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The ESPN special ‘42 to 1’ Opened a Portal Back Into a Special Time For Me

Bernard Fernandez

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ESPN

There are moments in life when you feel as if you somehow have been transported back to an event or an occasion that always will hold special meaning to the time traveler.

Watching ESPN’s latest entry in its “30 for 30” documentary series, 42 to 1, was like that for me. Not that the 50-minute special, directed by Ben Houser and Jeremy Schaap, broke new ground or revealed much, if anything, I didn’t already know. In fact, there was much behind-the-scenes stuff that might have been included and maybe even should have been, had the documentarians had more time to tell the familiar story of James “Buster” Douglas’ epic upset of seemingly invincible heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on Feb. 11, 1990. But this particular stroll down memory lane is especially significant to me because, well, I was there. It wasn’t the best prizefight or sporting event I ever covered live and in person, but it was the most compelling because it was arguably the biggest upset not only in boxing history, but maybe ever in the sports world. Being courtside for Villanova’s shocker over Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in the 1985 NCAA championship basketball game pales by comparison.

“Forty-two to one stands right at the top,” veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, who is an instrumental figure in the actual lead-up to Tyson-Douglas and throughout the documentary, said of the seemingly one-sided matchups he has made betting lines for during his long career and did not go as expected. “There’s nothing even close to it. I’m tired of hearing about the `Miracle on Ice’ (the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, loaded with college kids, shocking the veteran Soviet Union squad in the semifinals en route to the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.). Yes, we understand it was a big upset . But you know what? (The U.S.) was only a 3 to 1 underdog as opposed to a 42 to 1 favorite (Tyson). I think it’s a little bit different.

“Forty-two to one? I’d lay 50 to one you’ll never see it again.”

Nobody with the possible exception of Douglas and a few fellow dreamers in his support crew thought that it might be possible for the often-unmotivated, frequently out-of-shape heavyweight from Columbus, Ohio, to cash the lottery ticket he had been given only because Tyson needed to fight somebody before he moved on to a scheduled June 1990 pairing with Evander Holyfield that both parties already had agreed to.

“Buster Douglas is a dog,” Tyson’s promoter, Don King, had dismissively said, not even attempting to throw a positive comment toward the designated victim who surely was about to become Iron Mike’s 38th victim. “He’s always been a quitter. Buster Douglas has a history of quitting. He quit with Tony Tucker in 1987. Really, that’s why I chose him.”

ESPN sports anchor Charley Steiner, on the evening the presumed massacre was to take place (which was actually the following day in Tokyo, 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time), advised viewers that “Tonight’s heavyweight championship fight might be best titled `30 seconds over Tokyo.’”

So why had I arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun eight full days before the first punch was thrown in earnest? Because my paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, was years away from having its travel budget slashed to the bone and because our then-executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, believed that there are certain athletes who were of such high interest that doing stories about them off TV simply would not suffice. Mike had dispatched another PDN writer, my colleague Elmer Smith, to Tokyo to report on Tyson’s perfunctory second-round TKO of pudgy challenger Tony Tubbs on March 21, 1988. I figured my trip to Japan would end on a similarly quick and emphatic note, but then the beauty of sports is that nothing is ever absolutely certain.

The day before I headed to the airport, I attended, but did not cover, a fight card in Atlantic City where other reporters, including Robert Seltzer, my counterpart at the Philadelphia Inquirer, asked why the PDN was spending so much money to send me halfway around the world to witness a fight that seemed a foregone conclusion. “Because Tyson is Tyson,” I replied, “and we want to be there if the mother of all upsets occurs.”

In retrospect, maybe the mother of all upsets wasn’t as long of a long shot as might have appeared at first glance. Tyson’s personal life was unraveling; his marriage to actress Robin Givens was on the rocks, he had fired capable trainer Kevin Rooney nearly two years earlier and instead would have the Bobbsey twins, Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, working his corner. He also, an inside source had advised several media members, was shuttling Japanese hookers in and out of his hotel suite at night as if they were a relay team passing the baton at an X-rated track meet. In a story authored by Eric Raskin for Playboy a couple of years ago, I was quoted as saying that, if sex really does sap a boxer’s strength in the weeks before a bout, it was amazing that Tyson had enough energy to crawl into the ring before the opening bell.

Meanwhile, Douglas – whose potential never had been questioned, only his commitment to push himself in training – was in the best condition of his career, and his mind was right, too, having dedicated the victory he dared to believe he could get to his late mother, Lula Pearl Douglas, who had passed away less than three weeks earlier.

It was a jumble of circumstances that would have stamped Douglas as far less likely to have his butt kicked, had all information been available to the public. In addition to his litany of personal woes, an arrogant Tyson had made the same mistake that often brings down the luminously gifted. He figured he could just show up and win because, well, hadn’t he always done that?

During a TV interview prior to squaring off against Douglas, a clearly bored Tyson dropped broad hints that he had not exactly punished himself into peak condition.

Q: Do you always go into the ring feeling like you’re invincible?

A: Yeah.

Q: Let’s get to Buster. What’s you biggest concern going into this fight?

A: I got no concerns.

Q: What do you think Buster’s …

A: I don’t have any idea what he’s thinking. I don’t care. I’m a champion, you know what I mean?

So prohibitive a favorite was Tyson to continue his reign of terror that almost every sports book in Las Vegas didn’t bother to post a line. That’s where Vaccaro came in, unwittingly setting the stage and the now-legendary numbers for the title of the ESPN documentary.

“Well, almost none,” Vaccaro said after an unseen voice mentions that every other sports book was taking a pass on Tyson-Douglas. “I did. Let me set the stage for you. In 1990, the biggest star in sports was Mike Tyson. `Iron Mike’ was a knockout machine. In 37 fights he’d never been on the canvas. Never hurt, never challenged. Nobody thought James `Buster’ Douglas would be any different. No one thought Buster could win.

“Back then I was at The Mirage and I decided we would take action on the fight. The favorite? Tyson, of course. The underdog, Douglas. The odds? Forty-two to one.”

That where the steadily rising line stopped, in any case.

“Well, naturally everybody thought, including myself, that Tyson couldn’t lose the fight,” Vaccaro pointed out later in the program. “So the opening odds were set at 27 to 1. But I kept raising the odds to maybe get a bet  on James `Buster’ Douglas. From 32 to 1 to 37 to 1, but we still couldn’t get anyone to bet on the underdog until we got to the pinnacle – 42 to 1.”

Even then, most of the bets that did come in were from well-heeled types who figured they’d put up a lot to get a little on what seemed to be a sure thing.

“We got a thousand, $1,500 here and there on Douglas,” Vaccaro continued. “But, you know, we actually took about 10 bets on Mike Tyson at 42 to 1, meaning you’d have to bet $42,000 to win $1,000. One gentleman put up over $160,000 on one bet to win, like, $4,000. It was incredible.”

Here’s guessing that guy was looking for a tall building with a roof from which he could jump off after Douglas methodically beat up and finally stopped Tyson in the 10th round. The only time a window of opportunity opened for the soon-to-be former champ was when he connected with a ripping right uppercut that dropped Douglas for a nine count in round eight. Tyson supporters to this day insist that referee Octavio Meyran was slow with his count , but Douglas was looking straight at Meyran and knew he could get up before the toll reached 10. He then demonstrated he wasn’t as hurt as he might have appeared by again seizing the upper hand with a dominant ninth round.

Alas, the mountaintop Douglas had just scaled proved to be a slippery slope. He had slain the most fearsome beast in the heavyweight jungle, all right, a feat that would bring him a $24 million payday for his first title defense, which came on Oct. 25, 1990, at The Mirage, against Holyfield. But the determined, in-shape Douglas had again slipped back into the shadows by then, and when he weighed in at a jiggly 246 pounds against Holyfield, 14½ more than he had for Tyson, there was a mad rush toward the betting windows by attendees hoping to get a hefty wager down on Holyfield before the odds shifted. The race belonged to the swift as Holyfield delivered a beautiful counter right to win by knockout in the third round.

At 58, Buster Douglas appears to be fat and happy these days. You can live a pretty good life if you are intent on making a $24 million windfall last, and the fighter previously known for wasted potential still is riding the high surf generated by one magical performance. He now serves as a boxing instructor to young kids in the same Columbus gym where his late father, a tough middleweight named Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, first dreamed of making his son into the world titlist he never got to be himself. It is a success story with only one undeniably positive chapter, but that sometimes is more than other people ever get a whiff at when the book of their lives is written.

I came back from Tokyo with the kind of memories that aren’t easily erased. One of my sons received my souvenir program; he now lives out of state and I don’t see him as often as I would like. I hope he held onto it because I suspect it might be worth something now.

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.

Editor’s Note: ESPN’s “42 to 1” premiered Tuesday evening, Dec. 11, at 9:00 PM EST. The next showings are scheduled for 2:00 AM Wednesday morning, Dec. 12, on ESPN2, Sunday, Dec. 16, at 5 PM on ESPN2, and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 9:00 PM on ESPN. All times Eastern.

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Ralph `Tiger’ Jones, Conqueror of Sugar Ray Robinson, was the Ultimate Gatekeeper

Bernard Fernandez

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Ralph "Tiger" Jones

Being a gatekeeper, especially in boxing, can be a lonely and underappreciated function. And in the 1950s, a golden age for the sport, that might have been especially true for a highly competent but not-quite-elite middleweight named Ralph “Tiger” Jones, who fought so often on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports’ Friday Night Fights that he came to be known as “Mr. Television,” a sobriquet he shared with another frequent face of the relatively new medium, comedian Milton Berle.

Jones, who was 66 when he passed away on July 17, 1994, is not enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The Brooklyn-born, Yonkers, N.Y.-based scrapper has never even appeared on the IBHOF ballot. Then again, why should he have been? His career record of 52-32-5, with only 13 victories inside the distance, isn’t particularly impressive, unless you take a closer look at the who’s who list of guys with whom he shared the ring. He holds victories over, among others, IBHOF Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Robinson, Joey Giardello and Kid Gavilan (Giardello and Gavilan each defeated him twice), and he gave such capable and even world-class fighters as Gene Fullmer (twice), Laszlo Papp, Bobo Olson, Johnny Saxton (twice), Joey Giambra (twice), Rocky Castellani (twice), Paul Pender, Johnny Bratton, Rory Calhoun (twice), Joe DeNucci (thrice), Bobby Dykes, Chico Vejar, Charlie Humez (twice), Victor Salazar, Ernie Durando and Del Flanagan all they could handle.

Given the high level of competition he so routinely faced, it is remarkable that the Tiger was stopped only once, and even that was a bit of an outlier, a one-round TKO against someone named Henry Burroughs on Jan. 13, 1951. Burroughs, who went 3-4 in an abbreviated professional career, quickly vanished from the fight scene, but for Jones, who had come in 9-0, the shocking defeat might have had the effect of instantly downgrading him from hot prospect to “opponent” and, ultimately, gatekeeper of a loaded 160-pound weight class. Interestingly, Jones had virtually toyed with Burroughs in winning a four-round unanimous decision only two months earlier.

There are those who insist that Jones’ most shining moment inside the ropes came when he stopped Dykes (career record: 120-23-8, with 57 KOs) on March 8, 1954, in Brooklyn when, well behind on points, he rallied to register two emphatic, outcome-shifting knockdowns in the 10th and final round. But even that keepsake triumph pales in comparison to what took place in Chicago Stadium on Jan. 19, 1955, when he presumably was served up as a sacrificial offering to the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray, then 33, was in the early stages of a comeback after he failed to make it big as a tap dancer on a tour of Europe. Fighting for the first time in 2½ years, Robinson had stopped journeyman Joe Rindone in six rounds on Jan. 5, 1955, in Detroit, and the bout against Jones, an 8-1 underdog, was widely viewed as merely another step forward in the former welterweight and middleweight champion’s graduated path back to the superstar status he once held and almost everyone believed he would soon reclaim.

But the outcome that was anticipated by the in-house turnout of 7,282 and a national TV audience underwent a quick rewrite when Jones, who had lost his previous five bouts, was the aggressor in the opening stanza of the scheduled 10-rounder, which ended with the great Sugar Ray — who had come in with an incredible 132-3-2 record — bleeding from a cut to his nose. It was more of the same in round two, Jones adding to Robinson’s seepage when the living legend went back to his corner with another cut, to his right eyelid.

It should have been apparent to everyone, even then, that this was not going to be Sugar Ray’s night, and it wasn’t. Referee Frank Sikora submitted a scorecard favoring Jones by a 99-94 margin, with judges Ed Hintz and Howard Walsh seeing it as an even bigger rout for Jones, at 100-88 and 98-89. Years later, the punch-counters for CompuBox reviewed tape of the fight and determined that Tiger had connected on 322 of 407 (57 percent) to just 176 of 514 (34 percent) for Robinson.

But as is often the case when a legendary fighter is made to look something less than superhuman, the big story was not that Ralph “Tiger” Jones had won, but that a humbled Sugar Ray Robinson was now on his last legs, his nimble feet and fast hands left behind somewhere on nightclub stages in a far-away continent.

New York Journal American columnist Jimmy Cannon for all intents and purposes authored Sugar Ray’s boxing obituary in his paper’s Jan. 20 editions, opining that “There is no language spoken on the face of the earth in which you can be kind when you tell a man he is old and should stop pretending he is young … Old fighters, who go beyond the limits of their age, resent it when you tell them they’re through … what he had is gone. The pride isn’t. The gameness isn’t. The insolent faith in himself is still there … but the pride and the gameness and that insolent faith get in his way … He was marvelous, but he isn’t anymore.”

And this, from The Associated Press report of the fight: “The former welterweight and middleweight titleholder … who started his comeback after 30 months as a song-and-dance entertainer by kayoing Joe Rindone two weeks ago, was handed the worst beating of his career by Jones … Time and again Tiger drove Robinson into the ropes and mauled him pitifully.”

But as was the case with the false rumor in 1897 that novelist/humorist Samuel Clemens – better known by his pen name, Mark Twain — had passed away, any suggestion that Sugar Ray Robinson was finished as a top-tier fighter proved to be premature. The Sugar man held the middleweight championship five times in all, three of his title reigns coming after Cannon advised him in print that he was washed up.

“I never figure to win them all,” the battered Robinson said after taking his licking from Jones. “You’ve got to figure you’ll get beat somewhere along the line. I don’t want to quit. This was a test. Like my manager said, it was just too tough for a second fight on a comeback.”

And Jones?

He continued to get regular TV gigs because he was more skilled than many, doggedly determined to put on a good show and no day at the beach for any of the six world champions he fought on 10 different occasions. But he never got a shot at a world title, a cruel twist of fate for someone who not only had paid his membership dues in the school of hard knocks, but continued to pay them right up to the end, a 10-round, unanimous-decision loss to IBHOF Hall of Famer and three-time Olympic gold medalist Laszlo Papp of Hungary on March 21, 1962. Tiger was floored in three separate rounds, but true to his unyielding code of honor, he gutted it out to the final bell. His pride would not allow him to do otherwise.

As a child growing up in New Orleans and the son of police captain Jack Fernandez (career record: 4-1-1, 1 KO), a former welterweight of scant pro accomplishment whom I idolized as if he had been a world champion, it seemed to me that, if Tiger Jones didn’t appear every week on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, he was in the featured bout at least every month or so. The best of the gatekeepers from that glorious era deserve at least some reflected glory for hanging in with their betters, and Jones holds a special place in my recollections along with, among others, Florentino Fernandez (I liked to pretend we were somehow related), Holly Mims and “Hammerin’” Henry Hank, the Detroit middleweight and light heavyweight who fought so often in New Orleans (18 times) that I chose to believe he was almost as local as Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, Percy Pugh and Jerry Pellegrini. Hank, who was 62-30-4 with 40 KOs in a career that spanned from 1953 to ’72, was a virtual replica of the never-say-die Jones, never fighting for a widely recognized world title (he did drop a 15-round decision to Eddie Cotton for the Michigan version of the light heavyweight championship) and losing just once inside the distance, on a ninth-round stoppage by Bob Foster on Dec. 11, 1964, in Norfolk, Va.

Yeah, that would be the same Bob Foster who would go on to become one of the most accomplished 175-pound champions ever and was inducted into the IBHOF in 1990.

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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The Avila Perspective Chap. 30: A Day in L.A., Plant, Pacquiao, and More

David A. Avila

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L.A.

Every time it rains in L.A. I think about the Doors song “Riders in the Storm.”

On Sunday a brief window of dryness blanketed as I drove to downtown L.A. on freeways that were slightly emptier than normal with the L.A. Chargers playing the New England Patriots. I guess some people stayed home to watch it.

Freeway traffic plays a big part in any Californian’s life. But it’s rare that a boxing event is held on a Sunday. My destination that day was LA Live across the street from the Staples Center.

LA Live has a skating rink in the middle of the courtyard and people were milling around an hour before the boxing card was to begin at Microsoft Theater. The theater is a swanky building across the skating rink from the ESPN structure.

A guy resembling my nephew Giovanni is talking to a few people next to the Starbucks. As I walk closer the person is gone. Later, I would see that the same kid resembling my nephew is actually fighting on the large boxing card. About a dozen fights are listed on the boxing bout sheet.

The Microsoft Theater has gone through a name change since it was first opened in 2007. It used to be called the Nokia Theater. The large theater hosts the ESPYs, EMMYs, Grammys and American Music Awards. But it’s no stranger to boxing events. A few fight cards have been held in its confine.

Crowds gathered early for the Premier Boxing Champions boxing card and by 5 p.m. it filled up pretty good.

One of the earliest boxing champions to arrive as a viewer was Mikey Garcia with several other young boxers and their entourages. The four division world champ has a date with Errol Spence Jr. in a couple of months. Spence arrived to watch the LA fight card a little later.

Title Fight

The main event featured Caleb Plant challenging the dangerous IBF super middleweight titlist Jose Uzcategui.

Plant has always shown he had skills and athleticism inside the boxing ring. But you can have all the tools in the world and it doesn’t mean a thing. What it really comes down to is can you take a punch from a puncher? Uzcategui can punch.

The Tennessee native has a pretty hefty following and they were loud in support of the slick fighting Plant. During the first six rounds it was like watching a concert with girls standing and cheering. But when the tide turned and Uzcategui began finding the antidote for Plant’s slickness, the same crowd was deadly quiet.

Plant is an entertainer. He can’t help himself. But he’s a classy kind of guy and fans genuinely like him. He can also fight.

Despite an undefeated record Plant had never truly established he belonged on the A list. He has A list skills but had never beaten an elite fighter until Sunday. He beat a good one and fans were thoroughly engrossed.

After their entertaining bloody clash you would have thought the two warriors would be red hot with anger. But instead, the two were like old chums and gracious after their 12-round battle. It kind of reminded me of long ago when two late greats Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello battled twice in the early 1980s. Those two great warriors became great friends and propelled the sport of boxing to greater heights and awareness. Later, Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward did the same in the early 2000s. It’s the beauty of boxing.

In the locker room Plant told Uzcategui they ought to share some Modelos soon. That got a big laugh and hug from the Venezuelan fighter who trains in Mexico. There were no hard feelings, just a lot of bruises and cuts.

Super middleweights may be the new showcase division.

A few possible opponents were in the crowd including David Benavidez, the current WBC titlist. A match with Plant or even a rematch with Uzcategui would bring an even bigger crowd. The super middleweights are heating up. There’s a lot of talent now in the 168-pound division including James DeGale, Callum Smith and George Groves in the United Kingdom and Gilberto Ramirez of Mexico. Hey, it’s even possible to see Gennady “GGG” Golovkin in the super middleweight division if the money is right.

I can’t wait to see the next super middleweight world title matchup.

El Cholos

When the fight card was over we walked across Figueroa Avenue to the Mexican restaurant famous for its margaritas. El Cholos has been around since the 1920s and has expanded to almost a dozen eateries in Southern California. I wish they had one in Las Vegas which does not have a good sit down Mexican restaurant.

El Cholos has become a favorite destination for me following boxing cards in L.A. After the fights several boxing reporters joined me for dinner including Muhammad Mubarak, Anthony Saldana and his wife Cynthia Saldana, Nancy Rodriguez from Supreme Boxing and Daniel who works with them and others. Usually my good friends from the Japanese press join us and long-time photographer Al Applerose, but not on this occasion. Still, we spent a couple of hours there and even ran into an old friend, Liz Quevedo Parr. As an amateur fighter she dominated two divisions for Team USA and now owns a gym in Long Beach called Guv’Nors Boxing Club. She recently had a cover page write up in OC Weekly.

At El Cholos we talked about Plant, Spence, Garcia and Benavidez. We also talked about women’s boxing especially Maricela Cornejo who is managed by Nancy Rodriguez. Both have movie star looks. Cornejo will be fighting in about 12 days in Hollywood at the Avalon Theater. Another female we discussed is Kenia Enriquez who fights out of Tijuana, Mexico. She’s very good.

The Lakers were playing across the street and I expected a rush of fans following the game. But the Lakers lost that night so fans must have been disgruntled and left quickly to their respective homes. Rain was threatening too. We can’t drive in the rain.

Eating and drinking with other journalists is one of the joys of being a fight reporter. Who better to talk about boxing than people that actually know the sport? Only in L.A., New York or Philadelphia can you find plenty of fans that actually know boxing and its politics. Over the years I’ve met some truly knowledgeable fight fans throughout Southern California.

Pacman and Broner

We’re heading to Las Vegas on Thursday, first to see Layla McCarter headline a Mayweather Promotions card that night at the MGM Grand. Tickets are free and it’s a hefty boxing card featuring many fighters from Floyd Mayweather’s stable.

McCarter is the best female fighter in the world pound for pound. Nobody has beaten her in 11 years and she’s fought in numerous countries around the world. Do you know how hard that is to accomplish? Ask any fighter.

Friday is a weigh-in for the Showtime pay-per-view card and I’m curious to see how many fans show up.

It’s been a while since Manny Pacquiao last fought in Las Vegas. Back on November 2016 he battled Jessie Vargas at the Thomas & Mack Center. On Saturday, Pacquiao will face Adrien Broner for the WBA welterweight world title at the MGM Grand. Showtime will have it on pay-per-view.

Every time I see Pacquiao I remember first watching him at the Wild Card gym almost 20 years ago. Freddie Roach kept telling a few of us to watch out for the lefty Filipino kid. Right from the start he proved to be deadly accurate. Pacquiao, now 40, has exceeded all my expectations and out-lasted everyone from that era.

I remember years ago in 2003 talking outside on the parking lot of the Olympic Auditorium. It was still light outside on a summer night and Freddie saw me and a couple of reporters and walked up to talk about his first experience in the Philippines training Pacquiao. He was still overwhelmed by the experience. Later that night Pacquiao would obliterate Emmanuel Lucero in the third round with a vicious uppercut. Even though I knew Pacman was very good I would have never predicted his longevity in a sport that usually spits out good fighters in 10 years.

On Saturday we will see how much the Filipino super star still has left in his legs. Hopefully on the drive to Las Vegas it won’t rain or snow.

Photo credit: Luis Mejia / TCB Promotions

Fights to watch

Fri. 5 p.m. PT DAZN – Jorge Linares vs Pablo Cano; Amanda Serrano vs Eva Voraberger; Demetrius Andrade vs Artur Akavov.

Fri. 6:30 p.m. PT/9:30 PM ET ESPN* Bryant Jennings (24-2) vs Oscar Rivas (25-0).

Sat. 6 p.m. PT Showtime pay-per-view – Manny Pacquiao vs Adrien Broner; Badou Jack vs. Marcus Browne; Rau’shee Warren vs Nordine Oubaali; Jhack Tepora vs Hugo Ruiz.

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Terence Crawford vs. Amir Khan on April 20th…Let the Hype Begin

Arne K. Lang

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Crawford vs Khan

Co-promoters Bob Arum and Eddie Hearn staged a press conference today (Tuesday, Jan. 15) at London’s elegant Landmark Hotel to announce that Terence Crawford will defend his WBO welterweight title on April 20 against Amir Khan. The timing was rather odd as the venue is unsettled — Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand are the frontrunners – but as Arum would likely tell you, it’s never too early to marinate the hype. The bout will mark ESPN’s initial foray into the world of solo event pay-per-view.

Amir Khan first came to the fore at the 2004 Beijing Olympics where at the tender age of 17 he advanced to the gold medal round in the lightweight division. In the finals he met Mario Kindelan, a 33-year-old Cuban who was described by the British coach Terry Edwards as “the best pound for pound fighter in the world, maybe amateur and professional.”

Khan was outpointed but that didn’t diminish his stature. “Britain has lost its tether over him,” wrote Mark Whicker in the Orange County Register who noted that the Khan-Kindelan match was shown on the big screen at Trafalgar Square under a sign that read Amir-zing.

Khan went on to defeat Kindelan twice in amateur bouts before turning pro amidst great fanfare in July of 2005. Two years later, almost to the day, he climbed off the deck to wrest the British Empire lightweight title from Scotland’s Willie Limond.

Needless to say, Khan, who is of Pakistani descent, has had his ups and downs since that moment. The first thud came in September of 2008 in Manchester when Columbia’s unheralded Breidis Prescott (who by the way has lost seven of his last eight) knocked him out in the first round. Khan was knocked down hard 30 seconds into the fight and it was all over in 54 seconds.

The fight, wrote Tom Cary in the London Telegraph, “confirmed the suspicion that the most hyped boxer in Britain since Prince Naseem Hamed cannot take a punch….This defeat was an accident waiting to happen.”

Khan rebounded nicely. He won the WBA 140-pound title with a 76-second blowout of Dmitriy Salita and defended it four times before losing the belt on a controversial decision to Lamont Peterson. But since the Peterson fight he has been stopped twice, first by Danny Garcia and then Canelo Alvarez.

The Kahn-Canelo fight, contested at the catchweight of 155 pounds, was the first boxing event at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. And it played out as many expected with Khan having his moments before he was betrayed by a soft beard. Canelo, the bigger man although both came in at the same weight, lowered the boom in round six with a devastating right hand, a classic one-punch knockout that left Khan on the canvas for several minutes before he was removed to a hospital as a precaution.

Khan took 23 months off after this setback and during this hiatus he became even more famous in England. He hired a publicist who booked him on the TV show “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here,” a British version of the TV show “Survivor,” and fed the tabloids and gossip magazines a steady stream of folderol regarding Amir’s supposedly tempestuous relationship with his attractive Brooklyn-born wife, the former Faryal Makhdoom. Khan’s conservative Muslim parents were horrified by Faryal’s westernized ways and both accused the other of infidelity. They toned it down when Faryal became pregnant with their second child, a daughter born in April of last year.

That same month, Khan returned to the ring with a 33-second knockout of Toronto’s overmatched Phil Lo Greco. In September he took on another Toronto-based fighter, Samuel Vargas, against whom he won a wide 12-round decision. Those wins pumped up his record to 33-4 (20).

Unlike Amir Khan, it’s doubtful that Terence Crawford will ever transcend his sport, but you don’t have to sell Crawford (34-0, 25 KOs) to knowledgeable boxing fans who recognize that he is something special, arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport today.

This fight will be a nice payday for Khan who lives lavishly and we suspect it will be an interesting fight for as long as it lasts. Against Canelo Alvarez, Khan was ahead in the eyes of most ringsiders and in the eyes of one of the judges through the five completed rounds. But the operative phrase here is “as long as it lasts.”

Let the hype begin.

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