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Hall induction gives boxer Thompson his due in WNY

Ross Thompson never got to headline a professional boxing card in his hometown, even though he’s one of the most gifted fighters in Buffalo history.

He was never dubbed “The Third Franchise,” and only Western New York’s most avid followers of the sport knew of Thompson and his world-class talent during his rise to prominence during the late 1990s.

But Thompson was Buffalo’s link to big-time boxing before Joe Mesi began his career ascent, and for that reason Ross “The Boss” will get to relive the glory days with family, friends, proteges and – yes – the local community.

Thompson, a five-time national amateur champion who fought for the world light middleweight championship 13 years ago, headlines this year’s class of inductees into the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44 Hall of Fame. The dinner and induction ceremony begin at 6 p.m. Friday at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased by calling Jack Green, president of the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association, at 316-5120.

Others receiving the Hall call from Ring 44 include longtime trainer Ray Casal of Niagara Falls and the late boxer and artist Tony Sisti. Ring 44’s Sergeant-at-Arms and former boxer Dick Wipperman will be honored as the organization’s Person of the Year. Marcus Floyd of the PAL Boxing Club is Ring 44’s Amateur Boxer of the Year.

Thompson is the second modern-era type of boxer to be honored by Ring 44 the past three years, joining unbeaten heavyweight and former No. 1 title contender Mesi – who in 2011 took his spot in the Hall of Fame.

“I’m real excited about it. It pretty much is a lasting moment of my boxing career,” said Thompson, who now trains boxers at Victory Gym in North Tonawanda after finishing his pro career with a 27-16-3 mark with 17 KOs. “Most of the guys when they get in there, they’re pretty old. It feels good,” getting in the Hall at age 40, “kind of like being first ballot getting in there. That’s a day where I’m just going to be happy, celebrate my career with everybody … just enjoy it with everybody. It’s a big night for me.”

It will be perhaps Thompson’s biggest moment in the sport since Aug. 26, 2000, in Las Vegas, where he fought and lost to then unbeaten light middleweight champion Fernando Vargas.

No Buffalo-area fighter has won a world title since Tommy Paul in 1933, and Thompson was just the third Western New Yorker (excluding southern Ontario-based boxers) to earn a shot at the title since 1971.

Thompson’s amateur national titles included three PAL crowns (1984, ’86 and ’87), one Silver Gloves (1987) and one Golden Gloves (1991). Thompson’s older brother Jermaine beat him in the 1985 PAL final to interrupt the string of national titles at that event.

“You don’t get to a world title fight without being talented, without being a good fighter,” said Don Patterson, the state Golden Gloves Tournament president and a local trainer. “As far as Buffalo boxing, he deserves to be in the Ring 44 Boxing Hall of Fame based on his merit as a fighter and his accomplishments as an amateur.”

A haunting defeat

Despite all of his amateur success and the highs he experienced early in his professional career, the loss to Vargas still haunts Thompson, even though his own promoter at the time, Don King, didn’t expect him to win. Thompson brought a 24-3-1 record into the fight, but King had already started plans for a super fight with Vargas involving one of his other clients, Felix Trinidad, Thompson said.

“He looked at it as Trinidad-Vargas looked sexier than Trinidad-Thompson,” Thompson said of King. “He told me, ‘If I beat Vargas, I’d meet Trinidad,’ but he knew that wasn’t the fight people were clamoring for.”

Thompson’s time with King did serve a purpose. It gave Thompson a chance to fight in an elimination bout to become a No. 1 contender. It allowed Thompson to earn what was perhaps the signature triumph of his professional career, April 24, 1999, when he went into then-MCI Center in Washington and beat hometown favorite Antonio Reese by fifth-round TKO to become the top contender.

Later that year, he went on to win the WBA North American 154-pound title via unanimous decision over Derrick Graham. That was the second of three minor titles Thompson won as a professional.

“Ross Thompson was, in my opinion, one of the most gifted boxers I’ve ever been around,” said Nick Garone, Thompson’s manager from 1998 to 2003. “He was an amazing talent. When you look at his body of work, not the second half of his career, that one chapter of his career when he was a middleweight and junior middleweight, he had incredible talent. He had incredible opportunities. He fought for the world title, was the No. 1-ranked guy in the world. … When you look at his career as a whole, it couldn’t be a more fitting honor to be inducted into his hometown hall of fame. It’s a humbling experience.”

Thompson overcame a lot to get into position to fight for a world title, and it began during his early teens when two of his older brothers died six months apart under tragic circumstances. The oldest one, Curtis, was murdered in December 1987, while the second-oldest, Lamar, lost his life in a drowning accident in June 1988 early in his own professional boxing career.

After a short break, Thompson’s father sent Ross to Las Vegas to work with family friend and respected trainer Richard Steele. After earning bronze at the U.S. Championships in 1990, Thompson had one of the greatest years any boxer – amateur or professional – could ask for in capturing the National Golden Gloves championship at 147 pounds and following that by taking first at the U.S. Olympic Festival.

He wound up being an alternate on the 1992 Olympic Team but by then had already caught the eye of some of boxing’s major promoters and managers. He was as coveted a prospect entering the pro ranks that year as class of 1992 contemporaries Oscar De La Hoya, Chris Byrd, Shane Mosley and the late Vernon Forrest – all of whom went on to win world championships – according to respected Rochester-based manager Steve Nelson.

“He was one of the most talented amateurs in the country, if not the world,” said Nelson, who signed De La Hoya and also went on to manage two-time world heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman. “I think he had two careers. The first half, where he was sensational, and then the second half, where he was taking any fight and not properly preparing. He had a great start to his career but he didn’t finish very strong.”

Thompson, who lost nine times to opponents who either held the world championship or fought for the title at some point in their careers, said he didn’t have the greatest of training habits (he admits to only running a mile a day while training for the Vargas fight).

Triumph as a coach

Thompson shares his story with those he trains, hoping his nine proteges at Victory Gym understand the importance of training and hard work. He’s living proof that talent can only take a boxer so far. Once a talented boxer faces a foe just as talented, the one with the better work ethic often wins.

That’s what happened with Mike Stevens, 19, of Cambria. Thompson brought Stevens and several others to fight recently in Johnson City, Tenn., where Stevens became the first Thompson fighter to win a national invitational tournament title. Stevens, now 5-0, went 2-0 at the Bobby Hughes National Invitational with both wins via stoppage.

“He’s my first national champion as a coach. I feel good for him,” Thompson said, noting the national invitationals are stepping stones to bigger national tournaments. “It feels good. It’s still an achievement and nobody can take it away from him.”

Thompson is happy with what he accomplished during his amateur and professional careers, but not winning a major professional title still stings.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Thompson said. “It was just like a personal goal for me to be a world champion. I always chased that. I was a little disappointed I never became a world champion.”

Thompson said he made more than his share of mistakes after turning pro at age 19. He opted not to sign a promotional deal coming out of amateurs because he wanted to build his record to the point where he’d get a more lucrative deal.

While he trained at Bob Arum’s Top Rank gym along with other top talents, he wasn’t very good at keeping commitments that could have perhaps helped him become a household name like De La Hoya, Mayweather and Tyson.

Besides missing some promotional photo shoots, he had some weight issues (he admits he didn’t maintain the ideal diet of an athlete) but the last straw came in February 1995, when he got to fight in a televised main event for the first time with a 13-0-1 record against Adrian Stone.

The fight that could have served as his coming out party all but led to his exile from Arum’s circle as Thompson lost his cool, mouthed off at the referee one too many times and got disqualified in the seventh round.

“I screwed it up with Arum early in my career,” Thompson said. “Once I didn’t get the push, I had to go against the grain, but I overcame that and still fought for the title.”

Two wins in hometown

Thompson said it may have been wiser after the Vargas bout to have taken some fights against easy opponents and pad his victory total, but that just wasn’t his style. He prided himself on his willingness to take on all comers.

Thompson went 3-13-2 to close his career after the Vargas fight, losing to five men who held or would go on to win world titles in that span.

He did earn two of those wins, however, in his only Western New York appearances as a professional.

He beat Sam Reese on June 24, 2003, at then-HSBC Arena as part of a Mesi card. Thompson earned the last win of his career Nov. 15, 2008, at the Seneca Niagara Events Center in Niagara Falls when he KO’d Cullen Rogers in the first round.

“That was really big for me,” he said of the home wins. “It was great to come home to fight because I never thought I’d get a chance to fight in Buffalo.”

The spotlight will shine on Thompson one more time Friday.

This “is completely deserving,” Garone, his former manager, said. “He did a lot of amazing, amazing things.”