"Bobby became lethargic and his hands were dropping down. He started to get hit a lot and was not defending himself."
Bobby knew the risks,
but fate knew them better
By RAPHAELLA CRUZ
When I first started amateur boxing almost 10 years ago, like most young boxers I could not wait to spar. I had trained for a few weeks before my coach would even let me in the ring. "When can I spar, Franky, when?" I would hound him day in and day out. "When I say you're ready," was always the answer, emphasis on "I".
A few days before my first sparring match, on a wintry Saturday morning in Somerville, a Boston suburb, my coach brought me up to the ring at the gym to watch someone else sparring. Getting ready in the corner was a 40-something tattooed pugilist named Robert Benson. Everyone called him "Big Bob"--not because of his size--he didn't weigh over 140--but because his son was also named Bob, and his son was also a boxer. On this day, his son was in the other corner and they were about to spar together.
Big Bob is a motorcycle guy, rough and tough on every edge, but soft and warm inside. His leathery skin is covered in religious type body art; his nose, a boxer's; his longish salt-and-pepper curls just hiding his cauliflower ears. Big Bob is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, and loved his son with everything. He brought him up in boxing because that's what he knew. Boxing saved Big Bob from a life on the streets, and he saw the same benefits for his son.
Little Bob, or Bobby, who went by Robert Tomasello (his mother's maiden name) in the ring, took after his father in many ways. He was devoutly Catholic and soft-spoken. He was not so rough around the edges, though. In fact, he always took great care that his appearance was neat and clean. He was only 18, and his short, black hair was always perfectly slicked back exposing his youthful, chiseled features. Sometimes he wore 'fashion frames.' His part-time job was at an optician's office. When driving, he rarely exceeded 20 miles per hour.
In regular life, Bobby was the opposite of his ring persona.
In the ring, he was tough as nails. Weighing in at 125 pounds, his body was lean and hard. Muscles popped from every limb--not big muscles, but sharply-cut boxer's muscles. He had one tattoo on his left deltoid, a rose with the name "Jamie" in a banner underneath.
Big Bob was in one corner, strapping on his beaten head-gear, lacing up his gloves alone. Bobby was in the other corner with several cornermen and other friends. Franky and I sat ringside awaiting the action. I had been to an amateur boxing show before, but had never really seen boxing up close. When the bell rang, I sat entranced until the minute it was over. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Big Bob and little Bob were going at it as if this were a world championship fight. Big Bob was bigger and more experienced, but Bobby held his own and was so fast with his hands and quick
on his feet that his father could hardly keep up.
Into the fourth round, Big Bob hit Bobby with a shot in the nose that made a flat, thumping sound and dark red blood trickled from Bobby's nose. After the fourth round, it was over. Little Bob jumped out of the ring with more energy than he had going in. "You could've taken it easy on me, dad, you know I just ate!"
He walked over to Franky and me. "I just had French toast, bacon, potatoes, juice, coffee!" he complained, holding on to his unbelievably incredible abs.
Franky winked at him. "You did great!" he said, and he introduced me to Bobby.
Franky looked me in the eyes. "Do you still want to spar?" he asked me.
"I can't wait!," I screamed.
I had no way of knowing then that Bobby would become a close friend, that the "Jamie" on his tattoo would soon become my best friend, that she would start boxing, too, that they would later become engaged to be married, but they never would be married because Bobby's life was to end at age 25.
So for a few years we went through the amateur boxing circuit together. The boxing gym became a home to each of us for different reasons. Bobby was actively competing in local, regional, and national competitions, with a superb amateur record and a perfect amateur style. His goal was to eventually turn pro.
He aspired to become a world champion and trained like one. His mantra was "Refuse to lose." He was quick as a cat and had a power punch to boot--I know because I sparred with him once. When it was over I said, "What are you trying to do, kill me?" It was the first time I had received a liver shot and it almost put me down.
At that time I was also competing in the amateurs, but it was much harder for me to find sparring with other women and to get a suitable match. Bobby always encouraged me. He would talk to me after every practice, coaching and supporting me. When it was time for my first fight, he loaned me his lucky blue trunks and I became the first New England women's Golden Gloves champion. I was sure it was because of the trunks.
Jamie started training but never did compete, partly for her own reasons, but also because of Bobby. When she began training, he started to change his mind about women in boxing. Sometimes he would get jealous because the media was often around the women boxers. It was such a novelty at the time and we were pretty good. Also because the more Jamie trained, the less time she had to admire Bobby's boxing career. I don't blame Bobby for this, he was so young then and so hopelessly in love with Jamie, and he knew full well the dangers involved in boxing.
Jamie was too strong for any girl, and Big Bob became her sparring partner. One afternoon when they were sparring, Big Bob hit Jamie in the nose with a head-butt, sending Jamie to her knees on the canvas holding her face and punching the canvas, swearing. We didn't really know what happened until she lifted her face and black blood gushed from her nose.
Bobby went ballistic. "You see! THIS is why women shouldn't be boxing!" he shouted, running into the ring to pick his sweetheart up from the floor. Her nose was broken and within minutes she had two black eyes. The cornermen expertly shoved Q-tips up Jamie's nose while Bobby paced around frantically until everyone was laughing at him.
Bobby had broken his nose in the ring, too, and his orbital bone. His eye sank down his cheek for several weeks and he looked like a scary monster before he could get surgery, and he never looked quite as symmetrical afterward. But none of that stopped him, he couldn't wait to become professional, a world champion.
"He couldn't wait to become professional, a world champion."
By the time he turned pro, Bobby was engaged to Jamie and life was good. He got a lucrative contract with a good promoter who bought him a car and took him to fancy restaurants. It was a dream come true for Bobby--all his hard work, training, dedication, perseverance, it was finally starting to pay off.
Shortly thereafter it became apparent that life as a pro was different. But if Bobby felt the pressure, he hid it well. His first few pro fights were wins by knockout, and the future held so much promise. There was always activity at the gym; John Ruiz was making his way up the professional ladder, and Bobby was being trained by the same guys. There were a few other local pro boxers around, and lots of kids training in the amateurs. Bobby loved the kids and spent a lot of time talking with them and coaching them. Bobby really wanted to be someone. To the kids, he already was.
To me, a relative newcomer to the sport, the change in Bobby was obvious. I knew him pretty well by now and I began to worry about him. He didn't fight the way he used to, or rather, the professional style itself was not as comfortable for Bobby as the amateurs. He was still winning, but he was taking an awful lot of punishment.
He was a local favorite and the day he had waited for came in the fall of 2000--he was going to fight at the Roxy in Boston and the fight would be televised on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights." It would be his first 10-round fight. Bobby could feel the impending celebrity and wore it proudly, sporting a new workout suit, looking impeccable and in better shape than ever.
A few days before the fight I saw him at the gym. We started talking about the class I was teaching for kids who were just beginning. I told Bobby we needed more coaches, and he jumped at the chance. "I'll start helping you out after this fight," he promised, but that was not to be. "Bobby, be careful," I said, and held his hand for a moment. He looked in my eyes and he looked scared. "I will," he said, and that was the last time I saw him awake.
I didn't go to the fight because Jamie and Bobby had an argument, and being Jamie's best friend, we sat in solidarity and watched it on TV from our own homes.
I made popcorn and turned on the fights. I sat with my eyes glued to the screen, and when Bobby came on my heart raced and I started sweating. When they introduced his opponent I was surprised. It was not the opponent he was scheduled to fight. The original opponent had backed out and they made a last-minute replacement. No one really knew who this guy was. He was from Africa, and he was good.
When the first bell rang, my heart was in my throat. He did very well in the first few rounds, hopping around his opponent and landing a few combinations. His opponent was tough, though, and was obviously not going down.
Then something happened in the fourth round. I think it was the fourth round, I never watched the fight again on my VCR. Bobby became lethargic and his hands were dropping down. He started to get hit a lot and was not defending himself. His usual quick feet turned into lead weights, and his face began to swell with bruising from the punches he was taking. But he was refusing to lose.
Between rounds, his cornermen were yelling at him, slapping his face, sending him back out until finally it was over, and Bobby had made it. The decision was a draw, which was okay for Bobby. At least it meant his record was not tainted. But I did not feel right, and after he left the ring, my eyes filled with tears. I called Jamie. "What was wrong with Bobby?" I asked, and she said "I don't know. He wasn't himself."
It wasn't until the next day that I found out what happened. I had called another friend from the boxing club and as soon as she answered she said "Are you calling about Bobby?" She told me that after the fight, Bobby had gone back to the locker room. He told his coach he had a headache. His coach went to get the doctor. When they returned, Bobby was on the floor. When his coach picked him up, Bobby vomited. Within seconds he was on a stretcher and out the door. Minutes later, he was at New England Medical Center, hooked up to several life-support machines. He had a brain hemorrhage and was unconscious.
When I heard all this, I burst into tears. I was confused. I was thinking about the fight, and what happened in the fourth round. I was thinking of Bobby and Jamie and everything I just wrote. I got in the car and raced to the hospital.
I arrived just in time to hear the doctor telling his family that chances were that he wasn't going to make it. His family was steadfast in their faith. "We believe in miracles," they told the doctor. But I was not so sure.
I went in the ICU with Jamie and the nurse led us to Bobby's bed. There was so much tape on his face holding down the machinery that all you could see was one eye, with a perfect round shiner around it. His head was completely bandaged from the operation he had undergone earlier to drain the fluid from around his brain.
I touched his arm, his bicep. It was hard as a rock and burning hot. "Wake up, Bobby," Jamie was whispering, holding on to his lifeless hand. Suddenly, he started coughing, and with all the tubes in his throat it was a painful, loud cough.
He sat up in bed at a 90-degree angle, gasping for breath. I ran to the nurses' station. A nurse came in and did something to settle him down. We thought he might wake up, but he did not. I said my goodbyes and left.
On my way out of the room, his best friend from high school came in, a boy I had never met. "What's the prognosis?" he asked, desperately searching my eyes for good news. "He's not going to make it," I said bluntly, and walked back to the waiting room. When Jamie came back we went into a 'grieving room' they have near the ICU, and Jamie punched a hole in the wall.
We sat waiting for five days, praying for a miracle that wouldn't come.
On the fifth day, Bobby passed away.
© 2002 by Raphaella Cruz. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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