Shorty Acosta is in it for the kids, but he’s quick to point out that the kids often give something back.
“There’s a guy, my financial advisor?” Acosta said. “He puts my money to work. When I retire, I’m set for good. He takes care of me.
“He used to be my boxer!”
As he relates this, Acosta is fresh from working the corner for his protégé Luis Feliciano at the USA Boxing National Championships. The Milwaukee boxer, like the most of the nearly 300 entrants mixing it up at The HUB Sports Center, has his sights set on the 2016 Olympics and professional riches beyond that. But the immediate concern is the 141-pound division berth to the Olympic Trials that goes to the champion.
Oh, and the degree he’ll collect from Marquette University.
Feliciano will graduate in May in criminology and law studies. What specific use this might be to his coach down the line is unclear, unless maybe it’s bringing to justice anyone who tries to take that money the financial guy put to work.
At the United Community Center in Milwaukee, Israel “Shorty” Acosta has trained all size and manner of boxers over the course of three decades – kids who come and go in a couple of weeks and those like Feliciano who came through the door at age 7 and never left.
Some who passed through became doctors and lawyers and market mavens.
Boxers on the degree track tend to take us off guard. We are conditioned to see fighters as the original dead-end kids who view the ring as an escape from soul-crushing circumstance – followed by the likelihood they’ll lose whatever they find there. That it turns out that way less often than we assume can be chalked up to the lessons imparted each day, usually by coaches like Shorty Acosta.
“A promoter comes in and tells a kid he’s going to give him $25,000, and he signs a contract,” Acosta said. “What are you going to do? The kid’s never seen $25,000. Then he signs and it’s gone in a month. What you got now?
“With education, you can make the rest of your life good.”
A particularly well-kept secret is that USA Boxing funds $35,000 worth of scholarships a year through a program named for Sarge Johnson, the late Olympic coach. If this doesn’t seem like much, maybe you haven’t noticed that amateur boxing is not the hottest thing going anymore, and dollars come hard.
In any case, a small portion of it has helped defray a book here and a fee there for Feliciano, who tends to view his education as “a Plan B – but you have to have a Plan B.”
A little more than a year ago, Feliciano crossed right hands with a sparring partner, tearing a rotator cuff and bicep tendon. Training was put on hold for nine months, and only last August did he return to the ring, acknowledging that “it could have ended all for me right there.”
In Spokane, he’s opened with a knockout and an easy decision and at least looks like the fighter Acosta said “has the whole package.”
Though that seems like a more apt description of the coach.
Acosta walked into that same UCC gym 44 years ago, just days after relocating from his native Puerto Rico, and over the next decade became one of America’s best amateur light flyweights. He took a shot at three Olympic teams, the last in 1984, when he lost a 3-2 decision to eventual gold medalist Paul Gonzalez in the boxoff finals – at age 31.
“He knew I beat him, but he was from L.A. and they wanted the home boy in the L.A. Olympics,” Acosta said. “What are you going to do? I love him, he’s a wonderful guy. I dropped him and still lost.”
Acosta is 5-foot-2, a thin mustache setting off the happiest of smiles. He is one of those fun spirits that sports today – yes, even boxing – seems determined to dull-down. He’s kept his day job with the Milwaukee housing authority for 42 years. A documentary film crew has tailed him for a year. He married his wife, Dora, in a boxing ring.
“The only fight I ever lost,” said Acosta, whose 25th anniversary is upcoming. “I told her I want a rematch.”
He was also supposed to be on the plane in 1980 that crashed outside Warsaw, Poland, killing 77 – including 14 boxers and eight U.S. boxing officials heading for an international dual meet. He backed out the day of the trip and even now tears up at the mention of it.
“I lost a lot of friends that day,” he said.
“I don’t know – God told me don’t go. I guess he had something for me in this line of work – to do something for kids.”
And get a little something back, day by day.
Lead photo credit: Trainer Shorty Acosta puts his arm around fighter Luis Feliciano at The HUB Sports Center in Liberty Lake. (Tyler Tjomsland)