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ORTIZ DREAMS OF GOING SOMEPLACE CUBAN LEGENDS STEVENSON, SAVON DIDN’T

Bernard Fernandez

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VERONA, N.Y. – For more than 40 years, some of Cuba’s finest athletes, boxers and baseball players, have sought to flee their restrictive island nation for the shimmering promise of a better life in America or elsewhere. If they could just cross 90 miles of open and potentially hazardous water without being detained or apprehended, their dreams of freedom, not to mention the kind of wealth unimaginable in their Communist homeland, might be fulfilled. A few made it, on makeshift rafts or by procuring illegal passage on somewhat more seaworthy vessels. Others simply walked away from Cuban national touring teams and never returned.

But escape was never a sure thing, and there was often a steep price to pay for even making the attempt. Death by drowning was always a possibility for those who took to the sea. So, too, was capture and censure that stripped plotters of what little they had.

“You are a champion, and it means nothing,” Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Cuban Olympic champion, said in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue of ESPN The Magazine of his seven failed bids to reach the United States before succeeding on the eighth such try. “We are like dogs. After all your time is over, you end up telling stories on a street corner about how you used to be a star.”

For his refusal to accept the impositions placed upon him, Rigondeaux was incarcerated for a time and his most prized possession, a car, was seized. He also was officially stripped of his status as a national hero. But Rigo’s persistence served as a tale of reward as well as risk to other Cubans who might dare to follow him; in the U.S., he went on to capture two world professional titles in the super bantamweight division, a distinction unavailable to so many other great Cuban fighters who have been prohibited from turning professional since 1959, when the Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary government banned pro sports as being somehow subersive.

In 2009, another Cuban fighter of some renown, heavyweight Luis Ortiz, was faced with a similar decision. Stay or go? Since he was a child, watching fuzzy black-and-white images of Muhammad Ali on his family’s small television, he had fantasized of becoming heavyweight champion of the world – the real heavyweight champion. So he bribed his way onto a speedboat captained by a sufficiently shady character, made his way to Mexico and, ultimately, to Miami, Fla., a city with a heavily Cuban section appropriately called “Little Havana.”

At 36, Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs) hardly can be described as boxing’s hot new discovery. But, in a way, he is just that. The 6-foot-4, 239-pounder took another step toward becoming the first Cuban to win a widely recognized heavyweight championship as a pro when he scored an electrifying, seventh-round technical knockout of highly regarded Philadelphian Bryant “By-By” Jennings (19-2, 10 KOs) here Saturday night at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.

By virtue of his victory, Ortiz – who is ranked No. 1 by the WBA – retained his virtually worthless WBA “interim” belt, the existence of which seems purely arbitrary when one considers that the WBA already has a “super” heavyweight champion (England’s Tyson Fury) and a “regular” heavyweight champion (Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Chagaev). But winning as impressively as he did, in the main event of an HBO “Boxing After Dark” telecast, has to move the man known as “The Real King Kong” closer to a title shot at either Fury (25-0, 18 KOs), who also holds the WBO, IBO, The Ring magazine and lineal crowns, or WBC champ Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs), of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“I want to fight the best. Line them up. I’ll fight them all,” said Ortiz, who added he’d be more than pleased to fight Fury or Wilder as soon as possible. “HBO and Golden Boy (Ortiz’s promotional company) will decide. But I think I deserve to be there (at the front of the line for either) because I am one of the best out there.”

Ortiz’s breakthrough performance seems even more significant if stories about his physical condition in the days leading up to Saturday’s bout are accurate. To hear Ortiz’s trainer, Herman Calcedo, tell it, Ortiz spent six of the 10 days leading up to the fight in bed, battling a flu bug that proved more of an obstacle to be overcome than Jennings presented inside the ropes.

“He was really a mess,” Calcedo said of Ortiz, who kept his illness a secret and was determined to go through with the fight no matter what. “He couldn’t do anything. He had a fever, congestion, a runny nose and a cough. We went against the doctor’s orders and took nothing (by way of medication). But we told everyone we had to (including the Oneida National boxing commission) that Luis was sick.”

In addition to overcoming Jennings and that nasty flu bug, Ortiz was determined to restore his reputation as a clean fighter, which took a hit following his Sept. 11, 2014, first-round stoppage of Nigeria’s Lateef Kayode, an outcome that was subsequently changed to a no-decision when Ortiz tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. Ortiz claimed the test result was the result of having ingested horse meat, which is frequently infused with Nandrolone and is a not an uncommon part of many Cubans’ diets.

WBA officials apparently believed Ortiz, for he was allowed to fight again for that organization’s “interim” heavyweight title on Oct. 17 and he again claimed it with a third-round knockout of Argentina’s Matias Ariel Vidondo in Madison Square Garden, a bout also televised by HBO.

With a reported 343-19 amateur record that includes the 2006 Cuban heavyweight championship and the 2005 Pan American Games heavyweight gold medal, Ortiz had unquestionably established himself at the quasi-elite level before he took a leap of faith and made his way to America. But no one in Cuba or anywhere else was ready to anoint him as the best of the best of Cuban big men, nor are they now. It’s just that, well, he appears to be the right guy in the right place at the right time to possibly make history.

With a current population of just 11.27 million, or 0.035 percent of the United States’ population of 318.19 million, it can be reasonably argued that Cuba produces more great fighters per capita than any country. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that placed Fidel Castro in power, the small Caribbean island had produced six world professional champions, including International Boxing Hall of Famers Kid Gavilan, Eligio “Kid Chocolate” Sardinas, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez and Sugar Ramos.

But, beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics – the first Olympiad in which Cuba elected to compete – the success of Cuban boxers almost staggers the imagination. Since that time, Cuba has come away with 34 gold medals, 17 silvers and 14 bronzes, numbers which surely would have increased had not Cuba boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games for politically motivated reasons.

Of the three fighters to have taken gold medals in three Olympics, two are Cubans – legendary heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson (1972, ’76 and ’80) and Felix Savon (1992, ’96 and ’00). Hungary’s Laszlo Papp is the other.

In all of boxing history, one only Olympic champion, American heavyweight Pete Rademacher, made his pro debut by fighting for a world professional title. Rademacher, who took gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was knocked out in six rounds by champion Floyd Patterson on Aug. 22, 1957.

Two of the most intriguing bouts that never happened might have seen Stevenson and Savon achieve what Rademacher didn’t. There was some talk of pairing Stevenson against an aging Ali, which would have been a huge global attraction, and it wasn’t all idle gossip. Longtime boxing publicist Bill Caplan said the Cuban government was receptive to the idea, provided the fight not take place in the U.S. (the likely landing spot was Rio de Janeiro). But the man who was trying to put the deal together, Ben Thompson, mysteriously vanished and no one stepped forward to take his place.

Similar speculation that Mike Tyson might share a ring with Savon was more of a pipe dream, but that bout also would have been immensely attractive had it come off. Stevenson and Savon could have forced the issue had they joined the ranks of Cuban defectors, but they were committed to Castro’s socialist policies and frequently expressed their contentment at remaining in the land of their birth.

While Ortiz is one of several successful Cuban pros in recent years, joining the likes of lower-weight stars such as Rigondeaux, Joel Casamayor and Yuriokis Gamboa, among others, Cuban heavyweights who bolted have been unable to make that breakthrough to the very top. Jorge Luis Gonzalez was knocked out by WBO champion Riddick Bowe in six rounds on June 17, 1995, and Odlanier Solis didn’t even make it out of the first round against WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko on March 19, 2011.

Now along comes Ortiz who, he proudly notes, shares the same birthday (March 29) as the legendary Stevenson, who was 60 when he died of a heart attack on June 11, 2012. Upon the occasion of his death, the British Boxing Corporation pronounced Stevenson as “Cuba’s greatest boxer, and once its most famous figure after Fidel Castro.”

“Yes, of course. They were my idols,” Ortiz said when asked if Stevenson and Savon had had an influence on his career. “In Cuba, they’re everybody’s idols.”

The world as it was is changing, and some of those changes could present the kind of opportunities for Ortiz, or maybe some future Cuban heavyweight, that weren’t available to Stevenson and Savon. The Obama administration has taken steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, or at least reduce decades-long tensions, which could mean the end of dangerous flotillas on rafts in shark-infested waters. It could even mean Ortiz fighting for, or even defending, a world heavyweight championship in Havana.

“It’s a dream of his,” Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez said of Ortiz’s desire to return to his homeland as a conquering hero. “Obviously, with the history of heavyweights in Cuba, with Stevenson and Savon, it would be big – and I mean BIG. We’ve talked about taking him back to Cuba when the time is right. It’s not right yet, but it’s getting there.”

Gamboa (25-1, 17 KOs), a former WBA and IBF featherweight champion, defected while training in Venezuela, making his way to Germany and then on to the U.S. He fought on the Ortiz-Jennings undercard, scoring a 10-round, unanimous decision over Hylon Williams (16-2-1, 3 KOs). But leaving Cuba now does not necessarily mean that Cuban athletes can never go back.

“I trained in Cuba,” he noted, a prodigal returning to home, if only for a little while.

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Chris Arreola is Back!

Ted Sares

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Chris Arreola

Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola is an emotional and very likable guy. Over the course of his career, there have been ups and downs providing the grist for a compelling story if one were inclined to write it. He’ll kiss a beaten opponent (Joey Abell) or cry if beaten (Vitali Klitschko) and his language during a post-fight interview is, well it’s special.

After his corner stopped the fight following the 10th round with Klitschko, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he thanked the fans (as is his wont) and later, while being interviewed in the ring, said  “F–k that, I’m coming back.”

It was his first loss after 26 straight wins out of the professional gate. For that “terrible” indiscretion, he was punished by the selectively politically correct World Boxing Council. WBC president José Sulaimán proposed a six months ban for vulgar language and the ban was approved by the WBC Board of Governors.

Arreola, who rarely uses filters, was brutally candid again after his first round KO over Erik Molina in 2012. The Nightmare cut loose on Don King, Molina’s promoter, calling him a “f—ing a–hole and a racist,” causing Showtime’s Jim Gray to  terminate the post-fight interview forthwith. “Honestly Don King called me a wetback, and other Mexicans,” Arreola told Fightnews.com. “That’s a strong word. It’s like me dropping N bombs. You don’t say things like that.”

No ban this time.

Arreola’s weight varies but when he is fit and ready (and under 250), he is a very dangerous heavyweight, especially in the early rounds. Once he has his opponent hurt, there are few boxers who can close as well as this Southern California Mexican American tough guy who was an accomplished amateur fighter and knows his way around the ring.

His level of opposition has been stiff. In fact, his five losses have been to fighters who have held world titles at one time or another. Bermane Stiverne had Chris’s number and beat him twice—the second time by way of a nasty knockout. However, he has a number of solid wins over the likes of Malcom Tann, Chazz Witherspoon, Travis Walker, Jameel McCline, Brian Minto, Curtis Harper –yes, that Curtis Harper who gave Chris all he could handle — and many others who came in with fine records. His first round blowout of once promising Seth Mitchell was quintessential Arreola. Mitchell retired after the fight.

In July 2016, The Nightmare was stopped by Deontay Wilder in yet another title bid but he did not disgrace himself. He then took off for over two years to assess whether he wanted to continue. Boxing fans pretty much forgot about him. Few took notice when he came back to stop the very stoppable Maurenzo Smith on the Wilder-Fury undercard on Dec. 1 of last year.

Fast Forward

Last weekend, on the undercard of the huge Errol Spence Jr. vs. Mikey Garcia PPV fight in Dallas, “The Nightmare” was matched against unbeaten but unheralded Jean Pierre Augustin (17-0-1).

Chris, now 38, came in at a svelte 237 pounds and looked fit and ready to go. The weary look on Augustin’s face during the announcement said it all. True to form, Arreola was in blowout mode and stopped the Haitian who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Arreola wobbled Augustin with a brutally hard jab that connected flush to his face in the third round. After more heavy shots, a bloodied Augustin went down and upon getting up, was battered until the referee halted matters. Chris closed things like he had done on so many other occasions and in front of millions of fans tuning in around the world.

With a female interviewer, the elated “Nightmare” was polite during the post-fight ceremonies and, holding his daughter, signaled that he is BACK! That’s good news for boxing fans because when Chris Arreola is fit and focused, he is entertaining and very competitive.

With a current record of 38-5-1 with 2 ND (the “no-contests” resulting from Chris‘s apparent affinity for non-medicinal marijuana), a fight with someone like Adam Kownacki would be a boxing fan’s dream.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors and plans to compete in at least three events in 2019. He is a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA).

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Nobody Wants to Fight Dillian Whyte

Kelsey McCarson

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Dillian Whyte

Dillian Whyte is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. The 30-year-old is a former British heavyweight titleholder, a former kickboxing prodigy and an undefeated mixed martial artist. Overall, Whyte’s professional fighting record is a sterling 46-2. He’s 25-1 as a boxer, 20-1 as a K1 kickboxer and 1-0 as an MMA fighter.

So while the battle rages on between various television networks and streaming platforms over securing the top talent in the heavyweight division, one that includes Tyson Fury signing a multi-fight deal with ESPN and Deontay Wilder reportedly mulling over his future with PBC, perhaps something just as important right now is that the single most dangerous and deserved heavyweight contender in the world remains without a dance partner for his next fight.

Never mind Whyte being the No. 1 ranked contender by the World Boxing Council. That sanctioning body instead deemed Dominic Breazeale the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC title after the potential rematch between Wilder and Fury fell by the wayside.

Here’s all that needs to be said about that grift. Breazeale only had to defeat Eric Molina to get his mandatory title shot while the WBC wanted Whyte to face Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, one of the top heavyweights in the sport.

And nobody seems to care that Whyte gave unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua the toughest test of his career (this side of Wladimir Klitschko anyway), when the two squared off in 2015 for the British and Commonwealth titles. Despite the obvious talent gap between the two fighters, Whyte gave the young Joshua just about all the former Olympic champion could handle in a seven-round war.

To hear Whyte tell the story, promoter Eddie Hearn must have intentionally lowballed Whyte for the proposed 2019 rematch in order to ensure Joshua could invade America on June 1 against the likely less dangerous Jarrell Miller. That makes sense for Joshua from a monetary perspective, but it doesn’t do the same in terms of true competitiveness.

According to various reports, Whyte is currently considering a multi-fight deal to appear on ESPN, a move that would give the British battler a path to facing Fury who some consider the lineal heavyweight champion. Fury recently signed a multi-fight deal to be co-promoted by Bob Arum for appearances on the U.S.-based television network ESPN. It’s the move that shelved a potential Wilder rematch and also opened up a huge can of worms in regards to what kinds of fights Fury might actually be able to secure. Currently, the Top Rank-promoted stable of heavyweights is best characterized by fighters who don’t really move the needle in regards to title challenges, fighters like Oscar Rivas, Bryant Jennings and Kubrat Pulev.

Overall, though, the main problem about the heavyweight landscape is that there are three heavyweights who all have a claim to being heavyweight champion. IBF, WBA and WBO champion Joshua is promoted by Hearn and exclusive to DAZN. WBC champ Wilder is attached to the PBC whose television partnerships include Showtime and Fox. Fury is set to embark on his own ESPN crusade. Long story short, these guys probably aren’t fighting each other anytime soon.

Worse is that while all three men are in desperate need of viable opponents, none have seemed all that interested in tussling with Whyte.

It’s no wonder. As good as Whyte has been over the course of his 7-year professional boxing career, the scariest thing about the fighter is that he always seems to be getting better. In his last two fights, Whyte outfought talented former titleholder Joseph Parker and knocked out gritty UK heavyweight Dereck Chisora. In defeating Parker, Whyte was facing someone absolutely in need of a win to maintain his status among heavyweight contenders. In beating Chisora, Whyte was in tough against an opponent he had only defeated by split-decision two years prior. Both wins illustrate just how far Whyte has come as a professional prizefighter.

As it stands, Whyte is the clear top contender among all heavyweights, especially among those who have not yet been granted a shot at a world title. He’s ranked No. 4 behind Joshua, Fury and Wilder by The Ring magazine and the same by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

The only question that remains is which title claimant will prove the toughest holdout. Whyte’s ultimate choice, in whether to stick with promoter Hearn on DAZN, link up with Arum and ESPN or continue playing the WBC shell game, will probably end up being tied to which path gets him the title shot that he so desperately craves first.

And it absolutely should happen. It’s one thing to crave title opportunities and another to have earned them. Whyte’s done both now, and it’s time for boxing fans and the media to take notice. Better yet, it’s time for Joshua, Fury and Wilder to pit themselves against their most dangerous competition. Since they’re not facing each other, Whyte become the next logical choice for any or all of them.

Because Dillian Whyte is one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world, and he’s done enough by now to warrant the chance to prove it.

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The Hauser Report: St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden

Thomas Hauser

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Conlan

Boxing’s three “major leagues” showed their respective wares this past weekend. On Friday night, DAZN presented a nine-bout card in conjunction with Matchroom USA. On Saturday, Fox and Premier Boxing champions teamed up for the Errol Spence vs. Mikey Garcia pay-per-view event. Then, on Sunday, ESPN and Top Rank had their turn in the form of a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headed by Belfast native and former Olympian Michael Conlan.

The star of the show was St. Patrick, the fifth-century saint widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. In his honor, there were three Irishmen on the card: Conlan, flyweight Paddy Barnes, and welterweight Lee Reeves. That said; there was a Hispanic flavor to the proceedings. The sixteen combatants included Eduardo Torres, Victor Rosas, Juan Tapia, Ricardo Maldonado, Adriano Ramirez, Oscar Mojica, Joseph Adorno, John Bauza, Luis Collazo, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and two Vargases (Josue and Samuel).

Irish-Americans have a record of supporting Irish fighters, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. This was no exception. The announced crowd of 3,712 arrived early. During the final pre-fight press conference, Top Rank president Todd duBoef had paid homage to the fans, although he did voice the view that, on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their cognitive behavior is manipulated by the beer.”

On fight night, the in-arena music was chosen accordingly. What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? was played twice over the Hulu Theater sound system.

There was also green lighting.

Lee Reeves (2-0, 2 KOs) of Limerick, Ireland, opened the show with a four-round decision over Edward Torres.

In the third bout of the evening, Vladimir Nikitin (2-0, 0 KOs) won a majority decision over Juan Tapia. Nikitin defeated Conlan in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Olympics. Presumably, they’ll fight again at a time of maximum opportunity for Conlan.

Flyweight Paddy Barnes (5-1, 1 KO) of Belfast was a teammate of Conlan’s at the 2016 Olympics but lost in the first round to Spain’s Samuel Carmona. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes was matched against Oscar Mojica (11-5-1), who had one career knockout and had gone 3-5-1 in his previous nine outings.

Mojica broke Barnes’s nose in round one and knocked him down with a body shot in the second stanza (although to the mystification of those in the press section, referee Danny Schiavone waved off the knockdown). It was a spirited outing in which both men were too easy to hit for their own good. Barnes rallied nicely in the second half of the bout and arguably did enough to win the decision. But two of the three judges thought otherwise, leading to a 58-56, 58-56, 56-58 verdict in Mojica’s favor.

In the next-to-last fight of the evening, Luis Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) took on Samuel Vargas (30-4-2, 14 KOs).

Collazo now 37 years old, reigned briefly as WBA welterweight champion twelve years ago. Since then, he had cobbled together twelve victories (an average of one per year) against six losses in eighteen fights. Vargas had one win in his previous three outings and has never been able to get the “W” against a name opponent.

It was a phone booth fight, which worked to Collazo’s advantage because Luis’s legs aren’t what they once were. The decision could have gone either way. Two judges scored the bout 96-94; one for Collazo and the other for Vargas. Frank Lombardi turned in a wide-of-the-mark 98-92 scorecard in Collazo’s favor.

Then it was time for the main event.

Conlan (10-0, 6 KOs) is best known to boxing fans for having given the finger (two middle fingers, actually) to the judges after coming out on the short end of a decision in the second round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. His skill set is better suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But his Irish heritage is a significant marketing plus. And Top Rank specializes in both savvy matchmaking and building narratives.

This was the third consecutive year that Conlan, now a featherweight, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day weekend by fighting at Madison Square Garden. His ringwalk was marked by Irish-themed pageantry. And Ruben Garcia Hernandez, his opponent, was tailor-made for him.

Conlon controlled the fight with his jab. Nothing much else happened. “Mick” emerged victorious 100-90 on all three judges’ scorecards. And the fans went home happy because their man won.

*     *     *

The sad news that New York Mets pitching great Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and will retire from public life is a reminder that all people from all walks of life are susceptible to the condition, not just fighters.

Seaver was on the list of A+ athletes who rose to prominence in the 1960s when advances in television were redefining the sports experience. Muhammad Ali was at the top of that list. Years ago, sportswriter Dick Schaap told me about an evening he spent with Ali and Seaver.

“In 1969, the year the Mets won their first World Series,”Schaap reminisced, “I spent the last few days of the regular season with the team in Chicago. Ali was living there at the time. I was writing a book with Tom Seaver, and the three of us went out to dinner together. We met at a restaurant called The Red Carpet. I made the introductions. And of course, this was the year that Tom Seaver was Mr. Baseball, maybe even Mr. America. Ali and Tom got along fine. They really hit it off together. And after about half an hour, Ali in all seriousness turned to Seaver and said, ‘You know, you’re a nice fellow. Which paper do you write for?’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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