Pawtucket boxer, 57, seeks amateur title at Rude Dog Masters World Championships
PAWTUCKET – Jeff Shabo hadn’t stepped into a boxing ring for a fight in more than three decades, but his love for the “sweet science” never waned over those years away from the sport.
But five years ago, when his 15-year-old son, Brian, took an interest in boxing and wanted to work out at a gym, something lit a spark inside Shabo – who was “50-something and just getting over a hip replacement” – and made him not only find a gym for his son, but also join him for workouts.
These days, Shabo, who turned 57 on April 1, and his son are still lacing up their gloves and working out, even though their training facility, Grundy’s Gym on Foundry Street in Central Falls, has yet to reopen since the COVID-19 pandemic forced its closure in the middle of March.
And Shabo, whose nickname in the ring is the “Silverback Gorilla,” is staying focused and prepared for the biggest fight of his amateur career at the 3rd annual Rude Dog Masters World Championships, which is labeled “the largest international masters boxing competition on the planet,” at the Rude Dog Boxing complex, which is just over the state line in Brooklyn, Conn.
“It’s basically the Golden Gloves tournament for older guys,” said Shabo, referring to the amateur event that takes place regionally each January in Fall River, Mass. “It was supposed to be held in May and then August, but now it’s going to be either in November or February. We’ll see what happens.”
A native of Pawtucket who graduated from Tolman High in 1982, moved to North Providence in 2000, and returned to his hometown a year and a half ago, Shabo’s story is an interesting one, and for some of the boxers who train at Grundy’s and aren’t even half his age, it’s also inspirational.
“Everyone says stuff like that, and it feels funny when I hear them say that,” said Shabo, who grew up near Beverage Hill Avenue. “But sometimes they’ll see me going in there – sparring rounds and rounds and rounds – and sometimes they can’t even keep up. When people say you’re an inspiration, sometimes it feels weird, but it does feel good.”
Shabo’s love for boxing began in the ‘70s, when the likes of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier ruled the sport and “Rocky” hit the big screen in 1976, “and when I was about maybe 14 or 15, I asked my parents if I could go to Grundy’s Gym and learn how to box, but they wouldn’t let me,” Shabo recalled.
At that time, Shabo was attending Tolman, where he was a three-sport athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball, and earned Second-Team All-Division honors on the gridiron as a 185-pound senior nose guard and offensive guard.
“But I always trained at home,” he admitted. “I didn’t even want to play my last year of football in high school because I wanted to box. But as soon as high school was over, I started going to the gym. At that point, my parents couldn’t tell me that I couldn’t go.”
Shortly after graduating, Shabo got his amateur boxing license and stepped into the ring shortly later for his debut on a card at Lynch Arena.
“The kid I fought already had 18-20 fights, which I didn’t know, and two weeks later, he turned pro,” Shabo recalled. “I actually almost beat him, but I got stopped in the third round because I wasn’t throwing punches back and I just got winded.”
That winter, Shabo was supposed to fight in the regional Golden Gloves tournament, “but I had a setback,” he added. “I got asthma, and at that time, the medicine wasn’t strong enough to get through it. I still have the asthma, but not as bad, but the medicine that we have now is fantastic.”
But asthma wasn’t the only thing that set back his boxing career. Everyday life got in the way: Shabo eventually joined the work force, got married, began a family, and settled down in North Providence. He still kept an eye on what was going on in the boxing world, both locally and nationally, but that was his only connection with the sport.
When Brian, who graduated from North Providence High in 2018, told his father about his interest in boxing, “I was really in bad shape at the time,” Shabo said. “He wanted to know if there was a gym open and I said, ‘Let me see if Grundy’s is still open,’ and it was.”
“Once he started training, I started getting back into it,” Shabo continued. “I dropped 70 pounds, I got in fantastic shape, and everything just took off. I don’t feel heavy, sluggish, and out of shape; I have a lot of energy, and I honestly feel like I’m 25 again. Everything I did definitely triggered something.”
What it triggered was the rebirth of his boxing career – four fights on the popular ICON Boxing Club series that take place in Bristol, and the other two at shows that were hosted by Rude Dog Boxing. Three of Shabo’s fights were against another 50-something boxer, 54-year-old Bernie “The Honey Badger” Kelley, and the other three were against younger fighters no older than 30.
“Those (fights) are exhibitions, which they call smokers; basically you don’t know who you’re fighting – it’s the pick of the draw,” Shabo added. “In my last fight, I fought a kid who was about 30 years old and probably 60 pounds bigger than me and it went really well. They don’t determine a winner because they’re not sanctioned fights, but everyone told me that I beat him. It was a hostile crowd – it was basically in his backyard and (the fans) were booing me and everything – but that just kind of motivated me even more.”
“But (those fights) honestly helped me get ready for the masters (tournament),” he added. “And I’m always sparring with younger guys at Grundy’s because it’s all kids in there. I spar with my son, Brian, and he’s really good. He had two fights at ICON as well, and he also fractured my ribs a couple of times. Boy, he hits hard!”
Brian and Mike Principe, who is one of the trainers at Grundy’s Gym, plan to work Shabo’s corner for his upcoming title fight, and while they are excited to see Shabo pursue world championship glory, not everyone is completely on board with Shabo’s boxing career.
“My wife hates it when I’m boxing,” Shabo said with a laugh. “She gets nervous because she doesn’t want to see me get hurt, but I’m always trying to convince her that I’m going to be fine.”
With Grundy’s still closed, Shabo has continued his training by “just doing stuff around the house. There’s a hill down the road and I’ll run on that, and I’ll do some shadow boxing. I also bought some equipment for my home, just to stay active.”
“I just love doing this,” he added. “And now I have a chance to win a (championship) belt. I think if you’re a boxer, you just can’t let it go. I don’t know what it is, what triggers you to want to keep going, but I love it. I feel like a kid again and I don’t plan on giving it up anytime soon. I definitely have to go for this belt first before I even decide to give it up, and even then, I still probably won’t do that.”
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