Like most boxers, two-division world champion “El Gallo” Jose Antonio Rivera credits boxing for saving his life.
“Absolutely,” Rivera agreed. “After my mom passed away when I was 10 years old, I gave up on life and my decision-making reflected that: hanging around with the wrong crowd including gang members, consuming alcohol between the ages of 10 and 15. I was definitely going in the wrong direction.
“I never thought I had a future until I started boxing. It’s hard to say what I’d be doing if I had never boxed, but by the way I was living, I’d probably be in jail or dead by now.”
Born in Philadelphia, Rivera lived in Puerto Rico and Springfield, MA, prior to him moving to Worcester, MA, where he met a man who helped change his life, Carlos Garcia, who was in charge of a special boxing program at the Worcester Boys & Girls Club.
Rivera had started boxing at the age of 14 ½ in a basement with his friend, Felix Lopez. He had fallen in love with boxing after watching Roberto Duran upset “Sugar” Ray Leonard in their first fight. The young Puerto Rican-American specifically used his amateur boxing experience to prepare for the professional ranks. Garcia, who is in the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame, put him in a novice match after only one amateur fight in order to put Rivera on the fast track, because he understood that Rivera dreamed of becoming a world champion as a professional. Rivera finished with a 35-15 amateur record, highlighted by a bronze medal performance at the PAL Nationals.
“I never had big amateur aspirations but, of course, I wanted to win every fight I competed in,” Rivera said. “Once I didn’t qualify for the Olympic Trials, my plan was to turn pro. I didn’t know how much the amateurs would groom me to be a successful professional boxer. I’m glad I listened to my coaches, otherwise I would have turned pro earlier, because I would get frustrated with the politics of the amateurs. I hated losing, but I hated losing even more when I knew that I should have won. After three years together (with Garcia) in the amateurs and gaining a great wealth of experience traveling all over New England, the country and even fighting in Canada, I saw all types of styles and talented boxers that helped me as a pro. Carlos is like a father figure to me and during all of our training and travels, he was always in my head, building me up to become a good boxer, but also to help me become a better man.”
On November 7, 1992, Rivera made his pro debut, knocking out Francisco Mercedes in the second round. He went on to win his first 23 pro bouts, including the Massachusetts State welterweight title in 1995. His first pro loss was to veteran Philadelphia fighter Willie Wise (20-3-4), who won a controversial 10-round split decision at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. Rivera had proven that he was more than a prospect in his first loss, losing a close decision (98-95, 94-97, 94-96) to an opponent that upset Mexican icon Julio Cesar Chavez (102-3-2) only three years later.
Showing the same resiliency that stayed with Rivera his entire career, two fights later Rivera stopped Gilberto Flores in two rounds to capture the International Boxing Organization (IBO) world welterweight championship. Rivera extended his new win streak to seven, before losing back to back fights. Four fights later, though, Rivera registered his first statement victory in 2001, knocking out Frankie Randall (55-10-1) in the 10th round to retain his North American Boxing Association (NABA) crown in his first defense.
Now promoted by legendary Don King, Rivera traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in September 2003 to Germany, where few Americans were able to win. Rivera proved early that he meant business, dropping previously undefeated Michel Trabant in the second round en route to winning a 12-round majority decision for the vacant World Boxing Association (WBA). His reign, however, didn’t last long. In his first defense, Rivera lost a 12-round split decision at home in Worcester to challenger Luis Collazo (24-1)
Rivera moved up one weight class for his next fight, showing the resiliency that was a staple during his career for his next fight, also at home, against WBA junior middleweight World champion Alexandro Garcia (25-1).
In his next fight and first defense of his third world title, Rivera was stopped for the first time in his pro career, by new champ Travis Simms (24-0), and then he was knocked out by Daniel Santos (24-0) in round eight of their WBA junior middleweight title eliminator.
Rivera retired in 2008 only to make a comeback in 2001, after which he retired again until returning for two fights in Worcester to complete his pro career with 50 fights, the last coming at the age of 46.
“Jose’s USA Boxing experiences shaped him into the man of character he is today, both in and out of the ring,” said Chris Cugliari, USA Boxing Alumni Director. “He took the road less traveled for a world champion, and in doing so he showcased his toughness and perseverance that made him a great example for today’s USA Boxers.”
Rivera was a true working world champion. Few world champions also had full-time jobs during their title reigns. Rivera used vacation time, as well as personal and sick days, when he went to training camp for some of his major fights.
“I always had a good work ethic growing up,” he explained. “When I moved to Worcester at 16 years old, I lived by myself: school, work, and then to the Boys & Girls Club to train. I kept the same work ethic I had at 19 when I turned pro. I became a father at 20, so providing for my family was essential. Although it was hard, I knew boxing wasn’t going to last forever, and I was lucky enough to find a good job working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Courts. It made for long days when I was training, especially when I was fighting for or defending my world championships. In the end, though, keeping my job was the best decision I could have made for me and my family.”
Rivera. who was an Associate Court Officer for years and promoted last year to Assistant Chief Court Officer, is still involved in boxing. He and his oldest son, A.J. Rivera, own and operate a boxing promotional company, Rivera Promotions Entertainment, to give young fighters in his area opportunities to fight more often and at home. Jose occasionally drops by the Boys & Girls Club to visit his former coaches, Garcia and Rocky Gonzalez, to support their young talent. He also goes to his friend Kendrick Ball’s gym, Camp Be Right, to give young fighters there a few tips and to keep in shape (not for another comeback).
Jose Antonio Rivera will be best known for his toughness and determination, which led him into a different life, including three world championships and a wonderful life he never would have enjoyed.