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The Boston Phoenix The Mayor of Palookaville

Looking for a few not-so-good men? Call Chick Ciccarone.

By Tom Scocca

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In boxing, certain fighters have the unmistakable look of winners. For instance, in tonight's third bout, fighting out of the blue corner, we have Gary "Tiger" Balletto, of Providence, Rhode Island. Balletto is 23 years old, clean-limbed and a lean 134 pounds, with blond hair somewhat resembling a cockscomb. He wears a black satin robe with accents that are described in the program as tiger print (though they look more like leopard) and matching trunks. The trunks have a fringe. Entering this August 2 fight -- six rounds, lightweights, on the undercard of the IBO light-heavyweight championship at the FleetCenter -- the Tiger has a record of 10-0, with all 10 wins by knockout.

In the red corner? In the red corner, wearing blue trunks, is Manny "Cold Sweat" Santiago, of Haverhill. Santiago is 37 years old, slope-shouldered, shorter than Balletto, and thick in the middle. He weighs 133 pounds, and his record is not printed on the program. The ring announcer says he's 6-18, which is a bit of a fib -- actually, Santiago's record stands at 6-45.

Right from the opening bell, Balletto fights briskly, throwing big sweeping bombs at the shorter man. Santiago crouches and dodges, dodges and crouches. Occasionally he throws a punch or two in return. The Tiger keeps coming, rattling punches onto Santiago's arms, whizzing punches by Santiago's bobbing head. By the third round, the crowd is chanting Ti-gah! Ti-GAH! In a lull, someone pipes up, "Man-NY! Man-NY!"

Although Balletto has the edge in power, aggressiveness, wardrobe, and crowd support, Santiago enjoys one advantage of his own. For tonight's work, Gary Balletto will collect $1000, which is good pay for a six-round fight. Manny Santiago will get $1200.

Santiago owes that greater payday to Alex "Chick" Ciccarone, of Coventry, Rhode Island. Ciccarone's business card says he's a "boxing manager, promoter, and matchmaker," which happens not to be a legally possible combination of duties in the eyes of the Massachusetts Boxing Commission. Ciccarone says he does not actually do most of those things. What he does is closer to being a broker, a matchmaker to the matchmakers. Specifically, he brokers fighters who are going to lose.

Gary Balletto, for his part, needs to win. To his promoters, Balletto is a valuable work in progress -- he's young, Italian-American, and hard-hitting, all of which could mean good money in New England. "He's white and he can fight," says Al Valenti, the matchmaker for the bout's promoting company, Goodwin A.C. "He's got an o at the end of his name. . . . He really could be the next ticket here."

But all this depends on Balletto's ability to keep his record unblemished. And this is where Chick Ciccarone comes in.

There is a common misconception that when the outcome of a boxing match is fixed, it is fixed by shady men in ill-fitting suits, threatening or bribing a fighter to take a dive. In most cases, this is not only unseemly but unnecessary. Boxing matches are decided by simple things: hand speed, punching power, stamina. If you want a particular guy to win, you put him in the ring with a guy who has less of those things than he does. Of the more than 200 fighters Chick Ciccarone has on file, about 90 percent are guys who can generally be relied on to have less. The semi-polite term for them is "opponents."

"You don't tell them that they're going to lose," Ciccarone says, "but they know they're going to lose."

Certainly, they ought to at least suspect it. Ciccarone's file includes such notable fall guys as Juan Quintana of Springfield (7-45, 2 draws), Domingo "Tall Dog" Monroe of Rhode Island (8-10, 1 draw, winless in his last seven), and five-foot-seven, 200-pound Doug Davis of Allentown, Pennsylvania (9-30) -- "my best opponent," Ciccarone says. Despite losing 21 of his last 22 fights, Davis puts in a full night's work for his money; he made it to the final bell in 18 of those bouts. "Doug Davis doesn't get stopped too often," Ciccarone says proudly.

Then there's Marc Machain of Rutland, Vermont, a cheerful 37-year-old truck driver who rarely even sees his name spelled correctly. Whether as Marc Machain or Mark McShane, he's piled up a record of 8-17, with a nine-fight losing streak. "My career is over and I know it," Machain says. "The last fight I had was down at the Roxy. I got knocked out in the first round -- 32 seconds. That's the first time that happened." The punch, he adds admiringly, was a "beautiful straight right."

Chick Ciccarone's work with these fighters does not win him a high profile in the boxing world. On September 25, the eve of the Lennox Lewis-Zeljko Mavrovic heavyweight championship at Mohegan Sun, none of the reporters or officials in the press tent seem to know who he is or where to find him -- even though he's there to help the promoter, Main Event Productions, round up and certify the undercard fighters. He turns up right outside, in the parking lot, with his wife, Joan, and a deputy Massachusetts boxing commissioner. He is 59 years old, bald and roundish, a good talker. His phone bill last year, he says, was $4800.

"I book all over the country now," Ciccarone says. "Even Puerto Rico." His regular job is working with his brother in real estate, but he guesses his matchmaking duties take up "five, six hours a day." ("On a good day, that's all," his wife says.)

A self-proclaimed "boxing nut," he has been hooked on the sport since the day when, at the age of 16, he drove from Rhode Island to see Tony DeMarco fight Carmen Basilio in the Boston Garden. "The seat cost me $2.75 and the fighters looked like ants," he recalls. So, he says, he sneaked down closer and watched from the aisle. "It turned out to be the fight of the century," he says wonderingly.

The road from Carmen Basilio to Manny Santiago was a long one. Ciccarone worked as a trainer, a boxing judge, a corner man, and a timekeeper before he "stumbled on" his current calling about 15 years ago. "All of a sudden," he says, "I realized opponents make more money than the winners."

But the opponents business is not as straightforward as that makes it sound. It calls for finesse and judgment. A matchmaker in Ciccarone's position has to balance a load of competing interests: a matchup has to be palatable not only to the promoter, but to both fighters and their managers. Then the whole arrangement has to pass muster with the state boxing commission, which frowns on gross mismatches.

Ciccarone, the various parties agree, has a knack for listening to their needs. "Chick will call me all the time," says Nick Manzello, one of Massachusetts's three boxing commissioners. "If I don't think it's a good match, I tell them. . . . Chick says, okay, he'll come back with somebody else."

"He's an honest man," says Machain. "He asks you if this is what you want." Machain has been boxing as a professional or amateur since he was eight years old. In all that time, he says, "no one's ever asked me what I wanted but Chick."

Ciccarone says he is aiming to provide audiences with something more than token opposition. "I make tough fights," he says. "I bring live opponents."

Santiago, for, is a very live opponent. At the end of the third round against Balletto, he leaves off the dodging and actually counterattacks. In the fourth, with Balletto looking tired and mussed from all the swinging and missing, Santiago pops the satin-trunked Tiger smartly in the chops. A spray of sweat goes flying. Balletto traps Santiago against the side of the ring and starts throwing his hardest punches; abruptly, Santiago dips a shoulder, does something nifty with his feet, and somehow swaps places with Balletto, pinning his younger opponent against the ropes. "This is the worst I've ever seen Balletto look," someone in the press section mutters.

But looking bad isn't the same as being in danger of losing. Balletto gets Santiago on the ropes again in the fifth round, and this time he hits him a few while he's there. Santiago comes out eagerly for the sixth and final round, but the Tiger redoubles his attack and knocks him woozy. The referee gives Santiago a standing eight count, and then Balletto storms in again, bouncing his reeling opponent off one side of the ring and into an adjacent side. With 21 seconds left in the fight, the referee steps in and declares Balletto the winner by technical knockout. The winner is now a perfect 11-0; the loser is 6-46. As Santiago's corner men tend to him, the younger fighter walks around the ring on his hands in celebration, the fringe on his shorts swinging.

Of the nine bouts on that FleetCenter card, including the main event, Al Valenti says later that Santiago-Balletto "turned out to be the most exciting fight." Not because the outcome was much in doubt -- Santiago "probably wasn't going to win the fight," Valenti concedes -- but because Balletto got to show off his ability, and Santiago fought gamely. "Manny doesn't back up," Valenti says.

Not backing up is the sort of thing that counts as a virtue in the land of the opponents. The theory, says former Massachusetts boxing commissioner -- and former middleweight contender -- Wilbert "Skeeter" McClure, is that professional opponents are "not going to hurt the [other fighter], but going to present him with some obstacle."

Practically speaking, though, there are a lot of managers who would rather not have to deal with even a minor obstacle. "Half the time, the people who call me up, they don't want a tough fight," Ciccarone laments. "They want a win."

A case in point was Eric "Butterbean" Esch, the stumpy, 300-pound knockout artist billed as "king of the four-rounders," who came to Foxwoods in 1996. "When they brought Butterbean up here," Ciccarone says, "they wanted an opponent who was going to be safe." After Esch's handlers had turned down at least five proposed foes -- including Juan Quintana and Domingo Monroe -- as too challenging for their marquee fighter, Ciccarone came up with Jonathan "Spider" Whitfield, a 189-pounder with a 1-6 record. "Nice jab, doesn't have much stamina," he explains. The selection worked out just as it was supposed to: Butterbean staged a simple exercise in brute ass-whupping; Whitfield succumbed in the fourth and final round, after being knocked down four times.

That same theory of matchmaking is often applied to young undefeated fighters. Plenty of promoters and managers -- whether of novelty acts like Butterbean or genuine up-and-comers -- would rather not chance losing a crowd-pleasing perfect record.

"Guys are guided through so carefully if they have some talent," McClure says, "that they don't want to take risks." As the young fighters' records get inflated, he says, they fail to learn the basic offensive skills and defensive strategies that top-level boxing calls for. Fighters who simply knock everybody out are missing the chance to develop their skills. "If it's not a learning experience, what the shit are you doing in there?" he asks. "To waste that opportunity is so short-sighted, it's not funny."

A well-chosen opponent can, as in the Santiago-Balletto match, expose a young fighter to new techniques and approaches. But hype and marketing tend to overshadow such considerations. In this business, inflated records can pay serious dividends. Local heavyweight Peter McNeeley started his career, under Valenti's supervision, with a 24-0 record, racked up against what Valenti calls "a who's who of nobodies" -- including Juan Quintana and Marc Machain. That undefeated stretch, Valenti says proudly, "was an absolute, positive masterpiece. . . . It belongs in the Museum of Fine Arts."

And on the strength of his record, which ballooned to 36-1, McNeeley landed a $540,000 payday to serve as an opponent himself, against the just-paroled Mike Tyson. For all his wins -- and in spite of what Machain recalls as thunderous punching power -- McNeeley was overwhelmed by the ex-champ and felled in 89 seconds.

Mike Tyson's own career illustrates the danger of a boxer's relying too much on overmatched opponents instead of serious challengers, according to McClure. Tyson was a protégé of the late Cus D'Amato, who McClure says once told him that he wanted his fighters to have "an 80 percent chance that they're going to win" before he would let them in the ring. "That was his formula," McClure says, and it produced three champions: Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and Tyson. All three of them, he points out, lost their titles when they faced real high-pressure brawls -- against Sonny Liston, Dick Tiger, and Buster Douglas, respectively.

Buster Douglas may be the closest thing to a patron saint of the opponent, his 1990 knockout of Tyson the supreme proof that even the most obvious mismatches can defy expectations. "Anyone can get knocked out on any given night," Valenti says.

If an opponent is closely enough matched to the man he's facing, in fact, then the fans may actually get an interesting contest. The best opponents have a chance to make a real athletic event out of a promoter's best-laid plans. Even Peter McNeeley's stroll through the opponents was disturbed by the otherwise undistinguished Stanley White, who opened a cut on McNeeley's face that cost the up-and-comer his 25th bout. "Did I know [in advance] the outcome of Peter's first 24 fights? Yeah," Valenti says -- but, he adds, he didn't know the outcome of the 25th.

"Every once in a while I spring an upset," Ciccarone says. In a 1996 junior welterweight bout in Ocean Beach, Connecticut, a last-minute substitute named Rick Edson knocked out favorite Sean Malone in the 10th round. This past April, Manny Santiago broke a 14-fight losing streak with a six-round decision over Ed McAloney, who came in with a 10-2 record. Two years ago Ciccarone supplied a Washington, DC, fighter named Teddy Reid to oppose an undefeated Carl Griffith in Boston. "I knew Teddy Reid could fight," he says happily. "Knocked him senseless."

But the world of the Doug Davises and Marc Machains is one of diminished expectations. If there's a consolation, in the end, it lies in this: the other guy may beat you. He may beat you 46 times out of 52. But someday, somebody's going to beat him too. In the meantime, you make more money.

"I got used as a steppingstone after I reached a certain age. I can live with that," Machain says serenely. "When I was the young guy, I fought guys like me. Now I'm the one getting beat up."

For Machain, there may be one last trip to the Roxy, to face 40-year-old Kato "The Pit Bull" Wilson on October 23. Doug Davis will definitely be on the card that night, facing Steve "The Fighting Tunnel Rat" Scigliano. If Chick can set up the deal, he'll be joined by Manny "Cold Sweat" Santiago, looking for either his seventh win or his 47th loss.

"As long as he knows there's a fight and he's gonna get paid," Ciccarone says, "he's gonna be there."

Tom Scocca can be reached at tjscocca@mindspring.com.

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