LINCOLN --- For the first time in his pro career, Woonsocket’s Joe Gardner will be fighting for a championship belt, and he will try to claim his prize in the six-round co-feature of tonight’s CES’s (Classic Entertainment & Sports, Inc.) “Homecoming King” card at the Twin River Event Center.
And for the first time since coming back to the sport in May after a 7½-year absence, Gardner has had to prepare for a fight without his favorite sparring partner, West Warwick’s Keith Kozlin, giving him some valuable rounds.
That’s because it will be Kozlin himself who will fight Gardner for the EBA (Eastern Boxing Association) New England light heavyweight title.
Both fighters have plenty in common, such as their local backgrounds, their nearly-identical pro records (Gardner is 6-1-1 with a knockout; Kozlin is 6-1 with four KOs), their high regard as fan favorites at Twin River -- and the hunger for their first-ever championship.
“This is a great opportunity for both of us,” Gardner added after Thursday’s weigh-in and press conference at Twin River’s ‘Catch a Rising Star’ club. “I want to win and be the champ and so does he. It’s going to be a good fight.”
A victory by Gardner would cap a tremendous comeback that saw him lose his first fight back in action in May with a four-round unanimous-decision loss to unbeaten Vladine Biosse, but bounce back with unanimous-decision wins over DeMarcus Clark (four rounds) and Eric Pinarreta (six).
In each victory, the Woonsocket Boxing Club fighter showed vast signs of improvement, and he and his fans -- Gardner has drawn a large gathering of fans to each of his three bouts -- are hoping for another strong performance that will give Woonsocket its first boxing champion in recent memory.
“I worked really hard for this fight,” Gardner offered. “I spent a lot of nights at the gym and I didn’t do as much sparring as other camps, but I put in a lot more rounds.”
Of course, none of those rounds were with Kozlin, but Gardner hopes that once tonight’s fight is in the books, he can get back his sparring partner. But until then …
“We’ve been kind of staying out of each other’s way,” he said with a smile. “We don’t want to break each other’s concentration. There’s no bad blood -- I like the kid, and after this fight, we’ll still be buddies.”
While the Gardner-Kozlin bout is expected to draw plenty of interest, so is the 10-round main event featuring the return of IBO (International Boxing Organization) world middleweight champion Peter Manfredo Jr. to Rhode Island after a two-year absence from competing in this state.
“The Pride of Providence, who owns a 35-6 (19 KOs) mark, will be fighting for the first time since his 10th-round TKO of Angel Hernandez on May 22 at Mohegan Sun Arena that earned him his world title.
Manfredo will lace his gloves for a non-title bout against former Colombian junior middleweight champion Jhon Berrio (15-7, 11 KOs), who is looking to get back on track after losing three of his last five fights and seven of his last 11.
Another Manfredo’s Gym fighter will be featured on the show’s undercard, Pawtucket’s Thomas Falowo, who will make his pro debut against Haitian fighter and Winter Haven, Fla. resident Odias Dumez (2-4, 1 KO) in a four-round middleweight fight.
The 21-year-old prospect recently put the finishing touches on an excellent amateur career that saw him capture runner-up honors in the New England Golden Gloves and USA Boxing New England tournaments this year.
There will also be a six-round special attraction heavyweight bout between undefeated Mariusz “Polski Olbryzym” Wach of Krakow, Poland (22-0, 10 KOs) and Galen “Bad Boy” Brown of Saint Joseph, Mo. (33-14-1, 2 KOs).
Wach, who is an imposing figure at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, is the TWBA (Transcontinental World Boxing Association) champion, while Brown is a former USA Mid-American title holder.
Providence’s Eric Estrada, who is the younger brother of 2004 U.S. Olympic heavyweight Jason “Big Six” Estrada will also fight and take a 2-0 (2 KOs) mark into a four-round cruiserweight battle with Tobias Rice of Macon, Ga. (2-1, 2 KOs).
Rounding out the undercard are four more four-round fights, including one that will feature another Rhode Islander making his pro debut, Providence cruiserweight Dante Wiggins. His opponent is Paul Gonsalves of Harwich, Mass. (2-1, 2 KOs).
Former three-time New England Golden Gloves heavyweight champ Jesse “Bad News” Barboza of Hyannis, Mass. (4-1, 3 KOs) will take on unbeaten prospect Winston Thorpe of Colombia, S.C. (3-0, 2 KOs), super lightweight Jonathan Vazquez of New Bedford, Mass. (2-0, 2 KOs) will contest Ernest Butts III of Atlanta, Ga. (0-1), and there’s also a female junior middleweight fight pitting Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes of Marshfield, Mass. (3-1, 1 KO) and Cassandra Lindsey of Columbus, Miss. (3-6, 2 KOs).
A limited number of tickets are available and priced at $40, $60, and $100. They can be purchased by visiting the Players Club booth at Twin River or any TicketMaster location.
The doors open at 6 p.m. and the first bout is scheduled to get under way at 7 p.m. Twin River has waived its 18-plus rule for the show, and everyone under the age of 18 must be accompanied at all times by an adult and enter through the West entrance.