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Oleksandr Usyk TSS’ 2018 Fighter of Year

Bernard Fernandez

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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.

Comic book cover artist ROB AYALA, whose specialty is combat sports, provided the graphic. Check out more of Rob Ayala’s illustrations on twitter at fight posium.

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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Chris Arreola is Back!

Ted Sares

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Chris Arreola

Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola is an emotional and very likable guy. Over the course of his career, there have been ups and downs providing the grist for a compelling story if one were inclined to write it. He’ll kiss a beaten opponent (Joey Abell) or cry if beaten (Vitali Klitschko) and his language during a post-fight interview is, well it’s special.

After his corner stopped the fight following the 10th round with Klitschko, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he thanked the fans (as is his wont) and later, while being interviewed in the ring, said  “F–k that, I’m coming back.”

It was his first loss after 26 straight wins out of the professional gate. For that “terrible” indiscretion, he was punished by the selectively politically correct World Boxing Council. WBC president José Sulaimán proposed a six months ban for vulgar language and the ban was approved by the WBC Board of Governors.

Arreola, who rarely uses filters, was brutally candid again after his first round KO over Erik Molina in 2012. The Nightmare cut loose on Don King, Molina’s promoter, calling him a “f—ing a–hole and a racist,” causing Showtime’s Jim Gray to  terminate the post-fight interview forthwith. “Honestly Don King called me a wetback, and other Mexicans,” Arreola told Fightnews.com. “That’s a strong word. It’s like me dropping N bombs. You don’t say things like that.”

No ban this time.

Arreola’s weight varies but when he is fit and ready (and under 250), he is a very dangerous heavyweight, especially in the early rounds. Once he has his opponent hurt, there are few boxers who can close as well as this Southern California Mexican American tough guy who was an accomplished amateur fighter and knows his way around the ring.

His level of opposition has been stiff. In fact, his five losses have been to fighters who have held world titles at one time or another. Bermane Stiverne had Chris’s number and beat him twice—the second time by way of a nasty knockout. However, he has a number of solid wins over the likes of Malcom Tann, Chazz Witherspoon, Travis Walker, Jameel McCline, Brian Minto, Curtis Harper –yes, that Curtis Harper who gave Chris all he could handle — and many others who came in with fine records. His first round blowout of once promising Seth Mitchell was quintessential Arreola. Mitchell retired after the fight.

In July 2016, The Nightmare was stopped by Deontay Wilder in yet another title bid but he did not disgrace himself. He then took off for over two years to assess whether he wanted to continue. Boxing fans pretty much forgot about him. Few took notice when he came back to stop the very stoppable Maurenzo Smith on the Wilder-Fury undercard on Dec. 1 of last year.

Fast Forward

Last weekend, on the undercard of the huge Errol Spence Jr. vs. Mikey Garcia PPV fight in Dallas, “The Nightmare” was matched against unbeaten but unheralded Jean Pierre Augustin (17-0-1).

Chris, now 38, came in at a svelte 237 pounds and looked fit and ready to go. The weary look on Augustin’s face during the announcement said it all. True to form, Arreola was in blowout mode and stopped the Haitian who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Arreola wobbled Augustin with a brutally hard jab that connected flush to his face in the third round. After more heavy shots, a bloodied Augustin went down and upon getting up, was battered until the referee halted matters. Chris closed things like he had done on so many other occasions and in front of millions of fans tuning in around the world.

With a female interviewer, the elated “Nightmare” was polite during the post-fight ceremonies and, holding his daughter, signaled that he is BACK! That’s good news for boxing fans because when Chris Arreola is fit and focused, he is entertaining and very competitive.

With a current record of 38-5-1 with 2 ND (the “no-contests” resulting from Chris‘s apparent affinity for non-medicinal marijuana), a fight with someone like Adam Kownacki would be a boxing fan’s dream.

Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and Strongman competitors and plans to compete in at least three events in 2019. 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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Nobody Wants to Fight Dillian Whyte

Kelsey McCarson

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Dillian Whyte

Dillian Whyte is one of the most dangerous fighters in the world. The 30-year-old is a former British heavyweight titleholder, a former kickboxing prodigy and an undefeated mixed martial artist. Overall, Whyte’s professional fighting record is a sterling 46-2. He’s 25-1 as a boxer, 20-1 as a K1 kickboxer and 1-0 as an MMA fighter.

So while the battle rages on between various television networks and streaming platforms over securing the top talent in the heavyweight division, one that includes Tyson Fury signing a multi-fight deal with ESPN and Deontay Wilder reportedly mulling over his future with PBC, perhaps something just as important right now is that the single most dangerous and deserved heavyweight contender in the world remains without a dance partner for his next fight.

Never mind Whyte being the No. 1 ranked contender by the World Boxing Council. That sanctioning body instead deemed Dominic Breazeale the mandatory challenger to Wilder’s WBC title after the potential rematch between Wilder and Fury fell by the wayside.

Here’s all that needs to be said about that grift. Breazeale only had to defeat Eric Molina to get his mandatory title shot while the WBC wanted Whyte to face Cuban southpaw Luis Ortiz, one of the top heavyweights in the sport.

And nobody seems to care that Whyte gave unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua the toughest test of his career (this side of Wladimir Klitschko anyway), when the two squared off in 2015 for the British and Commonwealth titles. Despite the obvious talent gap between the two fighters, Whyte gave the young Joshua just about all the former Olympic champion could handle in a seven-round war.

To hear Whyte tell the story, promoter Eddie Hearn must have intentionally lowballed Whyte for the proposed 2019 rematch in order to ensure Joshua could invade America on June 1 against the likely less dangerous Jarrell Miller. That makes sense for Joshua from a monetary perspective, but it doesn’t do the same in terms of true competitiveness.

According to various reports, Whyte is currently considering a multi-fight deal to appear on ESPN, a move that would give the British battler a path to facing Fury who some consider the lineal heavyweight champion. Fury recently signed a multi-fight deal to be co-promoted by Bob Arum for appearances on the U.S.-based television network ESPN. It’s the move that shelved a potential Wilder rematch and also opened up a huge can of worms in regards to what kinds of fights Fury might actually be able to secure. Currently, the Top Rank-promoted stable of heavyweights is best characterized by fighters who don’t really move the needle in regards to title challenges, fighters like Oscar Rivas, Bryant Jennings and Kubrat Pulev.

Overall, though, the main problem about the heavyweight landscape is that there are three heavyweights who all have a claim to being heavyweight champion. IBF, WBA and WBO champion Joshua is promoted by Hearn and exclusive to DAZN. WBC champ Wilder is attached to the PBC whose television partnerships include Showtime and Fox. Fury is set to embark on his own ESPN crusade. Long story short, these guys probably aren’t fighting each other anytime soon.

Worse is that while all three men are in desperate need of viable opponents, none have seemed all that interested in tussling with Whyte.

It’s no wonder. As good as Whyte has been over the course of his 7-year professional boxing career, the scariest thing about the fighter is that he always seems to be getting better. In his last two fights, Whyte outfought talented former titleholder Joseph Parker and knocked out gritty UK heavyweight Dereck Chisora. In defeating Parker, Whyte was facing someone absolutely in need of a win to maintain his status among heavyweight contenders. In beating Chisora, Whyte was in tough against an opponent he had only defeated by split-decision two years prior. Both wins illustrate just how far Whyte has come as a professional prizefighter.

As it stands, Whyte is the clear top contender among all heavyweights, especially among those who have not yet been granted a shot at a world title. He’s ranked No. 4 behind Joshua, Fury and Wilder by The Ring magazine and the same by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

The only question that remains is which title claimant will prove the toughest holdout. Whyte’s ultimate choice, in whether to stick with promoter Hearn on DAZN, link up with Arum and ESPN or continue playing the WBC shell game, will probably end up being tied to which path gets him the title shot that he so desperately craves first.

And it absolutely should happen. It’s one thing to crave title opportunities and another to have earned them. Whyte’s done both now, and it’s time for boxing fans and the media to take notice. Better yet, it’s time for Joshua, Fury and Wilder to pit themselves against their most dangerous competition. Since they’re not facing each other, Whyte become the next logical choice for any or all of them.

Because Dillian Whyte is one of the best heavyweight boxers in the world, and he’s done enough by now to warrant the chance to prove it.

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The Hauser Report: St. Patrick’s Day at Madison Square Garden

Thomas Hauser

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Conlan

Boxing’s three “major leagues” showed their respective wares this past weekend. On Friday night, DAZN presented a nine-bout card in conjunction with Matchroom USA. On Saturday, Fox and Premier Boxing champions teamed up for the Errol Spence vs. Mikey Garcia pay-per-view event. Then, on Sunday, ESPN and Top Rank had their turn in the form of a St. Patrick’s Day card at Madison Square Garden headed by Belfast native and former Olympian Michael Conlan.

The star of the show was St. Patrick, the fifth-century saint widely credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. In his honor, there were three Irishmen on the card: Conlan, flyweight Paddy Barnes, and welterweight Lee Reeves. That said; there was a Hispanic flavor to the proceedings. The sixteen combatants included Eduardo Torres, Victor Rosas, Juan Tapia, Ricardo Maldonado, Adriano Ramirez, Oscar Mojica, Joseph Adorno, John Bauza, Luis Collazo, Ruben Garcia Hernandez, and two Vargases (Josue and Samuel).

Irish-Americans have a record of supporting Irish fighters, particularly on St. Patrick’s Day. This was no exception. The announced crowd of 3,712 arrived early. During the final pre-fight press conference, Top Rank president Todd duBoef had paid homage to the fans, although he did voice the view that, on St. Patrick’s Day, “Their cognitive behavior is manipulated by the beer.”

On fight night, the in-arena music was chosen accordingly. What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? was played twice over the Hulu Theater sound system.

There was also green lighting.

Lee Reeves (2-0, 2 KOs) of Limerick, Ireland, opened the show with a four-round decision over Edward Torres.

In the third bout of the evening, Vladimir Nikitin (2-0, 0 KOs) won a majority decision over Juan Tapia. Nikitin defeated Conlan in the quarter-finals at the 2016 Olympics. Presumably, they’ll fight again at a time of maximum opportunity for Conlan.

Flyweight Paddy Barnes (5-1, 1 KO) of Belfast was a teammate of Conlan’s at the 2016 Olympics but lost in the first round to Spain’s Samuel Carmona. On St. Patrick’s Day, Barnes was matched against Oscar Mojica (11-5-1), who had one career knockout and had gone 3-5-1 in his previous nine outings.

Mojica broke Barnes’s nose in round one and knocked him down with a body shot in the second stanza (although to the mystification of those in the press section, referee Danny Schiavone waved off the knockdown). It was a spirited outing in which both men were too easy to hit for their own good. Barnes rallied nicely in the second half of the bout and arguably did enough to win the decision. But two of the three judges thought otherwise, leading to a 58-56, 58-56, 56-58 verdict in Mojica’s favor.

In the next-to-last fight of the evening, Luis Collazo (38-7, 20 KOs) took on Samuel Vargas (30-4-2, 14 KOs).

Collazo now 37 years old, reigned briefly as WBA welterweight champion twelve years ago. Since then, he had cobbled together twelve victories (an average of one per year) against six losses in eighteen fights. Vargas had one win in his previous three outings and has never been able to get the “W” against a name opponent.

It was a phone booth fight, which worked to Collazo’s advantage because Luis’s legs aren’t what they once were. The decision could have gone either way. Two judges scored the bout 96-94; one for Collazo and the other for Vargas. Frank Lombardi turned in a wide-of-the-mark 98-92 scorecard in Collazo’s favor.

Then it was time for the main event.

Conlan (10-0, 6 KOs) is best known to boxing fans for having given the finger (two middle fingers, actually) to the judges after coming out on the short end of a decision in the second round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. His skill set is better suited to the amateur than professional ranks. But his Irish heritage is a significant marketing plus. And Top Rank specializes in both savvy matchmaking and building narratives.

This was the third consecutive year that Conlan, now a featherweight, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day weekend by fighting at Madison Square Garden. His ringwalk was marked by Irish-themed pageantry. And Ruben Garcia Hernandez, his opponent, was tailor-made for him.

Conlon controlled the fight with his jab. Nothing much else happened. “Mick” emerged victorious 100-90 on all three judges’ scorecards. And the fans went home happy because their man won.

*     *     *

The sad news that New York Mets pitching great Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and will retire from public life is a reminder that all people from all walks of life are susceptible to the condition, not just fighters.

Seaver was on the list of A+ athletes who rose to prominence in the 1960s when advances in television were redefining the sports experience. Muhammad Ali was at the top of that list. Years ago, sportswriter Dick Schaap told me about an evening he spent with Ali and Seaver.

“In 1969, the year the Mets won their first World Series,”Schaap reminisced, “I spent the last few days of the regular season with the team in Chicago. Ali was living there at the time. I was writing a book with Tom Seaver, and the three of us went out to dinner together. We met at a restaurant called The Red Carpet. I made the introductions. And of course, this was the year that Tom Seaver was Mr. Baseball, maybe even Mr. America. Ali and Tom got along fine. They really hit it off together. And after about half an hour, Ali in all seriousness turned to Seaver and said, ‘You know, you’re a nice fellow. Which paper do you write for?’”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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