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MAY-PAC STIRS MEMORIES OF HAGLER-LEONARD FOR SUGAR RAY

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It has been said in Hollywood that there are no original ideas, just variations of familiar plots and story lines. And so it is in boxing, which perhaps is why the movie industry has ventured so often into the drama-drenched world of fights and fighters.

The great Sugar Ray Leonard has seen and done it all, and at 58 his perspective is such that he can pretty much tell when an old script is being dusted off for a contemporary audience. When he looks ahead to the May 2 superfight pitting Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, he has a sense of déjà vu, that he’s been there and done that. It is a feeling rooted in reality, at least to an extensive enough degree to make comparisons between May-Pac and Leonard’s April 6, 1987, showdown with Marvelous Marvin Hagler take on a sheen of legitimacy.

A fight five years in the making? Check, and check. A stylistic matchup between a mobile, quick-handed boxer and a relentless, southpaw punching machine? Check, and check. Global interest at a fever pitch? Check, and check. One fighter demanding, and getting, a laundry list of concessions from the other side in order to close the deal? Check, and check.

“There are distinct parallels,” Leonard told me. “The buildup to Mayweather-Pacquiao has taken, what, five years? Same as my fight with Hagler. No one thought Mayweather-Pacquiao would ever happen; no one thought that my fight with Hagler would ever happen. In fact, for a long time I never thought that it would happen for me with Hagler.

“Also, had Hagler and I fought five years earlier I don’t think it would have turned out to be as big as it was, or as spectacular. The wait made it an even bigger event, and that’s what’s happening with Mayweather-Pacquiao.”

Even with all the instances where Mayweather-Pacquiao appears to tearing pages from the Hagler-Leonard reference book, it should be noted that there are differences between then and now. Leonard, whose ring attributes more closely mirror those of Mayweather, was the underdog and the smaller man coming up in weight, with the added burden of a long period of inactivity in which he had fought only once in the preceding five years. Pacquiao is a southpaw, like Hagler, but let’s not forget that Marvelous Marvin pulled a switcheroo and opened his bout with Leonard in an orthodox stance, which came as a pleasant surprise to the guy in the other corner. Don’t expect “PacMan” to follow suit.

“I looked for every possible thing that would give me an edge,” said Leonard, a list which included wringing a grudging agreement from the Hagler camp to the larger ring, larger gloves (10 ounces instead of eight) and reduced number of rounds (from 15 to 12) demanded by Team Sugar. “Not a big edge, but a slight edge. When Marvin came out orthodox,that helped me. It was another edge. But if he had come out southpaw, I would eventually have figured it out because I fought southpaws pretty well. It would have just taken me a little longer to get into a groove.”

Before an accord was reached for Mayweather-Pacquiao, “Money” demanded a favorable 60-40 split of the huge financial pie and for other perks, such as having his name listed first in all promotional materials and being introduced after the fab Filipino. Where pride is concerned, such things matter, maybe even as much as money to fighters who are already unfathomably wealthy. Pacquiao finally acquiesced, as had Hagler when presented with Leonard’s non-negotiable preferences. But someone has to give a little at the bargaining table, as well as inside the ropes, and the Hagler side yielded to the comebacking legend Hagler sneeringly referred to as the “little dictator.”

Leonard’s response to that is, “Hey, who wound up winning?” Oh, sure, there are those who dispute the split decision for Sugar Ray, not the least of whom is the still-bitter Hagler, but the outcome is what it is and so shall forever remain.

“This fight (May-Pac) is about bragging rights, like my fight with Hagler was,” Leonard continued. “You can talk all you want about the money, and it’s ridiculous money, crazy money. But to these guys, it’s about more than that. Each wants to be able to say he won. There’s so much personal pride at stake, and you can’t put a price on that.

“When all is said and done, this fight, of all fights, means everything to these guys. Because the bottom line is, and should be, who beat who, not how much money you made.”

It remains to be seen how the final chapter of the Mayweather-Pacquiao saga is written, but here is the tale of Hagler-Leonard, and how that year’s Fight of the Century painstakingly came to be.

There was a widespread perception, dating back to Leonard’s gold-medal star turn at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, that the kid from Palmer Park, Md., with the megawatt smile, Muhammad Ali-like skills and affable personality was destined for superstardom, that all the good things life and his sport had to offer would be served up on jewel-encrusted platter. For those who came up the hard way, like Hagler – a product of the meanest streets of Newark, N.J., who moved to Brockton, Mass., as a teenager in 1969 and in the mid-’70s had to put in regular shifts at the Petronelli Construction Company before going to the gym to log hours more of hard labor as a fighter enrolled in the Petronelli School of Boxing. To Hagler, who was not quite so marvelous then, Leonard was not someone to be admired, but a source of jealousy and irritation. In the weeks leading up to the long-delayed faceoff with Leonard, Hagler derided his opponent as a “pretty HBO face” who took a shortcut to the superstardom the best middleweight in the world had had to claw and scrap to even approach.

They hadn’t fought earlier because Leonard as a welterweight had no problem making 147 pounds, while Hagler was a full-fledged middleweight who scared the hell out of most would-be foes, Leonard included. Leonard saw the weight difference as too wide a chasm to even attempt to bridge.

“Hagler, to me, was a unique machine, a unique beast,” the Leonard of today recalled. “There was fear inside of me. Most fighters won’t admit it, but there’s always an element of fear. We’re all scared of what could happen. But fear can be good as well as bad. Fear can paralyze you, which is bad, but fear can also make you so sharp your eyes are as big as headlights. You’re looking for every damn punch, every conceivable thing the other guy can throw at you. And that’s good.”

Any chance that Hagler and Leonard might share the same ring appeared to vanish when Leonard was diagnosed with a detached retina in 1982, an injury that, in those days before medical advances, often was a career-ender. It appeared that would be the case with Leonard, who retired with no thought of coming back at the risk of perhaps losing his eyesight, strangely ironic in light of the fact that his full birth name, Ray Charles Leonard, was in tribute to Ray Charles, the legendary blind musician and singer.

Without boxing and out of the spotlight that in which he had become so comfortable, Leonard admits to losing his way, drinking too much and doing cocaine. Nor was his sole attempt to recapture what had been lost a rousing success; he was floored in the fourth round of his May 11, 1984, bout with journeyman Kevin Howard before going on to stop the tough but limited Philadelphian in nine. Embarrassed that he had been knocked down for the first time as a professional, Leonard retired again, saying he had lost what he had that had made him such a special fighter.

A year and a half earlier, Leonard had taken his first leave, doing so with a dramatic and unexpected flourish. He invited Hagler to attend “A Night With Sugar Ray Leonard,” a black-tie charity event on Nov. 9, 1982, at the Baltimore Civic Center that was emceed by Howard Cosell. Hagler showed up in anticipation that Leonard would finally announce that he was ready to move up in weight and take on the finest 160-pounder on the planet. And why shouldn’t he have felt that way? Leonard had advised the media that there would be a “major press announcement.”

“A fight with this great man, with this great champion, would be one of the greatest fights in history,” Leonard said as a beaming and tuxedoed Hagler looked on. There was a dramatic pause before Leonard delivered the words that stung Hagler more than any punch ever could: “Unfortunately, it’ll never happen.”

So what convinced Leonard to return after his desultory performance against Kevin Howard? One was the unflagging belief that he still had more to give, and at a high level, if only if he could root around inside himself and rediscover it.

“I believe every good fighter believes he has one big fight left in him,” Leonard said. “And I believed mine would be against Hagler. As it turned out, it was.”

There were other factors involved in Leonard’s decision to not only return to boxing, but to go directly to the biggest, baddest threat out there. As was the case with Max Schmeling before his first fight with Joe Louis, he thought he “saw something” that would enable him to confound the oddsmakers (Leonard opened as a 3-to-1 underdog and went off as a 2½-1 longshot) and make history as the first man to win world titles in four different weight classes. Yeah, Hagler was still a monster, but maybe not quite as monstrous as he had been.

“When Duran fought Hagler (a close but unanimous decision for Hagler on Nov. 10, 1983), I was doing commentary for HBO,” Leonard said. “After 15 rounds, Duran came over and said to me, in English, `You fight him, you box him, you beat him.’”

If that didn’t plant a seed of inspiration in Leonard’s mind, Hagler’s last pre-Leonard bout, an 11th-round knockout of John “The Beast” Mugabi, did. Mugabi, a tough-as-nails Ugandan, got the better of several toe-to-toe exchanges, landing hard hooks and uppercuts, before Marvin put him away.

“When Hagler beat Mugabi, I wasn’t exactly inebriated, but I was on my way,” Leonard admitted. “I was drinking so much back then. But still, I saw what I saw. It wasn’t that I thought Hagler was slowing down; I just thought that with my speed and my talent, I could do something with him.”

So The Return was set in motion, much to the relief of Hagler and, initially, to the consternation of an admittedly rusty Leonard.

“I feel very excited about the fact that he finally got his courage up,” the 32-year-old Hagler told reporters at his training camp in Palm Springs, Calif. “But when he made his move, he made it at the wrong time. I’m at my best right now, so I’m glad it’s happening now.

“If it had happened years ago, he had too much popularity, the Golden Boy out of the Olympics. Now, he’s just a curiosity. People want to see if he can come back and fight with an eye like that. I’m not a curiosity. I get asked why I’m giving him an opportunity even though when I wanted the opportunity, he didn’t give it to me. He was waiting for me to get old.”

Leonard’s return to serious training, meanwhile, was sluggish and frequently painful.

“For the first few months, my sparring partners were kicking my butt,” Leonard said. “They were banging the crap out of me. I would come home, my head down, walk in the kitchen and Juanita, my wife back then, would say, `Are you sure you want to fight Hagler?’ I’d get so mad. I got defensive. But when I think about it, she was right. I wasn’t ready – then.

“But every day it got a little bit better, a little bit better, until it all came back to me. It was frustrating when I knew I didn’t have it, that coordination, that touch. I had to fight through it. It was the most painful and agonizing experience of my life. I had to bite the bullet. I’d say to myself, `I know it’s there, I just know it.’ But I hadn’t found it yet.

“Then one day, about three months before the fight, I was in the gym and everything just fell into place. I snapped off a jab like I used to and I was, like, `Holy crap, this still works!’ I don’t know how to describe how that felt. It was ecstasy. But when you’ve been off as long as I was, you can’t really know for sure until you’re in that ring.”

Leonard said his fight plan – lots of movement, getting in and out, flurries late in each round to leave an impression on the judges – “was choreographed. I knew what I wanted to do.”

It also helped fuel Leonard’s fire that in a poll of 30 boxing writers, 24 picked Hagler to win, most inside the distance. After every round, Leonard would return to his corner and look at the media section “as if to say, `Hey, I’m still here,’” he noted.

The officials scorecards at the temporary outdoor stadium constructed on the tennis courts of Caesars Palace were all over the place. Judge Jo Jo Guerra might have been overly generous to Leonard in favoring him by a 118-110 margin, while Dave Moretti and Lou Fillippo each saw it at 115-113, with Moretti going with Leonard and Fillippo with Hagler.

“This is the greatest accomplishment of my life,” Leonard proclaimed at the postfight press conference. “Marvin never hurt me. He kind of slowed me up a little. I felt his power in the late rounds, but he never hurt me. I was able to do what I wanted to – stick and move, hit and run, taunt and frustrate.”

Hagler, not surprisingly, saw things far differently.

“I feel in my heart that I’m still the champion,” he said. “I really hate the fact that (the judges) took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray Leonard, of all people. It really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

“I rocked him three or four times. He fought like a little girl in there. Those little flurries don’t mean nothing.”

Nor has Hagler, who never fought again, ever softened his stance. In 1995, when in Las Vegas to do commentary on WBC heavyweight champion Oliver McCall’s unanimous-decision victory over longtime former titlist Larry Holmes, he again spoke bitterly of the Leonard fight plan that found favor with Guerra and Moretti.

“That’s all he did all night long,” Hagler said of the furious flurries in the final 30 seconds of rounds that clearly tipped the balance of the scoring. “I thought I was fighting a professional, but he was just an amateur. I gave up everything for that fight I gave him the bigger ring. I gave him 12 rounds instead of 15. But when it came time for him to give me a rematch, he wouldn’t do it.”

Leonard doesn’t expect Mayweather, who got what he wanted in the prefight negotiations with Pacquiao, to reciprocate by giving “PacMan” what he wants inside the ropes. Leopards don’t change their spots, not if they want to continue being leopards.

“You’re not going to see Hagler-Hearns, you’re not going to see Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard I,” Leonard predicted. “Not going to happen. The way I fought Duran the first time, that was a mistake I made. The way Tommy fought Hagler was a mistake on his part, as far as I’m concerned. Tommy was far more effective as a boxer against a guy like Hagler. You fight Hagler the way Tommy did, he’s going to knock you out.

“A fighter has to fight his fight. You have to play to your strengths. That’s the only way to be effective.”

Which is not to say that Leonard, who is leaning toward Mayweather, is going all-in on a prediction for a fighter whose style is more or less an approximation of his own. If there is a difference, it might be that a prime Leonard had more of a finishing instinct when he had his man in trouble than Mayweather.

“This fight is not easy to call,” he said. “It probably will come down to which guy can get back to his total `A’ game.”

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Bob Arum Hails Terence Crawford (not Lomachenko) as Boxing’s Next Superstar

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Arum says Terence

Top Rank’s Bob Arum says Terence Crawford will become this generation’s Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao–elite boxers who became worldwide celebrity sensations. Arum, who promoted both Mayweather and Pacquiao on the way to their historic crossover statuses expects big things from the undefeated Crawford over the next few years.

“He’s the best fighter in the United States, and he’s so charismatic,” said Arum. “He comes from middle America, and In the next year or so, he will be huge.”

Arum’s assertion is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Arum is also the promoter for Vasyl Lomachenko. Lomachenko is ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound by The Ring, the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. More importantly, Lomachenko seems to have a groundswell of support behind him both in the media and among fight fans.

Lomachenko has also been heavily featured through Top Rank’s television partnership with ESPN. While Crawford has achieved more in his career than Lomachenko (at least in my eyes) and, as noted by Arum, is a homegrown American talent, Lomachenko seems to be considered the more marketable commodity to that network judging by the amount of promotional materials ESPN has pumped out about the fighter over the last year.

The other reason Arum’s claim about Crawford is interesting is the performance of Canelo Alvarez over the weekend in his majority decision rematch win over Gennady Golovkin. Besides Mayweather and Pacquiao, Alvarez is the clear PPV leader among all of boxing’s current commodities, and his status as boxing’s new money fighter should only grow stronger after the best win of his career.

Still, Crawford is one of the few very elite fighters in all of boxing. He’s ranked No. 2 pound-for-pound by The Ring, the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.

While Lomachenko and Alvarez are also candidates to become boxing’s next big thing, there’s no doubt Crawford is also one of the few boxers in the sport right now with the right things in place to become the next Mayweather or Pacquiao.

Omaha’s Crawford is in the midst of an historic run. When he stopped Jeff Horn in round 9 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in June, Crawford captured a world title in his third different weight class, welterweight. This after Crawford had already captured two lineal boxing championships, as well as multiple alphabet titles, in both the lightweight and junior welterweight divisions.

By any measure, Crawford is truly one of the best boxers in the sport. Not only does he look the part in the ring on fight night (something more and more writers seem to value most when voting for pound-for-pound lists), but the fighter has already accomplished so much in his career that it seems Arum is doing more than the fiduciary duty of promoting his fighter when he ascribes to Crawford such lofty praise.

Crawford, still just 30 years old, is already halfway to matching Mayweather and Pacquiao’s shared record of most lineal championships. Over the course of his career, Mayweather captured lineal championships at junior lightweight, lightweight, welterweight, and junior middleweight. Pacquiao won his as a flyweight, featherweight, junior lightweight, and junior welterweight.

In order for Crawford to grab lineal championship No. 3, most believe he’ll have to go through welterweight phenom Errol Spence. While promotional entanglements might keep this superfight on the shelf for a while, Arum said he had no problem pitting Crawford against Spence in what would be one of the best matchups in recent memory.

“Absolutely,” said Arum when asked about working with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, who represents Spence, to make the fight. Could any response from him be more exciting? Crawford vs. Spence might be the next superfight in boxing. Both fighters are among the very elite, and unlike what ultimately happened with Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, who fought each other well past their peak years, both would be in the prime of their careers.

Winning that fight would certainly go a long way to making Arum’s vision of Crawford’s future come true. And who knows? Maybe Crawford really is the next Mayweather or Pacquiao. Heck, for all we know, he could even be on his way to doing something more.

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A Kaleidoscope of Boxers Guaranteed to Provide Action: Past and Present

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Marvelous Marvin

To set the tone for this article, one needs only to watch the way in which Thomas Hearns came out in the first round against Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He was ready to rock and roll as was his fearsome looking opponent. The ensuing unmitigated savagery was the quintessential illustration of full-tilt boogie.

For most boxing fans, the anticipation of an all-out action bout gets the chills running down spines faster than anything else. But not all, as some prefer a tactical or clinical fight that someone like Mikey Garcia can orchestrate and others –but not many—enjoy a defensive gem via a Willie Pep, Nicolino Locche, or Pernell Whitaker. A few love a genuine blood fest that a Gabe Rosado-type can provide, and who doesn’t like seeing something special as in Sugar Ray Leonard, Kostya Tszyu, Terence Crawford or Vasiliy Lomachenko?

Chill-or-be-chilled types like Bob Satterfield and Tommy Morrison were super exciting. In this connection—a certain cadre of warriors, past and present, would come out charging and stalking as soon as the bell rang. Many demonstrated a marked disdain for defense and used a non-stop, no let-up pressure that discouraged their opponents, especially in the late rounds. The anticipation from the crowd was palpable because it sensed some form of destruction was on its way. The cheering would start during the instructions and sometimes did not let up until the concussive end.

This cadre included Rocky Marciano, Tony Ayala, Vicious Victor Galindez, Jeff Fenech, Roberto Duran, and Julio Cesar Chavez (who sapped the spirit of his opponents by ripping away at their mid-section). Also, Carl “The Cat”  Thompson , chill-or-be-chilled Ricardo “Pajarito” Moreno (60-12-1 with 59 KOs),  Ron Lyle, the ultra-violent Edwin Valero, the appropriately nicknamed JulianMr KO” Letterlough, James “The Outlaw” Hughes and his mindboggling ability to snatch victory from certain defeat, Thai stalking monster Khaosai Galaxy (47-1),  the first version of George Foreman (pictured with the aforementioned Lyle), Ji-Hoon “Volcano” Kim, Ruslan  Provodnikov, Orlando “Siri” Salido, Marcos Maidana, Lenny Z, Alfredo “Perro” Angulo, Mike Alvarado, Brandon Rios, and Mickey Roman (the later four are still fighting but past their primes).

Others who presently incite the anticipation of something special include (but are not limited to) Naoya “Monster” Inoue (16-0), Errol “The Truth” Spence Jr (24-0), Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (46-4-1), Alex Saucedo (27-0), and, of course, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (38-1-1) who now has become slightly more tactical like his nemesis, Canelo Alvarez (50-1-1).

These stand out as representative.

Past

A prime Mike Tyson—and the emphasis is on prime– was the epitome of a boxer who guaranteed action. One simply would not leave his or her seat when “Iron Mike” was doing his highlight reel thing, and his blowout of Michael Spinks punctuated his standing at the top of all-action type fighters, even if the action was usually non-mutual.

Joe Frazier came out smokin’ and would not let up until either he or his opponent were done. For the most part, decisions were not in Joe’s DNA and his left hook was as malicious as a hook can be. With Joe, you just sat back and enjoyed the action. Frazier, wrote boxing historian Tracy Callis,  “was a strong, ‘swarmer’ style boxer who applied great pressure on his opponent and dealt out tremendous punishment with a relentless attack of lefts and rights; His left hook was especially stiff and quick when delivered during his bob-and-weave perpetual attack; he fought three minutes per round and never seemed to tire.”

Carlos “Escopeta” (Shotgun) Monzon (87-3-9) was a powerful and rangy Argentinean killing machine, built like an iron rod. Some said he pushed his punches. Well if he did, he pushed 87 opponents to defeat. He also became only the second man to stop former three-time world champion Emile Griffith, turning the trick in the 14th round. Blessed with great and deceptive stamina and a solid chin, he seemingly was an irresistible force. He was unbeaten over the last 81 bouts of his career, a span of 13 years, and defended his title 14 times. “One would need to write a book in order to do justice to comparing a fighter of Carlos Monzon’s calibre to his fellow all-time greats,” wrote Mike Casey.

Arturo Gatti and Irish Micky Ward were the quintessential action fighters. One is gone amidst controversy, and hopefully the other will not pay a price for his many ring wars. With these two, just count up the Fights-of-the-Year and the rest is history. Suffice it to say that Gatti and Ward will be forever linked in boxing lore.

Until his fateful fight with Nigel Benn (another all-action fighter), Gerald McClellan was absolutely, positively, a stalking monster with dynamite in his gloves. It was ferocity and fury at its highest level and it was something to behold. Sadly, his fight with Benn left him permanently disabled; his story remains a dark stain on boxing. As Ian McNeilly notes, “one man’s finest hour was the end of another man’s life as he knew it.”

Michael “The Great” Katsidis’s all-action style made thrilling fights a lock. The Kat” was willing to take three to deliver one. It was blood and guts to the last drop. Whether he too exacted a heavy price for this style remains to be seen.

Lucia Rijker, AKA “The Dutch Destroyer,” lived up to her moniker and destroyed everyone in her path. Again, it wasn’t “if,” it was “when.”

Christy Martin (49-7-3) put female boxing on the map in the ‘90s and she did it by going undefeated in 36 straight encounters, running roughshod over her opponents as evidenced by her 25 wins by stoppage during this run. She also managed to steal the show from a Mike Tyson main event in 1996 during her memorable and bloody battle with Deirdre Gogarty.

Present

Deontay Wilder, aka “The Bronze Bomber,” has a record of 40-0.  With 39 wins coming by KO—many in spectacular fashion, The “Bomber” brings with him that same sense of anticipation that Tyson did. It’s not if; it’s when and “when” can occur at any time. But unlike Tyson, there is a vulnerability that Luis Ortiz exposed that makes the excitement index go even higher.

Dillian Whyte (24-1) has seldom been in a dull affair. His vulnerability combined with his mode of attack ensures thrilling action and the possibility of a stoppage at any time. Unlike Dereck “Del-Boy” Chisora, Whyte is consistently aggressive and dangerous.

Manny Pacquiao (60-7-2) has slowed down considerably but his recent stoppage win over Lucas Matthysse offers hope that he can still conjure up his exciting whirlwind style of fast in-an-out movements that allowed him to win multiple titles over several future Hall of Fame opponents between 2005 and 2011. A rematch with Floyd Mayweather Jr., if rumors are true, would allow Pac Man an opportunity to accomplish a number of extraordinary things including avenging a prior defeat and ruining Mayweather’s undefeated record. Time will tell.

Though he appears to have shot his wad, a prime Antonio Margarito was the classic stalk, stun, and kill fighter. Heck, he belonged on the Discovery Channel. His two blowouts of Kermit Cintron showed the “Tijuana Tornado” at his most brutal. His come-from-behind demolition of Miguel Cotto stands out for its drama and bloodletting—and subsequent speculative controversy.

David Lemieux (39-4) always brings the heat. His fights seldom end as scheduled. With KO power in both hands and a propensity to rehydrate by 20 pounds, he is the essence of danger and attendant excitement. “With the sheer power he carries, Lemieux will always have a shot at beating any middleweight, and he is almost always involved in good action fights,” says James Slater.

Amanda Serrano (35-1-1) is the only women’s boxer to win world titles in six divisions. The “Real Deal” is unique in that she has a high KO percentage (74 percent) which is rare for female boxers. Amanda is 120 seconds of guaranteed action for each round.

                                                         **********

While Iron Mike Tyson is THE MAN, Matthew Saad Muhammad also warrants special billing as he embodied what this article is all about. Steve Farhood summed up the essence of Saad Muhammad with an observation that would be appropriate for his tombstone: “Eddie Gregory (Mustafa Muhammad) has a better jab, Marvin Johnson wields more power, James Scott does more sit ups. But, Muhammad’s heart is the size of a turnbuckle, and it anchors his title reign.”

Who did I leave out? Whose name or names would you add to this list?

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AJ Needs to Look Good Against Povetkin, but the Russian Won’t be a Free Ride

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Golovkin broadcast

During the Canelo-Golovkin broadcast last weekend, it was mentioned that the two biggest star fighters in boxing were Canelo Alvarez and WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua. Canelo, the newly crowned middleweight champion, was in need of a signature win over a marque opponent to strengthen his claim and Joshua is in the same position heading into his title defense against former WBA title holder Alexander Povetkin at Wembley Stadium Saturday night.

This time last year, being roughly two months out from his title defense against Carlos Takam, Joshua, 28, was the perceived alpha fighter in the heavyweight division. AJ had won all his fights by knockout and, other than a Wladimir Klitschko right hand that dropped him in the sixth round, looked as if he were a sure thing to be the future of the division. But then he looked average stopping Takam, a late replacement for Kubrat Pulev. Joshua cut Takam, dropped him in the fourth round and stopped him in the 10th, but the stoppage was a little bit of a quick hook in the eyes of most observers and it dulled the win.

Five months later Joshua fought undefeated WBO titlist Joseph Parker. Three weeks prior to this fight, Joshua rival and WBC title-holder Deontay Wilder, after nearly being stopped in the seventh round, knocked out the most avoided fighter in the division in Luis Ortiz to score the signature win of his career. So the pressure was on Joshua to win impressively.

Unknown to anyone, Parker showed up only interested in becoming the first fighter Joshua couldn’t stop. And AJ didn’t endear himself to any newly conformed fans when he fought with little urgency, content to win a lopsided decision. Relying almost exclusively on his jab, he made no real attempt to get Parker out of there. Compounding the shrinking perception of AJ, Takam, in his next bout, was beaten more definitively by Dereck Chisora than he was by Joshua.

When you take into account that Wilder scored an impressive KO in his last fight over the most formidable opponent he’s fought and Joshua only scored one knockdown in his last two fights combined, it’s easy to glean why Wilder has narrowed the gap regarding the public perception of them. What’s been missed about Joshua’s last two bouts, however, is that he was utterly dominant. It’s hard to find three rounds he lost of the 22 he was in the ring. But yet, the thing that is most remembered is that AJ didn’t look like the doctor of destruction that his physicality and ring record projected him as being.

When an elite fighter like Anthony Joshua is seen as being a knockout artist and then goes a few fights in a row without delivering a memorable KO, critics and fans begin to find things about their game that are suddenly alarming. And that’s why it’s imperative for Joshua not just to beat Povetkin; he must become the first fighter to stop him. That will get the attention of the right people and at the same time gain back some of the cachet he ceded to Wilder since March of this year.

According to The Ring magazine’s latest ratings…the top six heavyweights, in order, are Joshua, Wilder, Povetkin, Ortiz, Whyte and Parker. So of those ranked 3-6, Povetkin is the only one who hasn’t yet faced Joshua or Wilder. Many well-known observers who cover boxing also see Povetkin 34-1 (24) as the third best fighter in the division. In fact, the new narrative regarding this fight is that Povetkin is really dangerous. With his power, extensive experience and toughness, he’s not an automatic win or free ride for AJ this weekend.

Yes, that’s what they’re saying before they get into the ring – so let’s remember that after the bout, because if Joshua 21-0 (20) looks impressive and stops Povetkin, we’ll more than likely hear how Povetkin was washed up, having turned 39 earlier this month and having lost to the best fighter he ever touched gloves with in Wladimir Klitschko. In one night, Povetkin will go from being a real test for Joshua to an old man who couldn’t beat anybody in the top 10. Conversely, if Povetkin goes the distance and is competitive with Joshua, then, in a knee-jerk reaction and overstatement, many will label AJ a fraud and a sure loser when he faces Wilder.

The reality is a stoppage win by Joshua will be impressive because Povetkin has never been close to being stopped. Even after going down four times against Klitschko he never looked as if he wanted out and Wladimir was a single shot bigger banger than Joshua is with either hand (with the difference being Joshua gets off more freely and puts his punches together in combination, opposed to Klitschko who force-fed his opponents one-twos. Also, Joshua is quicker handed than Klitschko and that should enable him to land some big shots in succession on the presumably attacking Povetkin).

Povetkin most likely needs to be inside against Joshua. There’s only two ways to do it, either by pressing AJ or moving away and timing him, and the method he chooses will illustrate just how much AJ’s power is or isn’t too much for him to chance moving in on. If Povetkin pulls a Parker and the fight goes the distance, Joshua shouldn’t be excoriated because it’s hard to stop a fighter who is only looking to survive. At the same time Joshua will have to let his hands go and fight with more urgency and passion than he showed against Parker, because if he doesn’t that will raise my red flag.

When Joshua crashed the top-10 heavyweight rankings I thought, having watched him closely, that he had the potential of former champ Lennox Lewis. That hasn’t changed, but I’m beginning to see Lewis as being more of a natural fighter and AJ as the better athlete. On paper it’s close when comparing them, but Lewis, especially under the late Emanuel Steward, kept improving whereas Joshua, after looking so good and well-rounded stopping Klitschko, seems to have plateaued.

Alexander Povetkin is AJ’s twenty-second bout. In Lennox Lewis’s twenty-second bout, he fought Donovan “Razor” Ruddock.

Ruddock (27-3-1) was a 6’3”, 231-pound, well-built fighter with power in his left hand but limited skills. Povetkin is 6’2” and weighed in at 229 for his last bout. Ruddock’s left-hook/uppercut was probably a bigger single shot than anything in Povetkin’s arsenal but that’s about the only check Razor gets in his column over Povetkin. The Russian fighter has a much higher boxing IQ than Ruddock and is the more technically sound fighter with better structure and form.

Lewis destroyed Ruddock in two rounds in what was the signature performance of his career at the time. Joshua has already delivered a signature performance, his stoppage of Klitschko after knocking him down three times, but critics and fans have short memories so Joshua needs to deliver another eye opening performance. As was the case for Ruddock when he fought Lewis, Povetkin looks made to order for AJ to look good against. However, Povetkin, unlike Ruddock before he confronted Lewis, has never been stopped and is known for his durability and ruggedness.

Joshua says he is motivated for Povetkin and isn’t looking past him. He says he fears losing, and I don’t need him to confirm he has a gigantic ego and cannot be happy about some of the pageantry and attention that Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury have stolen from him. As for Povetkin, this is no doubt his last title shot and he certainly knows this is the fight he needs to put everything together…which should translate into him coming to win which means he’s going to fight instead of hoping for pats on the back for showing up. And if Povetkin comes to fight, Joshua should get some great opportunities to shine and post another signature win.

This is the ideal fight and opponent for AJ to show just what he has and to stay on the same trajectory that Lennox Lewis did after stopping Razor Ruddock.

Between 1977 and 1982, Frank Lotierzo had over 50 fights in the middleweight division. He trained at Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia under the tutelage of the legendary George Benton. Before joining The Sweet Science his work appeared in several prominent newsstand and digital boxing magazines and he hosted “Toe-to-Toe” on ESPN Radio. Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@gmail.com

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