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Articles of 2010

In Defense Of The Journeyman

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NEW YORK — When Rogers Mtagwa, despite an unimposing record of 26-12-2, was named the surprise challenger to Juan Manuel Lopez last fall, the Tanzanian import's Philadelphia promoter J. Russell Phelps was the first to acknowledge that while his fighter's credentials hardly resembled those of a contender on paper, “it would have been a shame for Rogers Mtagwa to go through his entire career without ever fighting for the title.”

The 30 year-old Mtagwa's performance in the main event at Madison Square Garden on the night of October 10th evoked comparisons to that of a fictitious journeyman boxer presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. No, he didn't win, but  it was hardly a rout, and some will tell you that it was even closer than the judges (114-113, 115-111. 116-111) had it. Like Rocky Balboa, Mtagwa fought his heart out and won the admiration of an overwhelmingly pro-Lopez crowd, and when it was over the look on the relieved champion's face could have been that of Apollo Creed delivering his sotto voce pronouncement on what had just taken place: “There ain't gonna be no rematch.”

Although JuanMa has turned his attention elsewhere and will be fighting for Steven Luevano's WBO 126-pound belt next Saturday night at the Garden's WaMuTheatre, Mtagwa's reward will be his second title shot in as many fights. This time he moves up four pounds to face WBA featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa. Since Bob Arum's goal remains an eventual showdown between the stylish Dominican Lopez and the Cuban-born Gamboa, their respective performances against Mtagwa might be considered an accurate yardstick. And you may have noticed that this time around, you haven't heard anyone say that Rogers Mtagwa doesn't belong.

On the other hand, some blogger who doesn't know any better has probably already got his back up and is in the process of complaining about our having described Mtagwa as a “journeyman” — although that's exactly what he is.

He turned pro at 17, and was 10-2 when he left Africa for his first fight in the US a decade ago, which means that he has gone 16-13-2 since, during which time he has never won more than three fights in a row. On the other hand, Gamboa will be the sixth undefeated opponent he has faced in that time.  
* *  *
On the eve of his 1935 title fight against Max Baer, the New York Times' John Kiernan referred to James J. Braddock as “Journeyman James.” (The new nickname, “Cinderella Man,” wouldn't be coined by Damon Runyon until after the fight.)  Prior to his St. Patricks Day 1923 challenge to light-heavyweight champion Battling Siki in Dublin, Mike McTigue was widely described as a journeyman, as was Chuck Wepner when he fought Muhammad Ali in a 1975 bout that provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's creation of “Rocky.”

The term has been so widely applied to Mtagwa since last October that matching his name with “journeyman” will elicit something in excess of three thousand Google matches — still pretty small potatoes compared with the more than 32,000 you'll get by pairing Braddock's name with “journeyman,” and to the best of our knowledge, Braddock never considered the term to have been misapplied in his own case.

Shortly after my book FOUR KINGS had been published in the United Kingdom, my description of Kirkland Laing, the British journeyman fighter who upset Roberto Duran in 1982, as a “journeyman fighter” unleashed a flood of uninformed protest from across the Atlantic.

“To describe Laing as a 'journeyman fighter' is both disrespectful and inaccurate,” complained a British fight fan.

Disrespectful? Inaccurate?  

Well, yes, countered the Brit, who claimed that “a 'journeyman' is regarded with some contempt on the professional boxing circuit.”

(Yeah? Says who?)

“I'm almost certain that the name Kirkland Laing probably means little to scribes such as yourself on the other side of the pond…  I feel it my duty to defend his unfairly maligned reputation when it is besmirched in a respectful (but in this case, misinformed) tome such as FOUR KINGS.”

Just to make sure some alternate meaning hadn't crept into the dictionary, I looked it up.  “Journeyman” today means pretty much what it always has, to wit: “A skilled tradesperson who has completed a prescribed apprenticeship in a particular craft. The status of journeyman indicates that he has mastered all the specific skills of the craft…. An experienced, reliable worker, athlete, or performer especially as distinguished from one who is brilliant or colorful.”

In short, a journeyman who is one who is accomplished, experienced, and competent at his trade, but hasn't achieved the level of master — in other words, somebody like Kirkland Laing (no relation, as far as we know, to Clubber), whose career record was 43-12-1 and who, when he was knocked out in a 1991 fight at the Albert Hall, made boxing history by becoming the only one of Buck Smith's 201 career opponents to lose to Buck in a fight outside the United States.

Having supplied furnished anecdotal evidence in addition to a dictionary definition, I was content to rest my case, but the next came an email link to a compilation of boxing terms compiled by a fellow called Gus, who offered his unique definition of the term: “A journeyman is a boxer with good boxing skills who strives to succeed but who has limitations and little or no expectation of winning a fight. Journeymen are often hired on short notice to fight up-and-coming prospects to pad their records.”

“Sorry, George,” wrote last summer's pen pal. “This does not give an accurate portrayal of Kirkland Laing.”

This dialogue did not seem promising. “I provide you with a dictionary definition and you counter with one provided by somebody named Gus. Since your definition, and Gus's, differs wildly from my own, I suggest that you look it up for yourselves in any reputable dictionary. If you do, I think you'll be satisfied that the problem isn't that I've misused the term, but that you have ascribed to it a negative connotation that was never intended.

“The semantic problem here is with your inaccurate perception,” I went on to point out. “If you phoned a plumber and he dispatched a worker with a journeyman's license, would you assume that he was going to eff up the job? Or that he had 'little or no' expectation of doing it correctly?'”

That some of our overseas friends were misapplying the time-honored term to what we might refer to as stiffs or tomato cans or worse in this country seemed plain enough when one of them cited example of the recently retired Peter Buckley, he of the 32-256-12 record.  This is not to say that the Peter Buckleys of this world don't perform a function of their own, but to call him or his ilk “journeymen” is an insult to journeymen.   

It should also be noted that these no-hope opponents are a vanishing breed in Britain as well as in the US. Since the fall of the iron curtain they have been supplanted by a new and even more insidious class of opponent from Eastern Europe. Today's promoters truck them in by the planeload on cheap flights from Riga and Belarus to pad the records of English and Irish fighters, and almost without exception, the notion of winning a fight is the furthest thing from their minds. All they care about is not getting knocked out or stopped, since if they can avoid a suspension they can go someplace else to lose a week later.

Happily, the transoceanic journeyman debate seemed to have at last expired several months ago. It was only a couple of weeks ago when I was alerted that it had been revived, this time in some online message board carried on boxrec.com. The latest squabble ensued over a separate issue, this one having to do with the new WBA heavyweight champion.  Somebody described Carl Thompson, who knocked out David Haye at Wembley Arena six years ago, as a “journeyman.”

His anger aroused, a Thompson defender shot back that “describing Carl Thompson as a journeyman is not only inaccurate and lazy, it's insulting. Just as it was when journalists scrabbling to ramp up the sensationalism described Hasim Rahman ad Danny Williams as 'journeymen' when they beat Lewis and Tyson, respectively.”

Leaving aside the obvious — that “journeyman” pretty accurately describes Thompson, Rahman, and Williams —  before you knew it the fur was flying again and my name had been dragged back into the argument.

One guy who voiced his objection to my “inaccurate dismissal” of Laing as a “journeyman” not only offered his own definition of that term (“a serial loser”), but even volunteered an imaginatively constructed etymology upon which to base that claim:

“A 'journeyman' is a boxer who has little or no expectation of winning his fights, thus he is said to be 'along for the journey,'” went his explanation.

In actuality, that has nothing to do with the origin of the term. In point of fact, “journeyman” and “journalist” derive from the same root word — journée, the French term meaning 'for a period of one day.'
*  *   *
It was an Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, who noted that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language” (although the Brits often get that wrong too, and are sometimes wont to ascribe it to Churchill), but to the best of our knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary remains the standard arbiter for British usage.

While not boxing-specific, the OED offers two interpretations, both nouns: 1. a skilled worker who is employed by another and 2. a worker who is reliable but not outstanding.

Merriam-Webster, and American reference book, goes a bit further, even citing the examples of a journeyman trumpeter and a journeyman outfielder, but a troll through cyberspace did unearth an interesting list of classifications in a WikiPedia entry on boxing terms:

There are, in order, champions, contenders, fringe contenders, journeymen, opponents, and “tomato cans,” and they all exist in every weight division. The terms are not interchangeable (“journeyman” is actually a term of respect), and almost none of the individuals referred to as “tomato cans” would be considered so under that definition of the phrase.”

Or perhaps in lieu of all this semantic quibbling over the term “journeyman” we should just put up a picture of Rogers Mtagwa. I don't think he'd object, and we can promise you this much: the oddsmakers might make him an 8-1 underdog, but that doesn't mean he doesn't think he can win. He'll be trying, and it's hard to ask more than that of any boxer.

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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UFC_Edgar_and_Maynard_Dec._2010
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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PacquiaoClottey_Booth_6

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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