The DePaul Boxer’s Journey

Frank Marfone and his road to Chicago Golden Gloves

“I don’t think I want to do this again,” said Frank, visibly shaken with blood dripping from his nose.

“I’m scared, I can’t remember anything that happened…You know, my dad boxed in the Navy and he said he didn’t remember a single one of his fights. I know what he means now.”

Frank lost by technical knockout (TKO) in the first round of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament on March 7, 2019. The referee stopped the bout after Frank’s opponent, an eventual semifinalist in the tournament, landed a right hook punch to his nose, causing blood to start oozing.

If he survived three more seconds, Frank would have made it through the first round and gotten a one minute break to recover.

“I don’t even remember getting in or out of the ring…Did I win?”

“No Frank, you lost,” I tell him.

“What day is it?”

“It’s Thursday.”

“Shit really? I thought it was Friday…when did this happen?” Frank points to his purple hand wraps that are marked with a black X on each hand.

“They marked your wraps before they gave you your gloves to make sure your wraps were fine.”

“S—t. I don’t remember getting the gloves either…I’m scared, everything feels like a dream. Today feels like a dream.”

As we sat on the stairwell, Frank started to cry.

With this match, Frank became the first competitive amateur boxer for DePaul University’s new boxing club that started up last fall. He joined as one of its first members in mid-October as a 19-year-old freshman, and is now in line to take over the club next fall. All this means he not only has a chance to improve his own boxing skills, but he can help the club grow far beyond the basic foundations that were set up.

That is, if his first boxing experience did not rattle him too severely.

While it seems doubtful this first bout will stop him from continuing with the club, it might steer him away from competing again.

We started training for Golden Gloves at the start of Winter Quarter. Only three of us actually wanted to compete: Frank, Jonah and me. Our start date gave us a little under three months to train before the tournament, which is not much practice time, especially for amateur novices like ourselves.

Amateur simply means that the person is not a professional, and novice means that the person has little to no experience competing.

Even so, this kind of atmosphere wasn’t new to any of us. We may not have faced something with this level of intensity before, but our general fight experiences were similar. I took karate for 10 years prior to boxing at DePaul, Jonah trained at a boxing gym before joining the club and Frank was a high school wrestler.

Frank was a wrestler for over five years, but he stopped his senior year of high school.

“Why did you stop wrestling?” I ask him.

“I wasn’t really bonding with my wrestling teammates,” said Frank. “It wasn’t the sport, I just didn’t have any connection with the guys on the team. So I picked up boxing because I wanted another combat sport, and this looked like a good opportunity.”

His wrestling background helped him understand what it would take to be a competitive boxer, and even though he only had a few months of boxing training, Frank looked ahead with intrigue to one of the most highly touted boxing competitions in the United States — the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament.

There is no qualification for the tournament, you just make sure you’re a USA Boxing certified boxer and show up to one of the registration days. This makes it rather informal, but at the same time is rather encouraging for new competitors like ourselves.

Frank standing in front of the Golden Gloves wallpaper. Photo: Mikel Vrooman-Arroniz, 14 East.

The tournament is held in Cicero, a suburb just west of Chicago, and it takes us about an hour to get there via CTA. The matches are set to start at 7:00 p.m., but we have to arrive between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to weigh-in. I pick up Frank from his class which ends at 4:10 p.m. and we head out on the Brown Line towards the Loop.

“How are you feeling Frank?” I ask.

“Actually, really calm, which is kind of scary.”

“Yeah, I’ve been feeling the same way since yesterday.”

We get on the brown line which is mostly empty at this time of day. It’s rush hour, so people are mainly going out of the loop. We sit down, and Frank looks out one of the windows.

“You know, this is one of the reasons I came to Chicago. Nashville doesn’t have this kind of scenery. There’s not as much to look at as there is here.”

We arrive at the Washington/Wells station and transfer to the Pink Line heading to 54th/Cermak. As we wait on the platform, Frank asks me a question.

“So, you might’ve already mentioned it, but why are you doing this? Golden Gloves, I mean. I know my reason, and I have an idea about yours, but I’m not sure.”

“Well, what do you think it is?”

“I think it’s similar to mine. I’m doing this, I don’t know, as a way to prove something to myself. I want to test myself and see how well I can do.”

“Yeah, mine is pretty much the same. Like you I want to give myself proof that I can do something like this. Just as a way of getting to say I am capable of completing it. I do live with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and that’s always led me to need to prove something to myself, just so that I know I can achieve what I want to do.”

The crowded Pink Line arrives and we squeeze in towards the back of the train car, carrying all of our equipment.

“There’s a second part to the question, but I’ll wait to ask you a bit later,” says Frank.

We hold practices at the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center in Lincoln Park, but Frank has class in the Loop this quarter. Unfortunately, because of his Monday and Wednesday class, he often arrives late. The bell rings to end the round and Frank still hasn’t arrived. I look outside the practice studio to see if he’s walking up the stairs, but no one is there yet. I know Frank is on his way — he texted me 10 minutes ago that his train was running slow. The bell rings again and the break is over. Halfway through the next round, I hear boots crossing the hardwood floor and Frank arrives like usual with his very tiny strut, wearing his beanie and puffy blue coat.

“Sorry I’m late guys.”

“You’re fine dude, grab a rope.”

Frank misses most of the warm-up, but is just in time for the start of drills. Today we are working on defense, an aspect that Frank has asked to work on. Our coach tells everyone to partner up and we start calling each other’s names.

“Frank, you’re with me, we’re gonna do something different from the rest of the guys,” said coach.

“Alright sounds good.”

“Don’t forget your mouthguard.”

“Whoops! Hold on a sec.”

The coach pulls Frank aside for some one-on-one mitt work. Boxing mitts are types of gloves you put on that can catch a punch without anyone getting hurt. They protect your hands while giving your partner a moving target that can get hit hard. The coach holds up the targets, calls out a combo and Frank follows. Throughout the round, the coach throws punches at Frank as well, testing Frank’s defensive reactions. Every time Frank hits a mitt, an audible popping sound is heard — the mark that you made solid contact at just the right spot.

“Jab” pop! “Jab, cross” pop pop! “Jab, cross, hook” pop pop pop! “Alright, now add two rolls.”

After two rounds of working together, the coach pulls another member away to work on the same drill with them. Everyone else, including Frank, who now has to find another partner, starts working on blocking and dodging drills.

I call Frank over because I want to work with him. We are around the same weight, and although I am two inches taller, he is stronger than me.

During the blocking drill, Frank is defending from my attacks. Frank has gloves on while I have mitts. The gloves are like immensely swollen, rounded hands, with no specified sleeve for each finger. The mitts are flat and soft enough that they will not cause serious damage as I try to hit Frank’s ribs and head. It is Frank’s job to react to the punch coming and protect his head with his glove or protect his ribs by bringing his elbow down.

“Stay compact. Don’t let those hands flare out.”

Frank grunts in acknowledgement and then takes another three hits.

“Good. Much better.”

By the end of the round, his elbows look irritated and have turned a light red color, his curly hair is disheveled and his face has a similar red color with sunken eyes. This may be an uncomfortable drill, but it gets him used to the feeling of contact, preparing him for the harder hits he will encounter later when sparring. We go one more round like this before switching roles, It is now Frank’s turn to hit me and I have to defend.

Since we don’t have proper insurance coverage, we are not allowed to spar at the Ray, so this is as close as the club members can get to the experience of hitting and getting hit. The calendar year just started, and we have to wait until the insurance request is processed before we can spar, but several members are anxious to move on and get in the ring with each other. The club eventually started sparring in late January.

At this point, Frank, Jonah and I are all thinking seriously about competing for Golden Gloves, so we make a small announcement to the rest of the club, bringing it up at practice in case anyone else would like to join.

Chicago Golden Gloves is an annual tournament that first started in 1923 and has had some impressive winners, including Joe Louis (1934), Sonny Liston (1953) and Muhammad Ali (1959, 1960).

“The guys preparing for Golden Gloves were practicing back in November. If you guys want to do it too, you’re gonna need a lot of sparring in,” said coach.

Frank may be eager to test his limits at this early stage, but he still needs to get some sparring practice in. Performing drills and making light contact is not enough to prepare someone for a real fight, and everyone at the club seems to echo that.

“I don’t think you guys are ready. Have you seen the competition? They’re no joke,” said Bruce, another club member. “Frank, are you sure you still wanna go?

“Hell yeah.”

“What if you get knocked out? You probably will get knocked out. We’re not ready for something like this.”

Honestly, there is a lot of sense in what he says, but Frank, Jonah and I have made up our minds.

“That’s fine, it’ll still be a good experience and I’m not backing out now. I said I wanted to go and I’m sticking by my word.”

After practice that day, Frank came up to talk with me.

“Hey, I still wanna do Golden Gloves, but I know I’m gonna need a lot more practice and we don’t have that much time until March. Could you help me get better — my defense definitely needs work — and do you have any other recommendations of how I should go about this?”

Frank (Right) and Mikel (Left) get ready to leave DePaul and head to Cicero. Photo: Mikel Vrooman-Arroniz, 14 East.

“Of course, I’ll help in whatever way you need me to. But honestly, this is going to take a lot of individual work from you. I don’t have that much free time and our schedules don’t really match up. I can stay like 15 minutes or so after practices for some one-on-one work, but you’ll need to start working out on your own time too.”

“Sweet, let’s do it!”

I am not an expert by any means, and I may not even be that strong of a boxer, but I am the president of the club, and the guys know that I train hard — sometimes a little too hard. But that is why they are comfortable with asking things like this from me.

Frank and I get off at 54th/Cermak around 5:00pm. Cicero Stadium where we will box, is only a few minutes away walking. I ask him, “what was the second part of your question?”

“Oh,” he says. “So, I was in a class recently where we were talking about masculinity and how it can get toxic and whatnot, and I had been talking to a friend about why I was doing this. It turned into a pretty calm debate where we each made some good points, but they were questioning my reasons for doing this. Basically, challenging the idea that I wanted to test myself and prove something to myself. So I started considering this toxic masculinity and my whole reason for feeling a need to prove myself in a sport where we hit other people.”

“I’ll be honest, that is not at all what I expected you’d start talking about…Don’t think of it like that, because that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re not trying to be cocky or macho or whatever — neither of us really care about winning. Wanting to prove something to yourself is not a bad thing. Obviously you can go too far with it, but it’s not inherently a bad thing to want to do that.”

We put that conversation aside as we make our way into the building. We are two of the first ones there to start the weigh-in process, stripping down to our underwear and hopping on the scale to make sure we are under 152 pounds to be eligible for the division we will both fight in.

Divisions are separated by weight class, meaning to fight in a certain division you have to manage your weight and make sure you don’t weigh more than the class you’re in.

It takes a while to get through the weigh-in, and we finish around 6:00 p.m. We go upstairs and sit on the bleachers overlooking the boxing ring where all the matches will be held.

Now, it is just a waiting game, trying to stay composed until 7:00 p.m. when the matches start.

We are finally allowed to spar at practice and we get right into it. Right now, Frank and I are the only ones with our physicals in, which makes up the only ones that can spar. We almost finished two three-minute rounds before Frank felt exhausted and had to stop.

“You need a break?”

“Yeah, please, let me catch my breath”

“Ha, no problem. See, this is why I make you guys do so much cardio.”

“Oh I got it, don’t worry.”

The rounds are short and there are only a few, but they are deceptively tiring and catch all beginners off-guard.

The rounds in sanctioned amateur fights are shorter — only two minutes apiece and only three rounds in total, but in these types of fights, full effort is given. Pro fights, in comparison, have rounds lasting three minutes apiece and can range from six to 12 rounds in a given match. Here, everyone will be sparring lightly, pulling punches so as not to hurt each other.

After a few more sessions, Frank got more comfortable. He can handle going three full rounds now and other members are getting their physicals in, meaning we all get to practice against different fighting styles.

Frank and I are about to spar for the third time now, and we are beginning to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Frank charges in and throws several body shots looking to overwhelm me. He stays low, keeping his knees bent as he moves his head from side to side, making sure I cannot land a clean shot. I keep my elbows down, but he hits me in the stomach twice. I push him back with some fast, straight punches to the head and I create some breathing room. We go like this for the entire first round. However, once the second round starts, I take more of the initiative, leading with straight punches to the head while keeping him at a distance. He charges in again, but I step to the side to catch him off-balance. I throw another punch, Frank steps back to avoid it then tries to come at me. As he moves in to counter, I throw my back hand, timing it perfectly so that I make solid contact.

A little too solid.

“You good? I thought I felt something crack”

“Yeah I’m fine…Wait a minute, can you check if I’m bleeding?

Frank’s nose is bleeding and we stop the session immediately.

“Oh my God!” I say. “Yup, we’re done. Are you okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine.”

“Damnit! I’m sorry”

“Dude, it’s okay, honestly, I’m fine with it.”

A little bit later, Frank asks for some Tylenol. He has a headache.

Frank takes the next few sparring sessions off, deciding to focus on drills and recover from the last sessions. During that period, the club gets two new members in Jeremy and Colin — and Frank makes quite an impression.

“Man, Frank you’re scary,” says Jeremy.

“Thanks. That’s not something I typically hear,” says Frank

Frank has been working on the heavy bag, and when he throws his hooks, a loud popping noise is heard throughout the studio.

“I’m a good ole’ Tennessee boy. You got nothing to be scared of.”

Frank warms up by shadowboxing before his fight. Photo: Mikel Vrooman-Arroniz, 14 East.

Most of the team has physicals in at this point and are eager to spar, but because guys like Jeremy and Colin are still new to it we decide on round robin style. One boxer will face a new opponent every round for five straight rounds with just the standard one-minute break in between rounds. This makes the chosen boxer learn how to adjust quickly against different styles while facing a fresh boxer every round, which helps newer guys get one good round in against a more experienced boxer.

Bruce, Frank and I will be going through that gauntlet with me starting it off, followed by Frank then Bruce.

I go through four members before facing Frank, helping him start his rounds while ending my own. At this point I am exhausted and have been hit in the head quite a bit, even seeing stars for a split second, but Frank is not going easy and I appreciate that he continues to push me. The round is almost over, and I am barely surviving. I try to throw a straight to Frank’s head, he dodges and suddenly he lands a body shot right to my solar plexus, the area one gets hit when saying “I got the wind knocked out of me.” I am still up for now, but it hurts, and I’m trying to protect my stomach a little bit more while breathing a little gentler.

I go in again and Frank hits me in the exact same spot.

I go down on one knee — Frank has his revenge.

The round ends and I go sit while watching Frank complete the rest of his rounds. Frank goes up against both of the newer members, and takes a few big head shots. They hit him not so much because of skill, but because they are still new and reckless. They still have yet to work on their control. Frank faces two more opponents before going up against Bruce and getting his rounds started.

They begin and Frank quickly lands a flurry of shots with Bruce taking the hits and not getting a chance to counter. Bigger and stronger, Frank does not let Bruce take any initiative. Visibly getting upset with his face turning red, Bruce starts swinging harder and faster and starts landing strong punches to Frank’s head.

The rounds ends and the day’s practice is over.

“Hey, can I talk with you for a second, in private?” Franks asks me.

“Sure what’s up?”

“To be honest, I’m scared to keep taking all these headshots. I’m getting a lot of headaches recently, and as much I enjoy doing this, my head is what I’ll need for my future. I know that with sparring this stuff will happen, but can you tell some of the guys to take it a bit easier?”

“Yeah, I was actually going to mention it next time because I’m starting to feel it in my head too. They just need to learn how to control a bit better, but yeah, I’ll bring it up before our next practice.”

“Awesome, thanks man.”

We continue waiting for the list of bouts to get posted. It’s 7:00 p.m. and nothing looks ready yet. The nerves are already hitting us and the last thing either of us want to do is continue waiting, but we have no choice. It takes another 30 minutes before the bout list is finally posted, and Frank’s match is the fifth bout of the night, happening around 8:30 p.m. My name is not posted, indicating that I have to wait to fight until next Friday.

Jonah, the third competitive member from our club, knew he wouldn’t have to box until the semifinals, but he wanted to come out and cheer us on anyway.

“This is really unorganized,” he says. “And I mean the registration process was too, so I should’ve expected them to start late, but there should be more direction with all of this.”

Again, we wait.

The third match is going on and Frank picks up his glossy red gloves from the organizers so he can start warming up. He jumps side-to-side, back-and-forth and whichever other way to start feeling loose. Since I am a certified coach, I’ll be the one sitting in his corner.We do some mitt-work even though I did not bring mitts. He hits my bare hands instead

The fourth match ends quick, finishing in round two. Frank hops up to the ring as I sit down in the foldable chair at his corner. The announcer calls out his name.

“Fighting out of the red corner, from DePaul Boxing Club, Frank! Marfone!”

The bell rings to start the round. Frank and his opponent start trading big hits, everything to the head, but the referee stops it quickly after Frank shakes from a punch he took. Frank gets an eight count to make sure he can continue.

The match continues and Frank starts landing big hits. Left hook, right hook, left hook again, but his opponent catches him a second time, Frank keeps dropping his hands too low to protect himself.

Another eight count, but Frank is fine.

Match resumes, and Frank bulldozes his opponent, using his whole body as leverage while throwing punches, and his opponent stumbles and falls.

Frank avenged himself.

The match resumes. Both boxers are tired and seem hesitant to throw out their heavy arms. The little hammer marking ten seconds left in the round hits the table, and it is almost over.

Then suddenly, his opponent throws a right hand hooking punch right to Frank’s nose. His head snaps back a bit from the impact and blood starts flowing.

The referee ends the match, declaring Frank’s opponent the winner. Immediately after leaving the ring, Frank goes to one of the stairwells and sits down. I follow him and we stay there recollecting. As we wrap up our talk, Frank composes himself again and changes back into street clothes. We decide to eat out as a way of cooling down from what just happened.

Three months of training, a few bloody noses and plenty of uncertainty, and it all came together in a match that lasted less than two minutes with a pounding to the face that left Frank loopy for the rest of the night.


Header image by Natalie Wade, 14 East.