Fighting Old Age
Long Beach's 68-Year-Old Al Roth Is Boxing After 40-Year Layoff

Sparring And Starring: Al Roth has made an impact in his return to the ring.

Al Roth looks back at his life, and yes, he repeats the classic line from 1954's On the Waterfront: "I could've been a contender."

But his story doesn't end with regret and despair. Seeing the 68-year-old Long Beach resident box—yes, box—at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn last Friday night (which included a right cross that left his 67-year-old foe looking like he had lost a knife fight) is a reminder that dreams don't come with an expiration date. After turning down a chance to make his pro debut on the undercard of the 1959 Floyd Paterson-Ingemar Johansson title fight at Yankee Stadium, Roth's back—and taking no prisoners.

"When I'm in the ring, I'm not the same person as when I'm talking to you, and you'll see it for yourself," Roth warns.

His opponent, Milwaukee attorney Michael Tarnoff, flew in especially for the bout and then practically flew out of the ring. A right uppercut preceded Roth's cross, and though Roth swears his best weapon is his left hook, he didn't need it. The fight went only two of the scheduled three rounds, and Roth had completed the eighth fight of his "comeback" unscathed. And he's loving every minute of it. When the referee came over to ask about the cross, Roth joked, "I was aiming for you."

As for his second chance in boxing, Roth is reflective: "Gosh, it's like [saying], 'If I would've, I could've, I should've.' Now I don't. Because I'm doing it. It's something from within. Like, why does somebody want to ride a bicycle in a 26-mile race? It's something within you. And that's within me. I'm a boxer. I'm not a pro. I could have been. So, what it brings back is that what I could've done, I can do now."

Roth, a native of the Bronx, remembers winning 26 or 27 of his 30-or-so amateur fights in his youth and expected to make a jump into the pro ranks. Even after he turned down the Yankee Stadium fight, he looked to have opportunities.

"When I was 25, I had promotional groups that wanted to back me, form a syndicate around me," Roth explains. "They wanted a Jewish heavyweight from the city of New York. Unfortunately, a fighter died, the promotion got killed, and I couldn't wait around any longer."

By 26, he was a husband and business owner who would go on to have three children. Dreams and making ends meet seldom get along very well, and Roth went the responsible route. But in 2002, facing medical and weight issues, he began a workout program at Cannon Kickboxing in Long Beach. He lost 35 pounds, then came across a cable TV airing of Gleason's White Collar Boxing (once a month, the gym opens up a ring for sparring, and when people show up, they are matched up by size, age and ability and go at it).

"I said, 'I can still do that,'" Roth recalls. "So I told my trainer, 'Why don't you book me a fight? But you have to find somebody my age.'"

His trainer, Long Beach's Chris Wagner, a light heavyweight kickboxing world champion, found a 62-year-old who would fight him the following week. Roth was concerned about the limited time to train, but did the best he could to get ready for the bout. When he got to Gleason's, his willingness to fight again was put to the test.

"The 62-year-old guy never showed up," Roth says. "So they put me against a 33-year-old guy. My trainer said, 'Al, let's not do this.' "I said, 'I've got my family here. I have to.'"

Wagner told Roth to stay close to the guy, and in the beginning, Roth admits he was a little apprehensive. "But as it went on, I thought, 'I'm going to knock him out.' And I came close to doing it. He was so surprised. People around me were going, 'Come on, Pops, knock him out.' So, I stayed with it, and before you know it, I was back in the ring—40 years later.

"It doesn't matter that I'm over 65. We're not finished. I tell this to all the people I see. I'm not saying that everybody is a boxer. But we are not through. And I am proving to people that we're not through."

Had Roth just proven this point to himself, he would have accomplished plenty. But he has taken his message to numerous senior citizens' homes, and he isn't bashful when telling them about the attitude they have to have.

"I lecture people, I get in front of people [and say], 'Don't tell me your troubles. I don't want to hear it,'" Roth says. "I am a diabetic, I have sciatica, I have high cholesterol, I have all that kind of jazz. But so what? Everyone over 65 has an acre of pain.

"I spoke to a woman once at one of the centers and she said, 'Mr. Roth, I'd love to walk a great distance, but I walk with a cane.' And I said, 'How far can you walk with the cane?' She said, 'I walk about a block, and then it really hurts.'" Roth asked her to walk that block for one week, but then to walk a block and a quarter, regardless of the pain.

"A week passes by, two weeks pass by, and I see her in Waldbaum's. She walks over and says, 'Mr. Roth, I walked a block and a half.' I said, 'How did you do it?' She said, 'I just did it.' I said, 'Did it hurt?' She said, 'It hurt a great deal, but I did it anyway. And I'm going to do a block and a half from now on.'"

Roth cautions that boxing isn't for everyone, but that excuses for not working out are "a bunch of malarkey." Physically, he feels better than he did at 45, and any "if onlys" are a thing of the past.

Tackling his latest challenge, he's currently writing a screenplay about his experience, titled Just One More Time. "I added some [fictional] stuff to make it more entertaining," Roth admits.

One sight of the blood spewing from his opponent's nose on Friday, and you just know he shouldn't have to add much.

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