The fact that Nicky Furlano is alive to tell his story today is something of a miracle.
As we sit across from one another in a small, hot bakery, Furlano can't help but get excited about discussing his career as a professional boxer. Before I can ask the first question and get the recorder started, he's 10 minutes into talking about the current state of boxing and where he went wrong.
His nose is flat like a board, the only real telling sign of his previous career other than a few short memory lapses. His blue, short-sleeved shirt is undone, showing a mound of chest hair sticking out of his sleeveless, short-cut undershirt. What was once a bushy, vibrant mustache is now a thin, greyed goatee.
It's been a long 30 years for Furlano since stepping away from the spotlight of boxing and into a life of drug dealing, failed business ventures and jail stints. At 26 years old, he walked away from a promising boxing career and into a life of trouble. His issues with substance abuse were easy enough to hide during his boxing career—he'd taper off and then go on a bender after each bout—but with nothing to look forward to, the benders didn't end.
Furlano now lives in the sleepy southern Ontario town of Guelph, mostly known for its prominent university. He doesn't get recognized on the streets and rarely ventures out of the city's downtown core, losing his license years ago after going blind in his left eye. It's a distant separation from the fast-paced streets of Toronto that Furlano ran as a youngster.
At 57, Furlano has found peace away from the influences that derailed his professional boxing career and ridded him of any chance of a world title.
It was 31 years ago when Furlano co-headlined the last world championship boxing match to take place in Toronto. On June 22, 1984, Furlano fought Aaron Pryor for the IBF Super Lightweight Title. On Sept. 11, world-class boxing returns to the city. Haitian-born Quebecer Adonis Stevenson will defend his WBC World Light-Heavyweight Championship at Ricoh Coliseum against Tommy Karpency in the first world title fight in Toronto since Furlano's championship bout against Pryor.
As a young man, Stevenson spent four years in prison for his involvement in a prostitution ring; not all that unlike Furlano's plethora of charges for drug dealing, assaulting police and breach of probation.
Furlano's first sexual experience took place when a friend bought them each a prostitute. When the friend was too messed up on drugs to partake in the services he purchased, the second woman climbed in with Furlano as well. He was 14.
It is no surprise that the nightlife quickly became so appealing to him.
Furlano consistently made headlines in Toronto newspapers for his in-ring accomplishments, like winning an amateur bout over Tommy Hearns, as much as his out-of-ring shenanigans—he loves telling the story of his street fight with carnies at the Canadian National Exhibition. He was a popular face around Toronto's small but successful fight scene, and by multiple accounts should have fought for Canada at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Along with Eddie Mulo, Furlano put Toronto on the map as a fight city to contend with. Although combat sports have never reached the heights they have in Montreal, the group of fighters from Toronto in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the closest thing.
Furlano's bout with Pryor was the crowning achievement of a career marred by miserable weight cuts and bad drug habits.
"I was doing it on and off while I was boxing," Furlano said of his drug habits. "When I was training, I would usually lay off, but I was playing both ends of the candle and it caught up to me. I was blowing up to 180 or 190 (pounds) between fights and would have to come down to 135 for the fight. I was drained out. I usually fought out of guts and wanted to fight. It was hard and it took its toll on me."
Two weeks before the bout, Furlano was hospitalized with what some thought was hepatitis but turned out to be yellow jaundice. Although it cost him a week of prime training, it helped him feel rested for the fight.
Furlano entered the Pryor fight, which was contested at the super lightweight limit of 140 lbs., in the best shape of his career after a lengthy training camp in Las Vegas. Away from the influences of Toronto, he was able to focus solely on boxing.
"It was ridiculous, I was down to 120,121 (pounds), " Furlano said. "I felt good at that weight, that's where my natural weight was. They gave me some steroids for about six weeks to get my weight up (to 140)."
Nerves were always a big factor for Furlano. Before his first professional fight, he says his heartbeat was up to nearly 170 beats per minute and "it was almost beating out of my chest. They almost called it off."
Furlano was terrified before the Pryor fight, too—not because there was a chance he would be hurt or even that he would lose. Rather, he was scared of being knocked out early in the fight. He was Toronto's tough guy and losing in the first round would be a tough pill to swallow.
It was a prophecy that was nearly fulfilled on that night in April 1984.
Pryor, coming off 27 straight knockouts and widely regarded as one of the biggest punchers in the sport, landed a monstrous hook square on Furlano's jaw.
"We were both throwing a hook and he came from down and over my punch," Furlano said. "He caught me with my head hanging. Yeah, that was a hard punch. I watch it every day. I'm surprised I got up."
The punch flattened Furlano, arms and legs sprawled on the mat as he laid there flat. He laid there for nearly the full 10-second count before stumbling to his feet. He admittedly doesn't remember how he rose from the canvas.
"Nothing goes through your head (when you're laying on the mat)," Furlano said. "You don't know anything, you black out. The instincts set in from being a pro fighter. You do anything to get out of the round and your legs come back."
A second knockdown only seconds later would have seen the fight stopped by today's standards. Furlano fumbled to the mat, flat on his face like a drunk outside the bar. He hadn't recovered from the first knockdown before falling down again.
How Furlano got up and proceeded to put up a competitive fight for 14 more rounds seems almost unfathomable. As Pryor used his surgical precision to land combinations in later rounds, Furlano would duck and throw looping hooks, landing the heavier punches as the fight wore on.
"That knockdown changed everything," Furlano said. "I'm a three-or-four-punch-combination puncher, but that changed when I went down."
Furlano lost the fight by a wide margin in front of only 4,000 locals. He claims another promoter was threatening to air the fight on television, which kept attendance down when "there should have been 20,000 people there."
The bout established Furlano's reputation as one of the toughest men in Canadian boxing. He became the first fighter to go the full-length of a bout with the hard-handed Pryor since October 1977, a span of 26 fights.
Furlano fought only once more, and won, before deciding to call it a career. It's a decision he admittedly regrets.
"I know in my heart and soul that I could have been a world champion," he said.
After the fight, Furlano's manager went his own way. The hangers on dissipated. The $125,000 he made for the Pryor fight went into a restaurant that quickly became a front for selling dope.
A multitude of charges continued to pile up and Furlano found himself jailed for two years, amidst smaller incarcerations.
He moved to Guelph in 2008 to "get away from the riff raff" but still travelled to the city for work. When his eyesight failed him while working on the subway, he was given disability and hasn't been able to work since.
"I live a pretty quiet life now," Furlano said. "I come down here (to the bakery) three or four times a week. I walk my dogs. I try to stay away from all that shit, I can't handle it anymore. It's too much. There's no big money or nothing, but I'm enjoying it."
Being a quiet guy in a small southern Ontario town, Furlano doesn't discuss his boxing career often. With no license and living an hour outside of Toronto, he rarely gets the opportunity to visit the fights that do take place, either.
While he may not admit it, Furlano misses the fight game. He watches anything he can find on YouTube, and enjoys technical boxers like Floyd Mayweather. He's aware of the young fighters in the area and hopes that with the sport's new-found life in Toronto, he can become more involved. He'd like to attend the fights and offer his insights to fighters.
The boxing scene in Toronto and the surrounding area has never been more prevalent than it is right now. With three shows from three different promoters—the most prominent being the world title fight on Sept. 11—taking place in the span of a month, there's a rejuvenated interest in the sport amongst Canada's English-speaking population. Fighters like Logan McGuinness, Samuel Vargas, Denton Daley and Brandon Cook are all making significant cases for world title opportunities. The success of these fighters means that more prominent combat sporting events will take place in the Greater Toronto Area.
For Furlano, this means a new interest in boxing's history in Toronto. All the posters for the upcoming world championship fight read "the first world title fight in 30 years" and the "K.O in T.O."
Furlano's toughest fight was never between the ropes, despite what the footage might show. Overcoming drugs, alcohol and a fast lifestyle was a far less enviable task than attempting to get to his feet after an Aaron Pryor haymaker.
Today, Furlano's grip is still strong. When a friend stops by the bakery, interrupting our interview, he acts perturbed. "Didn't I tell you I was in an interview? Call my phone again and I'll pop you in the nose," he says, laughing and throwing short shadow punches.
His demons, finally, seem under control.
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