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Articles of 2010

IMPOSSIBLE COMEBACKS HOLD THE MAGIC OF SPORTS

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The joke is nearly as old as the one-liner in which standup comedian Henny Youngman would tell audiences, “Take my wife … please.

But no place in the occasionally rough-and-tumble world of hockey has the joke – “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out – been more true than in Philadelphia, where the Flyers’ Stanley Cup championship teams of 1974 and ’75, known in legend and lore as the “Broad Street Bullies, became something of a civic treasure by dropping their gloves and subduing opponents as much with their fists as with their skills. An unapologetic brawler named Dave “The Hammer Schultz didn’t score many goals, but he became an icon almost on a par with the real star of the Bullies, Bobby Clarke, a tough guy in his own right. The Flyers of that era made the toothless grin more fashionable than polyester leisure suits.

It has been 35 years since the Flyers won it all, a drought that could well continue as the current NHL playoffs progress, but a less-physical yet no less feisty group of players sidled alongside the beloved Bullies for the enduring devotion of a blue-collar town in which obstinance and a refusal to yield to adversity are perhaps more prized than superior talent.

When the final seconds ticked off of the Flyers’ 4-3 victory over the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night at TD Garden, capping a comeback for the ages, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what it is that makes sports the aphrodisiac of the masses. It is the unscripted nature of athletes in competition, the possibility if not the likelihood that victory can somehow be snatched from the jaws of defeat, that keeps fans intrigued. On the ice or in the ring, there are no sure things.

“Our mindset was, if you are going to go down, you are going to go down swinging, Flyers captain Mike Richards said after his team became only the third (of 162) to climb out of a three-games-to-none hole to win a best-of-seven series. And these dinged-up Flyers – minus two of their better players (Jeff Carter with a broken foot, Ian Laperriere with a concussion and broken orbital bone) – did it in crunch time in a manner that was emblematic of the entire series, rallying from a 3-0 first-period deficit to win in the other team’s building.

Unlike the Bullies, these Flyers didn’t beat the Bruins, the team they defeated in the 1974 finals, with Schultz-like tactics. There weren’t any actual fights; their margin of error was too narrow to risk too many penalties. But they were nonetheless scrappy, giving up their bodies to deflect slapshots and provide journeyman goalie Michael Leighton a better chance to protect his net.

“We fought, coach Peter Laviolette said in explaining how a bunch, left for dead more often than the guy in the hockey mask in the Halloween movie and all its sequels, could continue to rise like Lazarus.

But the reality is that one team’s ecstacy is another’s agony. Although the Flyers’ impossible feat in part exorcised the last vestiges of the memories of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, who somehow blew a 6½-game lead with only 12 to play, the Bruins’ collapse had to bring back that town’s sad memories of all the years when the Red Sox ate the New York Yankees’ dust. They were so far ahead that there was no way they could lose, but they did.

“They stuck with it, the Bruins’ Milan Lucic said of the Flyers. “They came at us and came at us. They were relentless. They did what they needed to do.

Boxing, perhaps more than any sport, offers the possibility that the impossible is indeed possible. How many times have we seen a fighter teetering on the brink of disaster, only to emerge triumphant by landing one huge punch? It can happen literally at the last second, from deficits that even the 2009-10 Flyers would find amazing.

There are no best-of-seven series in the ring, but the careers of Matthew Saad Muhammad and the late Arturo Gatti are comprised of any number of one-act passion plays in which those never-say-die fighters reached deep inside themselves to find a spark that somehow was kindled into a raging fire. They made the shocking comeback their personal signature, ignoring cuts, swelling and wide disadvantages on the scorecards to believe in the sort of ultimate success that could not have been apparent to most observers.

Saad and Gatti, though, are not alone. Here are just five examples, listed in chronological order, of the instant magic that can turn a seeming beatdown into redemption.

MIKE WEAVER KO15 OF JOHN TATE, March 31, 1980
As his fighter, Tate, continued to build his lead on all three judges’ scorecards, promoter Bob Arum sat contentedly, turning his attention from what was happening in the ring to thoughts of what he envisioned would be Tate’s next bout, a multimillion-dollar showdown with the legendary Muhammad Ali. And why not? It was the 15th and final round and Tate was coasting, too far ahead on points to lose unless there was a completely unexpected catastrophe.

In this instance, the catastrophic came in the form of a crushing left hook that sent Tate pitching forward onto his face, unconscious, without even extending his arms to cushion his fall. When Arum looked up, Tate was down and out, and so was the notion of Tate defending his WBA heavyweight championship against Ali. The end came just 45 seconds from what would have been the final bell.

Thom Greer, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, described the knockout shot from ex-Marine Weaver as something that came “crashing against the jawbone just below the right earlobe with the kind of explosiveness that reduces aged buildings to rubble …

It was 11 full minutes before Tate could be revived, and even then he had to be assisted from the ring by stunned members of his corner crew.

“When I hit Tate flush on the chin, I honestly felt it all the way down the left side of my body, Weaver said. “I felt it all the way to my toes. I knew he wasn’t going to get up after that one.

SUGAR RAY LEONARD TKO14 OF THOMAS HEARNS, Sept. 16, 1981
Four words from trainer Angelo Dundee summed it up. Through 12 rounds of their welterweight unification bout at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace, Dundee’s fighter, WBC champion Sugar Ray Leonard, was losing to WBA titlist Thomas Hearns. Leonard had considerable swelling of his left eye that had begun to puff up in the third round, and Hearns seemed well-positioned to win one of the most anticipated bouts of that or any era.

“You’re blowing it, son! Dundee advised Leonard, as if the 1976 Olympic gold medalist needed to be reminded of the tough spot in which he found himself.

But blowing it isn’t the same as it being completely blown, not in boxing. Leonard landed a right-left combination that hurt Hearns in the pivotal 14th round. Hearns backed into the ropes, where Leonard unleashed a flurry of blows that prompted referee Davey Pearl to step in.

“I pulled it up from my guts, Leonard said in explaining his frantic rally.

JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ TKO12 OF MELDRICK TAYLOR, March 17, 1990
As was the case with Leonard-Hearns I nearly nine years earlier, the junior welterweight unification megafight between Chavez, who held the WBC version of the title, and IBF ruler Taylor mesmerized the boxing world. And, like Leonard-Hearns I, the hype proved more than justified; the two undefeated champions engaged in a classic at the Las Vegas Hilton that perhaps would be made more so by the controversial nature of its ending, one that continues to reverberate today.

Taylor, landing the higher volume of punches with rapid-fire combinations, was ahead on points against Chavez, the Mexican national hero whose heavier shots had left the Philadelphian’s face grotesquely swollen.

Unsure whether Taylor actually had the lead they believed he did, Taylor’s co-manager/trainer Lou Duva told him he needed to win the 12th round. So Taylor went out and again engaged Chavez toe-to-toe, a tactic that had made for a rousing spectacle but perhaps was not in his best interests. It proved to be a critical miscalculation of judgment.

Chavez buckled Taylor’s knees with an overhand right with just 26 seconds remaining, and a follow-up right put him down with 16 seconds to go. Taylor arose at the count of five, at which point referee Richard Steele gave him the remainder of the obligatory eight-count.

When Taylor did not respond to his question of “Are you all right? to his satisfaction, Steele waved his arms and awarded Chavez a technical-knockout victory at the 2:58 mark of the final round.

“I stood still to let (Steele) know I wasn’t on queer street … I was fully conscious and wasn’t wobbly, Taylor complained afterward.

Said Steele: “I looked into his eyes and saw a beaten fighter. I saw a fighter that had had enough.

JORGE CASTRO TKO9 OF JOHN DAVID JACKSON, Dec. 10, 1994
Give Castro credit for one thing: the WBA middleweight champion from Argentina could absorb punishment like a sponge, taking a volley of punches from Jackson, all the while defiantly signaling to the challenger that he was willing to take even more if that was the price to be paid to continue the one-sided bout in Monterrey, Mexico.

So Jackson, a southpaw, happily obliged, moving forward and landing just about anything he wanted as Castro’s face was transformed into a bloody pulp. On several occasions referee Stanley Christodoulou appeared ready to end the massacre, but Castro’s attempts to fight back were active enough for him to wait just a bit longer.

Christodoulou’s hesitation left open a tiny window of opportunity for Castro, and he squeezed through it in the ninth round. As Castro sagged against the ropes and again was being peppered by Jackson, the nearly blinded champion missed with a wild right hand, which was followed by a devastating left hook that resulted in a knockdown. Jackson beat the count, but he was clearly dazed. Reinvigorated, Castro was teeing off on him when Christodoulou stopped it at the 2:43 mark.

“Somewhere in the ninth round the hand of God touched me, Castro said of the punch he believed to be divine intervention.

Jackson said it was his self-assurance that it was all but over that was the difference. “I got careless, he said. “I got overconfident because I was shutting him out.

DIEGO CORRALES TKO10 OF JOSE LUIS CASTILLO, May 7, 2005
Few fights have had more pronounced swings in momentum than this lightweight unification spectacle at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, in which Corrales, the WBC champion, and WBO titlist Castillo threw themselves at each other with unabashed ferocity.

But Castillo appeared to gain the upper hand once and for all in the 10th round, during which he dropped Corrales twice. Corrales, both eyes swollen nearly shut, was done, finished. He seemed to have nothing left as he arose to face what figured to be Castillo’s final assault.

Appearances can be deceiving, though, and Corrales – given a reprieve by referee Tony Weeks when he again disgorged his mouthpiece, apparently intentionally – turned the fight on a dime, connecting with a series of punches that had Castillo reeling, nearly defenseless, before Weeks stepped in.

“I’ve never seen anybody come back like that, from those knockdowns, Joe Goossen, Corrales’ trainer, said of the Miracle at Mandalay Bay. “We were very worried in the corner. But I remember Diego telling me, `If you stop one of my fights, I’ll kill you.’

Bob Arum, Castillo’s promoter, was infuriated over Corrales’ time-buying tactics.

“Forget the Long Count, Arum huffed. “Twenty-eight seconds. Nearly half a minute. If Jose Luis had spit out his mouthpiece, mahybe we would have gotten 28 seconds (to recuperate).

Articles of 2010

Judah To Fight Mbuza March 5 In NJ

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Totowa, NJ – Kathy Duva, Main Events CEO, announced their promotional firm won the purse bid held at IBF headquarters in East Orange, NJ, Thursday. The bid was for the right to hold the IBF's junior welterweight title fight between Zab Judah of Brooklyn, NY and Las Vegas, and South Africa's Kaizer Mabuza.

IBF Championships Chairman, Lindsay Tucker explained, “It is a 50-50 split of the earnings between the two fighters. Kaizer is ranked No. 1 by the IBF, and Judah is No. 2. Where the fight will be held is up to the winning bidder.”

Judah (39-6, 26 KOs) is promoted by Main Events and his own firm Super Judah Promotions, and Branco Milenkovic, of South Africa, promotes Mabuza (23-6-3, 14 KOs).

Kathy Duva confirmed the fight will take place at Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, late February or early March this year as part of Main Events' Brick City Boxing Series.  (Saturday Update: the fight is March 5th, in NJ at the Pru Center. The bout will be part of a PPV card.)

“We are very happy that Zab has the opportunity to fight for the IBF Junior Welterweight title right here in New Jersey.  Winning this fight will put Zab right in the mix with the winner of Bradley-Alexander and Amir Khan.” Duva elaborated, ” Zab will work very hard to win this fight so that he will be one step closer to his ultimate goal of unifying all of the Junior Welterweight titles by the end of 2011!”

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Articles of 2010

UFC 125 Preview: Frankie Edgar Vs. Gray Maynard

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UFC_Edgar_and_Maynard_Dec._2010
Few predicted Frankie Edgar would grab the UFC lightweight championship last year but he did. Most felt he would eventually win it but Edgar not only took the title, he beat one of the best mixed martial artists in history to do it.

Edgar (13-1) has emerged from the milieu of nondescript MMA fighters to become one of the more brilliant performers for Ultimate Fighting Championship. Next comes a rematch with Gray “The Bully” Maynard (11-0) tomorrow at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. UFC 125 will be televised on pay-per-view.

All it took was not one, but two victories over BJ Penn.

If you’re not familiar with Penn, he’s one of the most versatile fighters in MMA history and had been nearly unbeatable in the 155-pound lightweight division. That is until he clashed with Edgar. Until he met New Jersey’s Edgar, the Hawaiian fighter chopped down lightweight opponents with ease. It was only the heavier welterweights he had problems against. Namely: Canada’s Georges St. Pierre.

Edgar showed poise, speed and grit in defeating Penn in back-to-back fights. The world took notice.

“You know, if I keep winning fights, the respect will come eventually,” said Edgar during a conference call.

Now Edgar will find out if he can avenge the only loss on his record.

“I just think I grew as a fighter. You know, mentally, you know, physically I, you know, possess differently skills, increased – you know, I think I boxed and got better, my Jiu-Jitsu got better and, you know, just have much more experience now,” Edgar says.

Maynard seeks to find out if Edgar has added any more fighting tools to his repertoire. Back in April 2008, the artillery shelled out was not enough to beat the Las Vegas fighter.

“It’s a perfect time. He had the chance and, you know, he took it and the time is now for me and I’m prepared,” said Maynard (11-0). “Any time you’re going up against the top in the world, you evolve and change and so I’m prepared for a new fight, so it will be good. I’m pumped for it.”

Though Maynard’s record indicates he is unbeaten that’s not entirely true. He did suffer a defeat to Nate Diaz during The Ultimate Fighter series and subsequently avenged that loss last January.

The UFC lightweight title is in Maynard’s bull’s eye.

“Looking to take the belt for sure,” said Maynard. “We’ll see on January 1.”

Edgar versus Maynard should be a good one.

Other bouts:

Nate Diaz (13-5) faces Dong Hyun Kim (13-0-1) in another welterweight tussle. Diaz is the only fighter with a win over Maynard. Anyone watching TUF remembers Maynard tapping out from a Diaz guillotine choke. The Modesto fighter has a tough fight against South Korea’s Kim.

Chris Leben (21-6) fights Brian Stann (9-3) in a middleweight fight. Leben is a veteran of MMA and if an opponent is not ready for a rough and tumble fight, well, that fighter is not going to win. Stann dropped down from light heavyweight and we’ll see if the cut in weight benefits the Marine.

Brandon Vera (11-5) meets Thiago Silva (14-2) in a light heavyweight match up. Vera is trying to rally back to the promising fighter he was tabbed several years back. Silva is a very tough customer and eager to crash the elite. A victory by either fighter could mean a ticket to the big time.

Clay Guida (27-8) versus Takanori Gomi (32-6) in a lightweight bout. Guida has become one of the most feared fighters without a title. No one has an easy time with the long-haired fighter. Gomi lost to Kenny Florian but knocked out Tyson Griffin. Can he survive Guida?

Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis (22-8) clashes with Jeremy Stephens (18-6) in another lightweight fight. Davis is a go-for-broke kind of fighter and is looking to get back in the win column after a tumultuous battle with Nate Diaz last August. Stephens needs a win too. In his last bout he lost to Melvin Guillard.

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Articles of 2010

Borges Looks Back, And Forward With Hope

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As the end of another year approaches, there’s no need to invoke Charles Dickens to describe what went on in boxing. It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. It was just too much time spent on The Fight That Never Took Place.

For the second straight year the sport could not deliver The Fight, the only one fans universally wanted and even casual fans craved – the mix between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao.  No one has to be singled out for blame for that failure because this time there’s plenty to go around on both sides. The larger issue is what does it say about a sport when it cannot deliver its top event?

What would the NFL be without the Super Bowl? Where would major league baseball be without the World Series? Golf without the Masters? College basketball without March Madness?

They would all be less than they could be and so it was with boxing this year. Having said that, the sport was not without its signature moments. It was not bereft of nights that left those of us with an abiding (and often unrequited) love for prize fighting with good reason to hope for the future.

Three times promoter Bob Arum took the sport into massive stadium venues just like the good (very) old days and each time boxing drew a far larger crowd than its many critics expected. Twice those fights involved the sport’s leading ambassador, Pacquiao, who brought in crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 fans into Cowboys Stadium against inferior opponents Joshua Clottey and Antonio Margarito. Imagine what he might have done had Mayweather been in the opposite corner?

While both fights were, as expected, lopsided affairs, they showcased the one boxer who has transcended his sport’s confining walls to become a cultural icon and world celebrity. Pacquiao alone put boxing (or at least one boxer) on the cover of TIME and into the pages of such varied publications as Esquire, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, the American Airlines in-flight magazine and even Atlantic Monthly.

As history has proven time and again, that is what happens when boxing has a compelling personality to sell it and Pacquiao is that. Mayweather is such a person as well,  but for different reasons.

The one night he appeared in a boxing ring, he set the year’s pay-per-view standard against Shane Mosley while also leaving a first hint of dark mystery when he was staggered by two stinging right hands in the second round.

Mayweather was momentarily in trouble for the first time in his career but the moment passed quickly and Mosley never had another. By the end he had been made to look old and futile, a faded athlete who’d had his chance and was unable to do anything with it. So it goes in this harsh sport when the sands are running out of the hour glass.

As always there were some surprising upsets, most notably Jason Litzau’s domination of an uninterested and out of shape Celestino Caballero and Sergio Martinez’s one-punch demolishment of Paul Williams. The latter was not so much an upset as it was a stunning reminder that when someone makes a mistake against a highly skilled opponent in this sport they don’t end up embarrassed. They end up unconscious.

SHOWTIME did all it could to further the future of the sport, offering up a continuation of its interminably long but still bold Super Six super middleweight tournament as well as the launching of a short form bantamweight tournament which already gave fans to two stirring and surprising finishes with Joseph Agbeko decisioning Jhonny Perez and Abner Mares upsetting Victor Darchinyan in a battle of contusions.

While the Super Six has had its problems – including several of the original six pulling out – it also lifted the profile of former Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward from nearly unknown to the cusp of universal recognized as the best super middleweight in the world this side of Lucian Bute. If Ward continues winning he’ll get to Bute soon enough because that’s why SHOWTIME signed a TV deal with the Canadian and America may get its next boxing star if Ward proves to be what I think he is – which is still underrated and underappreciated.

HBO and HBO pay-per-view put on 23 shows, few of them compelling and many of them paying big money to the wrong people while doing little or nothing to grow the sport that has helped make their network rich. But they did have the knockout of the year – Martinez’s second round destruction of Williams – and some fights in the lower weight classes that were left you wanting more.

Two new names popped up who are causing the kind of fan reaction that also gives us hope for 2011 – American Brandon Rios and Mexican Saul Alvarez. They are two of the sport’s brightest young prospects because each comes to the arena the old-fashioned way – carrying nothing but bad intentions.
Aggression and knockouts still sell boxing faster than anything else and each exhibited plenty of both this year and left fans wanting to see more. Alvarez is already a star in Mexico without having yet won a world title and Rios is the definition of “promise.’’ Whether the star will continue to shine and promise will be fulfilled may be answered next year and so we wait anxiously to find out.

Backed by Golden Boy Promotions, there is no reason 2011 shouldn’t be Alvarez’s year and if it is people will notice and remember him because he has a crowd-pleasing style that is all about what sells most.

That is what boxing needs more of – fresh faces and new stars… so as fans we should root for guys like Alvarez, Ward, Rios and young Brit Amir Khan, who is a star in England but still a question mark with a questionable chin but a fighter’s heart here in the U.S.

Those guys and others not yet as well known are the future of boxing, a sport that for too long has been recycling the likes of Mosley (as it will again in May for one last beating against Pacquiao in a fight that's a joke), Bernard Hopkins (who can still fight although it is unclear why he bothers or where it’s all headed), Roy Jones and, sadly, even 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who continues to delude himself but not many other people into believing he will soon unify the heavyweight title again.
If fighters like Ward, Alvarez, Rios, Khan, WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto and middleweight king Sergio Martinez continue their rise they could be the antidote for the art of the retread that Arum and Golden Boy have been forcing fans to buy the past few years at the expense of what boxing needs most – fresh faces.

The heavyweight division, which many believe determines the relevancy of boxing to the larger world, remains a vast desert of disinterest here in the US. The Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, hold 75 per cent of the title belts but few peoples’ imaginations in the US, although to be fair they are European superstars and don’t really need U.S. cable TV money to thrive economically.

Each defended their titles twice this year, Vitali against lame competition (Albert Sosnowski and Shannon Briggs) and Wladimir against better fighters (Sam Peter and Eddie Chambers) but not competitive ones. Sadly, there is no American on the horizon to challenge them, a comment on the division and on our country, where the athletes who used to be Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali now opt for the easier and frankly safer road of the NFL or the NBA. Who can blame them considering all the nonsense a fighter has to go through to just make a living these days?

The one heavyweight match that would be compelling and might lift the sport up for at least a night would be either of the Klitschkos facing lippy WBA champion David Haye. The fast-talking Brit claims to not be ducking them but he’s had more maladies befall him after shouting from the rooftops how much he wants to challenge them that you have to wonder if Haye is simply a case of big hat no cattle syndrome.

For the sake of the sport, we should all be lighting candles each night in hopes our prayers will be answered and Haye will finally agree to meet one of them. It may not prove to be much of a fight but at least it will give us something to talk about for a few months.

Whatever Haye and the Klitschkos decide the fighter with the most upside at the moment however seems to be Sergio Martinez.  He has matinee idol looks, a big enough punch to put Paul Williams to sleep with one shot and a work ethic second to none. The Argentine fighter had a year for himself, starting with a drubbing of Kelly Pavlik followed by his demolishment of Williams. Those kinds of victories, coupled with his Oscar De La Hoya-like looks, are the type of things that if HBO or SHOWTIME would get behind him could allow Martinez to capture the attention of both fight fans and more casual ones.

In general, Hispanics fighters continued to dominate much of the sport’s front pages with Juan Manuel Marquez’s two victories in lightweight title fights leading that storyline. His war with Michael Katsidis is a strong candidate for Fight of the Year and his technical skill and calm demeanor make him the uncrowned challenger to Pacquiao. The two have unfinished business that should be settled this year if Arum stops standing in the way.

Two other fighters who gave us moments to remember in 2010 were Juan Manuel Lopez, who knocked out three solid opponents including highly respected Mexican warrior Rafael Marquez, and Giovani Segura, who won four times (that’s three years work for Mayweather) in 2010, all by knockout. Along the way, Segura defeated one of the great minimum weight fighters in history, slick Ivan Calderon, to win the belt on Aug. 28.

Lastly, boxing gave us another magical cinematic moment as well with the release of “The Fighter,’’ a film based on the life and hard times of junior welterweight scrapper Micky Ward. The film has won rave reviews and many awards and seems likely to have several of its actors nominated for Academy Awards, most notable Christian Bale for his sadly humorous portrayal of Ward’s troubled half brother, former fighter Dickie Ecklund.

Boxing has a long history of providing the framework for memorable movies and it did it again with “The Fighter,’’ a film that did more for boxing than any promoter did all year.

All in all, it wasn’t the best of years for boxing but it was a good year that picked up speed in the final months and, like that great golf shot you finally hit out of the rough on the 18th, left us with reasons to hope for a better year in 2011. If somehow it gives us Mayweather-Pacquiao, the emergence of Alvarez and Rios, the ascension of Martinez and Haye vs. the best available Klitschko in addition to the kind of solid performances that always come along, it could be a year to remember.

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