Extra Points: Local boxer ready for pro debut
ATLANTIC CITY - As a sixth-year member of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, Justin Figueroa is intimately familiar with the dangers of deep water.
"I'm working this summer on Kentucky Avenue, which is one of our busiest beaches," Figueroa said. "With the jetties and currents, it can be dangerous if you're not careful."
The same thing holds true for a boxing ring.
Figueroa, 23, will be making his professional debut at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall's Adrian Phillip Theatre. He will face Toledo, Ohio's Tavaris Smith (0-5) in a four-round, junior-middleweight bout as part of a card being promoted by Millville-based Rising Star Promotions.
On paper, Smith poses no threat. But as any lifeguard and fighter knows, even the tiniest wave can cause problems. Even the strongest swimmer - and the most talented boxer - has to guard against getting swept up in the current.
In most cases, a four-round undercard fight wouldn't draw much attention. Seats would be empty while fans wandered on the boardwalk and nearby casinos until the main event. On Saturday, world-ranked Millville middleweight Thomas LaManna (31-5-1, 13 KOs) will headline the show in a 10-rounder against Mexican veteran Saul Roman (46-15, 38 KOs).
But Figueroa, an Atlantic City native and 2017 Holy Spirit High School graduate, is immensely popular. He sold approximately $17,000 worth of tickets to fellow lifeguards, Holy Spirit classmates and other friends and family members.
With popularity comes a degree of pressure. Fans will be expecting an impressive victory.
"I'm not going to lie," Figueroa said. "The spotlight is on me and I feel a little bit of anxiety about it. But I've had pressure on me before. I'm used to the spotlight and I have a lot of confidence."
Figueroa started boxing when he was 5 years old, but only recently returned to the sport after a lengthy hiatus. He was a football and wrestling standout at Holy Spirit.
In his senior football season, the running back/cornerback was one of the area's most versatile stars. He rushed for 785 yards and 10 touchdowns on 100 carries while also registering 43 tackles and three interceptions for the Spartans. He earned first-team All Press honors along with current NFL rookies Markquese Bell, Bo Melton and Isiah Pacheco. He also enjoyed a successful wrestling season, finishing second in District 29 at 220 pounds.
Figueroa originally hoped to play football at Rowan University, but left after one semester.
A few weeks later, he ventured into the Atlantic City Police Athletic League on New York Avenue and began to box again as a way to lose weight and stay in shape.
"It's hard to chase your dream when you don't have the right guidance," he said. "When I went to Rowan, I arrived too late to play football that year and started skipping classes and things. I decided to come home after the one semester because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life and it made no sense to keep wasting my time and money on college.
"I weighed about 215 pounds at the time because I was planning on playing football. I wanted to drop some weight and I lived right up the street from the PAL at the time. I started boxing again and realized that's what I wanted to do."
Before making the plunge into the professional ranks, Figueroa did his homework.
He bought the book, "How to Protect Yourself At All Times," by Adrian Clark in an effort to gain an understanding about the business side of boxing.
A conversation with Clark led to a meeting with Jolene Mizzone, a former matchmaker with Main Events who became president of Fighters First Management last April. At Mizzone's suggestion, Figueroa hired Egg Harbor Township's Arnold Robbins as his head trainer about a month ago to join with assistant trainer John Gibbons.
"They wanted someone with experience and I was happy to help," said Robbins, a well-respected local trainer who worked in the past with standouts such as Shamone Alvarez, Alfred Kinsey, Patrick Majewski and the late Leavander Johnson. "I'm not here to change anything with Justin. He already has a style that works very well for him and I'm just here to add to it and see where it goes. It's a total team effort. I'm helping him reach his full potential and I'm excited."
When he's not at the beach, Figueroa is either training or thinking about training.
As soon as his shift ends at the beach patrol, he heads to the PAL to work out. Then it's home to eat, rest and recuperate for the next day.
The dedication paid off. He's lost over 60 pounds over the course of four years and eventually plans on fighting at the junior-middleweight limit of 154 pounds.
"Boxing is my life now," he said.
In the ring, as on the beach, he enjoys being in deep water.