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Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera, Yet Another Riversider Looking to Sizzle

David A. Avila

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Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera has battled some of the best junior welterweights in the world and beaten most of them.

So why can’t he get a little more attention?

“It’s funny but after my last fight some fans recognized me on the street and asked for my autograph and photo,” said Herrera, who resembles Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi. “That had never happened to me before.”

A stirring performance against WBA and WBC junior welterweight champion Danny “Swift” Garcia changed all of that this past March.

“A lot of Puerto Ricans came up to me after the fight and told me I won,” said Herrera. “That made me feel good.”

Herrera (20-4, 7 Kos) hopes to continue those feel good performances when facing Venezuela’s Johan Perez (19-1-1, 13 Kos) at the MGM Grand on Saturday, July 12. The Las Vegas fight card will be televised on Showtime PPV.

Time after time, the junior welterweight from Riverside, California has shown a fearlessness that belies his unintimidating looks. From the very first time he stepped in the boxing ring as a professional, Herrera faced quality opposition.

“My first fight was at junior middleweight against a much bigger guy, Angel Osuna,” said Herrera, adding that Osuna recently suffered a career ending injury in the boxing ring when he was knocked out of the ropes by Hugo Centeno and fell hard on the edge. It resulted in a subdural hematoma but luckily Osuna survived. “I didn’t care if they were bigger or had good records. I just wanted to fight the best.”

Herrera realized when he started at age 27, he couldn’t afford to gradually climb up the professional ladder. But despite beating quality opposition and dangerous fighters that others avoided, Herrera fell beneath the radar.

It seemed that nobody was paying attention to Herrera, who fought under Thompson Boxing Promotions the same group that discovered Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley and Josesito “Riverside Rocky” Lopez.

Apparently someone else was watching.

Golden Boy Promotions had been watching with keen interest “El Maestro,” especially after the come-from-behind win over Ruslan Provodnikov that some ranked as the Fight of the Year in 2011. Then, in 2012, Herrera had another breathtaking performance against undefeated Mike Alvarado in Las Vegas. The clincher was his brilliant display of boxing with the champion Danny “Swift” Garcia in Bayamon, Puerto Rico this past March 15.

When Herrera’s contract with Thompson Boxing ended, he was immediately approached by Golden Boy Promotions. He signed and now is set to perform on the big stage.

“It feels good and exciting, it’s a big card,” said Herrera, age 34. “I can’t really ask for anything more.”

Herrera trains in a desolate hillside gym in Mira Loma that can only be accessed by driving on dirt roads. Visitors are scarce, especially during the summer when temperatures surpass 100 degrees inside the boxing facility. One day, three unexpected visitors arrived.

“Oscar (De La Hoya) came down last week with Robert Diaz and Eric Gomez to watch me train. I didn’t know they were going to come,” said Herrera. “Everything is coming together.”

Herrera asked the Golden Boy trio that he fight the best junior welterweights in the world. Though offers have come from many welterweights, the Riverside boxer with a style that can best be called similar to James “Lights Out” Toney prefers to make his mark at 140-pounds before tackling the 147-pounders. And when that happens, he can think of a few fellow Riverside County prizefighters that would stir up the neighborhood.

Years ago Herrera sparred both Josesito Lopez and Tim Bradley. All three knew that they might meet again someday in the future.

“Bradley said we couldn’t spar anymore because he could foresee us fighting against each other one day,” Herrera said, remembering that day. “Tim is looking for a fight and now that Top Rank is working with Golden Boy again it’s a fight that can be made.”

The other big match would be Herrera and Josesito Lopez.

“Put me and Josesito and me in the ring and see what happens. We’ll make it our retirement fight,” says Herrera.

But first Herrera must get by the talented Johan Perez, who has victories over Steve Forbes and Yoshihiro Kamagai.

“He’s a good fighter and very tall,” Herrera says of Perez. “I just have to get past Perez for everything to happen.”

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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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