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From Al Jolson to Mark Wahlberg: Hollywood Heavyweights Invade the Boxing Game

Arne K. Lang

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On Friday, Nov. 16, on ESPN, Alex Saucedo appears in his first world title fight, taking on WBO 130-pound champion Maurice Hooker. The match between the two unbeatens — Saucedo is 28-0; Hooker 24-0-3 – will play out in Saucedo’s hometown of Oklahoma City.

Hollywood heavyweights Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg will be rooting hard for Saucedo. They are the cornerstones of Churchill Management, the boutique talent agency that signed up Saucedo and then gathered in 140-pound hotshot Regis Prograis. Berg and his partners also operate the Churchill Boxing Club in sunny Santa Monica, a gym formally called Wild Card West.

Peter Berg has worn many hats: producer, director, screenwriter, actor. He created the TV show “Friday Night Lights” from his film of the same name. Mark Wahlberg needs no introduction. In 2017 he was the world’s highest paid actor. He starred in four of Peter Berg’s movies and played Micky Ward in the award winning film “The Fighter.”

Berg and Wahlberg are merely the latest bigwigs from the world of Hollywood to invest in the future earnings of boxers. In fact, the relationship between boxing and the entertainment industry predates the advent of big Hollywood studios.

During the early years of the twentieth century, there was no bigger star on Broadway than the versatile and astoundingly prolific George M. Cohan. Theatrical producer Sam Harris was the primary backer of two-division world champion Terry McGovern, but Cohan had a piece of Terrible Terry too, as did ring announcer Joe Humphries. In age, Cohan and McGovern were only two years apart. In his free hours, the Yankee Doodle Boy was often seen in McGovern’s company.

Al Jolson made his mark on Broadway before lighting up the big screen in “The Jazz Singer,” Hollywood’s first feature-length talkie. During his heyday, say music historians Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, Jolson “was the most popular all-round entertainer America (and probably the world) has ever known, captivating audiences in the theater and becoming an attraction on records, radio, and in films.”

Jolson was a big boxing fan. One night at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, he became infatuated with Henry Armstrong, a steadily improving fighter who had recently defeated two of Mexico’s best featherweights, Baby Arizmendi and Juan Zurita. Armstrong’s manager, Wirt Ross, was a gambler who periodically had the shorts. Jolson bought the fighter for $10,000. The deal was consummated on Aug. 21, 1936.

What Al Jolson got was a fighter with a 48-10-6 record who was largely unknown outside California. Other than two early fights near Pittsburgh, Armstrong had never fought east of Butte, Montana.

Jolson entrusted Armstrong to Eddie Mead, the manager/trainer of former bantamweight champion Joe Lynch (that’s Mead in the photo, flanked by Jolson and Armstrong) and Al then set about making Hammerin’ Hank a household name. As Armstrong recalled in a 1981 interview with LA Times boxing writer Richard Hoffer, Jolson and Mead hatched the idea of him winning three titles as the only way a black fighter could make headway as a box office attraction with the shadow of Joe Louis looming so large. Armstrong went on to win the featherweight, welterweight, and lightweight titles, in that order, in an 11-month span in New York rings.

In the history of boxing, no one ever “moved” a fighter as adroitly as Al Jolson (Bob Arum would be envious). Of course, it was Henry Armstrong who did the heavy lifting.

It would later come out that Jolson’s friend George Raft, a dancer turned movie actor, routinely cast as a gangster, was a silent partner in Armstrong’s ring affairs. Furthermore, it would be written that Raft was an early investor in the career of future light heavyweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom. In those days, the fight game was thick with underworld characters and Raft, who was pals with racketeer Owney Madden and others of this ilk, fit right in.

In night clubs and concert halls, Al Jolson belted out his songs as he commanded the stage with his effusive body language. Eventually his fame was dwarfed by crooners whose style was more intimate; more laid-back. The giants of the genre were Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and, like Jolson, they were multi-media stars.

Crosby was a great sportsman. He co-founded the Del Mar thoroughbred track, near San Diego, which opened in 1937, and was the co-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team from 1946 until his death in 1977. Less well known, he had a piece of middleweight Freddie Steele.

Crosby likely felt an affinity toward Steele because both were products of the Apple State. Steele hailed from Tacoma; Crosby, born in Tacoma, was raised in Spokane. Late in his career, Freddie Steele won the New York State version of the world middleweight title and successfully defended it five times.

In January of 1944, twenty-eight year old Frank Sinatra, flush with money after signing a seven-year extension with the RKO Studio, purchased the contract of beefy Bronx bartender Tami Mauriello. Mauriello, who began his pro career as a welterweight, had twice fought for the NYSAC light heavyweight title, falling short in two tilts with Gus Lesnevich. He would go on to fight Joe Louis before 38,000-plus at Yankee Stadium. The Brown Bomber knocked him out in the opening round.

Francis Albert Sinatra inherited his love of boxing from his father, a Sicilian immigrant who fought professionally under the name Marty O’Brien, compiling a 1-7 record according to research by Thomas Hauser. In 1956, Sinatra hooked up with another fighter, purchasing a 50 percent interest in Robert “Cisco” Andrade, the “Compton Comet.” Andrade went on to compete for the world lightweight title, losing a 15-round decision to title-holder Joe Brown.

In 1974, with his hit TV series “Sanford and Son” going great guns, comedian Redd Foxx launched the pro career of Fred Houpe who had caught his eye while competing in AAU tournaments. A small heavyweight, Houpe, who was given the nickname Young Sanford, was undefeated in 12 fights when he lost a 10-round decision to former amateur rival Duane Bobick. He left the sport two years later, made a brief comeback in the 1990s, and ended his undistinguished career with a record of 14-6. (Houpe may have been the second boxer to break Redd Foxx’s heart. In an interview with an Oakland reporter on the occasion of Houpe’s pro debut, the comedian claimed that as a young man in Chicago he had a piece of china-chinned heavyweight Bob Satterfield.)

As Redd Foxx could testify, were he still alive, sponsoring a young boxer, an aspiring champion, is an expensive proposition that more often than not doesn’t pay off. Forming a syndicate diminishes the risk by spreading out the jeopardy.

Lee Majors, Burt Reynolds, and Motown recording artist Marvin Gaye were part of a syndicate that backed welterweight Andy “The Hawk” Price. The Hawk was good enough to defeat Carlos Palomino and Pipino Cuevas, but no match for Sugar Ray Leonard who knocked him out in the opening round. Ryan O’Neill, Robert Goulet, and Bill Cosby had welterweight Hedgemon Lewis. Trained by the great Eddie Futch, Lewis was 2-3 in bouts billed as world title fights with both wins coming against Billy Backus on Backus’s turf in Syracuse, New York. These syndicates were forerunners of Churchill Management.

Sylvester Stallone did not form a syndicate when he became interested in Lee Canalito. The architect of the “Rocky” franchise wanted Canalito all to himself.

A great defensive lineman in high school (a Parade All-American) and at the University of Houston before his football career was derailed by a chronic knee injury, Canalito made his pro debut at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach with Angelo Dundee in his corner. He had four fights under his belt when Stallone spied him on TV in a preliminary bout on a show that included the Spinks brothers. Stallone was then seeking an unknown actor to play his brother in a movie he had written and would star in, “Paradise Alley,” and when he saw Canalito (here flanked by Stallone and co-star Armand Assante) he found his man. Canalito, who bore some facial resemblance to Stallone, had the look that Sylvester was seeking.

Stallone eventually took over Canalito’s ring affairs. Canalito was 8-0 when Stallone purchased his contract. He installed the boxer in a guest house on the grounds of his spacious Pacific Palisades estate and the two often lifted weights and did roadwork together. The noted photographer Neil Leifer captured the scene in a five-page spread for Life magazine. Stallone’s hoped-for real-life Rocky, nicknamed the Italian Stallion, was a hot commodity before he ever touched gloves with an opponent who had the skill to give him a serious test.

Canalito, who customarily carried 250 pounds on a six-foot-five frame, never fought a top shelf, or even a mid-shelf, opponent. The well-coddled heavyweight was 21-0 with 19 knockouts when he lost interest in boxing and went home to Houston where he currently operates a fitness center, but only five of his victims had winning records when he fought them.

Stallone, far more so than predecessors like Al Jolson, could see that a boxer’s potential earnings weren’t limited to his purses. Churchill Management has taken it a step further. In its prospectus, the company says, “Churchill Management is the first of its kind, a promotional and commercial agency that represents an innovative approach to assist professional boxers with branding, marketing and public relations.” One surmises they will be adding more boxers to their stable in the near future.

Thus far, Alex Saucedo and Regis Prograis have done their part to justify Berg and Wahlberg’s faith in them. Saucedo’s last fight, against Lenny Zappavigna, was a humdinger and Saucedo walked through fire before stopping the Aussie in the seventh frame. The torrid fourth round between Saucedo and Lenny Z was one for the ages.

Who knows if Churchill Management will still exist in a few years? Their clients must keep winning to manifest the company’s vision for them and, to borrow an old Larry Merchant line, boxing is the theater of the unexpected. Regardless, it’s a safe bet that down the road we will see more Hollywood heavyweights dipping their toes into the business side of the boxing game.

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Gervonta vs. Shakur: Street Fight or Boxing?

Ted Sares

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Gervonta - Davis

Gervonta “Tank” Davis — out of Baltimore — is a fan-friendly, undefeated (21-0, 20 KOs), two-time super featherweight champion. An all-action fighter, he brings the heat whenever and wherever he fights, operating like a mini-Tyson.

Shakur “Fearless” Stevenson—out of Virginia by way of Newark, NJ—won a Silver Medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics and is also undefeated as a pro (11-0, 6 KOs). In a moment of “unbridled” modesty, Floyd Mayweather Jr. called him “the next Mayweather.”

Davis (pictured) and Stevenson used to be good friends but apparently no more. The two have been feuding on twitter.

Shakur, a featherweight, has now called out Tank, saying he wants him at 130—and with his win against Christopher Diaz on the Crawford-Khan undercard, the call-out quickly becomes more meaningful and likely will reignite their twitter war.

What’s not quite clear is whether such a fight would be held in the ring or out in the street because of the many, many things they have in common, one, allegedly, is engaging in nasty street fights.

A recent and widely viewed video appears to show Stevenson, accompanied by fellow boxer David Grayton, in the middle of a parking garage brawl in Miami Beach in an incident that occurred nearly a year ago. Stevenson was in Miami Beach to celebrate his 21st birthday. It was not so much a brawl as it was a beatdown by the two boxers including a vicious kick at the end on a downed victim who already had received several flush shots to the face. A woman with the victim was also assaulted, suffering cuts and bruises. Afterwards, the two grabbed each other’s hands in a somewhat bizarre scene and fled to their hotel where they were arrested.

The video was first posted by slaterscoops.com which revealed that Stevenson and Crayton were arrested on July 1 and charged with misdemeanor battery. By the time the video came to light, the matter had quietly been resolved. Stevenson’s promoter Bob Arum seemed to have been involved in the resolution.

Here is what Arum said according to an article by Niall Doran in Boxing News: “We knew the facts and we knew that he was in a place that he shouldn’t have been at. We had a long talk with him and luckily the people around him, his grandfather who raised him, coach Kay (Koroma) who has a big influence on him and Andre Ward and James Prince who are his managers, took him aside and talked to him. It will never happen again I assure you. He is a great, great kid and he understands what his responsibilities are. He’s not a wild kid and he’s going to be fine. I’m very comfortable with how he’s being raised.”

Let’s hope Arum is correct.

Gervonta Davis

On August 1, 2017, an arrest warrant was issued for Gervonta Davis for an alleged assault. The charge was later reduced from first-degree aggravated assault to misdemeanor second-degree assault.

At the court, Anthony Wheeler, a long-time friend of Gervonta, complained that he was diagnosed with a concussion after Davis punched him on the side of the head with a ‘gloved fist.’ Wheeler subsequently dropped the charges. The Baltimore Sun reported that Tank and Wheeler both shook hands, embraced, and walked out of the courtroom together. All’s Well That Ends Well.

But there’s more.

According to TMZ, Davis was arrested in Washington, DC, in the early morning of Sept. 14, 2018, and charged with disorderly conduct after a dispute over a $10,000 bar bill. And then on February 17 of this year, according to TMZ and other sources, Davis was involved in an incident that began inside an upscale shopping mall in Virginia.

As things heated up, Tank and the other man took it to the streets and engaged in a fistfight with closed-fist punches being landed around the upper body. As people tried to break it up, both men fled but the police arrived and arrested them for disorderly conduct. They were booked and processed at a nearby station. Ten days after the incident, a warrant was issued for Davis’s arrest.

Leonard Ellerbe of Mayweather Promotions, which promotes Davis, told ESPN “We’ll let the judicial system play out….Obviously, this is just an allegation…Again, it just seems odd to me that a black man, allegedly, pushes or shoves — and I’m just reading what the TMZ article says — a police officer and he doesn’t get arrested on the spot, then a couple of weeks later, then they issue an arrest warrant based on their internal investigation. That just seems a little odd to me.”

The police reportedly made numerous attempts to contact Davis by telephone to serve the warrant but received no response.

Tank recently tweeted “Lies lies lies” (9:16 AM – 5 Mar 2019).

The case is still ongoing. Gervonta could well be exonerated and hopefully he will be, but these incidents, whether expunged, dismissed or dropped, are not good for boxing. The recent birth of a daughter seems to have grounded Tank and his recent tweet to wit: LOVE IS LOVE is not the tweet of someone who is in the wrong lane.

Let’s wrap this up with a quite from Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza: “I think the sky is the limit for Gervonta Davis…You put those two elements together — the likability and charisma outside the ring and the entertainment value inside the ring — and he has the potential, if he stays on this track, to be one of the biggest names in the sport.”

Ted Sares 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). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Grand Master class and is competing in 2019.

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Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia Wins in LA (is Manny Next?) and Undercard Results

David A. Avila

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Garcia

CARSON, Calif.-Former two division champion Danny “Swift” Garcia had too much firepower for Adrian Granados and simply overwhelmed the gritty fighter from Chicago before winning by knockout on Saturday.

No world title was at stake but future prizes were.

Philly fighter Garcia (35-2, 21 KOs) had predicted he would mow through Granados (20-7-2) who was moving up in weight again for this fight and was just too heavy handed before a crowd of more than 6,000 at the Dignity Health Sports Park. The PBC card was televised by FOX.

After a casual exchange of punches in the first round Garcia started bringing the thunder in the second round and connected with a double left hook to the body and a left hook to the head of Granados. The blows resounded throughout the arena and drew oohs from the crowd. Then Garcia caught Granados with a counter left hook that sent Granados sprawling across the ring. He got up and beat the count. Another exchange saw Garcia land a counter right cross and down went the Chicago fighter. He beat the count again but looked hurt. He survived the end of the round.

Garcia stalked Granados who moved more cautiously for the next two rounds but was still catching rights.

In the fifth round a straight right floored Granados while he was against the ropes. He survived the round again.

Granados tried every move he could think to change the momentum but nothing seemed to work. In the sixth both fought inside but Garcia soon began pummeling Granados with the referee looking closely. He allowed the fight to continue into the seventh round but checked with the corner twice.

With the crowd murmuring, Garcia gave chase to Granados and caught him near the ropes with a lead right and another right before unleashing a four-punch barrage. Referee Tom Taylor jumped in and stopped the beating at 1:33 of the seventh round to give Garcia the win by knockout.

Philadelphia’s Garcia had won in Southern California once again. He had beaten Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero by decision three years ago in Los Angeles.

“This is what makes Danny Garcia one of the best fighters in the world,” said Garcia. “I had to be the first man to stop him and I did that today.”

The win puts Garcia as a strong candidate to face multi-divisional world champion Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao who now holds the WBO welterweight world title.

“I hope I didn’t scare him away. Frankly I would love that fight or Keith Thurman or Errol Spence,” Garcia said.

Other Bouts

Brandon Figueroa (19-0) of Texas rumbled to a knockout win over Venezuela’s Yonfrez Parejo (22-4-1) to win the interim WBA super bantamweight title. The battle was fought mostly inside, forehead to forehead, but surprisingly, neither fighter suffered cuts from butts.

Figueroa and Parejo slugged it out inside until the sixth round when Parejo took the fight outside and scored well from distance. But Figueroa kept hunting him down and digging to the body and head. Finally, in the eighth round Figueroa began catching the moving Parejo with digging shots that seemed to affect the Venezuelan boxer. At the end of the round Parejo signaled he had enough.

Figueroa was deemed the winner by knockout.

“Honestly I thought I was going to finish him the next round,” said Figueroa.

California’s Andy “the Destroyer” Ruiz (32-1) won by knockout over Germany’s much taller Alexander Dimitrenko (41-5) in a heavyweight fight set for 10 rounds. Despite the size disparity Ruiz was the aggressor throughout and attacked the body with punishing blows. In the third round Ruiz almost ended the fight when Dimitrenko was severely hurt. After the end of the fifth round Dimitrenko’s cornered signaled the fight was over and referee Ray Corona waved it off. Ruiz wins by knockout as the crowd cheered loudly.

Ruiz was recently signed by PBC and may have found a home more suited for his weight division. It was his first fight under the PBC banner.

“I’m ready for the next one, I kind of seen that coming,” said Ruiz who admitted to eating a Snickers for energy. “The game plan was dropping the body down.”

Alfredo “El Perro” Angulo (25-7, 21 KOs) used the trusty knockout to win for the first time in four years. The victim was Evert Bravo (24-10-1) a super middleweight from Colombia who had his own losing streak like Angulo.

Both punished each other with hard combinations the first round, but in the second frame Angulo found his rhythm and fired a barrage of blows that left Bravo slumped along the ropes. Referee Rudy Barragan stopped the fight at 1:23 of the second round to give Angulo his first victory since he defeated Hector Munoz at the Staples Center on August 2015. He now trains with Abel Sanchez in Big Bear.

“I found a good coach,” said Angulo.

More than 1,000 fans remained to see Angulo perform long after the Garcia-Granado’s main event. He’s still a draw, especially in Southern California.

Former US Olympian Carlos Balderas (8-0, 7 KOs) stopped Luis May (21-14-1) with a barrage of blows in the fourth round of their lightweight clash. Balderas knocked down May several times but the crafty May used every means to survive including multiple low blows. Finally, at 1:07 of round four, Balderas unleashed several blows that saw May go down and a towel was thrown from his corner. Referee Ray Corona stopped the fight.

Fontana, California’s Raymond Muratalla (7-0) floored Mexico’s Jose Cen Torres (13-12) three times in the third round to win by knockout at 2:58 of the round in a super lightweight bout. Muratalla dropped Torres with a short right uppercut for the first knockdown. A right to the body sent Torres down a second time. A double right cross delivered Torres down a final time as referee Ray Corona immediately stopped the fight.

Las Vegas fighter Rolando Romero (9-0, 8 KOs) knocked out Colombia’s Andres Figueroa (9-5, 5 KOs) with a left hook during an exchange of blows at 1:27 of the fourth round in their lightweight scrap. Figueroa landed with a thud and was unconscious for several minutes and sent to the hospital.

Denver’s Shon Mondragon (2-0) battered Mexico’s Hugo Rodriguez (0-4) in the third round forcing referee Eddie Hernandez to end the fight at 1:55 of round three in a super bantamweight match.

Nelson Hampton (5-2) of Texas beat Phillip Bounds (0-3) by decision after lightweight fight.

Other winners were Jeison Rosario by split decision over Jorge Cota in a super welterweight fight. Omar Juarez beat Dwayne Bonds by decision in a super lightweight bout. Featherweights Ricky Lopez and Joe Perez fought to a draw after 10 rounds.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Fast Results From NYC: Crawford TKOs Khan but not Without Controversy

Arne K. Lang

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Crawford vs Khan

Amir Khan, who doesn’t shy away from tough assignments, was in New York tonight opposing WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford, a man who is on everyone’s short list of boxing’s top pound-for-pound fighters. The general assumption was that Khan had the slickness to win a few rounds but that his chin would ultimately betray him.

Khan won one round at the most — and that’s being generous – before the bout was stopped after 47 seconds of the sixth frame with Khan in pain from a low blow. Referee David Fields stopped the action to allow Khan to recover and then stopped the fight on the advice of the ring doctor with the apparent encouragement of Khan’s trainer Virgil Hunter. Because the low blow was accidental, Crawford was declared the winner by TKO.

It appeared that this fight would end in a hurry. In the opening round, Crawford decked Khan with an overhand right. Khan got to his feet but was in distress and for a moment it didn’t appear that he would last out the round. But Crawford did not press his advantage in round two and Khan regained his composure.

Crawford was in complete control when the fight ended, having raked Khan with combinations and a series of body punches in the fourth and fifth stanzas. Although the final punch of the fight was way south of the border, Khan’s refusal to continue was widely seen as an act of surrender. After the bout, Crawford called out Errol Spence.

PPV Undercard

Lightweight Teofimo Lopez, whose highlight reel knockouts and brash demeanor have made him arguably the most exciting young prospect in boxing, found a new way to conclude a fight tonight, collapsing Edis Tatli in the fifth round with a body punch. Lopez, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in a suburb of Miami (his parents are from Honduras and Spain), improved to 13-0 with his 11th knockout. Tatli, a Kosovo-born Finn making his U.S. debut, suffered his third loss in 34 starts. A two-time European lightweight champion, Tatli hadn’t previously been stopped.

Fast rising featherweight contender Shakur Stevenson, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist from Newark, simply outclassed former world title challenger Christopher Diaz, winning the 10-round bout on scores of 100-90, 99-91, and 98-82. The 21-year-old southpaw, now 11-0, was too fast and too busy for his Puerto Rican adversary who fell to 24-2.

In the first of the four PPV bouts, lightweight Felix Verdejo won a unanimous 10-round decision over Bryan Vasquez. Verdejo, a 2012 Olympian for Puerto Rico once touted as the island’s next Felix Trinidad, was returning to the site where he suffered his lone defeat, succumbing to heavy underdog Antonio Lozada whose unrelenting aggression ultimately wore him down, resulting in a 10th round stoppage.

Vasquez appeared to injure his left shoulder near the midpoint of the battle, an advantage to Verdejo, now 25-1, who started slowly but outworked Vasquez down the stretch, winning by scores of 98-92 and 97-93 twice. Costa Rica’s Vasquez, the husband of prominent boxer Hanna Gabriels, falls to 37-4.

Other Bouts

 Super welterweight Carlos Adames, who hails from the Dominican Republic but has been training with Robert Garcia in Riverside, California, made a strong impression with a 4th round stoppage of Brooklyn’s Frank Galarza. The undefeated Adames, now 17-0 (14 KOs), knocked Galarza (20-3-2) to the canvas with a hard left hook and then went for the kill, pinning Galarza against the ropes with a series of unanswered punches that compelled referee Benjy Estevez to intervene. The official time was 1:07.

 Super welterweight Edgar Berlanga, a 21-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, needed only 46 seconds to dismiss 38-year-old Brazilian trail horse Samir dos Santos. Berlanga, who began his pro career in Mexico, has now knocked out all 10 of his opponents in the opening round.

Super welterweight Vikas Krishan, a two-time Olympian, improved to 2-0 with a 6-round unanimous decision over Noah Kidd (3-2-1). The scores were 59-55 and 60-54 twice.

A 27-year-old southpaw who as a job waiting for him as a police officer, Krishan is the second notable boxer to emerge from India, following on the footsteps of Top Rank stablemate Vijender Singh.

Bantamweight Lawrence Newton, a Floridian who has been training at Terence Crawford’s gym in Omaha, won his 12th straight without a loss with a 6-round unanimous decision over Jonathan Garza (7-3). The scores were 60-54 and 59-55 twice.

In a 6-round junior welterweight match that was one-sided but yet entertaining, Lawrence Fryers won a unanimous decision over Dakota Polley. Fryers, wh is from Ireland but resides in New York, improved to 10-1. The 20-year-old Polley, from St. Joseph, Missouri, fell to 5-3.

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