Butterbean is everywhere... MMA and boxing
GARDNER, Mass. - Joe Siciliano had big hopes when he was a young boxer, making hour-long drives after high school to train with up-and-coming fighters.
Eventually, life got in the way. The trip to the gym seemed a bit longer, and soon he was enrolled at a community college and applying for law enforcement jobs. He got one _ as a prison guard, then as a police officer _ and stopped boxing.
He put on the gloves again in his 30s, had success in the amateur ranks and turned professional in 1999. He took on Peter McNeeley, a Massachusetts fighter best known for his first-round loss to just-out-of-jail Mike Tyson.
It ended badly. McNeeley stopped Siciliano in the first round. That was seven years ago.
Now Siciliano, a 49-year-old detective on the Leominster police force, is working on another comeback. On March 9, he'll climb into the ring against 400-pound Eric "Butterbean" Esch. With Siciliano pushing 300 pounds himself, the bout in Worcester promises to be more rock-'em sock-'em than sweet science.
"When I feel I can't do it anymore, that's when I'll stop," he said during a recent training session in Muscle Works gym in a converted chair-manufacturing plant in Gardner, near Siciliano's home.
"To me, age is just a number," he said. "If I feel good and I can still do it, then I want to do it."
And if 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone can get back in the ring _ as the fictional "Rocky Balboa" _ then why not Siciliano?
"He's never been knocked out," he said, referring to Butterbean. "I'd like to be the first one to do it."
In some respects, Siciliano represents the ultimate weekend warrior. He's past his prime. He's not pretty. But boxing provides an avenue other sports don't. Middle-aged Red Sox fans can't take the field at Fenway Park, nor would anyone pay to see them.
In this case, however, the journeyman fighter with professional record of 4-3 expects to sell out the 2,500-seat Palladium in Worcester for a four-round fight.
He's not alone among unlikely pugilists. Rick Rushton, a Worcester city councilor who turns 40 this year, is fighting on the same card as Siciliano. The former college basketball player first boxed in a local charity event five years ago, and caught the bug.
"There's nobody that can save you. It tests your manhood every time you go in there," said Rushton, who also is running for mayor of Worcester to replace Tim Murray, the new lieutenant governor.
Siciliano expects to make about $4,000 to face a fighter with 57 knockouts, but he's not in it for the money. He wants to be a trainer when he retires from the police department, and says high-profile fights will enhance his reputation with young boxers.
Of course, this is not how Siciliano would have written the original script.
Thirty years ago, he was a 175-pound light heavyweight competing in the Golden Gloves amateur tournament. As a backup plan, he took classes in business and criminal justice at Mount Wachusset Community College. He then spent one year as a Department of Correction officer before joining the Leominster force.
"I worked midnight shifts," he said. "I stopped boxing."
He eventually returned to fight as an amateur in charity events and briefly tried to open his own boxing gym. The reason it failed is the reason so many people like him, friends say.
"He would let kids come in even though they didn't have the money," said Detective. Lt. Mike Pellecchia, Siciliano's boss. "Joey was paying the thing himself to try to get it started."
Along the way Siciliano developed a loyal following. His no-nonsense style was a crowd pleaser. His fans were on hand for the McNeeley fight _ a first-round TKO.
State Auditor Joe DeNucci, a former middleweight contender who twice lost to Emile Griffith, said boxers need to know when it's time to quit.
He knew: He was 33, trying to make a comeback, and Jean-Claude Bouttier hit him so hard that his left eye swelled to the size of an orange in the ninth round of their 1973 bout in Lyon, France.
DeNucci survived the round but the ring physician stopped the fight after one look at DeNucci's eye.
"I was happy that they stopped the fight _ not happy _ I was relieved," said DeNucci, who has held public office the past 31 years. "A few years before that, I'd be hollering and screaming. That was it. That's when I knew."
DeNucci, who does not know Siciliano, supports toughening age restrictions for licensed fighters.
Boxing is the only major sport without a national governing organization. Congressional efforts to establish such a body have failed.
Nick Manzello, chairman of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission, said every fighter must pass a physical, including eye exams and an EKG. In the past, the commission had a rule that no one over 35 could get licensed. But he said the state attorney general's office informed them the rule constituted age discrimination.
"I don't think there should be an age limit," said Manzello, a former boxer. "Joe Siciliano is going to have to pass all those tests."
Siciliano trains one hour in the morning and one hour after work. He says he's well aware of the risks: He's suffered a broken nose and a broken hand in the ring.
Butterbean, a baldheaded brawler who specializes in four-round bouts, has a pro record of 76-7-4. He'll earn $20,000, according to Jimbo Isperduli, Siciliano's manager who also is promoting the event.
"I don't do it for money," Siciliano said. "That doesn't motivate me at all. It's a challenge, to see how far I can go."
A service of the Associated Press(AP)
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