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Historically, nothing’s ever kept lawyers from loving boxing. Lawyers are sure to be among the fans who will catch a fight at the Blue Horizon or in Atlantic City. And people often refer to the Center City attorney who was once the state’s boxing commissioner or the Bucks County judge who moonlights as a ringside adjudicator. Perhaps there’s something about head-to-head slugging that attracts people who spend long stretches of time in a courtroom. That being said, you might not expect to find a lawyer at a nightclub in a working-class Delaware County neighborhood for a Saturday fight night — certainly not as a pugilist making his professional debut. And you’d probably be surprised when you learned that the lawyer in question is Michael Catalano. Catalano, of Binder & Binder’s Marlton, N.J., office, definitely has a fighter’s muscular physique, even if when he’s wearing a suit and tie, he could be mistaken for any other trim, broad-shouldered, 30-something professional of medium height. Rather, it’s his social demeanor that makes his choice of hobby all the more remarkable. Catalano is polite, even reserved. He doesn’t come across as a joker, or a backslapper. He firmly grips — not crushes — your hand when he shakes it. He picked up boxing during law school because he wanted a challenging exercise regime; he didn’t spend his adolescence sweating in a training gym to vent the frustrations of a rough-and-tumble childhood. What’s more, he acknowledges being the type of attorney who prefers research and brief preparation to court appearances. But after a string of amateur victories — chalking up a 5-1 record that included two knockouts — Catalano felt he was ready for the next step. When local promoter Damon Feldman offered him the chance to make his professional debut, Catalano accepted. Action in the Ring There are certain differences between the type of boxing match you see on TV and the sort of fight that takes place in a nightclub on a makeshift ring. For starters, in the type of match in which Catalano fought, there are fewer rounds, and each round is shorter. While the potential significance of a single punch is a fact of boxing in general, it is exponentially magnified in a shorter match. In the first of three bouts before Catalano’s fight, a short plug of a fighter with a neck the circumference of an oak tree demonstrates his reverence for the power of the lucky punch on his taller, thinner opponent. Immediately after the bell rings, the stouter fighter comes out swinging with everything he has, drawing blood in mere seconds. His punches are so overreaching that he’s constantly leaving himself open to his opponent, but it doesn’t matter. After getting slammed by just a few hooks, the taller fighter begins to have balance issues. Which leads to a second difference between marquee bouts and local club circuit fights: the less high-profile the match, the more likely the referee is to stop the fight at the slightest hint of temporary punch-drunkenness. Three minutes into this first match of the night, the ref considers the dazed state of the taller man and stops the fight. The loser vehemently protests, pleading with the ref while trying not to succumb to the spinning sensation in his head. But the ref’s not taking any chances with this guy’s well-being. He can see past the fighter’s bravado, and so can the crowd. “Give it up,” yells one member of the audience. “You’re done,” another calls out. Yet another difference when it comes to club matches: the audience. Whereas in any decently sized arena the comments of individual spectators are swallowed by the overall din, in a nightclub fight, each audience member can be heard clearly, if he or she so desires. Moreover, the buffer zone between the ring and the seats is pretty much nonexistent, and the fans aren’t afraid to talk like . . . well, like they’re in a nightclub. In the second bout, the two heavyweight contestants show what can happen when two men are permitted to duke it out for the long haul. In the opening rounds, a muscular, light-haired fighter appears to dominate, landing far more blows than his opponent, a huge, full-bellied guy with a shaved head and a goatee. In contrast to the previous match, however, the ref seems reticent to prevent a heavyweight of the bald man’s size from taking a few dozen punches. The fair-haired fighter delivers blow after blow to the bald man’s easily accessible gut, but the fight goes on. Slowly, the bald fighter crawls back onto even footing, tagging the blond man’s eyes and jaw with subtle jabs that eventually begin to take their toll. By the time the match finishes, with both men still standing, it’s hard to tell who has the advantage over whom. The light-haired fighter wins by decision. In the third match, the audience isn’t treated to any such displays of stamina. The girlfriend of a particularly wiry fighter has barely finished crossing herself in prayer for his victory when his lithe opponent delivers a right hook that sends her man sprawling. The bout has lasted just under 30 seconds. The outcomes of these preceding three fights illustrate what Catalano surely already knows: The local club boxing circuit is unforgiving in its own particular way. The fighters do make money — for some, boxing is even their primary career — but pride is still the dominant commodity. A winner gets his picture snapped with the gaggle of nude Web site models that have been displaying the round cards. The loser gets to ice his wounds and numb his disappointment at the bar. Unconventional Fighter Catalano is 33 years old, a South Jersey native who graduated from Widener University School of Law in 1997 and has been at Binder & Binder for about three years. He handles mostly Social Security disability cases, often in federal courts, and for that reason has had to travel as far as Puerto Rico for hearings. He began boxing after his first year in law school, when he was 27, and soon began training under Juan Ponce, a local former fighter. Leading up to his professional debut, Catalano has spent countless weekend hours sparring with Ponce in the basement of Ponce’s Southwest Philadelphia home. Catalano adheres to something of a traditional training regime, which consists of running, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups — no weights. He exercises after work, usually running five miles each night. He also trains regularly with his brother, whose specialty is Brazilian jujitsu. For this match, Catalano has had to lose 14 pounds in a month-and-a-half in order to join the super-middleweight class of 168 pounds. His girlfriend, a schoolteacher whom he plans to marry in October, is nervous about the match but excited for him nonetheless, Catalano said. Boxing has helped his career in more ways than one, he noted. For one thing, judges often inquire about a gash or black eye and are usually impressed when they learn he’s a fighter. (His pastor, on the other hand, couldn’t believe that one of his most serene parishioners was lacing up gloves on the weekends.) But fighting has complemented his profession in a deeper sense. “I think boxing has really helped my law career, as far as discipline, keeping composure under pressure, overcoming fear,” he said. “It really does apply to my professional life.” Catalano said that he’s nervous about his pro debut — not because he’s afraid of getting hurt, but because he doesn’t want to look bad in front of his friends and family. He’s seen his opponent, Paul Caputti, fight before, and though Caputti only has one pro fight to his credit, Catalano can see that he’s pretty talented. It’s not so much the fact that he picked up the sport late or that, at 5 feet, 7 inches, he’s been shorter than most of his opponents. What leaves him edgy before a fight is the sport’s unpredictability. “Boxing is definitely the hardest sport I’ve ever played,” Catalano said. “It taxes you to the limit.” Rolling With the Punches As soon as the announcer introduces Catalano as “the Fighting Lawyer,” it’s clear that he won’t be the favorite, not with the majority of this crowd. “‘The Fighting Lawyer’?” one spectator calls out, sounding slightly disgusted. “This ain’t a deposition, brother!” The South Philly-born Caputti, on the other hand, has figured out a way to ensure audience support: He’s dressed up like Rocky. And with bulging biceps and a handsome Mediterranean face, he more than slightly resembles Stallone, too. And once the fight begins, it’s clear that Catalano’s assessment of his opponent as a strong fighter was correct. Caputti has extraordinarily solid footwork and is able to deliver some solid blows without losing his balance when Catalano tries to respond in kind. Caputti lands a string of punches, and the audience begins cheering for him. After a particularly thudding jab to Catalano’s cheek, one fan yells, mockingly, “I object,” as if Catalano, as a lawyer, is more suited to oral confrontations. But just as the spectator makes his snide remark, Catalano delivers a crushing hook to Caputti’s jaw that silences the jeering. For about a minute, it’s blow for blow. But Caputti begins to slowly regain his prior advantage, tagging Catalano’s face repeatedly. Before the bell can signal the end of the first round, a curious thing happens: The ref decides Catalano’s had enough. The audience boos. Unlike the guy from the first bout, Catalano’s hardly stumbling around, and the crowd seems to think he had plenty of fight left in him. “You suck, ref!” one woman shouts. But Catalano is too fair a sport to protest, and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. And the crowd seems eager to indulge the logical conclusion that a Rocky would obviously be able to defeat some lawyer. Ready for Next Bout After the fight, Catalano is disappointed but not morose. He’s able to shrug his shoulders about the ref’s decision. Since that night, he’s begun working with a new trainer whom he met after the fight. He’s already training in preparation for another match. He might try to fight again as soon as this summer. “I will redeem myself,” Catalano said.

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