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Articles of 2010

Was Ali's Comeback A Cakewalk Compared To What Tiger Woods Will Face?

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Some of you might be familiar with the work of Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, who works for ESPN. Simmons has risen in the last decade from humble beginnings as a blogger  with a readership numbering in the dozens, to a multimedia ass-kicker;  earlier this year his latest book (The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy), which I helped fact-check, hit No. 1 on the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list. I've enjoyed Bill's work, and have interacted with him pleasantly, if minimally, for the last few years. I've been pleasantly surprised by Bill's regard for the sweet science–the sport, not the site–and have gratefully consumed his occasional pro-pugilism columns.

So I was a bit surprised when I heard about the contretemps which began on Feb. 26, when The Sports Guy, during one of his ultra-marathon chats, responded to a query from a guy who wondered what it'd be like for Tiger Woods when he came back to golf.

Simmons replied, “To me, that's a much bigger question than “Where is LeBron going?” Tiger's comeback is going to be the most fascinating running sports story of my lifetime. I really believe that. We only get a handful of truly transcendent athletes per lifetime, he's one of them, and yet, none of them have ever been tested this way. The only thing that comes close: When Ali returned from 4 years of boxing exile for refusing to serve in Vietnam.”

The dialogue blossomed. “Really Bill?” another chatter countered. “Ali coming back to win the title after being banned from the sport for religious convictions that prevented him from serving in a war that continues to effect the course of American history today, “comes close” to Tiger missing 5 months for a cavalcade of bimbos and a staged sex rehab?”

Simmons came back, with a four punch combo. He finished off with a hook. “Here's the big difference though: Everyone was rooting for Ali. He never came even 10% close to facing the scrutiny, vitriol and 24/7 news cycle microscope that Tiger will face.”

Another chatter surfaced, and we went from boxing to wrasslin'.  The other guy tagged in, and pulled Simmons in for a suplex. “Yes, I'm certain that in the early 1970s, a black man who refused to be called by his “slave name” was far better received by white America than Tiger is received in America today. Certain.”

Simmons bounced back, and his piledriver shook the mat.

“You don't know your Ali history. It's true that White America was against him in the mid-60's, but that shifted as America turned against Vietnam. By the time of the Ali-Frazier fight, Frazier was the “old guard” rep and Ali was the “new guard” rep. He had everyone under 35 rooting for him.”

The issue and question didn't die there. Simmons hammered out a whole online column on March 3, and amplified and clarified his stance. Here it is: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/100303

There have been no shortage of pundits who've gone into “Kill Bill” mode. Charles Pierce at the Boston Globe and Deadspins' Tommy Craggs, not to mention Keith Olbermann, have all come to Ali's defense. Me, I'm not getting Olbermann-y on Simmons. Wouldn't be prudent. If I indeed disagreed with Sports Guy, and thought that the comparison of golf, which Woods mastered at age five, and periodically needs to muster a hearty response to people who don't even agree that golf meets the definition of a sport, with boxing, the sport of kings, to which all others aspire, doesn't fly. I draw a paycheck from ESPN, and doing work on Bill's books, as a fact-checker, has put money in my pocket. I'm keen on continuing with that arrangement, so I refuse to engage in some sort of intra-familial skirmish, or even give the appearance of that. I will, though, weigh in for “my” sport with an anecdote which helps me keep the difficulty of boxing in proper–for me–perspective.

In 1996, I had a notion that I'd train for the New England Golden Gloves, then,  after getting a decent base in the game, get a license to fight professionally, just once. I figured the experience would be personally and professionally illuminating, and one year out of a skid in which I'd gotten a bit too deep into a Cobain-y mode of living, I was eager for a transformative chapter in my life. So I hooked on at the Somerville Boxing Club, home to heavyweight prospect John Ruiz, certifiable loony-tune–in a good way–Norman “Stoney” Stone, his manager, and a bucketload of earnest amateurs and club-fighter level pros. Under the part-time watch of a delightfully crusty old trainer named Frank Murphy, I showed up at the gym a few times a week, after my 9-to-5, did the road work Frank directed me to do, and set upon learning enough of the art and science of the sport to enter the Gloves and then get that one pro fight. I kept a diary along the way, because I had designs to do a book. After about five months of working out, and four months of pestering Frank to let me spar, ole Frankie broke down.

“Ok, Ok,” he muttered through a Tiparillo haze. Following a long shredding coughing fit, Frankie gave me the green light: “You can spar.” It was a Saturday, and Frankie looked around the gym for someone either as green as I, or with a soft streak in them, someone who wouldn't light up the green guy, and tatter me for the hell of it. He saw pro Jacques LeBlanc, a defensive whiz who'd gone the distance with Roberto Duran, Alex Hilton, Vinny Pazienza and Dana Rosenblatt. The Canadian agreed to spar with me, so I yanked on an oversized cup, headgear, and entered the Somerville ring. After thirty seconds of shuffling, and some jabbing and a few looping rights, I was sucking for oxygen like I'd been waterboarded.

A minute in, LeBlanc shot a jab, and it caused me to yell, “Hold up.” LeBlanc, who by the way was operating at about a quarter of his proficiency, stopped in his tracks. I dropped down on my knees, and looked at the canvas.

“Woody, what's going on?” Murphy yelled from the apron.

“I lost my contact lens,” I replied. The whole gym groaned.

My left eye was 20-400, so I figured it'd be better to spar with soft lenses in, and see what LeBlanc threw, rather than just see hazy shapes coming at me. Jacques got down on his knees, bless his soul, and we saw the lens sitting on a layer of gym grime. I picked it up, somehow, with my puffy sparring gloves, someone got me a cup of water to put it in, and I got back to sparring.

Towards the end of the session, I shot a jab, LeBlanc ducked it, and my arm hyper-extended. I felt that big-time the next day, and in fact, a tendon tore slightly off the errant toss. With ten seconds to go, I was gassed, and recall the feeling of being totally fatigued, as a fresh foe threw one, two, three, four shots at me. My legs were heavier than Kevin Smith's, I was stuck, and LeBlanc was teeing off. Being a kind soul, he tapped me lightly, though with enough zest that my nose was tender in the days following this less-than-grand experiment.

I think we did two rounds, me and LeBlanc, with that break for the lens. And I was drained. Had nothing left. And hurt for a week afterwards.

My takeaway–I now had a better, if still imperfect sense, of what boxers go through. I've golfed a couple of times, and can safely say that this ain't a matter of apples and oranges. It's apples, and vegetables, to me. No comparison.

That's all I'll say.

What about you, fight fans? Will Woods be at a bigger disadvantage when he comes back to the links than Ali was coming back to the savage science after three-and-a-half years on the sidelines? What do you think of Simmons' stance? Are we simply too enamored of the sweet science, TSS U, and therefore, is our objectivity is out the window? You golf-hounds out there, you are better equipped than I to speak to the difficulty of coming off a lengthy break..let's hear from you.

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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