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Articles of 2010

Boxing Tugs At Our Crazy Hearts

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The mechanics of cranking out a newspaper story are basically the same, whether you’re a beat writer for a sports team, city government, crime, medicine, education or entertainment. Sources have to be interviewed, you have to get your facts right and there are deadlines to meet. If you’re a reporter, the first and foremost goal is to provide as much pertinent information as space allows; columnists have a bit more leeway to offer opinions and interject a bit of themselves into their copy.

Why do I cover sports for my current employer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and always have throughout my career? Because it’s more fun than writing about that other stuff, or at least it’s supposed to be. And the fun factor is why I’ve frequently imagined that, were I not covering boxing matches and football and basketball games for my weekly recompense, I’d be a movie reviewer. If you can’t be at ringside for the big fight or in the press section for the big game, a nice alternative would be going to the movies all week on the company’s nickel, right?

Since my recovering-from-hand-surgery wife, a native of New Orleans as am I, could not be in Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday with the frolicking hordes (inadvisable in any case for a woman whose left arm is wrapped up like a mummy’s), we spent the afternoon in a more sedate pursuit of pleasantly killing a few hours. We began with a nice lunch at her favorite chain Mexican restaurant in a nearby shopping center, then were off to a mall a few miles up the road to see Crazy Heart, a critically acclaimed film about a fading, boozed-up country singer played by Oscar-nominated Jeff Bridges.

Generally speaking, I’m not that big on country music (I’m a classic rock guy, the better songs of which were created by artists who are now fading, boozed-up singers of another kind), but our other options were movies we’d already seen or had no interest in ever seeing. We both like Jeff Bridges, who’s good in just about every role he slips into as easily as a well-worn favorite sweater. Besides, the movie reviewer for my paper had written that, as fallen country star Bad Blake, Bridges might have turned in his finest performance ever.

So there the better half and I were, in a theater with maybe a half-dozen other patrons for a late-afternoon showing of what might or might not be Jeff Bridges’ greatest cinematic characterization, when I had an epiphany.

I was actually watching a boxing movie.

No, Bad Blake wasn’t an ex-pug who had learned how to strum a guitar after quitting the ring. He never threw a punch during the movie’s 111-minute running time, although he did get into an inebriated clinch or two with female fans after a particular night’s set in a bowling alley or some other small-town Western honky-tonk. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen all this played out before, in other movies that didn’t involve cowboy hats, snakeskin boots, pickup trucks and mournful ballads about love gone wrong.

With a few minor script adjustments, you could imagine Bad Blake as Rocky Balboa. Or Billy Tully, which is the name of the used-up veteran fighter played by Stacy Keach in 1972’s Fat City, in which a 23-year-old Jeff Bridges was cast as Ernie Munger, the young prospect on the rise.

Redemption – be it in the prize ring or some dive where the lights are low and the headliner is a 57-year-old country singer who hasn’t had a hit since, say, the Reagan administration – is a common theme in boxing movies and those about weary, worldly-wise guitar pickers with whiskey-treated voices. And the reason is as obvious as the lyrics of any song by some good ol’ boy about opportunities wasted and the realization that time isn’t standing still for anybody.

Another very good actor, Jamie Foxx, has bestrode both sides of the boxing/music film divide – he won an Academy Award as Best Actor for playing blind R&B legend Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray, and he portrayed Muhammad Ali sidekick Bundini Brown in 2001’s Ali – summarized the connection in the Ray Charles biopic when asked why he was branching out into violin-heavy takes on country music classics in the mid-1960s.

“It’s the stories, man,” Foxx, as Charles, responds.

Of course it’s the stories. Boxing tells its stories uncommonly well, which is why many of the most cherished films about sports are about real and fictional fighters. Country music also tells its stories in a manner to which most people can relate, which is why Crazy Heart joins a long line of well-respected movies about the genre that include Coal Miner’s Daughter, I Walk the Line and Tender Mercies,all of which won or were nominated for Oscars. Robert Duvall – who like Jeff Bridges is really good in any role he takes on – is one of the producers of Crazy Heart and has a bit role in it, too, as Bad Blake’s friend who eventually helps save him from himself.

In The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies, co-authored by my former colleague, Ray Didinger, and Glen Macnow, boxing’s holds the lion’s share of places in the top 100 sports films of all time, as rated by Didinger and Macnow. Rocky is No. 1, while Raging Bull is No. 3, Million Dollar Baby is No. 12, Body and Soul is No. 18, When We Were Kings is No. 21, The Set-Up is No. 25, Requiem for a Heavyweight is No. 32, Hard Times is No. 38, Cinderella Man is No. 47, The Harder They Fall is No. 54, Fat City is No. 60, The Boxer is No. 65, Champion is No. 73 and Diggstown is No. 90.

And boxing inclusions in the top 100 could have been even more extensive. In a chapter entitled Boxing Movies: The Winner and Still Champion, Didinger and Macnow make a compelling case for the sweet science as the most audience-friendly sport in the movie universe.

“The sport of boxing has been in decline in for years,” they write. “Too many sanctioning bodies, too many titles and too little star power have caused fans to drift away. But that has not stopped Hollywood from making movies about boxing. It has been a popular subject for more than a century (Thomas Edison filmed a James J. Corbett exhibition match in 1892) and it is likely to remain so whether anybody can name the current heavyweight champion or not.

“Why?

“For one thing, it is the easiest sport to film. There are two fighters, face to face, in a confined space. It is not like nine players spread out on a baseball diamond or 22 men in helmets and pad sprawling across a football field. For the purposes of lighting and camera placement, a boxing ring is the perfect stage. It makes for a quicker and therefore cheaper shoot.

“But more than that, boxing lends itself to melodrama. It is about an individual, not a team, so the writer can focus on the storyline. There is also the backdrop of vengeful mobsters, double-crossing managers and other shady characters that populate the sport and provide a wealth of material for movies.”

Didinger and Macnow even admit that more boxing movies could have, and maybe should have, made the top 100. They mention The Champ – both the original with Wallace Beery and the remake with Jon Voight, Golden Boy, City for Conquest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Hurricane and The Great White Hope as contenders that fell just a bit short.

I’d also include Gentleman Jim, the 1942 Errol Flynn vehicle about the life and times of James J. Corbett, which is also the favorite fight film of Mike Tyson.

It is my contention that, with a bit of imagination, all of the aforementioned boxing flicks could be adapted into movies about country singers. The theme music would have to shift from rap to something more middle America, but replacing Jay-Z with T Bone Burnett for orchestration is no major hurdle when you consider the premise. It’s the stories, man, not the musical score, that drives the narrative.

Is it really that difficult to transpose the tale of the man in black, country legend Johnny Cash in I Walk the Line, with that of Johnny Tapia, whose troubled life almost begs for a movie treatment? Are the violent, antisocial issues faced by Jake La Motta in Raging Bull all that different from the demons that inhabited Hank Williams Jr. in the 1983 made-for-TV movie, The Hank Williams Jr. Story, which starred Richard Thomas as the rowdy Hank?

Country music has its tough guys (Waylon Jennings comes to mind) who might have been become fighters had they taken a different path, and its one-hit wonders like Billy Ray Cyrus, who did with “Achy Breaky Heart” what Buster Douglas did against Tyson that charmed day in Tokyo 20 years ago.

As for me, I’m hoping that Jeff Bridges finally wins his long-delayed Academy Award. It’s about time a singing Rocky Balboa picked up a guitar and twanged his way to glory.

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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