Monday, December 13, 2010

As "The Fighter" premiers, Savage boxing coach John Rafuse Remembers his fight with "Irish" Micky Ward

Mark Connor
© Copyright 2010, Mark

On December 17 Paramount Pictures presentation of “The Fighter” based on the biography of professional boxer ‘Irish’ Micky Ward will premier in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. While St. Paul and Minneapolis area fight fans and movie enthusiasts enjoy the drama, few may know that a local boxing trainer gave Ward one of the toughest battles of his early career.

John Rafuse battled Ward to the end of an 8 round fight in a sold out Lowell Auditorium on August 29, 1986. A native of Malden Massachusetts, a Boston area town not far from Ward’s native Lowell, Rafuse (who on his mother’s side is just as Irish as Ward) began boxing at age 19 and fought a total of ten years, eight of them professionally. His professional career lasted from April 1983 to August 1991.

“I don’t think I lost the fight,” Rafuse remembers. “I ain’t gonna tell ya I beat him, but I don’t’ think I lost.”

In the book the film is based on, Rafuse is mentioned from pages 55 through 60, as well as on pages 97 and 98. The fight was broadcast on ESPN sports network, and it was an exciting event for fans in the area. Al Bernstein’s ringside commentary is quoted in “Irish Thunder” and it is very favorable to both fighters.

Later Rafuse sparred with Ward before fighting Harold Brazier for the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) Light Welterweight title in 1988. He lost a 12 round unanimous decision to Brazier on September 2 of that year, and Ward also lost a unanimous decision to Brazier on April 26, 1990 in a fight for the IBF Intercontinental title. As Ward went on to challenge some big name fighters, including a legendary three fight series with Light Welterweight Champion Arturo Gatti, Rafuse fought some big names himself and also trained with future hall of fame fighters.

In 1987 Rafuse flew to Houston, Texas to spar with Vinnie Pazienza, who was preparing for the first of his three fight rivalry for the World Lightweight Championship against Greg Haugen. On the undercard of that fight Rafuse won an 8 round split decision over Haugen’s sparring partner, Javier Suazo. While in Houston, Rafuse explains that he ended up sparring with a slew of fighters training under Lou Douva, including World Champions and Gold Medalists Meldrick Taylor, Pernel ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, and Mark Breland. He also Sparred many times with John John Molina, and sparred with Frankie Warren and Johnny ‘Bump City’ Bumpus. While Bumpus never won a world title, he was one of the most successful U.S. amateur boxers of the late 1970s and an accomplished professional on the world class level. Rafuse acknowledges that, while he did not fight for a world championship title, there is satisfaction in having trained and sparred with such an elite group of fighters. Although he didn’t spar with him, Rafuse says legendary Olympian and Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield also trained at the Houston facility when he was there, and he was happy to be in the presence of such greatness.

Planning to attend a sneak preview on Wednesday, December 15 of ‘The Fighter,’ which is produced by and stars Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward and co-stars Christian Bale as Ward’s brother, Dickie Eklund, Rafuse was unsure of whether his fight with Ward would be prominently mentioned. But he had good feelings to share about Ward anyway.

“I got all the respect in the world for the kid,” he said; “I really like Micky and he stuck around long enough to make some money, and God bless him.”

Rafuse, whose nickname was ‘Rapid’ because of his fast hands, became quite the accomplished professional boxer, particularly for a man who had little amateur experience. He didn’t start till age 19 and by the time he turned professional at 21 he remembers having less than 20 amateur fights. But besides his match with Ward he fought 12 rounds with World Champion Brazier, made it to the 4th round before losing by TKO to José Luis Ramirez (a World Champion whose final record is 99 wins, 6 losses), and lost a 10 round decision to eventual IBF Light Welterweight Champion Jake Rodriguez. He really learned boxing as a professional, being tough enough and strong enough to compete with the world class. He had been a wrestler through high school, and so it is no surprise that he was an excellent athlete or that the rough physical style of his life left him with a bum elbow that never healed properly after being broken in childhood. So he retired from boxing after winning a split decision over José Hiram Torres in a welterweight fight on August 23, 1991. Now a union carpenter in Minnesota, he continues teaching amateur boxing to teenagers in Savage, and teaching professional Mixed Martial Artists how to punch.

“I tell them, nine out of ten fights end up on the ground,” Rafuse explains, “but ten out of ten start on your feet.”


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