There's something irresistible about boxers like Peter Manfredo Jr., an endearing quality you just don't see much in athletes from other sports.
Manfredo is as blunt and plain-spoken an athlete as exists in professional sports. On Saturday, he'll challenge Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. for the World Boxing Council middleweight championship in an HBO bout televised live from Reliant Arena in Houston.
Chavez, of course, is the son of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., one of the greatest fighters of all time and an icon in Mexico. Because of his famous father, Chavez Sr. has been given opportunities not afforded to other boxers with far more talent.
Sergio Martinez won the WBC middleweight title in the ring when he defeated Kelly Pavlik. But when his mandatory challenger was Sebastian Zbik, HBO officials told promoter Lou DiBella and manager Samson Lefkowicz that they had no interest in televising a Martinez-Zbik fight.
Now, Martinez is one of the elite fighters in the world, ranked No. 3 pound-for-pound in the Yahoo! Sports ratings, and would have manhandled Zbik, so it's hard to rip HBO for not wanting to show that.
So when Martinez passed on Zbik because of HBO's reluctance to finance the fight, the WBC stripped Martinez, and Zbik won a match for the interim belt. HBO then quickly arranged a bout between Chavez Jr. and Zbik. Chavez rallied down the stretch to win and became the WBC champion.
There would be no such accommodation made for a guy like Manfredo, who holds a full-time job in Providence, R.I., as a laborer.
"I had to sweat and fight and bleed for every nickel I've ever gotten in this sport," Manfredo said.
He speaks, though, without a hint of anger or resentment. He's not campaigning to change the system. He's not crying over missed opportunities. It is, he said over and over, what it is.
Life, though, is difficult for blue-collar fighters like Manfredo. While guys like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. command purses in excess of $30 million a fight, Manfredo goes paycheck to paycheck. He needs to hold down a full-time job in order to support his wife, Yamilka, and his children, Alexis Marie, Mercedes Marie and Peter Michael.
It's a lot to ask of a fighter. He works a full-time day job, heads to training and then gets home late, usually after the kids are asleep.
"It sucks being away from my family so much and I just can't take it anymore," said Manfredo, who at almost 31, is hardly old by boxing standards. "This isn't how I want to be living my life."
And so, if he doesn't beat Chavez on Saturday, there will be no more major opportunities for Manfredo. He's had a crack at the world super middleweight title. He's getting a crack at a version of the middleweight belt.
He's not facing a world beater. Chavez has a 43-0-1 record that is padded with guys who were less of a threat to hurt him than Joe the Plumber would have been.
Manfredo understands that and says if he doesn't get the belt, he's going to give up on the dream and go back to being a father and a husband and live the rest of his life like an ordinary person.
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"I have to pick one or the other, being a father or being a fighter, and with the kind of money, unless I win this, then there's no question," Manfredo said. "How many more shots am I going to get? Let's be honest here. This is my best opportunity. This guy [Chavez] isn't a great fighter. Come on. I think I'm better than he is. If I can't beat him, then I'm going to retire. I'm not going to hang around for years. For what?
"If I can pull this off, then I can be a rich man and it would set me up for a perfect ending to a wonderful career. But if I can't beat this guy, then I'll retire and go home and be a father and be a husband and do my thing."
Manfredo is 37-6 with 20 knockouts and has been in with some of the game's biggest names. He was stopped by the great Joe Calzaghe in the third round of a super middleweight title bout in 2007. He lost to former super middleweight champion Jeff Lacy in 2008.
He is not a super middleweight, but fought at the higher weight for the chance to make the big money and the opportunity a win over one of those stars would have brought.
"He's a throwback guy," promoter Lou DiBella said. "He's a tough guy who was never the most skilled guy around, but he has huge [courage] and he never quits. He's only lost to guys who were really good. He's one of those blood-and-guts and [courageous] fighters who come along every now and then. He's as honest a fighter as you'll get.
"Chavez will have his mettle tested in this fight. When Peter came to me, he asked me to get him one more opportunity, and this is it. He knows that, and I think he's going to go out there and put on a real fight."
If he loses, Manfredo will pack up his stuff and quietly return to his home in Providence and begin what he calls a "normal life." He'll go to work every day and come home to have dinner with his wife and family. He looks forward to routine activities like watching his kids' sporting events and school plays, to helping with the homework and watching them grow into responsible adults.
He's just a regular guy, no different than most of us, who happens to be able to fight a little.
If Saturday is the end, he says he'll walk away with no complaints.
"I did what I could do and I have no regrets," Manfredo said. "A lot of people think being a fighter is glamorous and all this, but what it really is, is a bunch of hard work and a lot of pain and being away from the family. There's a lot that goes on that people don't really know about or understand. And that's OK. They're not supposed to understand. They're there to see us fight and I have always tried to give them what they paid to see.
"That's why I think this will be a good fight on Saturday. [Chavez] showed a lot of heart and courage when he won the title. He won the fight by coming on and winning the last couple of rounds. That's a fighter. That's what a champion is about. I'm the best guy he's fought, and I think I'm better. But I know it's going to be a fight, because I respect what he showed. So, it's going to be a fight, a real fight."
It may be his last, and if it is, the sport of boxing will be just a little bit less for not having him as part of it.
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- Sebastian Zbik