Glen Tapia has become one of boxing's bright young stars because many years ago, he was afraid to say no.
Tapia is following the path that Arturo Gatti, the late Hall of Famer, blazed a generation earlier: He's making a name for himself in the New York Metropolitan area with an aggressive, fan friendly style.
On Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., the room that Gatti made famous, Tapia will face the fight of his life when he meets heavy handed James Kirkland in a 10-round super welterweight bout.
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In Kirkland, Tapia will face one of the sport's bigger names in the co-feature of a nationally televised card, fulfilling the vow he made when he was a young professional.
"When I first turned pro, I'd tell people I'd be fighting in Atlantic City and they'd look at me like I was crazy," he said.
No one looks at him that way any more. He's a rare combination of speed, power, fearlessness and boxing ability, with the opportunity to become a star.
No one is going to replace Gatti in the hearts and minds of those who faithfully made the trek to Boardwalk Hall to see him fight, but Tapia has an opportunity to engage that same fan base that once fell in love with Gatti.
"When Arturo won his first semi-big fight, his fan base started to grow and the word spread, and now we're seeing something similar with this kid," said Pat Lynch, who managed Gatti and now handles Tapia. "He's another talented, exciting young kid and the people around here have been hungry to find that kind of guy they can get out there and support again."
Tapia, who is 20-0 with 12 knockouts, marvels at the fact that he's atop a major year-ending card. He very nearly didn't live to see this day.
He's going to be 24 next week, but he grew up fighting on the streets and hanging with kids who are either incarcerated or now dead.
"I was fighting on the streets a lot," he says. "A lot. I was a little knucklehead. I really was. When I think about my friends from back then, so many of them are dead or locked up, and that's where I was going. You hear it a lot, but boxing saved me. It's amazing, but there are a lot of people here in Passaic [N.J.] who have never left town, never been outside of Passaic.
"Because of boxing, I got to see the world. I've been to places I never dreamed of going, like Turkey, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada. I got to go all around the world and meet different people and what I learned is, the world is bigger than just your town."
Tapia, though, might never have gotten that opportunity to expand his horizons were it not for the persistence of George Martinez, a local police officer and boxing coach.
Tapia was frequently in trouble as a young boy, and turned to boxing because his older brother tried it. He didn't want to continue to go to the gym, though, and planned to give it up in favor of hanging out with friends.
Martinez, though, showed up at his home and confronted Tapia in front of his parents. Martinez noted that Tapia was headed nowhere like so many of his friends, and he asked Tapia if he wanted to keep going to the gym.
"I didn't want to go back to the gym, but I was kind of shy and didn't want to say no to him," Tapia says, laughing.
It was the best decision he ever made.
When he turned pro in 2008, he still hadn't fully abandoned the lifestyle of the streets.
"I was still dibbling and dabbling" Tapia says.
But he realized quickly that he couldn't do both, and so he committed to a much more monastic existence.
"My life now is home, gym. Home, gym. Home, gym," Tapia said. "I'm not stupid. I'm not the average person. I can't hang out. Hanging out is going to lead to nothing but the worst kind of things. Ultimately, I had to say I'm either in or I'm out, and I went all in with this."
The journey has led him to the brink of stardom. The fight with Kirkland (31-1, 27 KOs) is one that has the possibility of leading to a title fight.
Tapia has won seven of his last nine fights by knockout or stoppage and has looked like a future champion.
Though he's a strong puncher, trainer Alex Devia said Tapia's speed is a huge advantage. Tapia is a counter puncher, but not in the typical manner.
When an opponent punches, so, too, does Tapia. He doesn't wait for the opponent to finish a punch, or a combination, before retaliating. He's quick enough to see and react to the openings as they're happening.
"A lot of guys, someone punches at them, they look to move, get out of the way and then they counter," Devia said. "He's able to punch back at you as you're punching at him, and not a lot of people can do that."
It can be a risky strategy, but Tapia has been able to get away with it because his punches have impact on the opponent and because he has the chin, as well as the speed and quickness, to deal with the incoming fire.
He hasn't faced anyone of Kirkland's reputation, but he's nonplussed.
"He's a great fighter, but I'm not worried about what he does," Tapia said. "I know what I have, and what I can do. I've worked hard to get where I am and I'm ready for this. I'm going to do what I do."