Recalling the punch that changed my life

Friday marks an important anniversary in my life. It was 15 years ago to the day that I covered (and attended) my first professional boxing match, an experience that changed my life.

And I have Buddy McGirt and George Heckley to thank for it. More on that in a minute.

For years, readers have regularly asked me what led me to a career as a boxing writer.

Well, I was working at a small paper in upstate New York, The Saratogian in Saratoga Springs, 20 minutes from the small town where I grew up. The sports department staff consisted of just three full-timers and a couple of part-time clerks. We all chipped in where needed, and when a press release came to the office announcing that the Saratoga City Center -- which was so close to the newspaper office that it was visible through the window behind my desk -- would be hosting a professional boxing card, I immediately asked my editor if I could have the assignment to cover it.

It was a pretty big deal in the city, and it was likely to draw a big crowd, with the folks who had inundated the city for horse racing season undoubtedly looking for something fun to do at night.

I had been a boxing fan since I was a kid. I remember watching afternoon boxing on network television in the late 1970s and early '80s. I recall watching fights with Sugar Ray Leonard and Ray Mancini, among others. I was a casual fan, but certainly not what I would call a Fight Freak.

I watched HBO fights somewhat regularly and never missed a Mike Tyson fight when I was in high school. I would watch "Tuesday Night Fights" on USA or "Top Rank Boxing" on ESPN, but not every single week. I had a handful of VHS tapes of some big fights.

I started my professional sports writing career in 1993 at The Saratogian and covered a little amateur boxing at New York's Empire State Games.

My interest in boxing had really grown in early 1996 after watching the first two HBO "Boxing After Dark" cards, which featured Marco Antonio Barrera's intense battle with Kennedy McKinney and Arturo Gatti's thrilling comeback victory against Wilson Rodriguez.

But on Aug. 12, 1996, I covered my first pro card at the City Center and everything changed.

I had never heard of most of the guys on the undercard, and those fights weren't particularly memorable. One of them featured heavyweight Peter McNeeley, in his sixth fight following a first-round disqualification in a mismatch as Tyson's post-prison comeback opponent. McNeeley, still famous for the Tyson debacle, coincidentally won his fight on a disqualification in the fourth round against Domingo Monroe.

The main event featured McGirt, a former junior welterweight and welterweight titleholder, seeking his 70th professional victory, against Heckley, a journeyman billed as the New England middleweight champion (who knew?).

It wasn't much of a fight, although I had an absolute blast sitting in the front row and being in an exciting atmosphere. McGirt easily won a 10-round decision in the fight that was being taped to run on a delayed basis on the old Prime Network. (Believe it or not, despite a tape and DVD collection that consists of tens of thousands of fights, I don't have that telecast.)

Although it wasn't an overly exciting fight, it did contain the seminal moment of my career. It changed me from a bit more than a casual boxing fan into an absolute Fight Freak and, because of that newfound passion, ultimately led me to my career as a boxing writer and commentator.

In the 10th round, McGirt nailed Heckley with an uppercut and blood went flying (from his nose, I think). It sprayed ringside, and I clearly remember it splattering the high hair of a young woman who was part of the Prime Network production team. She was wearing a headset and kneeling near the announcers, who were positioned directly in front of me.

The woman's hair took the brunt of the blood spray. However, one large, stray drop landed dead-smack in the middle of my white notebook paper, where I had been taking notes.

Maybe this is a bit morbid and disgusting, but it's the truth: That blood hitting my notebook as the crowd was going wild in the most exciting moment of the fight sent a shiver down my spine. I have been obsessed with boxing since that moment.

In fact, a columnist from another newspaper who was sitting next to me was so amused by my visceral reaction to the blood landing on my notebook that he wrote about it in his column for his paper the next day.

I went back to the office to write my story, but I first proudly showed off my bloody souvenir to my newsroom colleagues, who thought I was a crazy man. After I had used the notes from the bloody paper to help write my article, I tore the page out of the notebook and tacked it up on the bulletin board in the sports department. I was quite proud. It was gone the next day. I wish I had saved it.

It was at this point that I began to literally watch every single fight I could, old and new. I taped everything. I read everything. I studied everything I could about boxing on a daily basis. It was the early days of the Internet, and I found people to trade tapes with in the U.S. and overseas.

Two years later, I was selected for a loan program at USA Today, where I gained valuable experience covering some boxing. In early 2000, a little over three years after the blood landed in my notebook, I was hired to cover boxing full-time for USA Today.

In January 2002, I went to New York to cover Vernon Forrest-Shane Mosley I. On the undercard, Gatti, my all-time favorite fighter, was going to fight Terronn Millett in the HBO opener in Gatti's first fight since being stopped by Oscar De La Hoya.

McGirt had taken over as Gatti's trainer and I ran into him in the hotel lobby a couple of days before the fight. I didn't know Buddy well, but I had interviewed him a couple of times and, of course, covered his fight with Heckley. So I asked him to indulge me for a couple of minutes because I had to tell him a story.

I recounted the story of my bloody notebook, courtesy of his punch to Heckley's face. I told him, in all seriousness, my path to covering boxing for a living was because of him, that one punch and that smear of blood.
Buddy didn't know quite what to make of the story. I think he was part amused and part thinking I was a lunatic, but we have joked about it many times when we've seen each other over the years.

Next time I see him, and if I ever see George Heckley, I can thank them and remind them that it's been 15 years since that one punch landed and changed my life.