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NJ Golden Gloves finals give a glimpse at future boxing pros of tomorrow

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Na’Sean Murray, who is one of the finalists in the 156-pound open class division, celebrates a victory over Arturo Gonzalez last September. Photo from Murray’s Facebook

Long before a boxer makes it to the heights of pro stardom, the local Golden Gloves tournament is often one of their first proving grounds. Unlike on pro cards, where matchmakers book the fights according to their whims, tournaments conclude with the last two boxers standing in their brackets competing with local bragging rights at stake.

That’s part of what makes the New Jersey Golden Gloves finals an appealing event to witness. The finals, which are set for Friday, March 22 and Saturday, March 23 at Bloomfield High School in Bloomfield, N.J., will feature championship matches between open class, novice and sub-novice boxers, both adult and juniors. At just $30 for a ticket ($50 for ringside), it’s a lot more affordable than a pro show, and, oftentimes, features more competitive bouts.

“You get the best of the best statewide,” said Dan Doyle, President of the N.J. Golden Gloves. “This tournament can be grueling, some of these guys have fought five times in this tournament to get to where they are. They may have started out not seasoned but by the time they get to the finals, they’ve been through the fire.” Doyle adds that 223 boxers signed up for the tournament, marking a rebound to pre-pandemic competition figures.

Yessenia Montalvo, who is organizing the finals, says her previous events at the venue have drawn around 450 attendees, but expects a capacity crowd of about 500 to be in attendance each night for the finals.

Champions will get a plaque commemorating their victory, though open class champions will also get to compete in the National Golden Gloves, which take place this year in Detroit from May 12-18. They’ll also get to add their names to a list of former N.J. champions that includes pro champions like Shakur Stevenson, Raymond Ford and Gus Lesnevich.

This year’s finals will have a different feel as multiple time national champions Malachi Georges and Tyric Trapp were either unopposed or had their opponents no show in the tournament. Two other champions from last year, Jean Pierre Valencia and Justin Penaranda, sat out of competition as they plan their professional debuts. That means others will get the chance to make a big impression on finals night.

One of those competitors is Alvin Matthews, a 26-year-old from the state’s capital city of Trenton. Matthews, who has been boxing for nearly three years, will face Middlesex’s Jordan Simpson in the 165-pound open finals. The indefatigable Matthews won the sub-novice title in 2022, but has fallen short in the finals of his last three tournaments, each time to Valencia. Now he has the chance to join his coaches at Trenton’s Knuckle Game Boxing, plus local hero Mike Hilton, as an open class champion.

Alvin Matthews at Knuckle Game Boxing in Trenton. Photo by Ryan Songalia

“It would be a big deal because that’s what I really wanted. Especially at open class, because I want to move on and show the youth, when I get old, that I won these tournaments. I just want that on my record,” said Matthews, who works as a forklift driver to support his young daughter.

“I just wanted something positive to do with my free time so I came to the gym. My dad used to watch boxing when I was a kid, I used to watch Roy Jones as a kid so I always wanted to do it.”

Matthews, who outworked Chris Campbell in the semifinals last Sunday, will face Simpson, a former novice class champion who is coming off of two back-to-back first round stoppages to make it to the finals.

Another boxer to watch for is Jasai Kirkpatrick, a 21-year-old from Port Monmouth, N.J. Rated no. 3 in the country by USA Boxing at 147 pounds, Kirkpatrick opened a lot of eyes last December when he made it to the finals of the 2023 National Championships, narrowly losing a split decision.

“It was everything. I felt like at that tournament I showed what I can do. I showed I can box, I showed I can brawl, I showed I can do it all. I feel like I proved a lot of people wrong,” said Kirkpatrick, who works full time in a warehouse and trains out of Newark’s Ironbound Boxing Academy.

Kirkpatrick, who was introduced to boxing at age six after his mom felt he was getting into too many fights in school, first trained under current star trainer Kay Koroma in Alexandria, Va. He has had approximately 100 fights – he says he lost count after a while – but has yet to win a Golden Gloves title (he doesn’t count the juniors title he won at the 2014 tournament). Getting to win New Jersey’s state title would be great, but he says his biggest motivation is getting the chance to win the National Golden Gloves.

To do so, he’ll face Xavier Correa, who had beaten Kirkpatrick by decision in last year’s 139-pound finals, on Saturday. Should he get past Correa, Kirkpatrick has big visions for the rest of 2024.

“When I win the Golden Gloves Nationals, it’s gonna really bring on the eyes. Then I’m planning to go back to the Nationals one last time. Once I win the Golden Gloves nationals and the USA Nationals, that’s when the eyes will all be me. And then that’s when I’ll turn pro,” said Kirkpatrick.

Jasai Kirkpatrick at last year’s National Championships, where he opened eyes by making it to the finals. Photo by USA Boxing

While the aforementioned boxers have all been at this level before, Na’Sean Murray is competing in his first ever open class tournament. The 23-year-old Murray of Woodbine, N.J. will face Tymir Daniels in the 156-pound open class finals on Friday after beating the more experienced Abedallah Elaiwah last Sunday by unanimous decision in the semifinals.

He says his motivation for excelling has been his grandmother, who always told him to follow through with all of his goals. After playing high school basketball, the 6’2″ Murray says he picked up boxing four years ago as a hobby and found that the benefits went far beyond just getting in shape.

“Boxing has done a lot for me. It’s kept me out of trouble. It’s kept me on a clear path. It’s given me guidance, and it’s also given me the confidence and courage to walk through all my problems, get things done and face my fears. It’s given me all the confidence to do all the things I wouldn’t have done before,” said Murray, who will complete his commercial driver license classes in April with hopes to become a truck driver.

Other open class finals matchups include Keith Colon vs. Quazir McLeod in a rematch of last year’s 125-pound final which was won by Colon, plus Kevin De La Rosa vs. Sevon Langston in the 203-pound plus final, Chakor Claiborne vs. Javier Gonzalez in the 139-pound final and Kirc Bargamento vs. Alexander Collado in the 132-pound final.

Friday’s event, which started at 7:30 p.m., has 17 bouts scheduled, primarily in the novice and sub-novice classes, which are double elimination brackets comprised of three, two-minute round bouts. In the event that an undefeated boxer loses for the first time in the tournament, a rematch will be added to Saturday’s event, which begins at 12 p.m. and will host six open class finals matches, which are scheduled for three, three-minute rounds. 

The Golden Gloves tournament offers a chance to get an early glimpse at the future pros of tomorrow, but not everyone who competes will become a professional fighter. Some people are just competing to check off an item on their bucket list, while others may find that winning an amateur title is all they need before moving on with the rest of their lives.

But everyone who wins a Golden Gloves title can forever say that they were a champion.

Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].

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