A former professional boxer managed by Sylvester Stallone is returning to the ring after 25 years. Sal “Rocky” Cenicola, a lightweight contender who fought in the 1980s and was on verge of a world title shot when he left the game in 1988, will fight the main event on April 13 at the Peck Center in Fernandina Beach, Florida. When the 53-year-old Cenicola steps into the ring that night, he will break the record of the longest time a pro boxer spent in retirement before returning to the ring (current record is 23 years). “This is something that has been on my mind for years,” said Cenicola, who will fight at 154 pounds, the Jr. Middleweight weight limit. “It’s unfinished business for me. I retired from boxing unfulfilled and left with a bad taste in my mouth after my last fight. I’ve always loved the game and I feel 25 years old now that I’m getting back into it.”
Cenicola was a popular lightweight in New Jersey in the 1980s, fighting multiple times on ESPN and attracting the attention of the famed Duva family, which promoted Cenicola, and Stallone, who managed Sal and even encouraged him to go by the ring moniker of “Rocky” Cenicola.
Sal won 18 of his first 19 fights before fighting in a title elimination match against unbeaten Chicago lightweight Louie Lomelli in February 1988. The winner would get a shot at the title. Cenicola injured his hamstring 10 days before the fight, but promoters, worried about losing ticket sales from Sal’s huge New Jersey fan base, convinced him to go ahead with the match. It was a disaster, as Cenicola’s hamstring tore in the second round and he could not continue. Lomelli got the title shot. Cenicola, disgusted at being bullied into the match, retired.
Cenicola moved to South Georgia, opened a popular restaurant in Saint Simons Island and tried to forget about boxing. But he couldn’t. As the years passed, Cenicola found his desire to fight became greater. He hired a trainer. He ran, sparred, dropped weight and wondered how he could achieve his dream of fighting again. A chance meeting with John Moceyunas of Don King Productions put Sal’s dream into action. Moceyunas got Sal licensed in Florida after Cenicola passed a battery of medical tests. The pair hired former King matchmaker Eric Bottjer to put together the April 13 show featuring Sal.
“I told Sal he was crazy,” said Bottjer. “Another 50-year-old fighter had just returned to the ring in January (Mark Weinman). He had been off almost 22 years. Weinman was a good fighter in his day with
a good record (12-3). He fought a guy in January with a record of 0-6 and the guy knocked Weinman out in the first round.”
Sal’s opponent for April 13 is Nathan Petty of Louisville, Ken., a prison guard with seven pro fights who has only been stopped once. Petty has his own inspirational story – his weight had ballooned and he once weighed 258 for a fight, but dedicated himself to boxing and lost 100 pounds. He identifies with Cenicola – to a point. “Sal seems like a nice guy,” said Petty. “But I’m going to send him back into retirement to make pizzas at his restaurant.”
Moeyunass has titled Cenicola’s April fight “Comeback to Reality,” and has been shocked at the local reaction. “Everybody knows Sal in this area and I mean everybody,” said Mocuyenas, after conducting a press conference on Friday announcing the fight. “Everybody wants Sal to win, but he’s heading into uncharted waters with this fight. Nobody has ever come back after 25 years. George Foreman’s comeback was amazing, but he was off 10 years.”
Tickets for “Comeback to Reality” are available at www.ldltv.com , www.Salcenicola.com Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria on St Simons Island or by calling 912-230-2437.