(Chris Algieri, left, Winston Mathis, right; photo credit: Ed Diller, Star Boxing)
Used to be, some of the people close to Chris Algieri would playfully tell him to get the hell out of the sport of boxing, like top trainer Robert Garcia, or else ask when he was going to quit, like his family. After all, he didn't have to box, not like all the hardscrabble cases that pepper the sport's history who had no other way to make a living and who still are so common today: Algieri has a master's degree and is preparing for a post-fight career as a doctor.
"The more we’ve been going and I’m getting more recognition," said Algieri of his family, "they’re a little bit more behind me."
That recognition is set to hit its peak Feb. 23, when Algieri debuts on NBC Sports' Fight Night against fellow junior welterweight Jose Peralta. Given the program's reputation for matching its fighters tough, Algieri on that night will probably need a lot of the quality that makes him stay in boxing when he could be doing something else with his head besides getting punched in it.
"I love the sport. I grew up watching it. I love to train. I love to fight," Algieri said in an interview with TQBR over the weekend. "The feeling you have in the ring — pre-fight and after a fight — is second to none. I love the sport of boxing; it’s the best sport in the world, the level of training and competition and what you have to overcome in training and during a fight. I don't have to fight. I want to.
"Even in training, I want to beat people all the time. I want to win every sprint. I want to lift more, punch more. I like to push myself," he said.
Peralta, 10-1-0, isn't the most experienced opponent of Algieri's undefeated 15-fight career. That would probably be Bayan Jargal, a tough, sturdy journeyman who has faced prospects like Steve Upsher Chambers and veterans like Breidis Prescott. When they met on Azteca America in 2011, it was Algieri's television debut.
His team liked what it saw as Algieri took a 10-round decision.
"Everybody that’s been put in front of him, he's passed with flying colors," said Algieri's co-manager Damian Ramirez. "Against Jargal, he fought a better fight, a tougher fight than with some of the other guys he was supposed to walk through.
"He needed that opponent to bring out the best in him," Ramirez continued. "Some fighters can fight great and look exposive against a weaker fighter. Then they step up and you wonder, 'What happened to that fighter?'"
Peralta, though, definitely represents the biggest fight of his career given the stage, and Algieri knows that Peralta is a pressure fighter who's going to bring the fight to him. He's already bringing the fight to Algieri's backyard — the bout is in Algieri's Huntington, N.Y., where Algieri has headlined shows before solid crowds, and though Peralta won't be traveling too far from his own Jersey City, N.J., he said in a news release that he has "no reservations about fighting in Algieri's hometown" and that he would "be totally prepared for him no matter where we fight."
The Star Boxing-promoted Algieri would rather have a come-forward opponent like Peralta than the alternative. He said it helps him set up his counters, as he considers himself a boxer-puncher who relies on technical ability and strategy.
It probably should come as no surprise that Algieri has a cerebral approach to the ring, given his interests outside it. "I'm not moving to move or throwing to throw," he said. "I'm doing everything with purpose."
That doesn't mean he's opposed to mixing it up. Algieri's trainer is Keith Trimble, but he has made pilgrimages to Oxnard, Calif., to train for stretches with Garcia, and to spar with beasts like Brandon Rios and Marcos Maidana. Brawlers like those two have given him no choice but to learn how to fight better on the inside, but befitting his thinking man's boxing style, he said he also has learned to play to his strengths — at 5'10", he's tall for a junior welterweight, so he has improved his ability to fight from the outside, to use his speed, and to deploy his jab, something he didn't rely on much as a kickboxer.
That's right: Algieri is a former kickboxing champion, too, another thing he said has prepared him for world-class boxing competition. That makes him something of a career clone of Vitali Klitschko, another ex-kickboxing, doctor type who likes to use his height and reach. The overlap, Algieri said, is a total coincidence, right down to him holding the same kickboxing title — the ISKA — that Vitali once did. He didn't even know Vitali once held the title until later, he said. And he's been working toward getting a medical degree for 10 years, so it would've had to take some pretty advance planning to deliberately emulate the career of the elder Klitschko brother.
He hasn't made up his mind what kind of doctor he wants to be — he's leaning toward cardiovascular, but has plenty of time to figure it out because he doesn't plan to attend medical school until after his boxing career ends and for the time being is studying for his entrance exam, since the demands of doing both simultaneously would be physically and mentally impossible to meet. But the interests are all interrelated, given his focus on fitness, and his master's in nutrition.
(These days in professional sports, titles like "nutritionist" and "strength and conditioning coach" can be nothing more than a disguise for "performance enhancing drug supplier." Algieri said he thought both explanations for improved modern athlete performance — improved training and dieting, as well as PEDs — apply. "The knowledge and science behind training in nutrition has increased in unbelievable amounts…. I think that has brought up the level of athletics," he said. But, he added, "when there are tens of millions of dollars on the line, a lot of guys will throw away their morals for something like that.")
For now, Algieri doesn't even want to look too far beyond Peralta. Ramirez said that if all goes as planned Feb. 23, they'll look to move Algieri "maybe two steps" forward. "Especially if he perfoms as I’m assuming he’ll perform, he’s definitely somebody to be dealt with at 140 pounds that people will have to look at," Ramirez said.
For as far out as he has planned his lfe — a fight career and a post-fight career — Algieri said he knows how quickly things can change in boxing. One need look no further than the junior welterweight division he inhabits.
"The face of the division is changing. Danny Garcia is doing really well right now, but a year ago he wasn’t anywhere near what he is now," Algieri said of the top-ranked man at 140. "A year from now he might not be there, or he might be even bigger. In this division you can move up very quickly. You get a couple good performances and you’re right in the mix. That’s an exciting opportunity."