The saga of Steven Vukosa, the Italian/Croation Sensation

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Around 6 weeks ago a 42-year-old bus driver was asked if he could be a last-minute replacement for a local pro fighter. Like Mickey Ward, he had been forced into an early retirement by injuries, but still had a lot of knowledge and could probably still put on a good show even in his old age. He ended up beating the guy, and it was a title eliminator for the WBC Heavyweight United States National Championship. The championship fight was against a very dangerous knockout artist named Joe Cusumano (18-2 with 16 knockouts). On Friday night, at Jimmy Burchfield's CES Boxing and MMA promotion at Twin Rivers Casino, Vukosa dropped him in the third enroute to winning a unanimous decision. The future looks bright for this new/old boxing prospect.

I've written about Vukosa before, one of the most freak athletes I've ever encountered. When he was a tall gangly young teenager he got his yellow belt in karate. He had an immediate and intuitive understanding of combat principles, but was disappointed in the slow progression in rank by seniority instead of skill, He decided to prove his thesis by throwing on a black belt, assuming a ridiculous fake name and entering a tournament for the New England Karate championship. He then proceeded to beat every black belt in New England. The second place finisher was his twin brother Paul. They were both very tall and appeared older than they were, so when the assembled black belts of New England discovered they had been beaten by a pair of children there was a near riot.

He then took up boxing, and shocked the pugilistic world by winning a National Championship his first year boxing. He joined the ranks of Foreman, Frazier, Ali, and Wilder as one of the VERY few boxers to have accomplished this in the Heavyweight/Super Heavyweight division. Other local boxers described one of his opponents as sobbing in the locker room afterward, crushed that he had trained his entire life and still been clowned by such a goofy-looking kid. People said it was a fluke, but he proved them wrong by winning a second National Title. The only title he couldn't win was the coveted Rocky Marciano Trophy for the New England Heavyweight Champion, and that was only because current amateur rules making him a Super Heavyweight instead of a Heavyweight made him ineligible.

While boxing, he continued to train martial arts once a week at a school that specialized in the traditional Japanese standing submission techniques, but not groundwork. Combining that with a couple of years of high school wrestling, he decided to try the biggest New England grappling tournament of the pre-NAGA era, The Skirmish in Maine. Again, he surprised everyone by winning the whole thing. His twin brother Paul won the next division down.

Not only does he have true tactical genius and timing/distancing like Jon Jones, he trains like an animal. He and his twin brother Paul are the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but they simply don't experience pain, fear or fatigue the way other men do. He's not big on weights, but he and his brother were the muscle for his dad's furniture moving business. He's the kind of guy that can carry a large sofa by himself...without using his other arm. Even when he didn't have big muscles, he had a strength that belied his skinny frame. Unfortunately, his hard training is often his undoing. A lot of coaches know how to push a fighter, not many understand how to push a dedicated athlete...to slow down. Vukosa always wants to train, always wants to take the fight no matter how banged up he is. This led to him losing out on his Olympic dream.

After his injury setbacks, most major programs didn't want to take a chance on him. Only Freddy Roach out of Wild Card Gym had the vision to see Steve's potential. He gave Steve a California condo and a car, then told him to just concentrate on training. Steve proceeded to go 8-0 as a professional before injuries forced him to retire...undefeated. He took a job as a bus driver to support his young family and left boxing behind.

However, after 10 plus years of driving the bus, his injuries finally healed. He went to the gym for a few months and decided to take an offer to do a charity boxing match. However, his opponent dropped out at the last minute, and the only fight available to him was former US Olympian Jason Estrada, now a 22-2 professional. Jason Estrada had actually been the guy who had taken the coveted Olympic spot Steve had dreamed of all his amateur years, so it was a natural grudge match. On a few weeks' notice, Vukosa proceeded to defeat Jason Estrada in a fight announcer Teddy Atlas called "One of the most amazing technical boxing matches he had ever seen."

Vukosa now took Estrada's place in a tournament that could take him to a world title. However, halfway through the next fight, Steve broke his hand. He gutted out the win one-handed, but he was in a tournament, and had a tough decision to make. He could fight one-handed, or drop out of the fight. Vukosa always wants to fight, and the fight happened anyway. Besides, his family needed the money. Vukosa looked like he had become old overnight and was handed his first professional loss. Again, everyone wrote him off as done.

The hand injury prevented him from boxing seriously, but he decided to do more grappling and try his hand at MMA. Luckily, one of his old sparring partners had been a regional MMA champion, had made it all the way to the UFC, and understood transitioning from boxing to MMA far deeper than most MMA coaches. That coach was Sean Gannon....me. Vukosa still had some holes in his MMA game, but they were very fixable, and he looked very much like the other guys I had coached that made it to the UFC. Unfortunately, as coach, I also have to take responsibility for what happened next.

After making a lot of progress in a small amount of time, I told my other friends about the amazing new MMA talent I was bringing up and took him to another gym with some good wrestlers. Their skills were good, but the program was inexperienced with money fighters, and lacked the sophistication to listen to the real boxing people that obviously understand the money fighting end of the business on another level. On my end, I had broken the cardinal rule of prizefighting - "Keep your money fighters away from the meatheads." Steve was going easy, trying not to knock people out in training but the meatheads here doing full speed takedowns and slams, trying to "win" against their own team at the gym instead of under the bright lights when you're getting paid big money. Steve did learn some good wrestling that day, but he also completely tore out his shoulder and was out of commission for another year with reconstructive surgery. However, he used this time to let his hand injury heal as well, and has put himself right back in the mix for big money fights.

Vukosa sparring with James Toney (2/21/2002):

Author Sean Gannon is a 6-time Golden Gloves Champion, Massachusetts State Judo Champion, NAGA World Champion (Intermediate and Advanced Divisions), regional Mixed Martial Arts champion, UFC veteran, and perhaps most famously, was the best bare-knuckle fighter in the US (taking that honor from Kimbo Slice in an epic war). He's also a decorated, 20-year veteran of the Boston Police Department. He's larger than life, but that is just the beginning of it. Ganon is amiable, well-read, witty, self-deprecating, and can chime in knowledgeably and compassionately on an extraordinarily wide variety of subjects. He's a member of MENSA (the high IQ society) and one of my favorite writers on The UnderGround ever.