Those doubting the legitimacy of American Tommy Karpency as a challenger to unbeaten WBO light heavyweight titleholder Nathan Cleverly of Wales are not a whispering contingent. They trumpet their disapproval in the headlines of British broadsheets, such as this headline from Saturday’s edition of The Guardian: “Tommy Karpency is not test for the WBO champion Nathan Cleverly.”
The criticism lumped on promoters and matchmakers for fingering Karpency (21-2-1, 14 knockouts), an unheralded southpaw from Adah, Penn., to face Cleverly (23-0, 11 KOs), THE RING’s no. 4-rated light heavyweight, on Saturday at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, is justified. Karpency hasn’t beaten any contenders and lacks the amateur credentials that dot the resumes of even the most inauspicious of challengers. He also hasn’t fought in over a year.
Karpency says he understands the criticism.
“I don’t think even the most intense boxing fans know who I am,” conceded the 26-year-old registered nurse, who, when not pursuing his dream of a world title in the ring, works in the psychiatric unit of Uniontown Hospital in Uniontown, Penn.
Karpency’s hometown of Adah is in Western Pennsylvania, just a stone’s throw from the West Virginia border where most of his professional fights have taken place. Adah was once a booming coal-mining community during the 1930s, but once the mines closed, the town emptied out. Today, the town’s population is about 150.
“If I had grown up somewhere in a big boxing hotbed like Los Angeles or Philadelphia or Miami, maybe a promoter would have been able to see me perform at local fights,” said Karpency. “Around here, there are no big promoters and big press as far as boxing. All of your fights are untelevised with small crowds. It’s really hard to get exposure.”
American football, from the NFL and college teams down to the high school level, is the region’s dominant sport. Virtually no boxing exists in the area, save for Karpency’s father Tom Sr., who has trained him since he was a young boy. Karpency grew up around the sport and had his first amateur bout in elementary school, but admits that he didn’t take the sport seriously until the age of 19.
Yet while his anonymity and overall lack of notoriety won’t do him any favors in the betting line, he believes flying under the radar will work to his advantage inside the ring.
“It’ll help me greatly because they’re probably not expecting a world-class fighter,” said Karpency, who has been a sparring partner for Roy Jones Jr., Beibut Shumenov and Glen Johnson. “I’m sure that Nathan Cleverly is preparing his fullest, but how much motivation did he have to get ready for this fight? It’s like Bernard Hopkins; he’d prepare much harder to face Chad Dawson than he would for me.
“Of course I’m motivated because it’s my first opportunity at a world championship, so I think it works to my favor.”
It’s hard to minimize the sizable gap in experience and level of competition between Karpency and Cleverly. Karpency’s biggest win to date came in 2009 against Jersey shore crowd favorite Chuck Mussachio, who was unbeaten heading into the bout but is generally regarded as a club fighter. By contrast, Cleverly holds a tenth-round TKO win over Karo Murat, the man who had handed Karpency his most recent defeat by unanimous decision in Germany just four months prior.
This will be Cleverly’s third title defense, while Karpency hasn’t beaten a fighter with a winning record since the aforementioned Mussachio.
The Murat fight in Germany in 2010 was Karpency’s first trip abroad for a fight. He was down in the second round but fought valiantly to the end, losing by a respectable margin.
“The Karo Murat fight was a great experience and I believe it will be a great tool to have in this fight,” said Karpency. “It will be my second trip overseas and I’ll definitely be more comfortable with the atmosphere and what to expect as far as press and media and being the underdog. It was just a great learning experience.
“The only thing that was weird for me in Germany – which isn’t the same in Wales – is the fact that the crowd is very quiet, which is awkward. In Germany you can almost hear a pin drop when you’re fighting.”
Without the financial backing from a major promoter or manager being, Karpency has had to work full-time through preparations for this match at his day job. That means 40 hours a week in 12 hour shifts.
“This is the hand I’m dealt,” said Karpency. “This is what I’m up against.”
It’s not so bad though, he says. Though the hospital initially didn’t understand his other career, they now work around his demanding training schedule the best they can.
“It’s been working out well but it’s a very strict schedule and I do my best to get the most out of every day,” Karpency said.
Karpency isn’t coming to the United Kingdom spouting threats and promises, predicting that he’s going to shock the world or defy the odds. His expectations of himself are reasonable. And while modest, they still far exceed the limitations placed on him by the media in the UK and elsewhere.
“I think that I’ll impress,” said Karpency. “I think that I can compete with the best in the world and they’ll be pleasantly surprised by my performance.
“I’m coming to win the fight. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to knock him out in the first minute of the fifth round, but I’m coming to win.”
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 is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. 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.