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Articles of 2006

Larry Merchant: In the beginning was the word

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When I tell people I’ve got a soft spot for Larry Merchant they sometimes sputter, grow red in the face, and tell me I’m out my mind and need to have my head examined. I usually drop their recommendations in the suggestion box, which is conveniently located next to the shredder on the way to the executive bathroom. But there’s one small problem with those snide, off-the-cuff, below the belt, quack diagnoses: I’ve already had my head examined! (I’ve got the problems to prove it.) Which leads me to conclude it must be your turn. (Take two aspirin and call me when you're better.) Because, let’s face it, in a sport not known for its pleasantries, high tone, insightful analysis, let alone its noble ethos, HBO’s Larry Merchant, love him or hate him, has made it a point of raising the bar, both with his language and his attitude. He spotlights megalomania like there’s no tomorrow, shines a bright light in the face of the gifted when they’re insufferable, and if his expectations seem out of whack with the world as we know it, maybe we’d be better off if ours were a little more out of whack with the world as we know it as well.

I grew up down and dirty in Philly and as a kid I read Merchant religiously when he wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News. He was my bread and butter, my meat and potatoes, the foundation on which I built an association between boxing and the written word. I didn’t then and don’t now buy or read magazines, boxing or otherwise, and was too much of a jerk to start reading books until adolescence, but I kept an interested reader’s eye on Larry Merchant over the years as he moved through and out of journalism to become a force on cable TV.

I know some folks don’t go for the wise old sage routine which Merchant delivers on HBO delivers with such regularity and grace. Maybe those who can’t stand him figure if he’s not rapping or fawning he has nothing to say and should be put to pasture. But if you forego the white hair, white skin, black and white tuxedo, not to mention his sometimes crotchety grandfatherly-like manner, to get to at the crux of what he’s saying, he offers some cultured pearls of boxing wisdom.

Larry Merchant was born on February 11, 1931, in New York City. His mom was a legal secretary. His father was a “small businessman,” Merchant told TSS, who ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business. “My father was also a big sports fan. My father and uncles took me to baseball games all the time. Saw a lot of football games. Pretty much my life outside school was athletics.”

Baseball and football are okay, but they’re not the fights, so I asked Merchant if boxing was part of his youthful equation.

“It was,” he said, “because boxing was a mainstream sport. The first boxing event I can remember is listening with my father to the second Louis-Schmeling on radio. I had an uncle who fought in the amateurs. There was some distant relative, I mean some very distant relative, who had been a professional. So a lot of people were connected one way or another to boxing in those days.”

Merchant enrolled in college at the University of Oklahoma. He was on the football team—“Football is a passion of mine,” he said—and once got to watch the Sugar Ball suited up and raring to go, but as per the coach’s instructions he remained sitting on the bench, forced to watch the action from the sidelines. And while he would have rather been on the gridiron, Larry Merchant, at the start of what turned into a lifelong habit, had the best seat in the house.

A shoulder injury suffered during a scrimmage KO’d his career in college ball, but the college newspaper, the Oklahoma Daily, had some openings suited to his talents. Merchant became sports editor and then editor of the paper.

But “I wasn’t 100% committed to being a sportswriter,” he said. “At one time I thought I might like to write about science, another time about politics.” He also thought about being a football coach.

After graduating from U of Oklahoma, Merchant became backfield coach at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. But there was a war on, the Korean War, and Merchant was drafted and shipped off to Germany where he became sports editor of the Stars and Stripes.

At war’s end Merchant was discharged and got hired as sports editor of the Wilmington Daily News in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1953. Then he worked for the AP for six months, before landing the plum position of photo editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. “Don’t ask,” joked Merchant. “And from that I became sports editor when I was 26 years old. I was there 10 years.” That 10 year stint at the Philly Daily News was followed by another 10 year stint, but at the more prestigious New York Post in the more prestigious Big Apple.

Merchant did his first radio and TV during this time. He worked at NBC for a couple of years as a reporter, commentator and producer, before leaving New York and moving to the sunny clime of California. “I had written some books,” Merchant said, “sold one, wrote a screenplay, came out here and the cable revolution happened and I got sort of recruited into cable.”

Initially he was host and producer of a showed called “Sports Probe” on the USA cable network, which Merchant described as a “Meet the Press of Sports,” and then good fortune tolled when he signed with HBO to do their color commentary and analysis for the fights. That was 29 years ago.

These days the ex-sportswriter Larry Merchant is one of the most heard, if not most listened to, voices in boxing, but I wanted to know how it was for him in the beginning making the transition from the written to the spoken word.

“I had, in a sense, burned out as a columnist after 20 years,” Merchant said, “and I liked TV for two reasons. Number one, I liked the technical people—everybody seemed to be on their toes trying to make the best show they could—and secondly, it was just another way of telling a story. There came a time when I felt I wasn’t as eager to go to the ballparks as much as I had been, and I had to make a decision on whether I wanted to be one of those old columnists who kept repeating himself or did I want to move on.”

Goodbye written word. Hello TV.

“NBC had been where the Friday Night Fights were many years before,” continued Merchant, “and because of Ali they got back into the fight business and did some Ali fights on primetime, and I was the only guy around who knew anything about boxing, so I was recruited to be a commentator on Ali fights. So that’s more or less how I got into the commentating business.

“But I’d always been attracted to boxing as much because of boxing writers as the prizefights themselves. I just found that the writers had such a rich area to write about, with the shenanigans outside the ring, with all the hustlers and rustlers around the ring, and the drama going on inside the ring, that if you cared about competition, if you cared about drama in sports, if you cared about human behavior as a way of looking at sports, it just seemed like a very rich territory.”

I asked Merchant which boxing and sportswriters influenced his early work and he rattled off some iconic names: “W.C Heinz, a great boxing writer, John Lardner, who wrote a lot about boxing, A.J. Liebling, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Dan Parker in particular, who was a columnist at the New York Mirror, an old tabloid, and who wrote a lot about the colorful characters around boxing. And of course there was Hemingway, who wrote about boxing.”

Were there any examples of early boxing writing that especially stick out in Merchant’s mind?

“I tell the story of my first fight at Madison Square Garden. I was taken by an uncle, the uncle who had once been an amateur, and it was a spirited fight between two fighters whose names I’ve never forgotten: Bobby Ruffin and Johnny Greco. And the next day I read in the paper, in Dan Parker’s column, how Ruffin, if I remember correctly, ‘gave up his fish dinner in the corner’—that was the way he put it—and I can remember thinking: I’ve got to find a way to get closer to the ring.”

Closer to the ring Merchant got, but as he told TSS, “I never considered myself a boxing guy. It was just one of the things I covered as a columnist.”

Because Merchant takes the long view, as befits a man his age, he’s seen boxing’s popularity wax and wane pretty dramatically over the years, so I asked him what he thought the reasons were for boxing being held in such low esteem these days and if he thought there might be some change for the better in sight.

“It’s basically societal reasons,” answered Merchant. “Once upon a time, a young athlete would dream of becoming champion. There weren’t a lot of high school graduates, much less college graduates, at one point, and virtually every town had a gym. And kids, whether they were from coal towns or mill towns or big cities, for some of them boxing was a way out and up. But today there are alternatives, so that part has changed.

“Boxing is no longer a mainstream sport, but it has a devoted smaller following. There are about 200 boxing shows a year on cable television, including Spanish cable. It is a very big deal in the societal fabric still for Latinos—they’re just the latest racial or ethnic group that has dominated the sport—which is a growing presence in America, which is why the sport will always be around in one form or another. And boxing, like every other major American sport except American football, has been globalized. Look at the rosters in baseball. Look at the rosters in basketball and hockey. Look who’s dominating tennis now, and even to a degree golf. So boxing is more global now.”

Merchant mentioned the heavyweight champions, one removed, Klitschko, Valuev, Maskaev and Liakhovich, as an example of boxing’s increased globalization. He spoke of the Brawling Brit Ricky Hatton and the Welsh superstar Joe Calzaghe. He also mentioned the Philippine bomber Manny Pacquiao, who Merchant described as “the most exciting fighter in the world… In that sense, there’s been a tectonic shift of the plates in boxing, and it’s noticeably no longer the kind of socially acceptable kind of competition it once was. All the heavyweight prospects are playing linebacker. But it’s also a shift in the sense that boxing is entertainment for most people who go [to the fights]. It’s not a gut thing, as it was, for example, at the Pacquiao-Morales fight where you had a big crowd evenly divided between Filipinos and Mexicans rooting passionately for their guy. You no longer find a lot of that in the U.S. for American fighters.”

As for Merchant’s detractors, no doubt they’re well-meaning boxing loyalists who put the word fanatic back in the words fight fan, but there’s a possibility, however remote, that they don’t know their bums from a hole in the ground.

“I’m not to everyone’s taste. They have their favorites,” said Merchant. “And my feeling is that a fighter is a performer who’s frequently getting millions of dollars to get on his stage, and there are times when a fighter doesn’t perform up to his standards, or does things that have to be questioned, so that’s my role as a journalist. I’m trying to find the story and what happened and why it happened.

“Erik Morales, who’s a guy I’ve championed for a long time, asked me before his last fight, why have I been hard on him, and I said, ‘Well, when you’ve created a high standard like yourself, and then you lose three out of four fights, people want to know what’s going on—and I’m one of them.’ If he and his fans don’t appreciate that, then I’m sorry.

“When a great singer or band or musician performs in public and the critic or the reporter goes to write about it, if his performance is beneath his customary standard or is in some way not what he normally does, then it’s going to be written about and talked about. We’re not just there to worship and/or appreciate, which is what every performer thinks every critic or reporter should do. We’re there to ask questions. And in my mind, there’s no hard questions if you know the answer.

“I understand that if the passionate fan who wants to celebrate or commiserate with his champion doesn’t want to hear or see him in a way others might see him, and I get that, but it’s part of the deal. If I dish it out,” said Merchant, “I have to be able to take it.”

Articles of 2006

Peter/Toney Ii: Peter Has The Brutal Punch

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Samuel Peter claims he has dynamites in my two hands?

Heavyweight contenders Samuel “The Nigerian Nightmare” Peter and James Lights Out? Toney get it on a second time this Saturday from the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla. (Showtime).

The hard-slugging Peter, unlike Toney, is one of those strong, silent types notorious for letting their fists to the talking one the opening bell sounds, but the Nigeria Nightmare is as confident as ever and determined to turn Lights Out’s lights out for good.

I have got dynamites in my two hands,? said Peter, according the Lagos, Nigeria Vanguard, and I will crush James Toney once and for all. The Toney camp made the mistake of their lives by protesting and seeking a rematch. I am ready to teach him a bitter lesson.?

Sam Peter walked away with the W for Peter/Toney I at the Staples Center in LA last September, but it was by disputed split decision a verdict so disputed, there was even a dispute about the dispute which forced the WBC’s hand into mandating Saturday’s rematch.

Samuel Peter is the biggest thing to hit African boxing since Ghanaian superstar Azumah Nelson rocked the feather and junior welterweight divisions. The President of the Nigeria Boxing Board of Control, Prince Olaide Adeboye, admitted, according to allAfrica.com, We are rooting for Samuel Peter, of course. He is one boy we believe in to bring back the country’s lost glory in professional boxing. I am personally making arrangement to be at the ringside to see him fight Toney again. I was at the first fight in Los Angeles in September.

Peter has the brutal punch, and to me he was the clear winner of the first fight. But the WBC Board of Governors, of which I am a member, voted 21-10 for a rematch. There was nothing those of us Africans on the board could do in the circumstances. But I believe Peter will confirm he is better than Toney and will then go ahead to meet the champion and claim the belt for Nigeria and Africa.?

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Articles of 2006

The Sweet Science P4P Rankings for Asia

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There are claims that boxing is dying. Hogwash. The heavyweight division isn’t the only division in boxing and 2007 promises to be a banner year in boxing; especially for boxers hailing from Asia.

While Asia isn’t Vegas or Atlantic City, it is a region packed of diamonds in the rough; undiscovered gems and potential superstars who wait for their moment in the sun.

The Sweet Science P4P Rankings – Asia

1) Manny Pacquiao – There’s no way to dispute Pacquiao is the best fighter in Asia, if not all of boxing. He’s exciting, he wins with Je Ne Sais Quois and is definitely “the man” in boxing.

2) Pongsaklek Wonjongkam – Although his competition leaves much to be desired, his longevity and skills are undeniable. He is currently Thailand’s only world champion and is undefeated in ten years. Need I say more?

3) Chris John – A victory over Juan Manuel Marquez, however controversial, shows he belongs at the top of the heap. He easily outpointed Renan Acosta to close out 2006 and should have no trouble defending against Jose Rojas in February. A fight with Pacquiao would not be a good move on his part but a rematch with Marquez would not hurt – especially if he defeats the Mexican again.

4) Hozumi Hasegawa – Hidden away in Japan, Hasegawa is a sharp punching southpaw who put former champion Veeraphol Sahaprom to sleep. He recently bested Genaro Garcia and his herky-jerky style will give fits to any one who steps in the ring with him.

5) Masomori Tokuyama – Tokuyama has never shied away from a good fight and although he only fought once in 2006 (UD12 Jose Navarro), he ledger shows wins over Katsushige Kawashima (twice), Gerry Penalosa (twice) and In Jin Chi (twice). A fight with Hozumi Hasegawa is a distinct possibility in 2007.

6) Nobuo Nashiro – With only seven fights under his belt he took on WBA champion Martin Castillo – and defeated him. Although he’s only fought a total of nine fights, nearly all have been against quality opposition. A victory in a rematch with Castillo would cement his claim as the king of the 115-pound division.

7) Yukata Niida – This light-hitting minimumweight defended his title twice in 2006, winning a technical decision against unbeaten Eriberto Gejon (Tech Win 10) and the other on points over Ronald Barrera (W 12). Scheduled to meet Katsunari Takayama early next year – the best has yet to come for this WBA belt holder.

8) In Jin Chi – Won back the title he lost to Takashi Koshimoto in January from Rudolfo Lopez. While there’s little uncertainty to his skills, at thirty-three, 2007 may provide some insight as to just how much he has left.

9) Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai –Sor Nonthachai is an exciting, top-shelf fighter with an iron chin. Has no trouble making mincemeat of mid-level opposition and deserves a title shot in 2007. Time is running out.

10) Rey Bautista – He’s young, relatively inexperienced in big-time boxing, but will continue to shine in 2007. One of the better prospects in boxing, he should snag a title in 2007.

Asian Fighters Ranked in Ring Magazine

Pound for Pound:

Manny Pacquiao (Philippines): #2

Jr. Lightweight

Manny Pacquiao (Philippines): #1
Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai: #9

Featherweight

Chris John (Indonesia) #1
In Jin Chi (Korea) #3
Takashi Koshimoto (Japan) #5
Hioyuki Enoki (Japan) #7

Jr. Featherweight

Somsak Sithchatchawal (Thailand) #4

Bantamweight

Hozumi Hasegawa (Japan) #2
Veeraphol Sahaprom (Japan) #3
Ratanachai Sor Vorapin (Thailand) #6
Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym (Thailand) #10

Jr. Bantamweight

Nobuo Nashiro (Japan) #1
Katsushige Kawashima (Japan) #7
Pramuansak Phosuwan (Thailand) #10

Flyweight

Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (Thailand) #1
Takefumi Sakata (Japan) #7
Daisuke Naito (Japan) #10

Jr. Flyweight

Koki Kameda (Japan) #1

Minimumweight

Yukata Naiida (Japan) #2
Eagle Kyowa (Japan/Thai) #4
Katsunari Takayama (Japan) #5
Rodel Mayol (Philippines) #7

Boxing in Thailand

There’s no shortage of boxers in Thailand. With a huge pool of Muay Thai fighters to draw from and several talented amateur boxing prospects turning pro after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Thailand seems destined to remain a boxing powerhouse in Asia.

The country is known for having tough, determined and disciplined fighters who give their all whenever the step in to the ring. However, consistently losing while fighting abroad and padding their records with no-hopers has done nothing to enhance their reputation.

Whether because of a lack of marketability, a lack of funds or their unwillingness to travel abroad, the vast majority of boxers from Thailand remain a mystery to fans in the west. If anything though, the boxing scene involving Thai fighters will be active. In fact, it’s one of the most active in the world; since 2000, the number of fights has nearly doubled in the country.

The Sweet Science P4P Rankings – Thailand – August 2006

1) Pongsaklek Wonjongkam
2) Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym
3) Somsak Sithchatchawal
4) Wandee Singwancha
5) Sirimongkol Singwancha
6) Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai
7) Veeraphol Sahaprom
8) Pramuansak Phosuwan
9) Terdsak Jandaeng
10) Oleydong Sithamerchai

Current Sweet Science P4P Rankings – Thailand

1) Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (Flyweight) – Definitely the top dog in Thailand

2) Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai (Super Lightweight) – He’s a seasoned fighter who has proven himself in the big-time. He’s one Thai who can fight outside of Asia. He has an abundance of skills and one-punch power. His overall ability and ease in dispatching anyone other than championship caliber get him the runners-up spot.

3) Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym (Super Bantamweight) – After losing to Vladimir Sidorenko he’s bounced back. He’s young, he can punch, but the former interim champion needs to prove himself against a name fighter.

4) Somsak Sithchatchawal (Super Bantamweight) – Was his win over Monshipour a fluke or was Celestino Caballero just that good? Did Sithchatchawal catch Monshipour at the right time and can he rebound from the devastating loss? The jury is still out.

5) Wandee Singwancha (Flyweight) – He doesn’t have much of a punch which will be his downfall in the end. He can box, as was evidenced in his recent victory over Juanito Rubillar, but this won’t be enough. He can no longer make the Jr. Flyweight limit and with no punch he’ll have a hard time competing against the “big boys.” Although he’s now rated second by the WBC, he doesn’t deserve to be.

5) Sirimongkol Singwancha (Super Lightweight) – Get this guy a fight. He’s better than Jose Armando Santa Cruz and would have beat up Inada had the fight taken place. He’ll fight anyone but his biggest obstacle is staying motivated fighting tomato cans in Thailand. Like many Thais, he needs a fight against a name opponent.
6) Wandee Singwancha (Flyweight) – He doesn’t have much of a punch which will be his downfall in the end. He can box, as was evidenced in his recent victory over Juanito Rubillar, but this won’t be enough. He can no longer make the Jr. Flyweight limit and with no punch he’ll have a hard time competing against the “big boys.” Although he’s now rated second by the WBC, he doesn’t deserve to be.

7) Pramuansak Phosuwan (Super Flyweight) – A genuine tough guy. Always calm and focused no matter how heated the battle. But at thirty-eight, he’ll be in trouble should he fight one of the division’s elite.
8) Veeraphol Sahaprom (Bantamweight) – Will be lucky to get another crack at the title. Although he has a puncher’s chance of winning a belt, that’s about all he has left at this point. A third shot at Hasegawa is unlikely.

9) Oleydong Sithamerchai (Minimumweight) – He’s fought better than the usual opponents faced by Thais at his level and he moves up one spot with the departure of Terdsak Jandaeng. He lacks the punch and is in the wrong division to become a superstar. He’ll need to defeat a name opponent to convince me.

10) Saenghiran Lookbanyai / Napapol Kittisakchokchai (Super Bantamweight) – These two square-off in early March, supposedly to see who deserves a shot at Israel Vasquez. Kittisakchokchai has the edge in experience but some feel Lookbanyai has the edge in heart and is the favorite.

Neither has defeated a top twenty fighter and yet are ranked number one and two respectively in the WBC’s world.

In Kittisakchokchoi’s lone shot at the big-time, he was TKO’d in 10 by Oscar Larios. His dreadful performance against Larios and lack of quality opposition leads me to believe Saenghiran might have more of a shot at beating him than some suspect. Regardless, neither of them lasts longer than six rounds with Israel Vasquez.

Honorable Mention: Wethya Sakmuangklang, Denkaosan Kaovichit, Devid Lookmahanak, Nethra Sasiprapa, Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo, Pornsawan Kratingdaenggym

Thai Fighters Ranked in Ring Magazine

Pongsaklek Wonjongkam: #1 Flyweight
Pramuansak Phosuwan: #10 Jr. Bantamweight
Veeraphol Sahaprom: #3 Bantamweight
Ratanachai Sor Vorapin: #6 Bantamweight
Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym: #10 Bantamweight
Somsak Sithchatchawal: #3 Jr. Featherweight
Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai: #9 Lightweight

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Articles of 2006

Iceman Stops Tito Ortiz Win Streak

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LAS VEGAS—UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck “Iceman” Liddell’s fists proved too much for Huntington Beach’s Tito Ortiz who was stopped in the third round before a sold out crowd at the MGM Garden Arena on Saturday.

The punching machine Liddell (20-3, 13 KOs) repeated his victory in UFC 66 over the much-improved grappler Ortiz who has improved his punching and blocking. Ortiz was trying to avenge his loss of April 2004.

Despite all the new weapons displayed by Ortiz it wasn’t enough as Liddell pummeled the former champion and retained his title with a technical knockout at 3:59 of the third round. Referee Mario Yamasaki stopped the bout.

“This was the most satisfying victory of my career,” said Liddell, 36, of Santa Barbara. “Tito came back real tough.”

Ortiz (15-5, 8 KOs), a former wrestler, worked on his boxing technique knowing he would need it against the former boxer Liddell. But Liddell’s experience allowed him to find the right moment to pounce on Ortiz.

“I had him hurt, I just kept throwing punches,” said Liddell who also knocked down Ortiz in the first round with a left hook.

Ortiz was gracious in defeat.

“Chuck is the best fighter Pound for Pound in the (mixed martial arts) world,” said Ortiz, 31, who suffered a gash on the side of his left eye from a punch. “I’m disgusted by myself. I let my fans down.”

Other bouts

Underdog Keith Jardine (12-3-1) knocked out Forrest Griffin (13-4) at 4:41 of the first round in their light heavyweight showdown. A right uppercut followed by a left hook wobbled Griffin who was sent to the floor by a barrage of punches. On the ground Jardine landed right after right until referee John McCarthy stopped the fight for a technical knockout.

“I couldn’t believe he was hurt,” said Jardine about Griffin who is known for his resiliency. “I was so nervous coming into this fight, but now I know I belong here.”

Canada’s Jason McDonald (18-7) choked out Chris Leben (15-3) in a middleweight bout that was up for grabs. Though Leben seemed to control the fight with stunning left hands, once the fight went to the ground McDonald managed a chokehold at 4:03 of the second round. Referee Steve Mazagatti saw Leben was unconscious and stopped the fight.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski (12-5) caught Brazil’s Mario Cruz (2-2) with a sneak right hand while both were tangled on the ground. Then the Belarusian pummeled Cruz until referee Herb Dean stopped the fight at 3:15 of the first round.

Third season winner of the Ultimate Fighter television reality season Michael Bisping (12-0) of Great Britain won by technical knockout over Eric Shafer (9-2-2) at 4:29 of the first round. A knee knocked Shafer groggy then Bisping knocked him to the ground and pounded him. Referee Mario Yamasaki stopped the bludgeoning.

Thiago Alves (16-4) caught Peru’s Tony De Souza (15-5) with a knee as he attempted to dive for his legs in a welterweight contest. After that it was pretty much over as Alves pummeled De Souza at 1:10 of the second round forcing referee John McCarthy to halt the bout.

Gabriel Gonzago (7-1) proved too strong for Carmelo Marrero (6-1) in a heavyweight bout. At 3:22 of the first round Gonzago of Massachusetts manipulated his way into arm bar forcing Pennsylvania’s Marrero to tap out.

Japan’s Yushin Okami (19-3) pounded Georgia’s Rory Singer (11-6) into submission at 4:03 of the third round of a middleweight bout. Okami seemed the more-rounded fighter with effective kicks to the head and more accurate punching.

Christian Wellisch (8-2) jumped to a quick start with an accurate left hook that rattled Australia’s Anthony Perosh (5-3) in a heavyweight bout. During the first round it seemed the Sacramento fighter might end the fight but the Aussie hung tough. Wellisch won by unanimous decision.

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