Local boxer with autism wins debut amateur bout

Staff photo / Neel Madhavan The referee raises Malachi Signore’s hand in the air after Signore won his debut amateur boxing bout.

NILES — Malachi Signor has no shortage of confidence.

Inside the ring, Signor is a focused, determined orthodox boxer who has ambitions of becoming a professional fighter one day.

But outside the ring, the 18-year-old with autism is a student at Potential Development School in Youngstown and has a large group of people around him that love and support him.

On Saturday, despite only taking up boxing about six months ago, Signor made his amateur boxing debut as part of Fight to Unite 4: Fighting for Autism, an amateur boxing showcase put on by the Youngstown Salem Boxing Club and USA Amateur Boxing for Autism Awareness Month.

“What we do is we try to bring unity in the community,” said Rocky DeFrank, one of the event’s organizers and one of Signor’s boxing coaches. “We just want people to come together. We have people from Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana Counties, (and) people from across the country.”

In addition to working with Signor as his coach, DeFrank has another personal investment — his son is also on the spectrum.

“I’ve worked with kids with intellectual disabilities, and I’ve been doing that for years,” DeFrank said. “My son has autism, and he goes to Potential Development (with Signor).”

Signor’s fight was one of the main attraction bouts and kicked off the evening’s 18 championship fights. After three 90-second rounds, Signor was named the victor by decision by the referee, raising his arm into the air and flashing a wide smile across his face.

DeFrank was emotional seeing Signor pull out the victory, embracing Signor as he returned to his corner of the ring with his newly-earned championship belt in tow.

“He trains hard, he’s in the gym every day, he spars and he does the right thing,” DeFrank said. “He (was) ready physically, mentally and spiritually.”

But perhaps no one was more emotional than Signor’s mother, Phyllis, who had a hard time putting into words just what it meant to see so many people rooting for, cheering on and supporting her son as he showcased his boxing skills.

“I was so happy for him — it’s overwhelming,” Phyllis said. “I was more nervous than he was. He’s had so much encouragement from everybody. He really does have a hard punch. He learns a lot through repetition, and he’s come a long way in six months.”

Phyllis was a little apprehensive at first with letting Signor take up such a violent sport, but eventually she came around.

After he watched YouTube videos of social media star and boxer Jake Paul for about a year, Phyllis said Signor came to her and asked if she could sign him up for boxing.

“I kept putting it off,” she said. “He overheard me talking to my friend whose grandson boxed. He kept asking, but I put it off and put it off, but finally I called Rocky and talked to him and told him about Malachi.”

DeFrank said he’s seen Signor grow leaps and bounds physically and mentally since he first started coaching him and working with him.

“He’s in shape and can do 3-4 rounds easily,” DeFrank said. “He spars with the other kids. We don’t treat him any differently. We don’t treat him like he has an intellectual disability. We don’t treat him like he has autism. We treat him like a regular person. He can do anything that anybody else can do, and I don’t want him to be treated any differently, he doesn’t want to be treated any differently and his mom doesn’t want him to be treated any differently.”

Even though Signor’s journey hasn’t been without some small bumps in the road, there’s no telling him that he won’t win or that he won’t succeed, according to Phyllis, because he’s so confident and sure of himself in doing what he loves to do.

“When he’s in the ring, he can get upset if somebody hits him. That’s something we’re working on,” Phyllis said. “I try to explain to him that when he’s hitting them, he’s hurting them too. Then he talks about quitting. But the next day, and this is the autism (manifesting itself), he asks if we’re going to the (boxing) gym. So it’s just that repetitiveness (and routine). I just try to go with the flow and try to encourage him and he’s got a lot of people encouraging him, too.

“He’s very encouraged. He thinks he’s winning every fight. In his mind, he thinks he’s going to win every fight. He even thinks he’s going to fight Jake Paul someday.”

Who knows? With Signor’s confidence level, maybe he will.


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