VITO MIELNICKI JR. WAS dripping sweat.
On a steamy July morning in New Jersey, in the middle of the West Essex High School football field, the promising teenage boxer was about to receive his reward in the culmination of years of hard work.
All those 4 a.m. alarms to get strength and conditioning in before school, followed by after-school training in the gym, boxing and then homework until bedtime, were about to pay off.
"Vito Anthony Mielnicki," West Essex High School principal Caesar Diliberto announced.
In his red cap and gown, Mielnicki briefly took off his mask and walked across the stage, pointing both of his index fingers to the sky before picking up his diploma from an unattended table.
The rest of West Essex's seniors applauded from their socially distanced chairs, separated safely on the field. Family and friends were not allowed to attend for safety purposes, a sign of the new times.
"You couldn't hug anyone," Mielnicki said. "You couldn't really take that many pictures with your friends because they wanted everyone [to] be separated six feet apart."
His 30-second walk across the stage was still satisfying after these past five frustrating months. Like many high school seniors across the country, Mielnicki didn't know if this day was going to come.
The Class of 2020 has seen the best parts of its senior year KO'd by the coronavirus pandemic. Mielnicki was slated to strut down a runway in a tuxedo or suit in the West Essex High School fashion show. He was going to take part in the traditions of the North Caldwell, New Jersey, school, including the Senior Ball. And Memorial Day weekend was going to be unforgettable -- a senior getaway to the Jersey Shore where he and 60 of his friends had an enormous house waiting for them.
All the spoils of senior year were wiped out by COVID-19, which spread through the New Jersey-New York area, turning it into the early epicenter of the pandemic in the United States and infecting more than 600,000 people between the two states as of Aug. 7, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But Mielnicki got to walk in a cap and gown. And now he gets to fight in a ring again. The coronavirus might have interrupted his senior year, but it didn't slow down his boxing training.
The 18-year-old is ready to show he has graduated into a full-time fighter. Already one of the top 25 fighters under 25 years of age, Mielnicki (5-0, 3 KOs) will try to remain undefeated when he fights on the Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday against Chris Rollins (3-1, 2 KOs) in a six-round fight in Los Angeles.
Mielnicki wasn't sure when his next fight was going to happen. But unlike many boxers who have been shut out of gyms and fitness centers during the pandemic, Mielnicki was fortunate to have the means to keep his training going as close to normal as possible, as his father, Vito Sr., owns the Passaic Boxing Gym.
And he's ready to remind people why some of boxing's best and brightest -- like WBO featherweight champ Shakur Stevenson and former two division champ Timothy Bradley Jr. -- believe he has championship potential.
"I think he has got to take his time, move the right way," said Stevenson, who was raised in Newark and has known Mielnicki since he was a little kid. "And if he is [placed in the right fights and progresses] I think he can be a great champion. ... He is going to be good."
Mielnicki caught the attention of Bradley with a first-round knockout of Tamarcus Smith in his professional debut on July 13, 2019.
Bradley sees a "blue-chip talent" with a high boxing IQ, a fundamentally sound orthodox fighter who uses the early rounds to figure out how to set up his opponent with angles that are still being polished. Mielnicki was 147-22 as an amateur, a four-time Junior National Golden Gloves champion and a member of USA Boxing's 2017-18 national team in the welterweight division.
"So far, what I have seen from Vito, he handles himself very well for an 18-year-old," Bradley said. "Vito knows every inch of the ring as well ... He has many dimensions, has punching power and he's still maturing. This kid doesn't even have his man strength and he is fighting against grown men, 10 [years] older than he is, and he's dominating them so far. ... He's the total package."
Like Stevenson, Bradley believes if Mielnicki is brought along at the proper pace and placed in the right fights, he has the potential to become a championship contender at a weight class or two above his current welterweight division.
"He is probably a guy that we should be looking forward to next year or maybe two years from now to possibly fight for a world championship," said Bradley, who is now an ESPN boxing analyst. "There's not many [young welterweight prospects] out there with single-digit fights that are really on my radar, but this kid is."
WHEN SHANE MOSLEY LANDED a hard right to the side of Floyd Mayweather's head in the second round on May 1, 2010, the impact of the punch not only famously buckled Mayweather's legs, it also was felt on one sofa in suburban Roseland, New Jersey.
A 7-year-old Mielnicki was watching that night and loved the hype, the flash and the buzz of the fight. After Mayweather won, Mielnicki told his father he wanted to box. Vito Sr. decided if his son was going to try the sport, he should give him a real taste of boxing. He signed Vito Jr. up for a 30-day trial at the Jamar Carter's Operation Turn Around boxing gym in Newark.
"His father knew if his son was going to be in this game, he had to be serious," said boxing coach Kay Koroma, who helps train Stevenson and first saw Mielnicki fight when he was 8 years old. "He had to be around people that took this seriously. ... His father didn't have everything. And he didn't want his kids to grow up like they had everything, like spoiled and all that."
After the first day, Mielnicki wanted to quit.
"I mean, like the first few days I hated it just because it was a different scenery from what I had been seeing my whole life," Mielnicki said. "Just because I'm from the suburbs. Different environment, different scenery. And I just didn't like it.
"But then as the third or fourth day came on, I just fell in love with it, and I never looked back."
Mielnicki began making friends at the gym. And it wouldn't be long before others began to notice his boxing skills.
"The first time I saw him, he sparred my little brother and he beat up my little brother," said Stevenson, who is five years older than Mielnicki. "My little brother [was so upset that he] ran right across the ring and kicked him right in his eye."
Stevenson's grandfather and head trainer, Wali Moses, took Mielnicki under his wing. The second time Koroma saw Mielnicki was at a three-day tournament in New Jersey when the coach brought a group of young boxers up from the D.C. area to join Moses' fighters. Mielnicki was 9.
Mielnicki won his division, but it wasn't just his boxing that made an impression.
"But when he got into the ring, you looked at him like, 'Hold on, this kid with the part in his hair, he looks like a prep school kid [but] can actually box.'" Trainer Kay Koroma on Vito Mielnicki Jr.
"This kid's got a swagger," said Koroma, who coined his nickname: "White Magic." "Watching Vito, he was quiet and chill. But he wasn't ordinary. He wasn't cocky, he wasn't conceited.
"But when he got into the ring, you looked at him like, 'Hold on, this kid with the part in his hair, he looks like a prep school kid [but] can actually box.'"
THE PASSAIC BOXING GYM is eerily silent. It's been this way for months.
Mielnicki is accustomed to the old firehouse on Monroe Street being filled with the rhythmic and rapid thuds of boxers hitting one of the 12 heavy bags, landing shots on pads inside the ring or jumping rope while a humming sound comes from the treadmills or ellipticals in the gym.
"COVID impacted boxing heavily," Stevenson said. "It canceled a lot of fights. I think it had a big effect on us as far as a sport. We got to slowly come back now ... I think that COVID did a lot of damage on us."
For the past five months, gyms around the country have been locked due to the coronavirus, forcing some boxers to improvise and train "Rocky"-style outdoors.
"I feel like the only way the pandemic can hurt [Mielnicki] is if he felt like, 'Oh man, this is messed up, we are never going to box again. ... I don't have to go to the gym because [of] coronavirus and I don't have to go running or I don't have to get up, I don't have to study boxing,'" Koroma said. "When the world is watching boxing, you just don't turn it on then. You turn it on when the world's not watching and you study."
For months, Mielnicki and his trainer/coach, Muhammad Abdul Salaam, were the only people allowed inside the Passaic Boxing Gym -- outside of cleaners who sanitized it weekly. Mielnicki started sparring against Thomas LaManna in the past month in preparation for his fight. After sparring, Mielnicki had to clean and sanitize all his gear.
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Salaam has six pros and seven other amateur fighters among whom he usually splits his time. During the pandemic, Salaam had been able to watch those other fighters shadowbox on FaceTime or WhatsApp while monitoring their training miles through texts. With Mielnicki, though, Salaam had access to a gym where he could do hands-on training with the teenager.
Together, they have worked on his stance, tightening his defense and certain hand movements. Even though Mielnicki didn't spar until recently, he got plenty of pad work with Salaam.
"It's actually better because now it's just me and him one-on-one," Salaam said. "We watch his fights together just one-on-one, where we could break down every detail without everything else going on around us."
Mielnicki worked with sanitized weights and resistance bands with Freddy Caruso, his strength and conditioning coach, in Caruso's backyard five times a week. And he ran around the neighborhood -- wearing a mask -- to keep his stamina up.
While all the training has helped him stay in shape, Mielnicki hasn't fought since his four-round unanimous decision victory over Corey Champion (1-2) on Feb. 22.
"Ring rust is ring rust for real," Salaam said. "So not fighting is a problem. But god willing, he's going to jump in there just like he was riding his bike."
THIS FIGHT WEEK will be far different from Mielnicki's last one, when he fought on the undercard of Tyson Fury's TKO of Deontay Wilder. Mielnicki loved the atmosphere, from the bright lights to the thousands of fans in attendance at the weigh-ins.
This week, the teen has been sequestered in a bubble in Los Angeles with his father, coach, and strength and conditioning coach. The new normal features coronavirus testing and safety precautions.
"People need to understand that you got to get comfortable with fighting in front of people," Bradley said. "... Because that is what you have to deal with, emotions, the pressure that goes along with the bright lights. That is what is going to suck for a lot of fighters, especially on the come-up right now.
"Mielnicki is one of those guys that needs those fans around, and the more he fights, the more that people are going to start following him. He needs to get comfortable in front of these large crowds. He's not going to have any crowds now."
Mielnicki has been passing time this week watching old fights of Roberto Duran and the classic Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo battle from 2005.
Mielnicki believes his training has prepared him for this unique moment. While he admitted he missed feeding off the energy of other boxers while training in a busy gym, Mielnicki got accustomed to boxing with no one else around.
"In this fight, I'm not going to have fans in the crowd," Mielnicki said. "It's just going to be me and my opponent. So, getting used to being alone, it was not difficult."
In some ways, Mielnicki might be a mentally tougher fighter than the one who left Las Vegas in February. Like many other teenagers, he has spent the past five months adapting mentally to social distancing, no easy feat since that meant isolation from friends during a formative time in his life.
Almost exactly one month after graduating from high school, Mielnicki steps back into the ring ready for the next chapter of his life. The Mielnicki camp is hyping this fight as "Graduation Time."
"It's going to be great," Mielnicki said. "All my hard work that I've been doing these past few months, it's going to pay off. I'm going to show everyone what I've been working on. Just everything is going to come together that night."