August 1, 2014

KO Digest Interview: Gary Balletto - “ I never knew how loved I was ”

The Grandson of Hitman Tiger Balletto
Working seven days a week with rigorous physical tests, focused on one goal and traveling over 400 miles away from his home in (divine) Providence, Rhode Island to Baltimore, it feels as though Gary Balletto is at camp training for a fight. In a way, he is. However, this fight is more important than any he  had in a decade long career in the boxing ring.

This fight is not one against a world class opponent that can be won by studying film. Like all but two of the fights on his record (31-3-2, 26 KOs) it is being fought close to home, but this time, it’s more personal.

Gary Balletto wants to walk again.

The small-town, small-state hero was beloved by much of New England for his fierce, never-give-up fighting style and peak physical condition. He’ll need both of those things more than ever to combat an injury suffered in July of 2013 that paralyzed him in his own backyard.

Hearing him talk about it is heartbreaking, but he doesn’t want your sympathy—only the continued support that has been overwhelming from not only the boxing community but the entire region as well. Only 39 years old, Balletto has already accomplished a lot. He won Golden Gloves titles in southern New England, he fought on national television multiple times and was a big ticket seller in the area en route to accruing smaller titles. He staged a comeback to fight on the reality TV show “The Contender,” starred in his own documentary film, and was training to break a fitness world record before the accident.

But there’s still one big accomplishment left to come, one that seems miles away but begins with literally one single step.

And like any brave fighter, Balletto will never stop trying to get back up on his feet to take it. 

Beaten to the end by Goyo, Gary never gave up
KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: Your injury had a sudden and profound impact on your life one year ago. Take us through the circumstances and how your life has changed.

Gary Balletto: It was the scariest feeling I ever had. My life changed completely as a result of the accident. Last year, I was in phenomenal shape. I always took care of my body with conditioning and weight training. For me now, the biggest thing that bothers me is that my body doesn’t look right. I was very fussy. I like perfect symmetry. I ate the right nutrition, I never drank or smoked, and do to all of that stuff and take such good care of my body and then get paralyzed from the waist down? I don’t have use of my hands, my muscles are getting atrophy. It bothers me to look in the mirror more than anything. This happened in my backyard. My seven year old son, at the time, was in the boxing gym about a week before the accident. He had never done pull-ups, so I put him on the bar and I told him that his older brother could probably do 10 pull-ups at that age, so let me see how many you can do. He did 20.

A week later on a Sunday, we were home. We just had pancakes for breakfast. I went outside to play with my youngest. I found this bar, an old piece of a trampoline. I wedged it between two trees and had a screw gun to put a couple of screws around the bar into the tree for him to practice and do pull-ups. At this time, I was also practicing to break the world record for pull-ups done in one minute, so I figured I could use a pull-up bar at home too—but it was really for him to play on in the yard. I said “let me show you how to spin around the bar.” Just on my hands, with my arms straight, I spin around once and although the bar was flimsy, I didn’t fall. He asked me to do it again so he could see where my hands were. The second time I spun around the bar, it crashed straight down to the ground and I landed completely the wrong way. Immediately on impact I broke my neck and was paralyzed that second. I knew it. I knew as soon as I hit. I couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t move my hands.

Balletto looked like the Micky Ward of Rhode Island
KOD: Your entire life has been spent in Rhode Island, a state not known for producing many notable boxers with the exception of Vinny Pazienza and Peter Manfredo Jr, how did boxing wind up in your life? 

GB: I started boxing at the age of thirteen, but it was something that I always thought I should be doing because my grandfather and father were boxers, but they weren’t around to teach me boxing. My father died when I was ten years old but I knew the sport ran in my family so I eventually tried it myself when I was thirteen. I ended up being very good at it. At the age of 18, I was taking boxing more seriously and I moved from Florida back to Rhode Island after I finished high school. When I came back and joined this gym, my goal was to win a Golden Gloves boxing title at Southern New England. I trained for this for almost three months and in the finals, I knocked my opponent out 40 seconds into the first round. I didn’t know how talented I was until that point, when I won the Golden Gloves like it was so easy. I won numerous titles in New England in tournaments, always against the best in the area.
I finished with a record of 13-2, with both losses coming against national number ones.

KOD: The majority of your career was spent with Jimmy Burchfield and CES. How much of an impact has CES had on the regional boxing landscape over the years, given that there is so little boxing in the state of Rhode Island?

GB: CES was the only show in town at the time, so there was no place better to be as a New England fighter. Jimmy Burchfield and I are very close. He’s a great man, he’s been good to me throughout my career. We’re still very close friends today.

KOD: In your decade long career, you only had two fights outside New England, with most of them coming in either Rhode Island or Connecticut. How important was fighting at home to you and do you feel that gave you an advantage?

Balletto appreciates what Mr. B does to help
GB: Fighting at home definitely gave me an advantage to have my hometown crowd there. But, as I said many times when I fought on ESPN, I was always in my local town because my promoter was the one doing the show. I was a very big ticket seller. I understand why he wanted me on those shows, but it doesn’t matter where in the world you fight—if you’re on television, everybody is going to see you. I was never on the road as an opponent. It just so happened that all my fights were in New England.

KOD: You never won a major world title, and outside of Friday Night Fights and the Contender, haven’t received a lot of national attention. But, ask people in the region about some of their favorite fighters from the area and you name frequently comes up. What qualities do you think made those fans latch onto you and stay with you through the years?

GB: I think people liked to watch me because I was exciting. I would take a chance, even if it was taking punches. No matter what you do in life, if you never take a chance, you’re never going to get to that next level. I tried to knock my opponent out in every single fight. That was my main goal, and knockouts are what people want to see. Most people don’t enjoy watching a boxing match. I always felt if I didn’t knock my opponent out, I didn’t really win.

KOD: In 2006, at the end of your career, you were featured on season 2 of “The Contender.” How did the opportunity to fight on the show come about, and how did the experience differ from a typical fighting experience away from the show?

GB: The day before the last tryout in New York City, I got a call from promoter Rich Cappiello. He promoted me at the beginning of my career before I signed with Mr. B, and he said “Gary, I got the word their fighting close to welterweight. I think you should come with me tomorrow and go to this tryout. I know that you’re going to get picked.” I had to go back and talk to my wife about it. I was retired almost three years from boxing, and we decided together that I shouldn’t fight anymore because of the damage that had been done to my body. I first had to convince my wife to let me go because we weren’t boxing anymore. I convinced her to let me go, that it was just a tryout with a friend of mine, and that they probably weren’t going to pick me anyway. Soon enough, I heard they were going to pick me and a couple of weeks later I got the phone call that they liked me and decided to go with the weight class and were going to send me to another tryout to narrow it down. Another week or so went by, and they invited me to LA for another tryout with sparring and numerous tests for eight days. They invited 37 fighters and narrowed it down to 16 going by personalities, how you are on camera, medical fitness, and other things they used to make a good TV show.

KOD: What was it like to actually be on the show from the reality TV angle behind the scenes?

Celebration turned into tragedy for Tiger
GB: That experience was very different for me because it was almost like going to a training camp, which is something I never did outside of my own gym. I actually learned a lot by being around other great fighters and watching their regimens. I was surprised that the training was not as intense as I had done my whole life. These guys that were in the top 20 in the world didn’t train hard. It was more technical than anything else. Now that I look back on my career, if I mastered my technical boxing as I mastered my strength and conditioning, I think I would have been a better fighter.

I actually had a lot of experience being on film. I starred in a documentary film prior to the TV show called “Sweet Dreams,” so I had a camera follow me for almost five years and it wasn’t something different for me. Unfortunately, when I fought on “the Contender,” it was at the end of my career. I actually retired from boxing in 2003 and the Contender didn’t happen until 2006, so I had three years of nothing and jumped into a TV with one month of training. Had this happened at the right time, my career would have wound up in a much different place if the show happened in 2003 or in my weight classes instead of a few weight classes higher than my ideal weight.

KOD: In its fairly short run, The Contender did a good job of bringing boxing into the spotlight and attracting casual fans, but boxing shows don’t seem to stick around for long in any format, including reality TV and scripted. Is there any reason in particular that you think boxing shows struggle to attract and keep viewers?

This show would be the most viewed to maybe you and me, but I guess the majority of the population wouldn’t view. I thought it was the greatest show on TV and I don’t understand why the viewings went down and there eventually weren’t enough viewers to keep it on. It was exciting. It was as real as it gets, and there wasn't a better show to show that boxing is a man’s sport. Growing up, if you got into a fight in the street, you fought with your hands. If you went to the ground and the guy was kicking you or choking you, it was cheating. Now, MMA is here but I look back at fighting as a kid and fights didn’t happen like that, they happened by standing up and fighting. Boxing is a man’s sport. I thought it would be viewed more than it was.

KOD: You’re in one of the nation’s top rehab programs right now. Do the doctors think you will ever be able to walk again?

GB: No. No. There’s no doctor that thinks I will walk again, and they’re not allowed to give their opinion on that anyway, but sometimes they do. There’s only one doctor that thinks I’ll walk again. He’s not my practicing doctor—he was Christopher Reeve’s doctor and he doesn’t practice anymore. But, he owns the facility we go to in Baltimore. It’s always nice to hear that and you hope for the best, but no, statistically, I’ll never walk again. However, I’m not planning on statistics. I think I was one of the most perfectly trained athletes ever, so for me, I don’t think there was anybody in better shape at the time when they broke their neck than I was. I hope that means something. I hope that my doctors say that means something, the shape I was in.

KOD: What goals do you have on the rebound from injury? You’ve certainly come a long way, but what struggles lie ahead?

Tiger Junior hits the bag for Dad
GB: My goal would be to walk again. It’s almost impossible to put a time on that, I’ve realized. It’s a long process for nerves to grow back and reconnect. It’s a very, very long process. I thought I would be walking already with my therapy by pushing it to the limits like a fight. I do seven days a week of very intense physical therapy, which is what this program I am in told me to do. They said hardcore therapy will get you better, which is perfect for me because that’s all I know. I have improved in all parts of my body’s strength. Everything that is actually working gets stronger, and I actually have an improvement in my motor as far as moving. My fingers are starting to twitch which is new, and I have movement in my stomach. I can’t do a sit-up, but I have the muscles triggering at the T5 level, which is below the level of injury. It’s a great sign. I’m a little frustrated, but I’m definitely making progress in this very slow process.

KOD: Fighters fight. Having fought for many years in the ring, is there a mentality from boxing that you’ve taken with you and applied to rehab that helps you stay strong during this difficult time?

GB: It's automatically in my nature to train hard. I already know how to train and all the exercises I need to do. When I work with these therapists, it’s not like they teach me anything, they’re just there to help me get through it. I see a physical therapist three days a week, but I train the other four days on my own with special adaptive equipment recommended by Baltimore. There is a bike that is electric stimulation that moves my legs so I can maintain the muscle in my legs. The arms I can do myself. I don’t have my hands to grab onto something for pulling exercise, but I have adaptive gloves I can use to do that. I know how to work the muscles in my body, and that’s what they tech you at physical therapy. I’m one step ahead there.

Fun, fast, always came to fight
KOD: Were you surprised by how many people in the boxing community embraced you and your family after the accident? What has that experience been like for you?

GB: Not only did the boxing community embrace me, but my home state Rhode Island embraced me. It’s amazing the support that I have and the friends that I have through this problem. I never knew how loved of a person I was, to be honest with you.

KOD: Your son is following in your footsteps and is currently fighting as an amateur. Boxing is obviously a physically taxing sport. Were you always supportive of Gary Jr’s goals to get in the ring, or did you hope he’d pick another sport over boxing?

GB: Absolutely. You said it exactly. I hoped he would pick another sport to do. I never pushed the sport of boxing on my son. I didn’t want him doing it, but I never said he couldn’t and he completely made his own choice. When he was younger, he didn’t like it and said it was stupid because he thought MMA was the way to go. He wrestled since he was six years old and had the background to be an MMA fighter with Thai boxing and judo. In February of last year, he pulled a groin muscle training and ever since then, he was waiting for it to heal and after seeing a doctor, he has a piece of his muscle detached from the bone near the groin area and he needs a surgery that he has put off since then. But, he realized that boxing doesn’t affect his groin, and he decided that he wants to box and follow in his father’s footsteps. It’s really exciting for me, but at the same time, I don’t really want him fighting.

KOD: What role have you been able to play in his career thus far, and how much potential do you think he has?

Balletto is a proud family man   
GB: I was training him up until I hurt myself along with my old boxing trainer, Kurt Reader. I always give him my point of view, but I wanted him to learn from more than one person. I had one trainer my whole career, but I think it’s important to learn from different trainers because you take a little bit from each one. I want to be there as a second person to tell him what I think at the same time, but not have that relationship with him.
I want to be his father still.

KOD: What defines you in or out of the ring that you are most proud of? 

GB: I’m most proud of my family. I couldn’t be happier with my three kids and my wife, and I have so many friends. I think that having the right attitude throughout life is important. I’ve always been a giver and helped people, and it has paid back in so many ways by doing the right thing throughout my life, especially when something like this happens.

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio. Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli