As part of a co-main event, Wilson boxers Austin Bryant (left) and Jamar Freeman will headline "Wilson Fight Night" on Saturday, Feb. 4 at Bill Ellis Convention Center. Bryant will oppose Akeen Brown in a cruiserweight fight, while Freeman tangles with undefeated Pablo Velez in middleweight action. Jimmy Lewis | Times
Pablo Velez responds to a question as lightweight Marko Bailey (left) and Top Catz Boxing founder Tony Meeks look on during Tuesday's "Wilson Fight Night" press conference. The undefeated Velez will take on Wilson middleweight Jamar Freeman on Feb. 4 at Bill Ellis Convention Center as part of a co-main event. Jimmy Lewis | Times
By Jimmy Lewis
Jamar Freeman and Pablo Velez Jr. are no strangers to one another in the boxing world.
As sparring partners “back in the days,” as Freeman puts it, each has some degree of familiarity with the style of the other.
But on Saturday, Feb. 4, at Bill Ellis Convention Center, these two respectful middleweights will turn their gloves on one another in the name of business as Wilson-based Top Catz Boxing conducts its inaugural card.
As part of a co-main event, the 31-year-old Freeman, a Wilson resident, will collide with Velez, 30, in a highly anticipated battle.
For Freeman (14-5-2), who sports the nickname “Da Truth,” this won’t be a cakewalk return to his hometown — where he’s unbeaten in three previous fights.
Instead, Velez, a Durham resident by way of New Jersey, enters unbeaten in eight bouts, with five by of knockout. After his first professional fight ended with a draw versus Lekan Byfield in February of 2013, Velez has won seven in a row, with his last three opponents succumbing via TKO.
There was no animosity between the two men at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the Feb. 4 card, dubbed “Wilson Fight Night — Small Town, Big Dreams.” The first fight of the nine-bout event is set for 7 p.m.
Another Wilson fighter, cruiserweight Austin “Babyface Assassin” Bryant, coming off a pair of knockout wins to open his career, takes on Concord’s Akeen Brown (0-1) in the other half of the co-main event.
Seven other bouts are on the Wilson Fight Night card, including a heavyweight collision featuring the undefeated Jo-El Caudle at 5-0 and journeyman Dennis McKinney (28-58-1).
Making his professional debut will be super lightweight Anthony Sonnier as he faces Tavares Owens (0-3). In the super welterweight division, Donnie Marshall (1-0) takes on Damian Archer (0-2).
Two other fighters are set to make their pro debuts, with super flyweight Dylan Price opposing Malcolm Speight (0-2). Justin Noel Cantres challenges King Damon Antoine (4-0) in a super featherweight bout.
The other two bouts on the card have lightweight Marko Bailey (2-0) opposing Deandre Walker (0-2), while Jonathan Baxter (1-1) faces Terrance Moore (0-1) in welterweight action.
However, Freeman’s previous background in world title fights represents a chance for Velez to take the next step in his career. With Freeman expected to be an overwhelming fan favorite before the Wilson crowd, Velez, the owner of a Marine background, assured his mindset or approach won’t change entering such an environment.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Velez said. “You have to go in there every fight, I’m the type of person no matter who’s in that ring — whether they’re 50-0, 0-50. Any man who steps in that ring deserves respect, so I give them respect. Boxing is a sport that any punch can take you out because you always have to stay on your Ps and Qs and be sharp. I’m going to approach it like any other fight.”
Freeman, who had not fought since losing an eight-round unanimous decision to undefeated Caleb Plant on Sept. 22, 2015, returned to the ring in April of last year and scored an unanimous decision over Corey McCants in Fayetteville’s Crown Coliseum. Freeman, who has lost two of his last three fights, was a replacement opponent for Julian Williams in December of 2014, giving him a shot at the WBC Continental Americas super welterweight championship. Yet Freeman was stopped in the eighth round.
On Tuesday, Freeman shook off any suggestions that the Velez fight represents a crossroads for his career.
“You need every fight,” he said. “Losses, you just gotta take the good with the bad. But the next one, you’ve got to be more than prepared for it.”
Michelle Rosado, a Philadelphia boxing personality and director of operations for Top Catz, said that the Freeman-Velez fight must be a model for North Carolina boxing to elevate its maligned stature on the national level.
“These are the fights that need to get made in North Carolina if the fighters want to get to a next level,” she said. “You could fight a bunch of cupcakes and be fed some baby food, but it’s not going to get you anywhere. It’s not going to do a fighter any service. So, we want to get the guys better. We want to give them a good service. Of course, we want to see everyone win. But they also have to be tested.”
BACK IN THE RING
As the youngest fighter in the Top Catz stable at 19 years of age, Bryant said the least of any of the fighters assembled around the podium Tuesday.
He last fought in July, securing a first-round TKO of previously undefeated Zed Mitchell despite dealing with lighting issues inside Durham Convention Center. Bryant tried to return to the ring for his first Wilson fight in September, but issues with medical insurance delayed the card to October. Ultimately, the event, “A Night of Pro Boxing,” never took place at Recreation Park Community Center.
Bryant went on to sign with Top Catz, the company founded by his stepfather, Tony Meeks. Initially, the signing meant that Bryant would separate from longtime trainer Leroy Gray, but the pair has since been reunited under the company’s banner.
“I’ve handled quite a few fighters before and I’ve seen all types of changes,” Gray said. “I know how anything can happen. So that wasn’t really surprising to me. When it happened, he found himself and we got it back together. It was very difficult for a couple of weeks, just like you had lost your kid. Then in 48 hours, they found him!”
The lack of volume in Bryant’s words didn’t prevent him from leaving a mark. When asked what he knew of Brown as a fighter, Bryant, a fierce body puncher, instead opted for a prediction.
“I’m expecting it to go about one and a half rounds,” Bryant said.
While other fighters steered away from knockout predictions, Gray, a character in a sport where characters rule the day, took the microphone head on.
“Yes, we predict knockouts,” Gray said. “We knocked out two, this gone be the third one. What round? Possibility I might bring (Brown) a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee! He’s gone.”
Caudle brings a mixed martial arts background to the boxing ring, while McKinney has lost his last 14 fights. He hasn’t won since Feb. 21, 2008, when he turned in a TKO of Leo Hayes.
Meeks hailed McKinney’s amount of “ring time” as a sufficient challenge for the up-and-coming Caudle.
“I was a little surprised that he took it,” Meeks said of Caudle. “But he did. He’s going to get an opportunity to show his skills. Sometimes a lot of fighters can come out and it’s even matched or it’s one sided. Jo’El’s got an opponent coming up in front of him that he gets to demonstrate why he’s real — why he’s the ‘Quiet Storm.’
“The other fighter he’s got coming up in front of him, I don’t know a whole lot of history behind him, but I do know that he’s got a lot of ring time. And that’s going to show when it comes down to when the bell rings. That skill base is going to show, that also brings out that man right there (Caudle).”