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Articles of 2005

Kid Chocolate Went The Distance

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I was alerted to the possibility that Kid Chocolate might still be alive by Nigel Collins, then editor of The Ring magazine. I was trying to hustle him stories at the time. I was 23. This would probably have been the early part of 1988. I had heard about the Kid Chocolate legend through the Jackie ‘Kid’ Berg story. Berg, a Londoner, had been the first to beat him, in 1930. Previously the dashing Chocolate, whose real name was Eligio Sardinias-Montalbo, had been thought unbeatable. He was also known by American sportswriters as the “Cuban Bon Bon” and the “Kandy Kid.”

Here is a flavour of that time, not admirable, though to be understood in the context of pervading prejudice. It does show, however, the impact that the long-forgotten Chocolate, born in a Havana slum in January 1910, had on American fight circles. It comes from the New York Journal in summer 1930, in the run-up to the Berg fight:

‘There’ll be a hot Chocolate around the old Berg tonight, my lady. I mean the Keed hisself. The sliver of ebony with the ivory smile known in the trade as Kid Chocolate came down from Orangeburg yesterday grinning and chattering away in his hybrid Spanish and ready to fight Jack Berg for who dropped the watermelon. The Keed also has between 100-150 suits depending on the state of his wardrobe at the time of the count; a brown-skinned sweetheart waiting for him beneath the sweltering palms, money in the bank and a good left hand. Practically the world in a paper sack, you might say.”

Ludicrous and hackneyed, maybe, but others in America took more constructive attention. Among them was the adolescent Sugar Ray Robinson, who went on record later as saying that he had never seen anyone box like Kid Chocolate before. It was a slick, moving style backed up by a big right hand and deterrent left hooks when necessary. Not jab-and-move, exactly, but something different. Perhaps like the advent of jazz. Workaday now, but revolutionary then. Robinson began studying the Chocolate style immediately and the two later became firm friends until Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959, which replaced the despised Battista regime and was soon to leave Cuba cut adrift from professional boxing and boxers – if not, of course, amateur ones – not to mention many other things to this day.

Though Chocolate had a reputation as a dandy womaniser – who was also fond of rum and cigarettes – by all accounts he had a self-deprecating charm and stated that the real pioneer of his style of boxing was his older stablemate, Black Bill (real name Eladio Valdes), a top-notch flyweight who fought and normally beat the best flyweights America had to offer, in perhaps the golden age of that division. Black Bill is said to have been among the first inventors of the art of fighting off the ropes, earning him the sobriquet of “The Man Of Rubber”.

Black Bill was born in 1905, five years before Chocolate. Both were managed by Luis “Pincho” Guttierez and trained by Moe Fleischer for most of their careers. In turn both Black Bill and Chocolate would have been inspired by Kid Charol, a middleweight from Sagna La Grande born in 1901 who fought from 1922-29. The Cuban public had been mesmerized by the spectacle of the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight, and in Charol they had their first home-grown hero. His fights were followed feverishly in Cuba, even though Charol based himself mainly in Argentina and would become known as “el gran rey sin corona” – the great king without a crown.

Chocolate turned pro at the tail end of Charol’s career, in December 1927, decisioning the previously unbeaten Johnny Cruz over six rounds in Havana. Black Bill had already established himself in the United States, and after a string of victories, Chocolate followed him over and was an instant sensation. He fought often, sometimes within days. No one could live with him in his natural home of the featherweight division and he was forced to take matches against heavier men. As previously described here, his first defeat was against Berg at the Polo Grounds in Harlem in August 1930 before a sold-out crowd. Berg was 81-4-5 going in, Chocolate an advertised 162-0, although the record books show his unbeaten record to be somewhat less swollen. Berg was a natural light-welter, but had to come down a few pounds to the contracted weight. His trainer, Ray Arcel, attested that Berg had some trouble doing so.

It was a split decision, and there is a photograph of the pair embracing after it was announced. I once asked Berg, who became an improbable friend, what was said. Berg replied: “I went over to him but he couldn’t talk. He was weeping, see. So I just said, ‘Good fight, but unfortunately you got licked’. I wanted to talk to him but I don’t think he liked me much.”

Chocolate won versions of the world featherweight and junior lightweight titles and was generally thought to have been robbed when losing to Battling Battalino for the featherweight crown. He lost to Berg again by split decision in 1932. As with Berg, his nemesis was Tony Canzonieri, who knocked him out in two rounds in 1933, having earlier outpointed him by split decision at Madison Square Garden in an event described in the New York Times as “one of the noisiest and most disorderly demonstrations this arena has ever witnessed, after one of the greatest lightweight championship battles in ring annals.” Again, Chocolate was giving away lumps of natural weight. Even so, the more one pours over the reports, Canzoneri emerges as one of the great pound-for-pound fighters of all time, and clearly a real puncher. No one else did to Berg (whom Canzonieri knocked out in three) or Chocolate what Canzoneri did to them. It is measure of those times that Chocolate boxed again less than two weeks after his knockout defeat by Canzoneri, beating the highly regarded Frankie Klick inside seven rounds in Philadelphia.

Chocolate boxed on until 1938 but did not go down the usual route of decline. Indeed he was unbeaten in his last 30 fights. In his penultimate bout, back in Havana, he eked out all his remaining genius to outpoint Filli Echevarria, a highly talented young Basque fighter whom the Cubans had adopted as their own. It was a fitting homecoming for Chocolate and a huge event in Havana. He finished with an outstanding record of 135 wins (51 inside the distance), 10 losses and 6 draws, most against top opposition.

What is remarkable about the latter stages of Chocolate’s record is that in 1933 he had been diagnosed with syphilis – then an incurable condition that could cause blindness at the least. That he battled on so successfully in the ring suggests – for all the louche baggage – that here was a man for whom the discipline of boxing training was his crucible, a theatre in which he could not let himself down.

Thereafter Chocolate opened a gym at his villa in the exclusive Mirimar district of Havana, playing host to both Robinson and Joe Louis among others. At first – it is often forgotten – Castro’s regime was welcomed by the United States administration. When things changed, why Chocolate did not join the exodus from Cuba, which boxing-wise included Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez, Jose Legra et al, is not clear. It was certainly a decision he would live to regret.

Once I reached Havana I seconded two street kids, Emilio and Miguel, to help me in my search among the ruined villas and effluent gutters of this still beautiful but mournful place. One day Miguel, an intentional Eddie Murphy look-alike who had just got out of jail after trying to swim to Florida on an inner tube, said he had found him. When, later, I returned home, London seemed like a metropolis of spoiled children who did not know how lucky they were. I could not get the smell of Havana – rum and effluence – out of my nostrils. I sat down and wrote this account of my meeting with Kid Chocolate. It seems pointless to rewrite something written when memory was still fresh:

‘The house stood at the corner of the square. We approached the square on a wide, rutted avenue which was bordered by large ornate villas like the house. Most of the houses appeared empty and dilapidated, though their grand porches were evidence of a salubrious past. There was a brisk, hot breeze from the coast, and the silent streets now smelled faintly of fish.

The house, its shutters drawn and flaking, also appeared unoccupied, but next door a woman was preparing lunch for her children outside. She said no one had lived in the house for years. She was afraid we’d wasted our journey.

But upon production of Kid Berg’s biography, The Whitechapel Windmill, and a picture of Kid Chocolate, she paused, then ordered us to wait and disappeared into the house. When she returned, she said she was sorry but she had to be careful. His last visitors had come about two years ago, from the government. They were researching a book and took away all his press cuttings. He was very fond of the cuttings. They hadn’t returned them, and he was bitter. But he would see me if I bought him a bottle of rum.

This having been obtained by Emilio, I found myself some 10 minutes later standing before the big wooden door of the house. The lock showed signs of having been forced and the lower part of the door was clearly rotten, but there were signs of activity within, and presently the door inched open to reveal a barefooted, elderly man wearing a torn cotton shirt and a pair of trousers held up by a piece of string. He was so slight in build that at first his form was almost imperceptible in the shadows of the hallway. Behind him were two framed photographs, both nudes, of a beautiful young athlete. They were dated 1931 and signed ‘Kid Chocolate’.

Kid Chocolate took the bottle of rum and gestured to be given a cigarette. Grinning, he took us into a big room furnished only with two chairs. The walls were dotted with boxing mementoes, but some had fallen down and lay on the floor. With the shutters drawn, the light was dim and the air was thick and sour.

Rum was poured and cigarettes issued. Kid Chocolate sat down on one of the chairs and opened his mouth to speak. But rum trickled out instead through his cracked lips stained with tobacco, like lava suddenly spewed from a long extinct volcano. His voice, when it emerged, was a hoarse whisper, each syllable accompanied by the widening of his eyes and a grin, as if greeting each tortured sound like a long-forgotten friend.

But the words did not make sense, even to Emilio. And Kid Chocolate proffered his glass for more rum, groping with his fingers at a cigarette which, an inch past its normal life expectancy, still glowed between his teeth. Taking Berg’s book, he ran his hands across its cover in slow, affectionate strokes. The picture of Berg on the cover seemed to have a soothing effect. Then he turned to the photographs in the book, of the fight at the Polo Grounds, and a fleeting looked of surprising composure and concentration crossed Kid Chocolate’s face, like the shadow of a younger man.

I looked at Kid Chocolate’s hands. Like Jack’s, they bore the legacy of his profession: the knuckles grotesquely callused, the curling fingernails locked in the position of a semi-cocked fist, to the extent that they resembled more the talons of a bird of prey than human possessions.

“Ah…Jack…Kid…Berg,” Kid Chocolate said. “He was the first one to beat me. We fought two times, and the judges gave the decision to him both times.”

“You were unbeaten in 162 fights the first time,” I ventured.

“Three hundred,” Kid Chocolate said. “Fidel LaBarba was the best I fought, but Jack Kid Berg was the bravest.”

“Who was the best boxer who ever lived?” I asked.

“Kid Charol,” he said, without hesitation.

There was more rum and the words began to slur and stick in Kid Chocolate’s throat.

“I had many friends. Pincho, my manager…Jack Kid Berg. He is a good friend. Every year Jack Kid Berg comes on the boat from Miami just to see me…”

Then an extraordinary thing happened. Without warning, Kid Chocolate began to clutch his stomach and howl like a small boy.

“I’m hungry!” he shrieked. “I need my lunch!”

His pleas brought the woman running in from next door, and also a gaunt man in middle age who said he was Kid Chocolate’s son.

“I’m so hungry I could die!” cried Kid Chocolate, convulsing with sobs.

But his son, if such he was, seemed more interested in saving some rum for himself, and the woman, after extracting two cigarettes from Kid Chocolate’s shirt pocket, left with an assurance that she would fetch some food.

“You like the house?” said the son, grinning. “Now he lives here alone, but it used to be a fine house. There was a gymnasium on the first floor, and a ring in the yard.”

As Kid Chocolate sat slumped in his chair, a pool of saliva forming on the cover of Kid Berg’s biography and a huddle of cigarette butts collecting in the folds of his shirt, the son led the way to other rooms: to Kid Chocolate’s bedroom with its urine-stained mattress, half covered by a dirty sheet, and a pile of human faeces on the floor; to the kitchen, where an old fridge stood open and empty, by a table strewn with bones and rusting tins of sardines being picked over by cockroaches; to further rooms, shrouded in cobwebs, which had not been used, perhaps even entered, for years.

From one such room the son emerged, beaming proudly, with a brown bundle under his arm. “Feel it,” he said. “Pure silk.” He unravelled it gingerly, as if in the presence of a religious artefact, and laid it on the floor. It could have been a moth-eaten old dressing-gown, but of course it wasn’t: etched in white letters, transported without blemish, it seemed, across the years, were the words CHOCOLATE KID.

More shrieks came from the front of the house, but by the time we reached him Kid Chocolate had been sedated with more rum and now sat with his head flopped forward, beside the empty bottle and beneath the photographs of himself and Jack Kid Berg, watched by the woman from next door and two youths drawn in from the street by the commotion.

Through this small gathering marched the son, who, gathering Kid Chocolate’s passive body in one arm, began to squeeze it into the old boxing robe with the other. And everyone else in the room suddenly felt the need to avert their eyes, for the impression was that of someone dressing a corpse.’

Now, thinking back to that encounter, I don’t believe Kid Chocolate could have been living like that for very long. I don’t think it would have been humanly possible. He had finally weakened. It was the last waltz. Indeed, some six weeks later, he was dead. He is buried in Havana’s ‘cemetery for significant Cubans’ – somewhat rich, given how insignificant he was deemed during his post-retirement lifetime. Having said that, maybe he was given help, but just drank it away, and there was no more to give.

There is indeed something mournful about Cuba’s obsession with boxing – along with baseball and chess, national pastimes that seem somehow to be disguised expressions of defiance against the straightjacket of dictatorship.

At least Kid Chocolate lived till the age of 78. Kid Charol and Black Bill lived only until 28 and 27 respectively. Kid Charol died of tuberculosis, prompting his manager to kill himself a few months later. A year before Black Bill’s death, Chocolate fought a benefit bout for him at St Nick’s arena. The New York Times reported that it was “for Black Bill, who is now sightless.” Syphilis again. Black Bill had become alcoholic, and took his life by his own hand in a New York tenement.

The national poet of Cuba, Nicolas Guillem, wrote a poem about them all, ‘Ode To a Boxer’:

But above all, I think
About Kid Charol, the great crownless king
And about Kid Chocolate, the great crowned king
And about Black Bill, with his ‘rubber’ nerve

No doubt it reads better in the original Spanish. But “nerve” does seem central for a post-revolutionary Cuban to survive. Upon his retirement from his garlanded career, Kid Chocolate could not have known that his greatest challenge – survival – was still to come. But, as usual, he more than went the distance.

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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