Spiritual awakening carries Collazo forward

Luis Collazo enjoyed his birthday Tuesday in Times Square. SHOWTIME/Tom Casino

He wasn't able to enjoy the piece of cake brought out for him. And he ate only about three-quarters of a cup of spaghetti at the NYC intimate media luncheon at Buca Di Beppo in Times Square on Wednesday. But it was quite clear that Luis Collazo, who meets Amir Khan on the Floyd Mayweather-Marcos Maidana undercard May 3, was enjoying the heck out of his 33rd birthday.

It makes sense, being that he holds the WBA International welterweight title, which he took when he mugged Victor Ortiz on Jan. 30 at Barclays Center (KO2), and if he beats Khan, notorious for having an iffy chin, then he gets his lotto ticket entered into the Mayweather Sweepstakes.

But really, there seems to be a deeper meaning to the good place he was in on Tuesday afternoon. The boxer was brave enough, and kind enough, to part with the reason behind his upbeat manner -- and that's saying something considering the degree a boxer has to limit their caloric intake to make weight -- and recent surge into new-found respect and relevance.

Collazo referred to being in a good place, from a spiritual perspective. I asked how long he's been bathed in this sort of light.

"A year ... yesterday made a year," said the hitter, who owns a 35-5 (18 KOs) mark and is almost a decade removed from his upset win over Jose Antonio Rivera, which won him the WBA welter title. "It took me out of the dark place I was in. I was in a dark place, I was pulling away from the sport I love, I was drinking alcohol to the point even that my wife was scared to come home, because she was scared of the person she was going to come home to. And I got to the point that I even thought about committing suicide. And I asked God, 'If you would change my life, I would give my life to you.' The next day, I woke up with so much joy. The emptiness in my heart was filled. Not even my wife could fill that."

The fight on May 3, on a Golden Boy Promotions card, Collazo told me, isn't merely important to get his career to that next vocational plateau. A win against Khan would enable Collazo to spread his faith to a wider audience.

"The way I'm living life now, I want to inspire those that always got counted out and show that being with God opens things up for you," he said.

On the subject of opening up -- it's not a given, but in many circles people are seeing this Khan-Collazo showdown as being a title eliminator, with the honor at stake being the winner gets a lucrative crack at Mayweather. Most guys are going to be earning a career best payday if and when they glove up with "Money."

Collazo admitted he's well aware of the stakes, and that a win, especially a thrilling one, could earn him a "set for life" payday. But he made clear that in no way, shape or form is he looking past Khan to greener pastures. "I believe if I beat Amir Khan, I have a bigger future in boxing," he said. "And if don't, I gotta start from the bottom again. I'm not looking beyond Amir Khan, but he's my main focus, the middle of my radar. After this fight here, whatever happens happens."

A second reporter pushed him on the Mayweather-could-be-next issue. "Yeah, it does [enter him into the Mayweather sweepstakes]," he said, allowing himself a grin, "but I gotta beat Khan first. He's looking beyond me, but that's OK, Victor Ortiz did the same thing."

Given ample opportunity to air out his laundry, advertise old grudges or blows-to-the-ego, Collazo time and again took the higher road: "I'm not upset about that because back then I was giving glory to myself, but now I give all glory to God," he said when asked if wasn't irked that more respect hasn't been thrown his way from media, being that he is a former world champ.

Yet another writer tried to go fishing, get Collazo to break from his serene mode. What does he say to those who wrote him off, who said he was all done? (And by the way, while he was winning fights at Barclays Center in 2012 and 2013 and beating Alan Sanchez last September, Collazo wasn't on anyone's buzz list, so his KO2 of Ortiz did wake up a legion of the unaware or, even, Doubting Thomases.) "Thank you. I'm well-done now! Before I was medium rare, now I'm well-done. Everybody got opinions, that's OK." Today, he said, he uses naysayer talk as fuel.

Collazo has been a decades-long fixture at the Starrett City Boxing Club in East New York, along with coach Nirmal Lorick. He seems so at ease, with that base in faith, and also being able to acknowledge his contributions to the sport, and to how far he's come. "Coming from Brooklyn, from what was a bad neighborhood but is now a beautiful neighborhood, to see the transformation there and to be able to see my transformation, it's tremendous and I'm grateful for it," he said.

The fighter was born in East New York and grew up in Williamsburg, or rather what they now call Williamsburg, that hipster haven. "Now it's Williamsburg, before it was Southside," he said, drawing some chuckles from some of his crew and a couple of the veteran writers who know the neighborhood's history.

Time and again, Collazo brought the issue back to his faith. In fact, when a writer cracked that age 33 is nothing, not compared to the 49 years on earth enjoyed by light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins. "Oh no, it's good. This is Jesus' age!"

My take: To be honest, I'm of the camp who believes that God, any God anyone chooses to worship, doesn't manipulate the outcomes of prizefights or any sporting events with an invisible hand. But that doesn't mean I don't respect and admire how Collazo's faith is front and center and seems to be central to his existence. The man tells me that nothing else worked, and he asked a higher power to deliver him, and he woke up the next morning with a refreshed mind and spirit. Who the hell am I to look down on that?

Further, I like how Collazo is positioning himself as a pied piper of faith, stationing himself as a role model for anyone who find themselves in a literal or figurative gutter. That outreach indicates a degree of humility, of service, which any person, even an atheist, can latch on to.

Lastly, fighting is probably more mental than physical once you get to the sort of stage Collazo will be on May 3, at the MGM, in Vegas. Collazo's confidence level, buoyed by the Ortiz win and a year of immersion into a deeper level of faith, has likely made him that much better as a boxer. I saw the emotion radiating off of him when he beat Collazo in Brooklyn, and it is clear that Luis Collazo is a man on a mission; one just a little bit larger than most athletes who box for a living.

His faith has lifted him up, but it might just be the ultimate factor in dropping and stopping Khan.