By Keith Idec
NEWARK, N.J. – Vito Mielnicki Jr. just might have the most dangerous, unusual summer job of any high school student in America.
Three months removed from attending his junior prom, Mielnicki will make his pro boxing debut on Shakur Stevenson’s undercard Saturday night at Prudential Center in downtown Newark. Mielnicki turned 17 only two months ago and won’t start his senior year at West Essex High School in northern New Jersey until later this summer.
The prodigious welterweight still doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about boxing without headgear for the first time.
“I’m born for moments like this,” Mielnicki told BoxingScene.com. “It’s what I’ve been working for my whole life, so this is just a night for me to prove to everyone what I’m made of.”
Mielnicki, of nearby Roseland, New Jersey, is scheduled to face Tamarcus Smith (2-2, 2 KOs) in a four-round fight. Smith is 24, but Mielnicki has spent plenty of time sparring against older, professional fighters, won numerous national tournaments and amassed nearly 170 fights during a nine-year career.
It’s still rare for a 17-year-old high school student to box as a professional in the United States. Carl Moretti, vice president of boxing operations for Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc., can’t remember an American boxer this young competing professionally during his three-plus decades in boxing.
“This is not normal in New Jersey or in the U.S.,” said Moretti, whose company is promoting the Stevenson card. “We’ve seen prodigies from places like Mexico and other countries that fight professionally at 16 or 17. Salvador Sanchez comes to mind. It’s kind of common outside of the United States because their amateur careers aren’t as glorified. So really, their first 20 fights as pros are basically amateur fights. But I can’t think of a kid who’s still in high school who’s fought as a pro here.”
Larry Hazzard, commissioner for New Jersey’s State Athletic Control Board, had to give Mielnicki permission to apply for a professional license because he’s younger than 18. Hazzard has turned down numerous boxers younger than 18 for licenses, but he has granted a few 17-year-olds licenses since he became New Jersey’s boxing commissioner in 1985.
“It’s unusual, but it has happened before,” Hazzard said. “I’ve also denied some guys who weren’t 18. I was comfortable with it in this case because Vito has an extensive amateur background. He fought at a high level as an amateur and he spars with pros all the time. We know the kid can handle himself.”
Mikey Perez, a lightweight from Newark, made his pro debut during his senior year at Central High School in October 2008. But by the time Perez (25-3-2, 11 KOs) knocked out Leon Williams in the first round that night in Lyndhurst, he was notably older than Mielnicki, two months shy of his 19th birthday.
The 5-feet-11 Mielnicki didn’t realize until relatively recently that he would make his pro debut this soon, or on this big of a stage. He made the decision to stop competing as an amateur after dropping another narrow decision in an April bout abroad.
He had Olympic aspirations for much of his amateur career and qualified for USA Boxing’s Junior National Team in 2018. Once he left Spain following that aforementioned defeat, however, Mielnicki and his father, promoter Vito Mielnicki Sr., knew it was time to focus on a professional career.
“We went to Spain and it was the same thing as always,” Mielnicki Sr., CEO for GH3 Promotions, said. “We fought Sergio Martinez’s nephew. Vito dominated him, but they called it a split decision and gave it to the other kid. It was embarrassing. After that, that was the end of [his amateur career]. That was it. It got to the point where fighting in the amateurs wasn’t worth it for him. He was starting to lose interest. He said, ‘Listen, if you want me to fight, I want to fight in the pros. If not, we’ll wait. I’ll go be a kid, finish out my high school years. Maybe I’ll go play football. And then, afterwards, I’ll come back and do it.’ ”
They jumped, however, at the opportunity to be part of Stevenson’s homecoming card. Stevenson and Mielnicki trained at the same gyms in Newark before the fast-rising featherweight contender went on to win a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Mielnicki’s team has sold more than 1,000 tickets to Saturday’s card, providing immediate proof that he’ll be a draw in his native New Jersey. Many of Mielnicki’s classmates and teachers will be among those in attendance, but Stevenson stressed that Mielnicki isn’t just some suburban ticket-seller placed on cards strictly to help fill up an arena.
“Vito’s got good boxing skills, but he’s got a little power to him, too,” Stevenson said. “I feel like he’s gonna surprise a lot of people.”
The 22-year-old Stevenson (11-0, 6 KOs), who’ll box Alberto Guevara (27-4, 12 KOs) in ESPN’s main event Saturday night, turned pro when he was 19. He expects Mielnicki to be brought along slower than him, particularly since his friend will have to focus on schoolwork during Mielnicki’s upcoming senior year.
“I don’t think that they should rush him because he’s so young,” Stevenson said. “They should take their time with him. But once it gets to that time, I feel like he’s gonna be ready for a lot of people. My grandfather [Wali Moses] used to train him. He’s still got a lot of the stuff my grandad taught him in his arsenal, so I feel like he’s gonna be a good pro.”
Mielnicki’s father will not be his son’s promoter, but he’ll obviously advise him along the way. Mielnicki Sr. said he’ll likely fight again in October, then in February, and perhaps once more before he graduates next June.
The younger Mielnicki won’t attend college right away, but he plans to eventually pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“In this sport, you have to be fully committed to it,” said Mielnicki Jr., who went 147-22 as an amateur. “If anything, I’ll get my education once I’m done with the sport. That could be 10 years from now. It could be whenever. I just believe that if I’m gonna be anything after high school with this, I have to be fully dedicated to boxing.”
Mielnicki’s schedule during his senior year will be rigorous. It’ll consist of strength and conditioning training before he even goes to school, a full day of classes, homework and boxing training at night.
For now, he is focused on making an impressive professional debut Saturday night. The Mielnicki-Smith match will be part of Top Rank’s undercard stream on ESPN+, scheduled to start at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT.
“I’ve been working for this moment my whole life,” Mielnicki Jr. said. “I’ve sacrificed a lot of time away from my family, going down the Shore with my family, going on family vacations, hanging out with my friends. All that is gonna pay off on July 13th.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.