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The Corner Man: Chicago’s Greatest Boxing Trainer, Sam Colonna

The fight was nine years ago, but Sam Colonna still remembers it clearly:

Late in the eighth round of a grueling 137-pound super lightweight bout in the Hammond Civic Center, Courtney Burton landed a huge left hook to the head, dropping his opponent, Angel Manfredy.

As soon as the referee had counted ten over the victim, Colonna acted on two instincts.
First, he congratulated his victorious fighter. Then, he rushed across the ring to help lift Manfredy, who had landed with his head against the bottom ring strand.

Colonna’s first reaction is common among corner men who spend hours in the gym preparing boxers for success on fight night. But his other impulse, uncommon to say the least, tells a lot about the man’s character. Chicago’s pre-eminent boxing trainer reckons he has been in ring corners for “thousands of fights” over the past 27 years—enough to know winning isn’t everything.

“At that moment, I felt bad that my guy beat Angel,” he said, explaining why he reacted as he did that night. “Angel used to be my guy. I don’t even remember exactly why we split, something over different religious beliefs.”

Nine years later, as he talked about Manfredy, the stocky 52-year-old Colonna, sporting the same mustache and goatee, was in another gym, preparing another fighter for another bout. This time, the boxer was light heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara, preparing for a title fight.

After Fonfara shadowboxed in one of the two rings inside the second-story Chicago Boxing Club at 3508 S. Halsted St., Colonna stepped through the ropes. He donned oversized mitts designed to catch and absorb Fonfara’s punches as Fonfara simulated what he intended to do against Tommy Karpency.

“When you step around, don’t step there, because you’re still in my distance there,” Colonna instructed as Fonfara smacked a mitt and turned.

Fonfara nodded and threw a solid right that thumped into the left mitt Colonna held near his jaw. Even as he nodded in mute appreciation, the trainer reminded his fighter, “One punch is not enough. Sometimes, you rely on your power too much.”

A few days later, when Fonfara stepped into the ring, the trainer’s words would prove prophetic.

Sam Colonna’s first visit to a Chicago boxing gym, as a teenager, was as a favor to a friend visiting from Italy, where both of them had been born and grown up. “He couldn’t speak much English, but he had boxed in Italy and wanted a place to work out,” Colonna recalled. “So I took him to the Chicago Park District gym at 29th and Halsted.”

His friend returned the favor by teaching him the basics of boxing. “I got in the ring and started sparring, and got hooked on boxing,” Colonna said. In 1979, he made the finals of a park district tournament.

Five years later, he had graduated from high school, married, got a job, had a son, and bought a house. But on May 19, 1984, whatever thoughts he had about continuing to box were shot down.

“I was unloading a lilac tree I had cut down from my front yard and had hauled away in a truck,” he recalled. “A teenager came up to me and asked, ‘Do you have change for a $20?’ I told him I didn’t and he started to walk away. Then I remembered I had gone back in the house just before I left and gotten $35 in case I needed it. I called him back and said I actually could make change for him.”

The only change made, however, was in the youth’s attitude. “He said, ‘Give me your money!’ I said, ‘I’m not giving you nothin’, “ Colonna recalled. “Then I felt pressure against my side. I didn’t even realize I was shot. He shot me with a .22 caliber pistol.” The gunman took his money, ripped a chain from his neck, and left him fallen and bleeding.

“A gas meter reader found me and sped me to the hospital in my truck. He hit a vehicle on the way, but we didn’t stop and it wasn’t reported. I think maybe he wasn’t where he was supposed to be when he found me. I never found out who he was.

“I was hospitalized for about a month, then spent eight more weeks wearing a colostomy bag. I still have a bullet in my lower back.” He has a vertical scar down his abdomen and wears a brace on his right leg below the knee. He walks with a slight limp.

“The guy who shot me was a black man,” he said, “and the guy who saved me was a black man. Funny thing. My chain broke when it was ripped off me. It had two golden boxing gloves on it, and one of them fell into my shoe.”

He still had that symbolic connection to the sport he could no longer practice. It didn’t take him long to add a more tangible connection: In 1985, he began training fighters even as he went back to work, becoming part owner of the Archer News Agency in Bridgeport.

Over the years, he built an impressive roster of Chicago fighters. They include a host of top amateur boxers, popular local professionals such as Kenny Bowman, Rita Figueroa, Mike Garcia, Angel Hernandez, and Rocky Martinez, and some who got national media attention, including Tomasz Adamek, Vaughn Bean, David Diaz, Andrew Golota, and pro football-pro boxing dual threat Tom Zbikowski.

Some of his best fighters, including Adamek and Golota, started out with Colonna at the now-shuttered Windy City Gym but left him for better-known promoters and trainers when they became stars. Colonna shows only a trace of bitterness at the business. Without naming names, he says, “A lot of the great trainers made their reputations by hooking up with an already great fighter. It’s the little guys like me who do all the work when these fighters get started, sometimes all the way back to when they are amateurs.”

Following in the footsteps of Adamek, who became a light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion, and Golota, who fought and lost heavyweight world title fights four times, 19-year-old Fonfara arrived in Chicago six years ago with a visiting contingent of Polish boxers who came to train at the Windy City Gym.

“We liked each other the first day,” said Fonfara, who had 120 amateur fights in Poland. “It was a big decision for me to stay in Chicago when the others went back…. When I came here, I saw that Sam loved boxing and could change my style and make me a better fighter. Before Sam, I was mainly a defensive fighter. Now, I use more uppercuts, hooks and combinations.”

Colonna recalled Fonfara as “the runt of the litter” among the Polish group who came to Windy City. “But he wanted to learn and he was a hard worker. When I picked him as the one I wanted to keep training, the Polish coach said, ‘You’re kidding.’”

For his part, Fonfara insisted that success would not lure him away to bigger name trainers. “I’ve worked with Sam for six years,” he said. “I would stay with Sam.”

In their six years together, Fonfara has grown from a 138-pound lightweight who sparred with Diaz and Hernandez, to a 175-pound light heavyweight who beat former champions Glen Johnson and Byron Mitchell to get a shot at the IBO title (a step below the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO major world ranking boxing organizations).

But to grasp that title belt, he needed to beat Tommy Karpency.

*     *     *     *     *

On fight night, Nov. 16, the noisy crowd of 4,224 at the UIC Pavilion (about two-thirds capacity) was pro-Fonfara and predominantly Polish-American. A good number joined the soloist in singing the Polish national anthem.

Golota was in the audience, and offered praise for his former trainer. “Sam is a good friend, an honest person,” said Golota.

The scheduled 12-round bout began perfectly for Fonfara. But then things went bad—and strange.

When Fonfara stunned Karpency with a combination in the first round, draping him against the ropes and convincing referee Pete Podgorski to give him a standing eight count, the surprised crowd erupted in cheers. Karpency tried to backpedal but Fonfara dropped him with a solid right, feeding the fans’ frenzy.

But after the second round, Fonfara came back to his corner and told the trainer he thought he’d broken his right hand. Karpency recovered and found offensive rhythm while Fonfara fell out of sync, fighting defensively and relying mostly on his left hand. By the seventh round, sharp-shooting Karpency was consistently beating his opponent to the punch, overcoming a 10-7 deficit after the opening round to move two points ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards.

As the seventh began with Karpency furiously pursuing and outpunching Fonfara, things looked bad for the hometown hero. But looks can be deceiving. Apparently, Karpency was desperately seeking a knockout because he was either injured or physically drained. When he grabbed Fonrata and got pushed back, he fell on his back and struggled to get up.
Referee Podgorski had a brief exchange with the fighter, then signaled a halt to the bout. The crowd, uncertain what that meant, booed lustily.

Time passes slowly in such moments of confusion. Finally, Fonfara was announced the winner by technical knockout and Podgorski had some explaining to do.

“Fonfara threw him off, but Karpency was holding, so I couldn’t disqualify Andrzej,” Podgorski explained later. “When I tried to help Karpency up, he said, ‘I quit. I’ve had enough.’ Later, he told me it was his shoulder. He told me he couldn’t continue.”

Both fighters were given a turn at the ring microphone, disdaining a post-fight press conference. Karpency insisted that he had Fonfara “hurt bad, then he pushed me…. He drilled me in the first round, but you saw me get back up and bring it to him.”

Fonfara had a different version of the finish. “I think he went crazy. He tried to knock me out. When he couldn’t, he fell down and said he couldn’t continue.”

The loser called for a rematch, while the winner got in the evening’s final, and clearest truth: “I’m the champion. That’s it, you know.”

When he complained about his right hand after the second round, “he was nervous, I had to calm him down,” Colonna said later. “I told him to use his left more, and that he had the other guy in trouble.”

Before the seventh round, on his stool facing the other corner, Fonfara said he saw and heard Karpency complain that he couldn’t see and wanted to quit. “I was facing away from that corner, tending to Andrzej, so I couldn’t tell,” Colonna admitted. “Apparently, my fighter was right. The way the other guy came out, he was going to end it one way or the other.”

Although the opponent was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards and looked to be extending his lead when the fight was stopped, Colonna insisted that “some of the rounds were even and could have gone either way. Karpency threw a lot of arm punches. My guy probably relied too much on his power shots early, then got too cautious after he hurt his hand.”

*     *     *     *     *

It was one Colonna’s stranger finishes. But he’s seen better and worse.

The worst? Golota v. Lamon Brewster, May 21, 2005 at the United Center. Golota had returned to Colonna’s gym and tutelage after spending time with trainers Lou Duva and Al Certo. Before the fight, challenging Brewster for his heavyweight title, Colonna conceded this was a huge test for his fighter and him. It didn’t go well. Golota was knocked out in the first minute. “I was very disappointed,” the trainer said. “No excuse, but they kept us in a windy hallway for 17 minutes waiting to go on. It was so bad Andrew’s robe was flapping around. He went in there cold and got caught. Brewster did what he had to do, give him credit.”

The best? Manfredy v. Arturo Gatti, Jan. 17, 1998 at the Atlantic City Convention Hall. Entering the ring wearing a devil’s mask, red leggings and the nickname “El Diablo” stitched to his trunks, Manfredy made the night hell for favored Gatti, beating him bloody until the fight was stopped in the 8th round. “I picked Gatti and we called him out because I knew Angel could beat him,” Colonna said. Gatti went on to have a successful career thereafter, before his mysterious death on a Brazilian vacation in 2009, eventually ruled a suicide.

Manfredy now lives in Indiana, married with three children and a grandson. He has abandoned the devil imagery in favor of religion. He is an evangelist at his church, and is seeking to become a boxing trainer like Colonna.

“He’s an awesome trainer,”Manfredy said. “We hooked up in Chicago after I was in a bad car accident. He brought me back and we were bonded together. He was the best man at my wedding.”

But when asked about the Burton fight, when Colonna rushed to his aid, Manfredy said he didn’t remember it. His wife told him later about the gesture by his former trainer.
“Knowing all that,” Manfredy said, “I still love him and his family.”

*     *     *     *     *

The week after the Karpency fight, Fonfara was nursing a right hand broken in two places and in a cast, his trainer said. When the fighter gets back to work, Colonna will be in a new gym opening this weekend at 2600 W. 35th Street.

“It will be named Windy City Boxing,” he said. He wanted it to be the Windy City Gym, the same as his long-time former home, but someone got a copyright on that name. Nonetheless, he said, “It will be a lot like the old place. I’m bringing over a lot of the old boxing posters from there.”

Moving plans were put on hold briefly last month as he was hospitalized and had his stomach pumped, vestiges from the shooting years ago. Colonna, who has two children from a previous marriage and four stepchildren with his current wife, Tina, lives in Burbank. As soon as he got out of the hospital, he was back in the gym at the Chicago Boxing Club.

That was where he had been sitting at his desk one afternoon before the Fonfara-Karpency bout when a young man approached and said, “I’m looking for a trainer.” He identified himself as Fredric Bowen, said he’d traveled from Jackson, Tenn., to Milwaukee to Chicago, and had recently lost his first pro fight. He brought his gear with him.

Colonna told him this gym would be closing soon and told him where he could find others. But instead of sending the young man on his way, he offered to put the stranger in the ring for a quick session.

This is how it begins, again.

As Bowen headed for the dressing room, Colonna said, “This is just how I got started with Manfredy.”

STORY ART: Courtesy Tomba Images.

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