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Somebody Up There

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I’m neither saint nor sinner. I’m a gladiator.
—Sugar Ray Robinson

Two thousand years ago, the first bell summoning gladiators to ring center wasn’t a bell at all. It was a long, hollow blast from an ancient Roman wind instrument called a tibia . The tibia was also heard during public sacrifices and funerals, much like bells today are used at church and as a death toll.

The crowd’s roar at the Flavian Amphitheatre is still heard at the MGM Grand. It is an echo in time. Virgil’s words echo with it:
Now, let any man with heart,
with the fire in his chest, come forward—
put up his fists, strap on the rawhide gloves.

The Roman poet’s words are found in the Aeneid, which was written between 29 and 19 BC. Today, they dominate a wall at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.

The fighter comes forward like he always has, struggling to do unto the opponent what the opponent intends to do unto him —and doing it first. Hand-wringing turtledoves needn’t look much further to support their argument for boxing’s abolition, the strongest of which is not that it is the most dangerous sport (it isn’t), but that the intention of its participants is to inflict harm: “Clean punching” is the first of the four typical criteria judges use to score a round. That is what separates boxing from other sports, including mixed martial arts. Although the injury rate in the so-called savage science exceeds boxing’s, head trauma is less frequent in the octagon because there are more options to end matters early. Submission holds appear brutal, but they are, in fact, safer than a knockout. The beset MMA fighter need only “tap-out” to end his suffering. The beset boxer has no such option. He’d be better off letting an official halt the fight or just take one on the chin, because to quit would invite a scarlet letter for the rest of his life.

Ray Arcel’s career as a trainer spanned seven decades. “Only once,” he recalled, “did I have a fighter tell me he wanted to quit; he said, ‘I’m gonna quit this round.’ I said, ‘You can’t. There are people here. They paid to see these fights.'” Arcel lifted him off the stool and sent him out round after round. His fighter would not quit; instead he kept maneuvering the opponent’s back to the corner. “Ray!” he’d yell over a shoulder. “Throw in the towel!”

Boxing’s culture is not only older than the MMA’s, it’s tougher. It has spawned a mythos closest to the gladiator in ancient Rome, compelling the boxer to wade into danger when he knows he won’t win and to get up when he can’t. There are haunting images of fighters who should have quit and ended up half-conscious on their stool slipping invisible shots after the fight is called off, or laid out flat on the canvas with their eyelids fluttering, still punching up at the lights. The mythos lays heavy across shoulders that are rarely broad enough to uphold it. Sometimes something snaps. Four days before Bob Olin was scheduled to defend his light heavyweight crown, Arcel walked into his hotel room and found him standing there with his pants on over his pajamas and wearing an overcoat. “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die,” Olin moaned. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I’m gonna die.” Arcel put him to bed and got him warm milk. “I stroked his hands and his forehead,” he said, “and talked to him like he was a baby.”

Trainer, author, humanitarian, and commentator on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights Teddy Atlas understands the mythos. He holds that the boxer is not as secure as assumed; that he is actually very insecure because he is acting against his own instincts for self-preservation—he is doing something “unnatural.” “You know, fighters don’t tell you they’re afraid,” Arcel said. “They don’t try to tell you what’s going on inside of them. They lose their food in the dressing room, and they’ll say it must have been something they ate.” Leaving the dressing room on fight night is the worst. Draped in a robe that feels like a shroud, the boxer walks to the ring, trainer in tow, like a condemned man walks to the death chamber, priest in tow.

Some fighters distract themselves with feigned bravura. Others surround themselves with familiars like security blankets: friends tag along behind. Ethnic garb is donned. Patriotic music blares. When Holman Williams walked toward a Baltimore ring to face his bête noir Cocoa Kid in 1940, Joe Louis and Jack Blackburn came with him. As if that wasn’t enough, he had a mysterious symbol stitched on the front of his robe and the words “I WILL” on the back. In recent years, gangsta rappers have accompanied champions en route to the ring to fill his ears with courage. (Bubblegum Justin Bieber followed Floyd Mayweather recently though the point of that was lost on me.) Older boxing fans will recall a premiere fighter who performed his own rap on the way to dispense with one more in a parade of mid-career soft touches. What fans may not recall is that this parade began after a rival ended up blind and disabled in a wheelchair.

It isn’t hard to understand, really. The truth of existence has a way of coming into focus when you’re flat on your back under the lights and there’s nowhere to look but up. Whether those lights are in an arena, a nursing home, or on a Chicago street is beside the point; we’ll all see them eventually. In this sense, the boxer is a proxy preparing the way for all of us. He takes self-reliance as far as it will go and finds it’s not enough. Advanced skill is cancelled out by a badly-timed blink and a shot he didn’t see as easily as the power of positive thinking is cancelled out by the Grim Reaper. It’s an awful truth. Pop culture has it all wrong—our fate, ultimately, is not in our hands. It’s a roll of the dice, a game of chance, blind luck.

Or is it?

The two best fighters today don’t consider themselves lucky; they consider themselves blessed. After super middleweight king Andre Ward stopped then light heavyweight king Chad Dawson, he was asked about the risks involved. “Give me five seconds,” Ward interrupted. “I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and all the people that’s been praying for me leading up to this fight.” After Mayweather defeated Robert Guerrero, he said “first off, I’d like to thank God for this victory.”

Character flaws don’t block the view. The most flawed among us tend to get knocked flat more than the rest and so don’t have to crank our heads to look up. Roberto Duran reached the peak of his spiteful splendor when he defeated Sugar Ray Leonard, only to fall from the sky like Lucifer when he quit the rematch. He was surging again in 1983 when he found himself in the ring with middleweight king and three-to-one favorite Marvin Hagler; an ominous challenge bigger and stronger than anything he had ever faced this side of a horse. Just before the first bell rang, Duran did something uncharacteristic—he crossed himself.

The praying boxer has been a motif at least since the modern era began in 1920. Harry Greb was a member of the Pittsburgh Lyceum, which was founded by a Roman Catholic priest who later presided over his marriage. Greb himself was a devout Catholic who donated thousands to his parish and rarely boxed or trained on Sundays. His successor to the middleweight throne was Tiger Flowers. Flowers was known as “the Deacon” and told the Atlanta Constitution that he took time after every fight to “thank God for the strength that brought me through.” When Ezzard Charles defeated Joe Louis, he said what his grandmother told him to say, “I’d like to give thanks to God for giving me the strength and courage to win the fight.” Henry Armstrong walked into a Harlem club to celebrate after he took the second of his three simultaneous crowns. After the manager greeted him, he felt “a strange touch on his shoulder.” He said it was God. After that, he made it a point to go off alone after his fights to pray. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1951 and wrote an autobiography called Gloves, Glory, and God.

Sugar Ray Robinson was no exception. “I believe that of himself man can do nothing,” he said, “that he needs God to guide him and bless him.” When he first retired from the ring and tried show business, he made an oath to stay retired. “I intend to keep it,” he told a Franciscan priest in 1955, despite the fact that his new venture was an utter failure. “But I’m thousands behind. I want to pay my bills, but I can’t if I’m a hoofer.” Father Jovian Lang assured him that his boxing talent was a gift from his Maker and that it was all right to return to the ring. With the fighter on his knees, the priest gave him a blessing to protect him from harm, and by the end of the year, Sugar Ray was preparing to challenge the middleweight champion to reclaim his old crown. A reporter was in the dressing room twenty minutes before the fight. He noted that everyone walked lightly and spoke softly “almost as if they were at a funeral” while the fighter sucked an ice cube and paced to and fro like a man awaiting execution. The reporter was surprised to see him kiss a silver crucifix that was pinned to the inside of his trunks.

Sugar Ray scored a knockout in the fourth round, and cried all the way to the dressing room.

Within two years he would lose the title to Gene Fullmer and was training for the rematch when that old familiar fear overtook him. Father Jovian received a “distress call” from his wife. Sugar Ray “was tied up in knots, spiritually,” he said. “His confidence had begun to waver.” The priest and the thirty-six-year-old pugilist had several private sessions in the weeks leading up to the fight. When the priest noted that the bout would be on May 1st, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, he added an intercessory prayer to that saint.

At Chicago Stadium, spectators saw a peculiar figure in a long brown robe shouting “Go to work, Ray! Go to work!” from a seat behind the Robinson corner. It was Father Jovian.

That thunderbolt of a left hook that Sugar Ray landed in the fifth round was a study in efficiency. It was set up on the retreat, knocked Fullmer out, and is remembered as perhaps the most perfect punch ever landed. It began his fourth reign on the middleweight throne and confirmed his status as one of history’s greatest gladiators.

As the crowds filed out of Chicago Stadium and well-wishers filed into his dressing room, an AP reporter noticed that a sense of wonder seemed to have swept over the new champion. “Somebody up there likes you,” the reporter said.

“He sure does,” said Sugar Ray, looking up. “He’s got His arm around me.”

 

 

 

 


This essay is dedicated to “Babs.”

Photo credit: “Chemin des brumes ii” by David Sénéchal Polydactyle, appears with permission. (http://www.oneeyeland.com/member/member_portfolio.php?pgrid=4875)

This essay includes information derived from the following: Alan Baker’s The Gladiator: The Secret History of Rome’s Warrior Slaves (2000), “Most Fighters are Scared,” by W.C. Heinz ( Saturday EveningPost, 6/24/1950), Sugar Ray by Sugar Ray Robinson with Dave Anderson (1970), “I Pray With Sugar Ray” by Jovian Lang, O.F.M. as told to John M. Ross (Milwaukee Sentinel, 3/23/1958),“A Portrait of the Fighter Who Did What They Said He Could Never Do” (LIFE, 12/19/1955). Steve Compton’s insights about Harry Greb were very much appreciated. Steve is currently working on a new and highly anticipated biography about Greb, scheduled for release in 2014.

 

Springs Toledo can be contacted at scalinatella@hotmail.com.

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Michael Dutchover Remains Undefeated in Ontario, Calif.

Transplanted Texan Michael Dutchover needed a little time to figure out Costa Rican Bergman Aguilar but when he did it was over quickly on Friday.

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Michael Dutchover

ONTARIO-Calif.-Transplanted Texan Michael Dutchover needed a little time to figure out Costa Rican Bergman Aguilar but when he did it was over quickly on Friday.

Lightweight prospect Dutchover (11-0, 8 KOs) knocked out southpaw Aguilera (14-4-1, 4 KOs) in the fifth round with a barrage of body blows that left the Costa Rican limp at the Doubletree Hotel.

For two rounds Aguilar used an awkward counter-punching style that had Dutchover a little tentative. But once he figured out that combination punching was the key, he opened up with barrages and floored Aguilar with body shots at the end of round four.

That signaled doom for Aguilar.

The fifth round saw Dutchover target the body with impunity as Aguilar tried holding, running and covering up with no success. Referee Wayne Hedgepeth signaled the fight over at 2:31 of the fifth round giving Dutchover the win by knockout.

In a bantamweight clash Santa Ana’s Mario Hernandez (7-0-1, 3 KOs) and Mexico City’s Ivan Gonzalez (4-1-2, 1 KO) fought to a majority draw after six back and forth rounds.

Hernandez targeted the body against the taller Gonzalez who relied on long range counters. Both found success but neither could prove superiority after six turbulent rounds.

After six rounds one judge saw it 58-56 for Gonzalez but the two other judges saw it 57-57 for a majority draw.

Other bouts

South Central L.A.’s Ruben Torres (7-0, 6 KOs) extended his undefeated streak with a knockout over Mexico’s Eder “El Koreano” Amaro (6-6, 2 KOs) in a lightweight fight. But it wasn’t easy.

Amaro switched from southpaw to orthodox and was matching Torres for two rounds until the taller local fighter began blasting away to the body and head with precision. Many in the crowd cheered “Koreano” in unison but it couldn’t help once Torres zeroed in.

At the end of the fourth round Amaro could not continue and the fight was stopped giving a knockout for Torres.

Richard Brewart Jr. (2-0) mowed through Edward Aceves (0-5) flooring him with body shots in the first round then overwhelming him in the second. After seven unanswered blows referee Eddie Hernandez stopped the fight at 1:32 of round two giving Rancho Cucamonga’s Brewart the win by knockout in the super welterweight bout.

Southpaw David Ortiz (1-0) won his pro debut by unanimous decision after four rounds in a welterweight match against San Diego’s Mario Angeles (2-11-2). Ortiz lives in Bloomington, Calif. and is trained by Henry Ramirez. No knockdowns were scored.

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Charr-Oquendo Scuttled When Charr Tests Positive; the Odious WBA Saves Face

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Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr and Fres Oquendo were scheduled to fight in Cologne, Germany, later this month (Sept. 29). Charr would be defending his WBA world heavyweight title, the “regular” version of it, not the “super” version which rests in the hands of Anthony Joshua.

The bout was quickly cancelled when it was revealed that Charr had tested positive for two banned anabolic steroids. The test was performed by VADA, the anti-doping agency identified with Las Vegas neurologist Dr. Margaret Goodman.

The 33-year-old Charr, born in Lebanon but a resident of Germany since the age of three, won the belt in his last start with a unanimous decision over 281-pound Russian behemoth Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany. The title was vacant. Charr won the right to fight for it with a 10-round decision over Albanian slug Sefer Seferi. The victory over Ustinov elevated his record to 31-4. He has been stopped three times, by Vitali Klitschko, Alexander Povetkin, and Mairis Briedis.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, as the old saying goes, Fres Oquendo wouldn’t have any luck at all. For various reasons, his fights keep falling out. Before long he’ll be drawing social security. Well, not exactly, but he turned 45 in April and hasn’t fought in more than four years.

Oquendo has competed for this belt before. In his last ring appearance in July of 2014, he lost a majority decision to Russia’s Ruslan Chagaev in Grozny, Russia. As a concession for taking the fight on short notice, Team Oquendo negotiated a rematch clause in the contract, but a shoulder injury prevented Fres from activating it. When the injury healed, he had to go to court to compel Chagaev to fulfill his obligation. But then the Russian retired, muddling the water.

The WBA was legally bound to find Oquendo a title fight and in desperation turned to ancient Shannon Briggs. But the Oquendo-Briggs fight, scheduled for June 3 of last year in Hollywood, Florida, fell out when Briggs’ urine specimen showed an abnormally high level of testosterone.

Fres Oquendo was dogged by bad luck even before these recent developments. His professional record, 37-8, is somewhat misleading as six of his eight defeats were razor-thin including his 2003 setback to Chris Byrd and his 2006 setback to Evander Holyfield. However, Oquendo, something of a cutie, was never a crowd-pleaser and in none of his narrow defeats was there a public clamor for a rematch.

The cancellation of Charr-Oquendo cuts the World Boxing Association out of a sanctioning fee, but one would think that the WBA honchos are actually rather pleased by this turn of events. The fight, more precisely the WBA’s world title imprimatur, would have brought more unwanted publicity to the Panama-based organization.

ESPN’s Dan Rafael, who has the largest platform of any boxing writer, has been a persistent critic of the organization which once recognized 41 “champions” in 17 weight classes. In 2009, Rafael wrote, “(The WBA) has become such an absolute farce that even somebody like me, who follows boxing closely, sometimes has a hard time keeping track of all the nonsensical so-called world title belts the WBA has been doling out at an alarming rate. It almost reminds me of the ladies at Costco who hand out various samples on a busy Saturday afternoon.”

Rafael took note when WBA president Gilberto Mendoza promised to cull the herd by eliminating “regular” titles, and then became more caustic when Mendoza didn’t follow through. Recently, in one short, punchy diatribe, Rafael blistered the WBA as wretched, vile, and rancid.

Regardless of your opinion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Fres Oquendo who keeps getting stranded at the altar. No, he’s not fun to watch and a man of his age shouldn’t be taking any more punches, but he has always been an honest workman and by all accounts he’s a very decent man. Born in Puerto Rico but raised in Chicago, Oquendo pitched right in when the island nation of his birth was ravaged by Hurricane Maria. He was personally responsible for relocating Puerto Rican boxing legend Wilfred Benitez and Benitez’s sister, his caregiver, to Chicago where their lives wouldn’t be as hard.

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

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Arum says Terence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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