Seven years ago, at the age of 22 and hardly any amateur background, Peter Quillin embarked on a pro boxing career.
It had begun, a few years earlier, in New York City. The Grand Rapids, Mich., native of Cuban descent didn’t have much going for him – other than a bright personality, a strong work ethic and a willingness to fight – but his future in the Big Apple seemed much brighter than the world he’d come from.
Still, that thought did not quell the anxiety he had when he took his first subway ride in the big city.
It didn’t take long for Quillin to censor out the rattle and banging of the subway car. He took a quick eye check of the train, peering to his left and then to his right. Quillin, owning nothing but the clothes on his back, didn’t want anyone to see that he had reached his nadir. It’s when he bowed his head and tears dripped into the lap of his dusty jeans.
“Kid Chocolate” often retreats back to those vagabond times, back to when no one appeared to care and any success in boxing seemed unlikely. Back to when he had nothing, riding the very subway cars underneath the venue he’ll be fighting for a major middleweight title on Saturday.
Quillin (27-0, 20 knockouts) will challenge WBO middleweight beltholder Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam (27-0, 17 KOs) on the undercard of the Danny Garcia-Erik Morales rematch, which tops a Showtime-televised quadrupleheader from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The opportunity is coming at the right time in Quillin’s career, which took a rapid upward swing when he signed with the powerful adviser Al Haymon and Golden Boy Promotions at the start of 2011. Quillin, who is who is co-managed by John Seip and Jimmy McDevitt,went from nothing to being trained by Eric Brown at the fabled Wildcard Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., and fighting on TV.
His last bout was a Showtime-televised decision over former junior middleweight champ Ronald “Winky” Wright in June. The fight showcased his strengths – overall athleticism and a world-class right hand, which produced a knockdown in the fifth round – and his shortcomings, which includes somewhat raw technique.
Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood sees a lot of potential in Quillin, who he watched come up on the New York club circuit, but also thinks the 29-year-old contender needs development in certain areas.
“I think Quillin is good, but I think there is room for improvement and some of that will come naturally, and some things he can improve on now, such as infighting,” Farhood told RingTV.com. “Remember, he didn’t have much of an amateur career, but he’s the best American middleweight in the world today.
“I know what he’s gone through. This is a kid who’s had overcome a lot. In the ring, he has a couple of things that are big positives. He has natural size and natural punching power, especially with his right hand.
“I think there is an upside because of his personality. He has star appeal. He can win you over within three minutes of a conversation. Given he’s an American middleweight, when there are no others, given he can punch, and be a world champion in a week, there is a lot of upside. If he can get by N’Dam, Quillin projects himself into the big middleweight picture.”
If he finds himself in the 160-pound mix next week he’ll have his work cut out for him. The division champ, Sergio Martinez, is among the top five fighters in the world, pound for pound. The middleweight titleholders and top contenders – which include Daniel Geale, Felix Sturm and Gennady Golvokin – are not only tough cookies, they’re complete fighters.
Quillin, who always radiates a brilliant smile when he’s not in the ring, isn’t worried about the future. The hard part of his life, he says, is behind him.
“I always say this is the easy part,” Quillin said. “The hard part has always been dealing with all the things that I’ve been through. People don’t know what I came from. I had to do everything alone. It’s all been a struggle and it’s got me to where I am today—and this fight is one of the biggest opportunities of my life.
“I’m fighting for a world title right now, and it’s the least of what I want to accomplish in boxing. It’s all part of my story and my hunger, and what’s made me better in life. It’s everything my father taught me.”
Pedro Quillin, Peter’s father, was a hustler. He hustled in Cuba, where he was a butcher who used to cut up cows in the field on the side and sell the meat at a bargain price. He was a modern-day meat-dealing Robin Hood, if you will, under Fidel Castro’s communist regime. Pedro’s meat fed the neighborhood until he was caught and sentenced to 13 years in a Cuban prison.
In the early-1980s, Castro cleaned out the prisons and released the imprisoned Cubans. Pedro arrived in the United States on June 2, 1980. He found his way to Chicago’s South Side, where he started hustling again.It wasn’t meat this time.
“My father was into everything, you name it,” Quillin said. “You remember the movie Scarface? That was my dad.”
Peter came along in June of 1983, and six months later, Pedro relocated the family to Grand Rapids. By then, Pedro had hustling game down. He was on the wrong side of the law but his children, three boys, didn’t want for anything.
In the late-‘80s, however, Pedro’s Chicago past followed him. The Quillin’s home was raided by police on a Saturday morning. Peter was maybe five at the time, crying into the carpet, as the family laid there face down. Another time, Pedro’s chicken shop was raided. Peter wasn’t able to fully absorb everything until later that night when he saw his father on the TV news, blaring “Cuban mafia brought down.”
Pedro got 6½ years for money laundering, leaving Peter’s mother, Deborah, to raise three boys by herself. Peter and his siblings went from having all they wanted, to suddenly having nothing. Three of them had to share clothes. They all slept in the same bed. Their clothes were ragged—and it led to Peter sometimes being a target in school.
In an indirect way, it led to his future in boxing.
“I was a small kid growing up, and I remember times I would get chased home,” Quillin recalled. “My mother was my first fight promoter. She’d set it up where I would fight these kids, one-on-one, just our fists, and then after I beat the kid up, my mother would have us shake hands. It was real old school.”
By the time Peter was 18, he took off for New York by himself. He had to get out.
“I grew up and used to get so upset that I use to blame my mother for a lot of stuff,” Quillin said. “The first job I got was working at a live butcher shop. For as much as I like animals, I had to kill 500 chickens a day at 5:30 in the morning. In places like Chinatown, they used to get live chickens and used to unload these trucks full of chickens; that was rough.”
At 18, he was formally introduced to boxing through an after-school program. He briefly lived in Manhattan with a trainer, who eventually chased Quillin out of his apartment with a hammer.
“The trainer didn’t know how to handle me; he pulled out a hammer and was going to use my head as the nail and chased me out of the house,” Quillin said. “I lived in a homeless shelter for a little while. I was 19 and I had nothing. That was it, that’s when I would say I reached the lowest point, sitting on that train, going from the Bronx to Manhattan.
“I was alone. I thought I had nowhere to go. I really had nothing but the clothes on my back. I didn’t want to cry in front of anyone. But I put my head into my lap and the tears went flowing. I couldn’t help it. I’m not going to say I was going crack, but it reached a point where I was going to give up. How worse could it get?
“I was crying on the phone with my brother Ronald. He was begging me to come home. I didn’t want to show him how discouraged I was. I was trying to hold back the tears. I really had nowhere to go. I had no family there. That was one long train ride.”
Fortunately, Quillin was able to reach out to a friend, Steven Rivera, who allowed Quillin to sleep on the floor of his Brooklyn apartment for three months. From there, Quillin began gradually picking himself up. He started working out, found a job as a host at an IHOP, earning $350-$500 a week, and continued boxing. Through a connection with the late Jose Torres, Quillin found his way into Brooklyn’s Eastern Athletic Club.
“You know it may sound strange, but I wouldn’t change anything,” Quillin said. “I wouldn’t change what’s happened to me because I wouldn’t be who I am if I did have a different past. Now look where I am. I have a world championship shot and I keep saying this is just the beginning.”
Hopefully the beginning of another long train ride that heads to a brighter light.
Photos / Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Miguel Salazar