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Articles of 2005

Vinnie Ferguson – The Traditionalist

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Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940s and ‘50s, Vinnie Ferguson was never afraid of a good scrap. While most of his friends loved baseball, he was more interested in boxing. At ten years of age he saw his first live bout – at Madison Square Garden – and from that moment on became obsessed with becoming a boxer.

“I was hooked,” said Ferguson, now 67 and still a resident of Manhattan. “I said I could do that. I have to do that.”

An older man in the neighborhood suggested that Ferguson visit the local Police Athletic League facility. “I was just a kid, so in my little mind I thought I’d go to the precinct and there would be a gym there,” said Vinnie, who speaks as much with his hands as he does with his mouth. “There’s a big Irish sergeant behind the desk and I meekly asked him if I could box there. He got a good laugh and sent me [downtown] to the Headquarters Gym at Mulberry and Houston Streets.”

The moment Ferguson entered that gym, spotted the two rings, and smelled the unique stench of stale sweat, he knew he had found a “home.”

Before long he was joined by his best friend, future lightweight champion of the world Carlos Ortiz. Both youngsters were quick learners and they each began beating much more experienced  opponents with relative ease. Although Vinnie and Carlos were barely teenagers, they were being touted as future professional champions.

“Everyone said we were naturals, which was a lot of bull,” said Ferguson. “We might have had natural ability, but we both busted our asses. If someone taught us something new, we’d be practicing in front of the mirror all night long. In the morning we’d climb over a fence to run laps in FDR Park, which was alongside the East River. Other kids just weren’t willing to make the same sacrifices.”

Ferguson was undefeated in his first 64 bouts and won a slew of national and international titles. The good-looking youngster was so popular, he appeared on such television programs as The Mike and Buff Show, which was co-hosted by Mike Wallace (now a reporter on 60 Minutes), and his wife Buff Cobb.

When Ferguson received a boxing scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, Sports Illustrated ran a four-page spread on him. Back then, intercollegiate bouts regularly drew 11,000 fans to the university’s field house.

After winning the NCAA boxing title as a freshman, Jack Fiske, the longtime boxing writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, called Ferguson an “undefeated prodigy.” This specific prodigy was considered a shoo-in to win a berth on the 1960 Olympic team.

It was at the Olympic Trials in San Francisco that the seemingly invincible Ferguson showed he was made of flesh and blood, not iron and steel. Not only was he stopped by Eddie Crook of Detroit – the eventual 165 pound gold medalist in Rome – he was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and would spend ten days in the hospital under careful observation.

“I was painting Crook like a Picasso,” said Ferguson while displaying a piston like jab that looks like it could still flatten a building. “We got in a clinch and as I was breaking away, he hit me with an uppercut. I never saw the punch coming and it knocked me totally unconscious.”

Vinnie was given “every conceivable test” and released from the hospital with a clean bill of health. By that time he had left the University of Wisconsin and had transferred to Manhattan College in the Bronx where he would earn a degree in physical education. He next convinced his hard-nosed father, Eddie, to let him turn pro.

“My father, who could be a tyrannical son of a gun, always insisted I get an education,” recalled Ferguson. “When I turned pro, he also insisted he was going to be my manager. Out of respect, I would never argue with him.”

Ferguson was still so popular he made his pro debut at Madison Square Garden, at a time when it usually took a fighter 20 or more straight wins to earn the right to compete there. Between November 1957 and May 1958, Ferguson won five straight fights, three by knockout. Then he met Doug Jones, who five years later would lose a close decision to Muhammad Ali in the same MSG ring. The Ali-Jones bout was tabbed the 1963 Fight of the Year by The RING magazine.

“When I lost in the Olympic Trials, I never saw the punch coming,” said Ferguson. “Against Jones I saw the right hands coming, but couldn’t get out of the way. Throughout my career I trained like a beast and never got tired. In this fight I was hoping to bounce back. But the fight got stopped in the second round. I was on my feet, but banged up pretty good. Jones could fight.”

Afterwards, Ferguson’s father tore up his contract and told him he was through. The onetime undefeated prodigy was only 20 years old and forcibly retired from the game he loved. His final professional ring ledger was 5-1 (3 KOs).

“I was heartbroken,” said Ferguson. “I lose two fights in my entire career and my contract gets torn up. I would have loved to continue and had plenty of opportunities. A lot of managers and promoters sent their emissaries to sign me up. But my father was a stern guy and wouldn’t bend. He used to say life was like a street with lots of holes and no lights. He would show me where the holes were so I wouldn’t step in them.”

Vinnie can only assume that his father was concerned about his physical well-being, a notion that was driven home two years after his forced exit from the ring. Charley Mohr, a good friend of Vinnie’s, was killed in the ring while fighting for the University of Wisconsin in 1960.

“I was instrumental in Charley getting into the college,” said Vinnie. “He had asked me to put in a good word for him. He wasn’t a very rugged kid and, having attended a Catholic seminary, he was torn between becoming a boxer or a priest. After he died, it bothered me for a long time. I felt halfway responsible.”

It was later learned that at the time of his death Mohr was receiving shock treatment for severe depression, much of which was likely brought on by the conflicts between his spiritual and athletic interests.

Boxing, Vinnie insists, is not for the fainthearted and can easily bring you as much pain as elation. “At its best and worst, there is nothing like it,” he said. “I compare a boxer to a long-distance runner. The only difference is the runner doesn’t have someone trying to kick the sh** out of him.”

And winning, he adds, is a lot more complex than it looks. “When you see good boxing, there is nothing Neanderthal about it,” he explained. “You have to do one thing to accomplish another thing. A good boxer is thinking three and four steps ahead. Occasionally you’ll hit a guy six or seven times with decent shots and he won’t even blink. Abruptly you throw out your game plan and have to start from scratch”

He remembers discussing the nuances of boxing and acting with the late eclectic filmmaker, John Cassavettes, who was a diehard fan. “I told him that acting must be a rough business, and he told me I was crazy,” said Ferguson.

“I get to hide behind my makeup, behind my wardrobe, and behind my character,” Cassavettes responded. “That’s not me out there on stage, that’s my character. Nobody knows anything about me and nobody cares. They only see who I’m playing. But a prizefighter, he’s standing in front of 10,000 people with no shirt and in a pair of shorts with some guy raining punches on him. Everything about you is exposed every minute you’re in the ring. You’ve got nowhere to hide. All of your courage and determination (or lack of it) is there for everyone to see. Acting is easy. Boxing is a bitch.”

“Vinnie is a traditionalist, who doesn’t realize how admired he was by a wide range of people,” said Richard O’Neill, the former vice president of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and a childhood friend. “He’s too humble to admit, or even realize, how revered he was by a generation of New Yorkers. He appealed to everyone, even people that were not boxing fans or couldn’t have cared less about the sport. When I first started amateur boxing, all I heard over and over gain was that nobody in the entire New York area would fight Vinnie Ferguson or Carlos Ortiz. That’s how good they were.”

“The first thing you realize about Vinnie is that he is the quintessential New York guy,” said John O’Donohue, a retired NYPD lieutenant and current actor who played Sgt. Eddie Gibson on NYPD Blue. “You could see him anywhere in the world and automatically know he was a New Yorker before he even opened his mouth. He’s quite a character.”

Ever the traditionalist, Ferguson, who worked for many years as a New York State boxing inspector and referee, is the first to admit that female boxing holds no appeal for him. “I’m all for women doing whatever they want,” he said. “They can be police officers, firefighters, whatever. But personally, I don’t think they belong in the ring. I don’t want to see a woman with her eye ripped open or snot coming out of her nose. It’s unbecoming.”

Vinnie concedes that we live in a crazy world and that prospective prizefighters have to be a little crazy to be drawn to such a demanding sport. However, he chuckles at a college memory that makes you realize just how subjective the notion of craziness really is.

“When I was at Wisconsin, I’d wake up every day and run at 6:00 A.M.,” he explained. “It was so cold I’d be all bundled up and running on ice across a lake. Nobody else got up and ran that early, but I did it every day. Everyone told me I was crazy.

“But,” he adds, “While I was battling the bone-chilling cold, I’d be thinking of winning a title so I had a lot of motivation. As I was running, I’d always see this guy sitting on a chair with his fishing pole sticking in a little hole he had chopped into the ice. As I ran past him, I’d wave and he’d look at me like I was crazy. I’d look back at him and think the same thing.”

It seems that wherever you go throughout the United States, when you speak to old-time boxing people Vinnie’s name inevitably comes up. You get used to hearing what a great fighter he was, and what a genuine character he is.

At a recent International Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, New York, he was introduced to George Chuvalo, the longtime Canadian heavyweight champion who had given hell to the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and even Doug Jones.

“You’re the Vinnie Ferguson,” said Chuvalo, an extremely rugged man who is not easily impressed.

“Guilty!,” said Ferguson.

“In the fifties you were the talk of Canada,” said Chuvalo. “All we heard from James J. Parker (a Canadian heavyweight who trained at Stillman’s Gym in New York) was that you were one of the greatest fighters he ever saw and that you were going to be the next middleweight champion of the world.”

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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