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Articles of 2010

MEMORIES WITH MLADINICH: Charley Norkus

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Although onetime heavyweight contender Charley Norkus of New York more than held his own against such championship caliber fighters as Willie Pastrano, Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles, it was through no fault of his own he never got to fight Rocky Marciano, who went on to retire as the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history.

The April 26, 1952, issue of the Syracuse Post Standard reported that the Norkus-Marciano bout, which was scheduled to take place on May 26th of that year, was cancelled  because of a 30 day suspension that had been handed down to Marciano by Rhode Island boxing commissioner Charley Reynolds.

The future heavyweight champ had been charged with “deception” during an exhibition tour in which he sparred with his brother, Louis Marchegiano, who fought under the pseudonym Pete Fuller.

“My father fought a lot of great fighters,” said Charley Norkus Jr., a retired New York City firefighter. “But he would have loved to have fought Marciano. Their styles were well-suited for each other.”

Between 1948 and 1959, Norkus compiled a record of 33-19 (19 KOs) against some very formidable competition. Although he lost to the aforementioned champions, as well as Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson, Pat McMurtry, and Roy “Cut and Shoot” Harris, he beat such notables as Roland LaStarza, Cesar Brion, and Charley Powell, who also beat Norkus in the latter’s second to last fight.

What old-timers remember more than anything, however, are Norkus’s thrilling back-to-back bouts against Danny Nardico in 1954 in Miami Beach.

Boxrec.com describes the first encounter as “a thriller, with eight knockdowns,” six of which were scored by Norkus. For the second fight, just two months later, a sellout crowd of 4,500 jammed into the Miami Beach Auditorium. This time the hard-punching Norkus, who esteemed columnist Bill Gallo once described as having a “low hands style, always with that great left hook ready to unload,” stopped Nardico in the ninth round.

According to Norkus’s biography in the journal for his posthumous 1996 induction into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, “[The] rematch on national TV had no knockdowns, but was a toe to toe fight with Norkus the victor again.”

What was probably Norkus’s biggest knockout is one that few people even know about. In the 1962 film “Splendor in the Grass,” Norkus and Billy Graham, who many consider the “uncrowned welterweight champion” after getting robbed against Kid Gavilan in 1950, rough up and “knock out” a young Warren Beatty during a New Year’s party scene.

If you listen closely, says the younger Norkus, you’ll hear his father say, “Okay Charley, had enough?”

As an actor, the multi-talented senior Norkus also appeared in the films “Requiem for a Heavyweight,”  “The Hustler,” Breakfast at Tiffanys” and “West Side Story.”

Born in Queens in 1928, Norkus was a standout athlete in swimming, diving and pole vaulting. He first entered a boxing gym at the age of 16, and like so many other kids of the era was immediately hooked. Within months he was competing in the Golden Gloves tournament, losing in the 1944 and 1945 finals.

According to his son, his father and a group of his friends dropped out of Jamaica High School to join the Marine Corps prior to the end of World War II.

When his superiors learned that he was an accomplished boxer, Norkus began competing on the Marine Corps team and he soon won a title. Out of the ring, he earned a World War II Campaign Medal.

Norkus later lost a decision to Coley Wallace, who owned an amateur victory over Marciano, in the 1948 Olympic Trials. He wound up going to London as an Olympic alternate.

Later that year he turned pro in New Jersey, where he quickly became a fan favorite. Norkus was as honest of a fighter as the day is long, and he never gave anything less than a superlative effort in everything he did both in and out of the ring.

While still active, he was one of the founding members of the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 8, in New York, the venerable organization that was formed in 1954 to help indigent boxers.

The organization held its annual holiday luncheon on January 10th. This year’s honorees were boxers Mark Breland and Vinny Maddalone, journalist Bill Gallo, Drs. Jerry Lynn and Michael Schwartz, trainer Pete Brodsky, and Ring 8 board member Tony DiPippo. Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award was Bobby Goodman.

Among the luminaries in attendance were actors Paul Sorvino, Burt Young and Frank Albanese of “The Sopranos” and boxing figures Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Vito Antuofermo, Tommy Gallagher, Henry Wallitsch, Randy Neumann, Larry Stanton, Arthur Mercante Jr., Joe Dwyer, Jill Diamond, and the younger Norkus.

At the event, Norkus Jr. said his father was smart enough to know when it was time to leave the rigors of boxing as a competitor behind. That is exactly what he did in February 1959, even though he had won his final bout by 10 round decision in a place that was most dear to him.

His victory over Waban Thomas took place in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, one of the places Norkus had been assigned while on active duty in the USMC.  

“My father was a sensible man,” said Charley Jr. “He was in Ingemar Johansson’s camp as a sparring partner, but he realized at that stage of his career he was there to build up the careers of other fighters. He knew where that was going, so he got out. But he had saved enough of his ring earnings to buy a house for his family.”

Living on Long Island, Norkus began working as a liquor salesman. He moonlighted as a bouncer at place called the Frolic Café, which was located around Seventh Avenue and West 50th Street in Manhattan. One night, in July 1959, he threw out a patron who had been harassing a female customer.

Not long afterwards, the guy returned. This time he was packing heat. As Norkus tried to bounce him out a second time, the gunman, who eight months earlier had been paroled after serving 21 years for killing his wife, opened fire. Although Norkus was shot three times, he decked the culprit with a right hand as he was going down.

The parolee was quickly arrested and sentenced to a long prison term. He died at Sing Sing in the mid 1980s. Norkus was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors said his tremendous physical condition enabled him to pull through.

He went on to live a very full and happy life, and was always ready to lend a hand when needed. While working as a liquor salesman, Jake LaMotta asked Norkus if he could help him out.

Norkus helped get the Raging Bull a route in Manhattan that included the legendary saloon Toots Shor’s. According to Charley Jr., because LaMotta was a champion and his father was a contender, the caste system resulted in LaMotta not being able to just do his business in such establishments and leave. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to buy the champ a drink, and the champ didn’t know how to decline.

Norkus, on the other hand, was extremely responsible and always knew where to draw the line between work and play. Maybe the Marine Corps taught him that, or perhaps it was just his nature or his upbringing, but he was squared away in all aspects of his personal and professional life.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Norkus was a well known referee in the New York area. He was the third man in the ring for bouts featuring the likes of Mike Tyson, Buddy McGirt, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Gerry Cooney and Renaldo Snipes.

He supported his family, acted in films, was recognized by the Downtown Athletic Club as a “boxing great” in 1978, and honored by the New York City Detectives Association for numerous altruistic endeavors a few years later.

This writer remembers him well during my early days on the boxing beat. Whether speaking to a young journalist or a fighter, Norkus was extremely respectful and benevolent. You only had to be around him for a minute to realize what a nice man he truly was.

One night in a Long Island dressing room, he and Graham, both of whom had worked a card as referees, were changing into their street clothes and chatting with me, a journalist in my early twenties, as if I was the most important guy in the room.

I wish I had memorialized the conversation, or committed it to memory, because I don’t remember what it was about. What I do vividly recall was how these two fine men with such rich boxing pedigrees were so quickly dispelling every negative boxing stereotype I’d been told to watch out for.

Norkus passed away from gall bladder cancer at the age of 68 in March 1996. During a life that was fully lived and greatly appreciated by all who had the pleasure of knowing him, his son said there was one final irony.

“On the day my father died, we were informed that he was elected into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame,” said Charley Jr. “That meant the world to me, and it would have meant the world to him if he had been there to experience it himself.”

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

David A. Avila

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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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