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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018 11 months ago

Grace within chaos: A columnist has his first live boxing experience

Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

I think I like boxing now?

The question mark isn’t a mistake. I’m still unsure of how I came to this decision and, for that matter, if I truly feel this way or am still riding the first-time high from Saturday night.

See, I had never been to a boxing match before, or even watched the sport, save a Mayweather fight here and highlights of an Ali fight there. I’ve watched more UFC than boxing, to be honest, because of the variance in technique, but I’m not a huge fan of that either. You see one guy laying in an ocean of his own blood and drool, you’ve seen them all.

Mike Ford hits opponent Gary Kelly with a cross punch.

But that was the old me. The me who hadn’t waltzed into the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium on Saturday night to see Mike Ford in person. Yes, that Mike Ford. Sarasota High football’s home-grown Predator drone is now a boxer, entering Saturday night with a 3-0 record. He was trying to make it 4-0 against Gary Kelly. Ford entered the ring to the theme song of WWE legend The Undertaker, the familiar chimes chilling the audience. At 248 pounds, Ford looked all business.

There seemed, to me, to be a significant problem, though, and it was that Kelly weighed 378 pounds. That’s a big difference! Ford looked downright lean in comparison. As the two bumped fists and the ball rang, I wondered how Ford would look to counter his mass disadvantage.

It turns out the answer was as simple as “punching real hard.” Ford dominated the first round. After a flurry by both men to start the match, Kelly tired, giving Ford a chance to do damage. On April 10, sitting outside the Sarasota Boxing Club, Ford would say throwing jabs is a lot like throwing stiff arms, and it look that way, too. Kelly did push Ford to the mat as the round ended, signaling that he wasn’t going to quit.

“That was a Tyson situation,” Ford said. “I executed and did it.”

Then the second round began, and Ford threw what I can only describe as sledgehammer blows to Kelly’s face, one and another and another, and Kelly fell, and the referee counted to 10, and the match was over. Ford won by knockout. Kelly laid inches from my face, his hand trying to find the ropes to help himself up, but to no avail. He stayed on the mat until his trainers arrived. His face was bloody.

“That was a Tyson situation,” Ford said. “I executed and did it.”

I watched all of this through my camera lens. I felt damp from the sweat of both men landing on me when they tussled against the ropes. My heart rate elevated. I tried to process what I had witnessed. It was beautiful violence. It was old school supremacy. It was everything that in any other context I would rally against, and I wanted more. So I stayed. I watched Joshua Draughter and James Early fight to a split decision, with Early coming out the victor, and I watched Sarasota’s Adrian Perez get a unanimous win over Naples’ Tommy Bryant in the main event.

They were entertaining, well-fought battles (from what I could tell), and as celebratory music blared while I walked to my car, I smiled.

I understand why boxing makes some people uncomfortable. Like I said up top, I may still be one of them. My Saturday night was like the first time you have two too many drinks and you slip into a deep buzz before awaking with a thunderous headache. Yeah, there are some things about the experience you have to wrangle internally. You may even swear off booze "forever" the next day, and you swear off boxing forever, after looking back at the whole “knocking someone unconscious” thing, and the prominence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the news, and … then you remember how it felt in the moment, and you give it another chance.

Mike Ford hugs trainer Harold Wilen after knocking out Gary Kelly.

The sport gave Ford a second chance, after all. Now, he and the rest of the Sarasota Boxing Club want to resurrect it in the public eye.

“Let’s make boxing great again” is a common phrase heard in the gym, started by a boxer named Medusa. To Ford, it’s a rallying cry. There aren’t any American boxers with household names, he said, except for Deontay Wilder. Ford is going to try and bring respect back to the sport and its gladiators born on U.S. soil.

“We’ve got to represent,” he said.

Ford doesn’t yet know when his night fight will be, but said he’d like to fight at least once a month. That means plenty of opportunities to see him do his thing, if you so desire. He’s also looking for sponsors, and promises “I won’t let you down.”

I hope you do watch him and the rest of the local scene, if for no other reason than to see what it’s all about. Ford said he trained harder for the Kelly fight than he ever has, including for football. When people described him with words like “legend” or “phenom” back then, he heard them, but he didn’t understand their significance. After his documented struggles, Ford is finally ready to live out those words and try to embody them. He’s going to be the best Mike Ford he can be, to himself and his family.

That’s why boxing matters to the community. There’s a lot of people in similar situations to Ford’s out there, and boxing is a way out of them. If you go to a match and can’t stomach it, I get it. But you might be surprised at the grace you find within the chaos.

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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