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Former HBO Sports Exec Kery Davis Thriving at Howard University

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Kery Davis

It was, in the words of the immortal baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again for Kery Davis, the former senior vice president of HBO Sports. There the former Dartmouth College point guard was, back in Las Vegas where he had been a key figure in so many memorable boxing matches, enjoying what some would consider the intercollegiate equivalent of Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson, except that this new sense of exultation was not happening at ringside in an opulent casino-hotel on the neon-lit Strip. It was taking place in the press box at Sam Boyd Stadium, where Davis was watching the Howard University Bison shock the Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels, 43-40, in the most astounding upset in college football history, at least in terms of a point spread. The oddsmakers with the Vegas sports books had pegged the Bison as 45-point, no-chance underdogs, making the final result not so much Douglas over Tyson as, say, Don Knotts over Tyson.

Except that this miracle might not have as miraculous as it must have appeared at first glance. When Davis officially took over as athletic director at Howard on Sept. 9, 2015, the nation’s most academically prestigious but sports-deficient historically black college had a football program that wasn’t merely temporarily down. It was down and indisputably out, if not the most inept team in what is now known as the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA), then certainly in the conversation. The first game Davis attended in his new role, three days after his hiring became official, was Howard’s 76-0 loss at Boston College. In its opening game a week earlier, sans Davis, the Bison had taken a 49-0 whipping at Appalachian State.

“We are a long way from being competitive with a team like Boston College,” a stunned Davis said then about what had to feel like a cold slap of reality. “We play in a conference (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) where we think we can be competitive even this year. Our goal is to one day compete with the BCs and Notre Dames, but that’s a very difficult thing to achieve in one or two years on the football field. You can do it a lot quicker in some other sports.”

Davis’ tepid enthusiasm for the remainder of that 2015 season proved to be unjustified. The Bison finished 1-10, and they followed that with a 2-9 campaign in 2016, their 12th non-winning season in 15 years. That prompted Davis to dismiss fifth-year head coach Gary “Flea” Harrell, a former star Howard wide receiver who had played a key role with the school’s undefeated 1993 MEAC championship team. Davis set about identifying someone who could lead Howard, which had won mythical black national championships in 1997 and 1998, back to prominence and he determined that that person was Mike London, then the associate head coach at the University of Maryland. London had enjoyed success at both Richmond University, which he had guided to a FCS national championship in 2008, and at the University of Virginia, where he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coach of the Year in 2011. London has proven to be somewhat of a Magic Mike, at least if last weekend’s historic upset is any indication.

“Our win over UNLV was exhilarating and it was a huge shot of adrenalin for our program, but I had already seen the culture change,” Davis said. “We had done a number of things we needed to do in order to compete. It’s a process. Win or lose that game, I knew we were no longer the Howard that lost 76-0 to Boston College.

“Might we still have a couple of Saturdays like that? Yeah, we might. We only have 57 (football) scholarships as opposed to 85 for the UNLVs of this world. The numbers sometimes catch up to you. But in terms of our preparedness, we are now able to bring some resources to bear that will allow us a chance to compete at that level.”

Howard’s stunner over UNLV is important for reasons that transcend football. One of the most significant victories since the sport was first played at the Washington, D.C., school in 1893 came the day before Davis’ 58th birthday, and he shared the win in the company of his wife, Samantha, son Jourdan and daughter Lindsay. That this cornucopia of happy circumstances happened in Las Vegas, a city Davis had often visited and enjoyed during his 17 years at HBO, which began with his stint as director of programming and business affairs in 1997 and continued after he was promoted to senior vice president in 2000, was a homecoming of sorts, literally as well as figuratively as Jourdan is now the manager of a Vegas nightclub.

“My oldest daughter, Lindsay, is an actress who lives in L.A.,” Davis noted. “Samantha and the two kids we have together all were in Vegas and they went to the game. The plan was for me, my wife and the kids to all go out to dinner after the game. We won, and it was terrific. We reflected on how many times we had come to Vegas for big fights and how this felt as rewarding, if not more so, than any event I ever attended in Vegas.”

But wait, things would get even better as the evening wore on.

“As fate would have it, after dinner we went to the nightclub that my son manages and who do we see? Floyd Mayweather!” Davis continued. “We spent the rest of the night with Floyd at his table. One of the things he said to me was, `You were the first person at HBO who really believed in me and thought I could do the things that were necessary to become a pay-per-view star.’ I told him, `I did think you could become a pay-per-view star, but I never thought you’d make $300 million fighting a guy (Conor McGregor) who was 0-0.’

“I know Floyd likes to gamble so I said, `Can you imagine how you would have cleaned up had you placed a big bet on Howard?’ We had a good laugh over that.”

Davis’ path to Howard came through boxing, but it was a circuitous route that, upon review, is nearly as surprising as the Bison’s conquest of UNLV. Life deals the hand you play, and it was mostly happenstance that brought Davis, then a first-year law student, to the fight game in which he eventually became a major player.

“I was a boxing fan, the way most average boxing fans are,” Davis explained. “I wasn’t what you’d call a boxing geek. I couldn’t name the top 15 guys in the featherweight division off the top of my head or anything like that.

“But, you know, things happen. My first job in law school was working for a firm that represented Madison Square Garden, which was then suing Bob Arum and Don King for antitrust violations, among other things. As an assignment, they gave me a stack of three or four recent years of The Ring magazines. I was instructed – and remember, I was a first-year law student without a lot of legal skills then – to go through each issue thoroughly to identify every champion and significant fighter and align them with their promotional companies. So, for a while, I was a boxing geek. That was a pretty unique experience.”

Whether that first intense immersion into boxing proved useful when Davis, by then a practicing attorney, was interviewed at HBO by the man he eventually would succeed, Lou DiBella, is a matter of conjecture. What Davis is fairly certain of is that his time spent as a point guard for Dartmouth, where his role was to serve as a facilitator for his Big Green teammates on the basketball court, was a selling point.

“I talked a lot about the attributes of being a point guard, both when I was at HBO and here at Howard, too,” he said. “I can remember a couple of times saying to Ross (Greenburg, then president of HBO Sports) and Mark (Taffet, another former HBO Sports executive), `Hey, I was a point guard. I have no problem putting my ego to the side and doing what’s best for the team.’ I tried to bring the same attitude to Howard.”

Although it was Davis who first approached London about taking a pay cut to assume the reins of the Howard football program, Davis gives much of the credit for the hire to Howard president Wayne A. Frederick, of whom he says, “Sometimes my job is just to get him the ball. He’s young, dynamic, extremely intelligent and intuitive. Getting Mike London was a big coup on our part. Was it me who reached out to him at the beginning? Yes. But at the end of the day I had a president who I knew, if I could get both of them in the same room, we had a chance to close the deal.”

“Closing the deal” was a lot easier in the halcyon days at HBO when money was seldom an issue, unlike the tight budget Davis has to work with at Howard, where he has to find creative ways to make every sports-related dollar count. In that horrid 2015 football season that served as Davis’ introduction to his new and challenging role as a college athletic director, the Bison played just three home games in William H. Greene Stadium and averaged a paltry 3,465 spectators, and just 1,056 lonely souls for their sole victory, over Savannah State.

“When I first started (as senior vice president) at HBO after Lou left, the boxing budget was pretty substantial – certainly greater than any of the other premium networks,” Davis said. “Sometimes we solved problems simply by throwing money at them. If a guy came in and complained enough, be it Bob Arum or Don King or the Duvas, fine, go away, here’s an extra quarter-million dollars. But during my last few years there, the budgets were a lot different. We had to be much more cost-effective, if you will. The days at throwing more dollars at a problem to make it go away had ceased. We had to be more frugal.

“You have to know what your priorities are. At some point it became more important to do one or two big events and try to save money on other fights. It’s like that here at Howard; we have to make choices as to where to invest the limited resources that we have. The very first game I attended as AD was that 76-0 loss to Boston College. I sat there thinking, `OK, maybe this is a bigger uphill climb than I thought.’”

The current edition of the Bison features a “name” player  upon which further momentum can be gained, freshman quarterback Caylin Newton, younger brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Newton accounted for 330 yards and three touchdowns to spark the stunner over UNLV. His presence on campus reminds Davis of the time when he regularly was involved in the staging of matches involving such superstars as Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Lennox Lewis and Bernard Hopkins, as well as two of the last high-visibility fighters he signed to multifight deals with HBO, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

“When Pacquiao and Mayweather took place (on May 2, 2015) I had already left HBO,” Davis said. “Floyd’s people invited me to the fight, which I thought was very nice. I went, and I did have a nostalgic feeling for two guys who I basically had been with for the majority of their careers.”

As a still-avid fight fan, Davis said he is very interested in the Sept. 16 megafight between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez, although his attention will be somewhat divided. Howard is playing a road game at Richmond that afternoon, another contest in which the Bison figure to be significant underdogs.

“I had a part in signing Canelo and GGG to their deals with HBO,” Davis recalled. “GGG was probably the last multifight agreement that I did for HBO. I have been there with both guys, although I don’t have the same long relationship with them that I had with Manny and Floyd. But it’s a fight I’ll appreciate as a fan. It’s a great one for boxing, in what has been a pretty good year for the sport.”

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Avila Perspective, Chapter 15: Las Vegas Boxing Journal

Usually the world of boxing has two massive fight weekends, but this year it was down to one. All of that pent-up energy had to be released

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Usually the world of boxing has two massive fight weekends, but this year it was down to one. All of that pent-up energy had to be released and this past weekend, for Mexican Independence Day, it all came pouring out.

Las Vegas was my destination once again.

In the last four years the Nevada gambling capital has seen fewer and fewer boxing cards as other destinations like New York, Texas and California have gobbled up fight dates. What used to be almost a monthly journey has been whittled down to twice a year.

When it comes to staging a mega event, you just can’t beat Las Vegas. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez meeting Gennady “GGG” Golovkin for the second time definitely qualifies.

I was supposed to drive up Thursday morning with photographer Al Applerose but we could not coordinate our schedules. It was important to leave early to reach the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino where the Golden Boy Promotions card featuring Maricela Cornejo versus Franchon Crews for a world title was being held. Starting time for the fight card was 2 p.m. because of ESPN.

By the time I checked into my hotel and drove over to the Hard Rock, it was already 3 p.m. Surprisingly, a decent crowd was there mostly to see Cornejo vs. Crews. ESPN televised the event and despite the early start time fans and celebrities were in the house.

It had been 14 years since that network had televised a female world championship bout. I remember because I saw that fight in 2004 and it was a doozy.

Finally, another female world title fight and it was great to see two female warriors finally get their day under the spotlight. After 10 rounds Crews won by majority decision and the green WBC belt was wrapped around her waist. Watching the joy on her face was priceless.

If you have followed me as a reader then you know female boxing has been a favorite passion. I truly believe it will rival male prizefighting one day, maybe soon. The world of MMA has proven it can be done as Ronda Rousey so emphatically showed.

Women prizefighters will get their day.

After the fight we headed to the Pink Taco mainly because they serve decent margaritas. I’m kind of a connoisseur of the drink. The first one I received was passable, but that second one was pretty good. Our group consisted of two reporters from Japan and Applerose, the photographer. Tacos and margaritas for everyone.

Friday

No fights were scheduled for Friday but the weigh-ins and press conferences were stacked together. I moved from my hotel and drove to Summerlin where a friend of mine has a place. He had invited me to stay and was insistent.

My friend is known as “Mr. Las Vegas.” It’s a name given to him the great Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas who now lives in Vegas. He gave him this nickname because no one knows Las Vegas like this guy (that I won’t name unless he gives approval). This 40-something year old gentleman was born and raised in the casino city and has been involved in boxing, MMA and personally knows the high rollers and political powers of the city and state.

Mr. Las Vegas invited me months ago but he’s always on the go and sometimes it slips his mind so I booked a room just in case. But, he was adamant about me staying with him and we go back a ways.

He’s also a big proponent of women’s boxing.

I headed back to the Strip to the MGM media center where a press conference for Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell was taking place. The media was in force. Easily 200 were already in the David Copperfield Theater at 10 a.m.

Maybe it was the free breakfast that enticed reporters and photographers to get up early. It was amazing to see so many media members on a Friday morning. It was a mad scramble.

The theater is fairly large and from a distance I could spot many friends and colleagues. During the face-off Liddell and Ortiz squared off and Oscar De La Hoya looked like a midget between the two. They will be fighting at the Inglewood Forum on Nov. 24. Golden Boy Promotions is the promoter for the pay-per-view event. It will be the third time the MMA stars clash.

So while Dana White delves into boxing, De La Hoya delves into MMA. Strange happenings.

Later that Friday a press conference for Yuri Gamboa was staged by the Cuban fighter himself at Gonzalez Gonzalez restaurant in the New York, New York Hotel and Casino.

Gamboa briefly had a contract with Golden Boy, and had been connected to Top Rank and Fifty Cent. The slick southpaw (is there any other kind of lefty?) seeks another chance to hit a jackpot in the boxing ring.

About two dozen reporters met at the Mexican restaurant eatery. Gamboa was busy speaking to each reporter one-by-one and helped by a small group of publicists including New York sharp Ed Keenan. Food and drinks were great.

Last year Gamboa was quite busy and had four prizefights. His lone loss was against Mexico’s extremely dangerous Robinson Castellanos who stopped the Cuban at the end of the seventh round in Las Vegas.

So far this year, no fights. It’s a primary reason he’s doing it himself on a risky pay-per-view show.

“I can’t depend on anyone else,” said Gamboa. “If I want to advance. I feel I should do it myself. I have experience and knowledge in professional boxing.”

Gamboa, 36, will fight Mexico’s Miguel Beltran on Nov. 20, in Miami, Florida. He will be the main event. The co-main event will be Puerto Rico’s Juan Manuel Lopez meeting Jesse Rodriguez. If all goes well, the two former world champions will meet each other sometime next year.

“I still have goals to accomplish,” said Gamboa.

Super Lightweight Title Clash

While sitting around eating and drinking at the Mexican restaurant, the ESPN fight card featured Jose Carlos Ramirez and Antonio Orozco fighting for the WBC super lightweight world title. It was body puncher versus body puncher and that means fireworks.

Ramirez had not faced anyone who could match punch output with him until that Friday night. I expected Orozco to fire all his guns and that’s exactly what he did.

For 12 volatile rounds the two 140-pounders fought at 100 miles an hour and though Ramirez won the majority of the rounds according to the judges, each round in itself was a battle.

Orozco, 30, is a very mild-mannered gentleman outside the ropes, but inside he’s one of the most fierce body punchers in the business. He has fought for Golden Boy Promotions for a number of years and may have passed his peak two years ago.

Ramirez, 26, was making his second defense of the world title he won almost a year ago and fights under the Top Rank banner. Whenever these two promotion companies go against each other it’s like the Dodgers and the Giants. No mercy.

The titleholder Ramirez was fighting in front of the adopted hometown of Fresno and floored Orozco twice with body shots and head shots. You would have expected Orozco to wilt but every time he was dropped he came back with a ferocious attack.

It was a gripping fight to watch.

As I sat at the bar in the Mexican restaurant with photographer Applerose, we couldn’t help but admire the spirit that both fighters showed for 12 rounds. Crowds gathered around the bar to watch the final three or four rounds. A few had noticed us watching and stopped to see what had us glued to the television screen perched above the various liquors.

We had a few beers after that incredible title fight.

Ramirez won the fight and retained the world title but Orozco had won the hearts of everyone watching with his tremendous heart. Both fighters congratulated each other and showed sincere respect. If you haven’t seen it, watch the replay. You won’t be sorry.

Saturday

The schedule for Saturday started early with two press conferences staged in the morning.

WBC super featherweight titlist Miguel Berchelt and challenger Mickey Roman met with media at Wolfgang Puck at 12 noon to talk about their pending clash on HBO. It’s another meeting between a Top Rank affiliated fighter and Golden Boy affiliated fighter.

Can it match Ramirez-Orozco?

Berchelt is a heavy-hitting but skilled fighter from the Yucatan area. Roman is a hard-nosed heavy hitter from Juarez, Mexico. Its North versus South in this Mexican battle that takes place on Nov. 3 in El Paso, Texas.

This could be extremely explosive.

Immediately after the Top Rank press conference, and a few feet away, another media luncheon took place for interim WBC super lightweight titlist Regis Prograis.

Prograis, 29, is an interesting cat.

Raised in New Orleans and Houston, the extremely strong Prograis will participate in the World Boxing Super Series that begins in late October. He faces former lightweight world champion Terry Flanagan of England.

“I chose to fight Terry Flanagan because he’s a former world champion,” said Prograis whose last fight was a knockout win over Argentina’s Juan Jose Velasco in New Orleans. “I’m trying to prove I’m the best. I don’t want an easy fight. It’s a waste of time.”

Of course he would love a match with current WBC titlist Jose Carlos Ramirez but he can wait.

“We’ll meet one day in the ring,” Prograis said.

The Rematch

After the pair of press luncheons we headed to the T-Mobile Arena for the Alvarez-Golovkin mega fight. It was an early 2 p.m. start so we missed a couple of early fights. I always try to watch every bout. It’s my duty as a reporter to cover all the fights that take place. Not just the headliners, but the afternoon press conferences held me up.

The best of the undercard saw Vergil Ortiz Jr. annihilate his former sparring partner Roberto Ortiz in two rounds.

Vergil Ortiz trains in Riverside, Calif. with Robert Garcia. He formerly was based in Indio, Calif. with Joel Diaz. Both trainers have excellent troops.

Ortiz, 20, has long limbs and fights long too. He’s buzzed through 11 straight opponents and kind of resembles late actor Jack Palance in the movie Shane. Vergil is a likeable guy who seems nothing like a feared monster in a boxing ring.

Golden Boy keeps stepping up the competition a notch and he keeps rendering them unconscious. The promoter doesn’t want to overstep the process with Ortiz so they are doing things de-li-cate-ly.

So far Ortiz has treated everyone who steps in the ring with him like fragile china. He touches them and they fall to pieces. Technically he is very sound. But the Golden Boy crew sees something very special in the kid from Dallas. He is one to watch.

Boycott?

After several fights including the main event that saw Alvarez win by majority decision, it’s important to note that the entire “ringside” media group was placed more than 50 yards away from the boxing ring. No one from the media had a sufficient view to analyze the fight that has been very disputed by fans and others.

But my question is: why did the promoters place the media a ridiculous 50 yards away?

Sadly, it’s a move that says to the media “we don’t need you.”

Maybe it’s time to organize.

Regis Prograis photo by Al Applerose

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An Unofficial Judge Scored 9 Rounds for Canelo; Feel Free to Hoot and Holler

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auxiliary press

The auxiliary press section at the T-Mobile Arena is quite a distance from the boxing ring. I’ve been in auxiliary press sections before, but never one that was up so high. It was here that I found myself on Saturday night, peering down on the ring far below and like everyone else checking out the big screen between rounds for a closer look at key moments.

From this vantage point, the ring is both smaller and bigger. It’s bigger in the sense that it opens things up a bit. Your eyes see more space between the fighters and you are better able to judge which fighter is controlling the distance. Think of the picture from the overhead cam in a football game. Looking straight down, the playing field doesn’t look as congested. The holes that open for a North-South running back bursting into the secondary get wider and from this panorama you are better able to judge the work of the offensive line.

Having said that, this is really no place to adequately judge a boxing match, so I can be forgiven for scoring the fight 9-3 for Canelo. For what it’s worth, however, the fellow on my right had it the same. The fellow on my left had it somewhat tighter, but also scored it for Canelo. And for the record, neither of these guys were Hispanic so they weren’t blinded by tribal loyalty.

At the T-Mobile, when the main event ends, the scribes in the auxiliary press section are literally held hostage. They are prevented from going down to the post-fight press conference until the arena has thinned out.

This reporter couldn’t get his laptop to function properly and had no patience. I’m not comfortable working on my cellphone, so it was imperative that I get home in a jiff and be there when David Avila’s ringside report turned up in my e-mail. On a fight of this magnitude, the boss wants the bread-and-butter post-fight story up on the site in a hurry.

Aware of the hostage situation, and my own technological limitations, I had the foresight to scope out the arena for an escape route just in case I needed to get away fast. And so, before a hostage-taker could rope me in, I was off and running, scurrying down a little used staircase. I had my car parked in the right spot for a quick getaway, traffic was light, and I was home at my work desk in less than 30 minutes.

I didn’t wait around to hear the scores. To me it was a foregone conclusion that Canelo would have his hand raised. Heading home, I had the car radio tuned to an all-sports station. And when the scores came across the radio, I thought to myself, well, I was wrong and I was right. I thought GGG would win and I was wrong about that, but I was right, I thought to myself, that the judges would be disposed to give GGG the close rounds. In my mind, the scores (114-114 and 115-113 twice) gave GGG the best of it. Granted, several rounds were tough to score, but yet the fight wasn’t that close.

Au contraire !

To my amazement, the vast majority of those seated in the ringside press section scored the fight a draw or had it shaded toward Triple-G. In fact, according to one survey, which included those in the building and a select few watching at home or in a TV studio, only two of the 59 people that were polled had it for Canelo with 17 scoring it even. The most cantankerous of the GGG faction was ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas who apparently had it 117-112 and labeled the decision a robbery.

No I won’t defend my scoring. Let me see the fight on TV (and with the sound off, natch), and I’ll get back to you. But I’m still flabbergasted that my score was so out of whack with the consensus.

Odds and Ends

Although the fight was announced as a sellout, there were empty seats scattered around the arena. The announced attendance was 21,965, roughly 1,400 less than for the first encounter last September.

The first Canelo-GGG bout set the attendance record for an indoor fight in Nevada and came in third all-time in gate receipts, surpassed only by Mayweather-Pacquiao in 2015 and Mayweather-McGregor in August of last year. But that’s a distant third to the leader. The gross gate for Canelo-GGG I ($27,059,850) was far below Mayweather-Pacquiao which raked in an astounding $72,198,500.

Although there’s more money in circulation each year and more fat cats willing to pay an enormous sum to attend a mega-fight, I doubt the Mayweather-Pacquiao record for gate receipts will be broken any time soon.

The crowd, needless to say, was skewed heavily toward Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. And while it’s often said that members of this ethnic group are true fight fans, the reality is that when they come to Las Vegas they act just like the Anglo high rollers, which is to say that they arrive at a big fight fashionably late.

When the first of the four PPV fights started, the arena was not more than 15 percent full. When the semi-main started, the arena was perhaps one-third full, notwithstanding the fact that it was a title fight featuring a boxer from Tijuana.

The old outdoor fights at Caesars Palace were thick with celebrities who were acknowledged by the ring announcer. Saturday’s fight at the T-Mobile was something of a throwback. The roll call included movie stars Denzel Washington, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg, comedians Dave Chappelle and Cedric the Entertainer, and sports personalities Lebron James, Charles Barkley, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Triple H – to name just a few.

Standing in the ring as GGG and Canelo made their way from their dressing rooms was a fashionably dressed woman wearing a dress that one would associate with a Latin country. I assumed she was there to sing the Mexican National Anthem. In my younger days, the Mexican National Anthem was sung so often at big fights in Las Vegas that I could eventually mouth the words.

But no, there was no National Anthem whatsoever, neither U.S., nor Mexican, nor Kazakhstani. I was told that they did do anthems before the first of the preliminary fights. This would have been about 3:00 in the afternoon when there were not more than a few hundred people in the joint.

Was this a reaction to the brouhaha set in motion by Colin Kaepernick? That’s a fair assumption.

Not only were the anthems missing, but so also was Michael Buffer, a fixture at HBO shows for decades. I’m told that he now works exclusively for Eddie Hearn. He’ll be back on the job this coming Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London.

Joe Martinez, Buffer’s replacement, did a solid job, as did referee Benjy Estevez who was working his first big fight in Nevada. Of course, Canelo and GGG made it easy for him. No matter your opinion of the scoring, I think we can all agree that these two great warriors engaged in a very clean fight.

By all accounts, this was a very good fight for the bookies. The expectation that there would be late Canelo money in Las Vegas on Mexican Independence Day weekend wasn’t born out. At one establishment, the odds favoring GGG rose from 7/5 to 9/5 (minus-180) in the last few hours of betting. I’m told that it nicked above 2/1 at a few places offshore.

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How Much Is Left for Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez?

I first wrote about Roman Gonzalez in 2010. He was a baby-faced 105lb shotgun then, but was not widely known. I predicted that he would be the world’s number

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I first wrote about Roman Gonzalez in 2010. He was a baby-faced 105lb shotgun then, but was not widely known. I predicted that he would be the world’s number one fighter one day and also that when he eventually came undone, it would be against a southpaw.

I also predicted that, for Gonzalez, there would be no second act. Once undone, he would stay undone. Gonzalez was no Jake LaMotta, no sponge for acid, and to describe him as face first would be to do a disservice to the high guard and sleek slippage of punches that, even as a minimumweight, he was already exhibiting. I felt, however, that the purity of the violence he dealt in required a commitment that a hurtful defeat might undo. I also felt that super-flyweight would be his roof and that when he landed there he might find himself tangling with various immovable objects, where once give had been guaranteed.

So I was not surprised when southpaw superflyweight deluxe thug Srisaket Sor Rungvisai dropped him like a stone down a well late last year. I did have a bad feeling as regarded his comeback this weekend though.

An earlier aborted attempt at a return to action seemed to have been caused by the most disappointing of reasons, his perceived inability to make the 115lb limit in time. Once a fighter has decided to eat himself into the divisions above it’s rare to see him back at his old trim; the nightmarish vision of Gonzalez trying to compete with Naoya Inoue and Zolani Tete reared its ugly head momentarily, but Gonzalez set to work and made the grade, like he so often has.

A fight with Moises Fuentes at 115lbs was his reward.

Quantifying this opponent is important. Fuentes had, at one time, been ranked among the very best light-flyweights in the world. He exited that division after winning a crackling match with perennial warmonger Francisco Rodriguez and then losing by knockout to Kosoei Tanaka. After straying dangerously close to 120lbs and splitting a pair with Ulises Lara, he struggled back down to 112lbs only to be brutalized by Japanese prospect Daigo Higa in a single round. The word “shot” started to be muttered in connection with Fuentes in the wake of this result.

Gonzalez meanwhile was being marooned on the wrong side of history in his native Nicaragua as the country fell down around his ears. The political disaster wrought upon his people left him in an isolated position politically and, undoubtedly, with severe personal financial problems of his own.

So there were two desperate men sharing the ring on the undercard of Golovkin-Alvarez contest but to my eye, Gonzalez-Fuentes was far and away the most interesting match.

Gonzalez looked old and dry during the referee’s instructions, his expression hangdog, new folds of expression on his once smooth features. He looked down, not unusual, but he radiated a sliver of defeat where once there had been only surety.

Until the bell rang.

Gonzalez, in his prime, was among the best combination punches of the modern era. This has always been his stated mode of expression, eight to twelve punches his declared and terrifying target and he has proven himself capable of landing at the lower end of this range. Nor are these the “mixing” punches of, say, Joe Calzaghe, who cuffed and slapped and looked to land a meaningful punch in among the a stream of less hurtful shots. Gonzalez meant business.

As business boomed and he became the lineal flyweight champion of the world, he continued to add layers. By the time of his flyweight reign he had developed one of the most dangerous right hands in the world. He shaped it in all ways, he threw it at all ranges, he targeted head, body, chest, and such was his balance and stance that he did all of this without selling the punch. When Gonzalez dipped his left shoulder to throw a left-hook or uppercut, he could instead transplant that punch with a straight right.

Certainly not all of the above was confirmed against Fuentes. He wasn’t buying the space like he used to, developing strange angles to begin the withering barrages that we saw in his prime, but we did see him throw the same explosive and unexpected combinations, sometimes leading with the left-uppercut, a suicide punch for many fighters. And we saw him use that right hand.

We saw him feint with it to open up for the left and we saw him use it as a prop punch for a hook or uppercut, and we finally saw him unleash it, on the button, for what may be the knockout of the year.  Gonzalez rounded the brave Fuentes up, cornered him, and then knocked him unconscious with a punch that traveled through the target and “frightened” Gonzalez into thinking that he had legitimately hurt the Mexican.

His relief when Fuentes returned to us, cross-eyed and confounded, but unharmed, was palpable.

My pre-fight wish was that Gonzalez would look very bad and be forced to consider retirement, or very good, thereby hoping that my final prediction would be denied and “Chocolatito” could be declared back in the title hunt.

Though what we got is certainly more the latter than the former, in truth it is neither.

Gonzalez’s speed of foot had begun to betray him even before Rungvisai pole-axed him and although he looked sprightly at times here, he’s not going to be as quick at 115lbs as he was at 108. More, he landed a lot of punches on Fuentes and Fuentes stood up to them. When Gonzalez hit that kind of stride at 112lbs, even burning heart warriors like Akira Yaegashi wilted; Fuentes was able to rally several times which was good for the contest but makes clear that Gonzalez left his truly destructive power behind when he left his flyweight title behind. Murderous in landing the perfect shot, clubbing super-flyweight foes into submission is going to remain extremely challenging.

So when he comes up against a meaningful challenger, he will have to defeat him with craft, guile, and what remains one of the most fluid offenses in the sport. Many of his potential opponents will be faster than him and some will be able to hit as hard or harder.

Gonzalez will no doubt be in pursuit of a strap. This leaves him with three choices.

Rungvisai, the legitimate champion, we know about. Gonzalez may want a third fight and given the weakness of the matches on the most recent HBO Superfly card, it is far from impossible that it can be made. If it was made next, Rungvisai must be considered a heavy favorite.

The wonderful Filipino Jerwin Ancajas, too, holds a strap at the weight and he, too, should be avoided unless Gonzalez is determined to undertake an all-or-nothing swoop at a fighter entering his prime. This contest is not unwinnable for Gonzalez, but all things considered, it would arguably be the very best victory of his career if he were to pull it off.

Finally, there is Englishman Khalid Yafai.

Yafai is the right man. He is the type of fighter that Gonzalez has specialized in breaking since he turned pro; a fleet-footed, clever boxer short on dig and high on flurries. Yafai is definitely good enough to stay ahead for spells, he might even be good enough to win seven rounds, but he is not going to brutalize Gonzalez while he does it.    Here is a fight for a strap that Gonzalez would be favored to win.

Alas, promotional vagaries also make it the most difficult to make. But perhaps Gonzalez will bide his time. There are other meaningful contests to be made in a sprightly division undergoing yet another quality iteration.  Perhaps Gonzalez will seek a rematch with old foe Juan Francisco Estrada, still dangerous but underwhelming in his most recent contest. Perhaps a battle of the veterans can be sold to HBO and Gonzalez can tangle with Donnie Nietes. Or maybe power-brokers would be more excited to see him in with another mysterious old man from foreign shores and Gonzalez-Kazuto Ioka can be made.

These are all exciting fights and most of them can be made with a minimum of fuss.

So it’s Roman Gonzalez then, perhaps not quite back, but certainly warming up in the wings. And if the division isn’t quite trembling, it can at least be said to have thrown a quick look over its shoulder into the gathering gloom.

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