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Olympic Boxing On The Brink

Matt McGrain

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In 2012, the United States Treasury Department identified a group called “The Brothers’ Circle” alongside the infamous Japanese Yakuza as being a “significant Transnational Criminal Organization” and, prompted by the then President, Barack Obama, set out in “pursuing additional sanctions against their members and supporters.”

This has been and remains standard practice for the U.S. in working against its enemies when they lie beyond its borders and ordinary legal jurisdiction. Typically a key member of a criminal or political organization will find his or her assets frozen and their ability to move freely restricted. More, they have been branded, publicly and loudly, as being the worst kind of criminal: organized, powerful and dangerous. This can make doing business and establishing new professional relationships difficult – or at least, that is the theory.

The Yakuza are well known but “The Brother’s Circle” I had never heard of, and apparently with good reason. In 2012, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project spoke to sometime Guardian journalist and expert in Russian and Eurasian criminal activity Mark Galeotti on the subject of The Brother’s Circle and he had this to say: “I have not found anyone in Russian law enforcement or elsewhere who actually says ‘yes, the brother’s circle is an organization and it exists.’ It’s either complete myth, or 99% myth.”

I spoke to Mark today and he confirmed that this remained his position.

“I suspect,” wrote Galeotti after the action was handed down, “that given the absence of any other meaningful specific individual gangs to identify, reference to the Circle represents a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included.”

Among those included is Gafur Rakhimov (pictured).

“Rakhimov,” claims the Treasury Department, “is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia. He has operated major international drug syndicates involving the trafficking of heroin.”

His passport number and an “alternative” passport number is listed as are other personal details including an address. His alleged background as car thief through to fixer through to drug dealer is laid out, albeit in very little detail. A power-point presentation illustrating some of the names of his associates and their subservient relationship to him is available. He is directly connected to and often identified as being in a position of authority over numerous men linked to murder, the trafficking of human beings and in one instance the assassination of a Ukrainian politician.

The U.S. Treasury Department is as serious about Gafur Rakhimov as they were about Al Capone.

Yesterday, Rakhimov was elected as the International Boxing Association (AIBA) president, amateur boxing’s global governing body.

If you were unaware of this story, and it has not been widely or properly reported by boxing media, take a moment to allow it to sink in.

The most acute problem here relates to the status of Olympic boxing. For some time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has harbored concerns about the AIBA and the corruption which purveys the sport it runs. Most Americans reading this will think of the alleged match fixing in Seoul that saw local Park-Si hun “triumph” over Roy Jones; perhaps for the Europeans it may be a fresher memory, that of Michael Conlan who branded the AIBA “f****** cheats” and “cheating bastards” who were “paying [off] everybody” after an inexplicable loss at the 2016 games.

Sporadically, good journalism has actually outed corrupt judging, as in 1996 when Independent boxing journalist Steve Bunce was all set to travel to Russia to interview a judge caught with a thousand dollar bung. Unfortunately the judge was murdered before Bunce could get to him.

Japanese administrator Akira Yamane resigned this summer after his association with gangsters and allegations of tampering with officials emerged. The 2012 Azerbaijani amateur boxing scandal was as embroiled and confounding as to defy any thumbnail explanation here, suffice to say that once every four years the Olympics spotlights amateur boxing’s vast and varied shortcomings but they remain a problem year round. The gloom outwith the illumination of the Olympic torch fuels dark deeds.

So even before the election of Rakhimov as permanent AIBA president, the IOC were “extremely worried” about the governance of the sport and were prepared to take “bold action” against it. Hideous financial mismanagement was as much a concern as corruption, as the AIBA flirted with bankruptcy behind its involvement with Eurasian loans. Rakhimov, who stepped out from behind the shadow of the hapless outgoing president Wu Ching-Kuo, proceeded to direct the rescue of the AIBA to the everlasting gratitude of many of its members.

The IOC, horrified by the corruption and financial irresponsibility in the sport of amateur boxing seemed dumbfounded by the appearance of Rakhimov as its potential savior. The AIBA was, however, preparing to launch itself out of the proverbial frying pan into the proverbial fire with all the force of an institution actively seeking its own demise.

“The IOC reserves the right to ­review the inclusion of boxing,” it offered, “in the programs of the Youth Olympics 2018 and Tokyo 2020.”

Boxing was included at the Youth Olympics but Rakhimov was reportedly not accredited. This is as clear an indication as the IOC could make to the AIBA of their opinion of the AIBA’s unopposed nominee for president. It responded by reluctantly allowing opposition which had previously been excluded for petty technical reasons, but nobody was going to beat Rakhimov cold; it’s arguable that nobody could have beaten him with even a fair shake such was his position of power after his handling of the Ching-Kuo debacle. Had Rakhimov come from nowhere it is likely his past would have counted against him but his association with the AIBA is long and strong.

How this came to be is explained in some small way by the OCCRP who deemed Rakhimov “the classic Uzbek gangster,” and noted that “you don’t get to be an Uzbek gangster without being a partner of powerful people in the state apparatus.”

Or, as Mark Galeotti so elegantly put it, “whatever you say about Russian OC, it’s outgunned by the state.”

It is Rakhimov’s very involvement in the upper echelons of organized crime that would provide him with access to the upper echelons of administrative power in his country.

It should be noted here that Rakhimov protests his innocence, and vigorously, but this, in a sense, misses the point. It is unfair that Rakhimov’s being accused of unproven criminality by the United States government, Mark Galeotti and the OCCRP, among others, should exclude him from working for the AIBA – but it should. Unquestionably and inarguably, it should. It should absolutely exclude him from running that organization.  He could be the most effective administrator to have ever lived and the fact would remain that his overall influence upon the sport he claims to love would be almost entirely negative. But his protestations of his innocence must be recorded.

In his own words, his inclusion as a U.S. Treasury target is a “mistake” that he hopes can be “corrected” within six months.

But he’s had six years.

Rakhimov has declared the date of his own election “a great day for the AIBA” and “an important step forward in boxing.” He spoke of the AIBA’s “commitment to the Olympic movement and Olympic values.” The IOC, meanwhile, are rumored to be weighing three options: excluding boxing from the Olympic games; staging an Olympic tournament without the inclusion of the AIBA (thereby withdrawing funding); or allowing the AIBA to run the Olympic boxing tournament under certain agreed-upon conditions.

None of these options are appealing, but I regretfully suggest that the third of these is the most harmful. While excluding boxing would deal a hammer blow to the sport that would be felt for a generation and the damage done to grassroots boxing by cutting off funding to the AIBA by the IOC would be enormous, either arrangement is likely preferable to doing nothing.

If there is a line of corruption our sport cannot be allowed to cross, I would suggest that it was reached and breached today. It saddens and shocks me that this has occurred in the world of amateur rather than professional boxing.

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Oleksandr Usyk TSS’ 2018 Fighter of Year

Bernard Fernandez

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Usyk

The best advertisement for a newly released movie – any product, actually – is not television commercials or print ads in newspapers and magazines. It is favorable word of mouth. People see or use something, they like it, and they tell their friends and neighbors they should give it a try as well. There is no better endorsement of a restaurant’s quality than to peek inside and see a full dining room.

And so it is for undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, The Sweet Science’s 2018 Fighter of the Year. The 31-year-old Ukrainian southpaw’s publicists and handlers don’t have to try very hard to sell his worthiness as a fighter whose time is now and maybe well into the future; his vanquished opponents are doing a fine job of that as it is. Who better to spread by word of mouth of any fighter’s star quality than laudatory comments uttered by the men he has beaten up?

After Usyk (now 16-0, 12 KOs) fully unified the cruiserweight title with a wide unanimous decision over Russia’s formidable Murat Gassiev on July 21 of this year in Moscow, adding Gassiev’s WBA and IBF 200-pound belts to the WBC and WBO ones Usyk already possessed, the losing fighter was so complimentary toward the man who had just given him a boxing lesson that he felt compelled to pass out more compliments than the punches he had thrown but was unable to land.

“He’s the best opponent in my professional career,” gushed Gassiev, who lost for the first time as a professional after winning his first 26 fights, including 19 inside the distance. “How on earth do you beat this guy?”

How, indeed? Despite performing before a hostile, pro-Gassiev crowd that might have influenced the judges had the match been even reasonably close, Usyk won by yawning margins of 120-108 and 119-109 (twice). For those of you keeping track at home, Usyk won 34 of 36 rounds on the official scorecards. That’s a level of domination seldom seen at such a high level of competition.

Nor is Gassiev the only vanquished opponent who is flinging verbal rose petals at the feet of Oleksandr the Great. In his third and final ring appearance of the year, Usyk traveled to Manchester, England – unfriendly turf once more – to defend his four titles against popular Briton Tony Bellew, a two-time former cruiserweight champ who, at 35, had announced his retirement beforehand, thus making the 35-year-old even more of a sentimental favorite than he otherwise would have been. Bellew fought courageously and even led by a point on two of the three official cards, with the third even after seven rounds.  However, he was nailed with a jolting left hand, went down, and ultimately was stopped in the eighth in the Nov. 10 bout that has helped fuel Usyk’s continued rise toward superstardom and in the pound-for-pound ratings.

“He is an exceptional champ,” Bellew, as gracious in defeat as Gassiev had been, said in complimenting Usyk. “He is everything I have feared. He is the best I ever fought. He is probably the best cruiserweight that ever lived.”

On a more ominous note to the biggest boppers in the heavyweight division, which Usyk now appears ready to enter, Bellew, who holds two victories over former WBA heavyweight champion David Haye, issued a warning that they had better not sleep on Usyk, who is 6-foot-3 and, according to Usyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, is already a genuine heavyweight at 215 pounds, which is 2½ pounds more than WBC titlist Deontay Wilder came in at for his controversial split draw with lineal champ Tyson Fury on Dec. 1.

“I don’t think there’s anybody else for him to fight in the cruiserweight division,” said Klimas. “Well, maybe there would be if (former super middleweight and light heavyweight ruler) Andre Ward comes out of retirement and moves up, which is something I’ve been hearing. But if he doesn’t, we probably will go to heavyweight.”

If it really is a done deal that Usyk is through with the cruisers, acknowledgment should be rendered to his incredible body of work in 2018. It might be a matter of opinion as to whether Usyk is the finest cruiserweight ever, a designation that arguably could go to the late 1980s version of future four-division heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, but there is no disputing that the polished Ukrainian’s three-victory run through the year that is about to end surpasses anything ever seen in the division over a 365-day period. Although he entered the cruiserweight portion of the eight-participant World Boxing Super Series as the nominal favorite and reigning WBO champion, the way Usyk separated himself from the pack of highly regarded 200-pounders was something to behold. He began the tournament on Sept. 9, 2017, with an impressive 10th-round stoppage of Germany’s Marco Huck before kicking it into overdrive in 2018, beginning with his majority-decision unification victory over previously undefeated WBC champion Mairis Breidis in Breidis’ hometown of Riga, Latvia, on Jan. 27. After adding Gassiev’s two titles in the WBSS finale, his TKO of Bellew made it three up, three down in 2018 against opponents who were a collective 79-2-1 with 57 knockouts at the time they faced him.

It is one thing to win a Fighter of the Year award, and quite another to possibly be recognized as 2018’s best among all athletes. Usyk is one of four finalists for the BBC World Sport Star of 2018 Award, where his competition will come from U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, winter sports athlete Esther Ledecka of the Czech Republic and Italian golfer Francesco Molinari.

However that vote goes, it is interesting to note that Usyk is TSS’ Fighter of the Year the year after the same honor went to fellow Ukrainian Vasiliy Lomachenko, who, like Usyk, was a gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics and, like Usyk, is trained by Loma’s father, Anatoly Lomachenko. It has been said that Usyk is, for all intents and purposes, a virtual replication of Lomachenko, only larger. That is high praise indeed, what with Vasiliy Lomachenko widely considered to be the world’s finest pound-for-pound practitioner of the pugilistic arts.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however. Before the launch of the WBSS tourney in September 2017, one writer, Gleb Kuzin, opined that “the reality is Usyk is not and never will be a producer of highlights like Vasyl Lomachenko. Usyk is a blue-collar technician. His work is subtle. The comparisons to Lomachenko or any other fighter are ill-informed. Usyk isn’t a highlight-reel machine. He’s out to make his opponents feel hopeless.”

Some would say that making quality opponents feel hopeless is by definition highlight-reel stuff. But either as his own man or a stylistic match for his buddy Vasiliy Lomachenko, 2018 was the year of years in the boxing journey of Oleksandr Usyk. Until, of course, he possibly tops it as a heavyweight.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Anatoly Lomachenko, a Genuine Innovator, is TSS’ Trainer of the Year

Bernard Fernandez

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Anatoly Lomachenko

The most daring ideas of genuine innovators are almost never met with early and widespread acceptance. People might still be traveling by horse-drawn conveyances were it not for Frank Duryea, a 24-year-old inventor who along with his brother Charles in 1869 developed the prototype for something they called the Duryea Motor Wagon, one of the first gasoline-powered vehicles in the United States. The Duryeas’ vision of the future met with much skepticism, but 24 years later it was Frank who drove a semi-operational car 600 yards down the street in Springfield, Mass. Two years after that, on Thanksgiving Day in 1895, Frank won this country’s first automobile race, from Chicago to Evanston, Ill., and back, traveling 50 miles – in a snowstorm! – in a little over 10 hours.

The name of Frank Duryea has mostly been lost in the haze of history, eclipsed by Henry Ford and his mass-produced Model-T that irreversibly changed America’s travel habits in 1908. It remains to be determined whether the foresight of a visionary named Anatoly Lomachenko, now 53, someday will be a footnote in the annals of boxing or a continuing subject of intense scrutiny and fawning imitation. But in the here and now, one thing seems certain: Anatoly Lomachenko, trainer of two of the four or five best pound-for-pound fighters in the world — his son Vasiliy, the WBO and WBA lightweight champion, and undisputed cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk – is increasingly recognized as a superb coach and true original. The Sweet Science’s 2018 Trainer of the Year, “Papachenko,” as he is known to the few members of his star pupils’ tight inner circle, has imagined into reality a number of unconventional training exercises which Vasiliy and Usyk cite as instrumental to their rise to the top of their profession.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of great trainers in this business, but I happen to think Anatoly is one of the few that are,” said Teddy Atlas, a noted trainer of champions in his own right who on Dec. 8 was the chief second for Oleksandr Gvozdyk as he wrested the WBC light heavyweight title from Adonis Stevenson in an 11th-round knockout in Quebec City. As was the case with Vasiliy Lomachenko and Usyk, who took gold medals, Gvozdyk, a bronze medalist, was a member of Ukraine’s highly successful boxing team at the 2012 London Olympics which was coached by, natch, the elder Lomachenko.

“I have nothing but respect for that man as a person and as a teacher,” Atlas continued. “He is an example of the proper way that you should conduct yourself professionally and personally. Anatoly is one of the few individuals that I know who is a credit not only to the business of boxing, but any business.”

Anatoly is only slightly more visible and vocal than, say, Al Haymon, the boss man of Premier Boxing Champions who is seldom seen and almost never heard. But Papachenko, who rarely grants interviews and even then does so reluctantly, did not suddenly come by his seemingly radical notions as how to best construct the perfect fighting machine. He placed tiny boxing gloves on the hands of Vasiliy when the infant was only three days old, a clear indication of what was to become his life’s mission. But this would not be another case of a father trying to live his athletic dreams through his son, which often puts too much pressure on the child and eventually results in burnout. That cautionary tale was played out by dad Marv Marinovich and son Todd, who was raised from birth to become a flawless quarterback. Although Todd Marinovich was drafted by the then-Los Angeles Raiders out of the University of Southern California in the first round in 1991, he shriveled under the pressure of attempting to justify the hype and was out of the NFL after two underwhelming seasons.

Although Vasiliy, 30, widely hailed as perhaps the top pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, is pushed to the limit and sometimes beyond by Anatoly’s severe and unorthodox training regimen, he and Usyk, 31, are happily dedicated to the program, in no small part because they can see the benefits that accrue from strict adherence.

“For Vasiliy, his father is like a god,” said Egis Klimas, the Oxnard, Calif.-based fellow Ukrainian who manages the younger Lomachenko and Usyk. “He respects him a lot. He loves him a lot. They have a great relationship.”

How unique are Anatoly’s deviations from standard boxing training? Well, years ago he plotted to have Vasiliy improve his endurance by regularly holding his breath underwater for as long as possible. It is an occupational tool mostly useful to pearl divers, but Vasiliy’s personal record is now up to 4½ minutes and it does appear that he never tires in the later rounds of bouts, no matter how frenetic his punch rate. Vasiliy also intersperses street skating, juggling, handstands and tennis, which Loma often plays solo, sprinting around the net to return his own lobs, into the equation. Vasiliy’s impressive footwork is partly the result of his training in Ukrainian folk dance, and in a nod to modern science, every punch he throws in camp is recorded and calibrated through the computer chips in his hand wraps.

The Papachenko blueprint is somewhat reminiscent of that employed by four-time former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, a persistent tinkerer who was determined to explore a wide variety of seemingly odd methods to help him maximize his abilities. At various times Holyfield worked with a ballet instructor, conditioning specialist, weight trainer and computer analysts, sometimes to the befuddlement of his by-the-book traditionalist of a lead trainer, George Benton.

“You don’t want no damn robot in there,” said Benton, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as a trainer in 2001 and was 78 when he passed away in 2011. “A big part of being a good trainer is the ability to listen. The fighter can bring something to the drawing board just as easily as I can. The smart man can learn something new every day. I’m trying to be as smart as I can.”

Klimas said Anatoly’s influence is already being seen elsewhere, with other trainers attempting to incorporate aspects of the program followed by his son and Usyk into the workout schedules of their fighters.

“It is obvious,” Klimas said of the imitators hoping to develop their own strain of that Team Loma magic. “But to copycat a trainer is like copycatting a fighter. Take Muhammad Ali. There was only one. Others tried to be like him, but it could never be the same for them.  It is the same with trainers. There is only one Teddy Atlas, one Freddie Roach. And there is only one Anatoly Lomachenko.”

Atlas wholeheartedly agrees with Klimas’ assessment.  “It’s not going to work,” he said of those who already are trying to steal pages from the Papachenko playbook and others who are sure to follow suit. “You can look at something and think you’re copying it, but the originals understand why it means what it does. The copycats don’t understand the essentials, and never will.”

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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A Boxing Aficionado’s Christmas Wish List

Ted Sares

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aficionado

It’s cold outside and there’s a deep cover of white snow on the ground. This aficionado is mulling over what he would want boxing-wise in 2019, while partaking in a warm eggnog mixed with Jameson and lighting up a Tenth Anniversary Perdomo. The background music includes Mile Davis’s’ legendary tribute to Jack Johnson. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8TdZFVj6tA  It’s time to type in the list as follows:

A speedy and full recovery for Adonis “Superman” Stevenson.

For Roc Nation Sports to help Daniel Franco with his medical bills.

For Jermain Taylor to receive the help he so badly needs.

A third match between GGG and Canelo to settle the issue once and for all.

A second match between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, but this time in London at Wembley. Winner fights Anthony Joshua.

Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller vs. Luis “The Real King Kong” Ortiz with the winner facing the winner of Dereck Chisora vs. Dillian Whyte.

A match between Vasily Lomachenko and Gervonta Davis sooner rather than later, but not until Davis grows up.

Loma’s opponents coming down in weight rather than Loma going up.

Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence Jr.

Gary Russell Jr. vs. Leo Santa Cruz.

Naoya Inoue vs. Luis Nery.

A continuing successful comeback by Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez.

For Andre Ward to come out of retirement and face a title holder.

For Joe Smith Jr.to avoid having his jaw broken and getting back into the mix by fighting Sean Monaghan for Irish and Long Island honors.

More exposure for Claressa Shields so that she is not lost in the shuffle of too many other female fights that lack her fan-friendly style

More televised action for Regis Prograis, Maurice Hooker, Teofimo Lopez, and Jaime Munguia.

For Mason Menard to retire. Too many bad stoppage losses.

Letting Manny Pacquiao retire in dignity by keeping him away from young lions like Crawford, Spence, etc.

The total and complete disappearance of Conor McGregor, Stephen A. Smith, and Shannon Briggs.

Now let’s get it on!

P.S. — What about your wishes for 2019? Please let us know.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors. 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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