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Remembering the Great Lightweight Champ Joe “Old Bones” Brown

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He had a common name and an elegant ring manner. His career is justly celebrated but also largely forgotten. Anyone seeking to summarize in a few concise sentences the life and times of long-reigning lightweight champion Joe “Old Bones” Brown, who was 71 when he passed away on Dec. 4, 1984, is apt to be frustrated. The New Orleans native who held the division record with 11 successful lightweight title defenses until Roberto Duran (who had 12) came along requires thoughtful and thorough examination, a pugilistic doctoral dissertation as it were, to be fully appreciated. In this instance, a Cliff’s Notes condensation of what he did and how he did it simply won’t suffice.

Brown, who bore a physical and stylistic resemblance to the much-more renowned Sugar Ray Robinson, won the lightweight championship on a gritty, 15-round split decision over Wallace “Bud” Smith in New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium on Aug. 24, 1956. Fighting from the second round on with a broken right hand – post-fight X-rays confirmed the fracture —  Brown’s long-delayed, up-by-the-bootstraps bid for the title might have ended in still more disappointment had he not decided to ignore the pain and fire the overhand rights he had kept sheathed since incurring the injury. Brown scored a pair of knockdowns in the 14th round on big connections with his damaged paw, which proved to be the difference, at least in terms of public perception. Although referee Roland Brown and judge Charles Dabney had Brown cruising by respective margins of 12-3 and 9-3-3 in rounds, the other judge, Freddie Adams, had Smith up by 7-6-2. The unofficial Associated Press scorecard had Brown barely ahead at 8-7, while United Press International favored Smith by the same margin.

“I broke the right hand in the second round when I popped him on the chin,” Brown said. “I gambled in the 14th by throwing the first right since the second round and it really hurt. I had to gamble; it was the only way to win.”

Although Smith’s trainer, Adolph Ritacco, complained that his fighter had been the victim of a “hometown decision,” Brown so dominated the rematch, on Feb. 2, 1957, in Miami Beach that Ritacco beseeched the ring physician to halt the bout after 10 rounds with Smith battered and bleeding on his stool. The request was granted, giving Brown his third victory over Smith in as many tries, including a 10-round unanimous decision in a non-title bout on May 2, 1956, in Houston.

Once perched upon the lightweight throne, Brown – who turned pro at 17 on Sept. 3, 1943, thus making for a 13½-year, 99-bout journey to his title shot – was determined to reign a good long time. And he did just that, logging those 11 winning defenses (six by KO or stoppage) against some of the finest lightweights during a bountiful time for the 135-pound division. He was much more effective than he had been on the way up, too, having demonstrated increased punching power after taking on a new trainer, Bill Gore, in 1955. Although Brown still maneuvered as nimbly as such other New Orleans-reared dandies as Willie Pastrano, Pete Herman and Ralph Dupas, he now knew when and how to sit down on his punches for maximum leverage.

“I think Joe Brown, once he added that knockout punch, was phenomenal,” said Les Bonano, 73, a longtime New Orleans promoter and manager. “He was a master technician with a great sense of spacing. Call me biased or whatever, but, as a lightweight, I really don’t think Floyd Mayweather would have beaten the best of Joe Brown.”

Still, there are those who contend that history has not been as kind to Brown as his achievements merit. “He never got the attention or the glory that some other guys who maybe weren’t as good got,” Bonano said. “He should have been so much bigger than he was.”

That could be because of the years Brown, who served honorably in the Navy for 21 months during World War II and participated in seven Pacific invasions, squandered by fighting for miniscule purses on the Deep South “chitlin circuit” during the Jim Crow era. Even the night he dethroned Smith, before a sellout crowd of 8,000, the referee and both judges were black and the seating was segregated, with whites on one side of the ring and blacks on the other. It could have been because of the unadorned plainness of his name, which Sugar Ray Robinson’s trainer, George Gainford, suggested he spruce up with something catchy. Sensing that Gainford might have been onto something, Brown promptly dubbed himself “Old Bones,” a moniker which did serve to elevate his profile somewhat, as the “Ole Mongoose” had done for Archie Moore.

Mostly, though, Brown was bogged down by the burden of having fought so often against so many tough customers in the formative stages of his boxing life, incurring occasional defeats that suggested he was a good, honest tradesman but not someone who was destined to become a living (or even deceased) legend. The night he took on Smith for the title, his 70-18-11 record, with 29 victories inside the distance, hardly hinted as someone who had the makings of an all-timer. At 30, it seemed improbable that he would suddenly find a way to not only move up to his sport’s highest level, but to do so by leaps and bounds.

Writer Mike Plunkett, in describing Brown’s delayed-reaction breakthrough, put it thusly:

Sometimes greatness is obvious. It explodes out of the gate, often with a particular look and feel to it while other times the ascent of a great fighter in the making is more gradual, punctuated by moments that over time reveal something special.

But other times greatness shows up in disguise, arriving before it is recognized and missed when it is gone. Where prizefighting is concerned, the less obvious sort of greatness can sometimes kick-in for a fighter after years of setback and disappointment, the end result the finished product of lessons learned at the school of hard knocks, and for a time such a fighter bears little to no resemblance to the struggling pugilist he once was. Such was the career of former world lightweight champ Joe “Old Bones” Brown, an example of unlikely and unexpected ring greatness.

Father Time, of course, is the opponent no fighter who doesn’t retire while still on top can stave off indefinitely. The sands in the hourglass of “Old Bones’” exhilarating prime were about to run out the night he took on a young, hungry challenger from Puerto Rico, Carlos Ortiz, on April 21, 1962, in Las Vegas. Ortiz – who would go on fashion a splendid 10-2 record with seven KOs, spread over his two lightweight reigns – easily dispatched Brown’s surprisingly creaky old bones en route to a one-sided unanimous decision.

Brown would not fight for a world title again, but neither would he return to the pre-boxing profession, carpentry, he had learned as a boy from his father. He hung around for eight-plus years as an international vagabond who took bouts in Mexico, Mozambique, South Africa, Finland, Italy, Puerto Rico, Colombia, England, Jamaica, Panama, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina while again taking short-end money by trading on what remained of his reputation.  During his long goodbye, Brown, who was three months shy of his 44th birthday for his final fight, a 10-round, unanimous-decision setback to 23-year-old Dave Oropeza in Phoenix on Aug. 24, 1970 – exactly 14 years since his dethronement of Smith – went a scuffling 20-24-2. And it wasn’t just the aging process that marked his deterioration as a fighter.  His heart apparently had gone out of his work as well.

Popular British heavyweight Henry Cooper, who had seen Brown at his best, and also bore witness to his professional death throes, noted in Henry Cooper: An Autobiography, that there came to be “little pride left in (Brown’s) performance” as he tried to compensate “for all the hungry years when he had been forced to fight for peanuts.”

When the bad times for Brown ended, as had the good times, all that was left was for a verdict to be rendered for posterity. For the most part, that decision has been far more positive than negative. Among the many highlights of Joe Brown’s incredible journey are:

*Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.

*Induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1976.

*Induction into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.

*Being named The Ring’s Fighter of the Year for 1961.

*Participation in The Ring’s 1961 Fight of the Year (a rousing 15-round unanimous decision over England’s very capable Dave Charnley on April 18 of that year in London).

*Getting the No. 36 slot on NOLA.com’s list of the 51 greatest Louisiana athletes of all time in 2014, which is especially notable as he is the only boxer to make the cut.

*Breaking the legendary Benny Leonard’s lightweight record of nine consecutive successful title defenses, with 11, since broken by Roberto Duran with 12.

If there is anything to still debate about “Old Bones,” it’s an indisputably accurate reading of his final record. BoxRec.com lists it at 116-47-14 (52), the IBHOF at 104-44-13 (47) and Wikipedia at 105-46-13 (47).

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The BWAA Shames Veteran Referee Laurence Cole and Two Nebraska Judges

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In an unprecedented development, the Boxing Writers Association of America has started a “watch list” to lift the curtain on ring officials who have “screwed up.” Veteran Texas referee Laurence Cole and Nebraska judges Mike Contreras and Jeff Sinnett have the unwelcome distinction of being the first “honorees.”

“Boxing is a sport where judges and referees are rarely held accountable for poor performances that unfairly change the course of a fighter’s career and, in some instances, endanger lives,” says the BWAA in a preamble to the new feature. Hence the watch list, which is designed to “call attention to ‘egregious’ errors in scoring by judges and unacceptable conduct by referees.”

Contreras and Sinnett, residents of Omaha, were singled out for their scorecards in the match between lightweights Thomas Mattice and Zhora Hamazaryan, an eight round contest staged at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, Iowa on July 20. They both scored the fight 76-75 for Mattice, enabling the Ohio fighter to keep his undefeated record intact via a split decision.

Although Mattice vs. Hamazaryan was a supporting bout, it aired live on ShoBox. Analyst Steve Farhood, who was been with ShoBox since the inception of the series in 2001, called it one of the worst decisions he had ever seen. Lead announcer Barry Tompkins went further, calling it the worst decision he has seen in his 40 years of covering the sport.

Laurence Cole (pictured alongside his father) was singled out for his behavior as the third man in the ring for the fight between Regis Prograis and Juan Jose Velasco at the Lakefront Arena in New Orleans on July 14. The bout was televised live on ESPN.

In his rationale for calling out Cole, BWAA prexy Joseph Santoliquito leaned heavily on Thomas Hauser’s critique of Cole’s performance in The Sweet Science. “Velasco fought courageously and as well as he could,” noted Hauser. “But at the end of round seven he was a thoroughly beaten fighter.”

His chief second bullied him into coming out for another round. Forty-five seconds into round eight, after being knocked down for a third time, Velasco spit out his mouthpiece and indicated to Cole that he was finished. But Cole insisted that the match continue and then, after another knockdown that he ruled a slip, let it continue for another 35 seconds before Velasco’s corner mercifully threw in the towel.

Controversy has dogged Laurence Cole for well over a decade.

Cole was the third man in the ring for the Nov. 25, 2006 bout in Hildalgo, Texas, between Juan Manuel Marquez and Jimrex Jaca. In the fifth round, Marquez sustained a cut on his forehead from an accidental head butt. In round eight, another accidental head butt widened and deepened the gash. As Marquez was being examined by the ring doctor, Cole informed Marquez that he was ahead on the scorecards, volunteering this information while holding his hand over his HBO wireless mike. The inference was that Marquez was free to quit right then without tarnishing his record. (Marquez elected to continue and stopped Jaca in the next round.)

This was improper. For this indiscretion, Cole was prohibited from working a significant fight in Texas for the next six months.

More recently, Cole worked the 2014 fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and Orlando Salido at the San Antonio Alamodome. During the fight, Salido made a mockery of the Queensberry rules for which he received no point deductions and only one warning. Cole’s performance, said Matt McGrain, was “astonishingly bad,” an opinion echoed by many other boxing writers. And one could site numerous other incidents where Cole’s performance came under scrutiny.

Laurence Cole is the son of Richard “Dickie” Cole. The elder Cole, now 87 years old, served 21 years as head of the Texas Department of Combat Sports Regulation before stepping down on April 30, 2014. At various times during his tenure, Dickie Cole held high executive posts with the World Boxing Council and North American Boxing Federation. He was the first and only inductee into the inaugural class of the Texas Boxing Hall of Fame, an organization founded by El Paso promoter Lester Bedford in 2015.

From an administrative standpoint, boxing in Texas during the reign of Dickie Cole was frequently described in terms befitting a banana republic. Whenever there was a big fight in the Lone Star State, his son was the favorite to draw the coveted refereeing assignment.

Boxing is a sideline for Laurence Cole who runs an independent insurance agency in Dallas. By law in Texas (and in most other states), a boxing promoter must purchase insurance to cover medical costs in the event that one or more of the fighters on his show is seriously injured. Cole’s agency is purportedly in the top two nationally in writing these policies. Make of that what you will.

Complaints of ineptitude, says the WBAA, will be evaluated by a “rotating committee of select BWAA members and respected boxing experts.” In subsequent years, says the press release, the watch list will be published quarterly in the months of April, August, and December (must be the new math).

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Popo vs. “La Hiena”: Blast From the Past – Episode Two

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Freitas

When WBA/WBO super featherweight champion Acelino “Popo” Freitas met Jorge Rodrigo “Il Hiena” Barrios in Miami on August 8, 2003, there was more on the line than just the titles. This was a roughhousing 39-1-1 Argentinian fighting an equally tough 33-0 Brazilian. The crowd was divided between Brazilian fans and those from Argentina. To them this was a Mega-Fight; this was BIG.

When Acelino Freitas turned professional in 1995, he streaked from the gate with 29 straight KOs, one of the longest knockout win streaks in boxing history. He was fan-friendly and idolized in Brazil. Barrios turned professional in 1996 and went 14-0 before a DQ loss after which he went 25-0-1 with 1 no decision.

The Fight

The wild swinging “Hyena” literally turned into one as he attacked from the beginning and did not let up until the last second of the eleventh round. Barrios wanted to turn the fight into a street fight and was reasonably successful with that strategy. It became a case of brawler vs. boxer/puncher and when the brawler caught the more athletic Popo—who could slip and duck skillfully—and decked him with a straight left in the eighth, the title suddenly was up for grabs.

The Brazilian fans urged their hero on but to no avail as Barrios rendered a pure beat down on Popo during virtually the entirety of the 11th round—one of the most exciting in boxing history. Freitas went down early from a straight right. He was hurt, and at this point it looked like it might be over. Barrios was like a madman pounding Popo with a variety of wild shots, but with exactly one half of one second to go before the bell ending the round, Freitas caught La Hiena with a monster right hand that caused the Hyena to do the South American version of the chicken dance before he went down with his face horribly bloodied. When he got up, he had no idea where he was but his corner worked furiously to get him ready for the final round. All he had to do was hang in there and the title would change hands on points.

The anonymous architect of “In Boxing We Trust,” a web site that went dormant in 2010, wrote this description:

“Near the end of round 11, about a milli-second before the bell rang, Freitas landed a ROCK HARD right hand shot flush on Barrios’ chin. Barrios stood dazed for a moment, frozen in time, and then down he went, WOW WOW WOW!!!! Barrios got up at the count of 4, he didn’t know where he was as he looked around towards the crowd like a kid separated from his family at a theme park, but Barrios turned to the ref at the count of 8 and signaled that he was okay, SAVED BY THE BELL. It was panic time in the Barrios corner, as the blood continued to flow like lava, and he was bleeding from his ear (due to a ruptured ear drum). In the beginning of round 12, Freitas was able to score an early knockdown, and as Barrios stood up on wobbly legs and Freitas went straight at him and with a couple more shots, Barrios was clearly in bad shape and badly discombobulated and the fight was stopped. Freitas had won a TKO victory in round 12, amazing!!!!”

Later, Freitas tarnished his image with a “No Mas” against Diego Corrales, but he had gone down three times and knew there was no way out. He went on to claim the WBO world lightweight title with a split decision over Zahir Raheem, but that fight was a snoozefest and he lost the title in his first defense against Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz.

Freitas looked out of shape coming in to the Diaz fight and that proved to be the case as he was so gassed at the end of the eighth round that he quit on his stool. This was yet another shocker, but others (including Kostya Tszyu, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya and even Ali) had done so and the criticism this time seemed disproportionate.

Popo had grown old. It happens. Yet, against Barrios, he had proven without a doubt that he possessed the heart of a warrior.

The Brazilian boxing hero retired in 2007, but came back in 2012 and schooled and KOd the cocky Michael “The Brazilian Rocky” Oliveira. He won another fight in 2015 and though by now he was visibly paunchy, he still managed to go 10 rounds to beat Gabriel Martinez in 2017 with occasional flashes of his old explosive volleys. These later wins, though against lower level opposition, somewhat softened the memories of the Corrales and Diaz fights, both of which this writer attended at the Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut. They would be his only defeats in 43 pro bouts.

Like Manny Pacquiao, Freitas had a difficult childhood but was determined to make a better life for himself and his family. And, like Manny, he did and he also pursued a career in politics. Whether he makes it into the Hall will depend on how much a ‘No Mas’ can count against one, but he warrants serious consideration when he becomes eligible.

As for the Hyena, on April 8, 2005, he won the WBO junior lightweight title with a fourth round stoppage of undefeated but overweight Mike Anchondo. In January 2010 he was involved in a hit and run accident in which a 20-year-old pregnant woman was killed. On April 4, 2012 Barrios was declared guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to four years in prison. He served 27 months and never fought again, retiring with a record of 50-4-1.

Ted Sares is one of the oldest active full power lifters in the world. A member of Ring 10, and Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he was recently cited by Hannibal Boxing as one of three “Must-Read” boxing writers.

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The Avila Perspective Chapter 6: Munguia, Cruiserweights and Pacman

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Adjoining states

Adjoining states in the west host a number of boxing cards including a world title contest that features a newcomer who, before knocking out a world champion, was erroneously categorized by a Nevada official as unworthy of a title challenge.

Welcome to the world of Mexico’s Jaime Munguia (29-0, 25 KOs) the WBO super welterweight world titlist who meets England’s Liam Smith (26-1-1, 14 KOs) at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 21. HBO will televise

Back in April when middleweight titan Gennady “GGG” Golovkin was seeking an opponent to replace Saul “Canelo” Alvarez who was facing suspension for performance enhancement drug use, it was the 21-year-old from Tijuana who volunteered his services for a May 5th date in Las Vegas.

Bob Bennett, the Executive Director for Nevada State Athletic Commission, denied allowing Munguia an opportunity to fight Golovkin for the middleweight titles. Bennett claimed that the slender Mexican fighter had not proven worthy of contesting for the championship though the tall Mexican wielded an undefeated record of 28 wins with 24 coming by knockout.

To be fair, Bennett has seen many fighters in the past with undefeated records who were not up to challenges, especially against the likes of Golovkin. But on the other hand, how can an official involved in prizefighting deny any fighter the right to make a million dollar payday if both parties are willing?

That is the bigger question.

Munguia stopped by Los Angeles to meet with the media last week and spoke about Bennett and his upcoming first world title defense. He admitted to being in the middle of a whirlwind that is spinning beyond his expectations. But he likes it.

“I’ve never won any kind of award before in my life,” said Munguia at the Westside Boxing Club in the western portion of Los Angeles. “I’ve always wanted to be a world champion since I was old enough to fight.”

When asked how he felt about Nevada’s denying him an attempt to fight Golovkin, a wide grin appeared on the Mexican youngster.

“I would like to thank him,” said Munguia about Bennett’s refusal to allow him to fight Golovkin. “Everything happens for a reason.”

That reason is clear now.

Two months ago Munguia put on a frightening display of raw power in knocking down then WBO super welterweight titlist Sadam Ali numerous times in front of New York fans. It reminded me of George Foreman’s obliteration of Joe Frazier back in the 1970s. World champions are not supposed get battered like that but when someone packs that kind of power those can be the terrifying results.

Still beaming over his newfound recognition, Munguia has grand plans for his future including challenging all of the other champions in his weight category and the next weight division.

“I want to be a great champion,” said Munguia. “I want to make history.”

The first step toward history begins on Saturday when he faces former world champion Smith who was dethroned by another Mexican named Canelo.

Cruiserweight championship

It’s not getting a large amount of attention in my neighborhood but this unification clash between WBA and IBF cruiserweight titlist Murat Gassiev (26-0, 19 KOs) and WBC and WBO cruiserweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) has historic ramifications tagged all over it.

The first time I ever saw Russia’s 24-year-old Gassiev was three years ago when he made his American debut at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello. It’s a small venue near East L.A. and the fight was attended by numerous boxing celebrities such as James “Lights Out” Toney, Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. One entire section was filled by Russian supporters and Gassiev did not disappoint in winning by stoppage that night. His opponent hung on for dear life.

Ukraine’s Usyk, 31, made his American debut in late 2016 on a Golden Boy Promotions card that staged boxing great Bernard Hopkins’ final prizefight. That night the cruiserweight southpaw Usyk bored audiences with his slap happy style until lowering the boom on South Africa’s Thabiso Mchunu in round nine at the Inglewood Forum. The sudden result stunned the audience.

Now it’s Gassiev versus Usyk and four world titles are at stake. The unification fight takes place in Moscow, Russia and will be streamed via Klowd TV at 12 p.m. PT/ 3 p.m. ET.

Seldom are cruiserweight matchups as enticing to watch as this one.

Another Look

A couple of significant fights took place last weekend, but Manny Pacquiao’s knockout win over Lucas Matthysse for the WBO welterweight world title heads the list.

Neither fighter looked good in their fight in Malaysia but when Pacquiao floored Matthysse several times during the fight, it raised some red flags.

The last time Pacquiao knocked out a welterweight was in 2009 against Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas. Since then he had not stopped an opponent. What changed?

In this age of PEDs there was no mention of testing for the Pacquiao/Matthysse fight. For the curiosity of the media and the fans, someone should come forward with proof of testing. Otherwise any future fights for the Philippine great will not be forthcoming.

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