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The Fearsome Sonny Liston was a Man of Mystery

Rick Assad

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Sonny Liston

If physical presence and demeanor were the only factors that determine which boxer prevails inside the ring, Sonny Liston would have been undefeated.

It was said of Jack Dempsey that his opponents were already beaten before he stepped into the ring. The same could be said of Mike Tyson, tabbed “Kid Dynamite” by Sports Illustrated when he was only 15 fights into his pro career. Until he was knocked out by James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990, no one really wanted any part of Tyson, knowing an early dispatch was likely.

Liston, hardly tall by heavyweight standards at 6-foot-1, was all that and more at the peak of his prowess.

Liston, who usually tipped the scale at 215 pounds, was a mass of raw musculature, especially across his broad shoulders and neck. Add to the equation Liston’s fists, which measured 14 inches, the biggest ever by a heavyweight, and then toss in an incredible 84-inch reach.

When Liston laid a glove on an opponent, he knew that he had been hit with raw power, or maybe a sledge hammer. “In the ring,” said Johnny Tocco, one of Liston’s early trainers, “Sonny was a killing machine.”  But Liston’s scowl was equally intimidating and went a long way in helping the former Missouri State Penitentiary inmate finish with 50 victories in 54 fights and 39 knockouts over a 17-year professional career.

Sonny Liston was born in Sand Slough, Arkansas to a sharecropper, Tobey Liston, who fathered 25 children, the second youngest of whom was Charles, Sonny’s real name, born from Tobey’s marriage to Helen Baskin, a woman nearly three decades younger than he. But the year of Sonny’s birth, like the circumstances of his death, remain a mystery.

Many boxers come from impoverished backgrounds, but Liston’s was worse than most. “I had nothing when I was a kid but a lot of brothers and sisters, a helpless mother and a father who didn’t care about any of us,” he said. “We grew up with few clothes, no shoes, little to eat. My father worked me hard and whupped me hard.”

The many whippings that Tobey administered on him had a lasting effect. “The only thing my old man ever gave me was a beating,” said Liston, who claimed to be born in 1932.

Liston’s mother fled to St. Louis when Liston was about 13 years old and in time Sonny would follow her there. Schoolwork was difficult for him and because he couldn’t read or write, he was unable to find decent work.

Seeing a very limited future, Liston gravitated toward a world of crime that included muggings and armed robberies. He went to the well one too many times and in early 1950 was caught and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. His stretch began in June of that year.

In prison, fate would intervene in the person of the penitentiary’s athletic director Alois Stevens, a Catholic priest, who told the young inmate that he should try boxing.

Liston took Father Stevens advice and showed real promise while sparring with Thurman Wilson, a professional heavyweight. The session lasted two rounds and Wilson was glad to leave the ring in one piece after the pounding Liston gave him.

Liston’s amateur career wasn’t very long, but was memorable. In March of 1953 he won the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions with a win over Ed Sanders, the 1952 Olympic champion. Later that month, he outpointed Julius Griffin, the winner of the New York Golden Gloves Championship and captured the Intercity Golden Gloves title. In that encounter, Liston was knocked down in the opening round, but rallied to take the second and third rounds with Griffin holding on for dear life.

Liston also participated in the 1953 Amateur Athletic Union tourney and lost in the quarterfinals to Jimmy McCarter, who became one of Liston’s sparring partners. Liston then boxed in the International Golden Gloves Tournament at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, knocking out West Germany’s Hermann Schreibauer in the opening round in June. The previous month, Schreibauer had won the bronze medal at the European Championships.

With nothing more to prove, Liston turned pro.  Because of his checkered past, few wanted to invest in him. Liston would get backers, but they would be men known to be mobsters.

Sonny made his pro debut in September 1953 with a first-round technical knockout over Don Smith at the St. Louis Arena. Six wins followed until Liston lost an eight-round split decision to journeyman Marty Marshall at the Motor City Arena in Detroit in September 1954.

This setback would prove to be an aberration as Liston would meet Marshall two more times. Liston earned a TKO win in the sixth round in April 1955 in Kiel Auditorium and a unanimous decision victory over 10 rounds in March 1956 at Pittsburgh Gardens.

In April 1959, Liston snatched a TKO win in the third round over Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in Miami Beach and beat Williams again in March 1960 by TKO in the second round at the Sam Houston Coliseum in Texas. Liston then added five more wins to his ledger, including four early knockouts, to earn a date with Floyd Patterson, the reigning heavyweight champion.

On September 25, 1962 Liston took apart and then knocked out Patterson with a left hook to the jaw in the first round to begin his title reign.

Proud of his accomplishment, Liston was told by boxing writer and confidant Jack McKinney on the flight back to Philadelphia, his adopted home, that a warm reception would greet him. But when the plane landed and Liston looked for the adoring throng, there was none, save for some reporters and airline workers.

Larry Merchant, the longtime analyst for HBO Boxing, but then writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, penned this line: “A celebration for Philadelphia’s first heavyweight champ is now in order,” he wrote. “Emily Post would probably recommend a ticker-tape parade. For confetti we can use shredded warrants of arrest.”

Ten months later, Liston once again battered Patterson, knocking him down three times in the opening round at the Convention Center in Las Vegas, retaining his belt and adding the inaugural World Boxing Council bauble. But the title and its significance never really gained traction with boxing fans as Liston became the anti-hero.

Even President John F. Kennedy made it known that he was rooting for Patterson, in essence because he represented all that was good while Liston represented all that was bad. And the NAACP also shied away from Liston because of his shady past, saying at this time in America’s history Sonny was the last person it wanted to represent its people as king of the heavyweight division.

Columnist Jim Murray, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said of Liston, the ex-convict, “It was like waking up and finding a live bat on a string under your Christmas tree.”

Liston resigned himself to his fate, accepting the notion that he was the villain. “A boxing match is like a cowboy movie,” he said. “There’s got to be good guys and there’s got to be bad guys. And that’s what people pay for – to see the bad guys get beat.”

Liston’s next fight after demolishing Patterson in their rematch was a title defense against a 22-year-old named Cassius Clay, the “Louisville Lip,” who came into the bout in Miami Beach on February 25, 1964 as a 7-1 betting underdog despite a flawless 19-0 record. In what turned out to be a shocker for the ages, Clay, with a 78-inch reach, out-boxed, out-jabbed and out-fought Liston, who failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.

Fifteen months later, at St. Dominic’s Hall  in Lewiston, Maine, in a clash that ended in the first round, Clay, who had changed his name to Muhammad Ali after winning the title, once again prevailed, but this time with a single shot. The knockout punch, a short chopping right to Liston’s head, was described by New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, as “not having enough power to squash a grape.”

Even ringsiders were without a clue as to what actually happened.

Many years later, in an interview with Mark Kram, the boxing writer for Sports Illustrated, Liston admitted to taking a fall. “That guy [Ali] was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t want anything to do with him. And the Muslims were coming up. Who needed that? So I went down. I wasn’t hit.”

Were those fights predetermined in Ali’s favor, or where they legitimate?  More than a half century has passed since those two fights and there are as many questions as answers about them and about Liston, the man.

Following his second loss to Muhammad Ali, Liston soldiered on, winning 14 fights until meeting former sparring partner Leotis Martin in what would be his next-to-last fight at the Hilton International Hotel in Las Vegas in December 1969. Sonny was knocked out in the ninth round. Six months later, he stopped Chuck Wepner in the ninth round at the National Guard Armory in Jersey City, New Jersey.

In January of 1971, Liston was found dead by his wife Geraldine at his home in Las Vegas. Was he a victim of foul play? Shaun Assael, in his book “The Murder Of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin And Heavyweights,” argues that Liston was murdered. All that is known for certain is that the coroner recorded his death as a drug overdose.

Novelist James Baldwin was sent to the Windy City by Nugget Magazine to cover the first Liston-Patterson tussle and knew very little about boxing, which probably helped him.

Upon meeting Liston, Baldwin wasn’t taken aback by his physical presence, his menacing stare or his lack of education.

“He is inarticulate in the way we all are when more has happened to us than we know how to express,” Baldwin wrote, “and inarticulate in a particularly Negro way – he has a long tale to tell which no one wants to hear.”

It seems that Baldwin, himself black, hit the proverbial nail on the head.

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Pacman vs. Thurman: The Last of the Gen X Champions vs The Millennials

David A. Avila

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BEVERLY HILLS-Rain and grey skies filled the Southern California landscape on Wednesday as Manny Pacquiao and fellow warriors met the media.

Now 40 years old, Pacquiao entered the Beverly Hills Hotel with his usual entourage of family, fans and carry-on luggage of media followers. The eight division world champion has been running through this routine since arriving in 1999.

Will this be the last time?

Pacquiao remains the last of the Generation X fighters on a TGB Promotions boxing card that features millennial world champions and contenders. One of those millennial champions contends it will be the Filipino’s last.

“He’s got T-Rex arms. I’m not going to lose to someone with T-Rex arms,” said Keith Thurman the WBA welterweight world titlist. “All Manny does is hop around in the ring. I’m not going to lose to someone with T-Rex arms.”

Both Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) each have versions of the WBA welterweight belt and the winner of their fight emerges as the true belt holder.

Senator Pacquiao has an extensive history over the last decades of battles with some of the best prizefighters to ever lace up boxing gloves. When asked to name some of the most skilled of his former foes he quickly rattled off Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Timothy Bradley.

All of those Generation X fighters are gone now via retirement. Two are currently boxing promoters and one a television analyst. Pacquiao remains the last of his generation competing at the highest level. He is a phenomenon.

As Thurman eloquently spouted the reasons why he will dominate when they meet in the ring at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on July 20, the always reserved Pacquiao sat quietly amused with a subtle grin. He’s heard all of these taunts and degradations before.

“I’m thankful for what he’s been saying, because it’s giving me motivation to prove that at 40-years-old, I feel 29,” said Pacquiao. “I’ve heard that many times before and I beat them all.”

Thurman corrected Pacman.

“Last time I looked he had seven losses,” said Thurman. “He had a hard time fighting Jeff Horn.”

There’s no Millennial respect for the last of the Generation Xers.

More Millennials

IBF super middleweight titlist Caleb “Sweet Hands” Plant (18-0, 10 KOs) makes his first world title defense against Chicago’s Mike Lee (21-0, 11 KOs) in a battle between undefeated millennials on the same MGM card.

These millennials have no respect for anyone including each other.

“Mike Lee is in uncharted territory. I’m curious on how he plans on beating me. Does he plan on roughing me up and trying to knock me out like my last opponent? Can he do that better than Jose Uzcategui?,” said Plant of his next foe.

Lee doesn’t understand the disrespect.

“I respect Caleb Plant. He’s the champion for a reason and I respect any fighter who can step into that ring. You have to be a different kind of animal to do that in front of all those people, and I am that animal,” said Lee. “I came into this event very respectful. He (Plant) had to come out with another line of disrespect. I don’t understand it. So be it.”

Plant captured the title with a riveting performance against Jose Uzcategui that saw him floor the Venezuelan twice before holding off a late rally against the hard-hitting former champion. It showcased Plant’s speed, skill and grit.

“Nobody from 160 to 175 can beat me,” said Plant, hinting that perhaps he plans a quick move into the light heavyweight division soon.

Lee, a former walk-on Notre Dame football player, has been slowly moving up the prizefighting ladder with pure determination and grit since his pro debut nine years ago.

“I’ve chased this since I was eight-years-old and I’m thankful for this chance to go after a dream that others thought I couldn’t reach,” said Lee. “The beauty of this sport is that it’s only going to be me and Caleb in there.”

Gen X

In the heat of July, the millennials will have their say. And what about the last of the Generation X generation?

“This is a big fight as far as the stage goes, but it’s a big fight against a little guy. He’s a veteran and I’ve dismantled veterans in the past. I believe I would have destroyed Manny Pacquiao five years ago,” said Thurman, 30. “I’ve always been ready for this fight. He’s never fought someone like me with this kind of lateral movement, speed and power. I’m coming for him.”

Pacman, the last of a retiring breed, smiles at the words.

“My experience will be very important for this fight. It’s going to be useful against an undefeated fighter. I’m going to give him the experience of losing for the first time,” said Pacquiao. “I am excited for this fight.”

Will the last of the Gen X champions continue on his journey? Or will the Millennials close that chapter for good?

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Lou Savarese: Houston’s Humble Heavyweight Champ

Kelsey McCarson

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Savarese

Lou Savarese could hardly contain himself.

There he was, just four years after his last professional boxing match, a Bronx-born, boxing behemoth bursting into the room to tell his family about finally getting a speaking part as an actor on HBO’s hit TV series “The Sopranos”.

“Ma! Ma! I got a speaking part!” Savarese roared.

“That’s great,” muttered Ma as she went on with her business and his brother strolled by just in time to add a joke.

“Yeah, but are there going to be subtitles?”

Thus cued the laugh track for this scene, one that seems straight out of a Savarese family inspired sitcom. There was love. There were laughs. There were fights. They all had accents.

All these years later, the 53-year-old ex-boxer credits his success, both inside the ring and out, largely due to his family of origin.

“I was so lucky,” said Savarese. “Boxing is a very unstable sport, so it was good to have that kind of stability when I went home. They would keep me humble.”

Savarese’s humble attitude helped him parlay his excellent boxing career, one that stretched 18 years and included bouts against heavyweight greats Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield, into becoming one of Houston’s most successful and popular local boxing figures.

Local in the sense that Savarese has become synonymous with the phrase “Houston’s heavyweight champion” as he is so often labeled by local newspaper and magazine writers tasked with covering his various business exploits. This has happened repeatedly over the years despite Savarese not actually being from Houston (he’s from White Plains, New York) and never technically becoming the heavyweight champion of the world unless one counts the fringe title he won when he knocked out Buster Douglas in the opening round.

Still, Savarese did fight a who’s who of heavyweight greats, and his performances in at least some of the fights lend themselves to the idea that Savarese-the-almost-champ might have become a legitimate heavyweight titleholder in just about any other era had he gotten the chance.

Savarese was a heavyweight contender during one of the division’s best eras. Typically, the 1990s, led by Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, are considered by historians to be deeper and better than most other eras except for probably the 1970s when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and a young George Foreman plied their trades.

Savarese, who considers himself a boxing historian, said there was no doubt in his mind which of the two eras was best.

“I think the 1970s was definitely the best because even the [secondary level] heavyweights back then were really good,” said Savarese. “You had guys like George Chuvalo, Oscar Bonavena and Bob Foster around. There were so many great guys back then.”

Still, Savarese, the historian, knew the era he fought in was also considered elite.

“Our era–we had some really good guys in it, too.”

It was interesting to get the boxer’s input on all the great heavyweights Savarese faced during his career, especially when it came to the question about which one he thought was the best overall.

“Believe it or not, probably Riddick Bowe,” said Savarese. “I fought him in the amateurs. He should have been the greatest heavyweight ever. He was amazing. He had everything. He had such heavy hands. He could punch. He could fight inside. He could fight outside. Not many guys could do all that. In the history of big guys, he was probably the best inside fighter. He had the whole package. He should have been the greatest fighter ever.”

Savarese said he admired Holyfield greatly, the first undisputed cruiserweight champion who went on to do the same at heavyweight.

“Holyfield, to me, was the guy who did the most with his ability,” said Savarese. “He just had so much heart. I probably hit him harder than I ever hit anybody and he didn’t go down. And he came back and knocked me down. That kinda sucked. He was just too strong and had a lot of heart.”

And while Tyson scored a first-round knockout over Savarese during their encounter in 2000, Savarese admitted after some prodding that he didn’t really agree with the quick stoppage.

“I didn’t get it. I mean everything happens for a reason and hindsight is 20/20. I had been hurt way worse than that. I had been down and come back before. Lance Whitaker hit me with like 18 unanswered punches and I came back to win that fight.”

Admittedly, having never seen the fight before I was to meet Savarese later that day, I was also surprised to see it had been halted so quickly. Boxing is a funny sport. What appears a blowout loss on BoxRec can sometimes look so different when you actually watch the action.

“I would have liked to keep fighting,” said Savarese. “I think the referee kind of got overwhelmed because Tyson clipped him. In our corner, we thought they had stopped the fight because of that. We thought they had disqualified him. We had no idea they were stopping the fight. I got up pretty quickly. He’s a great finisher, though, so who knows? Maybe he would have stopped me, but I would have liked the chance to keep going.”

Savarese really does seem like a champion in the truest sense of the word. In fact, Savarese is exactly the person people probably picture in their heads when they imagine meeting a heavyweight boxing champion. He’s humble. He’s honest. He’s kind. He’s 6-foot-5 and looks like he can punch a hole through a brick wall.

He’s basically Rocky Balboa.

Besides, Savarese boxed well enough against Foreman in 1997 to have one of the judges total a scorecard in his favor in the split-decision loss. That fight was for Foreman’s lineal heavyweight championship, the same title Foreman had won three fights prior by knocking out Michael Moorer in the tenth round.

Had things gone just a little differently for Savarese that night, perhaps he would have had his hand raised as the heavyweight champion of the world.

“It was a close fight,” said Savarese. “I mean, I might be biased because it’s me.”

But perhaps most impressively of all, Savarese is genuine in the way that only ex-boxers seem to pull off with any sort of regularity. It’s a funny thing that boxing, a sport deemed crude and crass by some, can at the same time produce such delightful human beings.

All things considered, Savarese enjoyed a tremendous career. Since the very first day he started boxing, Savarese has known what he wanted to do with his life. More importantly, he made the decision to go out and do it.

“I love it,” said Savarese. “I always wondered why I liked it so much, and it sounds crazy, but it’s just the simplicity of it. I love training. Even when I lost, I could always just come back and train harder.”

That, of course, technically ended when Savarese retired following his 2007 unanimous decision loss to Holyfield. But Savarese’s shirts still hang off of him like he just finished doing a thousand pushups, and he’s still heavily involved in the sport in multiple ways.

Savarese is the most successful local boxing promoter of the last decade and part owner of both the Main Street Boxing & Muay Thai gym in downtown Houston as well as a new gym, Savarese Fight Fit West U, on Bellaire Blvd.

While boxing fans know Main Street as one of Houston’s oldest and most successful local fight gyms, Savarese’s new endeavor, which opened about eight months ago, caters to a different sort of crowd.

Here people from all walks of life, including oil and gas executives, attorneys, rabbis and even moms in yoga pants, take a giant leap into the world of boxing together, and for many of them, it’s their very first exposure to the sport. Where some of these kinds of people do exist in more traditional gyms like Main Street, Savarese Fight Fit West U practically screams for them to come and check things out.

It’s posh, clean and branded to sell to a certain kind of crowd.

Even the heavy bags are upgraded from traditional fare. Equipped with electronic sensors that measure how many times someone hits the bag and with what force, it’s the kind of gym just about any person could walk into and want to try things out.

“Everyone gets really competitive about it. It also helps with accountability. Because sometimes when people train, they get to talking to each other and lose track of what they’re doing.”

That Savarese would be part of such a successful looking new venture shouldn’t really be all that surprising. After all, beyond Savarese’s ring exploits and even after his various stints on TV and in movies, he just seems to be a special person who knows this life is for him and so goes about doing his best to live it.

Savarese is the person maybe every professional fighter should someday grow up to be. While his brother might have been mostly wrong about people needing subtitles to understand him when he speaks, there remains something homey and comfortable about Savarese that invites people to be warm-hearted and jovial toward him. Perhaps that alone is what has brought Savarese such good fortune, or maybe, like he said, it really can be traced back his family.

“I just enjoy life and try to do my own thing,” said Savarese. “I’ve been really lucky.”

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Jim Gray, To His Discredit, is Too Often ‘The Story’

Ted Sares

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Jim Gray

Showtime’s widely-connected Jim Gray is the ultimate networker, insider, and friend to the stars (from Jack Nicholson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Tom Brady and everyone in between—or almost everyone). He has won more awards than Carter has pills, a list that includes 12 National Emmy Awards, and he even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was named as one of the 50 Greatest Sports Broadcasters of All-Time by David Halberstam and last year he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

For an interesting read about Jim and his complex but important interconnections, see “The Zelig of Sports,” by Bryan Curtiss, dated June 24, 2016. https://www.theringer.com/2016/6/24/16043100/jim-gray-is-looking-for-his-next-exclusive-fc23ceb544e

However, as noted by “Sports Media Watch” writer and editor Paulsen (no first name) and others, Gray has become The Story on too many occasions and that’s a no-no in his line of work.

In boxing, Gray’s condescending and confrontational style was on display as far back as 2001 when he interviewed Kostya Tszyu in the ring following Tszyu’s defeat of Oktay Urkal at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. As Gray was beginning his routine, the “Thunder From Down Under” grabbed the mic and quickly told Gray “Do not be rude to me.”

Many years later, after Juan Manuel Lopez had just been knocked silly by Orlando “Siri” Salido, a bizarre post-fight interview ensued during which Lopez accused referee Roberto Ramirez and his son Roberto Ramirez Jr (who was the third man for the first Salido-Lopez fight) of having gambling problems.

Lopez was arguably still on Queer Street, but that didn’t stop Gray. Eager to catch someone off guard, as is his wont, Gray managed to get “Juanma” to say more than enough to get himself suspended while Gray went on to induction into the IBHOF

There have been many other incidents including James Toney dominating Gray in an interview after the Holyfield-Toney fight. Jim never had a chance. “Don’t come up here and try to give me no badass questions,” James warned Gray before knocking the mic out of Gray’s hands..

The fact is Gray had built up a litany of edgy if not downright embarrassing moments. His most infamous came in 1999 during game two of the World Series.

During the game, Pete Rose, barred from baseball but still a fan favorite, was introduced as a member of the Major League All-Century Team as the crowd went wild. Then the ever-opportunistic Gray launched a series of questions regarding allegations that Rose’s had gambled on major league baseball games.

Gray was unrelenting. Finally, Pete cut it off, saying, “This is a prosecutor’s brief, not an interview, and I’m very surprised at you. I am, really.” Later on, New York Yankee outfielder Chad Curtis, who won Game 3 with a walk off homer, refused Gray’s request for an interview as a show of unity with Rose. (Jim Gray’s complete interview with Pete Rose can be found in Gray’s Wikipedia entry. Gray was somewhat vindicated in 2004 when Rose came clean and admitted that he had bet on baseball.)

Fast Forward

After the scintillating Wilder-Breazeale fight this past week in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, Luis Ortiz bounded into the ring during the post-fight interviews and Gray shoved the mic in his face without so much as a hello and shouted “when do you want to fight Wilder?” Ortiz wanted to focus on what had just occurred in the ring, but he never had a chance. Gray continued to badger him about future fights and thus the fans did not get to hear what Ortiz had to say about the fight.

But what was far worse was when Dominic Breazeale waved Gray away as the commentator walked towards the badly beaten fighter. Gray was stopped by a member of Breazeale’s camp and he quickly got the message that he was persona non grata in the Breazeale corner. Previously, and within Dominic’s earshot, Gray had said to Wilder “the public does not want to see you fight people like Breazeale, the public does not want to see Joshua fight Ruiz, the public does not want to see whoever this guy is fighting Tyson Fury.”

There may be truth in what Jim said, but there was a better way to say it and a better place to say it. The man just got knocked senseless in front of his family and friends, Jim, show him some respect!

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

Ted Sares is a member of Ring 8, a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Grand Master class and is competing in 2019.

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