New Kensington boxer Rich Cantolina fulfilling a promise inside the ring
Heading into Saturday night’s fights at Printscape Arena in Canonsburg, New Kensington resident Rich Cantolina carries a professional boxing record of 5-0.
But maintaining his undefeated record isn’t the only thing he hopes to accomplish. Boxing means a lot more to the Ambridge native.
“It probably saved my life,” Cantolina said. “I think about it all the time. Like where would my life be if I didn’t have this. I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s kept me on track. It’s kept me disciplined, and it’s given me a goal and a dream in life.”
Cantolina started fighting when he was 16 years old, but it didn’t start in a boxing ring. His career started in the octagon as a mixed martial artist. After he went 12-8 as an amateur between 2008-15, the boxing ring beckoned.
He spent time around the ring when he was younger, attending fights with his father, Rick. Sometimes, Rick would get down on his knees and use his hands as boxing mitts in the family living room. So boxing always has been in the family, and Cantolina made the transition seamlessly.
After getting a few amateur fights, Cantolina turned pro and had his first professional bout, which he won by TKO in 2017. Since then, his career has taken off, but his motivation has changed.
“At the beginning it was, maybe I was one of the guys that wanted to look cool, that wanted to be the fighter,” Cantolina said. “Now it’s not about that at all. It’s about finishing this dream. Fulfilling the promise that I made to my father. It’s about giving my kids someone they can look up to.”
In November 2015, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told he had six months to live. That Christmas, Cantolina gave his father a corner man’s license, and they made a promise to each other: His father would keep fighting, and Cantolina would do everything in his power to become a world champion with his father in his corner.
In July, Rick lost his fight, and, for a moment, Cantolina thought about hanging up his gloves. He even called his trainers that day and told them he quit.
But then something happened. As his family sat around a fire — one of his father’s favorite pastimes — “Sweet Caroline,” one of Rick’s favorite songs, came on, and Cantolina had a revelation.
“When I thought about it at first, I was selfish to think to quit,” Cantolina said. “But when I thought about it ,and when I thought about what he would’ve wanted me to do, he would’ve wanted me to continue.”
On Sept. 21, Cantolina won his first fight without his father in his corner, beating Tyler Collins from Lake Milton, Ohio, by unanimous decision. Cantolina battled through adversity to make it happen.
“It was right after my dad passed, so it wasn’t like I had a year to recoup,” he said. “It was different, but it was so insane because everything that built up to that fight — the trash talk, losing my dad, getting kneed in the head and still coming out with the win — it really showed me where I’m at.”
On Saturday, Cantolina will take on Brock Willis from West Virginia. Willis is 1-4-1 and hasn’t won since his debut fight May 25, 2018. But Cantolina knows he can’t underestimate him.
“He’s very heavy-handed. He doesn’t move a lot, but when he throws, he’s coming for your head and he’s trying to take it off,” Rich said. “I just need to keep doing what I’m doing, and the biggest thing for me is my defense.”
His work inside the ring isn’t the only thing Cantolina enjoys. On top of training every night, Cantolina also coaches kids at the Mat Factory in Lower Burrell and is in the process of opening a gym in New Kensington after the new year.
When he was 16 years old, mixed martial arts and boxing gave Cantolina something to focus on and a reason to stay disciplined. He is trying to give that same purpose to kids in his area.
“I’ve always been surrounded by the best coaches and trainers, ever since I started,” he said. “Coaching helps slow things down for me, but it also helps me give back to the sport and I think that’s part of martial arts. I think that’s part of boxing. What you learn, you’re supposed to pass it on.”
Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .