After the Knockdown

Joe DiSalvo lost his badge in one of the biggest police corruption probes in FBI history. He's been reborn as a rising star in Cleveland boxing.

It's late afternoon, but Joe DiSalvo is just getting to work. In a basement in Old Brooklyn, he changes into shorts and a T-shirt, binds his fists in yellow handwraps, and stretches his muscled frame.

Another day at the office. Another afternoon practicing the art of beating people senseless. Another step toward redemption.

Gianchetti's Gym sits in a strip mall on Fulton Road. It isn't much for ambiance, even by boxing's low-rent standards. Beer banners and fading posters cover cinder-block walls. Heavy bags hang from the low ceiling. The smell of sweat and cinnamon gum hangs in the air.

DiSalvo climbs into the ring and hops around the stained canvas. He slides from one side to the other, throwing sharp punches in the air. With each cut, a burst of air explodes from his mouth: PSCHHT-PSCHHT. PSCHHT-PSCHHT. The cries of Ozzy Osbourne blast through the radio.

"Pop it from there," yells trainer Johnny Avon Jr., who's perched along the ropes. "Get a little extension. There's no extension."

DiSalvo turned professional last year, a decision less ambitious than it sounds. After a brief but promising amateur career, he wanted to make a little money, and he wanted to get on television. "I wanted to see what I could do," he says. "I was like 'Hey, you never know what could happen.'"

Something happened. Over the last 18 months, DiSalvo has won all six of his super-middleweight fights. In June, he stopped the previously unbeaten Mark Shahid in Michigan. Even more impressive has been the way he's won: by turning his competition into lunch meat. In a September fight, he hit his opponent so hard that he knocked him clear through the ropes and onto the scorer's table. "It gave me a chance to show off my boxing skills, to show everybody what I can do," DiSalvo says.

All of which has made him a magnet for Cleveland fight fans. During a Grays Armory bout against Ruben Ruiz, the crowd chanted JOE-Y, JOE-Y, JOE-Y. "People I never met before are coming up and hugging me" after the fight, says DiSalvo.

"He's a hard puncher, an action fighter," explains Joe Delguyd, a lawyer and boxing trainer who's known DiSalvo for years. "He's got a lot of heart. He's got a crowd-pleasing style. And he's a nice-looking guy. He's got all the ingredients to really make a move."

Boxing has always been a collection of rogues and romantics, a venue in which inflicting pain is poetic, where thuggery masks as virtue. Yet even amid its notorious stable of misfits, the sport may never have seen a more unlikely résumé than DiSalvo's. In the mid-'90s, he was a Cleveland police officer. The son of a cop, he never imagined doing anything else.

But that ended on January 21, 1998, when DiSalvo was arrested in one of the largest police corruption investigations in FBI history. Eight months later, a judge sentenced him to 41 months in federal prison.

"Let's face it," says Avon. "He's got a story to tell."

Ray Kashubeck had a question for Joe DiSalvo.

In or out?

It was December 1997, and the two had been partners just a few months. Like most Cleveland cops, both worked second jobs for extra cash. DiSalvo did security at Taco Bell. But Kashubeck found something that sounded a hell of a lot better than guarding chalupas. Was DiSalvo interested?

As they sat in Becky's, a cop hangout across the street from the Third District headquarters, Kashubeck told his partner about a guy from New York who was flying in with some jewels. The guy was worried about being jacked and wanted to hire cops for protection. "He told me that there were a ton of cops who'd done it," says DiSalvo. "They'd been doing it for years."

Lord knows, DiSalvo needed the money. He bought a house just a few months before, drained his life savings. Christmas was just a couple of weeks away. Things were tight.

What the hell.

So two days later, DiSalvo followed Kashubeck to a house in Lakewood to meet Johnny Amico, the guy setting up the deal. Amico wanted to make sure DiSalvo was a cop.

At the meeting, it soon became clear that DiSalvo was missing some important details. This wouldn't be a milk run: Amico told him the jeweler would be trading his goods for 25 kilos of cocaine. Did DiSalvo have a problem with that?

At first, DiSalvo didn't know what to say. Then he said no. "I just figured that whatever happened on that end wasn't on me. That was their business."

The exchange went down without a hitch. DiSalvo and Kashubeck met the jeweler at Burke Lakefront Airport. They followed him to the Fairfield Inn in Brook Park, where he made the swap. For a few hours of work, DiSalvo was paid $1,500.

A month later, he agreed to do it again.

Then, on January 21, 1998, DiSalvo was told to report to a computer class at the Justice Center. Shortly after the class began, a fellow officer beckoned him into the hallway. Two FBI agents were waiting to arrest him.

When DiSalvo arrived at the Federal Building for booking, an FBI agent told him that if he wanted to call someone, he'd better do it quick. "In five minutes, your face is going to be all over the news," DiSalvo recalls being told. When he called his mother, the only thing he could think to say was "I'm in some big trouble."

When he finally got home the next day, he told his mother that he couldn't bear to see his father. Dave DiSalvo had been a Cleveland police officer for 20 years. Joe couldn't stomach the shame.

But Dave ignored the plea. When he arrived at Joe's house that night, he was still in uniform. He put his arm around his son. "Well, buddy," he said softly. "What are we going to do now?"

DiSalvo was only a small piece of the investigation. Before January concluded, the feds had arrested 53 people, almost all of whom worked in law enforcement: cops, corrections officers, sheriff's deputies. It had started as an inquiry into organized crime, but since 1996, undercover agents had set up 16 drug deals, offering dozens of cops money to protect the exchanges. Everything was on tape.

DiSalvo hired lawyer Pat D'Angelo, who came to a speedy conclusion: DiSalvo should plead guilty, cooperate with the investigation, and get on with his life. "He was looking at upwards of 10 years if convicted," says D'Angelo. It would matter little, he knew, that DiSalvo had never been in trouble before, or that he had been wooed into the scam. When it comes to police corruption, the public sense of betrayal is acute -- and merciless.

"In a case where [cops] are taking money and they're following somebody with a duffel bag that allegedly has cocaine in it, the jury is likely to say, 'Fuck you,'" D'Angelo says. "They wouldn't care about these guys."

Though every defendant would eventually follow his lead, DiSalvo was the first to plead guilty. It didn't make him popular. "There was a lot of haranguing back and forth, a lot of people -- family members and friends and even defendants -- accusing the FBI of doing something wrong, screaming and shouting and placing blame elsewhere," says James Wooley, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. "Then this kid stands up and says, 'I did it. It's nobody's fault but my fault.' In the context of an already amazing case, that was a pretty amazing thing for a young guy to do. It wasn't easy."

In August 1998, U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent sentenced DiSalvo to 41 months in prison. If he behaved, he'd be out in two years. He was 26 years old.

DiSalvo spent four years putting guys behind bars, but his knowledge of prison life was a product of movies and television. He imagined a cross between Deliverance and Mad Max. "I decided that the first person that said anything to me, I would have to go off on them, just to let people know not to mess with me," he says.

But the federal pen in Morgantown, West Virginia, offered as much drama as Saturday night in a Laundromat. It's a minimum-security facility, home to some 1,200 prisoners, mostly stoners and drug dealers at the end of their sentences -- not rapists and killers looking to fuck with a cop. DiSalvo had seen more confrontations at the police union picnic.

It was, however, still prison. Privacy was a rumor. Fellow inmates considered bathing a conspiracy. Friends drifted away. It left hours to rehash his past -- every decision he'd made, every family member he didn't see, every woman he'd ever known. On his first night in Morgantown, he slept on a dingy bed in a room with eight other inmates. He was awoken by the cry of a wake-up bell at 6 a.m.

"I'm never going to make it four years," he said to himself.

Still, DiSalvo is not the brooding kind. If he'd been sentenced to Alcatraz, one suspects, he'd talk about the nice view. Prison "is not who he is," says Jason Collins, DiSalvo's former cellmate and now one of his best friends. "It was a situation in his life that he refused to let affect the rest of his life."

For a man who served time in jail -- and enjoys pounding other people's heads -- DiSalvo has a remarkably sunny outlook. Friends and family universally describe him as gracious, polite, sensitive. To this day, parents of ex-girlfriends still stop his mother in the grocery store, just to say how much they miss him. He's notorious for being softer than the inside of a Twinkie: He once almost choked up during a poignant scene in Armageddon. "I think that's what attracted me to boxing, I was trying to hide that," he says. "I thought people would think I was weak."

But compassion can pay dividends, even in prison. After arriving at Morgantown, DiSalvo recognized a fellow inmate. Several years before, he'd helped the DEA bust the guy on drug charges. Instead of causing problems, though, the inmate told others how well DiSalvo had treated him.

"He said, 'Hey, he's not like most cops . . . He's a good guy,'" DiSalvo's mother, Ann, remembers. The guy even helped get DiSalvo assigned to a good kitchen job.

If nothing else, Morgantown offered clarity. His career as a cop was over. His record would follow him everywhere. It only made DiSalvo determined to hold onto all the other things he cared about. "It just made me really appreciate everything more. I remember thinking, 'Jeez, what I wouldn't give to be able to walk to the store to get some milk.'"

And he cared a lot, he realized, about getting back in the ring.

He had come to it as a kid. When he was 10, his father put a heavy bag in the basement and showed him the basics. Soon, he was teaching neighbor kids how to box and begging Dave to take him to a gym. But the only boxing gyms Dave knew about were in neighborhoods you didn't take kids. Boxing would have to wait.

In high school, Joe wrestled and played football, but he never got over his fascination with fighting. So at age 19 -- ancient to start a boxing career -- he began showing up at Pinzone's gym in Parma. When he told people he'd never been formally trained, they didn't believe him. Soon, a trainer named Jeff Gabriel took him under his wing. After just six months in the gym, they encouraged him to enter the Cleveland Golden Gloves tournament. DiSalvo won the novice division. The next year, he won the open division, beating opponents who had fought through dozens of amateur tournaments. "He beat guys who had 70 fights, 60 fights, 50 fights," says Delguyd. "He definitely had a lot of potential."

In 1993, at the national Golden Gloves in Little Rock, Arkansas, he lost a close fight to Michael Nunnally. It was DiSalvo's seventh fight. Three years later, Nunnally would become an alternate for the U.S. Olympic Team.

It's three weeks before DiSalvo's fight with Ruiz. Today, DiSalvo is sparring with Morris Eason, a former boxer who once beat "Boom Boom" Mancini. Eason, who often competes in regional tough-man contests, combines the manners of a church deacon -- he's an ordained minister -- with the look of a hit man: bald head, bulging pecs, jaw as square as a sock hop.

DiSalvo, meanwhile, still looks like a cop. His hair is shaved close to his head, his frame squared by broad shoulders and thick biceps. As he shuffles around the ring, a cloak of sweat soon covers his body. The THWAT of leather hitting skin pops over the clang of barbells, as Avon provides narration: "Enough with the fucking body shots."

DiSalvo fights like a cop, too, or at least how one imagines a cop should fight. He doesn't dance or wrestle. He doesn't brawl. He constantly moves forward, relentlessly counterpunching. He tries to make guys miss, but that doesn't seem a high priority. He realized long ago that his chief assets were a messianic level of intensity and a head as hard as a tombstone.

After getting out of prison in the fall of 2000, DiSalvo was eager to start boxing again. He got a job cleaning a gym in Brunswick and started training. That December, he entered the United States Amateur Boxing Federation's Cleveland tournament. He won, qualifying for the regional tournament in Michigan. The winner there would move on to the national tournament, held at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. But in the regional final, DiSalvo lost a close decision. He felt it should have gone his way.

The loss drove a stake into what little affection he retained for the amateur game. The things that made DiSalvo an exciting fighter -- his power, his straightforward style -- count for little in amateur matches, where points are based on how many blows you land, not how artfully or powerfully you do it. Eager to use his strengths, he turned pro.

Three months later, in May 2001, DiSalvo had his first professional match. It was almost his last. His opponent was so overmatched that he simply walked away after DiSalvo landed a couple of shots. DiSalvo was frustrated for the fans and embarrassed for the fighter. "He had no business being in the ring," he says.

He took six months off and thought about getting out for good. His trainer at the time was often too busy to help him. Motivating himself became harder and harder. Besides, he had gotten a job as a loan officer. He had a girlfriend. Life was getting back to normal.

But last December, during a vacation to Florida, he was lounging around his hotel when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye -- himself, reflected in the mirror. His belly was hanging out.

He called Avon the next day. Widely regarded as the best trainer in the city, Avon had known DiSalvo for years, often asking him to spar with the fighters he trained.

Avon quickly put him to work. DiSalvo fought four times in five months. In January, he faced Brian Dunlow, a lanky fighter from Youngstown who'd won five Golden Gloves titles. DiSalvo knocked him out, 2:23 into the first round. In April, he traveled to the Palace at Auburn Hills near Detroit to face Kolmage Harris. Knockout, one minute into the first round. After the fight, Harris told DiSalvo it was the worst beating he'd ever taken.

In June, DiSalvo went back to Michigan to face Mark Shahid. Shahid, who had had an impressive amateur career, rattled DiSalvo early with several shots that sent him reeling. But over the next two rounds, DiSalvo recovered, eventually taking control of the fight. By the fourth round, he was teeing off at will.

"That fourth fight was monumental," says Avon. "To have Joe DiSalvo, 4-0 from Cleveland, go to Michigan to fight a 4-0 fighter with three knockouts, a guy who had a legitimate amateur career, and Joe beat the guy fairly convincingly . . . if you look at the guys he's beaten, and how he's beaten them, it says a lot."

Others started to notice as well. After the Shahid win, a writer for Boxing News called DiSalvo "one of the most talked-about super-middleweight prospects in Ohio."

But time isn't doing DiSalvo any favors. He is now 31, and his opportunties as a professional dwindle by the day. "He's exciting and dynamic, and he's got the potential to be a star," says Tom Vacca, a well-known local matchmaker. "He has the heart, but that doesn't necessarily mean he has the time."

For now, DiSalvo's appeal has as much to do with how he fights as it does with how well he fights. "Is he going to win a title? No," says Avon. "But he's a good puncher. Good defense. He's got a tremendous crowd-pleasing style. None of that dancing around. If a guy pays $100 to see a fight, he wants to get his money's worth. That's what Joe gives them. We call him Joe Money."

Never was that more apparent than in his fight against Ruben Ruiz. From the opening bell, DiSalvo smothered Ruiz, keeping him off balance with body shots and uppercuts. In the first round, he connected on a jab that sent blood flying from Ruiz's nose. In the second, he caught him with a right, then another as Ruiz began to fall. The second punch knocked Ruiz onto the scorer's table. Ruiz managed to return to the ring, only to be finished off a minute and a half into the fourth round.

"It was like a Hollywood movie," says Avon. "You had the blood flying everywhere, the guy fighting his ass off, and Joe chasing him like he would not be denied. The crowd was into it; not just [DiSalvo's] people, but all the people ringside were standing up and roaring."

Boxing is seldom talked about as a mere sport, a business, or even entertainment. There has always been a compulsion to slap some greater meaning on it. "It's not enough that one man shock another man's brain and send him reeling," Muhammad Ali biographer David Remnick has written. "There must be politics, too -- or, at least, great lumps of symbol, historical subplots, metaphysical frosting."

DiSalvo offers the fight philosophers plenty of fodder. Is he fighting for redemption, out of anger, or because he likes to beat skulls? "I guess I'm looking to redeem myself in some people's eyes," he says. "Boxing is the vehicle for that, as much as it can be done."

Yet there is also a more pedestrian pleasure -- a way to keep in shape, a competitive outlet, something that he is simply very good at. He'd also like to be on television -- a goal that might happen sooner than he imagined. Local promoter TKO Scully has put together a December match at Gund Arena that will be televised as part of ESPN2's Friday Night Fights. DiSalvo would be on the undercard, with an outside shot of making it on the show. "You see a guy like Joe, the TV people may be drawn to him," says Delguyd. "He's a good-looking guy who's got a story."

But he won't be crushed if it doesn't happen. He's got a job, a girlfriend he loves, and a family that supports him. "I used to get so mad at myself, to think of all the things I could have done or said differently, so that I wouldn't have gone to prison," he says. "The way I look at it now, though, it's like I want to prove that it could have been the best thing that ever happened to me. In some ways, I've never been happier."