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Breakthrough Bouts Tripped Up by Pair of Cracked Ribs : Boxing: Tonight’s Irvine Marriott card loses two local fighters after they are each injured.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Semaza and John O’Brien were only scheduled to fight undercard bouts at the Irvine Marriott’s monthly show. But to them, tonight’s fights might as well have been for world championships.

Semaza, 25, has fought just once in the past two years and is trying to resurrect a once promising career. O’Brien, 40, is chasing a lifelong dream by trying to start a professional career.

For promoter Roy Englebrecht, Semaza and O’Brien’s dreams would have meant a financial boon. Because both are local fighters with big followings, Englebrecht had already exceeded his average advance ticket sales.

“They would have paid for their fight and then some,” Englebrecht said. “We’ve been gradually showing a profit the last few months. (Tonight) would have been our biggest show ever, and it still might be.”

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But boxing fans who paid $25, $30 or $35 for tonight’s fights won’t be watching Semaza or O’Brien. Both were hit with body shots at the wrong time and suffered rib injuries while sparring last week at the Westminster Gym.

Boxing is known for unscrupulous activities--such as boxers pulling out of fights at the last minute with suspicious injuries. But Englebrecht said there was nothing suspicious about the injuries to Semaza and O’Brien.

“They felt worse than I did,” Englebrecht said. “They wanted to fight, and it would have been a nice payday for them.”

Semaza, a featherweight with a 10-0-1 record, could have made up to $1,100. O’Brien, a junior welterweight, stood to make about $1,000.

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“We don’t make a lot of money in this business, and you train for something for a year and you’re not going to make any money? . . . That’s tough,” said O’Brien, who had been working with trainer Jesse Reid.

O’Brien, a former amateur fighter, actually trained for almost five years to become licensed by the California Athletic Commission. He runs an executive personal training center in Costa Mesa, where he teaches boxing as a way to stay in shape.

Two weeks before what would have been his four-round pro debut against J.P. Trujillo, O’Brien took a blow on his right side that fractured a rib. For a week, O’Brien tried to fight through the pain, but it was no use.

“I kept telling myself to quit whining,” O’Brien said. “I’m a boxer. I’m tough. But when I went to the radiologist, they told me it was a linear fracture. The day Jesse turned me away, I had tears in my eyes. On the way home in the car, I started to cry.”

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Semaza said he can’t bring himself to cry. It would hurt too much.

“If I cough, sneeze or hiccup, it’s hell,” said Semaza, who was scheduled to fight Frankie Avelar. “As long as my body stays straight, I’m all right.”

Semaza, who quit boxing for a year because of financial problems, said his body was exposed when he got hurt.

“I threw a left hook that missed, and my sparring partner threw a right hook to my left side,” said Semaza, who also teaches boxing classes as a means to keep fit. “It felt like the rib was coming out of the front of my body.”

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Essentially, it did. Semaza said his rib popped out two more times, and doctors determined he had torn cartilage in his floating rib.

So now Semaza’s comeback is derailed until November, O’Brien’s debut is delayed until at least October, and Englebrecht is hoping ticket-holders understand his dilemma.

“This is the nature of the boxing business,” he said. “We have to announce a card to our ticket-holders 3 1/2 weeks out when the fighters are healthy. Then for a month, I’m afraid to answer the phone. It’s unusual that two of our headliners got cracked ribs.”

He added: “As promoters, all we have is our credibility. And there’s nothing we can do about injuries. If there’s a silver lining to this, it happened a week out, not a day out.”

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Since Englebrecht took over as owner Ted Luckow’s promoter in January, he has tried to increase the number of local fighters on each card. Fullerton’s Semaza, who grew up in Brooklyn, moving to Orange County before beginning his pro career, and O’Brien fit that mold.

“We wanted to have at least one or two fighters from Westminster (Gym) on our cards,” Englebrecht said. “There weren’t many local kids fighting on the cards and we knew that had to be addressed.”

Tonight’s main event won’t feature a local fighter. Middleweight Rodney Toney (15-0-2) from Campo, a town 45 miles east of San Diego, will fight Basante Blanco (9-3) of Bell in the 10-round main event. Heavyweight Dave Yanko isn’t local, but he has a local following because he fought at the Irvine Marriott so many times in the 1980s.

Englebrecht said boxers such as Yanko, Semaza and O’Brien are often a better draw than fighters like Shane Mosley, a promising lightweight from Pomona, who fought in the main event two months ago.

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“Semaza and O’Brien sell more tickets than a Shane Mosley,” Englebrecht said.

But there is one stipulation--they have to be healthy.

Notes

In an effort to reach out to disgruntled baseball fans, promoter Roy Englebrecht announced that any fan bringing an Angels or Dodger ticket can exchange it for equal value toward a ringside seat, plus receive a free box of popcorn. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. six-bout show will go on sale this morning at 9 a.m. at the Irvine Marriott. . . . Middleweight Rodney Toney, a second cousin of world super middleweight champion James Toney, has knocked out his last six opponents and is ranked 30th by the World Boxing Council. His manager Joe Sayatovich, also world champion Terry Norris’ manager, said he hopes tonight’s bout will serve as a tuneup for a North American Boxing Federation title fight. “He looks like James Toney, and he has a chin like him,” Sayatovich said.

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