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Ailing Marv Marinovich Should Have Realized He Had a Son, Not a Science Project

Bernard Fernandez




The father, now 79, has a memory being wiped slowly clean by the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, so perhaps he remains oblivious to the horrific damage done to his family by his selfish if perhaps well-intentioned plan for creating an athletically flawless son. Then again, human history should have alerted Marv Marinovich to the folly of conducting scientific experimentation in flesh and blood, an exercise in self-aggrandizement periodically repeated by tyrants and madmen who thought it was all right for them to attempt to play God. The difference is that slaveholders intent on breeding their fittest specimens like cattle, and Hitler’s blueprint for creating a master race through a form of mass murder known as ethnic cleansing, did not involve the ongoing infliction of abuse and paralyzing pressure upon someone the obsessed experimenter purported to love more than anyone or anything.

Maybe Marv Marinovich really has loved his son, Todd, now 49, whom the father was always intent, even before his wife’s pregnancy, on making not just into a quarterback, but one crafted over time to someday represent perfection at the position. But it was not simply for Todd Marinovich’s own sake that so much time, effort and money was poured into an ultimately failed project; the companion goal all along was for Marv to be recognized and hailed as the genius he imagined himself to be.

The sad, tragic saga of the Marinoviches has been examined at length at various stages, through alternating moments of giddy highs and plunging lows. But the full extent of what went wrong has been laid bare in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, in a lengthy article authored by Michael Rosenberg. Entitled Learning to be Human, it is a follow-up to a similar SI story, Bred to be a Superstar, that appeared in the magazine’s Feb. 22, 1998, issue. Twenty years ago some particulars of Todd’s slide from grace, a downward spiral that saw him go from a first-round draft choice of the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1991 (he was selected ahead of some guy named Brett Favre) and even deeper into drug addiction, were mentioned, but so too were elements of the big lie that still persisted at that time. If Todd had not capitalized as much as he might have on the advantages afforded him by his tunnel-visioned and deep-pocketed father, then at least some of the blame had to be his own fault, right?

Genetically well-suited for the kind of success plotted by Marv (more on that later), and relentlessly poked and prodded by the 14 specialists employed by the father, including biochemists and psychologists, to help squeeze out every ounce of the kid’s performance potential, Todd eventually was done in by a more gentle side of his nature.  An introvert, he liked football well enough, but he found a more satisfying way of expressing himself through his fine art studies at USC.  Then again, Marv hadn’t set out to create an improved version of Picasso or Monet, and try as he might no amount of parental bullying was going to instill into the son the same competitive fire that was forever raging inside Daddy Dearest’s internal blast furnace. It therefore should not have come as a shock to the psychologists on Team Todd that the young man nicknamed “Robo QB” began self-medicating himself in high school with all manner of pharmaceutical substances, eventually graduating from marijuana to cocaine, LSD and heroin while at USC.

As recently as eight years ago, an emotionally wrecked Todd still was delusional enough to parrot the key element of the big lie, that he had been a willing and even eager participant in a joint venture with his control-freak father that hadn’t really been foisted upon him since birth. “Someday people will realize what a genius you are,” Esquire quoted him as telling Marv.

But now those segments of the big lie that haven’t already been exposed as false are being revealed for what they were. The oft-repeated mantra that Todd had never consumed any unhealthy fast foods, carbonated beverages or desserts with refined sugar? The kid greedily gorged on Big Macs and Oreos slipped to him on the sly by his maternal grandparents, who wanted the boy to enjoy some small semblance of a “normal” childhood denied him by the son-in-law they also had come to fear. The whopper of a mendacity that Marv, under the guise of raising his only son with a brand of tough love that never crossed the line into brutality? The reality was that Marv smacked Todd around as if he were a sparring partner who was never allowed to strike back or even brook dissent. All it took to initiate a beating was for Marv to determine that Todd had not performed perfectly in that particular day’s practice or game, and he never did, at least not to his demanding father’s satisfaction.

As the father of two children that he fears he never will be able to raise as well as he knows he should, given that his own life is a perpetual morass of personal weaknesses and jagged scars upon his psyche, Todd at least has come to terms with the realization that continuing to repeat the big lie does no one any good. He now describes his father as a “raging beast” whose dictums he was powerless to reject or resist.

Only some of the facts of the Marinoviches’ tortured relationship were available to me when I interviewed Marv, who then was training MMA superstar BJ Penn, in advance of Penn’s main-event bout against Kenny Florian for UFC 101 on Aug. 8, 2009, the first such event to be held in the Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Center in Philadelphia. Penn – who forced Florian to tap out on a rear-naked choke hold in the third round – was effusive in his praise of Marv’s somewhat unorthodox techniques.

“Everything happens the way it should. If I had won my last fight (a fourth-round stoppage loss to Georges St. Pierre in UFC 94 on Jan. 31, 2009), I probably wouldn’t have wound up with Marv,” Penn said. “But being that I did lose, I started thinking about going in another direction. I was frustrated; some people were beginning to question my desire.

“Then some buddies of mine introduced me to Marv, and it’s like losing my last fight was a blessing in disguise. I’ve always trained hard, but I trained like everyone else trained. Marv has opened my eyes to a different way, a better way.”

The Marv I interviewed then – by phone, as he had not traveled to Philadelphia with Penn – did not come across as a raging beast. Then again, Penn was merely his client, not the son whom he was doggedly determined to make over into his own image.

“BJ had some definite physical weaknesses,” Marv pointed out. “If you compete with weak links, you have to compensate and maybe even overcompensate for those problem areas. It can lead to injuries and stamina issues. Without question it can and does affect overall efficiency.

“They say athletic training in the past was prehistoric. I think it’s still prehistoric. Coaches in all sports – basketball, football, baseball, whatever – still believe the ability to lift heavy weights slowly is going to make you explosive and fast and increase limb speed. Nothing can be further from the truth. That’s why you don’t see boxers do traditional weightlifting. All that does is slow down the rate of muscular contraction. Bench-pressing, squatting and dead-lifting not only puts your body out of balance, it destroys limb speed. If you want to jump high and run fast, lifting heavy weights is not the answer. But people over here (in America) still think that it does. You’ve got strength-and-conditioning coaches all over the country who cling to the old methods.”

The training methods espoused by Marv Marinovich leaned heavily toward those devised by his counterparts in Soviet Bloc countries, which is hardly surprising. His over-the-top obsessive-compulsive personality might owe in large part to genetic makeup; his Croatian grandfather, J.G. Marinovich, is said to have been in the Russian Army and overseen the battlefield amputation of his own arm. Marv thus was raised to believe that he was from a line that was tougher than tough, so therefore his mission in life was to perpetuate the family tradition of absolute dedication to whichever task its members sought to undertake. And for Marv, the path to the higher purpose that defined his existence was on a football field. He was a starting guard on the USC Trojans’ undefeated national championship squad in 1962, a relentlessly driven and vocal leader so intense that his teammates voted him “most inspirational.”

It hardly mattered to Marv that his own NFL career with the Oakland Raiders lasted only three disappointing seasons and was marked by frequent injuries stemming from overtraining. He simply would funnel all the hopes and ambitions he once reserved for himself into the son he knew would be special, having specifically selected a USC swimmer, Trudi Fertig, as his bride not only because of her athletic  makeup but because she was the sister of his Trojans teammate, quarterback Craig Fertig. How could Marv’s yet-unborn son be anything but great with all that going for him, and especially with the expert technical assistance Marv planned to introduce into the child’s upbringing?

“It’s very sick,” Marv’s other child, a daughter, Traci, whom he shamefully neglected while solely focusing on Todd, said of a dysfunctional family dynamic that saw the father’s volcanic temper erupt with disconcerting regularity. It was one thing for Marv to lash out at strangers with balled fists, quite another when he took out his frustrations on Todd and Trudi, whom he once picked up and threw across a room onto a dining room table. The couple divorced in 1985.

So immersed in the notion of athletic dominance within his family circle was Marv that, when Traci got married in 1988, he refused to give her away and almost skipped the ceremony. His objection: Traci’s fiancé, Rick Grove, was not athletic enough. Marv even refused to shake his new son-in-law’s hand, or to be there for the births of the three children that Traci bore.

Imitation being the most common form of flattery, you have to wonder what might have been the result had an undamaged Todd blossomed into the superstar quarterback he was supposed to become instead of the drug-addled head case that now stands as a cautionary tale to all fathers who might otherwise be inclined to follow the Marv Marinovich playbook in the raising of their children. Even as Todd was refining his footwork and arm-angle release of his passes under the watchful eye of the experts brought in by Marv, the Robo QB was emotionally coming apart at the seams, an inevitable dissolution which must have been apparent to everyone but his father. Todd played only eight unspectacular games over two seasons with the Raiders prior to his release, and in 2004 the editors of placed him fourth on their list of all-time sports flops. One ESPN columnist absolved Todd of at least some of the blame, chastising Marv, with ample justification, as one of the worst sports dads ever.

While the road to ruin trod by the Marinoviches – forget football stardom, Todd may never become a fully functional human being and the Alzheimer’s-stricken Marv no longer can bathe himself without assistance or control his bodily functions – represents something of a worst-case scenario, theirs is a story that was, is and again will be played out by others, more than a few of whom have ties to boxing. It is a fine line that separates necessary commitment to the achieving of a goal and borderline insanity, and examples of those who tight-rope walk along that border are legion.

The pitched battles between International Boxing Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez and his trainer-father, Gregorio, are the stuff of legend and caused Teddy Brenner, the late, great matchmaker at Madison Square Garden, to weigh in on a topic of eternal interest. Just who does or should run the show once a son, so used to acquiescing to his father’s unyielding discipline, decides he must live his own life?

“I’ve noticed it since (Wilfred) won the title and people began to pat him on the back and he realized he was an individual,” Brenner said. “Rebellion sets in. It happens all the time in the boxing business between father and son. Never fails.”

Former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, now 62, had an ironworker father, Tony, whose  implementation of parental authority was nearly as stern as Marv Marinovich’s, minus the bloated crew of technical advisers. Author Charles Euchner, in an article entitled The Rise, Fall and Redemption of Gerry Cooney, examined the conflict faced daily by young Gerry, a gregarious sort who long sought the love of his dad, who either chose not to acknowledge his son’s needs or didn’t know how to.

“Sons with troubled relationships with fathers struggle to develop their own identity,” Euhner wrote. “They desperately want attention and approval, but they also want separation and independence. When they get too far away, they veer back toward their dads, no matter how much pain they get for the effort.”

Said Cooney, of his subsequent battles with depression, alcoholism and drugs, twisted relationships and squandered possibilities: “(Tony) would belt me with his hands, his belt. How do you do that to your kids? He drank and was very physical. He kept us under control. He kept us (Gerry is one of Tony’s eight kids, including three brothers) separated. We all had different hiding places. Mine was in the basement.”

It is a terrible thing when a bond that should have been based in love takes on the trappings of hatred, even if the end result is not always totally negative. Rosalio Pacquiao, father of Manny, took his son’s dog away from him, cooked it and ate it in front of him, inciting a traumatized Manny years later to run away on a ship headed to Manila where he turned to boxing; Fernando Vargas and James Toney so detested their absentee fathers that they imagined every opponent to be the man who had abandoned them, further fueling their desire to inflict beatdowns; and Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all fired their trainer-dads.

Nor is Marv Marinovich’s smothering obsession a detrimental trait exclusive to fathers who were absent the day patience, understanding and compassion were handed out. Masha Godkin, now a psychologist specializing in counseling performers, remembers what it was like to be constantly dragged to auditions by a stage mother who wanted to live out her dreams through a daughter who simply wanted a regular childhood.

“I felt if I didn’t get roles, I wasn’t good enough,” Godkin said. “Everything revolved around pleasing my mother. She wanted to be an actress. She assumed I did, too.”

Few if any magazine articles about sports are as significant as the one about the Marinoviches. After all, what is the most important job any man can have? President of the United States? Well, maybe. But with the possible exception of confirmed bachelors with playboy tendencies, for most males it is the linked responsibilities of being a husband and father. As the former for 50 years, and the father of four children (two sons and two daughters), I know I have not fulfilled those duties as well as I might have, but I hope to God I have met at least an acceptable standard in each instance. Both my sons are around Todd Marinovich’s age. I count myself fortunate that they sought and found their own path, and not one I attempted to force upon them.

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. 35: Bam Bam Rios, Heavyweights and More

David A. Avila




They don’t make fighters like “Bam Bam” Brandon Rios every day you know. But there was a time when it was as common as a Helms Bakery truck arriving in the morning.

He talks like a snarling character out of a Mickey Spillane novel and looks like a guy who eats nuts and bolts for breakfast, not Wheaties.

And when you put on a pair of mitts on his fists look out.

Rios (35-4-1, 26 KOs) won his last bout and now takes on another Mexican veteran Humberto Soto (68-9-2) in a welterweight battle of tough guys at Tijuana, Mexico. Its home turf for Soto and the match will be streamed on DAZN.

Time can be a sonofagun and even the toughest get taken down a notch or two. Since losing the WBO welterweight world title to Timothy Bradley in 2015, the road has been covered with spiked strips for the Garden City, Kansas native who now lives in Oxnard, Calif.

Before a win two months ago, he was stopped by former welterweight and super lightweight world champion Danny Garcia in the ninth round a year ago in February. It always seems to be the ninth round when things happen or not for Rios. When he lost to Bradley the end also took place in the ninth.

But that’s OK for Rios. When your family grows up working in the slaughter houses in temperatures not fit for human beings, that kind of labor hardens a person’s grit to not quit. No matter what other normal people might do, it’s not an option for Rios. And that’s the way he’s always fought.

“Anything can happen though, at the end of the day it’s not about who has what, it’s about me and him in the ring,” said Rios, 32.

Just last November the Oxnard-based fighter, who trains in Riverside with Robert Garcia, engaged in a Mexican war with Ramon Alvarez. He’s the older brother of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and he traded cannon blows with Rios until the pivotal ninth round when the back and forth battle was finally stopped by referee Tom Taylor. It was the kind of fight you might have seen in the 1940s; a kind of Tony Zale vs Rocky Graziano war of attrition that Rios was groomed for since a child in the Kansas gyms.

Like we mentioned before, they don’t make fighters like Rios any more.

When he crosses the Mexican border on Saturday in Tijuana, don’t expect him to feel out of place. He’s been there many times and his family comes from Mexico.

“Even though Soto will be in his own country, I have a lot of Mexican fans, my dad was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and LA is just a couple hours away so I hope to see my fans there supporting me,” said Rios.

This time he has Soto in front of him, a former world champion who lives in Tijuana and can recite word for word the book on dirty fighting. He’s not shy about elbowing and hitting below the belt or butting you with his head. He knows every dark trick known to prizefighters. When he fought John Molina Jr. a while back he feigned getting hit below the belt after that fighter dropped him with a legal body shot. Soto’s act was so convincing the referee deducted a point though he never actually saw the blow, unless he has X-ray vision. Soto is as wily as they come. And don’t expect the referee to keep the fight legal. I’ve seen battles in Tijuana where a veteran fighter was actually hitting another guy’s kneecaps and thighs. True story.

Rios will have his hands full. He’s run into these types of fighters before. Remember Argentina’s Diego Chaves? That fighter was ultimately disqualified for elbows and intentional head butts.

“Soto is a veteran, he’s 30 years old. he knows some tricks, he’s a former three-time world champion, so we’ve got to be ready for whatever he brings,” said Rios. “That’s why I’m working so hard to correct the mistakes.”

It’s Rios style of fighting that seems to attract those kind of fights. It’s not for the squeamish. But if you prefer Rios “two for two” style of bang it out in the boxing ring, then, this is for you. His three wars with Mike Alvarado were brutal and beautiful at the same time.

DAZN signed up Rios for this reason.

Also, East L.A.’s Seniesa Estrada defends the WBC Silver light flyweight title she recently won against Venezuela’s Yenifer Leon on the co-main event at Auditorio Municipal. DAZN will stream the fight.

Estrada (15-0, 5 KOs) meets hard-hitting Leon (9-1, 6 KOs) in a female bout set for 10 rounds. Estrada has stretched three consecutive opponents. She will be fighting in the hometown of interim WBC light flyweight titlist Kenia Enriquez. It should make for an interesting development.


In a move that caught the boxing world by surprise, giant heavyweight Tyson Fury signed a multi-year contract with Top Rank and ESPN. Frank Warren remains his co-promoter with Queensberry Promotions.

The contract requires a minimum of two Fury fights in the US a year. His fights will still be shown in the United Kingdom by BT Sport. Fury has the lineal heavyweight championship title because he beat Wladimir Klitschko the previous lineal champion.

Most of the boxing world anticipated a Fury rematch with WBC champion Deontay Wilder especially after their torrid – for a heavyweight match – fight that took place this past December at the Staples Center and ended in a split draw. Fans of both were eager to see a rematch and rumors were flying like one of those shotgun machine saucers.

Now, Fury has ESPN, Wilder has Showtime and Anthony Joshua is with DAZN. Basically each has a bargaining position now.

Joshua was in New York City recently to pump up his IBO, WBA, WBO and IBF title defense against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller at Madison Square Garden on June 1, 2019. DAZN will stream that heavyweight world title event.

What’s next for Wilder the WBC titlist?

If anything it puts the heavyweight scenario to the forefront for hard core boxing fans. For casual fans it dilutes it.

More UK- Super Middleweights

London, England will be ground zero on Saturday afternoon as British super middleweights James DeGale (25-2-1, 15 KOs) and Chris Eubank Jr. (27-2, 21 KOs) battle for the vacant IBO world title. Showtime will televise.

These Brits have no love for each other.

Eubank, 29, is the former IBO super middleweight titlist and wants it back. He was beaten by George Groves a year ago who gives everyone trouble. The son of hard-hitting Chris Eubank Sr. depends heavily on those heavy hands and it gets him into trouble.

DeGale, 33, is a gritty southpaw and former IBF super middleweight titlist who doesn’t punch like Eubank but has that something, something that keeps him in every fight. He surprisingly knocked out Mexico’s Marco Periban who was known for having a rock solid chin. You just never know who can knock out who? But in this fight, we do know they don’t like each other.

“If I’m honest, if his surname was Smith, you wouldn’t know who he was. He’s riding off his dad’s name,” said DeGale. “There are levels in boxing and I’m on a level above him. Come fight night, it’s going to be a schooling. Eubank Jr is gonna get schooled. I’ve dubbed this a ‘retirement’ fight. When he loses, he’s finished, he’s done. This will be his last fight.”

Eubank has heard it all before.

“He knows I’m a livewire and that I’m dangerous; he knows being ill-prepared is dangerous for his health. I don’t think he’s going to put himself in that position,” said Eubank.

On the same fight card shown by Showtime, heavyweight Joe Joyce meets Bermane Stiverne.

Joyce (7-0, 7 KOs) looks like the real deal. Known as the “Juggernaut,” the London heavyweight blew out Joe Hanks at Staples Center on the undercard of the Wilder-Fury match. I expected Hanks and his heavy hands to give Joyce pause, especially if he connected. Well, Hanks connected but then Joyce connected and blew out Hank’s candle. It was impressive.

Stiverne (25-3-1), the former WBC heavyweight world titlist, hasn’t been too impressive lately. In his last fight with Wilder he was blown out in less than one round. He didn’t look like he wanted to be there. Joyce is a serious heavyweight contender and at age 33 knows he doesn’t have much time to prove his worth. Expect an execution.

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James DeGale vs. Chris Eubank Jr is the Quintessential Crossroads Fight   

Arne K. Lang



DeGale vs Eubank

After winning back his IBF 168-pound world title in his rematch with Caleb Truax, James “Chunky” DeGale surrendered the belt rather than honor his mandatory against Jose Uzcategui. This was a smart business decision. More lucrative opportunities awaited him on the domestic front.

There’s no meaningful title at stake when DeGale (25-2-1, 15 KOs) meets Chris Eubank Jr. (25-2, 21 KOs) in a 12-round contest at London’s 02 Arena on Saturday, but this is an important match in the careers of both men as the loser, notes Eubank in a nice metaphor, “will be left in no-man’s land.” A fight between DeGale and Uzcategui (or Uzcategui’s conqueror Caleb Plant) wouldn’t have attracted nearly as much buzz.

The winner may go on to fight Liverpool’s undefeated Callum Smith, the WBA 168-pound champion, or Hatfield’s undefeated Billy Joe Saunders who is expected to breeze past Germany’s little known Shefat Isufi in his first go at 168 on April 13 at Wembley with the vacant WBO title at stake. And don’t rule out George Groves, 30, notwithstanding the fact that Groves announced his retirement late last month. Retirements in boxing are notoriously frangible.

DeGale was rooting for Groves to upend Callum Smith when they met on Sept. 28 at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. There’s no love lost between DeGale and Eubank, whose social media squabbles date back several years, but DeGale felt a greater enmity toward Groves, a former amateur teammate and rival. Groves nipped DeGale in a terrific fight back in 2011 – Chunky disputed the decision – and it has always grated on him that Groves would go on to rake in substantially more loot as their careers moved forward.

Chris Eubank Jr. would also welcome a rematch with “Saint George” who outpointed him before a packed house at the Manchester Arena in February of last year. And while there was no disputing this decision, Eubank is certain the result would have been different if not for an accidental clash of heads in the third round that left him with blurred vision in his right eye.

Eubank appeared on the Groves-Smith card in Saudi Arabia. He was fed a soft touch in Ireland’s J.J. McDonaugh who could not continue after the third round. Two days later, DeGale, who is advised by Al Haymon, had his potboiler. He stopped no-hoper Fidel Munoz in the third round of a fight buried on a show in Ontario, CA. It was important for him to take out Munoz early as each of his six previous fights had gone to the scorecards.

If the odds hold up, Eubank (whose career has been less impacted by injuries) will go to post a small favorite, this despite the fact that Chunky is a former Olympic gold medalist and two-time world title holder and Eubank has come up short in his two biggest fights, losing to Groves and the aforementioned Billy Joe Saunders who was awarded a split decision when they met in November of 2014. Eubank started slow in that fight and it cost him. Saunders is a southpaw, as is DeGale.

James DeGale doesn’t have a fan-friendly style, but based on the odds this should be a competitive and entertaining fight. And it is pinned to an interesting undercard.


The chief supporting bout is a 12-round affair pitting Lee Selby (26-2, 9 KOs) against Omar Douglas (19-2, 13 KOs). Selby is a former IBF featherweight champion who came a cropper in his fifth defense, losing a split decision to Josh Warrington. This will be his first fight at 130 pounds. Douglas, from Wilmington, Delaware, was a five time Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion. He has won two straight after suffering back-to-back defeats to Javier Fortuna and Edner Cherry.

Selby, whose younger brother Andrew is rated #1 at flyweight by the WBC, aspires to become the first fighter from Wales to win world titles in two weight divisions. If he gets past Douglas, he may secure a date with WBA title-holder Andrew Cancio, boxing’s newest Cinderella Man.


More compelling than the Selby-Douglas match is the contest between heavyweights Joe Joyce (7-0) and Bermane Stiverne (25-3-1).

As a pro, Joyce has answered the bell for only 19 rounds, but the 33-year-old Englishman, who is of Scotch-Irish and Nigerian descent, is far more experienced than his record suggests. He was 12-1 in the World Series of Boxing where all bouts are scheduled for five rounds. His lone defeat came at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk. In his final amateur fight he lost a controversial split decision to Tony Yoka in the gold medal round of the 2016 Olympics.

Joyce has been training in Big Bear, California, under the tutelage of Abel Sanchez. Customarily carrying about 260 pounds on his six-foot-six frame, he should have little difficulty turning away Stiverne who is now 40 years old and has had only one fight in the last 39 months. But Stiverne briefly held the WBC version of the world heavyweight title and that makes him far and away Joe Joyce’s most notable opponent to this date and theoretically a good measuring rod as to whether Joyce can stay on the fast track or perhaps needs to slow down his mad rush to a world title fight.

Joyce vs. Stiverne and Selby vs. Douglas will appear on the TV portion of the DeGale-Eubank card. The fights will air live on Showtime in the U.S. (the telecast begins at 3:45 p.m. ET) and on ITV Box Office in the UK.

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Don’t Be Blue! The Met Philly is a Great Fight Town’s New (Yet Old) Boxing Venue

Bernard Fernandez



boxing Met Philly

Bernard Hopkins, the renowned former middleweight and light heavyweight champion from Philadelphia, once explained his compulsion for adding layers to his boxing legacy by noting that “history is forever.”

Well, sometimes it is. But history, while seldom if ever completely vanishing, can fade with the passage of time. Which is not to say adjustments to what once was can’t be made; in a remarkable trade-off, one chapter in the regal boxing history of B-Hop’s hometown is permanently slamming shut while another just a few blocks away on North Broad Street is about to be rewritten for a new generation and possibly succeeding ones. It is as if Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics – “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” – is being played out in real life.

Goodbye forever, iconic fight club Blue Horizon. Hello, Metropolitan Opera House, or as it is now known, The Met Philadelphia, again pristine and gorgeous after a $56 million transformation over the past 18 months. The first of what is being promised as regularly scheduled boxing events at The Met takes place this Saturday night with an 11-bout card, the headliner an eight-rounder pitting undefeated local prospects Jeremy Cuevas (11-0, 8 KOs) against Steven Ortiz (9-0, 3 KOs), for the vacant Pennsylvania lightweight championship. It is a nostalgic nod toward the neighborhood turf wars that once fed the city’s reputation as an incubator of hard-as-nails fighters who made their bones by slugging it out with one another.

Other matchups of interest have Samuel Teah (15-2-1, 7 KOs), of Northeast Philly by way of his native Liberia, going against Tre’Sean Wiggins (10-4-1, 6 KOs), of Johnstown, Pa., in an eight-rounder for the vacant Pennsylvania junior welterweight belt; welterweight Malik Hawkins (13-0, 9 KOs), of Baltimore, swapping punches with Gledwin Ortiz (6-2, 5 KOs), of the Bronx, N.Y., in an eight-rounder, and junior welter Branden Pizarro (13-1, 6 KOs), of the Juniata Park section of Philly, taking on Zack Ramsey (8-5, 4 KOs), of Springfield, Mass., in a six-rounder.

“The place is definitely beautiful. Breathtaking,” Cuevas, 23, a North Philadelphia native now residing in South Philly, said after a tour of The Met on Tuesday. “Who wouldn’t want to fight in such a beautiful venue in his hometown? I’ve always wanted to be involved in something like this, and now I’m here. It really hasn’t sunk in yet. But I have to win. Do that and what’s already a special occasion becomes a little more so.

“The hype is astounding, as it should be. I have a chance to help bring it all back to Philly, and to do it in style.”

Manny Rivera, president of Philadelphia-based Hard Hitting Promotions, is excited about the prospect of a long and mutually beneficial partnership with Live Nation Philadelphia, a company whose primary business is concert promotion and whose list of recording artists is topped by popular Philly rapper Meek Mill. Although Saturday’s fight card is the launch of The Met Philly’s reincarnation as a boxing venue, the facility, which first opened in 1908 and hosted boxing events from 1934 to 1954, has been operational since Dec. 3, when 77-year-old folk-rock legend Bob Dylan prophetically ushered in a new yet somehow familiar era by performing many of his hits that dated back to the 1960s, as did the majority of his audience.

Maybe what goes around really does come back around again, if someone with the will and the finances is determined to make it so.

Rivera said Hard Hitting Promotions expects to stage six fight cards at The Met in 2019, the next on a yet-unspecified date in April, “and go on from there,” adding layers onto the next-phase legacy of an again-grand facility that had fallen into disrepair and might have been marked for demolition were it not been for the intervention of Geoff Gordon, regional president of Live Nation Philadelphia, who saw the potential of the crumbling old palace and was willing to back his vision of a glorious future with a massive financial infusion.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for boxing and we have a wonderful spot to watch competitive boxing on North Broad Street,” Gordon said of the restored, multi-purpose Met, whose 858 North Broad Street address is just five blocks below the site once occupied by the Blue Horizon at the 1314-16 North Broad. But the Blue Horizon (as it had been known since 1961, so dubbed by fight promoter and then-owner Jimmy Toppi), which was constructed in 1865, hadn’t staged a fight card since June 4,  2010,  when featherweight Coy Evans scored a six-round unanimous decision over Barbaro Zepeda in the main event. Almost immediately thereafter, Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspection again cited the Blue for electrical code violations, among other things, and co-owners Vernoca Michael and Carol Ray, unable to pay for necessary repairs and mounting tax bills, were obliged to shutter the building until the debt rose to a point where they had no alternative but to sell.

Historical preservationists – hey, it’s Philadelphia, where tens of thousands of tourists come annually to check out Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and other 18th-century monuments to a significant period in America’s past – argued that it was imperative to prevent the Blue Horizon from decaying to the point where it might be unsalvageable. Boxing aficionados were also at the forefront of the ultimately failed crusade, noting that The Ring magazine had declared the 1,346-seat Blue as the very best place in the world to watch boxing, while an article in Sports Illustrated contended it was the “last great boxing venue in the country.” But those tributes were ultimately negated by pragmatic politicians who argued that while the Blue was indeed historic, it wasn’t “historic enough” for another governmental bailout after the facility had received a $1 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as well as a $1 million low-cost loan from the Delaware River Port Authority.

Although Michael and Ray, African-American women who had quit their jobs and gone $500,000 into debt to purchase the building, used the funds to make several cosmetic touch-ups, Michael complained that the Blue was “in continual need of repair” and they would require another $5 million in grants or private contributions to make enough renovations to bring it up to code. The people controlling the purse strings in Philly and Harrisburg said thanks but no thanks, which is why the Marriott hotel chain is sinking more than $25 million into the former Blue Horizon site, which is being transformed into a 140-room micro-hotel as part of the chain’s new Moxy brand, which a press release promises will “bring a lifestyle experience to a new level.”

Maybe that indeed will be the case, but you have to wonder if the ghosts of Bennie Briscoe, Matthew Saad Muhammad and other beloved and departed Philly fighters who learned to ply their brutal trade at the Blue will wander the corridors of the Moxy like restless spirits on an endless flight.

The Met Philadelphia – at least in its original incarnation – is in its own way just as rich in boxing history as the Blue Horizon. Built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein, it started out as the home of the Philadelphia Opera Company. Toppi, who later owned the Blue Horizon, began staging regular fight cards there in the 1930s, during which time the Cuban great, Kid Gavilan (a record eight appearances), Lew Jenkins, Percy Bassett and George Costner were among the headliners. And, unlike the “not historic enough” (at least in some people’s estimation) Blue, The Met has been certified by the Philadelphia Historic Commission by its listing on both the Pennsylvania State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Perhaps of most significance to fight fans, The Met’s configuration for boxing should make for a rewarding viewing experience. With a seating capacity of 4,000 or so for concerts, 800 floor seats will be removed on boxing nights for placement of the ring, which will be surrounded on three sides by curved rows of seats, all of which will offer splendid sight lines, with additional seating on the elevated stage. Rivera said he anticipates a turnout of 2,500 to 3,000 spectators.

“This building is like the Blue Horizon 5.0,” gushed Rivera, who points out that, unlike the Blue, The Met offers patrons multiple and modern concession stands and rest rooms.

All that remains is for The Met to live up to its obvious potential as a fight site that fans will want to keep returning to, which has not been the case with several one-and-done venues that were tried out as replacement or augmentary alternatives to the Blue.  Other Philly boxing sites that were more than suitable for the purpose and for a time found their niche were allowed to slip away for whatever reason, victims by turn of progress or abandonment.

So say goodbye not only to the Blue, but to Sesquicentennial/Municipal Stadium, site of the first Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight title bout on Sept. 23, 1926, which drew a crowd of 120,757, and Rocky Marciano’s dethronement of heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott on Sept. 23, 1952 (attendance: 40,379), and to the Spectrum, home to so many well-attended fights in the 1970s, which was demolished from Nov. 2010 to May 2011. Say goodbye also to Convention Hall, the Pennsylvania Hall at the Civic Center (demolished in 2005), the Cambria (affectionately known as the “Bucket of Blood,” closed in 1963); the Arena in West Philly, the Hotel Philadelphia in Center City, the Alhambra, Olympia, Broadway Athletic Club and National Athletic Club (all in South Philly) and Eli’s Pier 34 along the Delaware River waterfront. Less-entrenched in Philly’s boxing culture, in some cases still standing but seldom if ever still utilized as boxing venues, are Poor Henry’s Brewery in Northern Liberties, the National Guard Armory in Northeast Philly, Woodhaven Centre, Felton Supper Club, Wagner’s Ballroom and the University of the Arts.

It should be pointed out that The Met is not and will not be the sole destination for boxing in Philadelphia moving forward. There is the Liacouras Center on the Temple University campus, which on March 15  will be  the site for an IBF junior lightweight defense by champion Tevin Farmer (28-4-1, 6 KOs), of North Philly, against Ireland’s Jono Carroll (16-0-1, 3 KOs), as well as a women’s lightweight unification matchup of IBF/WBA ruler Katie Taylor (12-0, 5 KOs) of Ireland and WBO titlist Rose Volante (14-0, 8 KOs)) of Brazil. Fifteen days later at the 2300 Arena in South Philly, the converted warehouse (capacity: 2,000) which has undergone a number of name changes (among them Viking Hall and the New Alhambra), it’ll be WBC light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk (16-0, 13 KOs), of Ukraine, defending his belt against Doudou Ngumbu (38-8, 14 KOs), of Congo. There also are periodic cards at the SugarHouse Casino, with a nice but small room that can accommodate maybe 1,100 fans.

Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz, who has been staging fight cards in Philadelphia since 1969, is still going strong at 72 and he welcomes the addition of The Met as a local outlet for boxing and hustling promoters, such as Rivera, to provide the sort of competition that can only make for an improved overall product. He got a peek inside The Met during its restoration and said it represents a long step toward a Philly pugilistic rebirth, but it will take more than spiffy new digs to bring the glory days all the way back.

“It’s all good if the fights are good,” said Peltz, who is co-promoting the two world championship cards in March. “If the fights aren’t good, the site won’t matter quite as much. It all depends on the quality of the fights.”

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