Instead of “Yo Adrian,” it should have been “Yo Sam!….Sam!!!”
Rocky Balboa’s well-bruised cry from the ring after beating Apollo Creed in the fabled movie may have been aimed at his wife, but when it comes to real life, the fictional heavyweight struck a deep chord in Sam Wildenhaus a few years ago.
The Yellow Springs youngster had dealt with some serious health problems in his early life — including a hearing issue that affected his ability to speak — and that led to some communication and socialization challenges. In the process, Sam never took to certain team sports and missed out on many of the friendships that come with them.
And that’s when his folks Bill Wildenhaus and Joni Green — who run The Carpet Store in both Beavercreek and Centerville — were hit with some knock-out inspiration.
“I showed him the first Rocky movie when he was maybe 9 or 10 and he watched it over and over and over,” Joni said. “We got him the other Rocky movies after that and he must have watched each of them 10 times. He just fell in love with boxing.”
Bill started going to the library and bringing home every boxing movie he could find and soon Sam was scouring the Internet for everything he could find about the sport. Right from the start he showed a savant-like ability to remember facts and figures and certain minutia about the fight game.
“He could go back to guys like Ali, Foreman, Marciano and Tyson and give you what they weighed for certain fights, what their records were, how old they were,” Bill said. “It was spooky.
“And when we heard about the Fight Nights at Drake’s Gym, we thought, ‘OK, if Sam really thinks he wants to do this, we’ll go and get as close as we can to the ring. I wanted him to see the sweat and the blood and how hard the guys were hitting. I figured that would probably put an end to it right there.
“But halfway through it, he looked at me and said, ‘Dad, I want to do this.’ And when we saw a poster in the gym about the Kids & Mitts program, we ended up signing him up.”
Sam was in the non-contact program for nearly two years. He showed an ability to punch and that stoked a desire to get into the ring and spar like some of Drake’s older and more accomplished boxers did.
“I talked to John about it and he told me to bring Sam down on a Saturday and he could spar,” Bill remembered. The invitation happened to coincide with Sam’s 13th birthday, so his folks decided to surprise him.
“If we had told him beforehand he was going to spar on Saturday he never would have slept on Friday night,” Bill laughed. “So when he got up Saturday morning, there was his present. It was a gym bag with a letter explaining that he had to pack it with his mouthpiece, his hand wraps, everything he’d need to spar that day. He was like, ‘All right!’ ”
Sam remembers reality tapping him in the snoot that day: “I sparred with Bryan (Brown) and he’s pretty good. He beat me up pretty bad that day. I landed one punch and he must have landed 100.”
Yet, the only thing that did was hammer home more of a love of the sport. He began to work harder in the gym — his parents bring him to Drake’s five times a week — and he immersed himself in everything else boxing away from the gym.
The family has made two trips to the Muhammad Ali museum in Louisville. When Bill and Joni got Sam a speed bag, he went online, found an instructional video clip and learned the rat-tat-tat hitting routine in two weeks.
He runs at home in the mornings, jumps rope, works the heavy bag in the garage and when he does relax and play a video game, it was always about boxing.
A 14-year-old eighth-grader, Sam now has had 10 fights. He’s almost always fought older and usually more seasoned boxers, and though he hasn’t always won, he’s always held his own.
And then came the trumpeted Ohio State Fair tournament three weeks ago. He was matched against one of last year’s champions in the 154-pound final and let’s just say he turned it into a Rocky movie of his own.
A rough start
Sam’s against-the-odds story began with an initially undetected hearing problem he had as a little boy.
“He had fluid on his ears, but it was like a 1-in-1,000 situation where there were no ear aches, no infections,” Bill said. “It turns out he was hearing everything as though he was under water. It affected his own speech and when he was 4 he couldn’t speak clearly at all. He developed his own language and there were maybe only three people who could understand it. He needed ear tubes and he had to learn to speak all over again.
“It was tough. I remember once when he was about 5 ½, he got all frustrated and all of a sudden all that old language came out again full blast for a few minutes straight. I just listened. I figured Sam just needed to get some words out.”
Neither Sam nor his family like belaboring those days or the problematic situations that have come since, but they all admit his discovery of boxing has been a godsend.
“I actually don’t know why I like it so much,” Sam said with a shrug as he worked out in the gym the other day wearing a Drake’s Jab City Boxing t-shirt that proclaimed “Ain’t No Pity in the Naked City” across the back. “But I know I’m big into it. … I’m addicted to boxing.”
Bill laughed: “He’s over the top. I think part of it is that he’s not part of a team, so it’s all on him. He just has to count on himself and he excels at that.
Joni agreed: “He’s found something he’s good at, something he loves doing and it shows. And people here respect him for it. That boosts his confidence in every area of his life. He’s gotten better at schoolwork and he feels better about himself. He’s finally found a niche.”
Drake said Sam is “a joy” to work with because “he’s conscientious and just such a hard worker.”
Yet the deeper Sam gets into boxing — and one day he said he wants to fight professionally — the more he now distances himself from Rocky.
“In person, boxing is way better,” Sam said. “Now Rocky looks so fake to me. It wasn’t real. Some of it was pretty goofy. Rocky was all “grrrr grrrr,’ but no ‘boom, boom, boom, boom.’ Real life boxing, there’s just more to it.”
‘Kind of a bruiser’
Drake said Sam was at his best in the state fair’s 154-pound final against Toledo’s Jared Anderson, one of last year’s champs.
“That other kid may have had more skill, but nobody has more heart, more engine than Sam,” Drake said. “When he gets in the ring, he’s kind of a bruiser. He needs to develop more skills — and he is — but he’s really a beast.”
The transformation already was taking place before the opening bell at the fair, Bill said.
“You know how the ref has them go to their corner after they’ve been introduced? Well, Sam was literally just bouncing up and down — just ‘booomp, booomp, booomp’ — he was so amped. His eyes were just fixated on that other kid and the ref was trying to hold him back. But finally he just gave up and told them to box.”
Sam started throwing punches non-stop, Drake said: “That other kid never had a chance.”
Sam won the decision and the plaque that comes with it and yet when you ask him about the fight, he doesn’t bring up the hardware he brought home as much as the effort it took to get it.
Like always, Sam is fanatical when it comes to poring over a fight, Bill said: “He’s watched a tape of the fight slow-motion over and over and counted all the punches.”
Sam nodded: “I landed 116 of 156 punches. He landed 41 of 161.”
Bill smiled and said: “What’s the percentage there?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Sam shrugged. “It’s a little higher than 60.7 percent.”
Actually, it is 60.79.
Rather than the minutia of the moment, Sam’s folks and Drake want to make sure he also allows himself — and others — to see the big picture.
“His mom told me they wanted to put a little blurb about it in the Yellow Springs paper,” Drake said. “They had to convince Sam and when it did finally get in, he was riding his bicycle the next day and someone drove by and beeped the horn and yelled, ‘Way to go, Sam!’ He rode home right away to tell his mom.
“I have a (boxing exercise) class in here with several Centerville women and they all adore Sam,” Drake said. “When he came in after the fair, they all came up to him and congratulated him and told him how proud they were. He was embarrassed.
“Finally, I pulled him aside. I said, ‘Sam, you know what? No matter what happens, for the rest of your life you’re a champion. Most people don’t get a chance to say that. Not from Little League or a boxing tournament or playing on a football team. So this is really special. You’ll always be a champion. This is really something, Sam.’
“He just stood there and looked at me and finally it sank in. Finally, he got it and broke into a little smile and said, ‘Yeah, I am a champion.’ ”
Though not quite like that famed Rocky cry — “Yo Adrian, I did it!” — there was “more to it.”
It was true.