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When Fighting in a Ballpark Really Meant Something

Bernard Fernandez

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Nowadays, in the technologically advanced age of satellite communications and pay-per-view, live attendance at a boxing match is not nearly as consequential to the bottom line as it once was. Remember when the guaranteed purses of $2.5 million apiece for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, for the first of their three epic fights, on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, was as jaw-dropping as the action in the ring? There were fighters – superb, Hall of Fame fighters — who never came close to grossing that kind of money in their entire careers. The “Fight of the Century” was seen via closed-circuit in 50 countries by 300 million people, which largely contributed to total revenues of nearly $20 million, also numbers that were then record-shattering and considered astounding.

But the sellout, in-house crowd of 20,455, all of whom paid premium prices to be in attendance for Smokin’ Joe’s rousing, 15-round unanimous-decision victory, left the arena with the satisfaction of having experienced something that could not possibly be matched by those watching in a movie theater in, say, Shreveport, Louisiana.

From the giddy heights of Ali-Frazier I, let us flash forward to the most financially profitable boxing event of all time, the much-anticipated, long-delayed pairing of welterweight superstars Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao on May 2, 2015, at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Mayweather’s 12-round unanimous decision, a relative exercise in tedium compared to the mega-wattage generated by Ali and Frazier 44 years earlier, was of more interest to readers of Forbes than of The Ring, with 4.6 million pay-per-view buys, $600 million in gross revenues and a live gate of $72,198,500 on a paid attendance of 16,219, according to records furnished by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. For a night’s work, Mayweather came away with roughly $250 million before taxes and Pacquiao with somewhere between $160 million to $180 million.

Recent bouts in soccer stadiums involving WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua have served to remind the boxing world that, despite the convenience of someone being able to kick back in his living room to watch a fight on large-screen, high-definition television, there still is nothing quite like the sense of purpose that comes from sharing the moment with tens of thousands of fellow fans. And make no mistake, performing before massive crowds can be as much of an aphrodisiac to a fighter as it is to a rock musician, calling to mind the sad lament of Marlon Brandon’s ex-pug Terry Malloy character in the 1954 Academy Award-winning film, On the Waterfront.

“Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, `Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson,’” Malloy tells his mobbed-up brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger. “You remember that? This ain’t your night? My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in a ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville!”

Outdoors in a ballpark.

That line calls to mind boxing’s glory days, before television and even to some extent afterward, when the most compelling fights almost necessarily had to be staged in baseball or football venues such as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Soldier Field in Chicago and long-gone Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia. Spectators were like moths drawn to a flame because the mere fact of being there was important to them, even if it required binoculars for those in the cheap seats to see what was taking place down in the ring.

For a fight to be staged “outdoors in a ballpark” – or even indoors, after the advent of domed stadiums or those with retractable roofs – usually required the participation of two elite fighters, or just one, if he was prominent enough or popular enough to draw in the masses on his own. But sometimes there are other factors involved, as was apparently the case on Oct. 20, 1979, when white South African Gerrie Coetzee (then 22-0, 12 knockouts) squared off against black American “Big” John Tate (19-0, 15 KOs), a bronze medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, for the vacant WBA title which had been relinquished by Muhammad Ali.

Apartheid was still the official national policy in South Africa then, which no doubt played as much a factor in a huge – and segregated – crowd of 86,000 packing Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. Although each fighter was undefeated, Coetzee had never fought outside his home country, with the exception of a one-round stoppage of washed-up former champion Leon Spinks in Monte Carlo, which led to his being paired with Tate. It could be argued that neither man had established himself as a fully legitimate aspirant to a throne only recently vacated by the great Ali. Coetzee’s most significant wins had come against fellow white South Africans Pierre Fourie and Kallie Knoetze, as well as one against former world title challenger Ron Stander, who had been beaten to a pulp by Joe Frazier. Tate’s resume was similarly thin, buoyed somewhat with wins over Knoetze and the overrated Duane Bobick.

What happened throughout the remainder of their careers stamps their confrontation as an outlier in the otherwise significant history of major fights contested before exceptionally large stadium crowds. Although Tate won a 15-round unanimous decision over Coetzee, in his first title defense he was dethroned on a 15th-round knockout by Mike Weaver in a bout Tate was winning handily on points, and even as his promoter, Bob Arum, was negotiating at ringside for him to be matched with Ali in his next outing. It was a fight that never would happen; Tate basically unraveled in finishing with a career mark of 34-3 (23) and weighing a jiggly 281 pounds for his final bout, losing on points to Noel Quarless on March 30, 1988. Even before then, Tate had fallen victim to cocaine addiction and constant scrapes with the law. His boxing earnings gone, he panhandled on the streets of his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., and reportedly ballooned to over 400 pounds. He was just 43 when he died on April 9, 1998, of a massive stroke.

Coetzee fared somewhat better. He wangled two more shots at a world title; a 13th-round knockout loss to Weaver in Sun City, South Africa, that preceded an upset, 10th round KO of WBA champ Michael Dokes on Sept. 23, 1983, in Richfield, Ohio. Alas, Coetzee would hold onto the title as briefly as Tate had, losing on an eighth-round knockout by Greg Page on Dec. 1, 1984, in Sun City. The “Boksburg Bomber” would retire with a 33-6-1 (21) record.

Clearly, Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), the WBA/IBF/WBO champion and a super-heavyweight gold medalist for England at the 2012 London Olympics, is a significantly superior talent to Tate and Coetzee, and enough of a national hero in the United Kingdom to fight before 90,000 for his 11th-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko on April 29, 2017, in London’s Wembley Stadium. He since has posted victories over Carlos Takam (TKO10) and Joseph Parker (UD12) that each drew more than 78,000 in Wales’ Principality Stadium, and another 80,000 for his seventh-round stoppage of Alexander Povetkin on Sept. 22 in Wembley Stadium. If and when he takes on WBC champ Deontay Wilder, that unification extravaganza likely will take place in Wembley before another capacity-straining throng of 90,000-plus.

Almost single-handedly, Joshua has revived the tradition of fighting “outdoors in a ballpark” (although Principality Stadium has a roof), which largely owes, if not exclusively, to the generational allure of history’s finest heavyweights.

Although the largest live attendances for boxing matches involved non-heavyweights – middleweight champion Tony Zale knocked out Billy Pryor in nine rounds in a free, non-title bout staged by the Pabst Brewing Company before a crowd of 135,000 at Milwaukee’s Juneau Park on Aug. 16, 1941, and WBC super lightweight titlist Julio César Chávez stopped Greg Haugen in five rounds with 132,274 in the stands at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium on Feb. 20, 1993 – the big boys otherwise rule supreme.

There were 120,757 on hand at Sesquicentennial Stadium on Sept. 23, 1926, to watch Gene Tunney lift the legendary Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight crown on a 10-round unanimous decision. A year less a day later, Tunney retained the title on another 10-round unanimous decision in the famous “Long Count” bout, before 104,943 at Soldier Field.

Dempsey, along with baseball’s Babe Ruth, football’s Red Grange, golf’s Bobby Jones and tennis’ Bill Tilden, was one of the seminal figures in sports’ “Roaring ’20s” golden age. Dempsey drew 91,613 for a fourth-round knockout of George Carpentier in Jersey City, N.J., on July 2, 1921, and 80,000-plus for bouts with Luis Angel Firpo (KO2) at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 14, 1923, and Jack Sharkey (KO7) in Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927.

Former world champion Max Schmeling kayoed fellow German Walter Neusel in nine rounds before a crowd of 102,000 on Aug. 26, 1934, at Hamburg’s Sandbahn Loksgtedt, a European attendance record for boxing attendance that still stands and may be out of the range of even Anthony Joshua, unless a more spacious stadium than Wembley is constructed. Schmeling was on the wrong end of his one-round beatdown by Joe Louis in their much-anticipated rematch on June 23, 1938, in Yankee Stadium, which drew 70,043 and held the world’s attention to a degree that few if any fights before or since could approach.

Rocky Marciano’s largest live crowd was the 47,585 that showed up on Sept. 21, 1955, for the final fight of his career, a ninth-round knockout of Archie Moore in Yankee Stadium.

Ali, of course, was no stranger to fights that filled stadiums. The largest attendance for any of his ring appearances was the 63,350 that filed into the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans to see him become a three-time world champion when he avenged an earlier upset loss to Leon Spinks by scoring a 15-round unanimous decision on Sept. 15, 1978. However, of far greater significance to his legacy was his stunning, eighth-round knockout of seemingly invincible champion George Foreman in their “Rumble in the Jungle” fight on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). That fight was seen by “only” 60,000 spectators in Stade du 20 Mai, but in truth the entire world was watching by whatever means were available.

There are drawbacks, of course, to stadium fights, particularly those without a roof. Such fights have been staged in blistering heat, numbing cold, and sometimes pelting rain. It also stands to reason that the larger the crowd, the more difficult it is to later work your way free of the exiting masses in a reasonable amount of time. The trade-off is the sense of community when attending a sold-out event in a massive venue, which contributes to the electricity that one feels emanating from the event itself. That’s the way it is for Super Bowls, World Series and the World Cup, and it’s the way it should be, at least occasionally, in boxing.

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Blake Caparello Looks To Grab WBA Regional Belt This Friday

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This Friday night in Australia, light heavyweight contender Blake Caparello returns to action as he faces youngster Reagan Dessaix for the WBA’s Oceania title in the main event of a planned six fight card at The Melbourne Pavilion.
Dessaix currently holds the belt that Caparello held back in 2017, and the 22-year-old is hoping a win on Friday will put him on the international radar. It is where Caparello, who enters this fight as a 32-year-old, has been and hopes to get to again.
Those are the basics of Friday’s main event, the youngster Dessaix making a significant leap in competition level as he looks to get ranked internationally, while the veteran Caparello is hopeful a win will propel him closer to another world title shot.
Caparello laid claim to the IBO’s world title at 175 pounds back in October of 2013 when he won a comfortable unanimous decision over veteran Allan Green. Caparello, who was 17-0-1 at the time of the Green fight, went on to an introductory fight in the United States, and a win there saw him earn an August of 2014 title shot against WBO champion Sergey Kovalev.
Caparello has to feel he was close to a world title as he had the feared Kovalev down in round one before the “Krusher” took him out in round two. Since then, he has fought Isaac Chilemba and Andre Dirrell, extending both ranked veterans the full fight distance. The March of 2018 loss to Chilemba was for the WBC’s world title, and Caparello managed to go 2-0 the rest of the calendar year.
Green, Kovalev, Dirrell and Chilemba. The bottom line is that Dessaix had a solid amateur career in Australia, but there is no one with resumes like the men Caparello has faced when asked to step onto the world scene.
The WBA’s current world champion is Dmitry Bivol (15-0), who is making the fourth defense of his title in March against hard hitting Joe Smith Jr. The veteran Caparello could mount a case for a mandatory shot against either man with a win on Friday, while Dessaix would likely have to keep fighting and winning before earning a shot at a world title.
The co-feature bout is for the Australian title at 154 pounds and sees 31 year old Billy Klimov facing Joel Camilleri. Camilleri is favored as he has had a lot more professional experience than Limov, who turned professional at 29 years old. Strictly regional stuff here.
Both fights have lines at some of the sportsbooks. Check out the numbers as they were at the start of fight week below.
Fri 2/22 – The Melbourne Pavilion – Victoria, Australia
WBA Oceania Title
Light Heavyweight 10 rounds –
Reagan Dessaix(16-1)         +255
Blake Caparello (28-3-1)    -365
Australian Title
Super Welterweight 10 rounds –
Billy Limov (4-0-1)     +200
Joel Camilleri(16-5-1) -280
Check out the link for the live event right here. http://www.epicentre.tv/events/blake-caparello-v-reagan-dessaix/

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Will Fury’s Deal With ESPN Torpedo The Fights That Fight Fans Want to See?

Arne K. Lang

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Fury's deal with ESPN

For the past few weeks, boxing fans have been led to believe that the rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder was ever so-close to being a done deal. But in the world of professional boxing where Machiavellian characters seemingly hold all the positions of power, nothing is ever a done deal until it’s finally finalized. Today’s announcement that Tyson Fury has signed with ESPN is the latest case in point. It’s a three-fight deal that will reportedly earn the Gypsy King $80 million if he can successfully hurdle the first two legs.

As Thomas Hauser has noted, what we have in boxing today is something similar to leagues in other sports. There’s the Top Rank/ESPN League, the Matchroom/DAZN League, and the PBC/Showtime/FOX League. We would add that these are intramural leagues. Occasionally there’s cross-pollination, similar to when the Yankees play the Mets in a game that counts in the regular season standings, but basically the boxers in each league compete against each other.

We have no doubt that WBC/WBA/IBF heavyweight ruler Anthony Joshua will eventually fight Wilder and/or Fury, but it now appears that these matches, when they transpire, will have marinated beyond the sell date. The action inside the ring may mirror the Mayweather-Pacquiao dud.

A match between Joshua and Wilder is already somewhat less enticing than it would have been if it had come to fruition last autumn. The odds lengthened in favor of Joshua after Wilder’s raggedy performance against Tyson Fury on Dec. 1 in Los Angeles.

True, the Bronze Bomber almost pulled the fight out of the fire with a thunderous punch but he was out-slicked in most of the rounds and it wasn’t as if he was fighting a bigger version of Pernell Whitaker. Before that fight, casual fans were less tuned-in to Deontay Wilder’s limitations.

It was reported that the Wilder-Fury rematch was headed to Las Vegas or New York, but that Las Vegas fell out of the running when the State Athletic Commission insisted on using Nevada officials. Fury was the one that balked.

In hindsight we should have seen that this was fake news. No Nevada officials were involved in Fury-Wilder I. The judges were from California, Canada, and Great Britain. The California judge voted against Fury, scoring the fight 115-111, a tally for which he was excoriated. The judge from Great Britain, like many ringside reporters, had it draw. The TV crews, especially the crew from Great Britain, left no doubt that Fury should have had his hand raised and the controversy made the hoped-for rematch more alluring.

So who will be Tyson Fury’s next opponent? Speculation immediately centered on Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev.

Pulev, who turns 38 of May 4, sports a 26-1 record. He was slated to fight Anthony Joshua in October of 2017 but suffered a torn biceps in training and was forced to withdraw. In his most recent bout he outpointed Hughie Fury, Tyson’s cousin. He’s currently ranked #1 by the IBF.

On Dec. 8 of last year, Bob Arum announced that he had hammered out a deal to co-promote Pulev. It was subsequently reported that Pulev’s first fight under the Top Rank/ESPN umbrella would be against Finland’s Robert Helenius on March 23 in Los Angeles. Six days ago, the distinguished European fight writer Per Ake Persson told his readers that the fight had fallen out, ostensibly because the parties could not come to terms.

Tyson Fury is the most charismatic white heavyweight to come down the pike since Gerry Cooney and the big galoot is bigger than Cooney ever was as he has avid followers on both sides of the Atlantic and Cooney didn’t have social media to enhance his profile. I have little doubt that ESPN will recoup their investment in him. However, deals in boxing are never consummated with an eye on uplifting the sport – on patching things up with the disaffected – and here’s yet another example.

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Three Punch Combo: Two Recent Upsets Trigger Memories of Forgotten Fights

Matt Andrzejewski

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upsets win world titles

THREE PUNCH COMBO — There is just something magical about a longshot overcoming seemingly unsurmountable odds to accomplish a major feat in boxing such as winning a world title.

Earlier this month, undefeated 130-pound champion Alberto Machado defended his title against Andrew Cancio in Indio, CA. Cancio (pictured) was considered a solid pro, but he had been outclassed on the occasions when he stepped up his level of opposition and few expected him to remotely compete with Machado. But Cancio elevated his game and sprung an unthinkable upset, stopping Machado in the fourth round to become a world champion. Cancio’s incredible backstory has since been well documented by several media outlets.

In terms of shock value, Cancio’s upset was mindful of another recent upset, Caleb Traux’s monster upset of James DeGale in December of 2017. Truax traveled to the UK to challenge 168-pound title-holder DeGale.  He was given no shot to win; most doubted that he would be competitive. But Truax overcame the odds and shocked the boxing world winning a majority decision to become a world title-holder. Truax’s story of overcoming incredible odds to dethrone DeGale became the feel good boxing story of 2017.

The underdog stories of Truax and Cancio are still fresh in our minds. But often times, such stories become somewhat forgotten as time passes. In this week’s three punch combo, I will look at three other incredible underdog stories that all occurred in 1997. They were all equally as heartwarming as those of Truax and Cancio.

Keith Mullings vs. Terry Norris, 12/06/1997

In 1997, 154-pound champion Terry Norris left his promoter Don King to sign with Top Rank with the express purpose of securing a big money fight against Oscar De La Hoya. After winning two non-title fights under the Top Rank banner against low level opponents, Norris was placed on the same pay-per-view card as De La Hoya who would be defending his WBC world welterweight title against Wilfredo Rivera. Top Rank was planting the seeds for a De La Hoya-Norris showdown the following year. Not wanting to take any chances, they selected a seemingly safe opponent for Norris in Keith Mullings.

Mullings entered with a record of 14-4-1. He had one win in his last six fights. However, Mullings was coming off a controversial split decision loss to another 154-pound champion in Raul Marquez three months earlier in a fight many believed Mullings deserved to win. The performance against Marquez gave Mullings credibility but his limited skills did not leave many to believe that he could compete with an elite fighter like Norris.

For the first seven rounds, the script seemed to be going according to plan. Norris boxed effectively using his left jab to control range and landing combinations behind that punch. He was seemingly in total control of the fight.

In round eight, Norris’s movement slowed and Mullings began to land on a more stationary target. Although not known as a puncher, he dropped Norris with a hard right hand. Norris survived the round but Mullings came out aggressive to start round nine. After reigning punch after punch on Norris in the first minute of the round, referee Tony Perez stepped in to save Norris from more punishment.

Mullings would make one successful defense of his title three months later, stopping Davide Ciarlante in round five, but that would be the last win of his career. He would lose his title in his next outing to Javier Castillejo and then lose three more times before hanging up the gloves for good in 2001.

Mauricio Pastrana vs. Michael Carbajal, 01/18/1997

Entering 1997, 108-pound champion Michael Carbajal had only two losses on his resume in 46 professional fights. Both losses had come in 1994 to the great Humberto Gonzalez. One was by majority decision and one by split decision. Carbajal had won 12 fights in a row following the second defeat to Gonzalez and was still considered to be in the prime of his Hall of Fame career as he entered a title defense against unknown Mauricio Pastrana on January 18th, 1997.

Pastrana had an undefeated record of 15-0 with 13 of those wins coming by knockout. But he had fought nobody of note, feasting on inferior competition in his native Columbia. He was given literally no shot by most in boxing to even be competitive with the much more experienced and seemingly more skilled Carbajal. As a matter of fact, so little was thought of Pastrana that during the beginning of the fight a promo was run hyping Carbajal’s next scheduled title defense in March.

The first two rounds were largely feeling-out type rounds. In round three, Pastrana announced his presence, shaking Carbajal with a hard right hand. From there, Pastrana upped his output using an effective well-timed stinging left jab to set up his combinations. He outworked Carbajal and landed the cleaner punches as the fight progressed. Carbajal certainly had his moments in what became a surprisingly exciting fight but in the end the judges preferred the activity and cleaner punching of Pastrana who would win a split decision.

Pastrana made two successful defenses against overmatched foes before losing his belt on the scales before a scheduled title defense in August of 1998. In his next fight, he would capture an interim title belt in the flyweight division but that would be his last success in any major title fight. He never was able to replicate the performance he had against Carbajal. Along the way, Pastrana suffered defeats to some big names including Rafael Marquez, Celestino Caballero, Jhonny Gonzalez and Gary Russell Jr. Following a knockout loss to Mikey Garcia in 2012, Pastrana retired with a final professional record of 35-17-2.

Uriah Grant vs. Adolpho Washington, 06/21/1997

In his second pro fight, Uriah Grant was fed to debuting 1984 Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medalist Henry Tillman and was knocked out in the second round. Three fights later, Grant was selected as an opponent for prospect Ricky Womack and dropped a six round decision. It appeared that Grant’s career was ticketed to being that of a journeyman.

Grant’s career would bounce up and down following the Womack loss. With a lack of depth in the cruiserweight division, Grant did get opportunities at bigger fights and even world title bouts but continued to fall short when he stepped up in class. The journeyman tag seemed appropriate as he entered his 13th year as a pro in 1997 with a pedestrian record of 25-12.

In August of 1996, Adolpho Washington traveled to Spain and scored a unanimous decision victory over the previously undefeated Torsten May to win a cruiserweight title. The win moved Washington’s record to 26-3-2. After a bit of a layoff, Washington settled on a title defense against Grant to help shake off the rust.

Stuffed deep on a Don King promoted card in Florida, the fight was thought to be a mismatch with no US television interested and barely anyone in attendance. But in an absolute shocker, Grant defeated Washington by split decision. The unheralded cruiserweight went from journeyman to world champion overnight.

Unfortunately for Grant, his championship reign would be short. Five months later in his first title defense, he was out-boxed by Imamu Mayfield losing a unanimous decision.

Grant would not fight for a major title again, but in 2000 he would gain a little more notoriety when he defeated a faded Thomas Hearns. Four years after defeating Hearns and following a string of losses, Uriah Grant retired with a final record of 30-21.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan Photos / Golden Boy Promotions

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