In the center of Mobtown Fight Club, a small gym tucked away in an alley off Baltimore Street, Venroy July pounds a speed bag.
Behind him, his trainer Adrian Davis shouts phrases of encouragement.
"Yeah! Work it champ!"
Eyes fixed on the flittering bag, July appears oblivious to the world around him.
"Can't nobody beat you. Nobody!"
July rapidly rotates his arms, his body transforming into a smooth, punching machine.
"The next cruiserweight champion of the world!"
It's 9:00 on a recent weeknight and July, 28, is almost done with another grueling day. It started at 6:00 in the morning with a three mile run, continued at the downtown law firm of Hogan Lovells, where July is a corporate lawyer, and is winding down at Mobtown with an hour-long workout. Afterward, July will head home to Laurel for another early-morning wake-up call.
"Anybody who can organize their life into being a corporate lawyer as well as train in the sport — it's a very, very hard sport — you have to take your hat off to him," said July's promoter at United Boxers, Chris Middendorf. "The fact that he can do that and be at the level of skill that he's at on such a fast track, it's impressive."
July, who fights at Du Burns Arena tonight, was nicknamed "So Special" by a sportswriter who pulled the moniker from July's entrance song, the reggae band Movado's hit "I'm So Special." The name fits, not only because July is undefeated and widely considered one of the top cruiserweights in the area, but because it's so unusual for a professional boxer to double as a corporate lawyer.
Still, July is pondering a switch back to his old nickname: Hard Work. After all, that's how he earned a scholarship to North Carolina and won a spot on the wrestling team as a walk on. That's what propelled July to Duke Law School and finally to one of the top firms in Baltimore. That's what separates July from his peers, at least according to Davis. The 67-year old trainer should know: he's been around boxing his entire life and has trained some of the country's finest boxers, including Sugar Ray Leonard, Hasim Rahman and Eric Aiken.
July, Davis says, is right there with the best of them.
"I have 14 world champions." Davis declares. "And he's going to be the 15th."
Alone in the ring
July's family moved from Jamaica to New York City when he was 11, and their home in the Bronx proved a sharp contrast to the community-oriented city of St. Catherine, Jamaica. One year after they moved, July's father parked his car in front of their apartment on 165th and the Grand Concourse and went up for a short nap. By the time he got back the car was stripped, literally left sitting on cinder blocks.
Worried that her children might get caught up in violence, July's mother Denise, a teacher in Jamaica, forbid July and his brother and sister to play in the street and encouraged them to stay home and study. The focus on education paid off for July when he received a scholarship to attend the Taft School, a prestigious boarding school in Watertown, Conn. At Taft, students were mandated to play a sport each semester, so July chose wrestling. It was the sport's individual aspect that initially appealed to July.
"When you play basketball you can always say, 'Well, he should have passed me the ball. He should have done something. Or the team wasn't playing well,' " July said. "In wrestling you're going out there one-on-one and you better learn how to freaking deal with failure or victory."
In the spring of his junior year at Taft July applied for — and got — a Morehead-Cain Scholarship, a highly selective grant to attend the University of North Carolina. Growing up July had always planned on applying to Ivy League schools — all he knew about North Carolina was that "It was a top 25 school and Michael Jordan went there" — but the scholarship was too good to pass up. July walked onto the wrestling team as a freshman at Chapel Hill, and as a senior he was one of the top grapplers in the conference, winning the 197-pound title at the ACC Tournament.
After North Carolina, July had his sights set on law school — he said he has always been a type A personality and he has a penchant for arguing. However July's choice of schools made many of his friends cringe. July traveled the eight miles down Tobacco Road to attend Duke, where he had one year of eligibility remaining due to an injury. While July wore his new school's dark blue singlet during matches, he marked his true allegiance with his shoes, strapping on the light blue ones he had from his time at North Carolina. July holds the distinction of lettering at both Duke and North Carolina.
One summer, July interned at the Washington, D.C., law firm Dickstein Shapiro, where an older co-worker encouraged the associates to work out with him and had them try boxing. For July, it was love at first punch. Boxing had the same one-on-one component that drew July to wrestling, and he figured boxing would be a good way to stay in shape. He also realized that his two newfound passions weren't all that different.
"Boxing is one-on-one, trying to outdo somebody physically," July says. "Being an attorney is very similar: You're trying to do your thing and get your point across, just on the contract."
July graduated from Duke in 2007, and three months later he was back as an associate at Dickstein Shapiro. He connected with trainer Keely Thompson and started working out at Thompson's gym. July started fighting at the amateur level in late 2007, and around Christmas he traveled to North Carolina for his fourth fight. However his opponent never showed up, and Thompson announced that instead July would challenge anyone, regardless of weight class. So that night July battled Abodunrin Akinyanju, an experienced 257-pounder who was fifth on the Olympic ladder. Meanwhile July weighed 200 pounds and had been boxing as an amateur for a few months. July suffered his first defeat that night in what he called a "terrible, terrible fight."
However all was not lost. Davis was in the crowd for the fight, and, impressed by July's untapped potential, he gave his card to July's girlfriend. A few months later, after suffering his second loss, July left Thompson and started training with Davis.
A true professional
July initially kept his boxing career a secret at Dickstein Shapiro, worried what people might think of their new associate. Even after turning pro two years ago, July managed to keep it undercover. It was only when a co-worker showed up at a bout in November that July knew his secret was out.
After working until 7:30 that night, July showed up for his fight with Fred McClinton at 8:00. July dominated the bout early, but with 10 seconds left in the opening period he let his guard down and McClinton scored a knockdown. As he got up, July heard his co-worker shout, "Go kick his [butt]!" July settled for a draw that night, but when he got to work his fears were assuaged by co-workers accepting of his alternate career.
July, who is 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 204 pounds, is undefeated (7-0-2) as a professional, and will face Willie Chisholm at Du Burns Arena Friday night. While other boxers have pranced around July, fearful of his physical style, Middendorf said Chisholm should provide a good matchup.
"I wanted to put Venroy in with somebody who would really stand in front of him," Middendorf said. "Willie is going to do that."
Whatever the outcome Friday, it's safe to say July, who has worked in Baltimore since April, will be back at work Monday. Indeed, what impresses Davis most about July is his work ethic. Davis says that July "trains like he's hungry — like he can't get a job or don't have no money."
While July's dual-life might make him So Special, perhaps what truly makes him unique is that he knows he will ultimately be remembered by that other name:
Hard Work.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun