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Bantamweight Christian Carto Gives Fans Another Sweet Treat at the SugarHouse

Bernard Fernandez

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PHILADELPHIA – There are certain flavors – like, say, scrapple for breakfast – that are more accepted and even favored here than in other places, where they have yet to become acquired tastes, and might never be.

The same might be said at this point of boxing’s little dynamo, bantamweight prospect Christian Carto, who resides in Deptford, N.J., but continues to train in and be introduced as being from South Philly, which, along with his family’s deep and long-established roots in the local fight scene, have helped make the 21-year-old something akin to a rock star. His bouts at the SugarHouse Casino along the Delaware River waterfront are always sold out (all right, so capacity is only 1,100) and his trunks are festooned with so many ads from area merchants that longtime Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz has cracked that “he looks like a NASCAR driver.” Carto’s manager, older brother Frankie Carto, claims he has had to tell other would-be advertisers that, sorry, there is no more open space for product placement on Christian’s work duds.

Carto’s latest ring appearance, a six-round unanimous decision over Mexican veteran Antonio Rodriguez Friday night before another raucous SugarHouse crowd, might yet prove to be another little acorn that blossoms into a mighty oak of national and even international significance. But, while typically dominant, Carto’s slightly smudged performance offered little proof one way or another as to the still-unproven kid’s potential for spreading his magic beyond his currently limited comfort zone.

“I tried to get him out of there,” Carto (17-0, 11 KOs), who floored Rodriguez (13-23-2 (6 KOs) with a left hook to the body in the second round,” said of the extension of his non-stoppage streak to six bouts, and against a 30-year-old opponent who had lost inside the distance 12 times previously. “I’m going to go back to the gym and work more on setting my shots up. There’s a lot I still need to work on.”

The task of furthering Carto’s pugilistic education has fallen to veteran Philadelphia trainer Billy Briscoe, who took Gabe Rosado to two shots, albeit losing ones, at world titles. Earlier this year Briscoe replaced Mickey Rosati, who had been with Carto since his days in the amateurs.

“We’re still trying to work out some wrinkles, getting him a little more well-rounded,” Briscoe said. “He got a little overanxious after he knocked the guy down, but that’s all a part of growing and maturing. He’ll get it.”

Carto and his family are betting that when and if he does get it, the rewards will be ample. The 5-foot-5 Carto, who hopes to become the first Philly bantamweight to become a world champion since International Boxing Hall of Famer “Joltin’” Jeff Chandler dethroned Julian Solis on a 14th-round knockout on Nov. 14, 1980, a title he held through nine successful defenses, has elected to remain a free agent rather than to sign a long-term deal with the many smaller, regional promoters who would like to have him as the face of their operation. (Friday’s card at the SugarHouse was staged by Marshall Kaufmann’s King’s Promotions.) But if popularity is a factor, and it generally is, Carto could soon announce an exclusive arrangement with one of boxing’s promotional heavy hitters. When he appeared on the undercard of an ESPN-televised card in Atlantic City headlined by heavyweights Bryant Jennings and Alexander Dimetrenko on Aug. 18, his appearance resulted in more direct ticket sales than the compiled total of fellow Philly fighters Jennings and Jesse Hart, both of whom are world-rated and have fought for world championships.

Not too shabby for someone barely old enough to vote and has yet to be involved in a fight scheduled for longer than eight rounds.

“He’s Italian and he’s South Philly. That’s a perfect combination,” said Peltz, who co-promoted the Aug. 18 show in Atlantic City along with Top Rank.

Although Carto disavows the notion that he was “born to be a fighter,” his genetics suggest otherwise. His late grandfather, Frankie Carto, was a lightweight who was 40-13-3 (21) from 1941-46; great-uncle Joe Carto, also a lightweight, was 4-2-1 (3) and another great-uncle, Nunzio Carto, another lightweight (natch) was 27-2 (13). It’s little wonder Christian, then eight, began tagging along with older brother Frankie, his grandpop’s namesake, when he’d go to the gym to work out, and he had his first amateur bout at 11, progressing enough over time to win the National Golden Gloves light flyweight title in 2014 (a championship once held by future pro greats Johnny Tapia, Michael Carbajal and Floyd Mayweather Jr.)  and take bronze at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Thirteen of Carto’s 17 fights have been staged in Philadelphia, including eight at the SugarHouse, where he has become so much of a “house” fighter that the casino heralds his upcoming bouts in the upstairs Events Center by plastering his face on billboards. All that remains now is for the local kid with the cult-like following to see if he can expand his brand to larger stages in New York, Las Vegas and other  destinations that have yet to sample and savor his little slice of Philly.

Curiously, coming as it did three days after the nation’s mid-term elections, Philadelphia fighters participated in all six bouts on the card, all were victorious and all were assigned to the blue corner, making for a “blue wave” of another sort. Carto was the draw, as might be expected, but he was not the only home-grown fighter who had family as well as municipal pride to uphold. Welterweight James Martin (3-0), son of former light heavyweight contender Jerry “The Bull” Martin, scored a tough, four-round unanimous decision over Denis Okoth (2-1-1, 1 KO) of Staya, Ky., a bout in which Okoth went down in the first round and Martin in the third.

As is the case with Carto, it will take some doing for Martin, 21, to match the ring legacy of his celebrated forebear. Jerry Martin, who turns 65 on Nov. 29, was a world-class 175-pounder who fought three times for world titles, losing in each instance to such notables as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. But “The Bull” did procure minor NABF and USBA titles along the way, and defeated quality opponents in James Scott, Billy “Dynamite” Douglas (father of heavyweight champion Buster Douglas), Jerry Celestine and Anthony Witherspoon.

“I look up to my dad, and I want to be a champion like he was,” the son said. “I want to copy his steps.”

Other victorious Philly fighters were welterweight Poindexter Knight (6-0, 3 KOs), who scored an impressive, first-round TKO over highly regarded and more experienced Travis Castellon (16-3-1, 12 KOs), of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; welterweight Frankie Trader (11-2-1, 3 KOs), who ended a 4½-year layoff with a second-round stoppage of Pablo Cupul (10-28, 5 KOs), of San Diego; welterweight Mark Dawson (5-0, 3 KOs), who scored a four-round, unanimous decision over Chukka Willis (3-7, 2 KOs), of Emporia, Kan., and middleweight Maurice Burke, who made his pro debut with a unanimous, four-round nod over Brandon Bey (0-1), of the Bronx, N.Y.

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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Tyson Fury is the 2018 TSS Comeback Fighter of the Year

Arne K. Lang

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Tyson Fury

When the TSS year-end award season rolls around, some choices are no-brainers and others are head-scratchers because there are so many worthy candidates. Selecting Tyson Fury as our 2018 Comeback Fighter of the Year was a no-brainer.

When Fury left the sport for what would ultimately be a 31-month layoff, it soon became evident that we might never see him again. It wasn’t just that his heart was no longer in the game. He fell to pieces, letting his weight balloon to almost 400 pounds.

We would learn that there was more to the story. Fury was abusing cocaine and alcohol and had mental health issues that he readily acknowledged. He told reporters that he was seeing a psychiatrist who had diagnosed him as bipolar and manic depressive.

But Fury pulled himself together and gradually worked his way back to where he was fit to fight again. He returned to the ring on June 9 in Manchester in a supporting bout to Terry Flanagan’s140-pound title defense against Maurice Hooker. In the opposite corner was Sefer Seferi, a 39-year-old puffed-up cruiserweight.

The fight was a travesty. Fury, 11 inches taller and 66 pounds heavier, hardly worked up a sweat and the same could be said of his Albanian opponent who quit after four rounds.

For his second comeback fight, Fury chose a man nearer his own size, former sparring partner Francesco Pianeta. They met on August 18 in Belfast on a show headlined by hometown hero Carl Frampton. Fury won the contest easily in the eyes of the referee who awarded him all 10 rounds, but he wasn’t impressive. Indeed, the fight had no indelible moments.

In the post-fight press conference following the Pianeta fight, Fury’s promoter Frank Warren announced that the self-styled Gypsy King would fight WBC champion Deontay Wilder next and that the fight would materialize in late November in Las Vegas. As it turned out, the match came to fruition in Los Angeles at the Staples Center on Dec. 1.

It was widely assumed that Warren was blowing smoke. Surely Fury needed more rounds to shake off all the rust after his long spell of inactivity and self-abuse. But to some it made perfect sense that Fury would take on such a daunting assignment at this juncture. The cynics holding this view said that Fury was a certified loon and the longer the wait before he was thrust into a big money fight, the greater the chance that he would do something stupid and it would all fall apart.

The oddsmakers made Wilder a 7/5 favorite. In Las Vegas, there was late money on Wilder. At one large property, the odds shot up to 11/5 on the day of the fight.

After 40 pro fights, Deontay Wilder was still rough around the edges. Fury, it was widely understood, was the better boxer. But Wilder could take a man out with one punch and it figured that he would clock the Gypsy King who figured to tire in the late rounds if he could last that long.

By now every serious boxing fan is familiar with the details of the Wilder-Fury fight. Suffice it to say that Wilder did clock him in the late rounds, not once but twice, the second compliments of a left hook that knocked a staggering Fury down hard in the final round. The punch, wrote London Guardian scribe Kevin Mitchell, would have anaesthetized a horse.

The punch pulled the fight out of the fire for Deontay Wilder. For five long seconds as he lay prone on the canvas, Tyson Fury looked dead as a mackerel.

But hold the phone.

By some miracle, Fury was able to beat the count – just barely – and, more astoundingly, he got the best of the milling during the remainder of the round.

When the decision was announced – it went into the books as a draw – Fury didn’t bellyache. He had a look of satisfaction on his face as referee Jack Reiss simultaneously raised his hand and the hand of his opponent. Afterwards, he would say that he was certain that he had won enough rounds to earn the decision, but that if he had ranted and raved it might have started a riot. Indeed, whenever there is an especially large delegation of British boxing fans there is a hooligan element. And the Wilder-Fury fight played out before a large delegation of Brits who left the premises justifiably disgruntled but orderly.

At the post-fight press conference, the Gypsy King did something charming. He burst into song, leading the media in a rendition of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Yes, over the years, to his everlasting discredit, Fury has hurt people with words that were misogynistic, homophobic, and even anti-Semitic. But at moments like these the big galoot is so cuddly that it’s hard not to love him.

As comebacks go, Fury’s was strange. He wasn’t coming off a loss and he didn’t win. But he emerged from a very dark place and gave a performance that was not only redemptive but inspirational.

The 2018 TSS Comeback Fighter of the Year was a no-brainer.

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Eleider Alvarez Forged the 2018 TSS Upset of the Year

Jeffrey Freeman

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Alvarez

HBO World Championship Boxing called it quits in 2018 but not before airing the Sweet Science (TSS) Upset of the Year: Eleider “Storm” Alvarez’s jaw dropping seventh round knockout of Sergey Kovalev to win the WBO light heavyweight title at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, formerly President Trump’s Taj Mahal.

The legendary cable network that broadcast the Douglas-Tyson shocker in February of 1990 retained its reputation as a theatre of the totally unexpected on that Saturday, August 4. It was supposed to be a return to elite form for the Russian Kovalev (now 32-3-1 with 28 knockouts) and a chance for promoters to make boardwalk boxing great again.

For the 34-year-old Colombian Alvarez, successfully transplanted to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2009 by Groupe Yvon Michel, it was the realization of a bold prediction that fell upon mostly deaf ears: “Kovalev will be a very difficult fight but I will be the new WBO champion of the world.”

Right on both counts.

Alvarez (booked as a +400 underdog) appeared to gain an early advantage with impressively aggressive boxing skills but Kovalev wasn’t going anywhere without a fight and he pummeled Alvarez in the fourth round with his long jab and solid power punches—outlanding him 3 to 1.

Alvarez returned to his corner down on the scorecards.

Max Kellerman may have been able to see what Alvarez was doing to win the first three rounds but ringside judges Carter, Pasquale and Ortiz did not. Regardless, Alvarez pumped his fist in celebration, well aware he’d just taken the best of ‘The Krusher’ without being too badly hurt by any of it. “I wanted to show him I have a good chin,” he said after the fight of the assault.

The fifth and sixth were fiercely competitive with both rounds being won legitimately by Kovalev who presently began showing signs of fatigue while Alvarez (24-0 with 12 knockouts) recovered from the fourth round drubbing he’d proudly endured; his left cheek bloodied. If Kovalev’s plan was to outbox Alvarez and win a decision, he lacked the stamina needed to go six more rounds.

Alvarez answered the bell for the seventh ready to make good on his stormy forecast calling for rain on Kovalev’s parade. With a minute and twenty seconds left in the frame, Alvarez feinted a left jab to the body; following up full-speed with a looping right hand to the side of Kovalev’s unprotected head. Kovalev wobbled backwards onto the seat of his pants, decked by a jabby boxer assumed to be a light hitter with a trio of surgically repaired right knuckles.

Up fast at the count of “four” from American referee David Fields, Kovalev was in the eye of the storm now. Alvarez went for the kill with poise and precision. A right uppercut rocked Kovalev’s head back. A left jab had a similar effect. A right cross strafed his face. With 40 seconds left in the round, Alvarez connected with a ferocious left-right combination and Kovalev fell again. And again—Kovalev got up quickly but this time in no condition to continue and he could no longer protect himself. Alvarez walked straight in and landed a clubbing right around Kovalev’s guard. Kovalev collapsed onto all fours and Fields immediately waved it off as Alvarez celebrated.

A new light heavyweight star was being born.

Asked if he wanted to face HBO undercard winner Dmitry Bivol in a WBO/WBA unification match-up, Alvarez indicated a willingness to face all comers. “I’ve been waiting five years to fight the best in the division. I’m now among the best at 175. Whatever comes, I’m ready.”

It won’t be a long overdue confrontation with promotional stablemate Adonis Stevenson. The 41 year-old “Superman” was beaten into a medically induced coma by new WBC champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk on December 1 in Quebec City. What’s coming instead is an immediate rematch with Kovalev, scheduled for February 2, 2019 in Frisco, Texas—streaming live on ESPN. Alvarez probably needs another KO to retain his new title. The three official judges in the first fight did him no favors and Texas is infamous for dodgy officiating and sketchy scoring.

Believing that he needs to be in better shape if he hopes to avenge his latest defeat, Kovalev is fielding yet another new trainer, new International Boxing Hall of Famer, James “Buddy” McGirt. Says Krusher of this ‘last chance’ sequel: “I’ll be ready [this time] and I will take back my title.”

Time will tell.

Despite taking an ambulance ride to the hospital after getting his ass officially kicked, Kovalev went on record claiming Alvarez was “lucky” to get the knockout victory. Kovalev’s loyal promoter Kathy Duva may have convinced her guy it was a fluke but a result like that is surely no accident. “Sergey was clearly winning when he just got caught,” she casually explains. “It happens.”

No Kathy, it happened. It happened. The Sweet Science 2018 Upset of the Year. My Alvarez-Kovalev II prediction: It happens again. Alvarez TKO in nine, Kovalev calls it quits.

Other Notable 2018 Upsets: Roberto “Rifle” Ramirez’s second round beat down of Dejan Zlaticanin in June, Francis Chua’s split decision over Kye McKenzie on the Horn-Mundine undercard Down Under, Emanuel Navarrete’s victory against Isaac Dogboe for the WBO 122 lb. title on the Lomachenko-Pedraza undercard at MSG, and as written about by TSS’s own Matt Andrzejewski, Hassan Mwakinyo’s shocking TKO of Sam Eggington in the United Kingdom.

UPSET PICK POSTSCRIPT

It’s funny how “boxing experts” often claim to have picked the surprise winner of a prize fight only after said fight is over. At a packed press conference in New York City to announce the summer title bout between Kovalev and Alvarez, I couldn’t find a single media member or industry insider willing to entertain the notion of an upset, much less an Alvarez knockout.

Face-to-face with Kovalev, Alvarez looked and sounded like a sure-fire winner to me. Where Alvarez appeared fit and ready to fight that day if need be, Kovalev struck me as a little too fat and happy for his own good. After Kovalev was knocked down and out on HBO, social media was full of ‘I told you so’ tweets from ex post facto smart alecks and keyboard warriors.

What I observed in the lead-up to the fight led me to conclude the 35 year-old Kovalev was not taking his relatively unknown opponent as seriously as he should have been. Kovalev’s middle finger morphed into a peace symbol. He actually said it wasn’t his goal to knock Alvarez out!

Ultimately, I was the only reporter out there who could read the writing on the wall, noting last May what a “high risk, low reward” fight this was for Kovalev; one with the potential to “go all wrong” for him. I couldn’t have been more right. While most (if not all) fans and media regarded the result as a foregone conclusion, I wrote that Kovalev would be UPSET by Eleider Alvarez.

He told me, I told you.

It happened.

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Filip Hrgovic is the TSS 2018 Prospect of the Year

Matt McGrain

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Filip Hrgovic

So awash is boxing with prospects currently that picking just one has proved so excruciating that I floated a different idea with The Sweet Science’s fearless editor.

“What about selecting a prospect from each division?”

“Egad,” he literally replied.  “I wouldn’t go that far…would be a good story though. But for now we need to recognize just one fighter for historical continuity.”

He’s right of course; the Prospect of the Year for The Sweet Science goes back a bit and it’s an honor to pitch in. As for that divisional breakdown? I’ll have 17 nominees for you in January.  Watch this space.

As for today, I offer you the 6’6 Croatian, “el Animal”, 7-0, 233lbs, 26-year-old, Filip Hrgovic.

This is something of a controversial pick, I think. I don’t lean towards potentiality in heavyweights as a rule. They’re slower, generally less organized, less compact and a questionable chin is a fiercer impediment to a heavyweight of class than the equivalent in any other division. In short, the heavyweight division is a place of hammers and anvils, and if you are shy the latter, journeymen will find you out.

I’m wary, too, of relying upon a fighter’s amateur achievements to protect them from professional doubts. Too many times Audley Harrison; too many times David Price. Hrgovic drew the eye in 2010 though, beating up Tony Yoka and Joseph Parker on his way to winning the World Youth Championships. Times have changed too in that the World Series of Boxing offers an amateur/professional crossover, a nursery for the paid ranks and one in which Hrgovic excelled.

That is the past, however.  What of the future?

Trainer Pedro Diaz is clear: “Filip is ready for a title fight,” he offered in the build up to his last fight with Kevin “Kingpin” Johnson, “right now.  You can all see it.”

Diaz, a late 2018 addition to the Hrgovic camp, is an inspired choice. An eastern European and a tall one, Hrgovic is already being tarred with the “robotic” brush unearned by Vitali Klitschko and questionable even in relation to Wladimir Klitschko, but his fluidity is limited to the jab right-hand. Diaz, a veteran of the Cuban amateur system who has worked with the likes of Miguel Cotto, Guillermo Rigondeaux and the legendary Felix Savon, is the right man to de-program any mechanical tendencies in a charge young and hungry enough to learn. Hrgovic will never be Eusebio Pedroza but already he punches to the body more smoothly than was the case a year ago.

Promoter Nisse Sauerland, too, thinks that Filip is in for “a big 2019.” Croatia Week after discussions with the heavyweight prospect claim that a title fight is possible as early as next year.

That seems ridiculous for two reasons, which I’ll get to momentarily, but first, what does the man himself say about it?

“I go really, really fast,” he told press in his vastly improved English this December.  “They put me in the fast track.”  A smile, then: “I enjoy it.”

“In 2019,” he adds, “I am coming for all the belts.”

In 2018, Hrgovic ran 5-0 and there was a discernible step up in his two most recent contests.  First he met Amir Mansour, the New Jersey fringe contender who had lost just twice, once on a freak cut (Mansour bit his tongue while beating up Dominic Breazeale and could not continue due to breathing difficulties) and once in being out-pointed by the skilled Steve Cunningham over ten rounds. Hrgovic stopped him in less than nine minutes. As I wrote at the time covering that fight “Hrgovic looked nothing less than a natural fighter and a special one. He cracked an elite jaw and solved a singular puzzle with no more effort than if he had been sparring a straight-backed amateur.”

Next up was Johnson, and again Hrgovic impressed but this time he did not dazzle. Variety is not a strong point and Diaz will know now that his man needs work on his left hook and serious work on his feinting, which is almost non-existent.

Hrgovic likes one plane of attack, one-two, at distance. This combination is highly evolved, however. He goes up and down, he has a short cross, a wild looking overhand right in the style of Deontay Wilder and a straight right-hand down the pipe behind that busy jab. People have derided this final punch as “slow”. This is not entirely accurate and while his hand speed is not dizzying, his mechanics are excellent and therefore the right hand is heading in as near behind the jab as is technically possible. This is important because it barracks his greatest asset: his accuracy.

Hrgovic is already wasting very little. Johnson is no longer the fighter that extended Vitali Klitschko the full distance back in 2009 but equally, Hrgovic was clearly landing at a higher rate than the deadly Vitali. Hrgovic hardly missed Johnson with a serious punch. The fighters who were his equal in this attribute after seven professional fights who are currently active are also both on the pound-for-pound list.

Stylistically, he’s going to struggle with someone really good at closing the distance to mid-range, say a Luis Ortiz type, and he is fortunate that modern interpretation of the rules has all but eliminated the great in-fighter, but anyone who remains at his preferred range, outside, is going to be in for a tough night. The very best would be able to outbox him though, and the very best are in possession of the titles and the top contender spots.

This is the big problem with Hrgovic’s “I’m coming for all the belts” statement.  His ambition is to be admired and by December 2019 he could be 10-0 and ranked among the ten best heavyweight on the planet; indeed, he has already started to pop up on some of the less reputable ABC rankings. But however many times he fights next year the heavyweight timeline for 2019 basically looks like Wilder-Fury II and Joshua against the winner of Whyte-Chisora in the first part of the year, with the winners from those fights squaring off in London around November.

Whatever kind of 2019 Hrgovic has, he’s beginning it behind both Oleksandr Usyk and Jarrell Miller and, when the dust settles, is likely to remain so given the way Eddie Hearn continues to corner the market.

So a title shot in 2019 is not just premature physically – Hrgovic needs to work on the left hand, defense and feinting as well as stamina, never having gone past the eighth – but politically.  March 2020 is the earliest he could hope to visit a title ring and even then probably only if Wilder emerges on top of the pile.

What Hrgovic should be gunning for by the end of 2019 is the loser of Chisora-Whyte, perhaps on a London undercard.  If he prefers the United States, his eventual target should be Jarrell Miller and that would be obtainable come the end of next year.

The main reason I make Hrgovic the one to watch however, is that in 2019 we are going to find out about him. It might not be “his year”, it really might not be, but, it will be the year we find out if he can take a punch.

If he has the heart to carry him to the top.

If he’s real.

And that’s a prospect I’m rather looking forward to.

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