Everyone comes to a crossroads in life where a choice they make can greatly alter their future, for the good or the bad. For Pittsburg native Romon Barber, that choice came shortly after the second ACL injury of his collegiate football career just 96 hours away from graduating from Pittsburg State University.
"Around the same time as my second knee injury, I was blessed with getting a son in my life," Barber said. "I had to make a decision. Either I could keep playing football — which I had just had back-to-back injuries several years apart — or I could take care of my son. I did the responsible thing and chose to help support my son."
The 22-year-old Barber — who grew up playing football for the Purple Dragons as a running back under head coach Merle Clark — took different construction jobs offered to him as a way to make ends meat. Growing up as a troubled youth without a stable home environment for much of his early life, Barber wanted his son's childhood to be different. So, he decided to work as hard as he could to help provide that.
"I got taken away from my family when I was eight years old," Barber said. "I lived in foster care until I was 13, then I came to Pittsburg and was adopted by Joan Hobbs. I was a lost kid before that. I didn't want my son to go through the same thing my family put me through.
"Obviously, my sports career was over, but I felt like I made the right choice in dropping out of school and getting a full-time job to be responsible for my son and girlfriend at the time."
A Career in Fighting
While he held down steady work as way to help support for his son, Barber found himself watching his friend in an amateur mixed martial arts match one evening in Joplin, Missouri, and became interested in starting a fighting career of his own.
"I just love to compete," Barber said in his reasoning to get involved in prize fighting. "I thought to myself, 'I could beat them guys.'"
Barber caught his first break in his young fighting career shortly after turning professional, getting an invitation to train in St. Louis, Missouri, at The Hit Squad facility — owned by infamous MMA Legend Matt Hughes.
Barber was noticed after a fight in which he battled with a member of The Hit Squad gym. One thing led to another and Barber was on his way to St. Louis to fine tune his skills with some of the world's best teachers. He spent nearly three years with The Hit Squad, training with some of the top fighters in mixed martial arts, including Hughes, Robbie Lawler, Brian Foster and Neil Magny.
In an extremely competitive and versatile sport with guys who have been practicing several martial disciplines for much of their lives, Barber was at a disadvantage being a street fighter. With his MMA career not panning out as he had hoped — currently holding a 10-8 record — Barber decided to take a boxing match for fun against up-and-coming pro prospect Jose Brewer. Barber won his pro debut on Dec. 14, 2001, by knockout in the first round and decided to give a career in boxing a shot.
"[Mixed martial arts] is hard because I like to stand up and bang, while a lot of them guys were very skilled in jujitsu and wrestling," Barber said with a smile. "I switched my focus over to boxing, though, I still do some MMA now."
Barber's boxing career has been a roller coaster over the past four-plus years. If you just take a glance at his 6-9 record, you may not think he is much of a fighter. However, there is more to the story when it comes to his career path.
When Barber started his boxing career, he was all on his own. He didn't have a true trainer or manager to help show him the ropes when starting out as a prize fighter.
Barber's career as a professional boxer started off with two wins in the first round. From there, he lost nine of his next 11 fights without having much direction.
After dropping his fifth straight bout on Feb. 28, 2015, Barber was tired of losing. He hated the feeling of being defeated and wanted to make a change. That's when Barber realized he had to get some sort of training. He traveled to Fort Scott and linked up with Rick Culler, boxing trainer and owner of three Ground Up Boxing Gym establishments, one in Fort Scott, Nevada, Missouri, and Los Angeles, California. Culler currently focuses on youth and pro boxers, having trained Golden Glove winners, Silver Glove winners, numerous world champions as well as working with the Mexican olympic team.
"After he had lost a few fights, Romon came to me and said he didn't want to lose again," Culler said. "I told him that as long as he got in the gym and trained hard for me, he wouldn't lose anymore."
Culler saw something in Barber as he trained. He saw the heart of a champion. Barber's record may have led other coaches away from taking him on, but Culler looked deeper into Barber's career as a fighter and realized something unique. Unlike many of the top fighters in the country in the middleweight class — which Barber competes in — his bouts are against top opponents. In fact, of Barber's 15 fights, 12 of those boxers held a winning record, while six of them had yet to lose a fight.
Being a competitive person who loved to fight, Barber never turned down a fight in his career, with nearly all of his bouts coming on short notice with less than a month to prepare.
While fighting the top middleweights with little preparation for several years has dampened his career record, it his prepared him for the next stage of his journey as a pro fighter. According to Culler, taking those fights has almost worked to the benefit of Barber, who has experienced what the best of the best have to offer in the ring, learning from every defeat he has taken.
"He doesn't take [easy fights]. What he has taken is bouts against all top-of-the-line fighters," Culler said. "There is no fighter in the four-state area that has a resume comparable to Romon. Most of the fighters around here are taking on bouts against fighters with losing records who know they are going to lose before even showing up for the bout.
"By fighting tough opponents, Romon has already seen the best. He's only improving and getting better. If he took a loss, it wasn't a complete loss. He learned from every fight and brought it with him for his next opponent."
Turning the Page
Culler's praise and critique for Barber when he first took him under his wing was simple.
"He's got phenomenal power, and is probably one of the hardest-hitting fighters I have ever worked with," Culler said. "But, he didn't have the technical knowledge to make himself great."
Culler has since spent countless hours working with Barber on slipping, countering, parrying and how to work body shots, molding and shaping the technical side of boxing he wasn't strong with previously.
"That has changed his boxing style so much," Culler said. "He is walking through opponents, making it look easy. I only see that continuing."
Barber has spent the last five months training with Culler and it has shown in the ring.
He has earned victories in his last two fights, both with Culler in his corner, winning by referee technical decision over Cerresso Fort, who was 18-3-1 heading into the bout, and by technical knockout over Bernard Thomas, who was 5-1-0 at the time of the fight on Dec. 15. 2015.
The back-to-back wins have launched a now 33-year-old Barber into a new chapter of his career. He currently sits as the second-highest ranked middleweight in Kansas, and is the 33rd-ranked middleweight out of 228 fighters in all of the United States, according to boxrec.com.
With his momentum at an all-time high, Barber and Culler have plans to go after ABA Middleweight Title belt in Oklahoma, something that Barber would see as a dream come true.
"I am excited. It feels good to be ranked where I am,” Barber said. “I wouldn’t be close to where I am without Rick. Now, I have to live up to my success to this point. I am ranked second in Kansas, 33rd in the country and 135th in the world. There is pressure there, but I thrive under pressure.”
Barber now has three children, all boys, and is still fighting to provide for them. He wants to make them proud of the man their father has become. A man who has turned his life around thanks in large part to stepping into the ring.
"I got into too much trouble fighting on the streets, ending up in jail some nights," Barber said. "Fighting in the ring got me out of trouble. It kept me off the streets and helped me control, and harness, my anger. I was a lost kid all the way up until I had my first son.
"My dream of becoming a great fighter is for my kids. I want to provided them with a stable life because they are everything to me. I cannot come home and have my kids asking me how I did and tell them I lost. I love seeing their faces when I tell them I won."
Barber has spent the last two years working at Jim Radell Construction Company, a job he said has helped change his life around as a fighter as well as a person.
"They have been a really big help to me," Barber said. "When I needed time off to go fight, they didn't complain or question me. They let me go. Not a lot of jobs would do that. It's either going to be fighting or working. With Steve Radell, he understands and isn't going to try to stop me from pursuing my dream. I really appreciate that."
Not only is he fighting for his family, Barber is fighting to give the city of Pittsburg someone they can be proud of when it comes to sports. He wants the people of Pittsburg to eventually recognize him around town for what he has accomplished in the sport of boxing.
"I am from Pittsburg," he said. "I have been here for along time. You've got guys like John Brown coming out of Pitt State, but he is not from here. I am from here. I am not only fighting for myself and my family, I am fighting for Pittsburg and the chance to represent my city.
“I want to get that belt. I want the people from Pittsburg to see me holding that belt on TV so they can be proud of where they’re from."
While Barber is admittedly too proud to ask for any sort or help — which is why it took him so long to find a coach — Culler explained they are currently looking for sponsorships for Barber to help ease the burden of costs associated with boxing.
"Pittsburg has something great with Romon, they really do," Culler said. "They will see it eventually, but he needs sponsors behind him to support him on his quest. The boy is working his ass off to try and make a dream come true.
"Boxing is expensive. He doesn't have the proper equipment that he should have because he puts all of his money towards his kids, and I respect the hell out of that. He needs new gloves, uniforms, help with traveling and training expenses, there is lot of stuff involved. This guy could be a world champion if he had the proper sponsorship allowing him to train more."
Anyone interested in helping Barber with a sponsorship of any kind, contact Rick Culler at Ground Up Boxing in Fort Scott at (620) 215-4749 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucas Davis is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on twitter at @LDsportswriter.