Four and a half years ago in Brooklyn, reigning Universal Boxing Federation (UBF) champion Khiary Gray faced Courtney Pennington on enemy soil, not knowing they'd one day fight for a title in front of a sold-out crowd at one of the region's premier destinations for professional boxing.
Though the details are still fuzzy on both sides -- Pennington (9-4-1, 5 KOs) himself didn't remember he had fought Gray (14-1, 11 KOs) until checking the name a second time -- Gray is certain he won that night despite not getting the decision and is confident he'll leave no doubt Saturday, Feb. 4th, 2017 when he defends his UBF International and Northeast Junior Middleweight Titles against Pennington at Twin River Casino.
"I won that fight in New York," Gray said of his 2012 Long Island Amateur Boxing Championships match against Pennington.
"He couldn't touch me. My defense was too much. I'm too slick. I have speed, power, and no one knows what type of fighter I am on fight day because I'm so multi-dimensional. I can box, or I can sit in the pocket and trade, but people are just going to have to see come fight day."
The eight-round Gray-Pennington title bout headlines CES Boxing's 2017 season opener, promoted in association with Joe DeGuardia's Star Boxing, which promotes the Brooklyn-born Pennington.
Tickets are priced at $47.00, $102.00, $127.00 (VIP) and $152.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesboxing.com, www.twinriver.com or www.ticketmaster.com, by phone at 401-724-2253/2254 or at the Twin River Casino Players Club. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
The fighter Pennington faces next month likely won't resemble the raw, yet talented, amateur he fought four and a half years ago at the famed Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. Gray has matured quickly both in and out of the ring since turning pro in 2014. The Worcester, Mass., native has fought 15 times in two and a half years, including three title bouts and his highly-touted network television debut on ShoBox: The New Generation.
Through it all, the 24-year-old Gray learned more about himself in his Showtime loss to Ian Green, a devastating second-round knockout in a fight he dominated up until he got caught.
"That fight wasn't me," Gray admits. "I was rushing and just looking for a knockout. That loss made me realize what I really need to be doing."
It also raised some doubts as to whether or not Gray wanted to continue pursuing a career in boxing. The aftermath of losing on national television was unlike anything he had anticipated. With Gray's aura of invincibility shattered, some fans and friends turned their backs, but those who continued to support him through the ups and downs motivated him to stay the course and continue chasing his dream.
Gray jumped right back into the fire in October against the dangerous Chris Chatman, a popular ring villain in New England who had carved his niche as a spoiler against hometown fighters. Predicting he'd be "reborn" that night, Gray pushed his way through six hard rounds before knocking out Chatman in the seventh, a stunning finish to a career-defining 2016.
"That win put me right back where I'm supposed to be with the new up-and-coming fighters," Gray said. "Winning by knockout makes me a fighter people need to watch."
Gray is at the age where most contenders begin to make their anticipated climb to the top of their weight class. Three of the four major title-holders in the 154-pound division, twin brothers Jermell Charlo and Jermall Charlo and Canelo Alvarez, are 26. Rhode Island's Demetrius Andrade, a world champion in 2013, is now 28 as he prepares for his next title shot against 31-year-old World Boxing Association (WBA) champion Jack Culcay in March.
The real push for Gray could begin this year, starting with his Feb. 4th bout against the gritty, battle-tested Pennington, who has built himself into a solid contender despite a limited amateur background. Gray has yet to back down from a challenge. He could've taken an easier fight after losing to Green, but instead faced Chatman, who pushed him to the limit before he landed the knockout blow in the seventh.
Pennington has a similar resume; he traveled to Jamaica in 2015 to face middleweight challenger Devon Moncrieffe on foreign soil and 10 months ago battled in-state rival Patrick Day at the famed Paramount Theater in New York. With losses in four of five bouts, Pennington challenged 15-1-1 Boyd Melson in November and righted the ship with a seventh-round knockout, a rebound eerily similar to Gray's comeback win over Chatman.
"Nothing really stood out to me when fought Patrick Day," Gray said, "but I like that he takes tough fights and by taking the fight with me, I respect him for that."
The courtship ends there. On Feb. 4th, Gray steps back into his office between the ropes intent on continuing his climb to the top of the junior middleweight division. Nearly five years since his first fight against Pennington, Gray has earned the rematch on his terms and his turf with much higher stakes this time around.
The Feb. 4th card features an additional title bout as New Haven, Conn., vet Josh Crespo (7-4-3, 3 KOs) faces unbeaten Timmy Ramos (4-0-1, 4 KOs) of Framingham, Mass., in a six-round bout for the vacant New England Super Featherweight Championship.
In a battle of unbeatens, Hartford, Conn., prospect Jose Rivera (2-0, 2 KOs) faces his toughest test to date in a six-round junior middleweight showdown against New Bedford, Mass., vet Ray Oliveira Jr. (6-0, 1 KO) and fellow undefeated prospects and decorated amateurs Jamaine Ortiz (2-0, 2 KOs) of Worcester, Mass., and Canton Miller (2-0, 1 KO) of Saint Louis, Mo., square off in a four-round lightweight battle.
Framingham's Julio Perez (4-1) ends his nine-month layoff in a four-round intrastate showdown against Salem vet Matt Doherty (5-3-1, 3 KOs), who returns to Twin River for the first time since July of 2015. Following a busy 2016 in which he fought six times in seven months, Worcester's Kendrick Ball Jr. (4-0-2, 3 KOs) faces Minneapolis' Kenneth Glenn (3-2, 1 KO) in a four-round middleweight bout, and Framingham middleweight Christopher Davis-Fogg (2-0, 1 KO) makes his Twin River debut in a four-round bout against Anthony Everett (1-4) of Lawrence, Mass.
Taunton, Mass., welterweight Marqus Bates (0-1) aims to bounce back from a loss in his professional debut in a four-round battle against Providence, R.I., native Aaron Muniz, who makes his debut. Junior welterweight Khiry Todd (1-0, 1 KO) of Lynn, Mass., battles Woburn, Mass., native Bruno Dias (0-2) in a four-round bout and junior middleweight Anthony Marsella Jr. (3-0, 2 KOs) of Providence will be featured in separate four-round bout.
The Feb. 4th card will also feature two special CES Ring of Honor ceremonies inducting famed boxing trainer Kevin Rooney, who worked with world champions Mike Tyson and Vinny Paz in his storied career, and the late Manny Lopes of Marshfield, Mass., a former light heavyweight prospect who fought his entire career with CES Boxing until retiring undefeated in 2010.
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