Newest boxing world champ hails from North Bergen

Town’s first world champ since ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock

On June 13, 1935, a North Bergen resident by the name of James J. Braddock shocked the boxing world when the 20-1 underdog somehow beat Max Baer at the Garden City Bowl in Long Island City to capture the world heavyweight boxing championship.
It was the last time that a North Bergen resident had been crowned a world champion.
That is, until last Saturday night, when another underdog who resides in North Bergen won the International Boxing Federation junior flyweight (108 pounds) world title.


Tamara lives in North Bergen with three other fighters.

Carlos Tamara, a 26-year-old native of a small village in Colombia called Sincelejo – who has lived in an apartment with three other boxers in North Bergen since 2008 – pulled off a major upset by defeating three-time IBF world champ Brian Viloria in a championship fight held at the Cuneta Astrodome in Manila in the Philippines.
There are similarities to the late North Bergen resident Braddock, an underdog with the nickname “Cinderella Man” who was immortalized in a 2005 movie starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. Tamara was a 15-1 underdog entering the ring against champion Viloria, but managed to win via a 12th round technical knockout.
Tamara was ahead on two cards and Viloria ahead on one when referee Bruce McTavish stopped the fight 1:45 into the 12th and final round, awarding the victory to the new champion.

Up against ‘The Hawaiian Punch’

“I still couldn’t believe that the referee was stopping the fight,” Tamara said. “I knew I was a heavy underdog, but I just kept putting the pressure on him until the very end.”
Viloria, the former United States Olympic champion from Hawaii and nicknamed “The Hawaiian Punch,” somehow withstood a complete barrage of punches in the 11th round, only to have the referee stop the fight in the final round. Viloria entered the fight on a seven-bout win streak and successfully defended his world title three times prior to facing Tamara.
There’s no question that Viloria was fighting Tamara with the idea that it was simply a tune-up for an adoring crowd in the Philippines, but Tamara ruined the victory party.
“I was physically and mentally ready for the fight,” Tamara said. “Everyone else didn’t think I had a chance to win, but I knew I could win.”
“No one gave him a shot,” said Butch Sanchez, Tamara’s trainer and a native of Hoboken. “Not one guy.”
In fact, in a pre-fight press conference, media darling Viloria told reporters that he had been training hard for three months in preparation for facing Tamara.
But the North Bergen resident shocked the media with his response to Viloria.
“I told them that I had been training my whole life,” Tamara said. “Three months wasn’t enough. I said that on Saturday, I’ll be the new champ.”

Back in Hudson County

After winning the title on Saturday night, Tamara flew back home with his trainer Sanchez for the full 22 hours non-stop and reached North Bergen Sunday night. On Monday morning, the hard-working Tamara was back in the gym where he trains at the Hackensack PAL.
“He only went to visit the other guys in the gym,” said Sanchez, who has worked with four other world champs prior to Tamara. “There were the other guys who he trains with who wanted to congratulate him.”
“It’s incredible,” Tamara said, with the help of interpretation from Sanchez. “I still can’t believe it, but then I do believe it. At times, I realize that I’m now a world champ, and then others, it feels like a dream.”

Small boy in a small village

The Carlos Tamara saga begins in Sincelejo, Colombia, a small impoverished village. At age 15, the diminutive Tamara started to fight as a way to learn how to protect himself.
“All the bigger guys at home wanted to scare me,” Tamara said. “I had to do something.”
Tamara turned to boxing because he liked watching old Bruce Lee movies.
But there were no places to train as a boxer in the poor village, so Tamara’s mother moved the family (Carlos and an older brother) to Barranquilla, a bigger city in Colombia.
“My mother realized we had a better future in Barranquilla,” Tamara said.
In Barranquilla, Tamara was introduced to an amateur boxing coach, who saw Tamara’s potential.
“He encouraged me to take it further,” Tamara said.
In 2004, Tamara took it to the highest amateur level, participating in the Olympic Games in Greece. Tamara represented Colombia in the Olympics, earning the nickname that has remained, “El Olympico.” At the Olympics, Tamara made it through to the second round, but lost to a fighter from Italy. Ironically, Viloria won the gold medal at the same Games, but the two never met each other in the ring.
Soon after the Olympics, Tamara turned pro in his native Colombia.
“My family had the need for me to make money,” Tamara said. “We were living in poverty. I already had a daughter and I had to support my family. I wanted to work on my skill level to maximize my talent and become a better fighter, but I had to make money to eat better and feed my family.”
Around that time, Tamara was introduced to Nelson Fernandez, a long-time West New York resident who was managing fighters since 1978.
“I saw Carlos fight for the first time on television on Telemundo,” Fernandez said. “I just loved his heart and desire. I said, ‘That’s a great kid. I want to work with him. I want to train him.’ ”
It sparked a friendship and a working relationship between Tamara and Fernandez, who decided that after managing Tamara for a few years, it would be best to bring him to the United States, settling in North Bergen.
“I had to come here so I could become better,” Tamara said. “I have two daughters in Colombia [ages 6 and 4]. They’re everything I work for. Anything I do, I do it for them. Nelson wanted me to work with the best and train with the best, so that meant coming here.”

Lives with other fighters

Tamara moved to North Bergen in June, 2008, moving in with fellow aspiring boxers Jonathan Maicelo, a lightweight; Carlos Zambrano, a featherweight, and Juan Zegarra, a junior welterweight. The quartet of fighters train daily in Hackensack and live in the two-bedroom apartment together. Some of the North Bergen quartet are preparing for their next pro bouts in Lima, Peru next month. The only one who has lost a pro fight is the world champ; the other three are currently undefeated as professionals.
“We always talk about boxing together and ask questions,” Tamara said. “They’re my motivation. They’re like my brothers. We all help each other and push each other.”
Tamara also regularly spars with 15-year-old amateur champion Julian Rodriguez of North Bergen. Rodriguez, who has already won several national titles in his amateur career, is nicknamed “The Hammer.”
“Hammer is the best,” Tamara said. “I worked with him a lot. I think I’ve taught Hammer a lot and he comes after me a lot. He now weighs more than me.”
Tamara had a professional record of 20-4 when he entered the ring last Saturday night. He had won his last three fights.
He’s been a virtual unknown locally because he hasn’t had a chance to fight in the area. He’s only fought in the United States a handful of times, fighting in Miami four times, then Mississippi, Arizona and Colorado.
Fernandez set up the fight with Viloria, knowing full well that his fighter was going to be the heavy underdog.
“But I told everyone there that we were there to win the fight,” said Fernandez, who is also a boxing commentator and is currently working on the HBO reality series with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. “I told people that we hate to spoil the party. I knew that we wanted Viloria. Carlos was ready. Sure, he was a three-time world champ and all, but we were going to beat him. It was a tall order, but I was very confident about it. Carlos is very intelligent inside and outside of the ring. He stuck to the game plan to a tee. We knew that Viloria would eventually get tired.”
“Nelson said before the fight that I would stop him in the 12th round and that’s what happened,” Tamara said. “I can’t believe that Nelson was right.”

Now a Colombian hero

So, what does the future hold for North Bergen’s new world champ? After he receives his IBF championship belt (it’s currently being made for him), Tamara will head back to his native Colombia for a while, now as a conquering hero. He’s already in demand for interviews back in Colombia.
“We had a Colombian television crew here yesterday,” Sanchez said.
“When I was an amateur, I was already considered as a hero, but this is going to be crazy,” Tamara said. “I have to stay on the ground. I have to remain very humble. I really don’t know how I’m going to take it. I’ll see how it is when I get there.”
One thing is for sure: Tamara is the first native of Sincelejo to ever win a world title and the sixth Colombian world champ.
Tamara was not aware of Braddock’s incredible story, how he was a huge underdog and won a world championship.
“Well, the littlest guy [Tamara] and the biggest guy [Braddock] from the same town became a world champion,” Tamara said. “It’s like déjà vu. That’s what it is.”
And North Bergen has a boxing world champion once again.
Jim Hague can be reached at

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