PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Sept. 3rd, 2014) — No less than 25 yards from where the rocket landed, narrowly missing his vehicle, Zack Christy sprinted into the burning mortuary on his army base in Afghanistan intent on saving anyone who might’ve survived the blast with little regard for his own safety.
“I wasn’t necessarily worried about myself,” he recalls. “There could’ve been a kid in there, out cold, bleeding. In those moments, you don’t even think about it.”
As a staff sergeant for the U.S. Air Force for more than 8 ½ years, Christy’s never been one to shy away from danger, whether in the battlefield or in the boxing ring, the latter of which will become his second home when he begins a new career Friday, Sept. 12th, 2014 at Twin River Casino on the undercard of “Title For Title,” presented by CES Boxing.
Having boxed since the age of 15, a young protégé under the guidance of the late Tiny Ricci in Rhode Island, Christy always dreamt of one day stepping foot inside the ring as a pro, but after enlisting in the Air Force at 21, upholding a strong family tradition, boxing took a backseat to life in the military.
No matter the mission, no matter where the journey took him, Christy always found the time to stay active, whether by stuffing a jump rope in his travel bag en route to one of his nine deployments overseas or teaching boxing to refugees and other military personnel during a stay in Kuwait.
After winning numerous amateur titles, including the South Dakota Golden Gloves and a silver medal as a member of the All-Air Force team, the 30-year-old Christy is ready to make the leap to the pro circuit. He’ll debut next Friday against Providence super middleweight Ethan Pena (2-2, 1 KO) in a four-round bout.
Christy’s father, Dave, also a decorated Air Force vet, admits his son’s time in the ring may be limited – “We realize he has a five-year window,” he said – so there’s little concern about building his record or bringing him along slowly under the close scrutiny of his promoter, Jimmy Burchfield. Given the chance, Christy would fight six times a year.
“I’ve done a million different things in 150-degree heat for 18 hours at a time,” he said. “If I can make it out of a fight without a scratch on me, I couldn’t care less about fighting the next day.”
Balletto’s Gym in Providence, where Christy trains when he’s back in Rhode Island, is a long way from Afghanistan, but it’s all part of the landscape Christy calls home. He and his older brother, Seth, were born and raised in Cranston until his father moved the family to Florida following a divorce. After four years in Florida, the Christys returned to Rhode Island so Zack could finish high school at Toll Gate.
The kids took martial arts and boxing lessons to learn to defend themselves, but were inevitably bound for the military.
“Our dad always groomed us for real-life situations, so we always knew what to do,” he said. “I always had a desire to continue that, but never had an outlet until I found Tiny.”
Christy’s brother eventually enrolled in the Air Force and spent time in Iraq. In addition to his father’s time in the Air Force, his grandfather was a World War II Navy vet who fought in the pacific.
“It’s kind of a tradition in our family,” Christy said.
At 21, Christy’s first stop was South Dakota, where he won a USA Boxing championship in addition to his Golden Gloves title and remained active in the ring. Since he wanted to purse a career in special operations, he got a job at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa four years later. Once he started working for SOCOM (Special Operations Command), he began deploying regularly, putting boxing on the backburner.
“I was surprised with how hard it was to get fights,” he said. “I could train, but I couldn’t get fights. I would make it all the way to a competition and then get deployed. With so much going on in the job and in the area, I could never get a foothold in a good gym to train the way I needed to.”
In 8 ½ years of active duty, the incident in Kuwait with the rocket narrowly missing his truck was just one of several close calls overseas. During one of his first deployments, Christy took a detour to the latrines one night instead of his usual path. Moments later, a mortar struck where he would’ve been walking.
“He sent home a picture of himself pointing to the crater,” his father said.
Staying in shape was never an issue. In addition to jumping rope to keep his conditioning up to speed, Christy occasionally found a heavy bag fashioned out of a duffel bag and old laundry while deployed overseas, and as a certified military exercise leader and fitness specialist, Christy trained everyone from civilians to Navy SEALs in Kuwait.
“What I’ve done since 2006, it’s just me training for my whole life,” he said. “We all found ways to stay fit out there. The best thing about a jump rope is you can take it anywhere. Knowing what to do and how to utilize your surroundings, I always stayed in great shape.”
After returning home from his final deployment last summer, Christy decided to put active duty behind him – “This is not the same Air Force it used to be,” he said – and pursue his boxing career. He lives and trains in St. Petersburg, working part-time at a martial arts gym and training at the St. Pete Boxing Club, the home of former world champs Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy. He’s sparred with interim welterweight world champion Keith Thurman and former champ Antonio Tarver, a strong source of motivation considering Tarver was also 30 when he made his pro debut.
Dan Birmingham, who runs the St. Pete Boxing Club and has trained both Wright and Lacy, has given Christy a ringing endorsement as he prepares to turn his lifelong dream into a reality.
“Dan took Zack under his wing and told him, ‘People pay to come to this gym, but you’ll never pay a dime,'” Christy’s father said. “He even gave him a key to the gym.”
Though his father is not 100-percent sold on him fighting – “It’s not something I would’ve particularly chosen for him,” he said – he’ll support him regardless, similar to how Ricci stood by him 15 years ago or how Gary Balletto vouched for him when he first introduced him to Burchfield.
Despite the time out of the ring, more than four years, to be exact, since his last amateur bout, the transition back to boxing has been relatively seamless, thanks in large part to his experience overseas, so much so that Christy has declined the option to take a few amateur bouts before he turns pro.
“Having to have an attention to detail regardless of your state of being, whether you’re exhausted, tired, or don’t feel like doing something, you have to put those things aside,” he said. “It’s kind of something you have to be able to ignore. You have to ignore pain, ignore your physical state, and act accordingly.”
Boxing’s no different. Though some fighters refer to it as “war,” it’ll never truly be war, at least not the kind Christy has experienced first-hand, but the inherent dangers of both are well understood, and Christy is more than willing to begin this new journey in uncharted territory. It’s in his blood.
“I have a lot of experience boxing. I’ve trained with some of the best pros in the world,” he said. “This is my opportunity now. Since I left South Dakota, I’ve had no desire to fight in the amateurs anymore. You train like a pro, you fight like a pro. The only difference is the headgear.”
Tickets for “Title For Title” are on sale now at $45.00, $60.00, $76.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesboxing.com or www.twinriver.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
The main event is a special eight-round title bout with two belts on the line. Rich Gingras (14-4-1, 9 KOs) of Lincoln, R.I., will defend his N.E. Light Heavyweight Title against Joey McCreedy (15-7-2, 6 KOs) of Lowell, Mass., the reigning Universal Boxing Federation (UBF) Northeast champion.
Worcester, Mass., junior middleweight Khiary Gray-Pitts (1-0, 1 KO) faces Sergio Cabrera (0-2) of Boston: junior middleweight Ray Oliveira Jr. of Fall River, Mass., battles fellow newcomer Angel Valdez in his pro debut and Fall River lightweight Scott Sullivan takes on Moises Rivera (0-3) of Boston in his debut. Italian-American cruiserweight Antonio Mignella (3-0, 3 KOs) of Providence, nicknamed “Little Rocky,” will battle Louisana’s Alvin Varmall Jr. (2-0, 2 KOs) in a four-round bout. Shelito Vincent (12-0, 1 KO) of New London, Conn., the reigning Women’s International Boxing Association (WIBA) International super bantamweight champion, and Cranston’s Nick DeLomba (4-0) will also be featured in separate four-round bouts.
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