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Shark Tale: Frankie Toledo stepped in for his brother to become featherweight champion of the world

Frankie Toledo beats Mbulelo Botile (Action Images / Richard Heathcote)
Frankie Toledo tells Elliot Worsell about the night he accepted the title shot his brother, David, turned down to become Paterson's first world champion

ON April 6, 2001, Mbulelo Botile knew he would defend his IBF featherweight title against a New Jersey southpaw named Toledo but didn’t know which one. There was Frankie, the older Toledo, and there was David, the younger Toledo. Both were in line for a shot and both were aware Botile, the champion from South Africa, could grant only one wish at the Texas Station Casino in Las Vegas.

Initially the job was offered to David, the less experienced of the two. However, management problems left him feeling in the wrong frame of mind to challenge a champion whose previous fight led to Paul Ingle, Botile’s opponent, ending up in a coma, and Frankie, in tune with his sibling, sensed it. “Listen, man, this is an opportunity for you,” he told David. “Take the fight. Forget about all your issues and just go for it. You can’t turn it down.”

“I don’t know,” said David. “I need to go away and think about it.”

It’s a conversation and sliding doors moment Frankie will never forget. It took place on a Friday, he recalls, and he made it clear to David he wanted an answer by the Monday. “Do me a favour,” he said. “Call me first thing Monday. If you don’t want the fight, I’m going to call my promoter to see if he can get me the fight instead.”

As requested, David called Frankie the following Monday. He let him know he had spent the weekend thinking about the opportunity and had, upon weighing up its pros and cons, decided to turn it down. His words were this time greeted by silent acceptance as Frankie, rather than argue, prepared to contact his promoter.

“I was already 31 years old and my youngest daughter was born,” he said. “I needed the fight as much as my brother did.

“My promoter got me the fight and then I went to Bayamón, Puerto Rico to train. I stayed there for three weeks in my aunt’s house.”

Frankie Toledo nowadays enjoys retirement

There are five years separating Frankie and David Toledo but not a lot else. As boys, Frankie led and David followed and it was towards boxing Frankie headed when he discovered a ring in the basement of the City Hall in Paterson, New Jersey, months shy of his tenth birthday. “Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s where it all started.”

Time was spent in the City Hall during wintertime because his father, Efrain, a softball nut, would regularly drag Frankie along to watch him and his teammates play full-court games of basketball. Often it was the noises Frankie would remember: the bounce of the ball on solid wood, the squeaking of Converse trainers, the grunts of competition. Yet one day a different kind of sound, a sound emanating from the basement, grabbed him like no other.

“I went down and just stood there watching,” Frankie reminisced. “When my dad’s practice was over, he was going crazy looking for me. Somebody told him I was in the boxing gym and when he came downstairs he saw it in my eyes. I was entertained by it. He asked me if I wanted to give it a try. I said ‘yes’.”

It seemed a perfect fit. Frankie, like many who stumble into boxing’s arms, was a hyperactive child with boundless energy whose tendency was to go in search of mischief. Not only that, Paterson was a playground for kids drawn to it.

“Back in the day of course they had drugs and everything, but my dad was always strict and telling me what I should and shouldn’t do,” he said. “Nowadays a lot of these kids don’t have any respect and come from broken homes. I was just happy my dad was always by my side, guiding me.

“Boxing, too, definitely kept me on the straight and narrow. I liked that one-on-one competition.”

As did David.

“Oh yeah, he loved it,” said Frankie. “We were in the same gym, same weight class, everything. We both were fast, but he had a different kind of speed. He was faster than me. Super-fast. I don’t know how come, or why he got lucky like that, but he did.”

Soon the Toledos, born to Puerto Rican parents, were just two of the boxers in their neighbourhood using boxing as a way of protecting themselves, bettering themselves and exploring a world beyond the liquor stores and police tape of Paterson, a fight town synonymous with Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter.

Around the corner from the Toledo family home lived Omar Sheika, while others like Kendall Holt, George Khalid Jones, Henry Crawford and Jerson Ravelo would also leave their mark on the sport in years to come. “I grew up with Omar,” said Frankie. “His mother’s house caught on fire and he lived in my parents’ house for a year.”

Toledo and Sheika got out. They used boxing as a catalyst to ensure they were defined not by criminal records but fight records. Others, though, weren’t so fortunate.

“I have a couple of friends right now doing time,” said Frankie. “I have a friend doing 25 years who’s about to come home. I have friends I used to spar with, boxers, who are on drugs on the street now. You can’t believe it.

“But there’s always a way of getting out. You just need determination. It’s a bit like boxing. You’ve just got to work at it. These things don’t happen overnight. Nobody is going to give you anything.

“I always had a strong mentality and tried to stay positive even when things got me down. What motivated me also were my kids. I wanted to give them a better life.”

To this end, he dreamed of becoming a world champion like his heroes Hector Camacho, Ray Leonard and Pernell Whitaker. But first a nickname was needed, one to stand alongside ‘Macho Man’, ‘Sugar’ and ‘Sweet Pea’.

“One time we were at the gym working out and Arturo Gatti and his brother, Joe, were with us,” Toledo explained. “They were known as ‘Thunder’ and ‘Lightning’ and we were just joking around one day about nicknames. Arturo then said I should call myself ‘The Shark’ because I was pretty fast. Next thing you know, they started calling me ‘The Shark’ in the gym.”

One glance at Toledo’s career stats after his first five fights and you would be forgiven for thinking the ‘Shark’ nickname was a stretch. He lost his second and fifth pro fights, the latter by sixth-round stoppage, and seemed a long way from sinking his teeth into the nine-stone division and winning a world championship. But a shark is nothing if not persistent.

“I’m happy that all happened early and I was able to come back from it,” he said. “It taught me to prepare myself correctly. I was hanging out a little bit here and there and not doing everything I was supposed to be doing.”

Those two early defeats invited his father to get tough with him.

“This is your career and you have to decide what you want to do,” Efrain one day told his son. “Do you want to take this thing seriously and give it 110 percent?”

The good news: after telling his father he did, Toledo, 21 wins later, landed his first shot at the world title. The bad news: Toledo’s opponent would be Marco Antonio Barrera, a WBO super-bantamweight champion undefeated in 35 pro fights who was well on his way to becoming one of the greats of the modern era.

Efrain again intervened.

“He didn’t want me to take that Barrera fight,” Frankie recalled. “He didn’t think I was ready for that kind of fighter, one of the strongest in my division. But the way I looked at it was that it was an opportunity.”

It took just two rounds for Barrera to clarify why he might have been better off listening to his father.

“He’s a Hall-of-Famer, man,” said Frankie. “I was really struggling to make 122 pounds for that fight, but he was just tough, man. Really strong and rugged. He was a great body puncher. I experienced it.”

Barrera, seen here against Johnny Tapia, was too much for Toledo (Action Images/Reuters/Steve Marcus)

The next time Toledo fought for a proper version of the world title it was up at featherweight and an opportunity meant for his brother.

“Man, that was a tough fight,” he remembered of the night he stepped in for David to outpoint Botile in Las Vegas. “He was a very strong fighter, but it felt like I beat him so easy. I was in the best shape of my life. I trained like there was no tomorrow because I knew it might be my last chance.

“He had just put a guy (Paul Ingle) in a coma and everyone was saying I was crazy for taking that fight. Everybody thought I might get hurt. They were telling my cornermen, ‘Please don’t let him get hurt. Stop the fight if you see him getting hurt.’

“But I always believed in myself. I knew I had the talent to become world champion and I did it. The crazy thing is the odds were 33/1 that I would win.”

On the morning of the weigh-in David Toledo was forced to leave Vegas because his father-in-law was gravely ill and his wife wanted to say goodbye while she still had the chance. This meant David missed out on seeing Frankie become a world champion and also prevented any mixed emotions he may have felt when watching the Botile fight from ringside.

In the end, David found out his big brother had become Paterson’s first ever world champion when their plane touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Your brother is the new world champ,” the pilot told him. “Congratulations.”

“I’m not sure if he regrets passing it (the title fight) up,” said Frankie. “We never spoke about it again.”

Frankie Toledo becomes world featherweight champion (Action Images / Richard Heathcote)

David Toledo’s pro career ended in 2003. He won 34 of 41 fights but never received his shot at the world title.

“Towards the end of his career he kept getting headbutted and was picking up all these bad cuts,” said Frankie. “He once had this L-shaped cut on his forehead and he finally said, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ He had a family. He had a son already. He’d had enough.”

Frankie, meanwhile, held on to his world title for just seven months. In defence number one he was matched against Mexico’s ungainly Manuel Medina – who had defeated him the previous year – and that was that.

“His style, man, it was so awkward,” Frankie, 43-7-1 (18), said dolefully. “He headbutted me all night and busted me open.

“I don’t know how I got away with it for so many years, but I was born with a bad eye. I can’t really see that good in one eye. When I got cut in that fight the blood was running into my right eye, my good one, so I really couldn’t see that good.”

Frankie’s last fight was a decision loss over six rounds in April 2004. It was nothing compared to his next decision.

“It was depressing,” he said of retirement. “I was going through a divorce and boxing was my life. When I retired, I was probably depressed for at least a year. Part of my life was gone and it wasn’t pretty, man. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was going through a rough time.

“In the first year, I got hurt at work, had surgery on my shoulder and caught myself having a beer at seven o’clock in the morning. I realise now I was drinking for a minute. I was like, S**t, what am I doing? I noticed one time I was drinking a couple of glasses of wine every day.

“When you’re in the limelight and your picture is in the paper, everybody likes that. But when you’re not, everybody is like, ‘Oh, he’s old, he’s a has-been.’ One guy, not too long ago, said, ‘You don’t have it no more.’ I said to him, ‘You’re right. I don’t. But you never had it.’ We were only joking around but it’s true.”

Though he made his name as a 126-pound featherweight, Toledo, now 49, says earlier this year he weighed 222 pounds and struggled tying his shoelaces without being out of breath. He knew then he had to heed the warnings of his doctor and watch his sugar intake. He knew then he had to rediscover the discipline of old and start training again. “Crazy, right?” he said, buoyed by the fact that the day before we spoke he had stepped on the scales and was down 31 pounds to 191. “I was almost twice the man I used to be but felt half the man I used to be.”

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