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Articles of 2005

Termite Watkins, Iraq and the BWAA

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I can’t have been the only one to have felt uncomfortable when Najay Ali walked into the Peristeri Boxing Hall last August. The light flyweight had the slogan “Iraq is Back!” emblazoned on the back of his jacket, and he was accompanied not only by Iraqi coach Maurice “Termite” Watkins, but by Basheer Abdullah, the head coach of the US Olympic boxing team, who didn’t always work the corners of his own fighters.

I had the feeling I was watching the sporting equivalent of George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier to proclaim “Mission Accomplished.”

That Ali and, in a sense, Watkins were pawns in a propaganda game is undeniable: the message was, apparently, “Iraq is Liberated” and here’s proof.

The Bush administration also attempted to make political hay of the Iraqi soccer team, running campaign ads taking credit for their successes in Athens.

“At this Olympics there will be two more free nations – and two fewer terrorist regimes,” said the narrator in the voiceover, as footage of the Iraq team rolled on the Bush-Cheney spot.

When word of this reached the Iraqi players they were uniformly indignant. One of them even told Sports Illustrated that if he weren’t in Athens playing soccer he’d probably be back in Fallujah fighting against the Americans.

Whether you consider Termite Watkins a great humanitarian or a shameless self-promoter, there can be no doubt that this was the crowning moment of his life. Fighting mainly in his native Texas, he had compiled an admirable 59-5-2 record as a pro, but in his only fight for a world championship he came up on the wrong end of a decision in a WBC 140-pound title bout against Saoul Mamby.

Watkins had originally gone to Iraq as an exterminator, volunteering to work for a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation. Although he would later describe his decision to travel halfway around the world to kill bugs as “a calling from God,” another recollection of his decision sheds more light on his motivation:

“It was my time to do my part in serving the country and helping the military,” Watkins told reporters in Athens.

In other words, Watkins went because he believed the invasion of Iraq to be justified, and he went to make money.

It was Mike Gfeoller, a regional director for the Coalition Provisional Authority, who first envisioned the potential propaganda value of getting an Iraqi boxer to Athens. Having learned of Watkins’ pugilistic background, he approached him with the idea of re-forming a boxing team that hadn’t competed in the Games since 1988.

Initially working with equipment nearly as rudimentary as the skills of his pupils, Watkins assembled an 11-man team, but once the word got out, a donated ring, gloves, and protective cups quickly materialized.

Given what he had to work with, there is no question Watkins did a tremendous job, but the greatest coach in the world couldn’t have transformed the Iraqi boxers into bona fide world-class competitors overnight.

None of them qualified for the Olympics. In qualifying matches, Najay Ali went 0-3. But pressure was exerted on the International Olympic Committee to extend a “special invitation” to one member of the Iraqi team. Ali got the nod and traveled with Watkins to Colorado Springs where he spent six weeks training with the US team.

Many of my brethren scribes felt Watkins should have gotten a medal in Athens, if only for his storytelling prowess. There can be little doubt that Termite relieved much of the tedium of what may have been the dullest boxing tournament in Olympic history.

No reporters had to track Termite down. He found you. And, if you had a moment to spare, he would regale you with, mostly, war stories – his awakening in the middle of the night to discover that his bunkhouse was under a mortar attack, being a passenger in a gas-laden Humvee that flipped over doing, or so he claimed, 100 mph.

The tales grew more grandiose with each telling. Ten days into the Olympics you’d have thought Termite had singlehandedly put Saddam Hussein to flight, but nobody protested. In the midst of some truly awful boxing, Termite made for great copy, whether you believed everything he said or not.

And few did. Even the most sympathetic of Termite’s chroniclers described him as “a raconteur and boaster,” which is a kind way of saying “bullshit artist.” He was plainly as much snake oil salesman as snake exterminator. Before getting back into the pestilence game, Watkins had been working in Texas as a used-car salesman. Need we say more?

Only a cynic would suggest that the same sporting politics that got Najay Ali into the Olympics were also responsible for his first round draw. The Iraqi may have been the second-most inept boxer in the Olympics, but in his opening match he met the first. After Ali defeated North Korea’s Kwak Hyok Ju 21-7 to advance to the second round, Basheer Abdullah conceded as much when he noted “I don’t want to say anybody is easy in the Olympics, but we thanked God we had that type of draw to get him some confidence.”

After Ali was eliminated by Armenia’s Aleksan Nalbandyan in the next round, Termite Watkins ensured that he would remain available for interviews by attaching himself to the American team as a spit bucket carrier.

Even boxing writers who had devoted reams of copy to Watkins’ improbable Olympic quest often joked about it over dinner. As far as I could tell, nobody believed everything he said, and some didn’t believe anything he said.

Which is why I found it somewhat startling last week when I received a communiqué from the Boxing Writers Association of America, proclaiming Termite Watkins a “hero” and announcing that he would receive a “Special Achievement Award” at next month’s BWAA dinner in Las Vegas.

Having been a member of the organization for over a quarter-century, I’ve dutifully cast my vote whenever such awards were presented, but I didn’t recall this having appeared on any ballot I’d seen. Moreover, I couldn’t imagine any boxing writer who had endured prolonged exposure to Termite Watkins voting for it.

BWAA president Bernard Fernandez replied to my query, explaining that Termite had been “nominated and approved by a vote of officers and board members.”

As it happened, I found myself seated in the presence of several BWAA officers at Don King’s John Ruiz-James Toney press conference at Madison Square Garden the next day, and when the subject came up, not a single one of them could recall having voted to honor Watkins.

Ron Borges said he’d never heard of the vote. Tom Hauser couldn’t remember, but said he would likely have abstained in any case. Steve Farhood and Tony Paige had no recollection of any vote for a special achievement award. Most of them did remember that Watkins had been proposed for a “long and meritorious service to boxing” award, but had failed to get enough support to even be placed on the ballot for that honor.

When I suggested to Fernandez that the episode seemed uncomfortably redolent of the previous year’s balloting for the Nat Fleischer Award for Distinguished Boxing Journalism, in which the 2003 award was embarrassingly vacated when it was revealed many eligible voters – i.e. past recipients – had never been polled, it appeared to strike a raw nerve. The email I got back went into a rant about “Iraqi boxers who had been routinely tortured by Uday Hussein.” (Najay Ali never claimed to have been tortured by anybody. Moreover, the BWAA press release refers to the “triumph” of his having “qualified” for the Olympics, which he did not.)

My suggestion that honoring Watkins could be perceived as legitimizing the invasion of Iraq was predictably challenged by the contention that “even those who oppose the war usually speak of supporting the troops,” and that “Watkins initially did go over there to serve as an exterminator at U.S. military installations, which probably made living conditions a little more comfortable for our servicemen and servicewomen.”

Now, personally, I think that the best way to ‘support our troops’ would be to bring them home forthwith, but that is beside the point. They had no choice in the matter. Termite Watkins did. He went to Iraq voluntarily, and he was well paid for it. I told Bernard if he wanted to name Watkins Exterminator of the Year, I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but this didn’t sit well with me.

Bernard did say “I’d like to see our involvement (in Iraq) quickly lessened if not ended outright,” but added “I do not support politicizing the BWAA one way or the other.”

But to me it should seem obvious that honoring Termite Watkins is a political statement.

“I refuse to be casually categorized, and neither should you, or anybody,” argued Fernandez. “Watkins coached some athletes who were in need of a coach, and had suffered under an oppressive regime. Even the New York Times appears to think he did a good job of it. Now, is he a self-promoter hyping himself now? Yeah, probably, and that doesn't sit well with me. But his doing what he did was fairly courageous, and I for one and not going to penalize him for his personal politics.”

Bernard also suggested that I “check with Steve Farhood and Tom Hauser again. They were at the December meeting when Watkins was nominated and confirmed by vote for this award.”

I did. Hauser is certain that he wouldn’t have voted one way or the other at the time, but that upon reflection, probably wouldn’t have approved the award for the reasons under discussion here.

“I’m not saying there wasn’t a vote taken,” said Farhood. “I just don’t remember one having taken place.”

Watkins, alas, will probably have the last word. “Termite,” his autobiography, co-written with Suzy Pepper, will hit the bookstores in two weeks’ time.

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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