It was just a four-round fight, but Army Spc. Gennaro Pellegrini Jr. never felt more alive than he did that steamy night in May 2004. His toes tapped incessantly as he sat in his cramped locker room, arms stretched over a folding chair while getting his hands wrapped. His head swirled from all the well-wishers coming into Philadelphia's Blue Horizon to see him.
Pellegrini, a Philadelphia policeman, was about to embark on a dream before deploying to Iraq with his National Guard unit. His dream was to fight professionally at the legendary Philadelphia fight venue. He got his wish.
Pellegrini's camouflaged trunks still hang in Vernoca Michael's office. He wore them only once, on May 21, 2004, the night of his pro debut -- when he came back to beat John Harris with a dramatic fourth-round KO. Pellegrini gave the trunks to Michael, co-owner of the Blue Horizon and head of Blue Horizon Boxing Promotions, with the hope and promise that he would one day return and wear them again.
That wish went unfulfilled.
On Aug. 9, Pellegrini's family, his many boxing friends and those he touched in Philadelphia's 26th Police District learned that Pellegrini was killed in action in Iraq. A land mine went off under his armored Humvee. Gerry, as he was known to his friends, and three others in his National Guard unit were attacked outside the northern town of Beiji.
Pellegrini's death took Michael and everyone who knew the 31-year-old welterweight by surprise.
"I just remember Gerry hugging and kissing me before he left, and promising that he would be back to wear his trunks again," said Michael, who was informed by two Philadelphia police officers of Pellegrini's death.
"I was totally shocked when I heard the news; I was almost in disbelief. It never crossed my mind that when I put his trunks in my office that he would never be coming back to wear them. Gerry was just so delighted to get the opportunity to fight. It seemed like such a natural thing to do.
"He kept thanking me, and telling me, 'Thanks for making my dreams come true.' Gerry touched more than a few people. Hearing about his death was too hard for me to take; it was hard for our whole Blue Horizon family to take. He was infectious with his spirit. I'm not a very emotional person, but this kid tugged at my heart."
Pellegrini tugged at a lot of hearts. Hardscrabble matchmaker Don Elbaum was one of them. Elbaum is a salt-of-the earth kind of guy, a walking boxing cliché you see in black-and-white boxing movies. Yet there was something about the kid, Elbaum thought, that touched him like no other fighter.
"I've been in this boxing game for a while, and I've never been through anything like this," Elbaum said.
"His dream was to fight at the Blue Horizon. It was a deserving story, and when I met with the kid and I sat with him, he wasn't complaining about being sent to Iraq. He told me, 'If I don't come back, you made my dream come true.' That's haunted me ever since. I'm sick inside, because Gennaro was like family. I saved the letter from him saying he can't wait to come back and fight again."
It seemed like fate always intervened every time Pellegrini thought about taking the vast step from the amateur ranks -- where he won a Golden Gloves title in 1997 and had gone 17-1 -- to becoming a pro.
In 2001, Pellegrini had a fight lined up in September, when 9/11 occurred. He tried again, but his second attempt was thwarted by a call from the Philadelphia Police Academy, which prevented him from fighting professionally until his probation period ended. While a member of the academy, Pellegrini was not allowed to have an alternative source of income.
Pellegrini officially joined the force in 2001, purposely taking badge No. 3722, the same number his father -- Gennaro Sr. -- wore for 27 years as a Philadelphia police officer before retiring and moving to Wildwood, N.J., with his wife, Edith.
So when Pellegrini got the call in April 2004 that his National Guard unit would be activated and sent to Iraq for a year, he moved quickly to make sure he fought at least once professionally before he left.
"Words can't express how important that was to Gerry, because it might have been in the back of his mind that he wouldn't be back to try again," said Pellegrini's sister, Kim Petaccio, whom Gerry lived with in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.
"Aside from following in my father's footsteps as a police officer, it was Gerry's dream to become a professional boxer. I just don't understand it.
"We're all bewildered by what happened to Gerry over there. That's why my family keeps the families who have relatives over there in our prayers. A lot of good things have happened since Gerry's death. The outpouring we've received from people has been tremendous. It's brought a lot of people together. It's just a shame that it had to happen this way."
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Pellegrini was one of five state National Guardsmen killed in Iraq on Aug. 9 in two separate attacks. In the first incident, the attack claimed the lives of Pellegrini, Pfc. Nathaniel Detample, 19, Morrisville; Spc. John Kulick, 35, Jenkintown; and Sgt. Francis Straub Jr., 24, Philadelphia. In the second incident, Staff Sgt. Ryan S. Ostrom, 29, a member of Company B, 109th Infantry, Williamsport, Pa., was killed in action later that day.
While stationed in Iraq, Pellegrini developed a pen-pal correspondence with students at the Horatio B. Hackett School in Philadelphia.
One of his letters explained how harsh the war has been for Iraqi children, many of whom walk barefoot through the shards of glass and hot dessert sand. The children from Hackett School collected 350 pairs of flip-flops and sent them over to Pellegrini.
Every time Pellegrini tried distributing the flip-flops, he would have to seek the refuge of the hood of a Humvee or jeep, as he was besieged with children. He gave them out in intervals, just like he'd often distribute candy to Iraqi kids.
"That's just the kind of kid Gerry was," said District 26 Police Capt. Lou Campione, who was patrolman Pellegrini's commanding officer for four years.
"When we heard the news of Gerry's death, it hit real hard. I informed everyone at roll call that morning, Aug. 9, when we heard what occurred. You can't mask the emotion and hold it back. But Gerry got to fulfill his life's dream. He got to fight. The last thing he said to me was, 'See you in November.'"
A memorial 10-count will be made Friday night at the Blue Horizon in tribute of Pellegrini.
Anyone interested in contributing to the Gennaro Pellegrini Jr. scholarship fund can find information at www.pellegrinischolarshipfund.com
Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of Ring magazine.