Submitted by Anne H. Oman
Reporter At Large
No matter who wins Saturday’s main-event boxing match at the Peck Center, Sal “Rocky” Cenicola expects to set a Guinness World Record.
“I retired on February 6, 1988, at the age of 28,” says Mr. Cenicola. “I’m making a comeback exactly 25 years and 65 days later –a world record for a comeback fight in professional boxing.”
According to Mr. Cenicola’s manager, John Moceyunas, Guinness officials will attend the fight to confirm the record, which, he predicts, “may never, ever be broken.”
So what is bringing this 53-year-old native of River Vale, New Jersey, who currently owns and runs Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, to the Peck Center in Fernandina Beach, Florida to fight Nathan Petty, a 33-year-old prison guard from Kentucky? Read on.
“I’m first-generation Italian-American – I believe in my dreams,” explains Mr. Cenicola, who was given his ring name, Rocky, by famed boxer Rocky Graziano.
“He came to my dressing room after my fourth fight,” recalls Mr. Cenicola proudly. “He told me ‘You’re tough like me. How come a good Italian fighter doesn’t have a ring name? Take my name. It brought me good luck. It will bring you good luck.’”
And it did.
“I was in the top ten of world lightweights,” says Mr. Cenicola. “ I wanted to fight for the championship of the world.”
An ill-advised fight ended that dream – temporarily. Mr. Cenicola had a ruptured hamstring, but was told he couldn’t cancel a scheduled match in Atlantic City. Against his better judgment – and against medical advice – he fought, and lost, and walked away from boxing. After several years as a financial representative for Northwest Mutual Life, he decided he wanted a different lifestyle.
“I wanted to get out of the Northeast,” he recalls. “I was burned out. I wanted to raise my family in a nice quiet place.”
Mr. Cenicola and his wife, now ex-wife, Lisa, discovered St. Simon’s Island.
“It reminded me of River Vale, New Jersey, when I was growing up,” he says. “It was like turning back the clock.”
In 2009, Mr. Cenicola, who remembers playing in his cousin’s pizzeria as a child, opened Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria and Italian Ristorante on St. Simon’s.
So, why, with a successful and popular restaurant earning him a good living, would a 53-year-old man want to enter a boxing ring with a guy twenty years younger?
“Too many times in life, we give up on our dreams,” he explains. “If you want something in life, you have to set goals, work hard. I’ve been told I’m crazy – but never let other people limit your dreams. I feel in my heart of hearts I’m ready to make a comeback. I’m in good shape. I never used illegal drugs. I’ve been blessed with good health.”
A chance meeting with John Moceyunas, who had worked with prominent boxing promoter Don King, set the comeback in motion.
“My parents moved to St. Simon’s and we come to visit,” says Mr. Moceyunas, who is now Rocky Cenicola’s manager. “He kept bugging me every summer, telling me he wanted to make a comeback.”
“I told him ‘Give me six months and I’ll get in world-class shape,” says Mr. Cenicola.
As Mr. Cenicola readied himself, training in Brunswick with Joseph Scacz, running, sparring, doing aerobic workouts and losing forty pounds (“I live on two slices of pizza a day – just teasing.”), Mr. Moceyunas worked at setting up the fight. An Atlanta promoter offered to arrange a match, but Mr. Cenicola would need a license from the Georgia State Athletic Commission. Because of his age and lack of recent professional fights, he was turned down. Mr. Moceyunas then suggested an amateur bout.
“He told me ‘no way’,” the manager says. “He wanted to win on the record, in a professional fight.”
Eventually, Mr. Moceyunas was able to arrange a professional match in Florida, which has no age restriction.
“I sent in his medical records – blood work, CAT scans, and EKG – he’sin good shape,” says Mr. Moceyunas.
With a Florida license secured, Mr. Moceyunas arranged the match at the Peck Center in Fernandina Beach, whose proximity to St. Simons was a major factor. Many of Mr. Cenicola’s friends and customers from his restaurant are expected to attend, along with his two sons. His father is traveling down from Hilton Head, South Carolina, and there will be a large contingent from New Jersey.
Is he nervous about going back into the ring after 25 years?
“I feel excitement,” he says. “I don’t want to be cocky. Pre-fight jitters are good. But it’s a different game today. I don’t see a lot of fire. I don’t know that fighters are as tough…”
Will he keep fighting after Saturday?
“I’ll look at what opportunities lie ahead,” he answers. “’I’ll see how I feel. I respect my body. I look on life as a gift.”
Mr. Cenicola’ s dream of a boxing comeback may also help fulfill the dreams of some disabled children. According to Mr. Moceyunas, proceeds from ticket sales, after expenses, will benefit the Queen of Hearts Foundation, a non-profit based in Palm Bay, Florida, that helps get treatment for children with cerebral palsy and other diseases.
In addition to the main event, there will be several “undercard” bouts –the boxing equivalent of warm-up acts, beginning at 7:30 pm. . Tickets, which start at $30 (half-price for students with ID), are available through the website www.ldltv.com. The same website will stream the event live Saturday night. The public is invited, free of charge, to meet the contenders at the “weigh-in”, during which Florida officials will check each boxer’s weight. This event will take place Friday afternoon at 5pm at Slider’s on South Fletcher.
Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman recently relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.
April 10, 2013 1:33 p.m.