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Articles of 2010

ADAM BERLIN SPECIAL TO TSS: The Sweetest Science, Still

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When James Toney waved helplessly under Randy Couture’s might, diehard UFC fans saw white. And afterwards, reading numerous articles, and listening to the easy gloating of victors, it seemed as if a white flag had indeed been waved—boxing had surrendered its status as the supreme martial art.

There have been several contests between boxers and MMA fighters, but this one seemed more real, more authentic, and so the consequences held more gravity. James Toney was a champion in four weight classes and while he had ballooned into a super heavyweight, and aged into a man past his prime, he was still considered, and rightly so, a master of his trade. Randy Couture was also a master, a three-time all American wrestler and Olympic alternate, a five-time UFC title holder, but he too was past his prime. At 6’1, his frame seemed more suitable for his weight, 220, than James Toney’s 5’10, 237 pounds, but Couture was five years older than Toney and he had lost nineteen fights in his career, six of them inside the distance. Going into the fight, James Toney, better known for wearing opponents down than knocking them cold with a single punch, believed, and made believers out of some boxing fans, that he’d keep the fight from going to the ground and deliver a shot to the point of Couture’s chin that would indeed signal lights out. That didn’t happen. In less than three and a half minutes, Couture took Toney down and choked him out.

But what does this really mean? James Toney is a boxer, a boxer so skilled he was able to move up the ranks, from middleweight to heavyweight, with real success, never getting stopped, doing his boxing version of the pound and ground, punching and punching until the men in front of him gave up or fell. 83 fights. Only 6 losses. His is an old-school fighter’s record that will not be tarnished by his trash talk or his MMA loss. James Toney will go to the boxing hall of fame.

Last Saturday Toney went into another man’s sport and he lost, quickly. Boxing and Ultimate Fighting are both martial arts, but one is about standing on two legs and delivering punches to an opponent’s head and body. The other, even if it is called a mixed martial art, inevitably moves to the ground, where punches have no leverage and where grappling determines the success or failure of the fighter. While it may start out like a boxing match, it almost always ends as a wrestling match. And this is why the experts picked the wrestler Randy Couture to win by easy decision. Obviously, they were right. Had Couture laced on a pair of boxing gloves and entered a squared circle instead of a caged circle, the fight would have gone to Toney, easily; this would have been the equally obvious and foregone conclusion.

The problem is that this fight has become, for too many, an easy answer about which sport produces the tougher man. Some critics of boxing have gone so far as to say this single match rendered boxing’s prowess obsolete. The question about who would win in a street fight, a boxer or a wrestler, a man trained in the sweet science or a man trained to grapple and kick and choke, is a question that many believe determines which sport, which athlete, which fighting technique is more worthy. If an MMA fighter can beat a boxer in a street fight, why watch boxing when ultimate fighting is truly the ultimate? For true boxing fans, the answer is easy: Boxing is the ultimate sport because it is about beauty and grace and brutality and facing a fear that MMA fighters rarely face.

Any fan who knows boxing appreciates the sport’s beauty. Watch the footwork of a professional boxer, a real professional, and the moves look like a choreographed dance. The simplicity of the one-two, one-two step that is boxing’s foundation, the synchronization of feet and hands, the balance required to deliver a perfect punch, the technique required to throw a jab, a hook, or an uppercut, cleanly and crisply, lines of motion cutting through air like the lines a ballet dancer might cut, all of it is beautiful. Even a knockout, clean and complete, a man falling while another man stands, is the stuff of drama, man overcoming obstacle, man asserting self in a brutal world, mortal man seeming immortal, all-powerful, if only for a moment, defying gravity, defying fate, firmly balanced on two legs.

Compare boxing’s pure lines and often hypnotic rhythms to the holding and clinching of most UFC fights, legs kicking out, arms flailing about, bodies lurching against a cage, punches thrown with amateur arcs. MMA fighters may be skilled fighters, versed in several martial arts, but their work is neither aesthetically pleasing nor dramatically powerful. Compare Ali moving and jabbing to any wrestler’s moves and you’ll see the difference between high art and a lower art. Compare either of the Sugar Rays as they dance in the ring to any wrestler’s maneuvers on the mat and you’ll see the difference between choreography and something less graceful. Compare the wars that are legendary in boxing—Robinson vs. LaMotta, Ali vs. Frazier, Gatti vs. Ward, Pacquiao vs. Marquez—to any MMA fight and you’ll see the ebbs and flows of life, the triumph of heart and will over body, the marriage of intellectual and physical, man facing man—literally—vs. a sport that is more obvious, more plodding, where men usually do not look eyes to eyes as their arms and legs struggle, often gracelessly, to achieve dominance on all fours. In MMA the winner is usually on the ground, pulled to earth’s gravity, still a plaything for the gods.

And beyond its poetry, the danger that boxers face, the fear they must conquer to walk into the ring, is greater than the fear a fighter faces in MMA. Of course, MMA fighters, like all fighters who sign a dangerous contract with their opponents and themselves and then fulfill that contract by putting their bodies in harm’s way, are brave men. But boxing contains its own M—not Mixed or Martial, but Mortal. Boxing tests the best of man, celebrating his strength despite his mortality, raising him, if briefly, to immortal status, but boxing too often reminds man that life is fragile, that the consequences of a fight can be complete and final. In MMA, fighters can tap out—aware that they are in too much danger, the sport provides them with a built-in safety valve. Boxing has no such out. Unless their corner throws in the towel or the referee stops the fight, fighters face being knocked out, rendered unconscious by a concussive blow (not a choke hold that puts fighters to sleep) that can potentially lead to serious damage. Every year too many boxers die in the ring. Not so in MMA. The possibility of death hangs over every boxing venue, sometimes as subtly as yesteryear’s evaporated cigar smoke, sometimes palpable, especially when a fighter has recently died in the ring. Boxing too often plays for keeps and so only the bravest men choose to play.

There is only one sweet science. And while boxing has myriad problems and while the business of boxing often stinks, it is still the ultimate sport. MMA organizations may be better managed and marketed. MMA events may be drawing the crowds and some fickle viewers away from boxing. But boxing fans, true boxing fans, will never be swayed. Last week, James Toney lost to Randy Couture, but that fight, sloppy, ugly, providing no catharsis of any kind, meant nothing. Judging art may be subjective but sometimes you know, you just know, when a work of art is great. The same is true with sport. Boxing. You know, you just know, the way George Foreman knew, that boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire.

Adam Berlin is the author of the novels Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and Headlock (Algonquin Books, 2000). He is working on a boxing novel.

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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