Hensley says is the best fighter in Virginia, Maryland, and DC.
Rivera is currently 10 and 4. In November, Rivera defeated the previously undefeated Jesse “The Beast” Nicklow, but then in January he lost his Mid-Atlantic Junior Middleweight Championship belt, and so Rivera is at a decisive point in his career, the Nicklow victory proving his ability and the loss of the belt fueling his motivation. But tonight is not a big match for him; it’s more of a homecoming.
“The only one who can beat George Rivera is George Rivera,” Frank tells him in the locker room before the fight. “You got all the tools.”
Fighting last, Rivera waits longest, and that’s the only part he doesn’t like. As Sigmon jumps rope, and Robles gets each hand taped with a whole roll of gauze, Rivera sleeps. The locker room teems with people—sport officials, trainers, cutmen, the media; finding privacy, Rivera curls up on the floor and pulls the hood of his sweatshirt closed tight.
The first match of the night is a throwaway, except for the fact that it delivers the aforementioned KO. The first good fight of the night is the third one, between Juan Carlos Robles and the scarily strong-looking Francois “the Beast” Ambang from Richmond by way of Cameroon.
Boxing matches can last any number of rounds up to 12, each one taking three minutes. For a spectator, three minutes is fast, and watching boxing can be tiring, eyes open wide so as not to miss the crucial blow. But three minutes is long for a fighter. Street fights rarely, if ever, go that long. Think of boxing as marathon fighting. By round four, both men shine with sweat. A slow and methodical boxer, Robles fights from a crouch, placing his shots well. His only weakness in the fight, which goes six rounds, is his inability to switch tempos and attack when he needs to. Robles wins on points.
That’s what you call a pinky ring.
Robles’ braided topknot hangs down from the top of an otherwise shaved head and tattoos crawl up his shoulders and neck. He wears a hemp necklace holding a small, one-and-a-half inch shriveled yellow thing that looks like a finger.
“Where did you get that?” I ask, and Juan smiles and holds up his left hand, a small nub where his pinky used to be.
“You’re kidding me. How did that happen?”
“I did it,” he says, and removes his pinky pendant for me to examine, which I do. It is leathery, with a small, chipped nail on the end.
A bad motorcycle accident a few years ago left him with long scars on his left arm and leg, and a curled, useless pinky. He wanted it gone, but getting a doctor to do the deed would cost at least 10 grand. To economize, he used a chisel. “Did it right before work,” he says.
“You see, the bone’s still there.”
A 156-pound junior middleweight, Rivera is smaller than the night’s previous boxers. He gets to be the main event because he’s the best boxer of the bunch. At the morning’s weigh-in his opponent, Ike “The President” Ezeji, from The Bronx, was real cocky. Rivera, with his sleepy eyes and warm smile, stayed quiet.
A New York Golden Gloves champion, Ezeji comes up to Rivera’s neck and fights like an angry question mark. He’s hard to hit, hunching and bobbing. Rivera seems a bit unfocused in the first round and a weak punch sends him down quickly, but he gets back up even quicker.
Before he lost his belt, Rivera went for a lot of body shots, wearing his opponents out. But since losing it, he’s tried to change. “Now when I train I gotta train to finish ’em. Don’t leave it in the judges’ hands.” He usually trains three or four days a week, unless he’s got a match coming up, in which case he ups it to four or five times a week six weeks before the match. When he’s not fighting, he works at Cavalier Windows as a power washer. It’s hard to make a living as a professional boxer.
Rivera throws a lot of one-two combos and his punches are well placed, disciplined. In the second round, a strong punch sends Ezeji spinning back into the corner, but Rivera doesn’t pursue recklessly. A good boxer keeps boxing, never starts brawling. Hitting or being hit, you keep the defense going, the feet moving. You keep thinking. Rivera is pretty to watch, clean and stylish. By round four, he has a big red bruise under his left eye, but Ezeji has been sent to his knees, and by round five the fight is clearly Rivera’s to lose. Ezeji is slowing down and Rivera is hitting his face at will. From behind, a fighter’s head will pulse with the impact as sweat fans out. The crowd rises in excitement with the boxers’ tempos, sending up a unified cry as either one moves in for the kill.
The fight goes to the final sixth round. Ezeji is tired, not bobbing quite so deftly. Rivera smashes his face repeatedly, but he’s tired, too. And then the 10-second warning, and Rivera surges, stunning Ezeji with an uppercut that sends him staggering. The crowd shrieks for an ending, and Rivera tries, he really does, hammering his opponent in the face and ribs, but it’s the final bell and the match is over without the ultimate bloodletting the crowd thirsts for. Rivera wins easily on points. He’s mobbed and the high school girls snap arm-length photos next to him as he heads back into the locker room.
Once inside, Rivera lessens his grin.
Once kicked out of Fluvanna High for fighting, Rivera returned victorious last weekend as a professional junior middleweight boxer. Here he greets the fans, pre-fight, with his 5-year-old son, Isaac.
“I hurt my hand,” he says, grimacing as a trainer cuts the tape, “in the second round.” His body is splotchy with welts and scratches. Nearby, Rivera’s manager, himself an ex-fighter, stands watching, his freshly scabbed nose spread across a face like lumpy oatmeal.
Rivera’s 5-year-old, Isaac, runs in, grinning.
“Daddy did good?” Rivera asks, and then answers himself. “Daddy’s got to get your belt back.”
“After this,” he says to me, “I’m gonna jump in the shower and get fat for a few days.” But only a few, because in less than six weeks he fights a rematch in Lynchburg with the guy who took his belt. He signs autographs for four or five people, pen cradled awkwardly in a right hand that is purple and swelling, and then, as the locker room empties out, heads into the bathroom with little Isaac following after.