The metaphorical fork in the road.
Should you keep going, or stop? Give it one more try, or let it be? Let it go, or fight for a little harder for it? No matter your place in the universe, decision making is something you will have the experience of experiencing. And it is something you will continue to experience for all your days.
In boxing, fighters don’t enjoy the benefit of making decisions in private, as most do. In fact, ironically, the more successful a fighter becomes, the more his entire life is questioned. If he wins his first 20 fights handily, his opposition is rigorously questioned. If he skids and loses a couple in a row, his future career as a fighter is heavily criticized. For Michael Gibbons, his “forks” seemed to duplicate. He’d make a decision and move forward, only for the decision to reappear later down the road. This time much more attractive. His particular fork? Boxing.
This story starts with Gibbons as a young teenager. Like most people in the sport of boxing, he stumbled upon it. After watching a Pernell Whitaker and Buddy McGirt fight on HBO one late night, he was hooked. “It had a hold of me,” he remembered. “I couldn’t look away. I started recording the fight on VHS, and every one of Sweet Pea’s (Pernell Whitaker) fights after. That’s who I modeled my style after, Sweet Pea.” Inspired by Sweet Pea, Gibbons would soon after throw hands with his older brother, who massively out weighed him. Next up was the neighborhood scene. “I’d take on any and everybody,” he recalled. “None of them could touch me. None of ‘em.” Gibbons knew he could only get so far brawling in the streets so he decided to look for something a little more structured. With no serious boxing scene yet in Birmingham, or Alabama for that matter, he decided to indulge in whatever combat arts he could find. He would soon turn to local tough man competitions to temporarily satisfy his hunger. Being 17 and underage, he would get a fake ID to pass through security. Not quite boxing, but close enough. “It was truly a freak show,” he admits. “Come see this tiny guy beat up guys double and triple his size. I was 5’7,135 pounds and I’d be beating 6’1 grown men weighing 215 pounds. It was fun but it wasn’t boxing. It was just something to do.”
Realizing that fighting the best the neighborhood had to offer and smacking around older men in local bars wouldn’t put him in a position to become a professional boxer, he decided to get serious about his future. He would soon set up shop at Lights Out Boxing, a local gym in the area. It’s there that he first started to learn about the technique and nuances of the sport. He would spar with more skilled fighters but everything was still coming to him easily. Unfortunately, his time there was cut short, as the gym and the owner’s home were destroyed by the deadly F-5 Tornado, one of the deadliest tornadoes in the history of Alabama. The 1998 storm claimed 32 lives and injured more than 250 people.
“When that happened I trained here and there and did what I could. I was very serious about school and was going to UAB at the time. Right after the time I graduated, I met Curt McCune and Jake Guercio,” He remembered. (He’d give law school a half-hearted try for a year after graduating UAB, but soon directed his focus squarely on boxing.)
“Curt had opened a gym, Champions Boxing,” he smiles while recalling. Curt had one of the best minds in boxing I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve trained all over the world and his boxing eyes are at the top. That includes Gleason’s (Boxing Gym) and other top level gyms as well. He would always hold me accountable. Boxing came so easy to me and Curt would make sure I remained disciplined. If I’d been out all night partying, he’d rough me up something serious the next morning. He taught me how to land those little liver shots, and if he knew I’d been drinking he’d land one on me.”
Gibbons and McCune would begin a new journey together. First up, the amateurs. Together they would produce a more than respectable 21-3 record. Gibbons would pick up Golden Gloves honors on 3 separate occasions. Soon after, McCune would take Gibbons and fellow gym mate Brad Ginn throughout the southeast to test their skills. “It was me and Brad Ginn. We’d fight anybody, anywhere,” he reminisced. We’d pack up on the weekends and hit the road. Brad was a heavyweight knockout artist and I’d point you to death and showboat. Curt hated the showboating.” After more than holding his own against regional talent, Gibbons begin to set his sights on the professional ranks.
The year is 2006. Gibbons has decided to pursue the dream of being a pro fighter, full time. Interestingly enough, he describes his pursuing of his boxing dream as “putting off his real life.” “I hadn’t started my professional career or anything like that. Boxing was my life,” he stated. “I was delaying real life, you know?”
Perhaps because of a realization of the difficulty of the task at hand.
“I had met a girl in New York the year before so I was spending a lot of time there. I was training at Gleason’s and all the trainers would constantly be telling me you need be here. This should be your home. And I was like uhhhh, I don’t know man. That’s a big leap.” A big leap indeed, but a leap he would eventually take. “I told myself, I’m gonna go up there and train for a while to make sure I am not making a big mistake. Because up there man, there are pros everywhere. Real pros.” He would take this time to gauge himself against the New York talent. If he acquitted himself well, he would press forward. If he he wilted, he would pack it in.
Not a bad way for a fighter to test himself at all, considering New York is home to some of the best fighters the sport has ever seen including Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson, Benny Leonard, and Mark Breland to name a few.
Surprisingly, Gibbons admitted a part of him wanted the dream to die right then and there. “To be honest, a part of me was hoping I’d get up there be like nah dude, you don’t need to do this. But, I didn’t! I was able to handle myself at Gleason’s.” At this point, I had to interrupt to clarify. “So a part of you didn’t want it to workout?”, I asked. “Yeah man,” he admits. A part of me NEVER wanted it to work out. I wanted it to all be over so I could start a normal life.” Before he would descend on New York, he got some of the best motivation he ever received in his life.
“I was in Georgia helping out with some of the kids from Curt's gym and one of the coaches walked up to me and asked me was I Michael Gibbons. I said yeah and he just straight up told me I’m making a big mistake by going to New York. That motivated me to prove him wrong. It motivated me then and it motivates now, 20 plus years later.”
“When I got up to New York, it was weird man. I went up there with nothing! I sold my car, along with everything else I owned. I found a decent job but it was a struggle.” A struggle is putting it mildly; Gibbons would get to work at 8:30 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m. to catch a train to Brooklyn, then take a train back to Manhattan and arrive home at 10 p.m. Where was his time to train? In between commutes. But even with these odds against him, he pressed forward.
Circa ‘07. After arriving at Gleason’s full time, everything was starting to take shape. His skills were growing, as was his confidence. Then one day, a defining moment happened. “It was a normal day and I was getting some sparring work in with some guys. Nothing special,” he remembers. “Then out of nowhere one of the coaches wanted me to spar with one of upper level guys. He was an Olympian. I think he was 8-4 or something like that. We got in the ring and it was on. It was give and take, blow for blow. I still remember hearing get em’ Alabama! I was wearing my Golden Gloves windbreaker that had Alabama on it and they didn’t know my name so they just called me Alabama. It was a very even spar and I definitely held my own. That was was huge for my confidence at the time. I was ready to step it up.” That he was. He was about to finally take off. So much so that he had a feature article written on him in the popular Birmingham Magazine in 2008. An excerpt from the article reads as follows:
“It looks like Gibbons' hard work has paid off. He's landed a major promotional deal and will be making his professional boxing debut in April in Tunica, Miss., as a lightweight on the undercard of former two-time world champion Zab Judah. He'll be introduced as The Godfather. a nod to his Italian heritage.”
Michael was on the road to his dream. Or so he thought.
This was it. Michael had finally broken though. He was to fight on the undercard of Zab Judah through Prizefight Promotions. At that point in time, this was about as big as it gets. Zab Judah was a huge name in boxing. Michael would reminisce on how dazzled he was by Judah at the time. “In Gleason’s you would have guys who were really fast, and you’d have guys who where really strong. Zab was both. He would just straight up destroy everyone he got in the ring with. By far the fastest fighter I saw in person.”
Michael was on his way up. WRONG. He would soon receive a call stating he had been bumped off of the card for Zab’s older brother, Josiah. Infuriated, Gibbons made a decision that would haunt him forever. He would go on to tell the promoters that if they would align themselves with people like the Judah’s, maybe they were better off parting ways; and part ways they did. The “People like the Judah’s” incident he is referring to is that he’d gotten word that some associates of Zab had unprovokedly beaten up one of the gym members he’d become close to. Upset and in an admitted rage, he called the head of the promotions and explicitly expressed his anger with what had occurred. He recalls the last fateful thing he said before his career took a turn: “And if you wanna associate yourself with people like Zab, maybe you don’t need to associate with me!” Gibbons felt remorse instantaneously. “I knew one hundred percent right then that I had made one of the worst decisions of my life. Gibbons had let a moment of anger cloud his vision. He was relieved of his affiliation with Prizefight Promotions and had to start from the bottom.
He and Curt would set out on a new path, only for Curt to eventually have to part ways, due to crisis in his own personal life. With Jake Guercia at the helm, he admits that things were much different. “When Curt had to leave, the sparring partners weren’t the same, and neither was my discipline. With Curt having connections across the country, he was able to get some very unique sparring for me. Whatever I was in need of, he could find. Jake was great, but I was enjoying the nightlife too much and not in a gym with the sparring that would cover up the errors I was making.” He would eventually make his professional debut in September of 2007 vs. Cory Frizzell; a fight that would end a four-round unanimous decision. He would meet Tim Gibson during the promotion, a man that he would grow close to and eventually become a part of his journey.
After a few more fights against middling opposition with mostly positive results, Gibbons decided it was time to step it up a notch, much to the dismay of Gibson, who was very much a part of his career at this point. He would have preferred for him to be patient. He would go on to face Jose Martinez in Atlanta, GA. The result? An extremely frustrating split-decision loss. Michael had had enough. That was the end.
Except that it wasn’t. In the midst of trying to put together a normal life, he would get an opportunity that, like the others before him, was too good to pass up. The Alabama boxing commission had finally formed and he was asked by Jay Deas (Deontay Wilder’s trainer and manager) to fight on the undercard of the current, WBC Heavyweight Champion Deontay Wilder. He accepted, and the dreams of making a living as a pro fighter were once again ignited. Until they weren’t. He would lose a split decision in a fight he and most people EASILY thought he won. Though he lost the fight, he had also won in a major way; he met his wife in the gym he was training in for the fight. He would would be lured into rematch, and again come up short. He would go on to fight one more fight before finally hanging them up for good. He had reached the end of the road. With a record of 5-3-2, a pregnant wife, and his mid 30s on the horizon, Gibbons knew the journey was done, no matter how he felt about it. Ironically enough, he was relieved. “To be truthful, a big weight was lifted in a sense,” he said. “It was the end of a fun but, ultimately disappointing journey. I could finally move on with life.”
He would receive a steady flow of fight offers for the next few years, turning them all down. He’d even received a offer to be a sacrificial lamb for up and coming prospect, Ryan “Blue Chip” Martin. Gibbons was too smart for it. He knew the score; bring in an older fighter to become a clip on an up and coming fighter’s highlight reel.
He would go on to look up Tim Gibson, the promoter he met on his way up. Having a history together, they formed a partnership to promote fighters who weren’t given much of a look. Fighters who didn’t win Nationals or Golden Gloves, but still had talent. They would continue working, and soon the date of their first show was quickly approaching. Unknown to Michael, disaster was lurking in the shadows. One of the fight promoters had called Michael in a panic; he hadn’t been able to reach Tim to finalize some of the details for the show. Michael tried to reach him. No answer. A few days had gone by and still no response from Tim. Michael would then call Tim’s wife; surely she would know his whereabouts. And she did. The response she gave would floor him. Tim was at home, in hospice care battling esophageal cancer. Tim was able to beat the cancer in the past, but not this time. He would die 2 days later. Michael never got to see him before he passed.
He tried his best to keep the project alive, but the weight of it all was too much for him. “I tried my best to keep the plan alive, but I wasn’t there. After about 4 or 5 shows it just kinda crumbled. And to be honest I didn’t really care. I wasn’t in a good space. It was just too much at the time.”
Through the ups and downs of his journey through boxing, Michael is thankful. “Boxing really shows you what you’re made of. What’s inside of you. Everything after my boxing career was easy,” he said. “Boxing was the tough part. And that’s what I want the younger guys to be mindful of, life after boxing. Because it does end. I want them to know that boxing can be the entryway to things other than boxing. Boxing gave me a GREAT life and I’ll always be thankful for that.”
He would go to do well in a professional career as Director of Sales in the transportation industry. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be offered an opportunity to fight there, but even if he does, hopefully he'll stick to his day job.
Michael finally found the perfect fork. Being a family man.