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Articles of 2005

Fifty Blows (A Fighter’s Thoughts About Turning 50)

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I just turned 50 and I can’t say I’m happy about it. I look in the bathroom mirror and see a thin gray hair sticking out my left nostril. That saddens me. The gray tufts of hair curling at my temples upset me. My flabby chest and soft gut depress me.

Fifty blows.

But when I think about my former sparring partners at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City—Jimmy Hargroves and “Wildman” Bill Carlson—I feel lucky. They’ll never see 50. They’re dead. Jimmy died of Sickle Cell and Bill wrapped himself around a tree in a motorcycle accident.

Two other sparring partners come to mind—welterweight Richie Villanueva and middleweight Bobby Kitchner. They’re dead, too. Suicides.

Back in 1971, all five of us shared a burning dream—winning a New York Golden Gloves title. Our reverie unified us. But what started out as a burning dream quickly became a day-to-day lump in our throats as we trudged up the stairs into the gym to fight each other. Nevertheless, we stuck with it and our dream ended up as our salvation.

At least for me.

Boxing might not be theology, but when we fought each other every day in the gym, our souls kind of touched.

Jimmy, Richie and I made it to the finals that year, but I’m the only one left to talk about it.

1971 was a tough year. Hundreds of talented ruffians crawled out of the slums and city projects ready to rumble. Three boys with that same burning dream, Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Gregory and Leroy Jones, kept fighting.

Truth is, at 19, after the tournament, I hung up my gloves. It was a relief to quit such a lousy sport. I was sick of getting punched. I was sick of the stress. I wanted out. Maybe I didn’t need boxing anymore. I was entering my 20s, soon to leave my dysfunctional family, and boxing had absorbed my anger and rage.

But once I quit boxing, it was like something important was subtracted out of my flesh. My blood never pumped quite as fast. And nothing since has ever seemed so vital.

My Twenties

I’m still boxing. I enter Fordham University and the classroom is my new arena. The adjustment to college is difficult. My brain is almost paleo-mammalian. The anger and rage that were my strengths as a boxer are now my liability.

The muse of violence works in the ring, but not on a college campus. Now I need to study.

Quickly, I learn how to hit the books instead of people. But it’s a catch-up game. After so many years of perfecting my left hook and ducking right hands, I must accept the fact that in the classroom arena, I am strictly second string. My untrained brain and stuttering tongue aren’t as potent as my fists. Getting verbally bitch-slapped by a witty thinker is always a concern.

For the next four years, fear hides beneath my armpits. I endure college. I am a retired middleweight quietly hiding in the back seat of a classroom, nervously chewing the inside of my cheek and praying not to be called on. While struggling with Spinoza and wrestling with Rousseau, I arrive at a horrible thought: As a boxer, I was physically tough because I was mentally weak.

The size of my biceps was really the size of my weakness and fear.

With envy, I watch the flourishing boxing careers of Antuofermo, Gregory and Jones, all three are beginning to enjoy national, and international, prominence. Vito has already won, defended and lost the European light middleweight title in Berlin, Milan and Rome. Eddie,(now Mustapha Muhammad) has metamorphosed into a fearful light heavyweight contender with a 20-1-1 record. And Leroy is an undefeated heavyweight, 17-0 with 10 knockouts.

Me? I’m 24. I quietly graduate Fordham with a Communications degree. But what to communicate, or how to communicate, I have no clue. For whatever reason, I fear the white-collar arena. College did not help me find confidence. The thought of accepting a job where I would be expected to match a colleague’s verbal blows and dodge a boss’ purple ego in a sterile office environment terrifies me.

My first job is at Lincoln Hall Boy’s Reformatory. I counsel young boys suffering from shell-shocked childhoods, or bad genes. These angry, confused boys remind me of my dead sparring partners—and myself. At this point in their miserable lives, they’re embracing rage and frenzy but have no burning dream. Boxing appeals to a small select group of angry and confused people. Perfect for reform school boys.

So, one night, in front of a TV set, we watch Mustapha fight for the light heavyweight title against Marvin Johnson. Mustapha wins an 11th round TKO. I point out to these surly juvenile delinquents the transforming quality of his powerful dream: Mustapha, a former purse-snatcher, is now a world champion.

Another evening, we are eating sandwiches in front of the TV. We’re watching Vito fight for the WBC and WBA titles. He pounds out a decision over Hugo Corro. Vito, once an incorrigible street thug (he once bit a New York City cab driver in the chest so hard his teeth met) is now the middleweight champion of the world.

There’s a third transforming drama. We watch Leroy wallop Mike “Hercules” Weaver to win the vacant NABF heavyweight title. Leroy was a high school dropout.

A purse-snatcher, a thug and a dropout—all world champs!

My transforming dream arrives, soon after, in the form of a telephone call.

“Are you Pete Wood?”

“Yeah.”

“The guy who won The New York Golden Gloves middleweight title?”

“Well, I should have won,” I say, “but I lost.”

Hesitation. “What was your record?”

“Fourteen and one.”

“I’m chairman of the United States Committee—Sports for Israel. We’re looking for a kid to represent the United States, as first alternate, in the 1977 Maccabiah Games held in Tel Aviv, Israel. All expenses paid. Interested?”

“Well, yeah. Sure.”

“You still got that hard left hook?”

“Yeah,” I smile.

I’m 27—nine years out of the ring—but people still remember my left hook.

Secretly, I have always flirted with a comeback. This is my chance. I’m in decent shape, only a few pounds over the middleweight limit; I’ve been running, doing push-ups and sit-ups. Shadowboxing in the mirror, I look good—damn good.

I drive to the training camp in Albany State University to scout the fighters. Walking on the campus, I feel confused. I feel more like a college student than a boxer. In truth, the taste of leather isn’t something I look forward to anymore. I know I can never match my 18-year-old levels of speed and aggression. My rage and anger are gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Aristotle and Henry Thoreau and Eric Fromm have diluted it for me. I am a paper tiger.

I decline the offer.

Depressed and lost, I drive back to the reformatory.

I realize that a kid who made a big noise in his youth needs to find a new instrument to play.

My Thirties

I’m still boxing. I’m alone in my room, jabbing out words and punching out paragraphs. My prose is awkward and crablike, like my boxing. But by 35, I’ve written and published a novel called To Swallow A Toad. It’s about a young, unconfident boy shellshocked by his dysfunctional family. One day he walks into a boxing gym and falls in love. He embraces his training and finds salvation in the ring. More precisely, he finds an antidote to life … The New York City Golden Gloves.

I’m writing a few articles for The Ring, Boxing Illustrated and Commonweal. It’s more rewarding to punch out art with a pencil than to thump out anger with a glove.

My thirties are an excellent blend of youth and maturity. My brain is not as paleo-mammalian. There’s emerging stability and self-knowledge and no gray nostril hair—yet.

I’m now teaching English. Me, becoming a teacher. I feel like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. But I’m successful.

Meanwhile, Vito, Mustapha and Leroy are still boxing—but each one has already lost his title. All three have been beaten by younger opponents. They are now beginning their slide down the fistic ladder. Boxing is a young man’s game.

I begin to wonder about the other boxers who had reached the finals in Madison Square Garden in 1971. What’s happened to them? Where are they now? What are they doing?

Is there life after boxing?

At 39, I find myself back in a gym sparring.

Maybe one more fight, I whisper.

One day, while sparring without headgear, I’m in with a light heavyweight who nails me. I feel a warm trickle run down my cheek. I’m cut.

In the hospital, I watch the doctor stitch my left eye with a thin black thread. I sense his disapproval—me, a 39-year-old English teacher still sparring.

“Why are you boxing?” he asks.

I shrug. I must admit, getting cut after a 20-year layoff is stupid. It’s like getting shot the last day of the war.

My Forties

I’m still boxing. Am I a middle-aged adolescent stuck in another decade? I’m still running and sprinting to ever other telephone pole—when I’m not injured or lack the time. But I’m no longer a middleweight. I’m more like the heavyweight I swore I’d never become. A pound a year. Metabolism.

There are still mornings when I wake up from the recurring dream: I’m in the Madison Square Garden dressing room stepping into my green trunks. I’m ready for my boxing comeback. I hop into the ring. The bell rings. I left hook my way to one last victory. The crowd cheers.

One day while shadowboxing on the high school track, I’m offered a job coaching at the Youth Bureau, a local boxing gym in White Plains.

I ask myself: At 44, do I really want to introduce this crazy sport to a whole new generation of confused and angry kids?

Yes. For all its shortcomings and danger, the ring is a perfect kind of sanctuary, a precious counter-world to the chaotic world that exists outside of it. The ring is less verbally brutal, less economically unfair and less politically abusive.

Besides, I’ve rubbed souls with some of my best friends in the ring.

One afternoon an angry, muscular kid walks into my gym. “I wanna fight,” he says.

“Why?” I ask.

“Just do,” he shrugs.

I look into his sad eyes and see myself reflected back. He’s not much of a talker and when I get him into the ring he moves so sweet.

I discover he’s a 22-year-old middleweight, a converted southpaw and former drug addict. He has the burning dream … the New York City Golden Gloves.

After five fights he wins the title. After 26 years, I’m back in Madison Square Garden, raising his hand in the middle of the ring.

The champions of my childhood, Vito, Mustapha and Leroy, are now long retired. I see them making appearances at local restaurants and selling their boxing gloves on eBay for quick cash. Vito’s flat-nosed, battered face gets him bit parts in movies, TV and, most recently, on The Sopranos. Mustapha has become a first-class boxing trainer. I don’t know about Leroy.

Boxing is a young man’s sport. There are no comebacks at 50. But I’m currently making one; I’m writing a second novel.

It’s about the burning dream—boxing.

Tomorrow, I turn 50. I look at my aging face in the bathroom mirror, my flabby chest and soft gut.

“You’re getting old,” snickers a thin gray voice.

I know that miserable voice. It’s the thin, gray hair sticking out my left nostril.

With my forefinger and thumb, I reach in and pluck him out.

“I’ll be back,” he sneers.

I turn on the water and flick him down the sink.

“I’ll be back,” he snivels.

“No you won’t.” I smile. I shadowbox.

Boxing—my theology, salvation and sanctuary.

I keep punching.

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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