It wasn’t really that long ago, though it seems that way, when Vito Mielnicki Jr. came up waist-high on WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder. In fact, Mielnicki still has the image on his phone, and it’s hard to believe that was once him.
On Saturday night, Mielnicki will be fighting on the Deontay Wilder‒Luis Ortiz II undercard at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Mielnicki (2-0, 2 KOs) will also be the only fighter on the card who will need an escort through the casino—because he just turned seventeen on May 10, a senior at West Essex High in North Jersey. He’ll be the only one working on English comp and math problems in his hotel room on his school computer, when everyone else involved with the fight will be hitting the casino floor glamming it up for the cameras and fans.
Mielnicki, a rangy five-foot-eleven welterweight with movie-star looks and a heavy right hand, will be taking on twenty-five-year-old Marklin Bailey (6-5, 4 KOs) in a scheduled four-rounder.
Mielnicki needs to exercise more discipline than most pros, simply because most pros in the US today don’t have to deal with school nights. That’s when Mielnicki goes to bed before 10 p.m. and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the gym by around 5 a.m. for a morning workout. He comes back home by 6:30 a.m.to shower for school to make the first bell. He gets out of school around 3 p.m. and goes back to work again to as late as 9 p.m.
“When I’m in school, I try to blend in, because I know I’m looked at differently and I’ll be the first name said if something happens, so I learned to stay in my own lane,” Mielnicki said. “I mind my own business. I was in sixth grade the last time someone tried messing with me. I know who’s with me and who’s not, because there’s some jealousy there.
“I’m a teenager. Teenagers are like that. This is the first time I’m fighting in the school year on this large a platform. My training has been good, and the weight hasn’t been an issue. Before camp, I was around 160; but once camp begins, the weight comes right off.
“I definitely don’t see myself staying at 147 the older I get.”
Four years ago, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Mielnicki took a shot with Wilder after a press conference. He was a thirteen-year-old, and now he’s fighting on the same card as Wilder.
In the image, Mielnicki doesn’t look he’s thirteen—he looks more like he’s ten.
“Yeah, it seems like a long time ago, but it wasn’t,” laughs Mielnicki, who built a 147-22 amateur record and was a four-time Junior National Golden Gloves champion (2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015), named Most Outstanding Boxer in 2011. “I still do stuff kids my age do. I enjoy going on social media and stuff like that. I was on my phone before my pro debut [in July] and on Instagram in the dressing room, and I have no problem with that.
“I put in all of the hard work, and I’ve been sacrificing a lot since I was a kid. I know that if I don’t cheat myself, I’ll win. I’m the only one who can beat me.”
Mielnicki wears size-twelve shoes, and his uncles are over six feet tall. He’s probably going to grow more and knows there is no rush to win a world championship.
He has a hidden advantage: a maturity that belies his age.
“It’s exactly why I took on Vito, because it’s a long, long project; but as soon as I met Vito, he’s a very likable kid, who checks all of the boxes,” said Anthony Catanzaro, Mielnicki’s manager. “Vito understands he’s a brand, and he understands his obligations. Plus, he’s a great, great kid.
“We don’t even know what weight class Vito will settle into. He’ll be eighteen next May, and right now, we’re giving him different looks and guys who will try. Vito can fight. When you look at him, yes, he’s a good-looking kid, but above everything else, he can fight. So far, so good.”
Muhammad Salaam, who trains Vito with Dwyke Flemmings, has known Mielnicki since he was eight. What told Salaam that Mielnicki was something special was when they first met at the Jamar Carter Gym in the basement of a Newark church. Mielnicki was the only white kid in there, and he knew it.
He cried his eyes out the first day. He cried his eyes out the second day.
He came back a third day.
“His father, Vito Sr., earned everything he’s got and everything Vito Jr. has got, he’s earned,” Salaam said. “We’ve been everywhere for tournaments, but when Vito Jr. was young, it was, ‘Look at this white kid,’ and Vito beat them all. We know we have time on our side. No one is in a rush here. Walli Moses loved Vito. He was his first trainer.
“We’re in the process of washing out some bad habits that started when Vito was young, but he’s willing to learn, and he loves the process of learning, which is a great thing. The only way to be good is to accept learning. Vito has. He has the ability to do some great things.”
Mielnicki is no longer the kid that came up waist-high to a champion.