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Christmas Day in Germany with Sugar Ray Robinson

Arne K. Lang

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Sugar Ray Robinson

It was snowing when Sugar Ray Robinson and his entourage left their hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, for the short walk to the sterile brick building where Robinson would display his wares. This wasn’t the soft snow that flutters from the sky to delight young children on Christmas morning; this was a driving snow, the kind that stings when it hits you in the face. No man should be out in this weather on Christmas but here was Sugar Ray Robinson on Christmas Day, 1950, going to work in a land far from home.

Robinson’s work was giving and receiving punches inside a small roped enclosure. He was a lot better at the former than the latter, capable of firing off a fusillade of punches before his opponent, if still standing, could answer with a punch of his own. But this was still a hard way to earn a living.

Robinson’s trip to Frankfurt was the final leg of a whirlwind European tour, five fights in 29 days beginning with an engagement in Paris on Nov. 27. In design, the tour replicated many of the tours arranged for America’s great black jazz musicians who found a more appreciative audience in Europe than in their home country. From Paris, Sugar Ray went to Brussels and Geneva and then returned to Paris for a match with Robert Villemain.

Robinson’s welterweight title wasn’t at risk in any of these five fights. He had given notice that he planned to vacate it. But these were not exhibitions. To the contrary, Robinson was matched against some of the top fighters in Europe. Villemain, a rugged fighter built along the lines of Marcel Cerdan, which is to say stocky, was Exhibit A.

They had met earlier that year in Philadelphia. The fight went 15 rounds with Robinson coming out on top. Prior to his first encounter with Robinson, Villemain had split two bouts with Jake LaMotta, avenging an awful decision from their first meeting, and scored a win over future Hall of Famer Kid Gavilan, the Cuban Hawk.

It has been noted that one of the hallmarks of great champions is that they invariably elevate their game in rematches. Fighting before a hostile crowd at the Palais des Sport, Robinson didn’t leave the sequel in the hands of the judges. He battered Villemain to the canvas in the ninth round and although the Frenchman beat the count, he was too badly hurt to continue in the eyes of the ref who waived the fight off.

After opposing a man of Villemain’s stature, Robinson was entitled to a nice long rest. But before news of his victory hit the next day’s papers, he and his entourage were on board a red-eye train to Frankfurt, a 12-hour trip.

Robinson was famous for his entourage. On this excursion it consisted of his manager, George Gainford, his wife, his chief second, his barber, his golf pro, two secretaries and a late addition, a dwarf he picked up in Paris who was useful to him as a translator. When the crew was together as a unit they all wore matching purple jackets, Robinson’s favorite color. In Europe, they could not have been more conspicuous if they were aliens from outer space.

It didn’t take long for sportswriters to anoint Sugar Ray Robinson the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the modern (i.e. Queensberry) era of prizefighting. As an amateur he was 89-0. His pro record entering his second bout with Villemain was 119-1-2. The lone defeat had come in his second meeting with Jake LaMotta, a bout in which he was outweighed by 16 pounds, and he had avenged that loss thrice in what would ultimately be a six-fight series.

But forget the numbers. A fighter’s won-loss record is pretty much a useless statistic, albeit that was far less true in Robinson’s day. What was remarkable is that the most lavish bouquets lavished on him came from the senior members of the sportswriting fraternity.

Old-time fight fans are notorious for thinking that old-time fighters were superior to their modern counterparts and old sportswriters aren’t immune. Some wizened scribe was bound to have offered up this opinion: “Okay, I’ll grant you, this kid Robinson is pretty good, but if he had met Mickey Walker in Walker’s prime he would have been in for a rude awakening.” But no one offered up that caveat, at least no one to this reporter’s knowledge, and this reporter has spent countless hours rummaging through old newspapers. The lionization of Sugar Ray Robinson was unanimous.

In Frankfurt, Robinson was matched against Hans Stretz whose record was said to be 33-3. Seven years younger than Robinson at age 22, Stretz was a former and future German middleweight champion.

Stretz was refreshingly realistic when assessing his chances. “Anything can happen in boxing,” he said. “The worst sometimes beat the best and I’m not the worst.” But Stretz knew something that Robinson didn’t. He knew that the building that would house their fight, the Haus de Technik, a building built for industrial trade shows, was unheated and in hopes of getting an edge he prepared for Robinson in an unheated gym.

The patrons, reportedly 7,000, arrived wearing heavy jackets. Between rounds they stood and stamped their feet in unison on the concrete floor as a means of abating the chill.

Robinson knocked Stretz to the mat within the first 30 seconds of the fight. The German dusted himself off and had some good moments in rounds two and three, but that merely prolonged the inevitable. He would be knocked down eight times in all before the match was halted in the fifth round. The final punch was a straight left. Stretz wasn’t concussed but he was exhausted and made no attempt to rise as the referee tolled the “10” count.

Again there was no rest for the weary. Two days later, on Dec. 27, the ocean liner SS Liberte left Paris for New York. Robinson and his entourage, minus the dwarf, were on it.

It was important for Robinson to get home in a hurry. He would have only six weeks to get ready for his next fight and this was a biggie, a match with Jake LaMotta, the man who had given him his toughest fights. At stake would be LaMotta’s middleweight title, affording Sugar Ray an opportunity to win a world title in a second weight class. Before that, on Jan. 9, 1951, there was the annual dinner of the Boxing Writers Association of America where Robinson was set to receive the Edward J. Neill Memorial Award forged to honor “the person who has done the most for boxing during the preceding year.” (Neill was an Associated Press war correspondent who died from a shrapnel wound while embedded with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.)

Sugar Ray was a worthy honoree. In Europe, by virtue of his fistic brilliance, he brightened the day of many people still suffering from the ravages of World War II. And how odd that his trip to Europe would include a stop-over in Germany, America’s arch-enemy just a few years earlier.

German fight fans aren’t as animated as fight fans in other countries, but I have no doubt that most of them watching the Robinson-Stretz fight with no apparent emotional allegiance were sorely disappointed that Hans Stretz didn’t make a better showing. Boxing, more than any other sport, feeds on tribal loyalties. But they left knowing that they had seen a master craftsman at work. “(Sugar Ray Robinson) is perhaps the closest thing to a perfect fighting machine the human race will ever produce,” wrote Bill Zalenski, the ringside correspondent for Stars and Stripes.

—-

I don’t want to get maudlin here. Robinson’s excursion to Europe was all about making money to maintain his ostentatious lifestyle. But I have thought about the Robinson-Stretz fight a lot and there’s a part of me that wants to think that he was drawn to Frankfurt by a force more powerful than a felt need for pecuniary enrichment.

The crowd included a smattering of American GIs. A few years earlier, they would have been in Germany on a killing mission. A little over five years had elapsed since the war in Europe had officially ended with the signing of the Armistice. Measured by the sands of time, that was yesterday. And yet here in an unheated building in wintry Frankfurt, with wounds still fresh from the deadliest conflict in human history, Americans and Germans had come in peace to watch a recital by the most skilled practitioner of the so-called manly art.

How appropriate that this scene played out on Christmas.

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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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