Interview with Matt Farrago, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
The bright-eyed young fighter strutted out of the locker room and onto the floor of the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. He greeted his brother and mother sitting ringside, as a four-round cruiserweight bout was winding down. His hair was in a wet tousle, and his body still hummed with adrenaline.
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Earlier in the night, the fighter, a junior-middleweight, extended his undefeated record to twenty-one wins (nine by way of knockout) with a third-round stoppage of a man named Harlen Holden. Yet he did not leave the ring completely unscathed. A collision of heads had opened a gash above his left eye, now stitched and covered by a heap of gauze and tape that made the wound appear more severe than it was. A small, tolerable price, he figured, to becoming a world champion. His mother fixated anxiously on his marred brow, still stupefied perhaps by the fact that her family of multi-generational medical professionals had produced, of all things, a boxer, someone whose sole purpose was to break apart, not mend, the human body.
In a moment, the main event would commence, a heavyweight clash featuring Renaldo Snipes, a local fighter from Yonkers best known for nearly derailing the title reign of Larry Holmes in 1981.
The young fighter, twenty-six-year-old Matt Farrago, was also a local product, hailing from Commack, New York, on Long Island. Already, Farrago was imagining how his choirboy face would appear on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, illuminating harvest gold living rooms across the country.
But this was as far as Farrago would get. Club fights against part-time Tri-state journeymen and palookas bused in from the Rust Belt. Appearances on the MSG Network. Measly four-figure paydays. The low-rent stuff. A year later, he would suffer his first loss in a virtual set-up arranged by his manager, who, as if acting out an especially jaded plot to a film noir, vanished without a trace after the fight, along with his paycheck. Whatever aspirations Farrago had for himself in the sport—and he assures you that they were big—died in that instant.
Yet on this hot night at the Felt Forum in July of 1987, as Farrago stood next to his mother and awaited the main event, his thoughts gravitating toward the gleaming future ahead of him, he would receive a visit that would effectively chart the direction of his post-boxing life. Trundling toward him from the darkness were three “flat-nosed pugs with old-time faces.”
“Listen, kid, we want to talk to ya,” one of them growled. “We want you to come over to our organization.”
“OK, who are you guys?” Farrago recalled asking.
“We’re Ring 8. We help ex-fighters and we need more young people like you,” said the gentleman who would identify himself as Johnny Colan, a middleweight from the 1940s. His colleagues next to him were Tino Raino, also a former middleweight, and his boxing enthusiast brother, Lou. “We want you to come to our next meeting.”
Since they held meetings at a union hall for bartenders only a few blocks away from his gym—Jimmy Glenn’s Times Square Gym—Farrago decided to check it out. He knew, if only casually, that boxing had a problem with looking after its own kind, that so many of its retirees led broken, forgotten lives. It was a decision Farrago would never come to regret.
“First time I went there, I said, ‘this is fucking great,’” Farrago said. The sport was filled with villain types, but that wasn’t the case here. These were a cadre of former fighters and industry lifers hoping to impart some small measure of good will to an unforgiving trade. One of the first meetings Farrago remembers attending focused on ways to help an indigent Kid Gavilan, the former welterweight great of the 1940s and 1950s. Farrago was touched by the sincerity of their efforts, which, frankly, were not always successful. Soon, Farrago’s career as a boxer would come screeching to a cruel, humiliating end. But the seeds of a new role within the sport had been planted in earnest. He would refashion himself, in due time, as a custodian for ex-fighters.
“I knew this was my calling in life,” Farrago said in a recent phone conversation. “I had enough experience in the ring to feel for the fighters.”
The problem is not that there aren’t enough people who care about helping downtrodden ex-fighters; it’s that few who do follow through on their words. Then again, hypocrisy is one of the most common tropes in boxing. Just note the parvenus who come around to the sport every decade or so promising reform but end up just as crooked as its longest-tenured amoralists. In a chaotic sport with no centralized governing body, whose “labor laws” (assuming they exist) are so antiquated that they would make even Lewis Hine wince, where backstabbing in the name of free enterprise is standard practice, it should not be so surprising, then, that such cavalier attitudes concerning the welfare of its alumni predominate. “Nobody’s held accountable,” Farrago fumed. “Once you step out of that ring, you’re done. Everybody walks away.”
Farrago mentions speaking to “Bobby” on the phone not long ago. That would be Bobby Czyz, the middleweight pride of New Jersey in the 1980s whose good looks and aggressive fighting style made him the darling of the TV networks. Supposedly, he pocketed more than $2 million in career earnings. Now Czyz is bagging groceries. “He’s broke. He’s homeless. How? How does that happen?”
For the past twenty-five years, Farrago, who turned fifty-eight this spring, has made a living selling medical equipment to hospitals. He is a born salesman, with a penchant for small talk. How many others in his field can switch from reeling off arcane medical terminology to reminiscing about the feeling of landing a particular knockout blow? New clients always got a kick out that. In the end, though, it’s just a day job for Farrago. His identity, his sense of self-worth is bound up in the stuff that he does in his spare time: helping ex-fighters in need. So, for the better part of three decades, primarily through Ring 8, Farrago has tried to lift boxing’s befallen population by the shoulders. “Use him, abuse him, lose him,” Farrago said, reciting a favorite dictum. “That’s boxing’s philosophy on what to do with a fighter.”
Of course, ask Farrago about Ring 8 today and you are likely to get a very different answer.
“The guys that are over there now are all garbage,” he lamented. “They help no one! They have banquets where they give the fighter a trophy, an award, but what does that do? They’re phonies.”
According to Farrago, he was ousted as president from the group, in 2010, when he was trying to help Wilfred Benitez without the consent of the other board members. “Nixon wasn’t impeached, but I was,” Farrago quipped. “Pretty cool.”
But by the time he fell out with his former colleagues, Farrago was well equipped to strike out on his own. Less than a year later, he set up a new charity and named it in the spirit of his old one, Ring 10.
Unlike his predecessors, Farrago says that the efforts at Ring 10 are far more transparent and concrete. They subsist on donations, the majority of which are received through two annual silent auctions, featuring an array of boxing ephemera and memorabilia that Farrago and his cohorts scour for all year long. The proceeds from these events are then used to purchase medical aid or gift cards for fighters to use at a supermarket of their choice. “I spend hours and hours buying gift cards that I mail out to fighters so that they can buy food at a Stop and Shop or Kroger’s or Pathmark,” Farrago explained. Each gift card comes with a letter signed by all of the board members, which are made up of mostly former fighters, such as Iran Barkley and Dennis Milton, “because who else knows more about being a fighter than a fighter?” It was Ring 10, Farrago says, that offered a down-and-out Barkley a furnished apartment in the Bronx in 2010. Others who currently receive help include Prichard Colon, Larry Barnes, Greg Haugen, and Gerald McClellan. The list is long.
“Fighters keep calling,” Farrago said. “We get them when they are lost.”
There are times that Ring 10 has had to operate in the red, as in the case of the Olympian Howard Davis Jr., who passed away in 2015 from lung cancer. “He drained us because we were dropping five-thousand dollars a month on his chemotherapy trying to keep him alive,” Farrago related. “We were trying everything. That came out of my pocket big time until Ring 10 could pay me back. But that didn’t matter. Do we turn him down? No! Whatever he needs we’ll get it for him. I’m pretty sure we prolonged his life and the quality of his life is much better than what it would have been.”
But the sooner Ring 10 can declare itself insolvent, the better, Farrago asserted. Its very existence, after all, is predicated on the assumption that no one else is interested in making a financial commitment to the afterlives of impaired boxers.
“Our long-term goal is to go out of business,” he said. “I’m not joking. You know why? Because when the sport itself decides to take care of its fighters I’m going out of business. I’ll have a once-a-month coffee club or something. [Ring 10] won’t be needed.
“But the sport doesn’t take care of its own. There’s no life insurance, no retirement policy, there is nothing for them when they don’t fight anymore.”
Farrago puts it another way. “Why is the oldest sport known to man still prehistoric?”
Other times, Farrago’s altruism can get the better of him. His name, for instance, will always be associated with the tragic case of Magomed Abdusalamov, the Russian heavyweight whose traumatic brain injury incurred by a bout at Madison Square Garden in November 2013 raised thorny questions about post-fight care. An aggressive lawsuit alleging negligence and medical malpractice against New York State led, four years later, to a record $22 million payout. At the heart of the case was the supposed failure of a wide network of commission officials and ring physicians to properly account for Abdusalamov after his fight. He was cleared by doctors, only to collapse outside of the arena, as his cranium was filling with blood.
On that night, Farrago, who had been moonlighting as an inspector for the state athletic commission, was tasked with monitoring Abdusalamov before, during, and after his fight. In the inspector general’s investigative report, it was concluded that Farrago’s conduct was less than adequate. Among his acts of impropriety included taking pictures with fighters. But the biggest issue that the report identified was that Farrago had ulterior motives separate from his duty to look after his assigned fighter. Specifically, it appeared he was hell-bent on obtaining Abdusalamov’s sweat-soaked hand wraps. For Farrago, the discarded dregs represented a collector’s premium. “Nobody else in the world has the handwraps but you,” Farrago explained. “There are no copies. I have my handwraps that I wore as a fighter to this day. How more personal can you get it? How cool would it be if you had Joe Frazier’s or Muhammad Ali’s handwraps?”
That this was a highly inappropriate mindset for an inspector on duty did not necessarily occur to Farrago at the time, though he had already been warned by his superiors to knock off the scavenging. But Farrago persisted. His mind was on McClellan, Benitez, and everyone else on the Ring 10 roster waiting for a gift certificate. In retrospect, Farrago admits that he knew he was bending protocol, but counters that he was looking at the greater good of the situation. “You know what? If the handwraps are there, I will pick them up,” said Farrago, who claims to have never profited from handwraps himself. “Because that garbage will make hundreds of dollars to help other fighters.”
To his credit, Farrago was the only one that night who urged Abdusalamov to go to the hospital. Of course, that may not mean much given that Russian will remain in a permanently vegetative state for the rest of his life. “It’s an unfortunate thing that happened . . . and it kills me that it did,” Farrago said.
Guilt-ridden or not, Farrago acted quickly from the fallout, initiating a fundraising effort for Abdusalamov and his family. In all, Ring 10 raised over $190,000, with contributions from HBO and MSG. “We made sure he got every single dime,” Farrago said. “Even the $25 that little Mary from Oklahoma donated he got. We actually lost money because we paid fees on Paypal or whatever. Fees would come out of our end.”
Farrago is convinced that his lot in life is to look after broken fighters. But he would not be here, carrying out the good work, had he not been one himself.
“I truly think that this is my destiny,” Farrago said of his Ring 10 endeavors. “I was educated. Most fighters are not. I didn’t need the sport of boxing but it gave me just enough of it to understand it inside-out and outside-in.”
For his first professional fight, Farrago earned $150—and ten stitches over the right eye (it was always the right eye). Fifty dollars went to his trainer and cutman. “I was rich. I could last on this forever, I thought,” said Farrago, who at the time was taking classes at SUNY Cortland, near Syracuse. It was a side hustle, but one that immediately endeared him to the campus coeds. Farrago eventually graduated with two degrees and had to make a choice: take the MCATS or keep fighting. “What do you tell a kid who’s young and has all these hormones going on, and oh my god, I’m on TV, and, whoa, I got girls and money?” He picked the latter.
“I told my mom to let me move in with my manager and see how far this goes,” Farrago said. “I keep winning, twenty-six straight wins with one draw against Bobby Joe Young, the first guy who knocked out Aaron Pryor.”
The sky seemed like the limit. Then, for his twenty-seventh fight, Farrago’s manager, a man named Alan Kornberg, who also managed heavyweight James “Bonecrusher” Smith, decided to pit him against former Brazilian champion Francisco de Jesus. He had two weeks to train. Farrago objected. He needed more time. Besides, his trainer Emile Griffith, Hall of Fame welterweight and middleweight champion, was training Smith in North Carolina. But Kornberg had already signed the contracts. Tough break. Kornberg suggested Farrago train himself. ‘“Train yourself?’” Farrago said bitterly, “What the freak does that mean, ‘Train yourself?’”
The fight was stopped in the eighth round, due to cuts around Farrago’s right eye. When he emerged from the locker room expecting to be buoyed by his usual entourage, he found the hallways empty. “You can’t make this shit up,” Farrago recalled. “Where were my fans? My friends? This was Marlon Brando stuff.” His manager was also nowhere to be seen. The next day Farrago learned that he had disconnected his phone. After a few days, when Farrago was able to open up his right eye, he drove to Kornberg’s apartment, only to find it padlocked. The landlord told him that Kornberg had moved out two days earlier. “What? Get the fuck out of here,” Farrago said. “Is this a movie?”
Decades later, Farrago’s friend, the late boxing analyst Harold Lederman, would ask him if he knew “a guy called Alan Kornberg.” Lederman had been down in Florida and had purchased a car from someone who claimed to have managed a few fighters in his heydey, one of whom he named was Farrago. “Can you believe that?” Farrago said. “What are the odds of the world of that happening? My manager who left me in the locker the first time I ever lost was selling cars in Florida?”
Farrago had no desire to see Kornberg, who would pass away from cancer in 2014. “I never forgave him and I could never understand [why he left me],” Farrago reflected. “He never called me after that night. Why? How? I’ll never get the answer.”
Farrago gave it another go a couple of years later, in 1991, when boxing handyman Lou Duva called out of the blue to offer him a fight against a “kid he would have an easy time with.” The opponent was Joe Gatti, an otherwise average middleweight who would later be better known as the older brother of Arturo Gatti. “I knew I was being set up,” said Farrago. The fight was over in the second round. Hit with a left hook he never saw coming, Farrago froze up and collapsed back-first on the canvas. To this day he harbors bitterness toward the referee, Joe Cortez, whom he believes stopped the fight much too soon. “He never gave me a chance,” Farrago groused. “I could’ve gotten up. I lost my balance at first and Cortez jumped on me. ‘It’s over, it’s over, it’s over.’” Then he repeated, almost to himself, the familiar lament of the ex-fighter. “In my prime I would’ve ate [Joe Gatti] up. I’m sure I would’ve ate him up.”
Farrago may not have achieved much as a fighter, but he was, if nothing else, committed to the rigors of the profession. More important, he wanted to win. Each time he ducked through the ropes he sought to distinguish himself from his opponent. “Some guys were okay with losing. They go in the ring knowing that they are going to lose,” Farrago opined. “I was never like that.”
So it is something of an irony that grinding through what had been a mostly middling career fighting soft competition has not sheltered him any less from the terrible ravages of the ring. “I’m feeling seriously the repercussions of all those years in the ring now,” Farrago confessed. “It’s really getting to me. It’s getting worse and worse progressively.”
Farrago’s condition is, to be sure, in no way comparable to Ring 10 beneficiaries, many of whom achieved far more successful careers consisting of far more perilous bouts—but that does not diminish the fact that the sport rarely allows fighters, on any level, to leave the ring completely unscathed. “You’re a fighter. All you do is get hit in the head,” Farrago observed. “You try not to (get hit), but you do. That’s got to add up. It has to.”
The symptoms have piled up over the years, recurring with increasing frequency. The tingling headaches came first, then the memory lapses, and now, bursts of unalloyed anger.
“My former car, I’d have dents all over the hood,” Farrago said. “And people would say, ‘How do you get dents on top of the hood?’ I’d say I punched it. And they would say ‘why?’ Because something pissed me off. Not good.”
Farrago swears he has never been violent to anyone outside of the ring. “Never. The last time was when I was a junior in high school.”
In articulating his condition, Farrago showed that he is fully attuned to the reality of his mental decline, the degree to which is perhaps rare for a former fighter. Asked if he believes his symptoms are a sign of possible CTE, the degenerative brain disease related to blows to the head and for which there is no treatment, he offered a confident assessment.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely,” Farrago replied. “Probably early dementia. I can’t function the way I want to. I would go to the store and forget what I needed to get. I have very little memory retention.”
When it is pointed out that Farrago does not slur, he cautions that it depends on the topic of conversation. “When we talk about Magomed that’s something I’m passionate about, so the slurring isn’t as noticeable. On a regular basis, my brain is quite diminished.”
The realization that his side effects might be part of a more significant problem crystallized while watching an episode of HBO’s Real Sports that centered on athletes and traumatic brain injuries and featured such experts as neuropathologist Anne Mckee. “I was like, oh my gosh, that’s it,” Farrago recalled. “That’s me.”
“We didn’t know CTE back then,” Farrago continued. “My father and mother used to kid me all the time ‘Matt, I just told you ten minute ago, you don’t remember? You’re punchy!’ We thought it was cute back then. It was slang—‘punchy.’ We didn’t know it was a disease.”
Farrago was involved in twenty-eight professional fights, forty-to-fifty amateur fights, and, he guesses, anywhere from one thousand to two thousand rounds of sparring against world champions like Davey Moore, no less. Sparring sessions were intense, conducted with the express idea of knocking the other man out.
“Your brain gets so rattled, so beat up, every day,” Farrago noted. “It took me a year to get my brain to calm down after I stopped fighting.”
The consequences have been real and, for the most part, sadly punishing. For one, Farrago’s short-term memory problems have directly impacted his livelihood. He was fired from two full-time jobs last year for failing to heed basic administrative tasks. “My boss would tell me ‘Matt, I told you to do this, but you didn’t do it,’” Farrago recounted. “‘I told you three times and you told me three times you would do it and you didn’t.’”
Farrago sighed. “I just didn’t remember to do it. Now I lost my two jobs in medical because of fuck-ups. Because of my brain.” (For now, Farrago is holding it down as a contractor for associate-level dentists looking to start their own practices).
His personal life has suffered as well. An erratic brain played a part in his divorce a year ago from his wife of twenty-three years and mother to their three children. “She got out before the ship sank,” explained Farrago, who gave up his custody rights. “[The marriage] took its toll to the point that she couldn’t take me emotionally anymore. She would tell me to do things and I wouldn’t be able to do it just standing there. It wasn’t good.”
“My kids saw the degeneration of my health.”
Today, Farrago lives alone in the Briarwood neighborhood of Queens. He suspects his ex-wife moved back to her hometown of Vancouver, but does not know for sure. Recently, he sent his daughter a text, asking if she could meet for lunch. She replied, “No, thank you.” Meanwhile, the fits of irritability continue. During this interview, Farrago sends over a picture of a shattered desktop computer. “That was with my foot,” he said. “My friend took the hard-drive out and added it to my new computer—until I break this one.”
All of which further complicates Farrago’s relationship with the sport that defined him for so long. He rarely watches it on television these days and can hardly remember the last time he went to a live fight. Maybe it was at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, who knows, he says as he wracks his head for the answer that will never come. “I can’t be an advocate [for boxing], because I know what is going to happen,” Farrago said soberly. “I know what is behind that screen.” And yet, if he had a chance to start his life over again, he would still take up boxing—just as if his oldest, college-aged son really wanted to box, he would let him. It is a paradox that makes perfect sense to the boxer, but is nonsense to others. “It was in my heart [to box],” Farrago said. “You can’t forbid me to do something that was in my heart.”
Farrago has big plans, chief among them forming a fighters’ union, but remained mum on details and was hardly discouraged when reminded of the seemingly insurmountable hurdles he would face in such a venture. Then again, it has been a long time since Farrago cared about his own skin. “I sacrificed my life for this,” he said. “But what are you gonna do. This is my calling in life.”
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