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Boston Beats the Count

Springs Toledo

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Edwin “La Bomba” Rodriguez, Massachusetts super middleweight contender, sparred with Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago. “Today I find out he’s a terrorist and one of the Boston Marathon bombers,” he posted on his Facebook page last Friday. “I’m glad I put a beating on him, but wish I’d known he was evil, because I wouldn’t have slowed down on him…”

According to USA Boxing, Tsarnaev was registered in Massachusetts as an amateur boxer in 2004-2005 and in 2008-2010. He trained at the Somerville Boxing Gym and later at the South Boston Boxing Club. Apparently, his first amateur fight was at the Golden Gloves competition at Lowell Memorial Auditorium in January 2004. The Lowell Sun reported that he arrived in the United States and settled in Cambridge only five months earlier. His family had fled Grozny, Chechnya, which was ground zero in the Russo-Chechen wars of the mid-90s and the early part of the twenty-first century. In 2003, the United Nations labeled it “the most destroyed city on earth.”

To Tsarnaev, the Golden Gloves may have marked a beginning. “I like the USA,” he told the Sun. “You have a chance to make money here if you are willing to work.” “I think he can win the whole thing,” his trainer said after that first bout. “He can throw.” The trainer in the opposite corner was just as impressed. “There might not be a better fighter in the [178 lb.] class. He was good.”

Tsarnaev was good enough to fight his way into the 2009 National Golden Gloves Championship’s 201 lb class at Salt Lake City. He knocked down his Chicagoan opponent only to lose what was called “a controversial decision.” The next year he won the regional tournament and the prestigious Rocky Marciano Trophy. He was supposed to represent New England in the Nationals again, but was disqualified when it was discovered that he was not yet an American citizen.

Trainer Kendrick Ball remembers the first time he saw Tsarnaev. “He was wearing a white shirt unbuttoned, tight jeans, and a trench coat. His shoes were bright like aluminum foil.” He had “a swagger,” Ball recalled. He seemed to be inviting someone to clown him but the trainer soon realized that “he could back it up.” Working the opposite corner, Ball watched him throw jabs up from the waist with a sharp exhale “like a steam shovel,” and follow up with powerful right hands. “He was strong,” Ball said, strong enough to invite to Camp Get Right, his gym in Worcester, for sparring. So the trainer and the fighter exchanged numbers and set dates.

Tsarnaev showed up to spar —alone. No trainer came with him, no second. And that’s a no-no in boxing. “I would never send my fighters to spar at another gym without me,” Ball said. “You never know what can happen. They can be overmatched; suffer a concussion that you might never hear about.” Stranger still was the fact that Tsarnaev brought no mouth piece, protective cup, or headgear. When Ball offered to let him borrow equipment, Tsarnaev declined. “He told me that’s how he fights.”

Ball let him go four rounds with an amateur super heavyweight, who dropped him with a left hook to the ribs. Tsarnaev recovered and wanted to continue. Ball wouldn’t let him. Instead, he invited him to spar with a super middleweight ranked ninth by the Transnational Boxing Rankings. “Edwin [Rodriguez] is too small for me,” Tsarnaev said. “I’ll take it easy on him.” Ball chuckled at that, and told him to “watch Friday Night Fights and see if you need to take it easy on him.” (Rodriguez scored a first round knockout on March 19th 2010 in a televised bout.) Tsarnaev watched, unmoved. “I’ll take it easy on him,” he said again.

In boxing parlance, “a gentleman” is a fighter who can be counted on to take it easy when sparring a lesser opponent. Rodriguez is “a gentleman,” said Ball —unless provoked. Tsarnaev’s arrogance provoked him.

Tsarnaev went two rounds with Rodriguez, who had no problem solving that steam shovel jab and landing at will. He was too hurt to continue on for a third round, but insisted on going back in for the fourth. Rodriguez decided to teach him a hard lesson. Before the round was over, Tsarnaev climbed out of the ring holding his side and spitting up blood in a bucket. Ball later found out that Rodriguez had broken one of his ribs. Afterwards, Tsarnaev had a more realistic outlook. “Edwin is really good,” he admitted.

Tsarnaev and his half-empty gym bag travelled to different clubs around Massachusetts looking for sparring. Ex-middleweight contender Rodney Toney, now a trainer, saw him at The Ring Boxing Club on Commonwealth Ave on a couple of occasions. The Ring is located along the route of the Boston Marathon.

In 2010, Tsarnaev was pursuing his dream to fight for the United States Olympic Team.

By 2011, his dream was fraying. According to FBI records, a foreign government petitioned them about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The request was “based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010.” The FBI conducted a background check and interviewed the young man but found no evidence of terrorist activity.

In the summer of 2011, Tsarnaev showed up at the Big Six Boxing Academy in Providence, RI. As usual, he was alone. Jason “Big Six” Estrada, a professional heavyweight tipping the scales at over 230 lbs, sparred with him on two occasions and noticed that the stranger fought in a stand-up, European style with his lead arm extended out, and both hands waving around and probing for an opening. Estrada said that he had decent speed and a good defense, though it wasn’t enough: Estrada dropped him with body shots. Tsarnaev kept getting up and “coming back hard.” They sparred two sessions before it was decided to put him in with a fighter his own size. That fighter, a cruiserweight with twelve professional fights, was expected to handle the amateur. “I’m not gonna lie,” Estrada told me. “Tamerlan made him look silly.”

An opportunity beckoned. Big Six Entertainment was planning to promote its first professional card in December 2011. Tsarnaev “wanted to get on that card,” Estrada said. “And we were more than willing to get him on that card.”

But Tsarnaev never got back to him.

That may have been the pivot that changed the trajectory of his life. Tsarnaev drifted away from the boxing ring and into something else, something dark. Travel records indicate that he left the U.S. in January 2012 and took a flight to Sheretmetyevo International Airport in Russia. He returned in July, sporting a beard.

There are reports on the New England boxing circuit suggesting that his interest in boxing sputtered into this year before it died. Only two months ago, Kendrick Ball bumped into him at Lowell’s Golden Gloves tournament. “We talked boxing for about fifteen minutes,” Ball said. “I was going to call him in the next few weeks to spar with my fighter.”

Ball and Estrada were stunned at the news that he may have been responsible for taking four lives, including a child’s, and maiming over a hundred spectators and participants at the Boston Marathon. “He could’ve turned professional,” Ball said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “He would’ve been somebody we’d hear about, in a good way.” Would he have been a contender? Estrada believes he would have been “a crowd-pleaser.”

—Imagine that.

America is no longer secure. Our dialogue with the world has changed over the past twenty years and our enemies have changed as well. The existential threat that tried to erase the world’s oldest monotheistic religion and saw bomb shelters built in backyards has been turned on its head. Where Nazism and communism perverted reason and tried to break the moorings of faith, the new threat perverts faith and considers reason a sin.

Throughout its history, Boston has acted as the nation’s plain-speaking conscience, pointing towards both faith and reason when things get unruly. When patriots dumped British tea in the harbor, we told our sister colonies that it was high time for independence, and they followed. The abolitionist movement of the next century also found its epicenter here. Years before the Civil War, Boston said it was high time that slavery ended, and the rest followed, or were dragged. Ours is a city of calloused hands, strong virtue, and beginnings. It is no wonder that the first professional police department was established here, as was the first free public library.

Last Monday, Tsarnaev and his brother walked down Boylston Street in the shade of that library. It is alleged that they were behind what happened next, a terrorist attack during a sacred event. The city acted with the discipline of the Puritans who founded it. It shut itself down to make damn sure whoever did it got what was coming to them. All day Friday, the bricks-and-mortar itself seemed to glare in the eerie stillness; and the moment the faces of the bombers were broadcast to the world, a million eyes scanned the city and surrounding areas.

The Tsarnaev brothers grew desperate. They shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology officer in cold blood, carjacked an SUV, and were chased by screaming blue lights across Watertown. They threw bombs out the window to slow down their pursuers, but were cornered on Dexter Street. A firefight erupted in a residential neighborhood.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev madly flung himself toward the police officers with an explosive device strapped to his chest. He was shot to pieces. His injured brother was found curled up in a boat by a streetwise citizen. He is now in custody under heavy guard at Mount Auburn Hospital.

…..

In 1897, the first Boston Marathon was run. On April 15th 2013, there was blood at the finish line at the 117th. We’ll clean it up, take care of our own and anyone else who comes here with good intentions, and we’ll run again next year.

This is a place of beginnings, not endings. On April 15th 2013, a baby was born to boxing contender and gentleman Edwin Rodriguez. His name is Evan.

_______________________

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com

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

David A. Avila

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

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

Will this be the last time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thurman corrected Pacman.

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

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

More Millennials

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

These millennials have no respect for anyone including each other.

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

Lee doesn’t understand the disrespect.

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

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

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

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

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

Gen X

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

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

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

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

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

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Lou Savarese: Houston’s Humble Heavyweight Champ

Kelsey McCarson

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Savarese

Lou Savarese could hardly contain himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s basically Rocky Balboa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ted Sares

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Jim Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Forward

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

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

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

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

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

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