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Articles of 2010

Coach Merk Says He Isn't Just Roy Jones' Sidekick

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Awards tend to come in clusters. Take almost any Oscars ceremony, for instance. The Best Picture winner often yields golden statuettes for its lead and supporting actors, as well as for the director, screenwriter, composer of the musical score and any number of technical personnel involved in the project.

OK, so maybe it’s an anomaly that Roy Jones Jr. never was voted Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Maybe one day he’ll receive the BWAA’s Irving J. Thalberg Award equivalent for career achievement, a consolation prize created for frequent nominees of the silver screen who never took top honors for their performance in a particular film. But Jones was named the Fighter of the Decade of the 1990s by the BWAA, which perhaps supersedes top billing for any given year. And riding on Jones’ coattails were brothers Fred and Stanley Levin, who shared BWAA Manager of the Year honors for 1995 in large part because of their astute handling of the Pensacola, Fla., native’s career.

But while Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s chief second, is set to collect his unprecedented fourth Trainer of the Year trophy on June 4 at the BWAA’s 85th annual Awards Dinner in New York, Jones’ longtime trainer, Alton Merkerson, remains the most conspicuous member of Team Jones never to have stepped up to the podium to give an acceptance speech. Most years, the former Army sergeant hasn’t even made the final ballot.

In some respects, having worked the corner of the fighter who for so long was regarded as the most gifted of his era is like being the manager of the New York Yankees. The skipper-of-the-moment of the Bronx Bombers seldom is recognized for his work, even when the team emerges victorious in the World Series, because, hey, isn’t a collection of all-stars with a $200 million payroll supposed to win? Couldn’t some Joe Schmoe sitting in the upper deck of the new Yankee Stadium guide his favorite team’s real-life players to the pennant as easily as he might his entry in a beer league’s fantasy format?

It’s a good thing for Merkerson that he doesn’t have an ego that needs to be constantly massaged, like Jones’, but that’s not to say that some of the slights, spoken or not, don’t sting. It can be a bit deflating to constantly hear that your role in the corner is mostly ornamental, that the Jones who so thoroughly dominated opponents for so long did it solely on natural talent and without much assistance from his trainer.

Now that the 41-year-old Jones (54-6, 40 KOs), who takes on 45-year-old Bernard Hopkins (50-5-1, 32 KOs) Saturday night at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay in a matchup of golden oldies, the likelihood is that Merkerson never will be acknowledged for his role in RJJ’s rise to the summit of the pugilistic mountain.

“I remember seeing a Ring magazine cover years ago,” Merkerson said. “The headline read, `Is Roy Jones Jr. too good for his own good?’ The gist was that Roy was so dominant, he made most of his opponents look bad. But isn’t that the idea? Aren’t you supposed to win as easily as you can?

“Now that Roy is in competitive fights, and losing some of them, people act like he’s a bum. They say he shouldn’t be fighting any more because he’s not doing what he used to do.

“Aging is inevitable. There are certain things you can do when you’re young you can’t do, or do as well, when you get older. That’s just a fact of life. So you try to compensate. But let me tell you, Roy has something left. Don’t be surprised when he beats Hopkins again, like he did in 1993.”

But even if Jones, a 4-1 underdog coming off a first-round stoppage by Danny Green on Dec. 2 in Australia, reaches back in time to summon some of his old magic, it likely won’t nudge Merkerson into the favorite’s spot for Trainer of the Year for 2010. Oh, sure, he’d almost certainly be nominated and might even make the final ballot, but the Eddie Futch Award surely would go to the trainer of whoever wins the delayed matchup of Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., should that megafight take place before 2010 gives way to 2011. Which means a possible fifth coronation for Roach.

“How can you have two individuals who are friends of mine, Stanley and Fred Levin, be named co-Managers of the Year for their work with Roy, but I’ve never been recognized?” Merkerson wonders. “I don’t understand that. But I know what I’ve done. My boxers appreciate me and appreciate what I do for them, so I really don’t give a damn if nobody else does.

“I’ve never gotten my just due, but I don’t need an award. Roy Jones Jr. was a world champion for many years. He’s one of the best boxers ever to enter the ring. I’m no chest-thumper. I know I was part of that, and it’s enough.”

Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It’s not just the tidal wave of adulation for Roach that is a bit nettlesome to Merkerson. He’s aware that Hopkins’ former trainer, Bouie Fisher, was cited by the BWAA as Trainer of the Year for 2001, the year the Philadelphian unified the middleweight championship. Fisher’s steady hand was more evident in the progression of an ex-convict who morphed from rough-hewn brawler to disciplined technician, the byproduct of which was an unprecedented 10-year, division-record 20-defense reign in the 160-pound weight class. And when Fisher left Hopkins in a bitter monetary dispute, assistant trainer Naazim Richardson took over and became a regular Trainer of the Year contender. It was Richardson who detected something untoward in Felix Trinidad’s hand wraps before Hopkins’ 2001 showdown with the Puerto Rican slugger, and it was Richardson, by then working with Shane Mosley, who exposed Antonio Margarito for attempting to use loaded wraps before their January 2009 fight.

Trainers who transform fighters with more or less standard equipment – Hopkins has remained at or near the top as long as he has because of a maniacal dedication to physical fitness and an ability to execute or deviate from fight plans, as need dictates – are almost always credited more than those who are presented with an athlete of otherwordly ability and just manage to not screw them up.

Merkerson, who became involved with Jones when he was an assistant coach of the 1988 USA Olympic boxing team that competed at the Seoul Olympics, acknowledges that Jones came to him as an extraordinarily talented individual. But Merkerson stresses that Jones has not been his only fighter, and that others he has worked with achieved success at their own level.

“If it’s not a good relationship, I really don’t want to be in it,” he said of the close bond he hopes to form with all of his fighters. “Every fighter I’ve trained basically has stayed with me for the duration of his career, with few exceptions.

“Alfred Cole (the former IBF cruiserweight titlist) was one who was with me for a long time. I started working with him with a lot of one-on-one training when he was with Triple Threat (whose other members were Ray Mercer and Charles Murray). We had a great association; he became a world champion. We stayed together for a long time. I’m proud to say the guys I’ve worked with through the years get along with the other fighters I train.”

Jones, however, is not Al Cole. He was created by his father, Roy Jones Sr., to be a one-of-a-kind fighter, and Big Roy did a commendable job before he and his son had a falling-out and Merkerson entered the picture.

Of his 22-year relationship with Jones, Merkerson said, “It’s very unusual that something like that occurs, but then Roy and I are compatible in a lot of ways. We made agreements when I first started training him, and we’re both men of our word.

“I told him I’d be there with him until he finishes. We’re together because of something more than words on a piece of paper. You can’t write trust into a contract. It’s been a very interesting road, a very successful road and a very long road.”

To his credit, at least for the most part, the unorthodox approach Jones takes to his craft – hands down at his side, pulling straight back from punches – is something from which “Coach Merk” never attempted to dissuade his then-19-year-old pupil.

“Roy’s style was something instilled in him when he was very young,” Merkerson said. “Most great boxers do things that are out of the norm, and they benefit from that. People expect boxers to hold their hands a certain way, to move a certain way. I’ll never forget a statement Roy made when he turned pro. Somebody said, `You’re going to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard.’ Roy said, `No, I’m going to be the first Roy Jones Jr.’ And that’s who he’s been.

“Great boxers might do some things that remind you of somebody else, but what makes them great is what they do like nobody else. Roy had the timing, reflexes and speed to be his own unique person in the ring. He could do things other people couldn’t. He knew it. His opponents knew it. Pretty soon, everybody knew it.

“He kept everyone guessing about what he was going to do next. It worked to his advantage. It still works to his advantage at 41.”

Or maybe not. There is a saying in boxing, “He does everything wrong, but it turns out right,” which applies to the luminescent young talents who dance to the beat of their own drummer, but find themselves out of rhythm when their reaction time begins to slow, if even imperceptibly. For a couple of years now, the things Jones did that were wrong but turned out right have been turning out wrong. The punches that he once slipped so casually are finding the mark.

But maybe the true legacy of a fighter is the impact he has on those who follow. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so the saying goes, and there have been any number of Roy Jones Jr. wannabes who have tried to copy some of his moves which were beyond duplication. It was the same with Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, other originals who created masterpieces on swatches of roped-off canvas while the imitators never got beyond the finger-painting stage.

“Some fighters try to mimic Roy, but it’s asinine,” Merkerson said. “Mimicking somebody’s style doesn’t make you like that person. It can’t change genetics. It can’t make a regular athlete into a superior one.”

So is now Jones mimicking himself? Is he making the same mistake that all fighters do – indeed, most human beings – in considering himself to still be the best he ever was? Margaret Goodman and Flip Homansky, former chief physicians with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, have offered the opinion that a mostly used-up Jones is entering the danger zone after having absorbed more punishment in the last few years than he did in all the time that preceded his rapid, perhaps inexorable fall from grace.

“He shouldn’t be competing right now, and maybe never again,” Dr. Goodman said of Jones. “Obviously, he has amazing credentials, an amazing history. But his last several performances have been terrible for someone with those credentials and that history. I don’t know how you can turn a blind eye to that.”

Merkerson hears the concern of others and, he says, he shares it. Roy Jones Jr. is not just his fighter, “he’s like a son to me,” he stressed.

“I take my hat off to them for being concerned,” he said of those who would prefer that Jones enter retirement whole and healthy. “It’s definitely a concern for me, too.

“But the Nevada commission has rules and regulations. If a man meets the standards for being licensed, you can’t hold him to a double standard because of what he once was. Roy has undergone and passed all the tests that were required. Saying, `Well, I don’t think he should fight any more’ is not a reason for shutting him down. That’s only somebody’s opinion.

“Are you telling me that Roy should be prevented from fighting when they let Arturo Gatti take all those beatings? Even when Gatti won, he took a lot of punishment yet they kept bringing him back. Roy has not taken anywhere near the toll on his body that Gatti did.”

But a revenge-minded Hopkins could nudge Jones closer to the point of no return. Would one more opened can of losing whup-ass convince Jones to walk away? Would it be enough for Merkerson to counsel his longtime friend and protégé to do so?

“There’ll come a time when Roy looks in the mirror, like we all do, and see a different person than the one he’s used to seeing,” Merkerson said. “He knows he can’t fight forever. But when he stops, it’ll be his decision, not someone else’s.

“I can tell you that whenever he does walk away, he’ll have a good life. There is more to Roy Jones than boxing.”

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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