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THE FERNANDEZ FILES: Two Ships Passing in the Night

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Nobody knew it then, but separate boxing matches on Feb. 24 and 25, 1989, might have made for a classic representation of the familiar two-ships-passing-in-the-night theme, even if those ships were 2,500 miles apart and one of them was sailing in the Nevada desert.

On Feb. 24 of that year, the seemingly stalled career of Roberto Duran, 37, was revived with his exhilarating, 12-round split decision over WBC middleweight champion Iran Barkley in snowy Atlantic City, N.J., a fight which the “Hands of Stone,” a 3-1 underdog, would later call “the greatest of my life.” And why wouldn’t he? Not only did the Panamanian legend capture his fifth world title in four weight classes when many were suggesting he was a shot fighter, but Barkley was coming off his championship-winning third-round technical knockout of the great Thomas Hearns, who had smoked Duran in two rounds on June 15, 1984. The Ring magazine would later select Barkley-Duran as its Fight of the Year.

One night later, at the Las Vegas Hilton, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, just 23 years old and just eight months removed from his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks, did as expected, stopping British challenger Frank Bruno in five rounds. But this was not the same Tyson who blew away Spinks as if he were a rusty trailer in a tornado; the first tiny cracks in Iron Mike’s armor were revealed, cracks that would widen and eventually split wide-open on Feb. 11 of the following year in Tokyo, when Buster Douglas took a wrecking ball to the notion of Tyson’s invincibility with his 10th-round TKO victory as a 42-1 longshot.

Given the fact that Tyson was the Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth of boxing then, most fight writers from around America and the world were in Vegas 26 years ago, their respective news organizations sending backups to A.C., or simply relying on wire-services coverage. As a courtesy to large group of reporters on hand, the Hilton had set up a spacious hospitality tent in a parking lot with the closed-circuit feed of Barkley-Duran available for those who wanted to see it.

As Duran, who had taken off nearly 40 pounds in preparation for one of the several crossroads bouts he would be involved in during his remarkable pugilistic journey, reached back in time to summon some of that old magic, a lot of us in that tent were thinking that maybe, just maybe, we were at the wrong fight site. But nobody could have known or predicted the ramifications of those two February nights in the first year of the George H.W. Bush presidency. Who could have said with any degree of certainty that Duran would fight on for 13 more years? Or that Tyson would come back from his three-year incarceration on a 1992 rape conviction a husk of his former self, still good enough and scary enough to beat fringe-type fighters but exposed against elites like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis? Could anyone who saw the young, fearsome Tyson crush Spinks have then believed that it would all end with him quitting on his stool against somebody named Kevin McBride?

When the opening bell for Barkley-Duran rang, my overriding sentiment was that I was glad I was in much-warmer Vegas, and had not been obliged to make the 65-mile trip by car from Philadelphia to Atlantic City during the worst snowstorm of the winter. A colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, Paul Domowitch, whose regular beat was pro football, had drawn the assignment, perhaps grudgingly, to drive through the blizzard to pinch-hit for me at ringside in Boardwalk Hall.

But as the rounds unfolded one by one, it became apparent to those of us at the Hilton that Duran had again found something within himself that for so long had stamped him as a very special fighter. The Duran we were watching on TV in the hospitality tent clearly had rediscovered his passion for boxing, and the exclamation point to his bravura performance came when he connected with three right hands to the jaw in Round 11, flooring a stunned Barkley for the bout’s only knockdown.

For this story, I contacted Erie, Pa.-based promoter Mike Acri, who took a chance on Duran when few believed he had much left to give after 91 bouts and nearly 22 years in the pro ranks. In his most recent outing prior to Barkley, an out-of-shape and seemingly disinterested Duran had struggled to a 10-round split decision over the unintimidating Jeff Lanas.

“People thought he was just in there to get a payday,” Acri recalled. “But I knew better. At breakfast that morning, me and him and all of our guys were sitting there eating and Roberto said, `I feel like fighting tonight.’ Right then and there I thought, `This is going to be my first world champion.’ I had no doubt Roberto would win that night.”

Others had their doubts, and plenty of them. Even though Duran weighed in at a trim 156¼ pounds, 3¾ below the middleweight limit, everyone knew that his best days were at lightweight, a division in which he just might have been the best that ever was. But Duran liked to eat, a lot, when he wasn’t in training, and he had trouble keeping the weight off as he got older. At 5-7½, he looked like a stumpy, black-haired Buddha when he puffed up to the 200-pound range, as he had in the months before he was to square off with Barkley. Acri, however, said that with Duran, appearances could be deceiving.

“In December, we got the contract,” Acri said. “Duran wasn’t that crazy with the weight then, maybe 180 or 190, but a lot of it was water weight that came off easy. The first 10 or 12 pounds came off real quick. And once he started sparring, the weight came off even quicker.

“People would say he’d get up to 220 between fights. Total b.s. Well, maybe later. But he didn’t take diuretics. He didn’t use Ex-Lax or anything like that. He didn’t trust it.”

Once he worked himself into fighting trim, though, Duran was an absolute beast. Retired AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., who like Duran is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, recalled his first glimpse of the human dynamo, on Sept. 13, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Duran was 23-0 with 20 KOs at the time and making his U.S. debut, against a credible opponent, Benny Huertas, on the undercard of a show headlined by WBA lightweight champion Ken Buchanan.

“Huertas wasn’t a great fighter, but he was a tough guy who could have gone 10 rounds with 82nd Airborne Division,” Schuyler said. “Duran got him out of there in a flash. You could see he was evident to me that this was someone who was just born to fight. As a lightweight, Duran was the best fighter I’ve ever seen. He’s the best lightweight that ever lived, in my opinion.”

Acri shared Schuyler’s opinion that Duran, when in shape and motivated, deserved to be any best-ever conversation.

“Some people are just meant to become what they became,” Acri told me. “With Roberto, I think God said, `I’m going to make this guy a real badass. I’m going to make him a great fighter.’”

Tyson, for a more abbreviated period, bore the same unmistakable mark of greatness. He had Duran’s finishing instincts, for sure, but also the same tendency to put on a lot of unwanted weight – especially if there were complications in his personal life. And there were more than a few of those during the stretch between Tyson’s demolition of Spinks and the first of his two fights with Bruno. His marriage to actress Robin Givens had broken up, and he had replaced longtime trainer Kevin Rooney with Jay Bright, whose ineptitude in that role was starkly evident when Tyson fell to Douglas.

Believing he had been wrongly terminated, Rooney filed a $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against Tyson in the leadup to the Bruno fight, further poisoning the waters.

“I had nothing personal against him,” Tyson had said of Rooney after the legal action that ensured that the two never again would work with each other. “What he did was unprofessional, that’s all. But now the suit makes it personal. As far as I’m concerned, he’ll never have a chance of working with me again. Never.”

Perhaps, had Rooney been his chief second instead of Bright, Tyson wouldn’t have gorged himself up to nearly 260 pounds before he went into training. Like Duran, he did take the excess poundage off – he was a ripped 218 at the weigh-in – but physically and emotionally, hints were being dropped that the guy who destroyed Spinks and so many others was being transformed into a lesser version of himself. But few picked up on the evidence Tyson was providing of his dissolution, if only because what we all were seeing was still far better than whatever the crystal-chinned Bruno brought to the table.

Tyson had always seemed, well, a bit unhinged, which added to his aura of danger, but in retrospect his actions at the weigh-in for Bruno were indicative of a deeper disturbance. For whatever reason, he dropped his shorts and exposed himself to Bruno, an act of public lewdness that was minimized only because three security guards swiftly moved in to form a human shield.

Whether he was or wasn’t at his very best, Tyson, a 7-1 favorite, was still too much for the Jamaican-born Bruno, whose popularity in the United Kingdom was such that nearly 3,000 of his supporters were on hand to be eyewitnesses to what even they had to believe would be a ritualistic execution. Many other Brits watched the fight on closed-circuit in the UK, despite the fact the fight didn’t begin until 5 a.m. local time.

It ended, as it surely had to, as referee Richard Steele stepped in to protect a clearly buzzed Bruno from further damage. But sometimes it takes only a single loose thread to begin a garment’s unraveling. Tokyo and Douglas awaited Tyson a year later.

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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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A Kaleidoscope of Boxers Guaranteed to Provide Action: Past and Present

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Marvelous Marvin

To set the tone for this article, one needs only to watch the way in which Thomas Hearns came out in the first round against Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He was ready to rock and roll as was his fearsome looking opponent. The ensuing unmitigated savagery was the quintessential illustration of full-tilt boogie.

For most boxing fans, the anticipation of an all-out action bout gets the chills running down spines faster than anything else. But not all, as some prefer a tactical or clinical fight that someone like Mikey Garcia can orchestrate and others –but not many—enjoy a defensive gem via a Willie Pep, Nicolino Locche, or Pernell Whitaker. A few love a genuine blood fest that a Gabe Rosado-type can provide, and who doesn’t like seeing something special as in Sugar Ray Leonard, Kostya Tszyu, Terence Crawford or Vasiliy Lomachenko?

Chill-or-be-chilled types like Bob Satterfield and Tommy Morrison were super exciting. In this connection—a certain cadre of warriors, past and present, would come out charging and stalking as soon as the bell rang. Many demonstrated a marked disdain for defense and used a non-stop, no let-up pressure that discouraged their opponents, especially in the late rounds. The anticipation from the crowd was palpable because it sensed some form of destruction was on its way. The cheering would start during the instructions and sometimes did not let up until the concussive end.

This cadre included Rocky Marciano, Tony Ayala, Vicious Victor Galindez, Jeff Fenech, Roberto Duran, and Julio Cesar Chavez (who sapped the spirit of his opponents by ripping away at their mid-section). Also, Carl “The Cat”  Thompson , chill-or-be-chilled Ricardo “Pajarito” Moreno (60-12-1 with 59 KOs),  Ron Lyle, the ultra-violent Edwin Valero, the appropriately nicknamed JulianMr KO” Letterlough, James “The Outlaw” Hughes and his mindboggling ability to snatch victory from certain defeat, Thai stalking monster Khaosai Galaxy (47-1),  the first version of George Foreman (pictured with the aforementioned Lyle), Ji-Hoon “Volcano” Kim, Ruslan  Provodnikov, Orlando “Siri” Salido, Marcos Maidana, Lenny Z, Alfredo “Perro” Angulo, Mike Alvarado, Brandon Rios, and Mickey Roman (the later four are still fighting but past their primes).

Others who presently incite the anticipation of something special include (but are not limited to) Naoya “Monster” Inoue (16-0), Errol “The Truth” Spence Jr (24-0), Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (46-4-1), Alex Saucedo (27-0), and, of course, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (38-1-1) who now has become slightly more tactical like his nemesis, Canelo Alvarez (50-1-1).

These stand out as representative.

Past

A prime Mike Tyson—and the emphasis is on prime– was the epitome of a boxer who guaranteed action. One simply would not leave his or her seat when “Iron Mike” was doing his highlight reel thing, and his blowout of Michael Spinks punctuated his standing at the top of all-action type fighters, even if the action was usually non-mutual.

Joe Frazier came out smokin’ and would not let up until either he or his opponent were done. For the most part, decisions were not in Joe’s DNA and his left hook was as malicious as a hook can be. With Joe, you just sat back and enjoyed the action. Frazier, wrote boxing historian Tracy Callis,  “was a strong, ‘swarmer’ style boxer who applied great pressure on his opponent and dealt out tremendous punishment with a relentless attack of lefts and rights; His left hook was especially stiff and quick when delivered during his bob-and-weave perpetual attack; he fought three minutes per round and never seemed to tire.”

Carlos “Escopeta” (Shotgun) Monzon (87-3-9) was a powerful and rangy Argentinean killing machine, built like an iron rod. Some said he pushed his punches. Well if he did, he pushed 87 opponents to defeat. He also became only the second man to stop former three-time world champion Emile Griffith, turning the trick in the 14th round. Blessed with great and deceptive stamina and a solid chin, he seemingly was an irresistible force. He was unbeaten over the last 81 bouts of his career, a span of 13 years, and defended his title 14 times. “One would need to write a book in order to do justice to comparing a fighter of Carlos Monzon’s calibre to his fellow all-time greats,” wrote Mike Casey.

Arturo Gatti and Irish Micky Ward were the quintessential action fighters. One is gone amidst controversy, and hopefully the other will not pay a price for his many ring wars. With these two, just count up the Fights-of-the-Year and the rest is history. Suffice it to say that Gatti and Ward will be forever linked in boxing lore.

Until his fateful fight with Nigel Benn (another all-action fighter), Gerald McClellan was absolutely, positively, a stalking monster with dynamite in his gloves. It was ferocity and fury at its highest level and it was something to behold. Sadly, his fight with Benn left him permanently disabled; his story remains a dark stain on boxing. As Ian McNeilly notes, “one man’s finest hour was the end of another man’s life as he knew it.”

Michael “The Great” Katsidis’s all-action style made thrilling fights a lock. The Kat” was willing to take three to deliver one. It was blood and guts to the last drop. Whether he too exacted a heavy price for this style remains to be seen.

Lucia Rijker, AKA “The Dutch Destroyer,” lived up to her moniker and destroyed everyone in her path. Again, it wasn’t “if,” it was “when.”

Christy Martin (49-7-3) put female boxing on the map in the ‘90s and she did it by going undefeated in 36 straight encounters, running roughshod over her opponents as evidenced by her 25 wins by stoppage during this run. She also managed to steal the show from a Mike Tyson main event in 1996 during her memorable and bloody battle with Deirdre Gogarty.

Present

Deontay Wilder, aka “The Bronze Bomber,” has a record of 40-0.  With 39 wins coming by KO—many in spectacular fashion, The “Bomber” brings with him that same sense of anticipation that Tyson did. It’s not if; it’s when and “when” can occur at any time. But unlike Tyson, there is a vulnerability that Luis Ortiz exposed that makes the excitement index go even higher.

Dillian Whyte (24-1) has seldom been in a dull affair. His vulnerability combined with his mode of attack ensures thrilling action and the possibility of a stoppage at any time. Unlike Dereck “Del-Boy” Chisora, Whyte is consistently aggressive and dangerous.

Manny Pacquiao (60-7-2) has slowed down considerably but his recent stoppage win over Lucas Matthysse offers hope that he can still conjure up his exciting whirlwind style of fast in-an-out movements that allowed him to win multiple titles over several future Hall of Fame opponents between 2005 and 2011. A rematch with Floyd Mayweather Jr., if rumors are true, would allow Pac Man an opportunity to accomplish a number of extraordinary things including avenging a prior defeat and ruining Mayweather’s undefeated record. Time will tell.

Though he appears to have shot his wad, a prime Antonio Margarito was the classic stalk, stun, and kill fighter. Heck, he belonged on the Discovery Channel. His two blowouts of Kermit Cintron showed the “Tijuana Tornado” at his most brutal. His come-from-behind demolition of Miguel Cotto stands out for its drama and bloodletting—and subsequent speculative controversy.

David Lemieux (39-4) always brings the heat. His fights seldom end as scheduled. With KO power in both hands and a propensity to rehydrate by 20 pounds, he is the essence of danger and attendant excitement. “With the sheer power he carries, Lemieux will always have a shot at beating any middleweight, and he is almost always involved in good action fights,” says James Slater.

Amanda Serrano (35-1-1) is the only women’s boxer to win world titles in six divisions. The “Real Deal” is unique in that she has a high KO percentage (74 percent) which is rare for female boxers. Amanda is 120 seconds of guaranteed action for each round.

                                                         **********

While Iron Mike Tyson is THE MAN, Matthew Saad Muhammad also warrants special billing as he embodied what this article is all about. Steve Farhood summed up the essence of Saad Muhammad with an observation that would be appropriate for his tombstone: “Eddie Gregory (Mustafa Muhammad) has a better jab, Marvin Johnson wields more power, James Scott does more sit ups. But, Muhammad’s heart is the size of a turnbuckle, and it anchors his title reign.”

Who did I leave out? Whose name or names would you add to this list?

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