Rogers Mtagwa doesn't have the backing of a high-profile promoter or an influential manager. Nor does he have a television network clearing dates to broadcast his fights. He doesn't have his own publicist. He's rarely, if ever, called out by anyone.
He operates far from the spotlight that shines so brightly on guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao and Shane Mosley. He speaks next to no English and can't plead his own case, like a Mayweather does so effectively. He struggles to get by on his boxing income, so much so that he still goes to work as a roofer, weather-permitting, in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
Yet, know this: Miss a Mtagwa fight at your own peril.
For all the things he's not, for all the things he doesn't have, he does have this: A fighting spirit unsurpassed in professional boxing.
All one had to do to know that is to have seen his 2008 bout with Tomas Villa, when he came back from the brink of being knocked out to stunningly stop Villa with a three-knockdown final round.
"That was one of the 10 greatest fights I ever saw in person," said his promoter, the Hall of Famer Russell Peltz, who literally has seen thousands of fights from all corners of the world.
On Saturday, Mtagwa will be a decided underdog when he meets budding star Yuriorkis Gamboa at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York on an HBO-televised card for the World Boxing Association featherweight title.
If Gamboa wins, as expected, he'll have to do it by fighting as hard as he can, because the relentless Mtagwa will be in his face for as long as it lasts.
In October, it was nearly Juan Manuel Lopez, the fast-rising Top Rank star, who could take no more. Lopez was expected to blow out Mtagwa, much as Gamboa is on Saturday. But Mtagwa took and took and took and kept coming forward. By the 10th round, Lopez was visibly weary. By the 11th round, he was hanging on. In the 12th, he was literally out on his feet, hoping to survive until the final bell so he could retain his World Boxing Organization super bantamweight championship.
"It seemed like the last three minutes of that fight just flew by," Peltz said. "I think those were the fastest three minutes of my life."
Lopez managed to survive and Mtagwa had another loss tacked onto his record. Things turned out differently for Mtagwa this time, however, despite the defeat.
The loss was his 13th, and he's now 26-13-2 heading into his fight with Gamboa. In the past, the loss would have been enough to keep him out of the minds of the major promoters and off HBO forever.
Saturday will mark Mtagwa's first appearance on HBO, which at some levels is surprising give his made-for-TV style.
To Peltz, though, it's not a surprise, not given his decades observing what television executives choose when it comes to making fights.
"It's all about records," Peltz said. "You don't always see the best fighters (on TV), you see the fighters with the best records."
And there's a big difference. This time, though, through sheer force of will and determination, the world will get a look at Rogers Mtagwa, middling record and all.
Joe Parella got his first look at Mtagwa in 2000, when a then-21-year-old was fighting a much bigger and stronger Emmanuel Lucero in Atlantic City.
Parella quickly realized that Mtagwa was physically outgunned, but he wouldn't back down and kept fighting back despite insurmountable odds.
"I had nothing to do with him and I saw that fight and it seemed to me like he was overmatched," Parella said. "But he showed huge (courage). He was fighting for his life. Lucero was a former New York Golden Gloves champion and was a real tough kid, and here's Rogers hanging in there and coming and coming and coming.
"He was so impressive and I never forgot that. I didn't even know his name at the time, but he showed such heart in that fight, I had to find out."
Ultimately, Parella decided to buy Mtagwa's contract and become his manager. He's managed him for nearly eight years now and has seen him battle his way through many tough scrapes.
Mtagwa's never been protected, never had the benefit of favorable judging and always fought the toughest guys in the toughest spots, without complaint. He had three fights, in Parella's opinion, where he wasn't particularly interested and didn't fight well, but other than those, he has been a scrapper who made up for whatever he lacked in skills with an inordinate amount of fortitude.
"He's got incredible stamina and guts and he wants it, badly, and that's a huge part of being a success," Parella said. "That Villa fight should tell you all you need to know about him. It was a real close fight after eight rounds, but he got knocked down hard in the ninth and I really thought it was over for him. When he came back to the corner, I didn't think he'd be able to go back out for the 10th. He was on Queer Street and I told him I thought we should stop it, but he begged me not to. He didn't know where he was, but he wanted to continue.
"I told the referee just before the round started, 'The first time you see any trouble, if he gets caught on the ropes, even if there's no knockdown, just jump in and stop it.' Then, he goes out there and he catches Villa with an unbelievable right hand. Never in a million years did I expect him to even last the 10th round, let alone win the fight."
There are few who expect him to be able to last more than a handful of rounds against the hard-hitting Gamboa, one of the better offensive fighters in the lighter weight classes. Parella, though, knows whatever the outcome, Mtagwa is going to make Gamboa earn it.
"There aren't many flaws (in Gamboa) when you're talking about a guy who is 16-0 with 14 (knockouts)," Parella said. "But Rogers don't care about any of that. It's a fight and he's been fighting to survive for a long time. I hope he doesn't wait and gets off early and doesn't try to make some late comeback, but the people who watch this will know when it's over they saw a fight. A real fight."
- Yuriorkis Gamboa