||Resident, January 30-February 5, 1997
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Joey Gamache: Little Big Man
As I watched Joey Gamache leave his
modest Upper East Side apartment and make his way to Stryker’s Gym at
Times Square, I wondered how many people were aware of the muscular body
that exists beneath his street clothes or if they knew his hands are
considered lethal weapons.
With his diminutive frame and soft step, he looked like he was
heading to choir practice, rather than the foul-smelling gym where he
would pound other men senseless. But close up, you notice the
30-year-old, 140-pound junior welterweight's flattened nose and the scar
tissue around his eyes. Gamache's jaw tells the tale of many brutal
confrontations--the kind most men would avoid. Gamache, however, is not
most men. He was once champion of the world.
Once he steps out of the ring, this miniature gladiator is
surprisingly gentle and easygoing. He speaks with the flattened A's of
his hometown, Lewiston, Maine.
"It's a working-class town," he said, "and I was once a big
Gamache has worn six title belts. Most recently he held the
WBU super-lightweight title, winning a 12-round decision over Rocky
Martinez. But he lost all of his titles, as well. "I lost out on being a
hero, too," he said. "Oh, they're still some guys who called me champ,
but a lot of folks jumped off the bandwagon, too. It really hurt."
He doesn't blame defeat on anyone but himself. And when it
comes to his success in the ring--his record is 45-3 (29 knockouts)--he
is self-effacing. He says in an almost practiced manner, like a mantra
he delivers in front of the bathroom mirror every morning, "I'm not a
great fighter, but a good one."
He developed this grounded self-perception after those two
shattering losses--an 11th-round technical knockout at the hands of a
seasoned veteran, Toney Lopez; and a crushing knockout in the 2nd-round
by rangy Russian WBA champion, Orzubek Nazarov.
The defeats made Gamache realize how ephemeral fame can be. He
felt he could no longer fight in Maine before his hometown fans. He
decided to go back to basics, become anonymous, take his show on the
road and fight where the crowds were unfamiliar. He did this for 18
months and developed resolve, gathering a string of impressive victories
that put him back in contention for the title.
"I could go into a town that wasn't my own, I could fight my
own fight," Gamache said. "It was like going back to school. And you
know what? I got to see the world."
For the fighters who ply the "sweet science" in Gamache's
weight-class, speed is essential. Although a knockout punch is always a
useful weapon, guile, elusiveness and excellent footwork are the
cornerstone of his division.
At Gamache's age, his legs may not have too many rounds left;
indeed, he believes he's in the twilight of his career. Although he
admits to never having had a million-dollar payday, Gamache has been a
good provider--one of his first investments was a new home for his
"Sure, I always boxed for money but it wasn't about that," he
said. "I did it for pride--respect. I wasn't in it just to make a buck.
I figured I could always go back and do what my old man did." His father
was a dry wall plasterer.
Before Gamache got another title shot, he'd have to take out
Julio Cesar Chavez, a legend who boasts a record of 97-2-1 (79 KOs).
Although many consider him a shell of his former self, when he strikes,
it can still be lethal.
Chavez fans come out in droves whenever he fights. On the
night of the fight, Oct. 12, in the Anaheim (Calif.) Civic Center,
Chavez was shrewd enough to make Gamache wait alone in the ring for 20
minutes, stewing in the crowd's epithets. You could have thrown a
blanket over all the Gamache fans that showed up to cheer their man. By
the time Chavez finally presented himself, disrobed, and observed the
Mexican national anthem, Gamache was ice cold.
Things were different at the bell. The first two rounds
belonged to Gamache. He stuck to an intelligent fight plan of constant
side to side movement, never allowing the punishing Mexican to set
himself or take a solid shot. By the third round, Gamache was putting on
the fight of his life, boxing beautifully, imposing his will over Chavez.
He would throw a rapid-fire series of jabs, a stiff right
uppercut, and then he would dance away. Movement, movement, and a flurry
of stinging combination punches. Soon Chavez's face was blood-red and
swollen. The older boxer looked tired, his body heavy, his legs appeared
unable to go the distance.
Suddenly, in the fourth round, something happened. Later,
Gamache would only say, "I didn't stick with the game-plan. I guess I
had something to prove."
But it may have been a taunt uttered by Chavez. Possibly it
was an insult to Gamache's masculinity, a common taunt by macho fighters
from south of the border. Maybe it was simply pride that made him lose
touch with reality, made him think that he could vanquish the old pro,
beat him before his adoring fans, at his own specialty--brawling.
Surprisingly, Gamache was toe to toe with the granite-fisted
Chavez. The working-class man from Lewiston had ceased to fight his
prescribed plan. He had followed a lion into its den. Gamache, an
excellent boxer, found himself in the street with a brutal, cagey
street-fighter; guts alone would not deliver victory.
The Chavez-Gamache fight had no "Rocky" ending. He will
receive no title shot.
I saw Gamache two weeks after the fight, his face still lumpy
and swollen. I thought about whether he would keep fighting, whether he
would take a chance on getting punchy, like so many victims of his
profession. Or would he go into his father's dry wall business? We spoke
"I hope when they remember me, they'll say, 'Joey Gamache
could fight with anybody,'" he said, before disappearing into the
bustling midday crowd.