The Engine Room: Breeding Tomorrow’s Boxing Leaders

By Nick Skok

It’s behind the scenes where deals in boxing are made. Glimpses emerge more often than not in the modern social media era when figured promoters appear in video clips or headlines openly discussing terms to win over the public opinion and add pressure to the competition. Routine, this is not if one is honest on the everyday fight deal that’s made.

Moving parts that include but are far from limited to the promoter see other players seated at the proverbial table with network interests, sponsors, site representatives, and of course, fighter management all working towards the same goal: a fight card. This engine room that produces fight fans with the shows they watch on a weekly basis is where the real work happens. For the most part we never hear the names of those grinders that keep their work on a twenty-four hour cycle, welcoming multiple rather than adhering to single time-zones for the global sport.

It’s here the foundation of the sport land is where I broached the topic of conversation with two of it’s lifetime members, Mike Altamura and Mike Leanardi, who in their thirties, have created a foundation of their own that will see them through their career in what should be successful fashion if their recent accomplishments piled on top of their sacrifices hold any bearing. Both boxing stalwarts have infused the sport with new blood everyday for over the last two decades and will still be here when the current patriarchs pass on their responsibilities in the not so distant future.

One of those behind the scenes mainstays is Mike Leanardi who took the time to speak with me on the record.

Mike Leanardi (37), a Chicago native by way of Las Vegas, went all in on the industry. He and his business partner and longtime confidant, attorney Rick Torres, stopped talking about their ideas and made their long anticipated move, starting a management company Victory Sports & Entertainment.

“We started very small and have been growing it organically from there,” explained Leanardi.

For Leanardi, it wasn’t his first venture on the industry level but it was his culmination of past undertakings, that together and carefully strategized over time with trial and errors, aided the development of what is now a humming business.

“I promoted my first pro show in 2008 in Cicero, Illinois just outside of Chicago. I was twenty-six. Financially it was a disaster and the fights weren't very good but I absolutely loved putting everything together and watching it come to life. After a handful of shows I realized promoting wasn't for me,” Leanardi told me.

Getting to the point of personal investment and liability has a beginning that started for Leanardi at a young age like the other managers but took on a life of its own when the love for the sweet science never subsided.

“The first fight I remember watching live was when Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson. I was seven and my dad had just bought, what at the time was a massive 35" TV. I remember "knowing" nobody could beat Mike Tyson and then he lost.” The shock stuck and Leanardi was hooked.

In 2012 Leanardi began working with his good friend, former two-division champion, Badou Jack. “I'm very proud to have played a significant role in all seven of his world title fights.” You might remember Jack for his most recent title showcase on the Manny Pacquiao undercard last January when, in a tough fight, Jack exited with what is the nastiest cut in recent boxing history.

Living in Las Vegas helps Leanardi keep his finger on the industry pulse but don’t be surprised to find him in the lobby of the fighter hotel in Glendale, Arizona or another city hosting a fight where one his clients (or potential clients) may be fighting. Below, I got to know Mike Leanardi a bit more.

Nick Skok: What one point do you think defines both your current and future success in the industry?

ML: I’m multifaceted: I've managed, I've trained and I've promoted shows all at the professional level. I know the business and the sport from many different angles. More than most.

NS: With guys like Bob Arum or Mr. Honda who are the boss of bosses, and working into their 70’s and 80’s, how do you find the room to carve out your own path in an industry where nobody wants to quit or retire?

ML: Those legends of the business are always adapting and adjusting so I wouldn't think it's difficult for them to work with young guys. Personally, I think a lot of people in the boxing business don’t understand it nearly as well as they think they do so a lot of people come and go.

NS: What was the last goal you completed and what’s the next motivation?

ML: Helping Jose Pedraza win his second world title was very rewarding. I always really admired Jose's talent and when I had the opportunity to work with him I jumped at the chance. I was a little taken aback by how many people in the industry had written him off after just one loss but that made winning the title that much sweeter. Of course, Top Rank saw his value and fast tracked him. He went from his Top Rank debut to winning a world title in just over five months. Then, a few months later he fought Lomachenko in a unification match on ESPN with over two million people watching and made a lot of money.

NS: Do you anticipate working in boxing forever?

ML: I have a goal to take a guy from his pro debut, or only a few pro fights, and make him a world champion. I feel like that will give me a great sense of pride. After I've done it once, I’d want to help that guy win multiple world championships. That being said, I'm always motivated by trying to get guys opportunities that may have fallen through the cracks or had one bad night. My least favourite part about boxing is how a guy can have one bad night and then gets completely written off. If that weren't the case, I think more fighters would be willing to take risky fights.

I enjoy working in boxing more than I enjoy working in anything else so I'd like to work in boxing as long as the sport will have me.

NS: Who do you most admire in the industry?

ML: I admire the stalwarts. There's a lot of people that come and go in the industry. They catch lightening in a bottle with one fighter and can live off that for awhile. Like Jay-Z said: "Okay, so, make another HOV" I admire the guys that can repeat their success with other fighters. My dear friend Brad Goodman told me after Gvozdyk beat Adonis that he had now helped develop 50 world champions. THAT is staying power.

NS: Is boxing ever going to be mainstream again?

ML: I honestly don't see boxing ever becoming mainstream in the United States again. When I say again, I mean like it was in the first half of the 20th century. There's so much competition from other sports and the brutality isn't for everybody. In this country people are exponentially more cognisant of the dangers of contact sports than they were even ten years ago and I think that's too much for some people to stomach. Even the NFL has seen decreasing ratings in the last few years. Then within the sport itself, it's so fractured. That makes it hard for people to learn and understand the nuances.

NS: What would you change in the sport?

ML: It’s easy to say things like: "have the best fight the best" and "no more pay-per- views" but I'm going to be a little radical and more tangible. I'd like to see five judges, with the two extreme scores thrown out. I'd like to see :65 or :70 breaks in between rounds to make the sport a little more friendly for broadcast TV. Every major US sport has TV timeouts. Under no circumstance do I want to change the nature of the sport but if it's a little easier for TV to broadcast it by allowing a more realistic commercial break, that helps the sport as a whole. Also, and I know this is a pipe-dream, but I'd like to see title fights be thirteen rounds. When fights were cut from fifteen they should have gone to thirteen, not twelve. Reason being, that would make draws a little more rare.

NS: Who’s your next champion?

ML: I think all the guys I work with have a lot of ability but the two that I believe are the closest are Sonny Fredrickson and Ja’Rico O'Quinn. Sonny's already in the world rankings and has really bounced back nicely from his loss. He's a giant at 140 and there's going to be a lot of opportunities for him in the near future. With Ja'Rico, he's a guy who was a world class amateur and at 115, he's also in a weight class that has a lot of opportunities in it. Rico hasn't really entered the consciousness of the boxing public yet, aside from the those in Detroit who really support him, but when he gets his opportunity he's going to put people on notice.