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Articles of 2010

Just When He Thought He Was Out, Teddy Atlas Gets Pulled Back In

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I had a lengthy, candid, mentally challenging conversation with Teddy Atlas last week. The ESPN analyst, and sometimes trainer, talked about his new charge, the Russian heavyweight Alexander Povetkin.

As the chat with Teddy went past the five, then ten-minute mark, I found myself drifting off, to a quote made by The Godfather, Michael Corleone, in The Godfather III (1990).

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in, says Corleone, irked that his stab at respectability has been interrupted by a magnetic tug from his organized crime past.

This is not to insinuate in any way, shape or form anything untoward about Atlas. Rather, the hesitance he admitted to in returning to a training role, in light of his disdain for so many of the selfish, greed-inspired, exploitation specialists who comprise the promoter-manager side of the game inspired my analogy. Corleone, like Atlas, was drawn into a world inhabited by flawed characters, engaging quite often in morally suspect or bankrupt practices. But like Corleone, Atlas couldnt disengage from that world.

The Mafia corollary is far from perfect. The fight game is for sure littered with objectionable persons, and lax standards and practices, which Atlas abhors. But the athletes themselves are typically cut from a cleaner cloth. The boxers themselves seek nothing more than an opportunity to work hard, and be rewarded with a decent wage. Atlas, since he started in the fight game as a teen, duking it out in the Police Athletic League gyms on Staten Island, moving on to follow his pal Kevin Rooney to Cus DAmatos Catskill compound, had nothing but respect for the fighters, the ones who did it right, gave their all. But hed been burned a few times, after getting too close, caring too much, and feeling let down when his guys drifted off, or resisted his disciplinary code.

Teddys last client was the New York based 175 pounder, Elvir Muriqi, who fightwatchers might know from his more-than-respectable showing against Antonio Tarver in a 2007 loss. Atlas wasnt with him at the time, and the ESPN expert has resisted invitations to corner fighters since then. But he was intrigued when he got an invitation to assess Russian heavyweight Alexander Povetkin last summer. He went to Russia, liked what he saw of Povetkin, and more importantly, liked what he heard from the kid. Teddys gut, after a stroll and chat session, told him this is someone who will be amenable to input, who wont chafe at Atlas rigorous demands. Atlas signed off as Povetkins trainer.

He was pulled back in. That meant hed be once again in the orbit of those scumbags who look to do nothing much more than make a buck off a guy, use him up and spit him out. Not necessarily Povetkins people. I dont know them and cant speak to their reputation. But being in boxing, at a high level, means mingling with sharks on two legs.

Atlas accepted that trade off, and looked to smooth the rough edges off Povetkin. Starting with a July 19, 2009 win over Taurus Sykes, Povetkin (19-0 with 14 KOs) and Atlas teamed up to go 4-0. In his last bout, the 30-year-old Russian scored a TKO5 win over Javier Mora in Germany.

Atlas didnt go overboard talking up his kid. He didnt try to tell you that Sykes, and Jason Estrada and Leo Nolan and Javier Mora were this generations version of Foreman, Norton, Frazier and Lyle. Hed tell people that his kid–funny word for a 29-year-old, but Teddy uses it, which indicates his mindset when assuming the role of trainer–had promise, that he was coming along, that he was acting like a professional. That he was making the right choices, that he was progressing towards something, even if that was simply maximizing his potential, let alone grabbing a heavyweight championship.

The kid, who Teddy calls Sasha, wasnt as busy as Teddy wouldve liked. But the kids management were working on getting him fights, including the big one.

A Klitschko fight. The chance of a lifetime.

Meaty money.

Wladimir, the one with the iffier chin.

***

I ask Teddy about that opportunity, which was slated for Sept. 11 in Germany. He didnt bubble over with joy, shall we say. He reacts with the temperament of a guy who has been around the block, in a variety of rides, and knows that the journey would inevitably include bumps. The ride wouldnt be in a stretch limo, all expenses paid.

Up front, Atlas tells me that Povetkins dad had recently passed away. He pauses as he goes there. Maybe hes pondering his own father, the late Dr. Theodore Atlas, who is a revered figure on Staten Island, for his tireless efforts at caregiving, at his old school ways of doing $7 house calls for the sick and indigent.

Atlas says hell be assessing Povetkins mental state during a minicamp here in the US, seeing if hed be able to get a handle emotionally, if hes be ready to be the undersized (6-2, 225) underdog against the oversized 6-6 1/2, 245-pound champion.

I ask Atlas if his kid could win. If he didnt think he couldnt win, he wouldnt counsel the kid to take the fight, he says. But.. Atlas said…But…hed like more time to smooth off those edges. To get the kid understanding that it has to be an every second of every round deal. That offense flows off defense, and vice versa.

I havent been thinking world title or big money fight, Atlas tells me. Im asking the kid to be consistent for twelve rounds. Thats where I differ from promoters, from the people whose goal it is to get that big fight.

Teddy, can and will your guy beat Klitschko?

If its up to me, I dont give a s–t about Klitschko. Hes progressing. Hes getting better. I see the ability to continue to keep getting better. To get a little more streamlined physically, throw punches for a reason, be a little more targeted, not be as susceptible to the right, use the jab more, no snoozes at the wrong distance. If I had my druthers, Id like to get as close as possible to running on all cylinders (before getting the big fight). But I wouldnt be training him if I didnt think he would prevail. And I firmly believe I know what it takes to beat Klitschko. I firmly believe that I can impart that to my fighter. I dont know if he can act on it for twelve rounds, thats a different thing. At the end of the minicamp (last Friday), well have a helluva better idea.

Teddy knows, as there was with Michael Moorer, and Kirk Johnson and Muriqi, when the temptation will come to tune him out. If he stays with Povetkin, and the kid gets some big wins, and grows his bankroll, he might well not be as receptive at fight 40 as he was at fight 20.

His posse might give him the OK to relax. Might insinuate that Atlas is wound a bit too tight. Might seek to create a wedge. The suits, the dealmakers, they are enough, practically, to keep Atlas from ever signing on with another kid.

I hate parts of this business, he says. I love the purity of this business. The nobility of the fighters. But the corruptors, the administrators, I hate them.

If Teddy were to stay with the kid, and allow what looks to me might be taking on a father-son sort of dynamic, he might get hurt. Never fall in love with your fighter, anyone in Teddys place has been told. Too many times, hes given in. Allowed himself to love, to be vulnerable, to share some of the lessons he got from watching and talking to his dad.

But it can be argued that Atlas isnt built right for the game. Its easier to be amoral, to see the kid as an ATM, as a vehicle to ones own success. Its easier to have a hardened heart, to work the game like The Godfather worked his turf.

Earn.

Make money, not an emotional investment. Rather than step over and around the mud, or even try and clean it up, wallow in it.

Everyone else is wallowing, I might as well too. That hasnt been Atlas way.

He talks about a mans inability to be a witness to his weakness. He talks about how human beings shrink at being evaluated by someone whose brand of love is tough. Im not going to be a yes man, he says. To be a trainer you have to make them cognizant.

Except, you dont. You can get along, and look the other way, and not tell the kid the harsh truth, alert him if hes lapsing into self delusion. Thats easier if your cut of the purse is fat. Many guys take the tradeoff. More money, less harshness, less discipline.

The sting of the inevitable seeps into Atlas voice. He talks about how the time for the betrayal, mostly of an adherence to standards, to a code of ruthless self appraisal, moves closer to actuality the minute you sign on to corner a guy. But hes hoping, as far as I can tell, that Povetkin will be different. That he wont let the bond fray. That he wont allow the marriage, because thats what Atlas enters into when he trains a guy, a marriage, wither, or morph into a union of convenience.

Atlas admits he doesnt want to let the kid down. Its not a one way street in his head. What if at the end of the day, Povetkin allows himself to believe fully in Teddy ways, his stringent requirements. He buys in, and works to his max, but it isnt enough? Will he feel let down? Will the bond begin to fray then? He bought in, the trainer says. He believes. I know what I say is the truth. But its not a guarantee, that itll work out. Thats the real world, not just boxing.

It doesnt matter, Atlas decides. Not now, it doesnt matter know. Im a teacher, he says. Cus told me I was born to be a teacher. It mightve been to BS me, he says, chuckling. But I can help Povetkin. He is green. I should help him.
***

Atlas recalls a night. He was about ten. It was around midnight, and his dad, who passed away in 1994, came home from a round of house-calls and hospital visits. Teddy the kid chatted with him as he ate some fruit.

Where were you? the kid asked.

I stopped to see a patient in a hospital. Hes very sick. Cancer, Theodore Atlas said.

But hell be all better now, right?

No.

Young Teddy couldnt believe it.

Hes going to die, his dad said.

Why were you with him then? Its midnight!

Because you you dont give up on life, the doctor said.

See, Cus gave me a lot of philosophy, and a lot of theory, Atlas continues. But my father did it.
***

And will Atlas stick with it? History says he will exit, will have gotten his fill of the proximity to the muddy wallowers, and head back to the booth. If it goes bad, Ill understand. I wont be surprised or shocked. But that doesnt mean Ill stop trying, stop caring. When I stop being disappointed I might as well not get involved. Then you dont care anymore. Then whats the sense of living? If you stop expecting people to do the right thing, to be full human being, then you have no care for things that matter. Im in with this kid, Atlas says. These c——-s, they have no honor, but the kid, Im committed to this kid. I fell in love with this kid. Im not supposed to. Cus told me that 150 years ago.

On Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Wladimir Klitschko would not be fighting Alexander Povetkin. He will instead likely face challenger Samuel Peter. Word was that Povetkin had a sinus problem, which rendered him unable to fly to Germany for a Monday press conference to hype the bouta, and that no-show was a catlyst for the challenger switch. Atlas will now get more time with his kid, to smooth out those edges, so he isnt as green. Was there a test of wills between Atlas and those administrators? Cant say. But the kid will get the chance to keep on progressing, keep getting better. Someone got to the suits, made them cognizant.

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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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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