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WOONSOCKET â As glorious and magical as last year was for Joe Gardner in his comeback to boxing, this year has been the complete opposite.
First, the Woonsocket super middleweight was slated to fight in his first main event in March at The Roxy in Boston and defend the EBA (Eastern Boxing Association) New England light heavyweight championship that he won the previous November, but that show was abruptly cancelled.
In April, he fought New Haven, Conn.âs Elvin Ayala on the swing bout of an nationally-televised ESPN2 âFriday Night Fightsâ event at Foxwoods Resort Casino, but lost that fight when body shots from Ayala in the third and fourth rounds forced Gardner to not answer the bell for the fifth.
In May, he suffered the worst defeat of his career, an opening-round knockout to unbeaten 2008 Olympian Shawn Estrada in Carson, Calif. that saw Estrada break Gardnerâs nose and the fight last just 87 seconds.
And if that loss wasnât painful enough, Gardner received a 180-day suspension from the California State Athletic Commission for failing to seek medical attention after the fight.
âI didnât take the ambulance ride (to the hospital) that night because I knew I was hurt, but it wasnât really that bad,â said Gardner. âThatâs the fourth time Iâve broken my nose, but I felt fine and I wanted to stay and watch the main event [between Andre Ward and Arthur Abraham].â
But that suspension has passed, and Gardner now finds himself with a chance to salvage his year and enter 2012 with a bit of momentum.
Gardner will take on Brian âThe Bullâ Barbosa of Passaic, N.J. in a six-round light heavyweight bout on Fridayâs âTheyâre Back!â card, the inaugural show promoted by Big Six Entertainment of Providence, at the West Warwick Civic Center.
Gardner, who got in some quality sparring at the Woonsocket Boxing Club on Thursday night with Reynaldo Rodriguez and Brandon Fournier, spent some time talking about his upcoming fight before entering the ring for his sparring session, but not before sharing his thoughts about his suspension.
âI really wasnât expecting a 180-day suspension and I never heard of one that long,â remarked Gardner. âI thought I was going to be able to get off after serving half, but (the CSAC) werenât having it. If I knew this suspension was going to hold its weight all the way through, I definitely would have taken the ambulance ride.
âI really hate being off this long. Itâs like starting over. But I have been in the gym all summer, so Iâm in as good as shape as Iâm going to be in.â
Gardner (7-3-1, 1 KOs) will be facing a tough customer in Barbosa (29-6, 21 KOs), who is training in East Falmouth, Mass. and has an impressive resume that includes USBA (U.S. Boxing Association) and NABO (North American Boxing Organization) championships during his days as a middleweight.
âHe has a ton of experience,â added Gardner. âThe day I started boxing and joined the gym, he was in there sparring. He was working with Vinny Paz and some other good pros, so he was already a staple in the gym.â
Both fighters do have one thing in common -- they have both spent a number of years away from boxing before returning to it.
When Gardner returned to boxing last May, he ended a 7Â˝-year layoff from the ring. When Barbosa steps into the ring next weekend, he will be ending a nearly nine-year break from the sport.
Barbosaâs last fight was on Jan. 9, 2003 and he won it handily with a second-round TKO of Ronald Boddie in Harrisburg, Penn. But that TKO was erased from the books and replaced with a âno contestâ after Barbosa failed a routine post-fight drug test and received a suspension.
Barbosaâs career and life began to spiral downward after that, and instead of fighting boxers, he was dueling personal demons. He battled a drug problem, found himself homeless, and spent three years in a New York state prison for his involvement in a robbery.
But since then, Barbosa has turned his life around with sobriety and religion, and according to Gardner, it looks like he hasnât lost a step.
âThis is no easy fight,â admitted Gardner. âThis is probably the best time Iâm going to catch this guy coming off a really long layoff. Iâve seen some recent video of him sparring and he still looks like he has something left in the tank. He still looks pretty tough to me.â
With both fighters expected to reach the 175-pound mark for next Thursdayâs weigh-in, Gardner finds himself in an unusual situation of having to gain some weight instead of shedding it. As of Thursday night, he was at 168 pounds.
âIâve been taking a lot of protein, weight gainer, and Weiderâs 3,000 calories per shake,â Gardner noted with a laugh. âIâve never been heavier than anyone Iâve fought and thatâs not going to change in this fight.â
A win would certainly be a welcomed change to what has been a very tough year for Gardner. And after this fight, what are his plans for 2012?
âI just want to stay busy, as busy as I can,â admitted Gardner. âBut right now, Iâm looking forward to this fight and expecting a hard six rounds with a really tough, stubborn guy, so Iâm hoping to outbox him and maybe his ring savvy wonât show up that night.â
The âTheyâre Back!â show will be sparked by the return of two fan favorites, heavyweight Jason âBig Sixâ Estrada and cruiserweight Matt Godfrey, to the Rhode Island scene. Neither Providence fighter and world title challenger has fought in this state in more than three years.
Estrada (16-4, 4 KOs), a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, will battle journeyman Joe Rabotte (11-18-1, 3 KOs) of Myrtle Beach, S.C. in an eight-round fight, while Godfrey (20-3, 10 KOs) is scheduled to fight an opponent to be announced.
Tickets for the event are priced at $35, $45, $55, and $75 and can be bought by calling 241-3490 or emailing email@example.com.