Washington's Bergman is boxing's best-kept secret

April 20, 2014
North American Boxing Association's USA Heavyweight Champion Jason Bergman of South Strabane Township with his championship belt - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Jason Bergman sits at the table with Jack Conway in the crowded restaurant discussing what's in his future as he picks at a quesadilla.

The place is packed, but nobody bothers Bergman and Conway, other than a waitress asking if they'd like more to drink.

Nobody would believe the quiet, unassuming guy sitting at the table next to them is a boxer, let alone the North American Boxing Association's United States champion.

That's the way the Washington resident prefers it.

“I like to say he's the best kept secret in boxing,” says Conway, Bergman's trainer the past six years.

It's a secret that's not quite so unknown now.

A heavy-handed 28-year-old southpaw, Bergman shocked many in the boxing community last fall when he took on unbeaten John L. Smith for the vacant NABA USA heavyweight title in a fight at the Green Tree Complex in Pittsburgh.

In the days leading up to the fight, much of the attention focused on Smith, an up-and-coming fighter who not only has big-time bloodlines, but a big-time trainer. Working Smith's corner for the fight was a man who turned the boxing world on its ear in 1990 when he knocked out Mike Tyson in his prime, James “Buster” Douglas.

Douglas also happens to be Smith's uncle.

“Everybody leading up to the fight wanted to talk to him,” Conway said of Smith. “He was Buster Douglas' fighter. That was fine with us.”

To entice Smith to fight in Pittsburgh, as Bergman has done with many of his fights, he allowed his opponent to take a greater percentage of the purse.

Smith could have the money. The 250-pound Bergman, who has lived in South Strabane Township with his wife, Sheana, for the past five years, simply wanted a shot at the belt.

He won it in impressive fashion, dropping Smith early in the opening round with a ferocious overhand left, then pummeling him for another 10 seconds when the fight resumed before Smith was knocked down again, this time for good.

Not bad for a kid from Adah in Fayette County who grew up playing football and messing around with boxing with his neighbors, the Karpency brothers. Tommy Karpency, a light heavyweight who has fought for the IBO and WBO world championships.

To understand how Bergman reached this point in his life, you have to first realize how he got here.

In high school at Albert Gallatin, Bergman played football and was seriously into powerlifting.

In 2003, he entered the annual Toughman contest in Wheeling, W.Va.

Much like his boxing career, Bergman took things in steps.

“I fought in it three times. I didn't do very well the first year,” said Bergman, who is now ranked 68th in the world among heavyweight boxers in the IBO computerized rankings.

“The next year, I finished third. The year after that, I won it.”

That success helped spark his interest in boxing on a regular basis. And much like his experience in the Toughman contests, he started slowly.

Working in the oil and gas business, Bergman began taking fights as a way to supplement his income, fighting professionally for the first time in Erie in 2006, when he lost a unanimous decision to Rocky Mullooly.

Bergman won his next four fights, over the next six months, before losing again. But more losses quickly followed as he was pitted against a number of fighters with more experience.

“I was mismanaged,” he said. “I was just thrown into the ring with people I didn't belong in there with. I won two or three that I wasn't supposed to win, but I wasn't being handled correctly.”

After a few years in that situation and basically just fighting as a hobby, Bergman met Conway, who has been a boxing trainer for more than 20 years.

Taking a fight every two months was out. Getting in better shape and learning the nuances of boxing, the so-called “sweet science,” was in.

The fights have become less frequent, but the victories have begun to stack up. He's no longer an oil and gas worker who boxes on the side. Now, Bergman is a full-time fighter.

Since winning the championship belt for the NABA – the United States division of the World Boxing Association – last October, Bergman has fought twice. The first time was a non-title bout against Rubin Williams in Weirton, W.Va., last December, the other was a mandatory title defense March 28 against former Olympian Devin Vargas, who brought an 18-2 record into his fight with Bergman. Vargas left with an 18-3 record after being knocked out in the third round.

Bergman raised his record to 23-10-2, which doesn't sound that impressive until it is taken into consideration that he's won 14 of his last 15 fights. Sixteen of his wins have come by knockout.

And Bergman is seemingly getting better each time he laces up the gloves.

“When I was younger, I didn't take this seriously,” he said. “But I think I can do this another six, seven, maybe even eight years. I'll be 29 in June. A lot of heavyweight fighters don't hit their peak until they're 33 to 36. If you look at the world rankings, there aren't any heavyweights in their 20s. There are a lot of guys in their 30s still climbing.”

The biggest issue is finding training partners willing to trade punches with a powerful southpaw.

“There are not many heavyweights around,” said Conway, who noted that there are a number of solid lighter fighters in the Pittsburgh area.

“One of our missions as he climbs the ladder is to find more and better sparring partners. You're only as good as your sparring partners. We're going to have to start looking at bringing people in.”

Bergman does his training at South Park Boxing and spars at numerous places around the area, including Wolfpack Boxing Club in Carnegie and the Pittsburgh Fight Club.

As he continues to climb the ladder in the boxing world, Bergman hopes to someday get an opportunity like the one given to the fictional Rocky Balboa in the Rocky movie franchise.

“I love the 'Rocky' movies,” Bergman said. “I didn't really watch boxing too much until I began working with Jack. But I loved the 'Rocky' movies.”

Perhaps like a modern-day Rocky story, Bergman will get a shot at current WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.

And maybe at that point, when he and Conway sit in a local restaurant, Bergman will draw the attention of more than the waitress.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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