While you weren’t watching, Kansas City boxing got respectable.

Uppercut Down Low 

While you weren’t watching, Kansas City boxing got respectable.

In a profession where felony convictions outnumber advanced degrees, boxing promoter Joe Kelly is a freak.

Kelly, a 26-year-old Pembroke Hill alum who is working toward a graduate business degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, attended a boxing match earlier this year and left the event feeling that it lacked panache. Where were the fighter introductions? he wondered. Where were the lights? “There wasn’t that Vegas fanfare,” Kelly says.

Believing he could do better, Kelly started Titan Entertainment, which has staged fight nights at area casinos and Union Station. In September, just eight months after Kelly decided to get into the boxing game, the cable network Showtime aired two bouts from an event Titan co-promoted at Harrah’s in North Kansas City.

So maligned is the sport (see King, Don), Kelly thinks his youth actually works to his benefit: People figure he hasn’t been around long enough to be corrupted. Boxing promoter, Kelly acknowledges, “is a horrible job title.”

One of Kelly’s objectives, in addition to introducing résumés to a rap-sheet world, is to improve Kansas City’s standing in the boxing universe. It is often the case that promising boxers in this part of the country have to relocate to finish their skills and become elite contenders. “There aren’t that many fights, and there aren’t that many opportunities,” Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood tells the Pitch.

Kansas City’s reputation is improving before Farhood’s eyes. The analyst called the event at Harrah’s and watched middleweight Francisco Diaz, who lives in Kansas City, dismantle an undefeated opponent. Diaz, 26, has won 13 of his 14 professional fights. “I love Diaz,” Farhood says. “He looked really good.”

Diaz grew up in Dodge City. He started boxing at age 13, partly to imitate his father, who had boxed in Mexico. He turned professional after narrowly missing a chance to compete at the 2000 Olympic trials. “My next dream is to win a world championship,” he says.

If he does, Diaz may prove to be a popular champion. His good looks bring to mind those of another middleweight, Oscar de la Hoya. But for now, Diaz leads a most unglamorous life. After his morning run, Diaz works a day job at Sol’s Fine Jewelry & Loan, a Kansas City, Kansas, pawnshop. He works side by side with his protective trainer, Frank Aguilar. “He’s the real thing,” says Aguilar, who wears a gun on his hip as a warning to those who enter the pawnshop. Aguilar is taking it slow with Diaz, who has not yet scheduled his next fight. (Titan lobbied Diaz to get in the ring sooner; because of the difference of opinion, Kelly’s company no longer represents Diaz.) In guiding Diaz’s career, Aguilar says he is following the approach of a good tailor, who measures twice before he cuts. “It’s a tough sport, and it suffers no fools,” he says. For several weeks, Pitch photographer Luke Echterling has been stalking the unheralded boxing scene in the Kansas City area. His photos bring Aguilar’s comment to life. Boxers put themselves through grueling, twice-a-day workouts, then endure poundings in matches. A boxer of Diaz’s station makes $3,000 or $4,000 a bout. The rest compete for pride, cheers and decidedly smaller purses. Here are a few snapshots of their lives from recent events in Kansas and Missouri. -- David Martin

Referee Steve Thomasson holds Raul Munoz after the welterweight falls to the canvas during the second round of the main event at the Topeka Expo Center on September 9. Thomasson declared Munoz's opponent, fellow Topekan Marc Thompson, the winner by a technical knockout.

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