Old Rookie

Boxer bobs and weaves his way to a pro debut at age 35

Nicoy Zilla-Clarke didn’t take the most conventional route to professional boxing.

The traditional saga would be one of a young boy becoming infatuated with boxing, working his way up from towel boy in the local gym to talented amateur to getting discovered by a top promoter, then lacing up the gloves for the first pro bout.

There’s nothing traditional about Zilla-Clarke, who at age 35, has to be one of the oldest fighters ever to make his professional debut.

The bout is set for fall, once all the details are ironed out. If he has to wait, he figures he’s already waited 35 years, what’s a few more months?

Bay to Bronx

The Zilla-Clarke boxing story starts in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where he was born. “But I moved to the Bronx in 1992 when I was 11 years old,” he said.

He graduated from high school in 1999 and came to New Jersey to attend college, majoring in mathematics and education. He spent the first two-plus years of his college career at St. Peter’s College, and when finances got tight, he transferred down Kennedy Boulevard to New Jersey City University.

Zilla-Clarke said he fooled around with sports in Jamaica but nothing serious.

“One of the first times I played boxing with my friends, I must have been about eight or nine years old,” he said. “We had no gloves on. I got hit with an upper cut so hard in my jaw that I swear my jaw was broken. I couldn’t chew for more than a week. I had a black eye. I knew my grandmother was going to yell at me. I always loved boxing, but my mother wouldn’t let me box.”

Zilla-Clarke was a fan of one particular heavyweight.

“I loved Mike Tyson,” he said. “I used to watch Mike Tyson’s fights all the time.”

But he pursued his education first, and it had nothing to do with having a glass jaw. At age 29, life was pretty good. He was living in Jersey City, he was engaged to be married, and was teaching algebra, geometry, and trigonometry at Ferris High School.

Good to Bad

Then, things suddenly changed.

“My engagement didn’t work out,” Zilla-Clarke said. “I got laid off from the Board of Ed. Then, my first car, a nice Volvo, caught fire and exploded.” This was on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Jersey City in the Greenville section. “The flames were shooting so high,” he recalled.

“I was pushed to the limit,” Zilla-Clarke said. “But that wasn’t it yet.”

A friend invited him to a party, and the driver was drunk.

“His girlfriend jumped out of the car and ran,” Zilla-Clarke said. “He sped off and left her. I finally got my friend to pull over and get out of the car. We had words. I knew right there that I was going through so much. I could have died or ended up in jail. It was life or death. I had so much anger inside of me.”

Bad to Good

Zilla-Clarke decided to take the advice of friend Izell Glover, who was about to become the New Jersey Diamond Gloves boxing champion in the heavyweight division.

“Izell had boxed in Jimmy Dupree’s gym,” Zilla-Clarke said. “He trained with Dupree.”

The famed Dupree—who fought for the light heavyweight championship of the WBA in 1971, held the North American Boxing Federation championship in the same weight class the same year, and successfully defended his title twice—had a 40-10-4 professional record over a 17-year campaign.

After retiring from competing, Dupree opened a boxing club on MLK Drive and trained several top boxers, including James “Buddy” McGirt and Joe Gatti. Dupree died in 2014.

Glover told Zilla-Clarke about the Renegade Boxing Club on Warner Avenue in Jersey City.

“It led me to take my anger out,” Zilla-Clarke said. “I had to relieve some stress.”

He also trained with Steven Sumpter, who worked with him in the gym before putting the 29-year-old prodigy in the amateur ring in 2010.

“After three months, Steven Sumpter said that I was ready,” Zilla-Clarke said.

He first fought in the New Jersey Diamond Gloves tournament in 2010 and went all the way to the finals of the super heavyweight division, where he lost by a decision.

“It was a long road from Jamaica to the Bronx to Jersey City,” Zilla-Clarke said. “But I was a boxer. I made it as an amateur boxer.”

He eventually won the Diamond Gloves title in 2012 and captured two New Jersey Golden Gloves titles in the heavyweight division, the last one coming in 2013.

The Rest is History

At age 35, Zilla-Clarke waits for the arrival of his pro card, which will officially establish his professional credentials. Then it will be up to the pros in his corner like Felton, Glover, and Mike Rizzo to secure him a suitable opponent.

“I’m ready,” Zilla-Clarke said.

Come September, he’ll be back in the classroom, teaching seventh and eighth graders mathematics at New Jersey City University. This course will help them prepare for high school and college.

Imagine having your Introduction to Algebra teacher as a rookie professional boxer?
“I honestly never saw myself getting this far,” Zilla-Clarke said. “It’s really exciting, because I didn’t predict it. The last two months of training and sparring have been fantastic. I’m definitely ready. It’s time.”

So no Pythagorean theorems and slide rules for the time being. It’s all straight jabs, bobbing and weaving, upper cuts, and body blows. Such is the life of a 35-year-old rookie.—JCM 


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