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DOWN BUT NOT OUT

The crowd beamed as the champ slowly made his way to the microphone. Fifteen years removed from his last dance in the ring, they hung on his every word – even though his slow, slurred speech echoed the countless punches he’d taken over nearly two decades as a professional boxer.

“We love you, Champ,” they shouted with smiles and moist eyes, as Leon Spinks, former Heavyweight Champion of the World, modestly accepted their praise, smiling right back at them.

It was the third Tuesday of the month at The Waterfront Crabhouse in Long Island City. It was Ring 8’s night.

While regulars chowed on burgers and sipped beers at the bar, the main event was upstairs at The Terrace where 100 boxing aficionados, former “cutmen” and coaches, and old pros gathered for their monthly meeting.

For $25 a year, Ring 8 members are treated to all-you-can-eat buffets, but they have a lot more to chew on than just meatballs and Chinese food.

The roughly 50-year-old organization, which boasts around 400 members, was started by legendary pugilists Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson to help fighters who, like Spinks, no longer had a regular fight night to pay their bills.

“Back then they had no help at all,” Ring 8 President Matt Farrago, himself a former pro, said of boxers from Dempsey and Robinson’s day. “You were just a commodity, a disposable commodity, and when you didn’t produce anymore, there was no need for you.”

Farrago, 48, said things are slightly different today, but perhaps largely because of Ring 8’s efforts. Fighters are more educated about what needs to happen when they hang up the gloves, Farrago explained, and they’ve seen their heroes quickly veer from triumph to tragedy.

These days, he said, boxers need to take more responsibility for their futures and managers have to be more like financial advisors. But, Farrago noted, as long as world champions and undercard fighters alike continue taking punch after punch, Ring 8 will have its work cut out for it.

“There are some very big names out there that are in dire straits financially because they didn’t learn and didn’t know how to handle the fame and the money,” Farrago said. “The sad thing is when you know this name,” he continued, “and you watched him as a kid with your father sitting next to you – knowing that now he’s out there on the street, it’s the saddest thing.”

On this night, as the Ring 8 members eagerly tucked into their dinners, a man came around selling “50/50” raffle tickets for $5 a piece. Later, 50 percent of the $400 pot was presented to the winner, while the other half wound up in Ring 8’s coffer – which, in a good year amounts to $20,000 in rent, medical bills and food for up to 20 boxers.

Throughout the night, when they weren’t talking boxing, members were bidding on sports memorabilia ranging from 70-year-old editions of the New York Times featuring Joe Louis to gloves signed on the spot by Spinks, an Olympic gold medalist. All of the proceeds helped keep Ring 8’s mission alive – a purpose that is perhaps best symbolized by the tale of one of boxing’s all-time greats.

World Welterweight Champion Kid Gavilan was simply known as Gerardo Gonzalez before his flashy fighting style catapulted him into the annals of boxing history during a career in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. But the Hall of Famer returned to anonymity at death in 2003.

He “passed away broke,” said Farrago. “Not a dime. He was buried in a potter’s field with a stick, or a plaque, or a little carving stone, where nobody would ever find him. We found him.”

With financial help from Mike Tyson, Ring 8 gave Gavilan the burial he deserved. And the organization lent a similar hand to the legacy of Jackie Tonawanda, “The Female Ali,” who is widely regarded as the pioneer of women’s boxing.

“It’s a bunch of great guys and we help our people,” said Johnny Breitenbruck, a former pro and World War II Marine Corps boxing coach, who is a 10-year Ring 8 member. “It’s a serious thing for the guys who are on the receiving end of it. Some guys caught bad breaks.”

Jim Gitney, who fought in the amateur ranks at the Sunnyside Garden Arena before moving on to a pro career in the ‘60s and ‘70s, considers himself “lucky” that he didn’t wind up like one of the boxers rescued by Ring 8.

But he made it clear that he still cherishes his boxing days.

“I was the undercard for the Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali fight,” Gitney said, a twinkle appearing in his eye before he quickly added with a laugh, “I lost that night.”

Yet, while he proudly recited from memory the date of the Frazier-Ali bout – “It was on January 28, 1974” – Gitney admitted he is also grateful for the plumbing career he was able to fall back on after boxing.

“A lot of people into fighting are uneducated,” he said. “People come from the streets, they come from the slums – they don’t have any money.”

Ring 8 doesn’t just dole out financial aid, however, as many of the members – both male and female – will tell you. The organization also knows the value of emotional support.

“I visited a guy in the hospital and bought him a magazine for five bucks, and he just lit up the room,” Farrago recalled.

Spinks, an honored guest at the meeting – who gladly posed for cell phone camera after cell phone camera and autographed boxing glossy after boxing glossy – attested to the power of Ring 8.

“It’s a good thing, he said. “Most definitely. It’s a real positive thing.”

“They need it,” he said of boxers who no longer have a trainer in the corner or thousands of screaming fans and flashbulbs tracking their every step. “The kids need it too,” he said, referring to the scholarships and guidance Ring 8 offers young fighters.

Whether they’ve tasted glory on the international stage like Spinks, or landed punches in the long-gone Sunnyside Garden in front of an empty house, Farrago said any fighter who’s raised a hand in victory is worthy of Ring 8’s coveted support.

“Any fighter is a brother,” Farrago said with pride. “Anybody who stepped in the ring with a recorded number of fights, they’re under our wing.”

“From an individual sport, we’ve now become a team sport,” he said.

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