No title belt was at stake last Saturday night when Boyd Melson opened the first boxing show at Brooklyn's billion-dollar Barclays Center, just blocks from his high school. Yet in many ways the six-round junior middleweight bout was more important than any of the eight that followed, including the first world championship fights held in Brooklyn in 81 years.
There are sportsmen who care, and then there's Melson (above, right), who has raised the bar on athlete philanthropy with his crusade to help those with spinal cord injuries to someday walk. He donated the $2,000 he earned for Saturday's fight to fund a promising clinical trial using umbilical stem cells in the hunt for a cure. (Over the course of his two-year pro career he has given every penny of his ring earnings, a total of $20,000, to charity.)
Melson, a 31-year-old southpaw, balances training with his full-time job as a medical-device sales rep for Johnson & Johnson and with his duties as a captain in the Army Reserves. He was inspired to activism by his best friend, Christan Zaccagnino, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age 10 after a diving accident in her backyard pool. They met in the summer before his senior year at West Point, with Melson soon resolving that he would stop at nothing until he saw Zaccagnino (an Iona graduate who works for New York Life) walk again.
Rather than simply donate his winnings, Melson founded the charitable organization Team Fight to Walk to help raise money and spread awareness. A partnership with JustADollarPlease.org, a 501(c)(3) charity, soon followed and has generated $100,000 in donations to date. "His boxing is not only raising money," says Wise Young, head of the neuroscience center at Rutgers, "it is a symbol for what the community must do for itself, and that is to fight for a cure."
Melson didn't begin boxing until he took a mandatory class for freshman cadets, but he was a quick study. The Rainmaker, as he's known, went on to become a four-time All-Army champion, three-time Armed Forces champion, one-time World Military champion and 2008 U.S. Olympic team alternate. As a pro, he trains at the Mendez Boxing Gym in Manhattan, where he currently lives.
On Saturday against Jason Thompson, Melson was knocked down in the first round but dropped his opponent in the third and finished the fight strong. And though he settled for a draw that moved his professional record to 10-1-1, each time Melson gets in the ring, it's a victory.
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AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES (WILSON)
ALEX TRAUTWIG/GETTY IMAGES (MELSON)