Editor’s Note: You can capture a ferocious wild tiger and put him in a cage. But no matter how long the tiger stays in the cage, he’s always searching for freedom. If the cage door opens, he’s still a wild tiger with all his native instincts. That’s an apt description of well-known boxer Gary “Tiger” Balletto of Cranston, Rhode Island, who today is continuing to pursue his freedom on wheels.
Gary Balletto’s Boxing Career
I started boxing when I was 12 years old after growing up in Rhode Island and then living in Florida after my father had passed away with cancer. Boxing was in my genes, because my father and my grandfather were talented boxers, although they didn’t stay with the sport very long. My grandfather used to box with Rocky Marciano – one of the legendary boxers of all time. Physically I was ahead of my schoolmates, and I loved to punch hard. I also did gymnastics, wrestled and ran track, besides playing baseball, football and basketball.
When I was 18, I returned to Rhode Island, got serious about my boxing and joined a boxing gym in October that year. A Golden Gloves tournament was taking place in January, but I didn’t plan on going, until my trainer told me, “You should enter that tournament.” Then I set a goal of becoming a Golden Gloves champion. In the Southern New England Golden Gloves Tournament, I finished second after knocking my opponent out in 30 seconds of the first round. I didn’t have a plan for what I would do next, but I continued boxing and training. The following year I planned to defend my title in the Golden Gloves Championship. However, my jaw then was broken, so that took me out of boxing for a year.
I fought all the major tournaments the following year and made it to the Olympic Training Center, after qualifying first in the U.S. regionals.
My first fight was against the number one boxer in the 135 pound weight division, and I lost that fight. After that, I fought for a National Golden Gloves Championship with 18 wins out of 20 – most knockouts. In 1996, an Olympic year, I lost in the quarter finals of the nationals. After talking with my trainer, I made a business decision to become a professional boxer at age 20 in the lightweight division.
In my first professional fight, I had a corner man coach (an individual who takes care of a fighter each round), but I didn’t have a cut man (the person who stops the bleeding at the end of the round when a fighter gets hit so hard that his face bleeds to enable him to continue to fight). I knocked my opponent down two times. In the second round, my opponent head butted me, and the referee stopped the fight to send me to my corner to stop the bleeding. But my corner man coach didn’t know how. So, the referee called the fight a technical draw.
I won my next 17 fights with knockouts. My 18th fight was on television against Hector Arroyo who worked with Floyd Mayweather.
In my professional career, I had 31 wins (26 by knockouts), three losses and two draws.
I was on the TV show, “The Contender,” about young boxers trying to work their ways through the ranks to be contenders for the world championship of professional boxing. During this same time, I was a general contractor and active in the real estate business to buy, sell, rent and build houses. I got married in 1998 during my fighting career to my high school sweetheart Christina and had three children – Gary Balletto III, Hailey and Aiden.
Life After Boxing Once Gary Balletto Was Injured
After my boxing career ended, I decided to train for the “American Ninja Warrior” TV show. On June 30, 2013, I was in my backyard with my son Gary, spinning around on a bar I’d put between two trees to practice for the American Ninja Warrior show. I fell off the bar and hit the ground on my head.
After I got out of the hospital, I learned I’d almost died from my injuries. I broke my C1, C3, C4, C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae. My surgeon told me, “In my 30 years of medical practice, I’ve only had one person who has broken his C1 vertebra and is still alive, besides you. He’s living on a respirator.” I was in a medically induced coma for 6 weeks.
Today, I’m a quadriplegic with no movement from my chest down, limited use of my arms and no dexterity in my fingers. But my triceps are still strong. After I was hurt, I went right back to the same business I knew best – real estate and construction. Although I’ve only built two new houses since my injury, I have to maintain my other properties.
I’ve bought, sold and rented over 100 properties – repairing and flipping some. I’ve always worked for a living. I’ve never taken any type of government assistance.
Since my accident, I work out two sessions per day, 6 days per week, one hour each. I’m already doing things that the doctor said I wouldn’t be able to do.
I have never lost hope that I’ll get better. I’m learning how to make the best of the function I have. I’m still working, I’m still building homes, and I’m still working in my real estate business.
I’m often asked, “Gary, since you can’t move from your chest down, how are you able to do everything?” Well, I do whatever’s required for my work.
If I’m on a job, and I can’t get upstairs to inspect the work being done by my subcontractors, someone carries me up the stairs, and someone else brings one of my two wheelchairs up. Then I can work with my subcontractors and tell them what needs to be done. I use the same techniques of getting around to repair my rental houses. If my workers have cell phones with video FaceTime, I’ll ask them to go into a house and use their cell phones to show me what work needs to be done, and what has been done. I can sit outside and see the repairs that need to be made and tell my workers what I need them to accomplish.
Another question I’m asked is, “Why did you decide to return to work after your injury?” I’d made enough money and had enough income to live on after my accident, but I wanted to continue to earn money and work.
My office originally was on the second floor of a building connected to the boxing gym I owned. The first years after my accident, I’d call one of my boxers to come down and carry me up to my office, and then take me down after work. However, today I have a first floor office. I also purchased a stair climbing machine. If I felt like I needed it to get to my office or up the stairs at my properties, I’d take it with me. But being carried up and down, rather than using the stair climbing machine, was quicker and added excitement to my job.
I still coached at my boxing gym at one time. However, my schedule is so busy right now, I just stop in and give some pointers. I’m actually managing some fighters at my gym at no cost, trying to put them on the right path to success.
A successful fighter in the ring also has to be a successful businessman.
The Tiger’s Future
I may be making some major changes this year. I may sell some of my investments here in Rhode Island in a year or so and move to Miami where I went in early October 2016, to meet the people at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis that started in 1985 and is affiliated with the University of Miami’s medical school.
I did some testing for clinical trials happening there for people with spinal cord injuries. This project has done tons of research and also has plenty of funding. If I go, I’ll start a business there but be available to take advantage of this new research.
Another venture that I’ve been working on is a documentary film, “Tiger,” that began when I was boxing.
From 2002 – 2005, I was working with a producer who was making a documentary about the Italian image in Rhode Island, the most densely populated Italian state in America. Many people wanted to portray all Italians as being Wise Guys like the Mafia you often would see on television and in movies. When he learned I was a professional boxer, he thought that would be another stereotype that many people associated with Rhode Island’s Italian community. He filmed my fights, and I signed a contract to allow him to use the footage of my fights in his film. He said, “In the ring you’re a fighter – a tiger – but outside the ring, you’re a quiet, soft-spoken guy. That makes you a character.” In 2006, that film got tied up in a lawsuit.
Then in 2013, the filmmaker came to my office and told me, “I have an idea. We can have a great film that includes your 11 years as a boxer, because rarely do you ever see a documentary that covers that length of time.” When he started filming originally, my daughter Haley was 7, and my oldest son Gary was 10. Hailey is now 18 and pursuing a singing career. Today Gary is 21 and has started boxing, using the name Tiger as well, and Aiden is 11.
This filmmaker shot footage of me in the hospital and in the ICU in a medically induced coma, going through rehab and starting back to work. The plot of the movie revolves around the premise that although I’m paralyzed from the chest down, I’m still fighting like my boxing name, Tiger.
I’m just fighting a different battle now with my own body and pushing myself to be all I can be by persevering and enduring the blows of life – much like I did when I fought in the ring.
At this moment, we’re in negotiations with Netflix. I’m really proud too that I was inducted into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, which the filmmaker filmed also, besides my motivational speaking and working at my job sites.
Editor’s Note: To keep up with Gary Balletto and the movie “Tiger,” you can go to the movie’s website . You can contact Balletto at his Facebook page. Balletto also has started the Gary Balletto Foundation to raise money for spinal cord research and to open up a handicap accessible gym for anyone in a wheelchair. The gym will have all the weights and machines that Balletto uses to teach people with disabilities how they can maintain their health and lead a better life with exercise. He’s using his existing boxing gym and modifying it to serve people with disabilities for free within the year.
See the trailer for TIGER here:
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.