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Framingham boxer back in the ring

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- It is the first week of August. Danny O'Connor is on the phone with an ESPN Boston reporter, fumbling around the kitchen of his bare-bones Houston apartment looking for the cellphone number of his new trainer.

His living arrangement with another Worcester-bred boxer, Edwin Rodriguez, is pretty minimal: no car, no Internet, no television, no land line, two forks, a knife, a stack of paper plates, no couch, no mattress, a few bed sheets, a throw pillow, and -- no pens.

"I scratched this out on a paper plate with one of the forks," he says with a laugh.

How the 26-year-old Framingham native rose to prominence in the boxing world is a story in itself -- a state champion wrestler at 16, he dropped out of Framingham High before finishing at an alternative school and picking up boxing at the local Police Athletic League at age 19. By 2008, he had won 95 amateur fights, a National Golden Gloves title, and an alternate spot in the Beijing Olympics.

How he came to the depths of Houston, sleeping on a floor with little money and two forks, stems back to his most recent fight, last April in Laredo, Texas. Hours before the junior welterweight battle with Gabriel Bracero on Showtime, O'Connor learned he had anemia, and was coughing up blood in the locker room 10 minutes before the fight.

O'Connor, then 14-0, promptly got beaten by knockout. Worst of all, he ended up in the emergency room and needed reconstructive surgery on his nose.

When he returned home to Framingham to his wife, Diane, and infant son, O'Connor said he was so devastated by the loss that for weeks he barely got off the couch. By June, Diane had enough and sent him a text message while he was out with friends, letting him know he had to change his attitude.

So he did. With the help of advisor Mark Kitsmiller, O'Connor found a new trainer, Ronnie Shields, a former World Boxing Hall of Fame Trainer of the Year known for working with Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker and David Tua at various points of their careers, among others.

Soon enough, O'Connor was borrowing $500 from a close friend for a plane ticket and meal money, and shacking up with Rodriguez two miles from the gym, often traveling on foot to workouts.

He admits it's lonely, and it's been a grueling mental sacrifice -- "I've gotta watch my kid grow up through text messages, some nights it's really tough," he said. But in the same thread, he considers the experience with Shields the best career move he's made.

How much it's paying off will be found out Wednesday night, when he returns to the ring for the first time since that April fight, as part of the "Fight to Educate" event at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, N.H., facing Jaimie Del Cid (10-5) out of Phoenix. O'Connor will be representing the Douglas Bolanes Jr. Foundation, which was set up in memory of the 22-year-old MMA hopeful and Framingham native who was killed in a car crash last March. The foundation bought O'Connor his plane ticket back to Boston.

O'Connor's raw ability as a technically-sound boxer with a vicious uppercut has never been in doubt. Once, in one of his early pro fights, he hit an opponent hard enough to rip his own glove open.

But as a fighter? Shields has urged him to be more aggressive, sit down on his shots and cease letting the play come to him. He says Wednesday night's work will be "more basic stuff," and that he'll throw more punches "in this fight than you've ever seen from him."

On O'Connor's work ethic, Shields says he's "very eager, a hyper kinda guy, but that's a good thing."

Translating to his ceiling, Shields thinks it's potentially high.

"Shoot, as far as he wants to go," Shields said. "As long as he's willing to work. Sometimes it takes more than just skills, though. His confidence has to be sky high. Danny has to have confidence coming off the loss, I don't know where [his] confidence is right now but we'll see on Wednesday night. He's doing all the things you'd expect him to do in the gym, we've gotta see if it can translate into the fight."

O'Connor seems to be feeding off of his mentor's no-nonsense approach.

"I respect him so much," O'Connor said of Shields. "He's a genuine, laidback, really nice guy. But as soon as you're in the gym it's all business. He'll be the first to tell you if you're not working hard enough or doing something wrong. When you're in the gym, it's time to work. It's a different level of training down there, with all his experience and his knowledge.

"He's gonna be in the Hall of Fame of boxing, he's that good," said O'Connor. "You could tell right away it was just a different level of training."

Just how far will this go? Shields says that right now O'Connor is "still crawling."

"But within a year," he added, "Danny's gonna be the man."

Brendan Hall is a high schools reporter/editor for ESPNBoston.com.