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Getting Ready

Craig "Gator" Bodzianowski, the one-footed fighter, had five and a half weeks to prepare for this bout. A victory would mean the title shot he's been working for.

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March 19, 1987. On the second floor of Automotive Rebuilders Supply Company on Chicago's southwest side is the Windy City Boxing Club, better known as the Windy City gym. Craig Bodzianowski, in red sweatpants, red shoes, and red, yellow, and white sweatshirt, is winding a red bandage around his hands. Today is a light workout day for "Gator," who is preparing for an April 12 showdown with Alfonzo Ratliff, a former World Boxing Council cruiserweight champion.

Bodzianowski's trainer, Tom Fornarelli, lies belly down on a rubbing table. He is a large white-haired man dressed in a white shirt and blue slacks. He watches intently as his fighter shadowboxes his way around a rope that is strung shoulder high between two beams. Bodzianowski ducks his head from one side to another punching at the stale gym air. Fornarelli lights up a cigarette.

"I'm not well," Fornarelli says. "I'm leaving boxing, going in the hospital the day after Craig's fight."

Bodzianowski's workout progresses through a series of stations: heavy bag, shadowboxing, jumping rope. They all begin and end with a buzzer. Three minutes of work then one minute of rest. Bodzianowski walks around the gym during the rest period.

"How many people give him a chance?" Fornarelli asks. "You know the difference between a winner and a loser? Who wants it more.

"He's a tough kid," continues Fornarelli. "His balance is better every day and his confidence is sky-high."

Fornarelli says that Bodzianowski never asks who he's fighting, never asks to see a tape of his opponent. He doesn't care who it is, he just worries about himself.

Two and a half years ago, Bodzianowski would have had trouble just making it up the stairs to the Windy City gym. After he'd won his first 13 pro fights (11 by knockouts) and developed a "Gator Gallery" of fans, his right foot was shattered in a motorcycle accident. The foot eventually was amputated just above the ankle.

Today, he walks with no trace of a limp. He strapped on a prosthesis and went back to boxing. He has won four straight fights since he returned to the ring in December of 1985.

"I never had a kid who worked harder," Fornarelli says. "He doesn't even know he's lost his leg."

What happens if he loses? Fornarelli says it's not the end of the world.

"What happens if he does win? What type of controversy will happen?" Fornarelli asks excitedly, lighting another cigarette.

Controversy and skepticism have tailed Gator ever since he resumed his career. Initially there was the question whether to license a one-footed boxer. Next came the uproar after the first bout, with Francis Sargent first claiming that he took a dive, then denying it. After Bodzianowski's second fight, against Rick Enis, the debate surrounded referee Stanley Berg's alleged favoritism in the ring. The caliber of Bodzianowski's last two opponents was questioned. Gator remained a "freak."

Manager Jerry Lenza enters the gym and starts talking about the trip he just took to California with another fighter. He says that plans for a made-for-TV movie about Bodzianowski look good. Lenza is a softspoken, unfailingly upbeat man with a personality uncommon to boxing. He is pleasant and appreciative of the attention being given his fighter.

"I think he moves better now," Lenza says. "When I asked the doctor, he said he's more conscious of it, that he's trying to concentrate on it. I think it's made him better. He's matured since the accident. He really set some goals for himself -- before that he was just fighting."

Bodzianowski finishes his gym work for the day, showers, and changes into a blue sweatsuit. Lenza says teasingly that his fighter looks pretty. Bodzianowski's brown hair is slicked back now, and there's a sly smile under the slightly crooked nose and trim mustache. Lenza's not far wrong. The fighter has very little to say; it's like he's keeping everything in for the fight. "I know what we have to do; we're not changing anything for this guy," says Gator.

The skeptics don't faze Bodzianowski. He knows he's no novelty. The only thing that counts is winning, and his goal is a world title.

"Everything we've done has been aboveboard and legal," says Lenza. "We've asked for the top fighters and this is what Craig has been looking for. He'll prove what he's made of, even though I feel he's proved that every time out."

Bodzianowski has sparred with Ratliff on occasion. "I have respect for the guy as a fighter," he says, "but I have seen nothing really exceptional."

Asked about his fighter's low-key, tight-lipped approach, Lenza says, "He's not a friction kind of guy, his friction comes in the ring. It's a one-on-one sport. It's the toughest sport. It's Craig Bodzianowski versus Alfonzo Ratliff. He's another guy he has to beat to get his goal."

"It's nothing personal, I just have to win the fight," explains Bodzianowski.

March 24, 1987. The gym walls are papered with old fight posters. Here are the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio squaring off in the Chicago Stadium. From 1930 to 1962 there were 32 title fights in Chicago, 15 of them from 1950 to 1960. Joe Lewis, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Rocky Graziano, and Ernie Terrell all won championships in Chicago, and Sugar Ray Robinson reclaimed his middleweight title here three times. But Chicago has hosted just six title fights since 1962; and now it's only the occasional bout like Ratliff versus Bodzianowski that rouses local fight fans.

Bodzianowski and Fornarelli are battling colds. The trainer's in a subdued mood, not smoking much; the cold seems to be getting the better of him. On top of which, he says, he's ripped some abdominal muscles and he has a double hernia.

"Now it's time for me to take care of myself," says Fornarelli, who's talking retirement. "I've got no more to give."

Bodzianowski is working in the ring with Alfonso Weatherall. Weatherall is the designated pad man. He moves around the ring, slapping Bodzianowski on both shoulders with the flattened catcher's mitts he wears on his hands. Each slap triggers a combination from Bodzianowski. He knocks off a pad with a stinging left hook and tells Weatherall, "Gotta hold on to those."

Lenza is ringside, offering encouragement. A former restaurateur, he first became involved in professional boxing in 1981 when he invested in Chicago middleweight John Collins.

"I'm enjoying this, so I decided to stay with this," says Lenza. He has gone into business with Bodzianowski in Gator's Gym and Gator's Ticket Service out in Hickory Hills.

Bodzianowski, with a 62-5 amateur record, was twice a Chicago Park District heavyweight champion and the 1981 Golden Gloves heavyweight champ. He fought in the amateurs at the same time as Lenza's son Don. But Lenza says he didn't pay much attention to him until Bill O'Connor, boxing supervisor for Catholic Youth Organization and the man who had introduced Bodzianowski to the sport as a youngster, asked him if he'd be interested in taking Gator if he turned pro.

For the first 12 fights of his pro career, Bodzianowski punched his way through an assortment of journeymen, with the occasional prospect thrown in. He wasn't fast on his feet and he didn't have quick hands, but he could take a punch and he could dish out punishment. While still an undercard fighter, he became one of Chicago's favorites. The red-shirted Gator rooters were loud and loyal.

His 13th fight, May 9, 1984, matched Bodzianowski against Peoria journeyman Francis Sargent at the Bismarck Pavilion. In the works was a bout with a former light heavyweight champion, Mike Rossman. Bodzianowski couldn't get untracked, and Sargent led on points after six rounds before Gator rallied and pulled out a ten-round decision. But Bodzianowski had been told he didn't belong in the ring at all that night. Less than two weeks before, Bill O'Connor, his mentor and comanager, had died. Lenza urged Bodzianowski to postpone the bout, and Bodzianowski said no, he'd go ahead.

That was his last fight on two feet. Twenty-three days later, a car he was passing in Olympia Fields suddenly turned, apparently toward a driveway, and plowed into the side of his motorcycle. Gator suffered four compound fractures below the right knee and doctors gave him a choice: he could keep his right foot but it would never be any good and he would never fight again; or they could amputate it. Cut it off, Bodzianowski said.

"There was a period of three or four months that Craig went through a pretty traumatic time," Lenza says. "Somebody asked me what would have happened if Craig hadn't had the accident, but I really think he's a better fighter. He's got the same faults, but he's way stronger. The accident did that -- he worked on strengthening his upper body.

"He's at 1,000 percent mentally," Lenza adds. "He thinks nobody can beat him."

Bodzianowski has his red protective cup on over his red sweats and his red headgear tight around his head. With the insertion of his mouthpiece, he is ready. Fornarelli weakly climbs up onto the apron to give instructions.

Dion "Showtime" Burgess, a black heavyweight, has been imported from Cleveland to spar with Bodzianowski. Burgess has surprisingly quick hands and feet for a man who weighs close to 250 pounds.

"I think our timing's good with Ratliff," says Lenza. "He's still a quality fighter. Ratliff and Craig have sparred. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses. If Ratliff wants to stop and fight I think he'll be in trouble, but Ratliff's not a quitter."

In the second round Burgess comes down off his toes and is trying to muscle Bodzianowski on the ropes. Giving away at least 50 pounds, Bodzianowski has to work hard to get the bigger man off him. Fornarelli, his right foot on the bottom rope, encourages Bodzianowski to work on Burgess's soft midsection.

"Craig is a much better defensive fighter than people give him credit for," says Lenza. "And he takes a good punch." Craig knows what this means. "I'm not saying Ratliff doesn't -- I just think Craig wants it more."

"He's got a nice punch," Burgess says, pulling off his headgear. "I've worked with a lot of great fighters and Craig is very tenacious, very aggressive. He's got a tremendous heart and he's a gentleman in and out of the ring."

In the weeks leading up to the fight, Bodzianowski is living with Fornarelli. A typical day involves:

5 AM. Wake up. Road work and a little body work, after which Fornarelli cooks him breakfast (the biggest meal of the day), then rest for two or three hours;

11:30 AM. Gym work at Windy City;

1:30 PM. Light lunch and relaxation until early evening;

7 PM. More body work for Bodzianowski. He uses the Nautilus equipment to strengthen his upper body and abdominal areas;

10 PM. Bedtime.

"The last week before the fight, you break down to almost nothing," says Fornarelli. "You rest and start getting mentally prepared."

He agrees that war at close range will be to Bodzianowski's benefit because it will nullify the six-foot five-inch Ratliff's height and reach advantage. "All he's got to do is stay inside and work the body," Fornarelli says with a grin.

As for Ratliff, "It all depends how he is mentally," Fornarelli remarks. It's something of a mystery why Ratliff even took this fight -- surely, beating an unranked, peg-legged opponent won't help him get another title bout. But not even ex-champions turn down a half-decent payday -- here, $10,000 apiece. "He can't win for winning," says Fornarelli about Ratliff, "and I'm going to try and take advantage of that situation."

April 3, 1987. Fornarelli feels awful. He says he's going into the hospital in a couple days. He sits on a bench and lights a cigarette and rests his big arms on a rubbing table.

Bodzianowski has two tattoos on his right arm and one on his left arm, these in addition to the infamous alligator tattooed over his heart. When Izod was the rage, Bodzianowski enjoyed cutting out that part of his shirts and showing the world his designer chest.

Gator shadowboxes in the dimly lit ring. He's working three- and four-punch combinations in one corner of the ring and then moving to the next corner. Short punches. Compact and powerful. His eyes burn with concentration and he makes noises that are sound effects for his imaginary blows thudding into Ratliff's midsection.

Lenza has news. Promoter Don King has promised the winner of the Bodzianowski-Ratliff bout a crack at the current World Boxing Council cruiserweight champion, Carlos "Sugar" DeLeon -- the man from whom Ratliff won the title in 1985. There is no longer any question how Ratliff will be mentally.

"They've both got something to shoot for," Lenza says. He is concerned, but still confident. His fighter has faced up to every challenge so far. The crowd of onlookers at the Windy City gym is growing by the day, and Lenza works his way through today's collection with a politician's aplomb. Most are friends; those he meets for the first time quickly become friends.

Lenza puts Vaseline on the front of Bodzianowski's headgear and on his gloves. He does the same for "Showtime," who is his usual jovial self. Fornarelli has abandoned his bench for the ring apron. He rests his right leg on the bottom rope and watches Burgess move around the ring, occasionally sticking Bodzianowski with the jab.

"Step in, step in," Fornarelli says. "Right hand, right hand."

In the second round Burgess alternates between bulling Bodzianowski and boxing him. Bodzianowski is eating a lot of jabs in order to land a few solid hooks to the body. "Cut him off, cut him off," Fornarelli says. "Cut him off." He wants his fighter to trap Burgess in a corner.

Bodzianowski confers with Fornarelli as a New Jersey-based heavyweight, Reggie Currington, brings his sculptured body into the ring. At six foot three inches and 215 pounds, Currington has been employed to impersonate Ratliff.

Currington's hand-speed advantage is unmistakable, but speed has never been Bodzianowski's game. Bodzianowski lands a hard left hook and Currington grunts.

Bodzianowski's fourth round of sparring finds him stalking Currington, who carries his left hand low and his right hand cocked.

"Get underneath, get underneath," Fornarelli says. He wants Bodzianowski to work his way inside Currington's pumping jab. "Let's go!"

There is an uneasiness at ringside. Currington's speed is a continual frustration to Bodzianowski.

"The reason he's not throwing," Fornarelli offers, "is we're concentrating on defense. He's going to have to learn to ride two or three rounds, take some punishment.

"They only gave me five and a half weeks, that's not enough time, but I'll do the best I can," Fornarelli goes on. "If I get him to shorten up his punches, then it's a different story, but he always looks like shit in the gym anyway."

Fornarelli climbs down from the apron and walks over to the bench and lights a cigarette. "I've been too weak," he says.

Fornarelli's biggest concern about his fighter is that Bodzianowski, who works so hard, will overtrain. He calls that worse than not training at all and he says he has to keep Bodzianowski from sneaking off and working on his own. He notices Burgess and Currington sitting down talking. "What's up?" Fornarelli asks. "Are those guys through?"

It is Bodzianowski's ability to take punishment and launch his own assault that has made him so popular. He's never been in a dull fight. He owes his success to a large heart, a concrete chin, and nonstop punching.

"If Ratliff makes the mistake and tries to slug," says Currington, "Craig will take him out.

"He shouldn't stay outside and jab. He's stronger and can beat him inside. That's how Bernard Benton beat Ratliff [in Ratliff's first title defense] -- by bulling him around the ring."

Currington says that if Bodzianowski can get inside and hit Ratliff to the body, he can also hit him to the head. "There ain't no way in the world he'll blow this -- this means a title shot," Currington says.

April 9, 1987. Most of the physical work is done now and it's a matter of mentally tuning up. Fornarelli is absent, but Nate Bolden, Gator's senior trainer, appears at the gym today in his green work suit. Bolden was one of the world's top-rated 160-pounders in the late 1930s and '40s. He fought four battles with middleweight champ Tony Zale and two with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore. His handshake crunches.

Bodzianowski is on the pay phone. He turns the call over to Lenza in a gesture of impatience. Bolden grabs Bodzianowski from behind and cracks his back and works on his neck. Bodzianowski nods his head appreciatively and goes to change clothes.

Bolden speaks slowly and deliberately. He says Bodzianowski is a bit quivery now but the first jab on Sunday will snap him out of it. He bemoans the lack of white fighters in boxing these days and says Gator is the only one of his pupils who stuck with the sport.

"I turned him around, from southpaw," says Bolden. "I got him leverage and coordination. When he got his foot hurt I told him not to worry about it as long as he's got a knee."

Bolden says that every move Bodzianowski makes is a move that he himself first refined and then passed on. He declines to comment on Ratliff. "I don't talk about any other fighters, I talk about my fighter."

Now Bolden has Gator moving clockwise around the bag, jabbing and throwing the right hand. Now Bodzianowski reverses direction. "Don't let it move, stand right in front of it," says Bolden, moving nimbly around the gym floor.

"Shift, don't fall all over yourself. Turn sideways. jab. Get in there and jab!" Bolden barks. "All I want you to do is get inside. And look for your own. If it's not there -- move!"

Lenza says that Fornarelli is in Alexian Brothers Medical Center recovering from surgery. He's not going to make the fight.

"He's really quiet today," says Lenza about his fighter. "The closer he gets to the fight, the quieter he gets."

April 12, 1987. The consensus around the Bismarck Pavilion is that Bodzianowski has little or no chance. A few add, "If the fight is on the up-and-up." Sugar Ray Leonard was in a similar position before his fight with Marvin Hagler.

The crew puts the finishing touches on the 20-foot ring. Placed on the steel frame are sheets of three-quarter-inch plywood and a three-quarter-inch foam pad. A light blue, blood-and-sweat-spattered canvas with two Coors logos and the Cedric Kushner Promotions logo is tied tightly over the frame. The surface is hard, with very little bounce.

The undercard is highlighted by a series of mismatches and a major-league brawl in the $100 seats set off by a boxer who sucker-punched his opponent after being called out on a first-round TKO.

The introduction of Mayor Harold Washington and promoter Don King brings a round of rousing boos. Announcer Chet Coppock is clowning around with a couple of female wrestlers who've joined him in the ring. The chant of "Gator, Gator" rocks the Pavilion as everyone waits impatiently for the boxers. Now a sudden chorus of boos signals Ratliff's entrance into the ring.

As Ratliff steps between the ropes and takes off his robe, revealing a fancy pair of black-green-and-red-striped trunks and a wild haircut, the booing gets louder. Ratliff bounces around the ring, waiting for his opponent and the red eight-ounce gloves, which will be placed on the fighters in the ring.

Now, to crazed cheering, Bodzianowski is making his way forward. Ratliff stares straight into his opponent's corner as Gator climbs through the ropes there. Bodzianowski removes his red robe and starts loosening up. The prosthesis on his right leg ends in a dingy yellow elastic that winds up over his knee. He's practicing short punches. Ratliff has problems with one glove and Bodzianowski waits impatiently while a replacement is found.

At center ring, referee Nate Morgan gives the fighters their instructions. Ratliff is still trying to stare through Bodzianowski. Gator avoids his eyes.

Ratliff has a tall, classically sculptured boxer's body, with well-defined muscles; Bodzianowski looks a little soft in the midsection and has a bulkier upper body.

The opening bell sounds and the fighters approach each other carefully. Trying to avoid the ropes, Bodzianowski throws an occasional weak jab to keep Ratliff off him. With half a minute to go in the round, Ratliff catches Bodzianowski with a left hook and sends him down in a heap. Bodzianowski bangs his head hard on the canvas. The crowd falls silent. Will the fight end here? Bodzianowski wobbles to his feet and seems to benefit from Morgan's careful inspection. Lying on the ropes, absorbing more punishment, he somehow weathers the round.

In the second round Ratliff declines to press his advantage and Bodzianowski gets back in the fight with some solid rights to the head. Bodzianowski, who stands between rounds instead of using a stool, has major discoloration around his left eye and some nasty rope burns on his back. Fornarelli had intended to be in Gator's corner this Sunday afternoon but he's missing. Down in the good seats, the veteran Chicago trainer Tony Arvia decides that Bodzianowski isn't getting the attention he needs. He bounds up onto the apron and starts icing down the boxer's neck.

Arvia's presence is unauthorized: he's not listed as one of Bodzianowski's corner people.

Ratliff uses his advantage in strength and reach to keep Bodzianowski off balance. He sticks his left hand in Bodzianowski's face, trying to measure him for a right. Looking for that opening, he is meanwhile nailing Bodzianowski with a stream of uppercuts, but every time Gator appears hurt he fights his way off the ropes with left hooks and right uppercuts. Bodzianowski has yet to begin attacking his opponent's body, but he is outhustling Ratliff, who continues to search for his KO punch.

In his corner, awaiting round four, Bodzianowski raises his left arm, to acknowledge the crowd's support. Now Ratliff lands two low blows. There's a mouse under Ratliff's right eye as Bodzianowski continues to connect with roundhouse hooks; he's laboring to corner his opponent.

Arvia has assumed command of Bodzianowski's corner. He is rubbing Bodzianowski's belly, applying the ice bag to the back of his neck, and massaging his tattooed arms.

In the fifth round, Ratliff continues to land the harder punches, but they only inspire Bodzianowski to mix it up. Ratliff pins Bodzianowski on the ropes and lands a head-jarring left uppercut followed by a booming right hand. As the bell sounds, Bodzianowski, his face as red as his trunks, walks triumphantly back to his corner with his arms aloft. Lenza watches his fighter with concern welded to his face.

Ratliff's corner applies a cold piece of metal to a cut under their man's right eye. The angular boxer is out quickly in the sixth and staggers Bodzianowski with a right, but Bodzianowski soaks it up and bangs back a couple of rights to Ratliff's body. A minute into the round, Bodzianowski raises his arms again and the crowd responds. There's also a cut above Ratliff's left eye. His superior hand speed is consistently beating Bodzianowski to the punch, but Gator's persistent punching from odd angles has made it impossible for Ratliff to take command.

With one minute left in the sixth, Bodzianowski stops Ratliff in his tracks with a crunching left hook to the ribs. But Ratliff fights back and lands a telling right that has Bodzianowski headed for the canvas. In a miraculous exhibition of balance, Bodzianowski, who looks like he's going to do the splits, manages to stay upright, bounce over to the ropes, and last the round. The pace of this bout has been relentless.

Bodzianowski opens the seventh round by missing with a wild left hook and doing a 360-degree turn. He ends up on the ropes eating a right uppercut from Ratliff. Both fighters are showing signs of wear. Early in the round, Bodzianowski starts jabbing Ratliff for the first time. It's not a hard jab but it is persistent, and it keeps Ratliff at bay long enough for Bodzianowski to land some good punches behind it. Gator does his version of the Ali shuffle late in the round and raises his arms as the bell sounds.

In the eighth, Bodzianowski sticks to the jab. Ratliff's efforts are wild and the cuts above his left eye and under his right eye are heavy with salves. Behind the jab, Bodzianowski presses the attack, and he seems to be gaining control. He connects with some suffocating body punches.

Yet Ratliff comes out strong in round nine and nails Bodzianowski early. Gator goes down for only the second time in his career -- both times in this fight -- but he gets up quickly, waving to his fans with his left arm that he's OK. Ratliff applies heavy pressure and Bodzianowski finds himself in a neutral corner covering up. Fighting his way out, Gator manages to push Ratliff to the canvas. But an uppercut sends Bodzianowski back to his corner with his teeth rattling.

The fighters touch gloves for the tenth and final round. The crowd is on its feet screaming for Bodzianowski. Again Ratliff sends Bodzianowski to the canvas, and again Bodzianowski rises with his arms aloft and continues. Gator stings Ratliff with an uppercut and begins to stalk. Ratliff is contending with a bloody ear, a bloody mouth, and the cuts around his eyes. He's backpedaling, trying to protect his butchered face. Bodzianowski, covered with Ratliff's blood, is still coming after his opponent when the final bell sounds.

The 2,800 fans packing the Pavilion stand and cheer. The combatants embrace and Coppock manages to hush the crowd by announcing that the judges have reached a unanimous decision. The scores -- 47-42, 46-43, and 46-45 -- all favor Ratliff, who is crowned the new Illinois state cruiserweight champion. The three knockdowns were the difference.

At the press conference, a red-faced Bodzianowski says the fight was close and could have gone either way. He calls it a good learning experience. Ratliff has yet to appear -- and Bodzianowski deflects a question about what if it had been a 12-round fight.

"You can't say 'what if . . .'" Bodzianowski says tersely. "I'm not going to be like all these other guys. I went out there to fight, it was a tough break, but I won't be like all those, excuse my language, fuckin' bums and make excuses. I trained hard for this fight, 'Fonzo beat me, that's all."

Bodzianowski says he would like a rematch. He adds that he thinks that the judges go out of their way to favor his opponents because they don't want people to think they're protecting a handicapped fighter. Daily Herald sports columnist Mike Imrem asks Bodzianowski the most poignant question of the day. Did he gain more respect in his first defeat than he did in 17 wins?

Gator says he isn't sure but maybe even knocking out Ratliff would only have inspired the skeptics.

Ratliff finally joins Bodzianowski at the press conference. His face is covered with bruises. Gracious in victory, he calls Bodzianowski "a hell of a guy" and "very determined" and adds, "Don't count him out.

"If a guy like Craig Bodzianowski can come in with one foot and mess my face up like this . . ." says Ratliff. "He's a helluva puncher."

Ratliff says he would love to fight Bodzianowski again "when I (Ratliff) become champion," so they can both make some real money.

"I know who Craig Bodzianowski is," says Ratliff. "Now you know who he is."

"All I know," says Jerry Lenza, "is that Alfonzo Ratliff fought a great fight and my fighter fought a great fight. My fighter's the most courageous fighter I know."

There can be no argument.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nuccio Di Nuzzo, Jerry Daliege.

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