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Articles of 2010

Rest In Peace, Joe Rollino

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While the world’s best pound-for-pound fighters interchange on a regular basis, few people can dispute the fact that Joe Rollino was the world’s strongest man for many years.

Although only 5’4” tall and about 155 pounds, the 103 year old Rolino, who as Kid Dundee says he had about 100 fights as an “armory boxer” in the 1920s, is still quite a specimen.

Not only is he physically agile and loose, he is mentally lucid and sound. His memory is nothing short of astounding, especially when you consider that he fought at about 122 pounds, often against boxers weighing 50 pounds more than he did.

“I was a good boxer and I could take a good punch,” he said. “Fighters would hit me in the jaw and I’d just look at them. You couldn’t knock me out. If we got in a clinch, no one could move me because I was so strong.”

Because Rollino was so often matched against much bigger fighters, he says that Harry Greb, a natural middleweight who often fought and beat heavyweights, is his favorite fighter of all time.

“Greb beat some of the best heavyweights in the world, like Gene Tunney and Bill Brennan,” said Rollino. “He weighed as little as 152 pounds. He was unbelievable.”

Rollino also believes that Joe Gans was the best lightweight of all time, and that includes Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran.

“Mayweather wouldn’t have lasted two rounds with Tony Canzoneri or Barney Ross,” said Rollino, whose opinions are as strong as his arms. “He’s a flake. The old-timers fought 30 times a year. Could Mayweather fight that often?”

He also has great fondness for Mickey Walker and says Sugar Ray Robinson was “a great welterweight, but he was not so great as a middleweight.”

Rollino’s love affair with boxing started at a very young age. It reached its apex in 1919, when as a 14 year old he says his brother took him to Toledo, Ohio, to see Jack Dempsey knock out the gargantuan Jess Willard.

“It was the most exciting fight I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them,” said Rollino. “Dempsey came out like a wild animal, but he was the best fighter in the world. He beat a lot of guys that were bigger than him. The only fighter who came close to him was Harry Greb.”

It is hard to believe there is someone alive who personally bore witness to a battle as epic as Dempsey-Willard. But the more you speak to Rollino, as well as the scores of friends and colleagues who attended his March 19 birthday bash at a Brooklyn eatery called the New Corner, you realize he is not a man prone to hyperbole.

He is the patriarch of the Old Time Barbell and Strongmen, an organization consisting of men, some in their ‘70s and ‘80s, who can still bend steel nails or railroad spikes with their bare hands, rip books in half from the binder side, or twist quarters with their teeth and thumbs.

“I was always very strong,” said Rollino, who produced a photo of him at 10 years old. He is extremely muscular but not the least bit freakish looking as he throws a medicine ball around like a softball.

He grew up to have 20 inch neck affixed to his short and squat frame. A pupil of Warren Lincoln Travis, the 1920s Coney Island strongman, Rollino once raised a carousel with 14 people on it. He also utilized nothing more than a pinch grip to do hundreds of pull-ups on a 2×4 beam, and once used his back to lift 3,200 pounds.

During this time he billed himself as the Strongest Man in the World.

“Joe is the real deal,” said Pete Spanakos, who along with his brother Nick ruled the New York City and national Golden Gloves tournaments in the 1950s. Nick went on to represent the United States at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. While there, he roomed with Cassis Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

If you believe that someone as muscular as Rollino could not box effectively or with any degree of fluidity, think again. When asked to show his form as a boxer, the centenarian Rollino shadow-boxed beautifully. He threw combinations with aplomb, parried imaginary punches, and dipped like a man 80 years his junior. After his one minute display of fistic derring-do, he was not even the least bit winded.

To say he is a physical marvel, would be a gross understatement.

“If he told me he was 75, I would have said he looked great for his age,” said the extremely fit Arthur Perry, 61, a retired NYPD detective who boxed in the NYC Golden Gloves in the mid 1960s. “When he started shadow boxing, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

As much as Rollino enjoyed boxing, he was more drawn to what was once called “the iron game” because of the relative purity of that business. This was long before steroids were in vogue, so those who toiled in the small but close-knit community had good reason to be proud of their accomplishments.

“There was a lot of corruption in boxing,” said Rollino, a lifelong vegetarian who still has all of his own teeth, eats oatmeal every morning and walks several miles a day. “I was introduced to this world at the age of 10, so I’ve been going at it for over 90 years.”

Four decades ago Louis “Arms” Leccese, now 61, was a youth on the fence, who could have gone either way if fate didn’t intervene. He had developed an affinity for arm wrestling, and Rollino took him under his wing. Leccese wound up winning the national AAU title in the early 1970s.

“He trained me on a lat machine with a chain,” said Leccese. “We started with 25 pounds, snapping the weight down like it was someone’s arm. We finished up at 225 pounds. No steroids in those days, this was all legit.”

While Rollino’s exploits as a strongman are well chronicled in Coney Island lore, there are other aspects of his life that are a bit more cryptic. The more than 20 revelers in attendance all wore T-shirts that read “The Great Joe Rollino”  and all waxed poetically about what a positive impact he has had on their lives.

Many of the men, who are now in their 70s, say he was like a father to them. He guided them through tough times, and enabled them to focus on esoteric achievements.

Rollino grew up in South Brooklyn. His mother being a vegetarian was as unusual in those days as the young Rollino’s superhuman strength. For Brooklyn kids back then, Coney Island was the world. The impressionable Rollino grew up fast amid the fellow strongmen, bearded ladies and other assorted performers.

“I loved the life,” said Rollino, who still lives in Brooklyn with a niece. “For a young kid, it was the greatest place on earth.”

Boxing was huge in those days, so it was natural that someone as strong and athletic as Rollino was drawn to it. Living life healthily became second nature to him. To this day, he has no ingestible bad habits.

Rollino was too young to serve in World War I, but he saw enough action in the Pacific Theater in the Second World War to be awarded three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. He still carries shards of shrapnel in his legs.

“He’s got so much shrapnel in him, you could sell him for scrap,” quipped Spanakos.

Rollino seems like a fellow who is always happy, but his demeanor turns grim if you ask about any immediate family. It is believed that when he entered military service, he had a wife and at least one child. When he returned several years later, he was a man alone. He offers no explanation, other than to say with extreme firmness that it is not a subject that is open to discussion.

What he will talk about is his years as a longshoreman, standing up to union goons, and even getting a small part in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” as a “winch man.” Much to his chagrin, his fleeting moment of celluloid fame would up on the cutting room floor.

When not on the docks, he was active in the Iceberg Athletic Club, which was founded in 1918 and is quite different from Polar Bear clubs whose members take one quick, annual winter ocean dip.

The Iceberg members actually swim in the ocean three or four times a week, and attribute the habit to enduring good health. It is called “winter bathing.”

The water temperature, they insist, is often warmer than the air temperature. If they stay in for 5 or 10 minutes, they believe the cold water kills germs that fester inside one’s body. All agree that since they started winter bathing, they have not been sick.

“When you come out of the water and put your sweatshirt back on, you feel like you’re 10 years old,” said Daniel Leahy, a Staten Island native who is now a Vermont mail carrier. He started winter bathing in 1986.

Rollino, who can’t remember the last time he was ill, said he winter bathed for nine straight years without missing a day. “Rock pile to rock pile, 220 yards in Coney Island,” he said, to which an elderly pal joked that he had “the first known case of shrinkage.”

You could spend days with Rollino and talk about nothing other than iron men and boxing. Unlike some elderly curmudgeons, most of whom are significantly younger than Rollino, he is not skeptical, cynical, angry or resentful.

He seems determined to live life to the fullest, and he still looks forward to each new day with eagerness and enthusiasm. He used to derive a lot more joy from boxing, but is still happy to weigh in on matters related to the sweet science.

Of all the current or recent fighters, he believes that Julio Cesar Chavez would have been best suited for the demands placed on a boxer in the 1920s and ‘30s. And as far as today’s crop of heavyweights, he says they are not even worthy of mention.

The best heavyweight of all time, he reiterates, was Dempsey, followed by Marciano, Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Tunney and Joe Frazier. When asked if he mistakenly left Ali out, he said he did not.

“Maybe I’d put him around ninth,” he opined.

When asked why he was defying conventional wisdom, he was adamant in his response. “There were a lot of fixed fights,” he said. “Do you really think he knocked out Sonny Liston? Ten cops couldn’t knock Sonny out with bats. How could he knock him out with a cosmic punch?”

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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