At 38, amateur boxer is preparing to go pro

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

May 09, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

MIKE RICASA felt as if he were on top of the world, being the Golden Gloves lightweight champion in boxing for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia two years running. He was the best amateur fighter at his weight in Maryland then, too - wiry, tough, fit, determined.

Then Ricasa got devastating news from a medical checkup. He had liver disease, bad. And worse, he remembers his doctor telling him, he wasn't very far from leaving this world. It was 1998.

"I had everything going for me," said the auto mechanic, who lives in the Worthington section of Ellicott City. "And then, just like that, I wasn't really sure how much life I had left."

Ricasa is a guy who dreams, though, and on Friday, one of his dreams will be fulfilled: He is fighting his first bout as a professional. It will be at Clarence Du Burns Arena in Baltimore's Canton section against a lefty from New York who has fought once professionally and lost. The pot's maybe $1,000, win or lose, Ricasa said.

While a first pro bout typically constitutes a footnote in anyone's boxing career, Ricasa is age 38, a veritable Methuselah in any pro sport. Men retire from boxing way younger than that.

And, Ricasa has a nice day job going for him. He is certified in all eight automotive-repair specialties and a master technician at Columbia Exxon, a busy shop on the western edge of Columbia's Town Center, where he has worked for 14 years.

But in the early 1990s, the man had energy to burn, and his wife, Sandy, encouraged him to go to a gym she knew about in Arbutus and give boxing a try.

"I have four brothers who were into boxing and body-building - all that stuff," she said.

Said Ricasa, who because of family turmoil attended several Baltimore County high schools before graduating from Catonsville: "She knew I was good with my hands. She knew something about the things I'd done when I was younger, too. ... She's a wonderful wife, so understanding, too. In fact, she pushes me as hard as any trainer."

At the gym, Ricasa met Danny Kisner, who now helps operate the Brooklyn Boxing Club and is still Ricasa's trainer, as well as friend.

About three months later, at age 29, Ricasa fought his first amateur bout and won. He won 13 straight before losing - knocked wobbly and disoriented, Kisner said, during Golden Glove nationals at Disney World. Videotape that Sandy shot showed the telling blow was an illegal punch behind one ear by a fighter from Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I went in there very cocky," Ricasa said. "I left there very humble."

But he fought more and won, and this week, he officially ends his amateur career with 20 wins, 6 losses. Getting there has been an adventure.

By 2000, Ricasa said he felt so weakened, so bad all the time, he agreed to begin a yearlong trial on an experimental drug.

"I dedicated myself to my family, my wife and my two wonderful daughters," he said. "I was like a sponge with the girls, who are 6 and 4 now. I wanted to soak up everything my kids did, because I didn't know how long I'd be around."

A few months after completing the year of medication, blood tests showed his condition deteriorating again, which eventually meant a second yearlong trial on a newer drug. After that round, the same thing occurred, meaning yet a third year on a still-newer drug.

"I remember the day exactly - Sept. 2, 2003," he said. "I was off the drug and I went to see my doctor for test results, and he told me that I'd beaten it. I was cured. I gave him a hug. I even broke down. I thanked him. I thanked God.

"And that afternoon, I went straight to the gym and starting training again."

Today, eight months later, Ricasa appears to be in great physical shape. At 138 pounds, he is, as they say, "ripped," possessor of a terrific-looking physique, the kind most men haven't the energy, courage or motivation to pursue.

Still, you can't help but ask Ricasa: Why turn pro in such a demanding sport now? Money? Fame? But, at 38?

"It's not about the money for me," he said. "I was never ranked as an amateur, and that was a big deal for me. But God blessed me with time to dream again. I've wanted for a long time to be able to say I was a pro boxer, so I've got to do this.

"I don't want to wake up one morning and say, `What if?'"

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun. com.

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