Denis Douglin's boxing career began in the most cliché of ways -- a scrap in the street with a bigger kid in his Marlboro, New Jersey, neighborhood when he was 8 years old.
He lost. Badly.
That's when his parents, David and Saphya, decided Denis needed to learn self-defense, and boxing seemed to be the quickest and easiest remedy.
You've heard this one before, right?
But that's where the clichés end for Douglin. From that day forward, it was his mother, not his father, who accompanied him to the gym, teaching him to keep his hands up and his chin tucked. And it's Saphya Douglin who's been in his corner for the entirety of his career. To this day, she's still his trainer and manager, and she is always his mother.
This Saturday, when Douglin walks into the ring to fight European super-middleweight champion George Groves in Liverpool, his moniker -- perhaps the most unique in the sport -- will ring out from the announcer. "From Las Vegas, Nevada, by way of Marlboro, New Jersey ... Denis 'Da Momma's Boy' Douglin."
These days, Douglin, 26, embraces the name and wears it proudly, emblazoned on his trunks. But it wasn't always so. "To be honest with you, it was something that I sort of was ashamed of as a little kid," Douglin said. "My mom used to train me, but I told everyone [in the gym] that my uncle trained me and I'd just hang with him in the gym in front of people because I didn't want them to see me training with her. She trained me at home, and then I'd go to the gym with my uncle because I was ashamed of it."
As Douglin's love of boxing intensified and he embarked on a successful amateur career, his mother remained in the shadows -- commuting two hours to New York City every morning, where she still works as an accountant, before returning home and going straight to the gym to train her son. Most nights, she wouldn't get home until midnight. When the fights rolled around, she'd sit ringside like all the other mothers -- a trainer reduced to a cheerleader. "He was young, and kids are cruel," she said.
But soon Douglin realized that the blood spilled was the blood shared. "As I got older, I realized how special that relationship was and I wanted the world to see it," he said. "So that's how the whole 'Da Momma's Boy' thing came to fruition."
And over the course of the past decade, with Saphya firmly and visibly in his corner, Douglin has won the National Golden Gloves title at middleweight, embarked on a successful professional career and was inducted -- alongside his mother -- into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. A bout of ill health and a handful of defeats have made the path to a world title all the more problematic, but Saturday's bout in Liverpool could change all that for Douglin, who enters the fight with a 17-2 record (10 knockouts).
Either way, they've been through a lot together -- with Saphya somehow treading precariously along the high-wire divide of mother and trainer -- trying to resolve the anguish and guilt of watching the dangers of her son fight while at the same time trying to devise a game plan to knock out the guy across the ring. "When we come back home and it's all said and done, this is my child," she said. "This is my sad child that just lost, or got knocked out. So now forget about being a coach and a manager -- this is my son, this is my baby. It's very hard. I mean, you don't think I'm scared?"
Douglin understands the line that his mom must toe, but he doesn't sound nearly as concerned. He knows his mother has struck that balance perfectly for the past 18 years and is fully conscious that going forward, she has his best interests at heart -- whether it's as a trainer, manager, mom or all of the above. "Having your mom in your corner is different from having your dad, because you know your mom cares about your well-being more than anything," Douglin said. "If my mother for any reason ever threw the towel in, I have no doubt that she threw it in for a reason. She's been around. This is not her first rodeo."
It's not his first rodeo, either, so he knows he's not the favorite going into Saturday's fight against George Groves. He's the challenger -- a warm-up for the Brit before he moves onto world title bouts and big paydays. But that's the same future Douglin and his mother have envisioned ever since he won his first amateur fight and turned professional.
Douglin has sacrificed a lot to get to this spot, moving from his beloved New Jersey to Las Vegas. Saphya plans on retiring from her accounting job soon and joining her son in the desert. The goal is to dedicate her time to training Douglin, other fighters and perhaps opening her own gym.
In the meantime, Douglin is putting in work against world-class sparring partners, the long drives to New York City to find good opponents a thing of the past. Working out of pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s gym, Douglin has teamed up with renowned trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad -- not that it's diminished his mother's role in any way.
"They have a really great relationship, and there's a lot of chemistry in the gym," Douglin said. "No one feels like they're getting replaced."
Still, every two weeks leading up to the fight, Saphya Douglin has boarded a flight from New York to Las Vegas. She had to let him know, win or lose, she's never leaving her Momma's Boy's corner.