Despite holding an undefeated record with world titles in two divisions, Joan Guzman’s stock in boxing is at Enron levels.
The 35-year-old veteran, originally from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic but now residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., has seen failures to make weight for fights, a positive drug test for diuretics and a subsequent dismissal by Golden Boy Promotions exile him from meaningful fights and fan acclaim.
“It’s been very tough dealing with the highs and lows of Guzman, dealing with the weight issues,” said Jose Nunez, Guzman’s manager. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but we’re trying to look past it.”
The next – and perhaps final – chapter for Guzman (30-0-1, 17 knockouts) begins on November 18, when he faces soft touch Florencio Castellano in a junior welterweight contest at the Jaragua Hotel and Casino in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
For Guzman, the challenge of Castellano is nothing that should overwhelm him. The 31-year-old Colombian has a decent record (17-4, 13 KOs), but hasn’t fought in 18 months. Only one of his wins are against an opponent with a winning record, and the only recognizable name on his dossier is junior welterweight contender Lucas Matthysse, whom he lost to by a knockout in the fourth round.
The real struggle is, and always has been, with the scale.
Guzman, who himself hasn’t fought in nearly a year, has failed to make weight for his last two appearances, and prior to that pulled out of a fight with then-lightweight champion Nate Campbell just hours before the fight after being well over the 135 pound limit.
Now, with renewed dedication and head trainer Don Saxby and strength and conditioning coach Anthony Terranova manning the helm, Guzman assures that his struggles with the scales are a thing of the past.
“I feel good, I’m in good condition because I trained like three months,” said Guzman at a recent press conference at Lucky 7s, a tapas restaurant in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Guzman spoke about removing himself from the temptation to indulge in food just steps away from diners enjoying his favorite Dominican cuisines.
“I’m a different man now,” said Guzman. “I’m not like Guzman before when my friends would say, ‘Hey Guzman, go to restaurant,’ and I go to the restaurant. ‘Guzman, go to the buffet,’ and I go to the buffet. Now when they say, ‘Guzman eat,’ that doesn’t make me hungry.
“Before I didn’t feel comfortable, but I put it in my mind that I’m going to stay in my house to avoid temptation.”
“It’s just like baby sitting,” said Nunez, who even while being interviewed peers occasionally at Guzman through the corner of his sunglasses. “I gotta watch everything that he does, just like watching a baby. I’m not saying he’ll go out there and eat, but we’ve been through this struggle together.”
Guzman at his peak, during the mid-00′s, was among the top five technically skilled pugilists in the world. Although his power diminished as he moved from 122 pounds to super featherweight, his willingness to exchange and flashy combinations made his bouts with Jorge Barrios and Agapito Sanchez instant classics.
Overshadowed by Guzman’s career issues were the struggles of his mother, Juana Amaro, who eventually lost her battle with brain cancer in the Summer of 2009, just months before his worst performance as a professional when he drew with Ali Funeka.
“The passing of his mother really got him for the last two years when he wasn’t making weight,” recalls Nunez. “His mother was sick with cancer, she died and it affected him a lot. He’s not over it, but he’s more focused and motivated and he wants to become a champion again.”
Saxby, who trains Guzman out of Gleason’s Gym in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, is approaching his second fight with Guzman, and the first since 2010′s ill-fated bout with Jason Davis, when a second round TKO was changed to a no-contest after Guzman failed the post-fight drug test after testing positive for the banned diuretic Furosemide. Both Guzman and Davis failed to make the weight.
“The fight was for 142, and Thursday night he went to sleep at 142,” recalls Saxby. “He gets up, gets on the scale and he just freaks out. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He goes, ‘Don, I’m 144.’ He couldn’t come past me, the bathroom was next to me and refrigerator is next to me. I’m up all night. I said, ‘Let’s go downstairs, we’re on the treadmill for an hour.’”
The emergency cardio session failed to shed the excess weight, further enhancing Guzman’s image as an undisciplined, unmotivated fighter.
Saxby essentially gave Guzman an ultimatum – either get your act together, or find a new trainer.
“I told him, ‘As his trainer, I’m not gonna want it more for you. I said if I want it more than you, then we need to stop training,” said Saxby, who had a brief pro career following 80 amateur fights during the 1980′s.
Guzman has responded.
Said Saxby: “Monday when he did the fitness training, I couldn’t believe the way he was training. I felt sorry for him, and he says, ‘This was an easy day, Don.’ I watched his progression, I watched his focus, I watched his whole mentality about the whole thing, and I feel sorry for his opponent. I really do.
“His dedication is way better than before, and we’ve had time to train him. We had a lot more time to get the weight off properly. We didn’t have to rush to do it.”
When asked if he’s ever had to scrape french fries or platanos from Guzman’s plate during dinner, Saxby responded with a laugh. “He won’t eat around me anyway. I’m a little tough on him, I have to be because I won’t let him mess up.”
Terranova, who trains Guzman out of his gym in Ridgewood, N.Y., on the Queens side of the border with Brooklyn, said Guzman was 170 pounds when he first began working with him just a few months ago. Now, after a steady three month program of plyometrics and interval training, Guzman was approximately 148 pounds, just eight above the 140 pound limit with two weeks to go.
“[Guzman] approached me a couple of times, and he actually thanked me for pushing him, because that’s what I do, I’m a pusher,” said Terranova.
“I had my hands full with him and he needs to be pushed. Sometimes you’re going to deal with athletes that don’t have no energy. My job is to put him to the next level, and that’s what I do. I get in his head, and I make him do the things he doesn’t want to do. That’s how he’s gonna be better; that’s how he’s gonna be champ again.”
“Now, la posado, paso,” said Guzman, which translates in English to whatever happened, happened. “Now, I’m a new Guzman, putting Dominican fighting on the top again. People know that when Guzman goes to the ring, Guzman wins. I need to put it in the people’s minds again that Guzman’s making weight, Guzman wins. I need it like that, for the people to trust me, that’s it.
“I only need the people who left me again. I only need that. I’ll feel comfortable when the people say, ‘OK, Guzman is back. I’ll support Guzman again.’”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.