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Articles of 2010

Some Things Have Changed, But Maybe Michael Grant Hasn't

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He was supposed to be the prototype, the United States model for the next generation of heavyweight superstar.

The hopeful looked at Michael Grant in the late 1990s, and grinned, pleased that not all the athletes were picking hoops, or future NFL stardom, over the squared circle.

This guy could do it all, had a golden ticket to whichever sport he graced with his presence. A Clemensesque fastball as a pitcher; sick 40 speed, 4.6, for a humongous dude, tailor-made to be a dual threat as a tight end; a stellar baller.

But no, he wanted us, he wanted in on our shared passion, the fight game, and hed help us transition to the post Tyson era.

Sports Illustrated looked at him, at his 6-7, 250-pound frame, and drooled, and spread the saliva far and wide. The hottest young heavyweight, Franz Lidz wrote, possesses a disintegrating jab. Another member of the choir was trainer Manny Steward, who said he was impressed by Grants development, bout after bout. For a 26-year-old who learned to box at age 20 and had just 12 amateur bouts, he shows amazing composure, said Steward, not coincidentally on the lookout for suitable foes for his man Lennox Lewis. HBO liked what they saw, too, enough to merit a five-fight deal. The heavyweight of the new millennium, they touted him, as we all looked ahead to the calendar flipping to the 2000s, and loaded up on TP and bottled water in case all the worlds computers crashed.

Soon enough, the hopeful thought to themselves as Grant took out the whos who of the Heavyweight Explosion fraternity, circa 1997-98, Lewis would be toppled from his throne. Hope hiccuped when Grant went down twice in the first round in a step-up fight against Andrew Golota, but those yearning for the prototype thesis to play out tried to look past the knockdowns and instead concentrate on the heart that was in evidence at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on Nov. 20, 1999, as Grant exited with a TKO10 when Golota offered a no mas after eating some nasty shots.

There would be no more tempting of fate, no more seasoning fights. Grants people werent fools, not in the realm of looking out for their guy as an investment, if not as a human being. They booked Grant in with Lewis on April 29, 2000 in Madison Square Garden.

The bout was tagged Too Big. Much was made of the combined weight–497 pounds– of the combatants, Lewis and Grant, but maybe not enough attention was paid to an in-hindsight obvious deficiency in Grant–his lack of experience as compared to Lewis. Lennox went 85-9 as an amateur, while Grant went 11-1 before turning pro. The hopeful, especially us in the States, were tired of hearing about Lennox pugilistic superiority. We wanted the champ to have some shark blood in him, instead we were saddled with a crafty guy who played boxing like he played chess. We were ready for a change, for the heir apparent to step up, grab the belt. But the heir apparent was not ready.

Lewis sent Grant to the mat three times in the first round, and it became glaringly apparent that all the hype was just hope, and marketing; Grant was in over his head, drowning, and Lewis was only to happy to happy to keep pouring cement into his boots. A sick uppercut, unleashed while the Brit held Grant in place with his left, finished off the challenger in round two.

After, SIs drool had dried up. Richard Hoffer wrote that there was the problem of Grants boxing pedigree…Grant…has the look of a contender whos been well-handled, steered into this $4 million jackpot by promoters and broadcasters. Fight folk are always skeptical of athletes turned boxers. Now you tell us!

Grant tried to get back on the winning track, subbing in Teddy Atlas for Don Turner, in his comeback bout, against another tight-end sized heavyweight, Jameel (6 6, 250 plus) McCline. The switch didnt work. The night ended more quickly, in more embarrassing fashion, as McCline sent Grant to the floor with his first punch, a left, and the loser broke his ankle. And, maybe, his psyche.

Getting back into the ring was not a given for Grant. Atlas stuck by him, and tried to help him get his emotions in check. I had days in the gym where Michael stopped training and started crying, Atlas explained, right before Grant was to fight Dominick Guinn, in what would be his last meaningful fight before his Aug. 21 return to the big stage, against Tomasz Adamek at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ (available on PPV). The Humpty Dumpty project didnt pay off on June 7, 2003. Grant ate left hooks like his contract called for a bonus for every one absorbed. Guinn sent Grant to the floor four times, and the fight came to an end in the seventh after the fourth. Nobody questioned Grants heart, but his chin, his confidence, his future in the sport, all those were fair game.

Since then, Grant has made periodic appearances on our radar. Were always keen for a comeback story, as they resonate with us, and with readers, all of whom can identify with the feeling of being lower than whale doo-doo, and seeking the strength to get out of the muck. He fought once in 2004, twice in 2005, was off 2006, fought twice in 2007, twice in 2008, and not at all in 2009. In his last effort, he scored a TKO1 victory over Kevin Burnett on a Long Island card. He is 8-0 since the Guinn fight, but to be honest, the opponents were not even Heavyweight Explosion material, many of them.

But hope springs eternal.

It cant be stopped by a cutman dream team of Stitch Duran, Joe Chavez and Danny Milano.

So, at 38 years old, with a new trainer talking familiar bullet points of optimism, Michael Grant will attempt to get back into the mix. It wont be easy. Hell need to get the better of Adamek, the wily Pole who is a fight or two away from getting a title crack against David Haye or a Klitschko.

The smart money, and the smartass keyboard tappers, see Grant as a warmup for a Klitschko, someone to let the Pole get some live rounds against someone with a similar build. Grant, on a Thursday media call-in, does not agree. He says that his age isnt something to hold against him, that he now possesses the maturity to get it done, to do what needs to be done to fulfill his potential.

And who am I to scoff? I am a 40 year old man, who no longer finds it so easy or subconsciously gratifying to stomp on the best laid plans of past-their-prime dreamers…because I still have dreams not yet accomplished, and sometimes ponder uneasily the possibility that what once seemed a given may never happen.

Grant and Atlas parted ways after the Guinn loss, and the long, tall heavy tried his luck with Buddy McGirt. He seemed to enjoy the more laid back style of McGirt (Atlas had his strategy how he wanted to fight. I had my strategy how I wanted to fight. Buddy helps me express my talent, my athletic ability. I can be myself. I can correct my mistakes. Im coming out, establishing the jab and being alert–Grant said in 2004), but then latched on with Tommy Gallagher in 2007, after a two-year hiatus. That marriage went the way of Bristol and Levi, and Grant started working with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, the ex light heavyweight standout.

So far, so good. OK, what would one expect at this juncture. Pessimism has no place in the comeback arc. Grant said on the call hes in superb shape, and Adamek will pay because of it.

“This camp has been like no other, training with Eddie, Grant said. We have a nice formula working together and this is definitely one of the times I’ve trained the hardest. The only time I trained harder than this was for the fight with Lennox Lewis.

When I talked to Grant three years ago, during the last comeback run, he articulated some bitterness, with past managers and promoters, and said he was a puppet way back when. This time around, he seems to be steering clear of that rearview mirror stuff. He mentioned several times his maturity, his experience, said he didnt let that political stuff get him down. This may bode well, might indicate that Grant is cognizant that his destiny is mostly in his own hands, and that while it might feel good to get things off his chest, to move things forward he has to stay in a positive frame.

Mustafa certainly is; he said that he thinks Grant is in the top five in the division, right now, and that his work ethic has been top tier.

The trainer pointed out that he was in the corner of the first and only man to beat Adamek, Chad Dawson (Feb. 2007, UD12), so one can presume that might bolster Grants confidence heading into the Aug. 21 beef. Ill give him his second defeat, EMM said.

Grant said hell be looking to have a constant presence with the jab, and that if and when Adamek slips inside, hell be met with a right hand. He dismissed the notion that Adamek is slick, and said he thinks the Pole will run around. You know its not gonna be no brawl, hell not fight like that.

Grant isnt getting ahead of himself, he said, and hed look for another fight at Gods speed. Im not rushing anything.

A decade after his big chances exploded in his face, Grant maintains that hes back in the ring because he has chores left to accomplish. I wasnt finished. I felt like I had unfinished business. I have a lot to offer this game.

The 40-year-old man in me hopes so. It is always comforting and encouraging when someone seemingly set in his ways tweaks some defects, makes some mental adjustments, gets over the hump. How many of us gain, and lose, and find again, that same 10 pounds? Someone who takes it off, and keeps it off can be a catalyst. Fundamental change, going against our wiring, our mannerisms and behaviors cemented over decades, is damned difficult. The cynic in me, a goodly portion of my being, being a journalist and all, suspects that a late-in-the-game makeover will be really, really hard for Michael Grant to pull off. He may well be what he is, what he was, what he will always be. You cant, however, begrudge the man for spinning his inactivity into a positive, as he plays up his maturity.

The Grant case brings to mind the old saying, Just because everything is different doesnt mean anything has changed. New management, new trainer, newfound maturity. Maybe new results, maybe a midlife surge. But, oh, its hard. No matter the result, and I see Adamek using his cagey ring generalship to get a UD, I have to applaud Grants effort and desire. Youll not hear snide remarks about another comeback from me.

Allow me to quote, with a tweak, Ben Franklin: When youre finished changing–or trying to change–youre finished.

Good luck, Michael.

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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