Introducing Hard Hitting Promotions
On Saturday night, from the Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University, Hard Hitting Promotions will host a card billed “Night at the Fights.” For this up-and-coming promotional company, it will be the largest venue to date, in which they will promote an event. It makes the statement that Manny Rivera and Will Ruiz, who own and operate the company, have come a long way in a short time an understatement. With being a full-time operation for just two years, they have promoted events in venues throughout the “City of Brotherly Love,” which weren’t typical venues used for fight cards.
Breaking the mold in how the sport is handled is something this promotional company relishes. From promoting successful shows in such venues as a Metal Sheet Workers union hall to being the first boxing promotion to put on shows at the Sugar House Casino (Philadelphia’s only casino within the city) to their most recent show at the Fillmore Philadelphia, a new state-of-the-art concert hall in the heart of the bustling, gentrified neighborhood known as Northern Liberties.
Their positive attitude has allowed them to move forward and advance ahead of the curve, especially when the business aspect of this sport can be more brutal outside of the ring than it is inside of it. Smacking these curve balls out of the park and progressing by making lemonade out of lemons is an attitude one can’t help but find infectious when you sit down and speak to Rivera.
“Once I saw how the business was handled and how my cousin was treated by promoters and trainers, it was the beginning of my life in the boxing business.” After arriving in New York City from Puerto Rico, Rivera started following his cousin during his time as a prizefighter. Rivera, himself a former amateur fighter in Puerto Rico, witnessed a business transaction that was his first taste of how shady things could get after one of his cousin’s fights.
“My cousin was given his check by the promoter after the fight. After he walked out of the room being used as an office, I saw his trainer later coming out of the same room with the promoter. Only this time, he had a wad of cash that he put into his pocket.” Rivera was referring to how business used to be handled prior to state athletic commissions acting as a third party between promoters and fighters. “It was just shady and I knew that my cousin’s best interest was not being looked after.”
When Rivera mentioned this to his cousin, the former’s reaction was to ask him to manage his career, as his cousin was someone he could trust. After several years of managing his cousin, Rivera moved to Philadelphia in 1998 but continued to keep the sport of boxing close. Despite working other jobs to make ends meet, he developed relationships in the gyms. This included a relationship with Papo Ocasio, a well respected trainer out of the famed Front Street Gym (best known in the mainstream as the home of Adonis Creed, protagonist of the “Rocky” spin-off, “Creed.”). At the time, Papo was training several professional fighters as well as his son, an amateur prodigy, Angel Ocasio, 8-1-2 (2). Among these professionals was Koba Gogoladze, a former 1996 Olympian from the country of Georgia, who relocated to Philadelphia.
“Our relationship is so solid, that it was a given that I was going to help Angel’s career,” states Rivera. While Angel continued in the unpaid ranks, Rivera continued his tutelage in the sport as a manager by helping to guide the careers of several local fighters like Rami Ibrahim and Felix Arroyo. However it wasn’t until Angel Ocasio decided to turn professional in 2009 that Rivera knew his career as a manager could take a dramatic turn.
“He was the first fighter that I knew I could guide to becoming a world champion.” Respectfully to the other fighters Rivera guided prior to Ocasio, Angel was a hot commodity in the area. Many of the managers and advisers from the tri-state area, and as far as the state of New York, wanted to sign Ocasio to a deal. Rivera, at the time, a security guard, was who Ocasio and Papo chose to entrust with his professional career from day one.
Understanding Ocasio’s potential was just the start. Rivera began to pound away at making Ocasio an attraction in the local area. Playing off of the sizable Latino population (mostly Puerto Rican) in Philadelphia, it was a no-brainer to start the movement in that region. Add to that the fact that Ocasio is a well-spoken, good-looking and polite young man into the mix and it’s no surprise that this recipe created instant positive results.
“Selling tickets for Angel’s fights was never an issue,” recalls Rivera. “I created MAK Boxing, which was purely about Angel’s career.” This was a three-way partnership that included well-respected boxing reporter/writer from the area Kurt Wolfheimer (in a publicist role). A relationship from outside of the business also connected Rivera to a local promoter and he was able to secure a three-year deal for Ocasio. This deal was to include six fights in the first calendar year.
Rivera refused to take a rest, once the deal was signed, and he continued to hustle for his fighter, especially when he noticed the first fight was not being delivered in the time frame he expected. Rivera worked out a deal to get Ocasio his first fight, oddly enough, on an outside promoter’s show, a deal that included a large guarantee for a professional four-round debut. Within the payday, Rivera also worked out incentives for Ocasio, according to the amount of tickets he was responsible for selling. “His first fight was a success on all levels, even if it wasn’t a fight that took place on his promoter’s card, something that, of course, we wanted to happen.”
What took place over the course of the remaining months on the first contracted year of their promotional deal was a mix of highs and lows. While Ocasio would win impressively in only two more fights, he would sell large amounts of tickets to those local shows himself. It was the relationship with their promoter that started to fade. “Look, the year was up and Angel only fought three times, half of what we had worked out in the initial deal, and one of those fights was with another promoter that I worked out.” (Writer’s note: their participation in the other promoter’s fight card was OK’ed by their contracted promoter.)
After an amicable split was worked out between the two parties, Team Ocasio and MAK Boxing moved on. Rivera’s face and his voice tell the tale, as he recalls this time, how this affected his view of the boxing business, similar to the previous impact he felt years ago when he saw his cousin’s trainer walk out of the promoter’s office in New York with extra cash.
Manny Rivera was in his element, at this point, as he continued to push for his fighter by working with several other local promoters to get his charge fights to nullify the previous year of relative inactivity. During this time, he connected with Will Ruiz, who was already a well-known matchmaker from Florida and head of Hard Hitting Productions.
During the formation of this relationship, Rivera and Ruiz would spend countless hours discussing their experiences within the sport. However it would turn out that, just as importantly, they agreed on how they felt the boxing business should be conducted. Out of these conversations, the seeds that would eventually sprout into the current incarnation of Hard Hitting Promotions were planted.
While the inception for the promotional company was underway, Rivera continued to focus on all things Angel Ocasio. This would include the night of Jan. 13, 2012 at the National Guard Armory in Northeast Philadelphia. On this evening, Ocasio would take a step up in competition as he faced a fellow local ticket seller from across the river.
Jason Sosa and his faithful followers would push Ocasio and his supporters on that evening of non-stop back-and-forth action. Both fighters laid it all out that evening and, at the end of the fight, two judges scored the bout a draw with the third scoring it in favor of Ocasio’s boxing and movement. An immediate rematch followed at the same location and, despite it going an extra two rounds, after eight, there still wasn’t a clear winner. This bout was also ruled a draw.
Rivera wanted to fully capitalize on the two well-documented fights and felt, at some point, they would cross paths with Sosa but on a larger stage. “It didn’t turn out that way. He had a couple more fights, but Angel became successful in other areas of his life, outside of boxing.”
While Ocasio focused on other passions outside of the gym, Rivera had an epiphany. “I knew that I couldn’t have just one fighter. All that we did I felt was the beginning of what we could do.” As Rivera reminisces about this point of his career in boxing, there are nothing but fond memories that remain. “Of course,” he replies. “I’m proud that Angel, at a time, was a big attraction and that fighters that are now headlining that, at the time had more fights, were on his undercards and that he pushed cards they headlined before that.”
Enter Will Ruiz, who wound up moving to Philadelphia from Florida. His and Rivera’s developing friendship naturally bloomed into the start of a partnership. All of the prior experience as a manager for Rivera and Ruiz’s experiences are the nexus that makes up Hard Hitting Promotions. “We felt and still feel that Hard Hitting Promotions is going to be able to enhance the fight scene in Philadelphia, on behalf of both the fighters and fans.”
After some early struggles, Rivera felt he and Ruiz were on to something, in January of last year. “At that time, it was our biggest show and the city was under a blizzard warning. We could have shut down the show. It was only the third show that we were putting on.” Normally the show would be canceled and rescheduled with the tickets already sold being honored on that new date.
“We discussed it and noticed that the fighters were ready to go. They had put in such hard work in preparing for their fights. We looked outside and saw that the snow hadn’t touched down yet, so we decided to put on the show and if we took a financial hit, so be it.” Despite the forecast, the snow didn’t arrive until much later.
Sometime after the second fight on the card, Rivera was overlooking the crowd that continued to grow larger and larger. “I knew we had something. The union hall was packed and fans were willing to drive home in the snow that started to really come down – some (fans) coming from as far as upstate New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I felt like we had arrived.”
It’s that commitment to the fighters in their stable whom Rivera truly takes pride in. “I’ve been a fighter, even if it wasn’t at the professional level. Since I have been in the business, it’s been my role to protect fighters from the pitfalls that come with the sport. We want our fighters to be better men both inside and outside the ring.”
The stable that Hard Hitting Promotions has cultivated, and begun to nurture in two years, is an impressive roster that features seven fighters with a total professional record of 70-10 (43). Former amateur standout 17-year-old lightweight Branden Pizarro, 4-0 (2), is the youngest signed fighter. Pizarro won every type of tournament nationally and competed on behalf of the Stars and Stripes, internationally. Marcos Jimenez, David Murray, Luis LeBron, Godwin Rosa and Jeremy Cuevas round out the rest of the talented roster. However Rivera feels the signing of welterweight contender “The New” Ray Robinson, 23-2 (12), can really help them reach a new level.
“Ray is ready for the top fighters. He fought a close fight with Shawn Porter (in July of 2010) and it’s just a matter of him getting his shot. We have big plans for him.” This show on Saturday night was just another opportunity that solidifies the impact Hard Hitting Promotions has made.
“(Local legendary promoter) Joe Hand called me up and asked if we would get involved with the Urban League to help out with their ‘Night at the Fights’ card. Last year, they did amateur fights but, this year, they wanted to have professionals.” For Hand, who worked with the Urban League the year before, to contact Rivera shows the faith he has in the upstart company. “We support the Urban League’s mission, since it is like ours, helping out the youth in the city,” said Rivera with a glow.
Along with several of the aforementioned fighters from the Hard Hitting roster, this card will feature local knockout sensation bantamweight Christian Carto, 8-0 (8). Carto has established a working relationship with Hard Hitting Promotions, despite not being officially on their roster.
As for the main event, it will feature a title defense by super featherweight contender and current NABF champion Tevin Farmer, 24-4-1 (5). Farmer got the OK from his promoter Lou DiBella to stay active and defend his strap as he guns for a world title shot.
Tickets are still available for the card and can be purchased both at the door of the Liacouras Center or by visiting https://www.ulpfightingforphilly.org/.