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Articles of 2010

Mike Lee: From Golden Dome To Ring Home

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No wonder they call them the “Fighting” Irish.

For the second time in four years, Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum has signed a boxer from the hallowed halls of the University of Notre Dame, which is better known for producing scholars and All-America football players than guys with the aspiration of becoming the next Sugar Ray Leonard or Manny Pacquiao.

In the summer of 2006, Arum helped fill the down time of the Irish’s All-America safety and punt returner, Tommy Zbikowski, but having him turn pro in a high-visibility heavyweight bout against Robert Bell in Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of June 10 a show headlined by WBO welterweight champion Miguel Cotto’s unanimous decision over Paulie Malignaggi. Zbikowski, who was cheered on by a number of his teammates who made the trip from South Bend, Ind., made $25,000 for stopping Bell only 49 seconds into the first round. The bout almost had the feel of a big-time college football game, with Zbikowski – a national Silver Gloves finalist in 1998, 1999 and 2000 – wearing Notre Dame-themed trunks while Bell, from Akron, Ohio, wore the colors of his favorite team, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Zbikowski, who recently completed his second season with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens (and was voted his team’s top special-teams performer), has an open invitation from Arum to resume his ring career if and when the pro football things stops working out. It could happen sooner than anyone thinks if there is a work stoppage after the 2010 season, with owners indicating they will exercise to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association ends.

Mike Lee, Top Rank’s latest signee from Notre Dame, follows in Zbikowski’s footsteps, but only to a point. Yes, the 6-foot, 180-pounder played football, at Benet Academy in Wheaton, Ill., about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, but he never suited up for the Fighting Irish. His sport of choice in college was boxing, which he didn’t even take up until the summer following his senior year of high school.

“Michael was a tremendous athlete in every sport he participated in, whether it was baseball, football, you name it,” said John Lee, Mike’s father. “He was always first-string in the most competitive programs since he was six years old. He could have played football at the Division II level, but he wanted more than anything to go to Notre Dame. And when Michael sets his mind to something, that’s pretty much it.”

What the 22-year-old Lee, who graduated from Notre Dame in May 2008 with a 3.83 grade-point average (of a possible 4.0) in finance, wanted nearly as much as a degree from his dream university was a chance to become a world champion in a sport, boxing, that got into his blood stream as much as any of the other ambitions he has pursued with undisguised passion.

Despite having had only 16 amateur bouts – most of those having come at Notre Dame, where he was a three-time Bengal Bouts champion – Lee decided that making a cushy living on Wall Street could be put off until he had satisfied his boxing jones.

“The pain of regret is a lot worse than the pain of a broken nose or whatever happens in the ring,” Lee said. “For me, I’m always going to want to live my life and do what I love.

“I loved getting my degree in finance; finishing my degree was really important to me. I didn’t want to turn pro until I did that. Now I know that whatever happens for me in boxing, I have that degree in my back pocket.

“That said, I’ve loved boxing since I got into it. Whether you’re coming from a ghetto or from Notre Dame, when you’re in the ring, it’s all the same … two guys going at it. I got a taste of that adrenalin from Day One. In the amateurs whenever I knocked somebody down and the crowd was going nuts, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing at that moment.”

Make no mistake, Top Rank isn’t in business to help smart lads with bright futures outside of boxing scratch an itch that involves punching somebody in the mouth, and getting punched back. Arum signed Zbikowski for all the right reasons, although he probably showcased him a bit more given his college affiliation, and he insists he’s taking a chance with Lee for boxing purposes only.

“It’ll be a project (developing Lee), but we’ll see,” said Arum, who intends to turn his latest addition from Notre Dame pro on May 29, during a Top Rank Live telecast from the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion on Fox Sports Network. “We usually don’t showcase four-round fighters until they’ve had a bit more experience, but we’re making an exception in this case.

“Are we doing that because he’s got that Notre Dame thing going for him? Oh, absolutely. Notre Dame has a cachet to it in athletics and in the popular culture. But you can only take that so far.

“Mike is woefully inexperienced. All of the young boxers we sign have extensive amateur backgrounds and he doesn’t. But he has great attributes. He punches very well, he’s extremely intelligent and he can learn a lot in a short time. His upside is tremendous. He is going to be a very good attraction in the Chicago area, and elsewhere. Hey, there are a lot of  Notre Dame fans all over the country.”

Lee, who expects to make his pro debut as a light-heavyweight, with a goal of whittling himself down to super middleweight, had better show something from the get-go. In a sense, he’s starting out at the top, with Top Rank’s well-oiled promotional machine behind him and a savvy trainer, Ronnie Shields, to tutor him on the finer points of the sweet science. The downside to starting out at the top, of course, is that the only way you have to go is down.

Shields, however, believes that Lee will disprove the widely held perception that boxing is a sport exclusively reserved for the poor and disenfranchised hoping punch their way to a better life.

“I tell you what, this kid is so determined,” said Shields, who has been working with Lee in Houston. “He’s determined to be a fighter. That’s not something you’d expect from someone who just got a finance degree from as prestigious a school as Notre Dame.

“We’re talking about somebody that truly loves boxing, who truly wants to learn. This kid is so enthusiastic about everything, he even inspires me. Mike wants to become champion of the world. He doesn’t want to get into this just to say he’s a professional boxer.

“I ask a lot of the guys I work with, which is why he’s not fighting until May 29. The kid is a sponge, he absorbs everything, but I’m taking baby steps with him for now. I don’t want to rush him into anything before he’s ready. We’re going to do this the right way and take things step by step.”

What Shields doesn’t have to teach Lee is the art of power-punching. That’s something you can improve upon, technique-wise, but mostly it’s a case of whether you’re born with the gift or not. And, Shields insists, Lee has it.

“This kid has a right hand that’s out of this world,” Shields said. “It’s straight, strong and fast. It’s unbelievable, the right hand he has.

“When I first started working with him, I really didn’t noticed the right hand. I knew he had a good left hook; his left hook is really strong. But I had him spar with a small heavyweight, a guy around 200 pounds, and the first day they boxed, Mike hit him with a clean right hand in the second round and dropped him. It was so fast! I was, like, wow.”

John Lee said boxing at Notre Dame is a bigger deal than most people imagine, with the Bengal Bouts drawing reasonably large crowds. But Notre Dame boxers only engage in the sport for four months or so, followed by eight months of waiting until it’s time to glove up again.

“Michael followed that schedule for a while, but as he got to enjoy the sport more, he began looking at it from more of a full-time perspective,” the father noted. “I don’t think you can really compete with people doing something only four months a year.”

Lee showed he had something more than flash-in-the-pan ability when he entered the ultracompetitive Chicago Golden Gloves, in which he won five straight bouts en route to the title.

Zbikowski, not wanting to overshadow Lee’s big moment, asked for permission to attend Lee press conferences at both Notre Dame and in Chicago and was there to show his support.

“Michael knows Tommy, who is a couple of years older, and obviously we appreciate that he’s taken an interest,” John Lee said. “But what Michael is doing with boxing doesn’t have anything to do with Tommy. This is simply chasing his dream, like anyone else. He’s shown himself athletically to be worthy of chasing that dream. As a father, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the ride. If this is what he wants to do, he deserves the opportunity.”

If Mike Lee’s educational background wasn’t unusual enough, his plans for what he intends to do with his purses early in his boxing career stamps him as even more unusual. Basically, he plans to give a large chunk of his ring earnings to charity.

In January 2008, Lee spent 15 days in Bangladesh during a break from his studies at Notre Dame, as part of the university’s Holy Cross Missions of Bangladesh program. What he saw left a deep imprint on him.

“It really changed my perspective on things,” he said. “Oftentimes you see something on TV and you hear statistics and what-not, but until I went over there I had no idea as to the extent of the poverty. Bangladesh is a Third World country; the problems the people there face every day are no joke.

“When I returned to the United States, I stopped complaining about little things. At least for my early fights, I intend to donate a substantial percentage of my purses to the Holy Cross Missions. And if there are other causes down the road I feel this passionate about, I’ll do whatever I can to help out.”

Until then, though, Lee intends to train his butt off and look forward to the NFL draft in April, in which several of his friends – Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour, Notre Dame wide receiver Golden Tate and Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki – figure to be early-round selections.

“I’ve been friends with Danny (a teammate at Benet Academy) since I was 13 years old,” Lee said. “I’m so happy for him. It’s pretty cool that two kids from the same high school who graduated in 2005 can be turning pro at more or less the same time in the sports they love. It’s really pretty interesting when you think about it. Danny’s in Pensacola, Fla., getting ready for the NFL combine, and I’m in Houston getting ready for my pro boxing debut.”

Make no mistake, the Notre Dame/Top Rank love affair is a two-way street when it comes to football.

“When we did our press conference on campus, we took (Top Rank officials) Bob Arum, Carl Moretti, Todd duBoeuf and Lee Samuels into the football locker room at Notre Dame Stadium,” Lee said. “They were like little kids in a candy store.”

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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