Leftover Life To Kill: Blood, Death, Remembrance, Alphabet City.

Photo by Geoffrey Biddle, from Alphabet City

All died
dreaming about america
waking them up in the middle of the night
screaming: Mira Mira
your name is on the winning lottery ticket
for one hundred thousand dollars
-Pedro Pietri


Three months ago, explosive 1980s junior featherweight Carmelo Negron died, and hardly anybody seemed to notice. But there was a time when Negron was considered a sure thing, and in a sport where certainty is as scarce as empathy is in a POW camp, that kind of potential, at least back then, was itself noteworthy. Although Negron, 53, died of cancer, he also suffered from the most harrowing of boxing fates: dementia.

Over the last four or five years, one fighter after another has made headlines for sorrowful reasons that make most aficionados flinch. Rocky Lockridge, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Iran Barkley, and Willie Edwards all found themselves homeless. Alexis Argüello committed suicide. Greg Page, who was left paralyzed by injuries suffered during his last fight, died in 2009 when he fell from his bed and, unable to right himself, suffocated. Not long ago, Isidro Perez, living hand-to-mouth as a neophyte trainer, was hit by a truck and died along a curbside in Mexico City. For months, his body lay unidentified in a SEMEFO morgue. So many fighters have been fatally shot or stabbed on mean streets across the world in recent years that tolling them would take the better part of a day.

Disability, desolation, murder, dementia—these are occupational hazards of a dark art, like the deadly plunge for wire walkers or madness for blindfolded chess players. But what about obscurity? Who will remember the fighters who never headlined HBO, never got their own trading cards, never wore a championship belt around their waists? Who will remember Carmelo Negron? In the end, that bleak combination of vocational blowback and subsequent neglect is almost unbearable. There is very little afterlife for a fighter who has failed to succeed. Not only do most boxers—who remain independent contractors without pensions, unions, or comprehensive health insurance—wind up dispossessed, but, unlike other sports, where minor league organizations, local television markets, and large coaching staffs offer opportunities for ex-players, boxing offers only a few iffy prospects to its battered alumni in the same grimy environments where fighters first took their steps to glory or failure.

Carmelo Negron, who started boxing in Alphabet City, was one of the hottest fighters in New York in the late 1970s and early 80s, when the sweet science still meant something. In 1977, for example, Negron fought on a Golden Gloves card at Madison Square Garden that drew over 20,000 spectators. Along with Hector Camacho, Mark Breland, Alex Ramos, and Davey Moore, Negron was one of the amateur standouts of the Last Days of Disco era.

After a few scrapes as a teen in Puerto Rico, Negron moved to New York City and settled in with his mother, who lived in one of several grim housing projects blotting the Lower East Side. In the late 1970s, “Loisaida”—as the neighborhood was colloquially known—was the heroin capital of the world and a nightmare vision of urban blight made real: Hieronymus Bosch in concrete and asphalt. Luc Sante described what that hell on earth looked like in Low Life: “The neighborhood was desolate, so underpopulated that landlords would give you a month’s free rent just for signing a lease, many buildings being less than half-full, but it was far from tranquil. … In the blocks east of Avenue A the situation was dramatically worse. In 1978 I got used to seeing large fires in that direction every night, usually set by arsonists hired by landlords of empty buildings who found it an easy choice to make, between paying property taxes and collecting insurance. By 1980 Avenue C was a lunar landscape of vacant blocks and hollow tenement shells.”

Photo by Geoffrey Biddle, from Alphabet City

In those days, New York appeared to be on the verge of anarchy. The chaotic blackout of 1977—which occurred during the terrifying murder spree of David Berkowitz—brought national attention to a city many Americans considered an honest-to-goodness lawless, godless, loveless wasteland. From out of this squalor, poor young men cobbled together flimsy dreams as best they could. For some, pursuing organized violence was, paradoxically, a way out of the disorganized violence that surrounded them around the clock from empty lot to empty lot. Carmelo Negron was one of them. No sooner did Negron arrive on Avenue C than his mother gave him a piece of advice: “The first thing she tell me,“ Negron told William Plummer in 1982, “is go to the gym.”

As a young pro, Negron scored seventeen consecutive knockouts to open his career. Joe Colon, who trained Negron in a dilapidated gym above an abandoned methadone clinic, gave Randy Gordon the lowdown on Negron in 1979: “The kid just loves to train and work out. He runs six to eight miles every morning at 5 o’clock, even when he’s not training. He’s a runner in the morning, and a pursuer, a killer, in the ring.”

At around 5’2”, Negron charged forward like a mini-siege engine, and initiating that kind of physical contact over and over again left him open for the kind of punishment he could not, ultimately, endure. Negron was in his early twenties when his aspirations were already distant memories. After suffering his first defeat in late 1981, Negron lost one fight after another, many of them due to cuts. In later years, the scar tissue above his brows was as thick as impasto, and splitting those old wounds open was as easy as tearing through balsawood with a ripsaw. But the blood money was never enough. Negron fought during a time when the extravagant purses of today were mere fantasies. HBO aired only a few bouts a year, Showtime did not yet have a boxing program, and pay-per-view was like a mirage in the desert. There was NBC, ABC, and CBS, however, and Negron could collect a few moderate checks as an opponent.

In 1985 he lost a savage split-decision to lethal James Pipps, and the following May he was dismantled by Louie Espinoza in the last major fight of his career. “I was ready to give it all up six months ago,” Negron told Newsday before the Espinoza fight. “But now, everything seems to be going the way I planned it. I still think I can be a world champion.” Negron was on a four-fight losing streak before Espinoza bludgeoned him into retirement, but disillusion is as much a part of boxing as the jab is. Ten years later, Negron was back in the ring, fighting exclusively in his new—and permissive—home state, Illinois, where he scuffled, at risk, until he was 41.

Despite being ranked at one point as high as number five in the world at junior featherweight by The Ring, only scraps and fragments of his career remain. One of the most interesting is an appearance Negron makes in a photo essay on Alphabet City published in 1992 by Geoffrey Biddle. “Look at the faces,” Negron told Biddle, in a Lower East Side gym. “There’s a lot of dreams. Like, I’m getting out of this place. They should just do it the smart way. What I did, I trusted my trainer too much. We were big time, and he just bugged out. It takes a lot more than skill. You can’t trust anyone when you’re in the business of making money in boxing.”

Nothing can take away from the terrible symmetry boxing gives its practitioners: a hardscrabble life, followed by a hardscrabble profession, followed by a hardscrabble retirement. Often, boxing is a continuation of privation and not, as many have argued, a reprieve from it. Just two months after undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his stomach, Carmelo Negron died in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the most dangerous cities on the East Coast.

Who will remember Carmelo Negron?

He bled like everybody. He had the same dreams all fighters have. He spent nights soaking in Epsom salt. His jaw was broken once. He saw the black lights now and then. They shouted his name in unison up at the old Felt Forum. The gyms he skipped rope in were begrimed infernos. He rattled heavy bags patched with duct tape and sparred in threadbare rings where hope was mixed with sweat. He watched his weight from day to day. On the streets of Loisaida he passed tatterdemalions huddling over trashcan bonfires. Above the FDR Drive, the sun shone through gray fog in the fall and through smog squalls in the summer. When he got the call, he warred for $150, for $5,000, for $650, for whatever he was worth at the time, in Atlantic City neon, or, years later, in the semi-darkness of Waukegan, wherever his blood could best be shed. There were cuts, bruises, welts. Did he see barges and scows floating out on the East River during morning runs in 1980? Did he see Greenpoint across the way, with its dark smokestacks racked like blackened cuesticks up against the sky? Did he ever visit the Jardin del Paraiso? So, he was one of the luckless, then; they have an unnerving glaze in their eyes, they wear winding sheets, so to speak, as young men still, with all that leftover life to kill, years before they die.

Photo by Geoffrey Biddle, from Alphabet City


All photographs courtesy of Geoffrey Biddle, from his book Alphabet City, 1992 University of California Press. These photographs cannot be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

These photos illustrate the period and background of this story. None of them are of Carmelo Negron.


Originally published July 31, 2013.

Tags: Alphabet City Carmelo Negron Geoffrey Biddle Lower East Side

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