Fair Lawn’s AJ Puerto on comeback trail by Sean Farrell of The Record
The bleeding would not stop.
There wasn’t much AJ Puerto could do either, as it slowly dripped down his nose.
He was left seated on the mat, disoriented and out of breath as help arrived. His shoulder was wrapped up and his lead was long gone. A shot to the face now put his championship match on hold.
“People used to call me Rocky Balboa growing up, or the Bleeding Machine,” Puerto said. “I told the trainer putting in double plugs to just tape me. I know it’s going to happen again.”
Once again, Puerto found a way through it on Saturday. He put on a gritty performance with a bandage put on his face, earning the right to be called a Cutter Classic champion. The junior from Fair Lawn picked up a 4-3 decision in the finals, escaping from Cresskill’s Kenny Spadaccini in their 152-pound match. It was a signature win for someone Fair Lawn will depend on more this season.
“Once I felt myself get off him, all the emotions came in,” Puerto said. “Happiness. Accomplishment. Redemption. It was a great experience.”
Not much has come easily for Puerto throughout his career. When he started wrestling in first grade, he went two full years without winning a match. “I had a point where I was like, is this really me?” Puerto said. “Is this really what I want to become? But I stuck through it.”
That resiliency was put to the test again at Fair Lawn. His shoulder popped out of its socket during a training session in the summer before his freshman year. He had tore his right labrum and suffered a partial tear in his rotator cuff. Puerto battled through the pain, even placing sixth at the Bergen County tournament, but the condition got worse as the season went on. It required offseason surgery and eight months of physical therapy.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Puerto said. “The worst part was physical therapy. The stitches didn’t really bother me. I wore a sling for about three months. But I couldn’t really wrestle so my weight ballooned up.”
The battle to get in peak condition continues today. Puerto wears a protective brace and uses resistance bands after every practice to heal his shoulder. A routine of pushups and pullups helps to strengthen the muscles around it. Of course, there’s some extra motivation left over from last season when his record dropped to around .500.
“AJ is a hard-worker,” coach Shane DeLucca said. “He wasn’t real satisfied with the way his season was last year. It’s a whole new start. That’s the great thing about this season. He’s a junior and knows he wants to improve. He knows he’s going to be relied on as a leader of the team. He’s off to a good start.”
The same thing could be said of Fair Lawn. The No. 6-ranked Cutters dominated in the middle weights on Saturday and accounted for five tournament titles. Frankie Motta began the run at 145, earning Most Outstanding Wrestler. Puerto was on the verge of another easy win until allowing a match-tying takedown with about 15 seconds to go in regulation. His escape in the ultimate tiebreak much later on gave him some redemption for a loss in last year’s Cutter Classic final.
Fair Lawn hopes it’s a sign of what’s to come.
“This year, I think it’s my year to shine,” Puerto said. “I want to earn my ticket to AC. That’s a big goal of mine.”