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Articles of 2010

MEMORIES WITH MLADINICH: Brian O'Melia

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Brian O’Melia was admittedly a passive child while growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey. That changed when he was 14, and had gone to a local garage to find some after-school work. The owner took advantage of O’Melia in the worst of ways, which set in motion the youngster seeking to regain his lost dignity by becoming an amateur boxer.

“The catalyst to me becoming a fighter was the fact that I was violated by a grown man,” said the now 63-year-old O’Melia, who compiled a deceiving professional record of 16-32-2 (6 KOS) while campaigning as a heavyweight from 1970 to 1980.

“The guy told me he’d hurt my family if I told my parents,” he continued. “I needed a way to get over my anger, and arrest some of the negative energies I had.”

After many months O’Melia told his mother about the incident. Like him, she was somewhat passive and chose not to tell O’Melia’s father for fear that he’d seek the type of revenge that would land him in jail for a very long time. Several years later O’Melia encountered the pervert during a summer weekend at the Jersey Shore.

“I walked up to him and called him by his name,” said O’Melia. “He said he didn’t recognize me. I whacked him, and the local cops came to the scene. I explained to them what had happened and they let me go.”

About a decade after that the man was charged with molesting many youngsters in a high-profile New Jersey case. O’Melia, who by then was boxing professionally, as well as teaching school, offered to testify about what had happened to him years before. Because of the statute of limitations on his case, the authorities determined that his testimony would be unfairly prejudicial to the jurors so they opted not to use him.

“The guy was convicted, and he served a lot of time in prison,” said O’Melia. “He is still alive, and he is still living in the area.”

As a pro fighter, O’Melia was handled by the colorful and crass Al Braverman, who once graphically told a reporter that O’Melia “climaxed” every time he got hit. He also said he got angry at any opponent who missed him with a punch.

An armchair psychologist might offer that O’Melia took the presumed beatings that he did because of self-loathing brought on by the sexual abuse. Or perhaps he was trying to validate himself by showing that he was manly enough to absorb punches and always come back for more.

The reality is that O’Melia didn’t get hit nearly as much as people think he did. Despite the fact that he rarely weighed more than 195 pounds, he sparred regularly with Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, and longtime friend Chuck Wepner and emerged with his faculties intact.

He also squared off against such tri-state area attractions as Paul Simonetti, John Clohessy, Randy Neumann, Pedro Soto, G.G. Maldonado, Bob Bozic, and “Wildman” Bill Carson, and more nationally or internationally renowned fighters like Joe Bugner, Jose “King” Roman, John “Dino” Denis, Terry Hinke, Lorenzo Zanon, Scott LeDoux, Johnny Boudreaux, and Englishman John Lewis Gardner, who was 22-0 at the time.

O’Melia fought 11 undefeated and 6 once-beaten fighters. Bugner, Roman, Zanon and LeDoux all received shots at the heavyweight title.

He won five of his first six fights, but the one he lost, he lost big. In early 1970 he was knocked cold in the second round by Jim Lee Elder, a murderous-punching Texan who tragically died of cancer just two years later. The fight took place at Embassy Hall, a glorious but now defunct club in North Bergen, New Jersey.

“He was the only guy who ever really flattened me,” said O’Melia. “I was out cold for a few minutes.”

He was back in the ring just two months later, fighting regularly at Embassy Hall, as well as at Madison Square Garden and the fabled Sunnyside Gardens in New York.

In early 1972, he traveled to Puerto Rico where he lost a decision to Roman, who later challenged George Foreman for the heavyweight title. Six weeks later, O’Melia was stopped in two rounds by Bugner, who twice fought Muhammad Ali, in London. Just five days after that he was again in Puerto Rico, where he dropped a ten-round decision to rugged journeyman Willie Johnson.

Despite losing decisions to Denis, Zanon, LeDoux and Boudreaux, O’Melia has fond memories of all of those fights, as well as the men he competed against.

“They were all real gentlemen,” said O’Melia. “Denis had lots of boxing skills, but he was not a big puncher. I thought I won the Zanon fight, but it was in Italy, where he was from, and he got the decision. LeDoux had a reputation as a dirty fighter, but he was very professional with me. He was a tough, tough guy. And Bill Carson, he was a rogue type of guy who was very tough but had limited skills.”

O’Melia has a special affinity for LeDoux because he is afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative disorder that also killed O’Melia’s father, and the late Carson, who before being killed in an accident several decades ago, was an outlaw biker who played that part to the hilt.

Besides Wepner, one of the best friends he ever had was the late Jerry Quarry, with whom he had sparred many rounds. They were so close, O’Melia’s now 95-year-old mother once knitted Quarry a sweater.

O’Melia is thrilled with the fact that he is still respected or liked by so many of his former opponents. One night several of his teaching colleagues went out for an evening in Manhattan, only to have a chance encounter with Bozic, who was working behind the bar at the wonderfully untrendy Fanelli’s Café in trendy Soho. They reported back that Bozic, a skilled raconteur, regaled them with stories of the two times that he and O’Melia had met in the ring.

Despite having had such a busy ring schedule, O’Melia managed to earn a bachelor’s degree from Jersey City State College and a master’s degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

He has been a special education teacher in the Jersey City public school system for 40 years, and is still on the fence about retiring despite being told by financial advisors that his pension eligibility means it is actually costing him money to go to work each day.
Ironically, another of his 1972 opponents, Tommy Hicks, was  also a special education teacher in upstate New York. In the latter part of 1971, Hicks had been stopped in the eighth round by light heavyweight champion Bob Foster.

“I have such a passion for teaching, and I really love my kids,” said O’Melia, who speaks eloquently and with great insight. “The way we interact is really important to me. I like to inspire them to do positive things. I also do lots of little fun things. I’ll say, ‘This is my pinky, this is my thumb.’ I’ll then make a fist and tell them, ‘If you see this, you better run.’”

During a recent visit to the school it was apparent that O’Melia was revered by both his colleagues and his students.

Anita Biala, a life skills teacher who is originally from the Philippines, joked that O’Melia had always been her favorite fighter, until Manny Pacquiao came along. “Mr. O is such a gentleman, the best,” she said over and over.

Dolores Jackson, his teaching assistant for 10 years, couldn’t have agreed more, and added, “He is such a well-mannered man.”

And Michele Texter, a teacher and facilitator who runs the after-school program, said, “He is a class act who always puts the kids first. The kids see him as a big play toy.”

Over the years it has not just been fun and games for O’Melia and his students. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, he would take troubled students to Rahway State Prison to show them what could happen if they didn’t get their act together.

He had a relationship with Rahway administrators because he, pro light heavyweight Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree and heavyweight Rodell Dupree, who was the first professional opponent for Larry Holmes, often went to the prison to box exhibitions against the inmates. One of O’Melia’s opponents was a much larger man who was known throughout the facility as “Stomper.”

“Some kids needed a reality check,” he explained. “They needed to be discouraged from doing what they were doing. It worked for some, but not for all. One kid came back years later and told me it worked for him. He said he learned a valuable lesson, and he was set on the right path. I was very happy to hear that.”

One of his favorite memories of his students took place in February 1977, on the afternoon before he was scheduled to battle a big ticket seller named Pedro Soto in one of three ten-rounders at Madison Square Garden. The other bouts featured Wilfred Benitez vs. Harold Weston and Emile Griffith vs. “Irish” Christy Elliott.

That afternoon, Ron Swoboda, a former outfielder on the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets, who was then working as a local television sportscaster, came to the school to interview him and his students.

“He did a really nice segment, and the kids got to see themselves on television,” recalled O’Melia. “It was a thrill for me, and it was a thrill for them.”

The fight did not go so well, as O’Melia dropped a decision to Soto. By that point of his career, he was fighting more for the love of the game than anything else.

You don’t have to be around O’Melia for long to realize how committed he’d be to his students even if he had children of his own, which he does not. Nearly 25 years ago, he and his then wife had a son who was born with hydrocephalus, an abnormal amount of cranial fluid that results in enlargement of the skull and atrophy of the brain. The baby passed away after just a few months.  

Sometimes it seems as if the easiest days of O’Melia’s life were the ones he spent in the ring. He doesn’t necessarily agree with that, and he says that he enjoyed his days as a boxer as much as the years he has spent in the classroom.

He also enjoys being a referee, and he works fairly regularly throughout New Jersey. He has been the third man in the ring for fights featuring such luminaries as Arturo Gatti, Zahir Raheem, Vinny Maddalone, Ike Ibeabuchi, Lamon Brewster, Rocky Juarez and Simon Brown.

Regarding the losses on his ledger, the always self-effacing O’Melia made a quip about it, despite the fact that the punch line wasn’t factually accurate. Only 7 of his 32 losses were by stoppage, and he fought some pretty stiff competition.

“I was hurting guys hands, so they stopped the fights,” he joked. “But I’m happy to say that I’m still best of friends with some of the people I fought. That means a lot to me.”

Beau Williford is a onetime heavyweight prospect who sparred countless rounds with O’Melia  under the watchful eyes of Braverman. He now runs the lauded Ragin’ Cajun Boxing Club in Lafayette, Louisiana.

He and O’Melia are both steadfast in their commitment to the youth of America, and Williford speaks for scores of others in his description of O’Melia, with whom he is still in touch.

“Brian was a beautiful guy who always had a smile on his face,” said Williford. “He was a good fighter and a tough guy. If you didn’t like Brian O’Melia, you wouldn’t like Jesus Christ.”

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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