“Why the hell do you want to fight?” Vinny asked Thomas the next time they spoke. Why didn’t Thomas want to make money outside of the ring like Vinny had? Thomas had certainly inherited his father’s entrepreneurial instincts. At age 15, he had started his own business venture, buying boxing gloves from the manufacturers and selling them online at a markup. As a boy, he often snooped through Vinny’s desk to glimpse at the fight contracts.
Thomas also spent lots of time at the gym, watching Vinny’s fighters hit the pads and sitting with them as they reviewed tapes of their opponents. He joined Vinny in their dressing rooms as they prepared for fights and was ringside to see their hands raised in victory, allured by it all.
So Thomas had chosen to become a boxer too. And since his mind was made up, there was no question who would manage him. “I was retired, to be honest with you,” Vinny said. “I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in the sport of boxing.”
Thomas, now 21, has amassed 13 professional wins, his latest a unanimous decision against soft touch Joshua Robertson, 5-3 (1), on Saturday night in Atlantic City. Although he is being moved slowly, many boxing insiders already regard him as a legitimate prospect in the junior middleweight division. He boasts a complete skill set, a penchant for dramatic fights and a growing legion of fans who know him best by his playful moniker, “Cornflake.”
As Thomas’ manager, Vinny is doing his job: patiently trying to guide his young prospect to the highest place in the cruelest sport. “Without a doubt, he’ll get an opportunity to fight for a world title,” Vinny says of his son. “The rest is up to him. I’ll do my job to get him there - his job is to win it.”
* * *
If you are a boxing fan, you have probably seen Thomas LaManna’s face, though you may not realize it.
It was a notorious moment in the summer 2011 run of HBO Sports’ “24/7” series: a bitter argument between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and his father at Mayweather’s Las Vegas gym. The HBO cameramen, who had been packing their bags as the dispute began, quickly reassembled to capture the scene.
For 10 seconds, the camera fixed on a tall, curly-haired, white kid standing between the combatants just a few feet back. He donned a flat-brimmed baseball cap and carried a gym bag over his shoulder and his bottom lip was bit into a speechless grin. Most people who were there seemed to see the pathos of the Mayweathers’ argument. Thomas was the only one - aside from the cameramen - who seemed to see the entertainment.
Thomas has in fact been to the Mayweather Boxing Club several times, sparring some of its top amateurs and receiving praise from Mayweather himself. His visits to the well-resourced gym are a luxury of having a well-connected father.
Home is different. “Country,” Thomas says plainly. “South Jersey is country.”
A drive along the wide-open boulevards that segment Vineland - at 60,000 residents, the biggest city in New Jersey’s Deep South - substantiates his claim. The sky is big in Vineland. It would be hard to get lost there for too long.
At the northwest corner of one intersection near the eastern edge of town, there is a white stucco house with two side doors. The left door displays a sign that reads, “Hassan’s Hair Hut.” The right one leads into a spare 20-by-20 room. Inside, three worn heavy bags hang next to a broken exercise machine and ring ropes encase a thin mat that covers most of the concrete floor.
“We don’t like that fancy stuff,” Thomas asserted as he shadowboxed inside the ropes on a humid evening in July of 2012. Thomas’ eyes were narrowed at an imaginary target. He wore a Floyd Mayweather t-shirt that read: “GOD GIFTED. THE BEST EVER. A CHAMP THAT IS HERE TO STAY. 43-0.” It was tucked into his sweatpants.
His sparring partner for the day, Ismael “Tito” Garcia, warmed up beside him. Two teenagers talked and milled around near the door. Another silently hit one of the heavy bags.
Hassan Hamid-El, a middle-aged man who is the presumed proprietor of the barbershop, paced along the ropes and gave intermittent instruction to Thomas in a muddled voice. “Straight shots, straight shots.” The room quieted as another man wrapped Garcia’s hands. Then Hamid-El closed the gym door.
As the two fighters began sparring, Thomas assumed the role of aggressor. He is rangy for a junior middleweight but often chooses to in-fight (both his trainer and father discourage this habit). He bullied Garcia for a while but then paused after throwing a combination and ate a right hand. And then a second right, a counter.
As the rounds went on, Thomas found success in spurts. Then he would lapse and Garcia would pounce, beating him to the next punch repeatedly. “Breathe out your nose,” Hamid-El told Thomas. “Relax. Don’t smother yourself.” By the end of round three, Thomas was discouraged. “I feel slow,” he said. “Slow as sh*t.”
His frustration compounded his problems. Every time Garcia timed him and hit him flush, he lost focus and the more he lost focus, the easier he was to hit. “Slip,” Hamid-El said. Thomas slipped a punch, then stood straight and took a right hand. He covered and Garcia placed an uppercut between his guard. Firing back, he squared up. “Feet in position,” said Hamid-El. “You’re not a southpaw.” Garcia again landed the right hand on his broadened target. “F*cker!” Thomas blurted.
Hamid-El’s voice grew sterner. “Don’t get frustrated,” he said.
Midway through the fifth round, the silent teen began hitting the heavy bag again. Thomas snapped at him. “Cut that out, man!” “You shouldn’t even be paying attention to that!” Hamid-El fired back. Thomas winged an errant shot and Garcia landed a counter uppercut, then two hard right hands. Thomas slumped. “You’re getting mad because I’m making you miss, boy!” Garcia barked, allowing himself one taunt.
When the sixth and final round ended, Thomas tore out of the ring and through the gym door. “You’re not done, man,” Hamid-El said. “Get back in here.” Thomas reentered the gym, climbed through the ropes and began shadowboxing. The confident look in his eyes was gone and his mouth hung open, which made him look much younger than before.
The two teens by the door made their way out of the gym. “Good work, ‘Flake,’” one yelled out behind him.
* * *
By the time Thomas had warmed down, he had regained his composure and with it came a disarming candor. “I let stuff distract me too easy,” he reflected as he stretched on the gym floor. “Like if I’m in the ring and I’m getting hit, I’m getting mad. There are times when me and Tito sparred where there were actually tears coming out of my eyes…not because I’m hurt, just because I’m getting hit and I’m getting frustrated.”
Thomas thinks about his own maturation a lot. Inside of the ring, where one’s focus and self-discipline is subjected to a dizzying barrage, his progress is still fitful. On the outside, however, exists the luxury of forethought; decisions can be made carefully. Here, his commitment to boxing has been huge.
As a high-schooler in Millville, Thomas was a natural at finding trouble. Last year, one could still browse YouTube and find profanity-laced diatribes towards other local fighters that he had posted as a teen. He also made what he describes as “bad choices with the girls” (Vinny attests to this).
At times, Thomas’ rebellious streak bled into petty crime; he admits to briefly dealing drugs. Eventually his mother kicked him out of her house. He slept in his car for four nights. A month after he returned, his grandfather, who lived with him and his mother, suffered a massive heart attack. They found him lying dead in the downstairs of the house.
Amid all of this turmoil - and barely 19 - Thomas began his boxing career. It was around that time when he also shed his rocky relationships, stopped getting in trouble, brought his grades up and began thinking about his future.
Vinny thinks it was no coincidence that Thomas began growing up once he dedicated himself to his sport. “He turned his life around,” Vinny says and his dedication to boxing “was at least 75 percent of it.”
* * *
“‘Cornflake’ was getting outboxed?” Vinny asked. “That’s not good.”
Vinny speaks in a Jersey accent and rarely holds his tongue (Thomas, a child of the hip-hop era, inherited only the second trait). Like everyone else, Vinny calls his son by his alias (“When I call him Thomas, he knows there’s a problem.”) and he often revels in giving him a hard time. Even in those moments, his affection for Thomas is irrepressible. When he makes Thomas’ battles into his own, it is both a signpost of a committed manager - all too familiar with boxing’s dog-eat-dog affliction - and of a proud parent.
“There’s no reason that Tito should get the better of him,” Vinny insisted. “Maybe on the inside but he’s not supposed to get the better of him boxing. The kid is nine feet tall!”
For Vinny, having a personal relationship with one of his fighters is nothing new. His entrée into boxing was a close friendship he formed with Ray Mercer as Mercer was transitioning from Olympian to prizefighter. After one fight early in his career, Mercer did not receive his fair share of the prize and Vinny made his own transition from Mercer’s pal to a member of his management. Soon he was managing a whole crop of young Jersey-based fighters. In 1997, he guided cruiserweight Imamu Mayfield to a world title, a defining moment in his career.
Yet Vinny’s ledger is not without blemishes; if you manage enough fighters, someone is bound to get hurt. “Michael Covington,” Vinny said. “I put him into one fight and I should have never done it.” Covington, a sparring partner for Oscar De la Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley, was in line to fight Trinidad - Vinny had sealed the deal.
There was one problem though. Vinny had already signed Covington to another match, against Guyana’s Andrew Murray. They chose to honor their commitment; the result was tragic. “He got hit by a straight left - knocked him out cold, neurologically damaged. He fought one or two times after that and then I retired him.
[Editor’s note: Covington fought three more times after the Murray loss. Covington went 1-2, retiring after a four-round TKO loss to Hercules Kyvelos in December of 2001.]
“But it didn’t happen because of all the ring wars,” Vinny added. Indeed, Covington had barely fought 100 rounds as a professional, almost all against low-level opponents. Covington was undone by his countless, unforgiving practice rounds with the hardest punchers in the sport.
Vinny then returned to his son. “But Cornflake don’t get hit,” he said. “He’s a very slick boxer. He basically makes you miss and makes you pay. So if the average kid gets hit 500 times during a sparring session, the kid might get hit only 250 times. That’s the only thing that’s good.”
* * *
For Thomas’ first fight of 2013, Vinny matched him against Maryland-based Joshua Snyder, who is 34 and held a 9-8-1 (3) record at the time. In appearance and style, Snyder bears some resemblance to a clean-shaven Bald Bull from Nintendo’s “Punch-Out!!” series. He also represents roughly the same level of opposition for a carefully-moved, young prospect.
The previous August, one month after the sparring session with Garcia, Thomas had fought hardnosed Cuban Yolexcy Leiva. It was a tough fight. He knocked Leiva down in the second round but Leiva stormed back, landing his share of hard punches and bullying his tiring opponent. Thomas was ultimately awarded a split-decision win.
Thomas knew Snyder was a lot like Leiva: a somewhat crude, headfirst brawler. And as fight night approached, he spoke with a very different mindset than the one Vinny had ascribed to him.
“I love to fight,” Thomas said brazenly. “I don’t think [Snyder] realizes that but he sure will find out.” He continued, “At this point, I just don’t give a sh*t. You hit me once, I’m gonna hit you twice. That’s a part of growing up. I gotta grow up and accept the fact that I’m in a business where you get punched in the face.”
On March 8th, Thomas walked through the doors of the ballroom at the Resorts Hotel and Casino to cheers. He danced his way to the ring and once inside the ropes, he nodded and pointed to his fans. Snyder stood calmly in the opposite corner.
Just a few moments after the first bell sounded, Thomas dropped Snyder with a long, counter right cross. The quick knockdown appeared to surprise even Thomas; maybe the fight would be easier than expected. But Snyder rose with clear eyes. And then he commenced his march forward.
Over the next three rounds, there were few strands of the top rope that Thomas’ back did not touch. He slipped and bobbed. He skipped sideways. He leaned back almost 45 degrees. He trotted forward and ducked as punches flew at the back of his head. He landed dozens of counters. Snyder kept coming forward and winging shots no matter what Thomas did. By the third round, Thomas was breathing heavily, his bottom lip drooping.
Then early in the fourth, Snyder finally broke through. A big right hand sent Thomas reeling and Snyder followed the shot with a volley of punches. And then in a flash, Snyder was horizontal, looking up at the ballroom ceiling.
True to his word, Thomas had stood his ground in the fray and he had flattened Snyder with another bolt of a counter right hand. Before retreating to a neutral corner for the count, Thomas hovered over Snyder for a beat and let out an exultant “OHHHHHHH!” Thomas had said that he loved to fight; here was the proof.
Snyder again beat the count and went back to work. His aggression won him the fifth round while Thomas found a home for enough counters to take the sixth. By then, Thomas simply needed to weather the storm; his instinct to trade punches in that pivotal moment of round four had already sealed him the decision.
After the last bell sounded, Thomas made a beeline for one corner and knelt in a short prayer. Whatever he said or thought, it seemed like he meant it.
* * *
“I’ll put it to you like this: I’m 21 years old. I want to be done boxing by 24.”
It was prior to his fight with Snyder. Thomas had recently visited the hospital for a CAT scan, which is required for New Jersey fighters every two years. His results were clean but taking the test had spooked him. Thomas knows he can begin a career as a manager almost at his whim - the “Cornflake” brand he has fostered is transferable. He has done motivational speaking at several high schools and thrives on helping other young boxers as they face the maturation process he is still completing. He is trying to raise capital to open his own gym in Millville.
But Thomas is also a driven fighter. He believes he can win a title and he relishes the idea of proving it to anyone who thinks he cannot. If reaching his goal takes longer than three years, his plans may change. “I consider myself halfway there,” he said. “Forget the connections my dad has. I know my potential.”
Thomas is often accused of being coddled (“Quit hiding behind daddy,” one such accuser recently wrote on his Twitter page). He bristles at this notion, quick to note how fighters like Snyder and Leiva have challenged other prospects or to list all the talented fighters he has sparred. Still, he has enough perspective to know how valuable his father is to his career, whichever direction it takes.
“I wanted to fight Ronald Cruz for the longest,” Thomas recalled, referring to his fellow prospect, who has now twice been beaten. “I called him out on Facebook and I called his promoter Russell Peltz myself. My dad said, ‘What are you, f*cking stupid?’ I wanted to make my mark but at the end of the day, he knows what he’s doing.”
Thomas continued, “He has his connections; I have my coach. He has his job; I have my job. And whatever happens - whether it’s three or four years or next month - I know I’ll be ready because he’ll know I’m ready.”
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