Tonawanda News — Tommy Neff has always loved boxing.
On weekends he’d go over to his grandfather’s house and watch the fights. Over time it grew into more than a passing interest — it became his life.
After an amateur fighting career was derailed because of work obligations — Neff is a train conductor and back when he was fighting he worked 60 hour weeks — he shifted gears and became a trainer.
He hooked up with his old friend Eric Herbert and since then, the Tonawanda High School alumnus has been the head boxing trainer at Victory MMA. Boxers fighting out of Victory are 12-0 since Neff joined the gym.
Two of Neff’s fighters — Eric Velez and Mitch Geles — are set to fight in the finals of their respective weight classes in the Golden Gloves boxing tournament at the Tralf this afternoon. Both fighters won their first fights in the tournament, and Velez credits his success to Neff.
“I have the best one on one coach I’ve ever had,” Velez said. “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have gotten this far. My high school wrestling coach was real good and he worked with me but he didn’t make sense, but I went along with it because he knew what he was doing. When it comes to Tommy, he’ll say something, then I’ll say it in my language and he’ll make sense of it all. It connects to me and it makes sense to me.”
The system Neff has put in place at Victory he believes to be the most comprehensive training program around.
Along with strength and conditioning coach Rob Semple and boxing specialist Paul Wielopolski — a five-time Golden Gloves champion — Victory boxers get tested to the limits every day in practice.
“Rob does a lot with the guys and a lot of other gyms aren’t adapting to that,” Neff said. “They’re doing the same work out they’ve been doing for 50 years. We make guys do explosive plyometric stuff. When we get to the third round our motto here is to fight as hard as we do in the third round as we did in the first. I don’t think a lot of these athletes are in shape the way they need to be.”
Neff trains a number of the MMA fighters at the gym as well. He said there is starting to be a lot of crossover between the two sports because people in boxing have taken notice of the sport’s growth and the amount of money that fighters are making.
Frankie Scalzo, a two-time amateur MMA champion and Victory fighter, spars with some of the boxers at the gym, and Neff said that the two sides benefit from each other because the contrasting styles offer different looks.
I see a real distinct style in the two. It’s good to have them spar because boxers are used to sparring boxers and getting the same looks over and over. Then you get these MMA guys that come over and it’s a different style and the guys have to work even harder. MMA guys fight more inside and have their hands lower. They have a more aggressive fighting style.”
Neff, Herbert and Victory promoter Don Lilly hold the City of Tonawanda close to their hearts, as all three grew up in the city.
Neff said that wherever the fighters go, they’re taking Tonawanda with them.
“We really like to push Tonawanda,” he said. “Mitch is from Depew and he’s having his buddies come to Tonawanda all the time. We’re glad to be bringing these fighters here. We’re not as big as we want to be, but if one of these guys ever make it — in boxing or MMA — it could put Tonawanda on the map. That’s what we’re striving and aiming for.”
Neff may not be the one throwing the hooks and jabs anymore, but his impact in and out of the ring, on his fighters, is greater than ever.
Tickets to the Golden Gloves finals are available for $30.Contact sports editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.