Before the world stopped, Mark DeLuca had a path to becoming a world champion.
It was a path that took him from Boston to Sheffield, England, last month. Standing in his way was the former world welterweight boxing champion, Kell Brook.
On the plane over to the UK, DeLuca tried to focus on the bout, his tactics, his opponent. But when you know that if you win your next fight, you’re probably going to get a title shot, you can only go so far in pushing that thought out of mind. He was the underdog, for sure, but even underdogs can bite.
DeLuca expected to be ignored or openly despised by the people of Sheffield, because Kell Brook is one of their own. But everywhere DeLuca and his entourage went, they got smiles and handshakes. Boxing remains a huge sport in the UK.
At a barbecue restaurant, DeLuca ate nothing, focused on making weight, but his team ordered everything on the menu except the restaurant’s telephone number.
The restaurant owner stopped by their table.
“I’m not a big fight fan,” she said, “but you’re fighting a local boy. Dinner’s on us.”
There were more than 100 people, figuratively speaking, in DeLuca’s corner, over for the fight, from Massachusetts and Ireland. A lot of OFDs — Originally From Dorchester. They were spirited and vocal but ultimately drowned out by the hometown crowd of 13,000, who hooted when DeLuca entered the ring to the strains of “Shipping up to Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys. The band’s front man, Ken Casey, helps manage him.
In his previous 25 fights, DeLuca had not been knocked down. His only loss had been a widely disputed split decision. But he had never fought a world champion before. Brook had said he would retire immediately if he lost. DeLuca, ranked the No. 7 middleweight in the world, had everything to gain.
In the third round, Brook caught DeLuca with a left hook that dropped him.
He got up, by the count of four, blood pulsing from his nose, and went back for more. Brook dropped him again in the seventh round and it was over.
It was the low point of a professional career that stretched over 12 years, and, the next day, Mark DeLuca’s pride hurt as much as his jaw.
Brook texted him, offering kind words and encouragement. It is something peculiar and contradictory about the fight game, in which people whose job it is to knock their opponent senseless often have great sensitivity for each other.
Losing the fight didn’t leave DeLuca feeling like a loser. Instead, it gave him perspective. It made him even more determined to get back in the gym, get back in the ring, and get back at it.
He started boxing when he was 3 years old, at the McKeon Post in Dorchester, where his father, uncle, and grandfather trained generations of kids in the sweet science. He is 32 years old. He turned professional when he was 19 and the only time he wasn’t boxing or training or recuperating was when he was in Afghanistan, serving his country with the Marines.
“I never thought I could want it more, but I do,” he said. “You have to get knocked down before you can truly understand the importance of getting back up."
He is humble by nature. But he now understands humility like never before. It is one of the other contradictions of boxing: In order to remain grounded, you have to be knocked to the ground.
DeLuca wants Casey to get him another fight. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, he was hoping for something as soon as June. Now he’s just hoping we all get through the pandemic, so we can get back to worrying about things less important.
Mark DeLuca is a professional boxer and walking metaphor. When you get knocked down, by a boxer trying to save his career or a virus that can shut a country down and kill thousands, the only thing you can do is get back up.