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Articles of 2005

Castro’s Cuba and the Spirit of Kid Gavilan

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Miami – One day, two men honored. The fight crowd gathered here earlier this month to remember a pair of boxers who should never be forgotten. One event was a celebration of a life well lived, the other a solemn reminder of a how quickly the glory fades.

At the Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery, we stood under a sporadic drizzle to remember the great Cuban welterweight champion, Kid Gavilan. The reason we came, in effect, was to remind everyone how easily it is to forget. When Gavilan passed away two years ago, he was buried in a common, unmarked grave. The thought of such an indignity gnawed at the collective psyche of Ring 8, the Veteran Boxers Association of New York. The group exists to aide the indigent former professional fighter – living or deceased. One of their brethren had slipped into anonymity, so they raised the money for a headstone befitting a Hall-of-Famer.

Across town, the life of bantamweight Johnny Sarduy was being celebrated with the release of his book “De Tierras Nuevas a la Nueva Tierra” (From Lands that were New to New Lands). Sarduy, also from Cuba, was a bantamweight who would have cracked the Top 10 had his career not reached an abrupt end. Fidel Castro had seized control and turned Sarduy's beloved island into a Communist wasteland. Boxing suddenly was not so important.

Sarduy left Cuba and like most of his compatriots landed in Miami. He gave up boxing but never stopped fighting. He enlisted in “Brigade 2506” and prepared to overthrow Castro during the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion.

Sarduy's passion for Cuba remains close to the surface. During one of our conversations – as the memories of Cuba’s glorious beaches rush back to his mind and images of freedom drifted into his consciousness – he quietly began to cry.

Muhammad Ali is considered a hero for standing firm on his religious beliefs and refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Okay, then what do we call a man so thoroughly selfless, a man whose courage dwarfs anything we’ve seen inside a boxing ring? What do we call Johnny Sarduy, who sacrificed his boxing career and risked his life in an attempt to liberate 10 million Cubans?

The word “hero” just doesn’t seem strong enough.

Ali, a wartime conscientious objector, said he was ready to “Die for Allah.” Sarduy was ready to die for Cuba. He followed his beliefs, put down his boxing gloves and picked up a weapon.

Enrique Encinosa, a popular radio host in Miami and author of the definitive history on Cuban boxing, was the master of ceremonies at Sarduy’s book party.

“Johnny Sarduy is a well-respected member of the community,” he told me. “He is very popular. Johnny Sarduy has no enemies, except maybe Fidel Castro.”

Today, Sarduy is a millionaire. Although he never mastered the English language, he worked hard and gained the trust and confidence of those with whom he did business. A drywall specialist, Sarduy is one of the most successful contractors in Miami.

“Johnny came from a very, very poor family,” said Encinosa. “He grew up basically in a palm-thatched hut with dirt floors, pressed dirt. He lived in extreme poverty. Yet somehow, when you hear him tell tales of growing up, even though he was poor and he was aware he was poor, he had a happy life. He said he didn't know how to use a fork and knife until he got into boxing and his manager taught him.”

Sarduy was a crowd-pleaser, a popular attraction in the Havana fight clubs of the 1950s. He fought at the Palacio DePortes and Arena Cristal, where the fans gambled in the aisles and sang between bouts and the combatants fought under a haze of Cuban cigar smoke. Sarduy won a national amateur title while weighing 100 pounds. He turned pro as a bantamweight and in 1958 won two straight against Eloy Sanchez, who would later challenge Eder Jofre for the world title. In 1959, Sarduy lost to contender Jose Medel, a title challenger against Jofre and Fighting Harada.

“With all the alphabet organizations around now, I think Johnny Sarduy would have been a world champion today,” said Encinosa. “Then politics changed his career.”

Sarduy won his last fight, a 10-round decision over Hector Rodriguez in February of 1961. He was 24 years old and made a decision that would alter the rest of his life. He landed in the Cuban province of Oriente during at the time of the ill-fated invasion of Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) on the south coast of Cuba. Castro’s army triumphed over some 1,300 exiles, 90 of which were killed and the rest taken prisoner. The men of Brigade 2506 were promised air support from the United States, but it never came.

“I heard rumors that [President John F.] Kennedy and the Democrats were afraid because [Russian leader] Nikita Khrushchev was behind Castro,” said Sarduy. “I don't think Kennedy and the American government did enough to help Cuba get free from Castro. I regret what happened. I think if Kennedy sent some planes to help them out in La Playa Giron [the beach where the invasion took place], like they said they would, I think today Cuba would be a free county.”

As he speaks, Sarduy is standing inside one of the rings at the Miami Boxing gym. Like nearly every ex-fighter I’ve interviewed, he remains comfortable inside the ropes. His movements are measured, as he strides across the ring, perhaps the way he once stalked an opponent. He leans comfortably along the ropes, then glides toward a corner. He is at home for the moment, but then the emotions come back and there is a mix of frustration, pride and emptiness when he talks about his real home.

“I'm very nostalgic about Cuba,” he said. “I left Cuba 45 years ago and I miss it very much. I'm very grateful to this country. This is the greatest country in the world. When I was in Cuba, I didn't depend on the money given out by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, I depended on myself. When Castro disappears from Cuba, I will move to Cuba. I won't move my family, because they grew up here. But I would live in the two countries simultaneously. I hope Castro will be gone soon. When Fidel Castro dies, I will definitely go to Cuba. I will help the people there. They are going through a lot of pain. I feel sorry for the Cuban people. There is unemployment, people are starving. It's a sorry state of affairs.”

There is no sense comparing Sarduy and Gavilan. They were beloved by Cubans – and Americans – but for different reasons. Their common thread was boxing. Gavilan was a charismatic fighter, a showman whose flair predated Ali. Gavilan had style in and out of the ring. During his prime he took to the New York City nightlife like the champion he was. He was the City's Guest. Who, after all, could resist buying a drink for “The Keed?”

Some habits die hard. The author Ron Ross befriended Gavilan later in life and he recalled during the ceremony how the Hall-of-Famer still enjoyed some simple pleasures: “cigarettes, a shot of wheeskey and a good bistec [steak].”

There was a time when Gavilan supported the revolution, sending money back home to Castro when his band of soldiers were holed up in the mountains. Gavilan retired to his farm in Cuba, still a hero in the eyes of his people. But he was no longer of value to the regime. They built a highway in the middle of his farm and offered him a pension. It was a pittance of what the champion sent to the revolutionaries. Soon, Gavilan was back in Miami, never to return to Cuba.

At the cemetery, a collection of fighters gathered in his honor. Former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini spoke, former world flyweight champ Prudencio Cardona attended, and Joe Miceli, who lost a split decision to Gavilan at the Garden in 1950, made the trip down from New York.

“He was a very classy fighter,” said Miceli. “He had a lot of style. He was showman before there was a Muhammad Ali. Kid Gavilan was a great fighter and I’m sorry that some people forgot him when he died.”

Ring 8 raised $10,000 for the new headstone, half of it coming from a donation by Mike Tyson. The club’s contingent included fighters Billy Tate, Henny Wallitsch and Bobby Bartels, promoters Tony Mazzarella and Bob Duffy, Ross, historian Hank Kaplan, cornerman Charlie Capone and Butch Mazzarella.

Cuban-born former NABF junior lightweight champion Frankie Otero also attended the ceremony. He was a hard-hitter who banged with some of the best fighters of his generation. But beneath it all is a kind man with a wonderful, dry sense of humor. After the ceremony, we spoke at length in the gym. He recalled the time he fought Hall-of-Famer Ken Buchanan and, as the fight wore on and fatigue began to set in, cornerman Dr. Ferdie Pacheco dumped a bucket of ice down the front of his trunks in an attempt to revive him. As he rose from his stool to rejoin the battle, he looked at the Fight Doctor and deadpanned, “Doc, was that entirely necessary?”

The conversation shifted to Cuba and as happens with most who are in exile, the mood turned somber. Otero returned for a visit a few years ago.
 
“The architecture is phenomenal but they haven't maintained it for 40 years,” he said. “So it's decaying. It's like seeing a beautiful woman at the age of 20 and then again when she is 50 years old. She is older, but you can still see some of the beauty.”

He would also recall speaking with a cousin as they walked near La Playa Giron. “That is where we beat the mercenaries,” the cousin said, pointing to the beach.

“What?” said Otero. The words shook his soul like a Joe Frazier left hook to the ribs. To refer to those who died while trying to free Cuba as mercenaries border on sacrilegious. Later, he would come to realize that such words were borne out of decades of Castro’s propaganda.

Encinosa was a long-time fight manager and booking agent in Miami. He cut his teeth under the tutelage of promoters like Chris Dundee and Tuto Zabala. We are seated for dinner at Sergio’s Cuban restaurant, along with his lovely wife Ilia and historian “Hialeah” Eddie Soler. Enrique recalls the time Dundee phoned him in the middle of the night looking to make a match. The phone rings:

“Hello?”

“I need a welterweight to fight in London.”

“Chris, it's three o'clock in the morning.”

“Not in London. It's noon there. Now get me a welterweight.”

Encinosa orders Vaca Frita (fried dry beef) for me, along with the traditional rice and beans and fried plantains. There is a baseball motif to the restaurant, but rather than photos of the Florida Marlins, or even the universally beloved New York Yankees, the walls of Sergio’s feature photographs and equipment from Almendares and Habana, the two great baseball teams from the pre-Castro Cuban League, when major leaguers spent their winters playing on the island. 

When Castro pointed boatloads of Cubans toward Miami during the infamous Mariel Boatlift, Encinosa and Ilia found jobs for the fighters who made their way here with the political prisoners, common criminals and other miscreants that Castro let go. Those who couldn't find work, Encinosa simply supported with cash out of his pocket.

In addition to hosting a radio show and writing books, Encinosa has been called a hitman and a terrorist by Castro. The Cuban government put him on a list of suspected terrorists that was sent to the FBI prior to the Pan Am Games. 

“Not all of it is true,” he says. “I didn't do all the things they say I did.”

He pauses for a second and, with a nod, says, “Some of it.”

You look at him and you believe him.

The food is fantastic, the conversation even better. The stories about the old Fifth Street Gym and the great Cuban fighters of the 1960s – Luis Rodriguez, Florentino Fernandez, Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles, Douglas Valliant – keep coming.

As the evening winds down, I ask Enrique if he will return to Cuba once the Castro regime falls.

“I hope to be there when it happens,” he says.

And, again, you look at him and believe him.

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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