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Born Under a Feisty Star: Muhammad Ali, the Original Mr. October

The World Series is almost over, and the notion that the month of October is the right month for certain athletes to pave their way into immortality

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October

The World Series is almost over, and the notion that the month of October is the right month for certain athletes to pave their way into immortality is once again reaffirmed. Moreover, those of you who believe that there are only twelve different ways in which our destiny can play out depending on the random alignment of the stars may find this article reassuring. Yes, dear baseball fans and delusional star-gazers: there appears to be a real chance that our horoscope may make it more likely for us to succeed in certain days or months. And just like Saturday night is alright for fighting, then it is possible that October is the month to take our brawling ways to another level.

Or at least, that is what this analysis of the career of Muhammad Ali seems to suggest.

Many years before Yankees slugger Reginald Martinez Jackson terrorized pitchers in post-season games after luring them into dismissing his power with a sub-par performance during the regular season, a young lad who had just lifted a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome exploded on the boxing scene under the colorful (and appropriately evocative of the old Roman emperors and senators who founded his Olympic stage) name of Cassius mega splash inflatable water slide Marcellus Clay Jr., embarking on a quest that would put him in the ring in every continent but Antarctica against foes of all races and nationalities and transform him into the most recognizable face on Earth, among other accomplishments.

His career was marked, in many ways, by several landmarks and defining bouts through the next 20 years. His public life was a long series of events that took the boxing world and then the mainstream by storm, like an unstoppable runaway freight train. But that train made several important stops during one specific month of the year along the way, and many of them defined his life and his career to produce some of the most memorable sporting events of the 20th century.

His debut took place in his hometown on a chilly October night, and twenty Octobers later he effectively ended his career with a defeat at the hands of his protégé and former sparring partner, much in the manner of the old Caesar who died at the hands of Brutus. In truth, Ali did have one more fight after that, one last ill-advised comeback against all odds and defying all logic as it was his custom, just to ruin my otherwise brilliant analogy even though I was already chosen to write this article just by virtue of being born in… yeah, you guessed it: October (the 14th, in case you wonder).

As another October ends, we reminisce on the most extraordinary boxing career of Muhammad Ali with a look at the six-game World Series that turned him into a legend and which may one day give the “Winter Classic” a run for its money:

October, 1954 – The Killer of the Two-Wheeler  

Legend has it that it was on a chilly night in October of 1954 that young Cassius and his brother Rudy rode their Schwinn bikes to the Columbia Auditorium in their native Louisville only to find that the bikes were gone by the time they exited the building.

(http://cyclingmagazine.ca/sections/news/muhammad-alis-career-inspired-stolen-bike/)

The rage that boiled in young Cassius’ blood after this act of petty larceny led him in a search for the nearest police officer, who was also a boxing coach in a nearby basement gym. After a short explanation and a subsequent invitation by officer Joe Martin to train as a boxer before going on a search-and-destroy mission against the thieves, young Cassius joined the gym at the tender age of 12, and six weeks later he won his first amateur bout.

There are no reports, however, of his eventual fight against the thief, or of the eventual retrieval of his beloved red bike. But soon enough, the original motive for Clay’s involvement in boxing was forgotten, and other, more powerful reasons to drive his career were found. After all, a stolen bike wasn’t much to ride on (if you pardon the pun) when trying to summon enough rage and courage to change the world. Clay emerged from that basement with a mission that would last for the rest of his life, unknowingly embarking on a road that would lead him to fill the shoes of barbaric men such as Sullivan, Dempsey and many others, and he did it fueled only by the anger over a stolen bike.

October 29th, 1960 – The Birth of the Louisville Lip

Cassius Clay W6 Tunney Hunsaker, Louisville, Kentucky

Backed by a group of powerful local businessmen, Clay made his pro debut only a few months after his Olympic feat in his hometown, unknowingly starting a career that would soon enough eclipse the fabled Louisville Slugger as the most powerful sport product ever to come out of the city. With no prior involvement in boxing in his family prior to this, the young Cassius had very few role models to follow, and boxing was a large white canvas in which he used the influence of his father, an artistic painter, to craft his own stylish ring aesthetics. He was a floating butterfly breaking out of his cocoon, a buzzing bee sharpening its sting and learning how to inflict damage. And he did inflict just enough damage on the hapless Hunsaker to grab a points win that would become the first step of a long and glorious career.

October 26th, 1970 – War is Over, Time to Fight Again

Muhammad Ali TKO 3 Jerry Quarry, Atlanta, Georgia

After famously rejecting the call of duty to join the army and then join the war in Vietnam, Ali fought one of his lengthiest and stressful battles against the US government, claiming that his war was not in the fields of Southeast Asia but in the streets and fields of his homeland, where his people was suffering the same inequalities and brutality that is still causing major athletes to take a stand (or a knee, eventually) against it even today.

Even though he finally managed to avoid significant jail time and to resume his life and his career, Ali hardly emerged as the winner in this fight. He lost what would have been the best years of his career in his quarrel against the establishment, but he finally had the chance to start all over again, and that’s what he did. For that purpose, he took on tough-as-nails contender Jerry Quarry in his comeback bout. With his country and the world watching and still waging their own war to decide whether to revile or revere him, Ali showed a few flashes of his old self and got a stoppage win that kept his unbeaten streak alive when a terrible cut over Quarry’s left eye forced his corner to throw in the towel after three rounds. This once again served as a reset point to move forward in a parallel fight that transcended the ring. He fought the establishment. He didn’t fight IN the war. He fought THE war itself and defeated it, and in the process he showed the world that hurting people for money and killing them for free are not the same types of violence. The violence of the war would soon stop, but the fight that Ali started when he refused to go to Vietnam still echoes today.

October 30th, 1974 – A New Dawn in the African Jungle 

Muhammad Ali TKO 8 George Foreman, Kinshasa, Zaire

Ali found a way to have the first leg of his career managed by well-intentioned businessmen who offered him a great deal. But later in life, taking his act worldwide without the help of casino money (not as easily available back then as it is now), would mean that he would have to find creative sources of financing, something that his new and colorful promoter Don King would do quite successfully by courting dictators and shady political figures around the world.

The fight was billed as the triumphant return of the most outstanding musicians and athletes of the African diaspora, with a music festival lasting through the night to finally give way to the fight at dawn, but an untimely injury on Foreman caused the postponement of the bout, and the concert had to be done in the original date of late September while the fight was moved until the now mythical date of October 30th, 1974, the day of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” one of the most scrutinized, over-reported and analyzed sporting events in history.

Indeed, the victory gave Ali one of his most memorable and crowning accomplishments, becoming one of the greatest comeback wins ever in any sport and even preserving the now long forgotten name of Zaire, a country that still exists only to refer when Ali and Foreman’s names are pronounced, like the name of a long-disappeared dinosaur mentioned only to honor his killer, or a lost city in which a treasure was buried and can only be unearthed by the mention of its creator.

October 1st, 1975 – Hell on Earth 

Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier III, Manila, The Philippines 

In hindsight, it is incredible that only 11 months after his punishing win in Zaire, Ali was able to withstand this absolutely brutal fight under a 110-degree heat in an unbreathable environment and come out victorious, and with fights against Chuck Wepner (which created the basis for the Rocky franchise, not a minor side accomplishment), Ron Lyle (a demolishing affair) and Joe Bugner in between.

Just like in the case of the Zaire fight, this one is one of the most scrutinized bouts ever, and needs no further comments or introductions to describe its brutality and its excruciating effort. Its dramatic ending, with Ali completely exhausted in is corner being asked to stand up just to show Frazier that he could continue, only to have Frazier remain seated in defeat, is pure magic, and it can only be attributed to one thing: the miraculous qualities that the month of October exerts on Ali. Or at least, that’s the way the proponents of the virtues of the horoscope would like it to be.

October 2nd, 1980 – The Passing of the Torch  

Larry Holmes L TKO 10 Muhammad Ali, Las Vegas, Nevada

It is said in the world of jazz that “you’re as good as your last solo.” And if we’re allowed one more baseball analogy, we must admit that Ali’s last at-bat was his most disastrous ever, and a sign for him to finally call it quits.

In what could be seen as a cynical episode of Monday morning quarterbacking by the quarterback himself, Ali’s personal physician Ferdie Pacheco notes that the fighter’s decay was the product of an unusual amount of punishment to the body that Ali received almost willfully, on a dare, after losing his extraordinary mobility under the accumulation of years of punishment. (His dull affair against wrestler Antonio Inoki was perhaps the beginning of the end for Ali’s leg work, since the Japanese-Brazilian fighter was only allowed to kick Ali in the legs and thus gave him severe blood clots in his lower body that slowed him down for good.) According to Pacheco, the damage done to Ali’s abdomen organs altered his digestive and blood-filtering abilities, and some of the medication he took for that (under Pacheco’s watch, we must assume) only made things worse. The result was a reduced mobility that turned the fleet-footed Ali into a sitting target for Holmes’ powerful hands, and the subsequent beating accelerated the progress of Ali’s Parkinson Syndrome symptoms.

This will be a subject of eternal discussion, of course, but the result remains the same. Only God knows what organ failed him first, if any, or what the triggering event was that led to Ali’s disastrous downfall against Holmes, and later against Trevor Berbick in his last fight, and from then on until his death.

Science, as usual, will find the answer only a minute too late, and Ali’s experience, as Oscar Bonavena famously once said, will be just like any other experience: “a comb that you get as a gift on the day you get bald.” Whether Ali’s luck ran out, or whether he finally got the comeuppance that many of his detractors felt he deserved, remains debatable.

One thing, however, became clear on that fateful night in Las Vegas: Ali’s romance with the month of October was, after many beautiful and passionate encounters, finally over.

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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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