Former Titlist James Page Continues His Unlikely Ring Return

There is an old boxing adage that a fighter’s power is usually the last thing to go. Before that, they lose their reflexes, stamina and often their punch resistance.

Saturday night, on a club show in Natomas, Calif. at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel, 41-year old former welterweight titleholder James Page of nearby Pittsburg will attempt to prove that old adage correct, as he returns to the ring for the first time in over a decade after spending 11 years behind bars as he served time for multiple bank robberies in the Atlanta area at the early part of the millennium.

Page last saw action as a professional pugilist in 2001, when he was stopped by Andrew Lewis in seven rounds in an HBO Boxing After Dark bout where he was attempting to regain the WBA belt that he’d been stripped of the year before for failing to show up to the weigh-in for the initially scheduled Lewis bout.

Saturday, he’ll face Rahman Yusubov, a loser of his last seven, in a junior middleweight bout. Page weighed in at 153 pounds, which is an impressive feat considering the prime of his career took place just six pounds lighter and that was more than a decade ago. Despite the inability to train the way he was able to while a free man, Page’s physique is impressive, though we’ll soon we will find out whether or not he has retained those tools that many lose over time.

One thing working in Page’s favor is he hasn’t taken punches for the last 10 years, which could mean his punch resistance still stands. It must be considered, however, that one of the things that plagued Page out of the ring during his career was a problem with drugs, and often that can have an effect on some of those attributes that make a good fighter.

What is encouraging are some of the things that have been said in regards to Page since he returned to King’s Gym in Oakland, Calif. where he once trained for some of the biggest fights of his life. There, he walked in one morning after a run and sparred ten rounds with middleweight prospect Omar Henry, who, like many of today’s crop of boxing people, had no clue who Page was.

“We sparred 10 rounds one day,” said Henry to the Martinez News-Gazette last month when recalling their sparring prior to his victory over Tyrone Selders in June.

“I heard his name before, and that he used to be a world champion. When I heard how long he had been out of the ring, oh man, I couldn’t believe it,” Henry said. “His jab was so fast and he gave me great work. Based on that I thought he had been in the gym, I had no idea he had been out for so long. I felt like it was top notch sparring.”

“The first time me and Omar Henry sparred, I just happened to walk into the gym on a whim,” recalled Page. “I had run five miles that morning, and I didn’t know who Omar was, an up-and-coming hot prospect. When I went 10 rounds with him and held my own, that was the moment I realized I still had it.”

One man who was among Page’s doubters when word first leaked he was out of jail and in the gym was 2011 Trainer of the Year Virgil Hunter, who seemed dismissive of Page’s attempted comeback in the early goings. Hunter was singing a different tune after Page sparred a few rounds with one of the trainer’s newest charges, junior middleweight contender Alfredo Angulo, who spent his own time away from the ring recently having been in a immigration detention center for seven months.

According to those who were there, Angulo and Page engaged in a heated sparring match that had emotions running high at the end of it. Both guys landed their share of monstrous blows.

“He could give any 154-pounder in the B-class trouble,” said Hunter a few weeks back. “Whoever fights him at this level coming back is going to have trouble.”

“He’s in better condition than a guy who has been taking shots all these years,” continued Hunter. “He proved he can take a hell of a shot, and his stamina is where he can go rounds.”

Page carried himself in that sparring session like a man who had something to prove. Considering most people today don’t remember Page, it is pretty fair for him to feel that way.

“James Page doesn’t have to prove nothing to nobody,” said Hunter. “He’s got my respect. He’s been there, done that. He’s a tough, tough, tough man, without a doubt. Anybody fighting him, they’re gonna have a fight. Whether he gets to the top level, that we don’t know.”

Those who remember Page might recall his underrated 1999 war with Jose Luis Lopez, which stole the show underneath the late Johnny Tapia winning a version of the bantamweight title on Showtime.

In that fight, Page climbed off the canvas seven times, two of which were official knockdowns (the rest were slips due to the wet canvas) en route to outpointing the tough Lopez in his biggest victory of his career. It was a back and forth war that saw Page show tons of grit and determination in taking some brutal shots but always coming back.

The victory was supposed to setup Page for a major payday that never came to fruition. Having been a welterweight beltholder at a time in which Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Pernell Whitaker, Shane Mosley, Ike Quartey and other names were campaigning at the weight, it is a shame Page never got his opportunity on the bigger stage.

The aforementioned issues outside the ring definitely had an impact, but so did his promotional issues with Don King. Page would defend his belt twice more against lesser names; he outpointed the unheralded Sam Garr and later beat a faded Freddie Pendleton in two fights where Page was far from his best.

Though Page’s opponent Yusubov hasn’t won in more than two years, all those losses have come against more known commodities, guys who were active fighters on the rise. Page hasn’t fought without headgear in 11 years and Yusubov has an opportunity to add a former titleholder to his resume should he pull off the win.

The California State Athletic Commission approved the bout and chief inspector Che Guevara is very keen to see how Page is able to handle punches. Page passed the physical requirements in order to earn a boxing license, but it won’t be known what he has left until later Saturday. Page’s team wanted to jump right into eight round bouts but the Commission wisely asked that they fight a six-rounder first.

At 41, it is obvious that Page doesn’t have much time to make some noise. He said he wants to be done by 45 and his team, headed by DeLawrence “Dee” Miller, have a plan in place to get him in position to fight a ranked contender as quickly as possible.

Sacramento based promotional company OPP Presents deserves credit for taking a risk in being the first to extend a hand to Page in helping continue his career. No name promoter was going to come anywhere near Page until he proved he could take a punch. If Page gets through this first test, it could open up some doors to the bigger promotional outfits.

As HBO commentator Larry Merchant used to say, boxing is the theater of the unexpected. For 10-plus years behind bars, Page dreamed of getting another chance. The likelihood of making a serious run at this stage in his life would be more than unexpected, it would be great source material for a biopic.

Page seems free from those personal demons that plagued him in the prime of his career. At the very least, that is a victory many didn’t expect him to earn. It also makes it easier to root for him as he tries to pile on a few more Ws. Boxing can always use another inspirational tale.

Mark Ortega is a staff writer for The Queensberry Rules as well as a contributor to esteemed boxing publications Boxing Monthly and RING Magazine. He is also a member of the RING Ratings Advisory Panel. He can be reached via e-mail and followed via Twitter.