Wilson’s Malcolm Speight, right, trades punches with Dylan Price of Sicklerville, N.J., during their super flyweight bout Saturday at Wilson Fight Night at Bill Ellis Convention Center. This fight, like the other nine, failed to go the distance as Price, making his pro debut, won by knockout just 61 seconds into the fight.
Sheldon Vick | Special to the Times
By Jimmy Lewis
In a state where professional boxing does not enjoy a sterling reputation, Wilson-based Top Catz Boxing held its inaugural card Saturday night at Bill Ellis Convention Center.
From the outset, founder and promoter Tony Meeks promised something different. Something to run counter to the negativity surrounding boxing in North Carolina — a place where fighters have come, for whatever reason, to inflate records against woefully inferior competition.
“It is time for fighters to step up, and darn promoters stop making one-sided fights to pad records,” Meeks said upon the formation of Top Catz. “It doesn’t help these kids. Well, I’m a man of action. If a fighter is willing to put in the work, and face real competition then Top Catz Promotions will help them!”
If Meeks and his team were in the construction business, then one would be hard pressed to find fault with the outer facade of the house they are attempting to build. Saturday’s card, headlined by Wilson fighters Jamar “Da Truth” Freeman and Austin “Babyface Assassin” Bryant, sold out the venue. Fans had to be turned away as barbecue and fried chicken continued to be sold next door, without fail.
Top Catz peppered social media via Facebook and Twitter in promotion of Wilson Fight Night — Small Town Big Dreams, and signs strategically placed around town were difficult to miss. With a full-blown prefight press conference, public weigh-ins and well-executed online hype videos, there’s little doubt that a legitimate, honest effort is underway to raise the profile of North Carolina boxing.
“It was absolutely amazing to see that many people in the venue,” Meeks said. “I give a lot of credit to our team.”
However, a house is only as good as its foundation. In that same breath, a promotion is only going to go as far as the quality of its fights. For as much professionalism as Top Catz may attempt to inject into the goings-on of North Carolina boxing, the building material — or the fighters themselves — are still very much a work in progress.
To what extent? Even well-respected names in the business enlisted by Top Catz have been surprised at the task at hand in this state.
Russell Peltz, a 2004 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was brought on board by Top Catz to serve in the role of matchmaker and advisor. All 10 bouts on the Wilson Fight Night card were of his doing. Yet all 10 failed to go the distance, and six of them did not get out of the first round. Two others had fighters decline to answer the bell for the third round.
“We need to put fights in there that are challenging each other and bring the show to the fans,” Meeks said. “I believe that’s what the fans want. Fans want to see knockouts, of course, but they also want to see good fights. That’s what Top Catz is trying to make a difference in.”
Peltz owned up to the lack of quality in a public Facebook post Monday.
“Even though just about everybody in the audience had a good time, I was disappointed in the matchups and I take full responsibility since I made them,” Peltz said. “We are trying to change the face of North Carolina boxing and I thought we could do it overnight, but it’s going to take time. There were about three decent fights out of 10, but even those ended too quickly for my satisfaction.”
The card was robbed of arguably its most intriguing bout when Pablo Velez Jr., the originally scheduled opponent for Freeman, withdrew due to a rib injury. That produced Puerto Rico’s Miguel Queliz as a replacement, and Freeman knocked him out in the first round with a right hand to the body. Freeman said afterwards that he had no intention of facing a healthy Velez in the future.
“Regardless of the rest of the card, we knew we had a solid main event so when Pablo got hurt, it was a big blow,” Top Catz director of operations Michelle Rosado said. “We did the best we could on short notice with a small budget and it was a legitimate body shot that won the fight for Jamar.”
Yet the truth is, Wilsonians have a boisterous affinity for their hometown products. Any opponent —or fight length, for that matter — for Freeman or Bryant would have sent local fans scrambling into their wallets. All three fighters under contract to Top Catz — Bryant, Jo-El Caudle and Anthony Sonnier — easily emerged victorious Saturday night.
A better litmus test for the promotion will come on April 27, when the second Top Catz card will emanate from the Durham Armory. Both Bryant and Freeman, a free agent not under contract to Top Catz, are expected to fight again on that date.
Meeks and company have all the window dressing they need. Now, they must produce the fights and fighters that make ringside judges more than ceremonial figureheads.
“Our fighters have to step up — all fighters,” Meeks said. “All pros that are shooting for a title that have more in mind than just coming in and getting a paycheck. They want to become a world champion; they want to make a change. It’s up to them to step up and fight stronger opponents and somebody that can give them a fight. It will build each other’s reputation and build off of each other.”
“We are trying to change the face of boxing in North Carolina and we thought we could do it overnight, but it’s going to take time,” she said. “Since it was our first show, we gave in to the managers and trainers — a little too much, obviously. But that won’t happen again. Just because a fighter sells 100 tickets doesn’t mean he gets to choose who he fights. People spent good money Saturday night and they are entitled to watch competitive fights. We let the fans down a bit and that will not happen again.