October 1, 2014

KO Digest Interview: Brandon Berry - “I'll never forget where I come from”

The Pride of Somerset County, Maine, USA
MAINE — Brandon Berry is a small town boxer with big time dreams.

Fighting out of West Forks, Maine (POP. 57) the undefeated 27-year-old light welterweight prospect (7-0, 5 KO's) known as "The Cannon" is on the frontlines of a battle to bring boxing back to prominence in a New England state where the sweet science recently looked down for the count—with dwindling interest and a defunct boxing commission. That all changed in late 2012 with the reformation of the Combat Sports Authority of Maine. For Berry, a young amateur looking to turn professional close to home, the timing was ideal. In May of 2013, Berry made his pro debut in Skowhegan, winning Maine's first legally sanctioned boxing match since 2005.

Best known for the 1990's exploits of Lewiston's Joey Gamache as well as a once-thriving fight scene in the seacoast city of Portland at the world-renowned Expo, Maine's boxing culture fell on hard times in the past two decades. The sport's presence at the Portland Expo retreated, boxing was gradually being replaced by cage fighting, and it's been nearly fifteen years since Gamache was almost killed in the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York by the late Arturo Gatti, suffering a thunderous, career-ending knockout at the Hall of Fame hands of a controversially larger man.

On boxing's battlefield, "Team Berry" is strategically maneuvering their prized artillery piece into position for the delivery of maximum economic impact. But there's no need to hide the civilians because Berry is aiming straight and true—for them. "They're the real story, not me," he claims from behind the counter of Berry's General Store where he works and lives and trains.  

With a combustible corner behind him set to lite their loyal fighter's fuse, "The Cannon" is primed for a fightfight.  

KO Digest: How did you first get into boxing? 
Where did you get your start in the ring?

Boxing brothers Brandon and Gordon Berry
Brandon Berry: My brother Gordon was an amateur and he got me into it. Our Dad sat us down in 1994 and we watched George Foreman fight Michael Moorer.  I was too young to have an opinion, I just had fun watching. My Dad kept saying, "you wait, you wait," and Foreman landed that right hand. That was the first fight I saw. I watched a bunch of Rocky movies and pounded on an old military duffel bag that we stuffed with clothes in a shed out back. I started boxing in Lewiston with the Gamache family down at the Gamache gym. About six years ago, I was getting ready for the Golden Gloves, working out at Skeet Wyman's Gym because it was close to Bangor where I lived for a job, I wasn't fighting under Skeet at the time but I was using his gym. After I lost in the semi-finals, that next week I started training full-time under Skeet.

KOD: Who is your favorite fighter of all-time and why? 
Which current fighter do you most model yourself after and aspire to be like?

BB: Arturo Gatti because I love what he fought for. I believe he would have done what he did in the boxing world whether there was money on the table or not. He fought with his heart and never gave up on himself, he fought hard even if he knew he was going to lose. I love the character and determination he had. One guy I try to be like in the gym is Miguel Cotto. I really like his style, his defense, and how calm he stays in the ring.  I've really tried to be more relaxed in the ring and I watch a lot of his fights.

KOD: What do you do when you're not training or boxing? 

The way life should be
BB: I've worked full-time at my family's [Berry] General Store in West Forks since I was a little kid and I deliver newspapers on Sunday mornings for the Maine Telegram. I do that to make the gas money I need to travel to Wyman's Gym in Stockton Springs, Maine, which is a one-hundred and thirty mile drive each way. Especially lately, in the last year, it seems like every other person who comes in the store wants to talk about boxing, and congratulate me, and ask me what's going on next. People know me as the fighter now. They're standing behind me and counting on me. Financially, they're sacrificing to support me. I'm so proud to represent the great state of Maine.

KOD:  Talk about your corner and the building of a support system.

BB: Ken "Skeet" Wyman is my head coach and always will be. Greg Stearns is my assistant coach. They are lifelong friends and used to box together in the amateurs. Both of them have been around the gym and with me all along. I feel very comfortable with them. They know what to do and when to do it. Mel Peabody, out of Lawrence, Massachusetts, is my cutman, he's been in the game for over forty years. My support system has been second to none. Coming from a small town, I have used all the disadvantages that most people like to hide under, to my advantage. I've had the opportunity to use this area to get behind me one hundred percent. There is no feeling like it. I don't know if there is anything in the boxing world that could make me feel any better than that. Even if something crazy happened like if we were on the stage of the world title level, this feeling of having a small community behind me is what makes me feel like a winner.

KOD: Maine is big and remote. What challenges are there locationally speaking and how do you overcome this?

Berry in the basement of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium
BB: The cost of traveling to the gym is tough. It costs me about $150 a week to travel to the gym and that's only three days. Athletes can't get to the top on three days a week so I had to build a boxing gym next door. I have a ring which I bought from a gym in Massachusetts that used to belong to Micky Ward. I have a full boxing gym so I can train here on the off-days. My brother works me real hard and I want to make him proud. Realistically, there really aren't any challenges because this is what I grew up with. It would be for somebody not used to this lifestyle. Whenever we needed anything in life, we had to drive to get it. I'm used to travel.

KOD: You sometimes walk to the ring to the sounds of "Small Town" by John Cougar Mellencamp. What does that song and its message mean to you as a young boxer born and raised in rural Maine? 

BB: It gets me going walking to the ring, I really love the song. I came out to that in my pro debut and it's kinda stuck with me. It matches my story. I'm from a small town, as small as it gets. West Forks has made me who I am. The song matches everything that I stand for. I'll never move away. I'll never forget where I come from.

Berry wins under boxing's bright lights in Portland
KOD: How do you balance that "small town" mentality with every boxer's desire to make the big time and become a world champion? 

BB: I'm a very realistic person. I'm working on being the best I can be. I have high expectations for myself. Being from a small town is an advantage for me. I see everyone around here struggling with the economy and they're thriving over something good happening in this community and right now, that seems to be me. These people push me to try harder for them. And all these young kids, I want to show them they can do whatever they want to do in life, and that the only person sitting in the way is you. I don't want to let my community down.

KOD: You have boxed at some very impressive venues. Boston Garden, Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Portland EXPO and coming up, Lewiston where Ali beat Liston. Does all that history intimidate you or inspire you? 

Berry's name in lights at the Boston Garden
BB: It inspires me. I never thought I would fight at the Boston Garden. I'd been there many times over the years for Celtics games and concerts and I always thought it must be unreal to perform at what you do in a building like this. I kept looking up at the jumbotron and seeing myself on that screen and my name, Berry vs Perez, going around the building. I kept thinking, I don't know if this will ever happen again but I'm going to make the most of this tonight. That was a great feeling. To go out and have a good performance and beat a very well known New England amateur, I don't know if I'll ever fight there again because it isn't a huge venue for boxing. The Expo was just as important. The history in the building, the way the fans come alive. I could literally feel the energy from the crowd. I really could not believe how loud they were me. I could not believe what it did to me. I can't describe how great that felt. Portland Boxing Club President Bobby Russo is an important piece of the puzzle. He told me I'll always fight on the Expo shows, I have nothing but respect for him.

KOD: As an amateur and a pro, you struggled at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire. Can you describe your experiences as a boxer in that building and what it meant for you to score a clean KO-1 win there last month at the 13th Annual Fight To Educate card?  

BB: As an amateur I had one of my worst performances there. No excuses though because I fought one of my best opponents in Tevin Aleau. He was very smooth in the ring and he made me look pretty bad in there. Fighting at the Verizon was awesome but I left pretty upset because I didn't look good.  Then coming back the next year as a pro, fighting Jesus Cintron, I definitely went in overconfident and didn't think it would be any issue to go right through him. I overlooked him and will be the first to admit it. Getting out of there with a disqualification win, I'm glad I got the win, but I was not happy with my performance. I was honored to get invited back the third year because I didn't put on an impressive show in the two previous years. Going in there and taking care of business quick was very satisfying.  I felt good and I was going to perform well no matter who my opponent was.

KOD: Talk about your role in the resurgence of the Sweet Science in the state of Maine. 

Successful Pro Debut
BB: It feels good to be such a big part of it. I don't even remember when boxing was a huge deal in Maine but from what everyone tells me, there used to be weekly fights and Portland was the fighting capital city of the country.  To be a part of bringing that back feels great because the old-time boxing fans must be proud that somebody grabbed the bull by the horns to get the commission formed and get pro boxing legal again in Maine.  Now so many other guys are getting to fight in Maine in their hometowns, in their home state. If I never fought again, I could at least say I was a big reason why guys like Russell Lamour and Jason Quirk got to fight in Portland. I'm happy these guys are getting to experience what I experienced making my pro debut in Skowhegan. I think every fighter should get to fight in front of their hometown fans. I feel very lucky.

KOD: How do you want to be remembered by fans when your career is over? 

BB: As a very honest, hard working young man that trained and fought his heart out and went as far as he could with what he had. As somebody who respected the sport of boxing and what it's supposed to be about. I'd love to be known as a fighter like Gatti.

Boxing history continues in Maine
KOD: Respond to observers and critics who say you're being moved too slowly, too safely. Do you want to step up in competition?

BB: I fight who my coach tells me to fight. The people who say that, I respect their opinions but we have a plan and so far, it's working. I understand they're in a rush to see me in there with some better fighters. Knowing this question would come up, just for the hell of it, I checked some boxing records. I looked at ten world champions and their first ten fights. I looked at Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward, Floyd Mayweather, Ricky Hatton, Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Joey Gamache, Danny Garcia, Lucas Matthysse, and Zab Judah. The best out of all them was Cotto, who fought five guys in his first ten fights who had winning records. So I don't think I'm out of the ordinary or that I'm being protected any more than any other fighter has over the years. I think everything is going perfect and this next fight, I'm fighting Eric Palmer, a guy with a winning record, he's got more experience. I think it's an appropriate step in the right direction. From here on out, you'll see tougher fights. I never ducked anyone, I never dodged anyone, and I don't plan to.

KOD: Is Brandon Berry a local attraction, an up and coming contender, or a future world champion? What is your ultimate goal in boxing, and how far can you go?  

I definitely think I have what it takes to be a contender. Right now, a local attraction and that means the world to me. As long as I'm keeping my community happy, that's all I care about. I want to see my name in the big lights someday. You never know where I might end up if the right fights come along. I don't know if I will ever fight for a world title or be a world champion but if I'm up against somebody someday for a world title, I'll deserve to be there and I'll show everybody that at least I belonged. Whatever happens happens, but it won't be some mistake. It will be because I earned it and I belong there.

Gatti destroyed Gamache in two rounds 
KOD: The brutal result of  the 2000 Gatti vs Gamache fight must weigh heavily on your mind. Your favorite fighter seriously hurt your homeboy.

BB: I was rooting for Joey Gamache, my family was rooting for Joey—the whole State was. It was very hard for me to watch. I was pretty young. My brother Gordon was out there with Stevie Gamache, Joey's son, live in New York when it happened. Gordon saw him at the hospital and Joey said to him with a comforting smile on his face, "Now you're getting to see the other side of the sport." That will always stick with me forever.    

KOD: One more question Brandon. Everybody still wants to see Floyd Mayweather fight Manny Pacquiao. Will the biggest fight in boxing ever happen and if so, who do you believe will win it and why? 

BB: How can they afford not to fight? For a while, I didn't think it was going to ever happen but now I believe that next year we'll finally end up seeing it. I doubt that Mayweather has any fear of fighting any man in his division. I think he beats up Pacquiao right now just like he would have a few years ago. We have to be realistic here. Floyd would adapt to whatever Pacquiao does, even now in the later years, and win decisively. The stuff that happens in boxing behind the scenes is unbelievable. I'd rather fight the best and lose to them than not fight them. I have no fear of losing. That's the mentality you must have as a fighter.

Palmer pukes where Liston dived
UPDATE (10/12/2014):

Berry won the Northeast regional junior welterweight title on Oct 11 in Lewiston, scoring a six round unanimous decision over Eric Palmer to improve his record to 8-0 with 5 KO's. Beaten so badly to the body, Palmer (4-4) vomited uncontrollably into a Jägermeister bucket in his corner after the second round and again after the final bell. It was utterly revolting.

KO Digest Interview conducted and produced by Jeffrey Freeman