Derek Bonnett writes about the short but exciting career of Freddie Liberatore
Freddie "The Pitbull" Liberatore is a fighter no more.
Even though Liberatore’s career ended following his 1995 world title fight loss to Gabriel Ruelas nearly a quarter century ago, the thought of Liberatore not being a fighter in sense of the word boggles the mind. Liberatore, a New York native, 20-4-1 (11), had a career which seemed modeled after James Dean’s fervor to live fast and die young. Liberatore’s action-packed, offense-first style graced ESPN airwaves for much of his six-year career. Liberatore estimates that twenty of his twenty-five bouts were televised. Before boxing fans were awing over Micky Ward or Arturo Gatti, there was Liberatore and his own generation of never say die warriors on ESPN such as Sergei Artemiev, Benny Amparo, Leon Bostic, and Ricky Meyers. While none of these men reached the cult-like popularity of Ward or Gatti, Liberatore did establish himself as a legitimate super featherweight contender with wins over Amparo, Frankie Toledo, Harold Warren, and Calvin Grove.
However, boxing isn’t a sport which gives out handily to everyone or leaves the majority of its participants without the worries of financial security after retirement -- even if you are fortunate enough to try for a world title. That includes fighters like Liberatore, who would have made Jim Lampley’s Gatti-list long before Lampley even had an opinion of Gatti. From injury to insult, The Pitbull’s best days may have come after he left the prize ring. But, first came the injury.
"Right after the Ruelas fight, I went and had my right hand operated on because I could not continue to fight or function in life without the operation," Liberatore recounted. "Cortisone shots could not help my right hand anymore. My right hand was so bad that I could not even hit the pads without excruciating pain. When shaking someone’s hand, it felt as if my hand was being crushed. I decided to get a second opinion by a hand specialist and he informed me that I had what is known to be a boxer’s injury where the tendons that hold down your metacarpal bones tear leaving your hand with little stability and your metacarpal bones start to pop up. The pain is so bad that Arturo Gatti had gotten his operation after the first metacarpal bone needed to be fused; I waited until all my metacarpal bones needed to be fused. I was fighting with this injury back when I fought Frank Pena [in 1993] because I was told that it was calcium deposits."
Luck was something that worked both for and against Liberatore throughout his time lacing up the gloves. For example, in 1988 Freddie won the New York Golden Gloves title at 125 pounds. He got to the finals by making his own luck. However, Kevin Kelley, who also reached the finals, was unable to box and Liberatore won on a walkover. Things did not work in his favor while prepping for a shot at the USBA 130-pound title.
"I remember I was going to fight Pete Taliaferro for the USBA belt," Liberatore stated. "I had to pull out because I hurt my hand in a sparring match with Regilio Turr, leaving Arturo Gatti to jump into that spot."
Gatti’s name has surfaced numerous times throughout this writing. The two are natural comparisons given their attitudes in the ring and propensity for exciting bouts. The two were as prolific at creating exciting match-ups as Bert Sugar was at producing volumes of text. Yet, the rewards never came for Liberatore the way they did for the man known as “Thunder”. Now came the insult.
"After getting my operation on my hand, I went back into the gym six months later," Liberatore shared. "I was sparring and throwing my right hand without holding back. I was dropping guys in the gym and looking and feeling unstoppable. I told my manager I wanted to fight again and he told me that he can get me a fight on Top Rank Boxing against Angel Manfredy at the Mohegan Sun on ESPN. Despite not fighting in a year, I said sure. I would fight anyone, anytime especially now that my right hand was good. I asked how much was it for and he replied $2,000.00. I thought, sure it’s not all about the money, but, come on, let’s not be ridiculous. I tried to negotiate for at least a couple of thousands more, but I was denied. I met with Tommy Gallagher who said that he can get me a fight with Tracy Patterson instead. Long story short, Tracy never signed the contract. I was tired of being jerked around and I decided that I needed to get out and start a new chapter in my life by learning a new trade before I was too old."
As a boxing fan, I remembered the passion with which Liberatore fought each time out. I saw him get up from knockdowns which seemingly would have leveled any man. In order to do that, it takes more than just heart. It requires an insurmountable desire to do so. Even in the wake of being undervalued and underpaid, Liberatore never attempted a comeback. I often wondered why?
"I was able to walk away from boxing because I made it into the top ten in the world," Liberatore commented. "I beat known title holders and known contenders. I may not have been known by all, but all who where respected and known in the boxing world knew me and respected me. I had my first child and needed to make a real living. That is the real reason why I left. I joke about it to friends. I was top ten in the world living in a one-bedroom apartment. What other sport would have a guy who is top ten in the world living like he is on welfare?"
Unlike the NFL or NBA, boxing has no league minimums. The two thousand dollars Liberatore had been offered to face an elite like Manfredy had not yet been taxed and was likely still up for some splitting to compensate his team.
It leaves one to wonder if not money, what was it that Liberatore took from his twenty-five-fight career?
"I had sparring wars in the ring with Junior Jones, Arturo Gatti, Boom Boom Johnson, Regilio Tuur, Willy Wise, Jake Rodriguez, and Kevin Kelly, who was my gym mate growing up in the amateurs. They used to call us Salt and Pepper. I still hear from the "old timers" who used to hang out in the gym and watch the sparring matches. They’d tell me, ’Freddy your sparring matches with Regilio Tuur and Arturo Gatti where some of the best fights that I ever saw and I got to see it for free!’ Some of my most memorable fights were against Frankie Toledo; it was non-stop action going back and forth until I knocked him out in the 6th round. Harold Warren would have been a better fight if I didn’t hurt my hand in the third round, but Calvin Grove was my biggest achievement. When I fought Calvin Grove, he was coming off a five-fight win streak against good fighters, stopping Jeff Fenech and beating Troy Dorsey."
These memories could inspire the mind to conjure some wild images, particularly those sparring sessions with...you guessed it...Arturo Gatti. The two men’s careers actually had considerable overlap. With both being popular in New York and Atlantic City, either fighter’s home field could have provided a willing venue.
"If Arturo and I fought, I think that it would have made for an exciting match," Liberatore expostulated. "When you have two fighters with huge hearts and are both on top of their game, that makes the perfect recipe for a great fight. I would have to say it would have been historical if that fight took place instead of with Calvin Grove. Arturo actually called me up the next day to congratulate me on my win against Calvin Grove. Another feel good moment was when I saw Micky Ward at Al Gavin’s funeral. He walked up to me and said that he loved to watch me fight. I was like, well, I enjoyed watching you fight too!"
As fond as these memories clearly are for Liberatore to recall, there always seemed to be a downside for the New Yorker. Through it all, he never received the validation he felt he deserved from certain individuals. That seems to have bothered the former junior lightweight contender even if he did receive some pretty decent praise from others. Would it have made a difference in the grand scheme of things; who knows? One would figure that at least those working for the network which relied so heavily on Liberatore’s ability to entertain might have more to say.
"All Al Bernstein could say during that fight was how old Calvin Grove was. I believe he was only thirty-two. If thirty-two is old then I must have one foot in the grave," Liberatore joked. "When Calvin Grove fought Arturo or Regilio Tuur after me, commentators never mentioned his age or if he was old. Whenever Frankie Toledo fought there was no mention that I KO’d him in the sixth round. Funny how that is. After beating Calvin Grove by split decision, Larry Holmes came over to me to congratulate me and said ’You can’t keep a good man down.’ Even Larry Holmes saw what was happening to me."
One realization that came true to me in the process of writing this piece is that even though I marveled over Liberatore’s ring-life previously, the most salient qualities he possesses have nothing to do with boxing. Larry Holmes was correct in labeling Liberatore as "a good man". He is just that.
"I do not have any connection in boxing today," Liberatore explained. "Yes, every once in awhile I go to the Westbury Gym in New York or I go to some boxing events and fundraisers. I still hit the heavy bag, speed bag, skip rope and run to keep in shape, but that is as far as my involvement in boxing goes. After boxing, my brother in-law introduced me to the television camera field. I started working at Kaufman Studios and then eventually worked on different television shows such as Fox After Breakfast, The Ricky Lake Show, MTV TRL with Carson Daly, The Food Network with Emeril Lagasse. I needed something steadier so I interviewed with an audio, video and lighting production company called Scharff Wiesberg, now World Stage. The boss took a chance on me and hired me. I learned on the job and I am now one of the senior video engineers. I did the install for Avenue Q at the Wynn Hotel in Vegas and I stayed in a huge condo with a Jacuzzi and full kitchen. I had a rental car for a week. I joke how I was treated better working on that install than I was when for fighting for a world title."
Liberatore gave himself a benchmark. He wanted to be done with boxing by the age of thirty. He felt this would leave him enough time to create a new life, one that would provide him the stability the sport of boxing denied him. He took a gamble and a leap with considerable uncertainty and this time things turned out in his favor.
"I came up the hard way because I didn’t have the right people watching over me in the beginning. My fights were set up by a matchmaker who was just interested in making good matches and not in my career. They were too busy promoting someone else and giving them an opponent that they can walk through so I was the guy who was going to make for an exciting fight," Liberatore stated.
After twenty years with World Stage, it’s easy to understand why Liberatore left boxing when he did. Liberatore married his high school sweetheart and has been with her for over thirty years. Together they have two daughters, both intelligent and beautiful. Their talents have blossomed in science and the arts. Liberatore’s parental pride is inspiring to newer dads like myself. On top of it all, the man once known as "The Pitbull" has a career which he enjoys showing up for each day and a loving family to go home to. He also receives the respect he deserves.
This is why Freddie Liberatore no longer had to fight and how he become wealthier than any prize fight could have ever made him.