From sand in Iraq to Garden stage for soldier

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - From a "ghetto ring" set in the sands of Kirkuk, Iraq, to a debut at Madison Square Garden amid the lights of Broadway has been quite a journey for U.S. Army helicopter pilot Steven Badgley.

Badgley, 30, will make his professional boxing debut on June 12 in a four-round bout on the undercard of Ivan 'Iron Boy' Calderon's WBO light-flyweight defense against Jesus 'Azul' Iribe of Mexico.

"It's a dream come true, fighting in Madison Square Garden," Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopter pilot Badgley told Reuters. "Who would have ever thought?"

Badgley, whose opponent has not yet been announced, took up boxing at 16, but shelved thoughts of making it a profession when he joined the army in 2002.

Still, he dabbled.

He tried out and made the Fort Carson, Colorado, boxing team where he got great training from the U.S. Olympic coach.

After becoming an aviator, Chief Warrant Officer Badgley was sent to New York's Fort Drum and linked up with Watertown Area Boxing Club, where he worked out and trained fighters.

When he made his next return to Iraq in October 2008, Badgley left base armed with heavy bags and other equipment donated by boxing club chief John Pepe.

'GHETTO RING'

"Right out in the middle of the sand by the trailers we were staying in, I built a little ghetto boxing ring with 4x4s and plywood, rope and had a little gym out on the sand there.

"It was very cool," he said in an interview.

The makeshift ring gradually attracted interest.

"At first one guy came out and I was training him and then two, then three. We initiated a Wednesday night fight thing. Our whole unit would come and watch.

"Then more and more people came out to where every time I'd get done flying, I'd come back and there would be a crowd of people waiting to work out with me."

The fight scene grew to where they were allowed to organize an exhibition on a stage used for USO shows.

"We had a little ring put up there. We had 12 fights, we had judges, we had some awards donated, and 500 to 600 people showed up with aircraft flyovers.

"It turned into a huge event televised by the Pentagon Channel. It was amazing."

After the year of duty in Iraq, Badgley, whose non-sanctioned armed services amateur record is 14-6, began to dream again of getting serious about boxing.

Badgley, who has a four-year-old daughter and another child on the way, said this was the time to strike although he intends to remain in the military for a full 20-year career.

"If I don't do it now I would never do it, and I think I would constantly regret it."

He resumed training with former heavyweight Greg Sorrentino, a veteran of fights against Trevor Berbick and Michael Dokes, who learned from welterweight great Carmen Basilio and lives about an hour away.

Back at the Watertown gym, Badgley mentioned his frustration to old-time promoter Don Majeski.

"Don talks to this guy, who talks to that guy, who talks to Top Rank," Badgley said about the promotions firm. "The next thing you know I got an e-mail back asking if I wanted to make my pro debut in Madison Square Garden."

"It was a no-brainer," Top Rank's Carl Moretti told Reuters. "What a story. What a kid."

(Editing by Alison Wildey)