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RIP Cedric Kushner

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Sad news for NY-area boxing lifers, as the popular promoter Cedric Kushner, arguably a “B+” tier dealmaker with inarguably an grade “A” personality, died on Thursday, from a heart attack.

The fight-maker had a fondness for heavyweights, and was himself one, before undergoing surgery to downsize his frame. Kushner, age 66, was in ill health the last several years after a stroke, but friends in the fight game will recall his times in the sun, such as when his guy Hasim Rahman flipped the script and downed champion Lennox Lewis in a 2001 clash.

Kushner, born in South Africa, trod a well worn path, from the music promotion business to the sweet science. Both have low barriers to entry, where a man with XL dreams and a gift for persuasion can hack out a pathway to success. His boxing path started in 1984, or so, and he brought some flair for decibels and flash to the sport. In 2000, you would see the man and his sort of walrus-y facial hair, looking the tiniest bit glum, presiding over a show filled with B grade heavies at the Hammerstein Ballroom, in NYC, with dancers cavorting here, cigars and massages being smoked and indulged in there.

Kushner would back a Monte Barrett, or a David Tua, and get them wins, and hope they kept winning, so that they could be maneuvered into a title crack. He’d also be a figurehead to young fight game folks, who’d look up to him for wisdom and odd and delightful anecdotes. Aris Pina, of CompuBox, publicist Greg Juckett, folks like this are now laid low with the sad news…

He’d get into the big picture now and again, for sure, and early on, tasted limelight when he advised South African heavy Gerrie Coetzee, who gloved up against Larry Holmes in 1984. His all-time roster stacked up quite nicely with contemporaries over the decades. He world with and for “Irish” Teddy Mann, Marlon Starling, John Collins–Kushner worked the Illinois region for a spell—Robert Allen, Oliver McCall, Axel Schultz, Shane Mosley, Angel Manfredy, Shannon Briggs, Joel Casamayor, Ike Ibeabuchi, younger Peter Quillin.

Reporters enjoyed Kushner for his availability, and ability to fashion a decent quote, as when he said about Don King in 1988, “I used to have two pit bulls. They were too mean, so I had to get rid of them. The only difference between those dogs and Don King is that Don is much more vicious.”

That desire to give a show an extra spark made him a real-deal promoter; he brought boxing to the Apollo Theater in 1997, and was constantly looking to come up with an angle, a hook, a concept. Some recall his 2002 stab at a revamp, “ThunderBox,” which featured three round bouts and rap acts interspersed throughout. Was it a case of using tasty bbq sauce to mask past its prime beef? That could be argued, but it has to be said that Kushner knew the role of promoter was often to make the best of a bad proposition. His “Heavyweight Explosion” series often entertained to a degree greater than the sum of the parts would predict.

His stress level grew in 2000, and 2001, when he testified that he had to pay to play ie give money to an IBF exec to insure decent treatment of his fighters and took rival Don King to court, labeling him a racketeer. This guy who stopped out in sixth grade, in Cape Town, and then tried his hand as a merchant marine, before putting together shows for Fleetwood Mac and the Stones and the like, yes indeed, he packed a lot of living in.

2001 was a colorful year, as King swooped in and snagged Rahman. Kushner attended to some of the upheaval with a 2003 gastric bypass surgery. “I can’t stress enough how good I feel just a month after the operation. From an elephant to a greyhound, is what I say. For the first time in years, I’m optimistic about my life,” he told Thomas Hauser.

Ced, Uncle Ced as pal Lou DiBella called him, spoke at a groggy pace and didn’t have a face that screamed state of joy. But he dug what he did, big time. “I’m probably one of the few people who goes to work and doesn’t look at his watch to see if it’s time to go home,” he said to Bobby Cassidy in 2005. “I look at my watch to see what time other people go home. I’m happy. I’m doing what I enjoy.”

And it wasn’t the work that was everything to him. “Boxing guys were his family,” DiBella told me. “His family was his boxing family.”

Ced was sort of like the ribald uncle, who turned you on to whiskey at a semi-inappropriate age. DiBella recalled when he started at HBO, coming over from a law firm and met Cedric for the first time.

Would you like to take a ride to Atlantic City with me, he rumbled, in a Hitchcockian tenor,  to still 20-something DiBella.

Why not, Lou said.

Ced snored some of the way there–he was well over 3 bills, with that walrus ‘stache–and they got to AC. On a seedy side street Ced saw someone he knew. “Driver, stop the car! Mary Anne,” he called out, from the window of the stretch limo, to a gal who was no stranger to a concrete hustle. “Mary Anne! How is your mum?”

This is 1990, this Harvard law grad has a dropped jaw…

“She’s much better, thanks for asking, Ced!”

Lou collected himself, asked what that was all about.

“Her mum was sick. She’s a person too!”

Well curated recollection, because it spoke to Kushners’ different sides, and the intermingling of the facets of personality and behavior we all possess, but in our fight game sphere, is often better tolerated and even appreciated than in mainstream society.

We all enjoyed Kushners’ perseverance and imagination, as when he staged a fight card in the Hamptons, in 2002, to try and bring some sweaty buzz to that meeting ground for the idle riches.

Ced soldiered on, without excessive grumbling, though his vessel was pulling a mutiny on him. David Tua proved to be a long-standing money-maker for Ced, who in 2005 acknowledged thew ups and downs he’d experienced.

“Life isn’t always fair,” Kushner said to Hauser. “And boxing rarely is. But I keep plugging along.”

The plugging included health battles, such as a 2011 spinal surgery…and we saw Ced less and less at local shows. Close pals visited him, and checked in with a man they knew loved the sport, and loved, and treated them, like family.
Ced will be sorely missed.

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The Ali-Shavers Fight and the Ever-Present Open Scoring Debate

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Saturday, Sept. 29, marks the 41st anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s last successful title defense. The 35-year-old Ali defended his WBA and WBC belts against Earnie Shavers, a devastating puncher, but otherwise limited, in Madison Square Garden. Those tuning in to the Thursday night fight on NBC, an estimated 70 million, were able to track the round-by-round scoring. And therein lies an interesting tale.

A bit of background. Technically, the first instance of open scoring, at least as it pertained to television, was to have been implemented by Ted Nathanson, producer for NBC Sports, which televised the May 11, 1977, heavyweight bout pitting Ken Norton against Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Although on-site spectators would not have been privy to round-by-round scoring, the TV audience would have had such access. The grand experiment proved dead on arrival, however, when Norton needed only 58 seconds of the first round to blast out Bobick.

Nathanson was nothing if not determined, however, and he successfully lobbied for the same format to be used for the Ali-Shavers fight. As was the case for Norton-Bobick, spectators in the arena would not have the same access to the round-by-round scoring as would NBC viewers. The New York State Athletic Commission, then headed by former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, signed off on the arrangement with NBC with some hesitation.

John F.X. Condon, vice president of Garden Boxing, said he originally had planned to show the round-by-round scoring on the huge overhead screen to the 14,613 on-site spectators, but he decided against it. “We didn’t think it was wise,” Condon concluded. “Personally, I think it also detracts from the pleasure of watching at home. Fight fans like to get involved. They like the uncertainty of waiting for the final decision.”

Even more adamant in his opposition to open scoring, in any form, was legendary Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner, who said he would do everything in his power to ensure that the NBC experiment would be a one-and-done, at least if he had anything to say about it. “I am against it,” Brenner stressed. “We at the Garden plan to do something about it.”

Unlike Norton-Bobick, Ali-Shavers would go the 15-round distance, with scoring on a round basis instead of the 10-point-must system now in place. Ali won by 9-5-1 on the card submitted by referee Johnny LoBianco and by 9-6 on the cards turned in by judges Tony Castellano and Eva Shain, the latter of who made history as the first woman ever to work a big-time fight. It was Ali’s 19th victorious title defense.

Garden officials were embarrassed, however, when a question of fairness was raised. The NBC telecast was shown in Ali’s dressing room, and a runner was assigned to keep Ali trainer Angelo Dundee informed of the judges’ evolving scores. The Shavers dressing room did not have similar access, which led his manager, Frank Luca, to complain of preferential treatment being granted to Ali. He said the NYSAC even attempted to obligate the fighters to use 10-ounce gloves instead of eight-ouncers, a change which was not approved but would have been detrimental to the harder-hitting challenger.

When informed of a playing field seemingly tilted to favor Ali, Patterson said the NYSAC never again would consent to open scoring at any venue in the state, be it for on-site spectators or just TV. “That will be stopped,” Patterson said. “I understand Angelo Dundee had someone running back to get him information and the other corner didn’t. That’s not fair. It could influence a fight, affect gambling in the arena with cheaters. It was not a success and it will never happen again.”

Shavers, who went into the Ali fight with a 54-5-1 record that included 52 wins inside the distance, said he might have fought differently – yeah, right – had he been apprised of the round-by-round scoring. “My corner told me I was ahead,” he lamented. “I didn’t go for the knockout. I would have put more pressure on him, taken more chances.”

Promoter Don King pushed for open scoring on May 5, 1994, at a Las Vegas press conference to hype the pay-per-view card two nights later at the MGM Grand headlined by WBC super lightweight champion Frankie Randall’s rematch with Julio Cesar Chavez, whom he had controversially outpointed nearly four months earlier.

“Progress can’t be stopped,” King said with his trademark bluster and hyperventilation. “It’s time for a change. Bring boxing out of the dark and into the light. People who go to football and basketball games know what the score is at all times. Why should boxing be the only sport where judges pass little scraps of paper back and forth and nobody else knows who’s winning until the end?”

King said he had been “excoriated and vilified” for having promoted two bouts during the previous eight months that ended in questionable decisions, and that open scoring could eliminate or reduce the problem.

“If anything controversial happens, people will be calling for (WBC president) Jose Sulaiman and me to be ridden out of town on a rail,” King continued. “One little controversy and these four great (rematches, the others being Simon Brown vs. Terry Norris, Gerald McClellan vs. Julian Jackson and Azumah Nelson vs. Jesse James Leija) suddenly become secondary. I don’t want that to happen.”

His Hairness indisputably was on target in noting that the two referenced bouts, in which Pernell Whitaker retained his WBC welterweight title on a majority draw against Chavez on Sept. 10, 1993, and Randall nipped Chavez on a split decision in large part because JCC had been docked two penalty points by referee Richard Steele, were controversial. Most ringside observers had Whitaker winning eight to 10 of the 12 rounds in San Antonio, Texas, and were it not for the two penalty points Chavez would have won a split decision instead of losing by the same margin.

Although King advocated for open scoring to be instituted immediately, he had to know that the wheels of change do not move that swiftly in Nevada or any other jurisdiction. But Marc Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, while expressing his own doubts as to the usefulness of open scoring, said such a proposal at least merited further scrutiny.

“For this particular card, there will be no open scoring,” Ratner said. “But we’re not ostriches. We don’t have our heads in the sand. This is an issue that should be studied.”

Studied and almost certainly likely to be rejected, as it later was by the NSAC, for reasons that to Ratner were even more glaringly obvious than those offered by King for the other course of action.

“What if two fighters accidentally butt heads in the fourth round and one of them suffers a cut?” hypothesized Ratner. “If the bleeding fighter is ahead on the scorecards, his corner might be tempted not to close the cut, thereby prompting the bout’s premature conclusion and a decision victory.”

An even more compelling reason to forever squash the notion of full-blown open scoring holds that a fighter, if he knows he is sufficiently ahead entering the late rounds to be uncatchable on the scorecards, would get on his bicycle and pedal around the ring to eliminate or at least reduce the risk of being knocked out. Such a safety-first approach would drain whatever measure of hope still existed for the losing fighter banking on a puncher’s-chance turnaround.

We haven’t heard the last of the open scoring debate. The subject came up again in the aftermath of the Golovkin-Alvarez rematch, a tightly contested bout which Alvarez won by majority decision, much to the displeasure of Golovkin and his supporters. But for now, fight fans must continue to live with the occasional scorecard that defies credulity. And while too much controversy is never a good thing, some of it helps sell the sport and keeps interest high up to and even beyond the final bell. The alternative is the elimination of uncertainty, and with it the magic that sometimes is produced when two fighters believe success hinges on giving maximum effort to the very last punch.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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George Groves and Callum Smith Finally Meet in the WBSS Capstone

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The 168-pound tournament of the inaugural World Boxing Super Series, an 8-man invitational, kicked off on Sept. 16 of last year with a match between Callum Smith and Erik Skoglund at Liverpool, England. Tournaments of this nature in boxing almost never play out as planned and this tourney was no exception. But on Friday we will finally crown a winner when Smith meets George Groves at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, of all places. At stake will be the coveted Muhammad Ali Trophy and the bundle of cash that comes with it and Groves’ WBA “super” world super middleweight title.

Despite the odd location, this is a domestic affair. Groves, the top seed, and Smith, the #2 seed, are both Englishmen. And if the fight were on British soil, it would have certainly drawn well. In the UK, Groves is enormously popular. His second fight with Carl Froch attracted a crowd of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium, a British post-war record eventually broken by Joshua-Klitschko.

Groves (28-3, 20 KOs) suffered his lone defeats at the hands of Froch, who defeated him twice, and Badou Jack, and there’s no shame there. Carl Froch, in the minds of many, has a plaque waiting for him at the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Jack, a title-holder in two weight classes, is currently ranked #1 as a light heavyweight by the WBA and WBC.

Although both fights with Froch ended inside the distance, both were nip-and-tuck until Froch closed the curtain. Badou Jack defeated Groves by split decision in Las Vegas.

Groves has a high boxing IQ as he demonstrated on Feb 17 in Manchester where he scored a 12-round unanimous decision over Chris Eubank Jr. Groves, observed ringside reporter Gareth Davies, “was just a step too far, too strong and ultimately too technical and experienced in the championship rounds.” Eubank’s father and trainer Chris Eubank Sr. saluted Groves for fighting the perfect fight.

The victory was bittersweet as Groves dislocated his left shoulder in the final round. It required surgery, pushing back the finale until this Friday, a full two months after the conclusion of the other WBSS tourney, for cruiserweights, the finale of which was also pushed back from the originally scheduled date. For a time the promoters seriously considered bumping Eubank into the finals in place of the incapacitated Groves but eventually thought better of it. (Eubank will appear on the undercard in a stay-busy fight against Ireland’s J.J. McDonagh.)

Callum Smith (24-0, 18 KOs) is the youngest of four fighting brothers, each of whom captured one or more regional titles. In the family, the relationship between talent and birth order is inverse, which is to say that Paul Smith, the oldest of the foursome, wasn’t as good as his younger brother Stephen and Stephen wasn’t as good as younger brother Liam.

Liam “Beefy” Smith accomplished what his two older brothers could not, winning a world title. He won the WBO 154-pound diadem in his twenty-second fight and successfully defended the belt twice before it was sheared from him by Canelo Alvarez who knocked him out in the ninth round.

If Callum Smith wins on Friday, he will be recognized by hardcore fans as a more legitimate champion than was the case with his brother Liam. That’s because Callum, who stands six-foot-three (none of his brothers is taller than 5’11”), was touted from the very onset of his career as the most gifted of the fighting Smith brothers. He solidified that opinion in November of 2015 when he knocked out Liverpool rival Rocky Fielding in the opening round. Fielding went on to win the “regular” version of the WBA 168-pound title and that remains the only blemish on his record.

In recent bouts, however, Smith hasn’t looked that sharp. His last two opponents, the aforementioned Skoglund and Neiky Holzken, lasted the full 12 rounds. The obscure Holzken, a converted kickboxer from the Netherlands, was a late sub for Juergen Braehmer who was forced to bow out of the tournament with an illness.

George Groves was a slight underdog to Eubank. On Friday, the odds favor him, but only slightly. At last look it was 13/10 which portends a very close fight. Groves has the edge in experience and in ring savvy and has fought tougher opposition, but Smith will have a three-and-a-half inch height advantage and is judged to be the harder puncher.

Fight fans in the U.S. can access the fight on the new DAZN app. Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia is seven hours ahead of New York and other precincts in the Eastern Time Zone and adjust accordingly.

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Three Punch Combo: A Bouquet for “ShoBox” and More

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THREE PUNCH COMBO — We are embarking into a new age in boxing. There are new television contracts and digital platforms available that are making the sport more visible than ever before to the masses. But with all these new deals and platforms, it is important not to forget some of the consistent programming that has been around for some time. There is no better example of this than the ShoBox series on Showtime.

ShoBox, more formally ShoBox: The New Generation, began with a simple premise of matching young prospects in with tough opposition. To get their fighters on this series, promoters would have to find credible opponents who could potentially test and maybe even upset their prized prospect. This premise has led to consistently competitive and entertaining fights in the more than 200 broadcasts since the inception of the series in 2001.

This past Friday, we saw just how this premise works once again. There was a four fight card that featured competitive fights on paper in all the matches. However, in two of those matches there did seem to be clear favorites though each of the respective fighters was being matched with their toughest foe to date.

James Wilkins and Misael Lopez opened the telecast in a 130-pound contest. Wilkins was featured in a documentary that aired on Showtime just prior to the card and was expected to make a smashing television debut. He was a knockout artist and the thought was that he would put on a show to open the telecast. But instead, Wilkins got a boxing lesson from Lopez who was busier from the outside and managed to mostly avoid the power of Wilkins throughout the contest in winning an eight round unanimous decision.

The main event featured Jon Fernandez facing O’Shaquie Foster in another 130-pound contest. Fernandez had been getting a lot of buzz and many in the sport considered the Spaniard a future star. This was supposed to be a test for Fernandez as Foster (pictured on the right) represented a step up in class, but nonetheless many expected Fernandez to pass the test with flying colors. Instead, the power punching Fernandez was clearly out-boxed by Foster for ten rounds in an entertaining fight.

These two fights showed once again that when young fighters are matched tough we often get better than expected fights that can sometimes deliver surprises. This coming Friday, the series returns with highly touted lightweight prospect Devin Haney (19-0, 13 KO’s) in the main event taking on former world title challenger Juan Carlos Burgos (33-2-2, 21 KO’s). This is a fight in which Haney is favored but one in which he is facing the toughest challenge of his young career. At the very least, this should be a test for the highly touted 19-year-old Haney and I am certain we get a compelling fight.

ShoBox is boxing’s most consistent series and one that just continues to provide fight fans with high caliber, competitive fights.

10 Percent or 10 Pounds – How To Combat Fighters Who Blow Up In Weight

It is time to address the issue of fighters gaining an absurd amount of weight following the weigh-in. There is a reason why we have weight classes in boxing. If one fighter enters the ring weighing significantly more than his opponent, it gives the bigger fighter a big advantage. This can make for not only non-competitive fights but potentially dangerous situations. I have a simple solution that I think can combat this problem.

In past articles, I have touched on the issue of fighters who miss the contracted weight. My argument has always been to implement a system with stiff financial penalties. So in a similar aspect, I think stiff financial penalties can combat the continued problem of fighters blowing up in weight after the official weigh-in.

What I propose is second day weigh-ins where fighters would not be permitted to put on more than ten pounds or 10 percent (whichever is more) of the contracted weight limit. If they are over, the fight still goes on but the fighter who misses the second day weight limit pays a substantial fine. This simple adjunct can be easily administered by the various state commissions in the United States (or any other commissions worldwide).

Here is an example:  Let’s say we have a fight contracted at 130 pounds and each fighter weighs in at 129 pounds. The second day limit would be 10 percent of 130 pounds which was the contracted weight. So each fighter could come in at a maximum of 143 pounds. Now let’s say one fighter comes in at 146 pounds. The penalty I propose would be 20 percent of that fighter’s purse per pound over the weight. And this money goes directly to their opponent. Under this example, the fighter over weight would lose 60 percent of his purse.

Zero Shouldn’t Mean That Much

We are in an era, largely due to The Floyd Mayweather Jr. Factor, where fighters are often overly protected to keep that precious zero in the loss column. But to do so, they are frequently matched with soft opposition and learn little from dismantling their overmatched foes. There is little to no growth in their career during this period and though the record may get glossy, the development of the fighter may be stunted.

Setbacks can humble fighters and make them see what needs to be done so as not to experience that feeling again. They become better overall fighters and put themselves in a better long term position in their career.

This past weekend, we saw two once promising prospects bounce back with career defining wins after suffering an early unexpected defeat. They are both now in prime position to have their respective careers blossom which may not have otherwise been the case.

Earlier I mentioned O’Shaquie Foster’s upset win against Jon Fernandez. Three years ago, Foster was a highly touted prospect. He had a good amateur background and was blessed athletically with dynamic speed. After building up an 8-0 record against less than formidable opposition, he lost in a dreadful performance to Samuel Teah. Another loss would follow several months later to Rolando Chinea. But Foster clearly learned from his mistakes in these fights and bounced back, layering his natural athletic ability with much improved skills in frankly outclassing Fernandez. Foster’s losses made him take a step back and re-evaluate what needed to be done inside the ring. He is now in prime position to become a contender in the 130-pound weight division.

Luke Campbell was a 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist and considered a can’t-miss future star in boxing. But in his 13th pro fight, in a rather shocking development, he was put on the canvas and lost a split decision to veteran Yvan Mendy. Another loss followed two years later against Jorge Linares but Campbell performed well while losing a split decision and flashed signs of improvement from the Mendy setback.

The rematch with Mendy for Campbell took place this past weekend and Campbell did what many expected him to do in their first encounter. He boxed effectively from the outside and mixed in precision combination punching to easily avenge the defeat. It was a dynamic performance by Campbell and put him in line for a big fight at lightweight.

Luke Campbell is a vastly different fighter from the one who lost to Mendy three years earlier and appears primed to potentially live up to the once high expectations. He is in a better spot today in his career due to what he learned from that first loss to Mendy.

Photo credit: Dave Mandel / SHOWTIME

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