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There’s a New Crop of Elite Light Heavys, But Don’t Forget Sergey Kovalev

Frank Lotierzo

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On November 4th, Dmitry Bivol 12-0 (10) won the vacant WBA light heavyweight title with a first round knockout over Trent Broadhurst. The following Saturday night Artur Beterbiev 12-0 (12) won the vacant IBF title with a 12th round stoppage over Enrico Koelling. And on November 25th at Madison Square Garden, former champ Sergey Kovalev 30-2-1 (26) will fight Vyacheslav Shabranskyy 19-1 (16) for the vacant WBO title.

Andre Ward’s unforeseen retirement on September 21st left three major titles vacant and now the top guys in each governing body are fighting to grab them. This will no doubt set up some compelling fights in the light heavyweight division in the near future. No, it won’t rival the division’s greatest era when it was really loaded with upper-tier fighters circa 1975-85, but it’s no doubt becoming the strongest era of the last 30 years.

The fighter who could have a major say as to who ends up on top when it all sorts out is Kovalev, which is ironic since only a year and a half ago he was the alpha fighter and man to beat in the division. Then he had back-to-back fights with Andre Ward.

Kovalev lost a highly disputed unanimous decision to Ward the first time they met. The rematch, five months later, began like the first fight in that there wasn’t much to choose between them. In the eighth round Ward rocked Kovalev with a big right hand. Ward followed it up with a series of finishing shots, some of which streamed a little low, and the fight was stopped with Sergey slumped on the ropes.

Immediately after the bout Kovalev claimed he was fouled inflatable slide and that the bout was stopped prematurely, a claim that drew support; Kovalev wasn’t alone in this view. Shortly before his upcoming fight with Shabranskyy was announced, Kovalev revealed that he was bringing on a new trainer, Abror Tursunpulatov. He stated that he and his former trainer John David Jackson had trouble communicating and that prior to both bouts with Ward he was doing too many things that distracted him and limited his gym time. He now believes that will no longer be an issue and he’s driven to win back the titles he once held.

Kovalev said, “I learned a lot from my fights with Andre Ward. When you don’t win and when you suffer adversity, it makes you stronger. It also shows you who your real friends are. I feel like I cleaned out my life and now I’m ready to start fresh. I’m very excited to get back in the ring and fight at Madison Square Garden for the first time, and I’m focused on the future. I’m not looking back.”

Some may have written Kovalev off due to him losing twice to Ward and that may turn out to be how it unfolds, but that may also be a little premature. And I say that because we know that he truly believes he beat Andre the first time they fought. I have no doubt he went to bed the night after their first fight believing that it was the judges that beat him, not Andre Ward.

In regards to their rematch, Kovalev has repeatedly said he felt the referee and Ward beat him. In other words, Ward couldn’t do it by himself; he needed the American boxing establishment to help him. They allowed Ward to foul, ignoring his low blows disguised as body punches. To me Kovalev isn’t reaching by justifying the two defeats like that. Because he still may go to bed at night convinced that Ward wasn’t the better fighter, it’s plausible he hasn’t been damaged psychologically by the two setbacks.

The fact that his management and HBO have signed on for him to fight a big puncher like Shabranskyy suggests one of two things….either they have total confidence in him, believing he isn’t a damaged fighter and that the old Kovalev still lives. Therefore he’ll be fine facing a fighter who will try to knock him out instead of putting him in with an easy touch. Or else, HBO doesn’t want to invest much in Kovalev until they’re sure he isn’t gun shy. So they want to test him to see if he falls apart under fire.

My guess is he’ll be okay. Andre Ward, even on his best nights, doesn’t beat up his opponents physically to the point where they’re ruined. I’m sure many of Ward’s opponents think to themselves after facing him – what the hell just happened to me? I’m not hurt, I wasn’t knocked out, but it’s as if a gang of ghosts mauled me and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. That’s something that can riddle a fighter’s confidence more than it takes away his heart. On top of that, Sergey probably figures there’s nobody out there like Ward, or as good as him, and that he beat him in the only fair fight they had. So, in his view, there’s nothing he can be confronted by that he can’t overcome.

Against Shabranskyy, I have no doubt Kovalev will fight with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been mocked and excoriated on social media and in the press, and that can’t be easy for a guy who calls himself “Krusher” to live with. Kovalev, in case you hadn’t noticed, loved to speak of all his titles when he held them, as if they were his identity. I believe the chance to win one of them back in his first bout after losing the rematch to Ward can only be a good thing pertaining to his mindset and ego.

The light heavyweight division is full of new contenders and title holders who stand between 6-0 and 6-2, men like Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Dmitry Bivol. Those two would make for a great matchup with Kovalev if he can get by Shabranskyy. No doubt they’d start out boxing him, but if forced to fight I have no doubt they’d roll with it. And maybe the most intriguing fight in the division as long as Kovalev is near his pre-Ward form would be a fight with Artur Beterbiev. They’re both bullies and carry themselves as such and they don’t like each other going back to their days fighting as amateurs. I’d love to see Kovalev-Beterbiev with their titles on the line.

If Kovalev looks like the same guy who fought Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins in his upcoming bout with Shabranskyy, the light heavyweight division is in for some spectacular fights in 2018.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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Will Fury’s Deal With ESPN Torpedo The Fights That Fight Fans Want to See?

Arne K. Lang

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Fury's deal with ESPN

For the past few weeks, boxing fans have been led to believe that the rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder was ever so-close to being a done deal. But in the world of professional boxing where Machiavellian characters seemingly hold all the positions of power, nothing is ever a done deal until it’s finally finalized. Today’s announcement that Tyson Fury has signed with ESPN is the latest case in point. It’s a three-fight deal that will reportedly earn the Gypsy King $80 million if he can successfully hurdle the first two legs.

As Thomas Hauser has noted, what we have in boxing today is something similar to leagues in other sports. There’s the Top Rank/ESPN League, the Matchroom/DAZN League, and the PBC/Showtime/FOX League. We would add that these are intramural leagues. Occasionally there’s cross-pollination, similar to when the Yankees play the Mets in a game that counts in the regular season standings, but basically the boxers in each league compete against each other.

We have no doubt that WBC/WBA/IBF heavyweight ruler Anthony Joshua will eventually fight Wilder and/or Fury, but it now appears that these matches, when they transpire, will have marinated beyond the sell date. The action inside the ring may mirror the Mayweather-Pacquiao dud.

A match between Joshua and Wilder is already somewhat less enticing than it would have been if it had come to fruition last autumn. The odds lengthened in favor of Joshua after Wilder’s raggedy performance against Tyson Fury on Dec. 1 in Los Angeles.

True, the Bronze Bomber almost pulled the fight out of the fire with a thunderous punch but he was out-slicked in most of the rounds and it wasn’t as if he was fighting a bigger version of Pernell Whitaker. Before that fight, casual fans were less tuned-in to Deontay Wilder’s limitations.

It was reported that the Wilder-Fury rematch was headed to Las Vegas or New York, but that Las Vegas fell out of the running when the State Athletic Commission insisted on using Nevada officials. Fury was the one that balked.

In hindsight we should have seen that this was fake news. No Nevada officials were involved in Fury-Wilder I. The judges were from California, Canada, and Great Britain. The California judge voted against Fury, scoring the fight 115-111, a tally for which he was excoriated. The judge from Great Britain, like many ringside reporters, had it draw. The TV crews, especially the crew from Great Britain, left no doubt that Fury should have had his hand raised and the controversy made the hoped-for rematch more alluring.

So who will be Tyson Fury’s next opponent? Speculation immediately centered on Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev.

Pulev, who turns 38 of May 4, sports a 26-1 record. He was slated to fight Anthony Joshua in October of 2017 but suffered a torn biceps in training and was forced to withdraw. In his most recent bout he outpointed Hughie Fury, Tyson’s cousin. He’s currently ranked #1 by the IBF.

On Dec. 8 of last year, Bob Arum announced that he had hammered out a deal to co-promote Pulev. It was subsequently reported that Pulev’s first fight under the Top Rank/ESPN umbrella would be against Finland’s Robert Helenius on March 23 in Los Angeles. Six days ago, the distinguished European fight writer Per Ake Persson told his readers that the fight had fallen out, ostensibly because the parties could not come to terms.

Tyson Fury is the most charismatic white heavyweight to come down the pike since Gerry Cooney and the big galoot is bigger than Cooney ever was as he has avid followers on both sides of the Atlantic and Cooney didn’t have social media to enhance his profile. I have little doubt that ESPN will recoup their investment in him. However, deals in boxing are never consummated with an eye on uplifting the sport – on patching things up with the disaffected – and here’s yet another example.

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Three Punch Combo: Two Recent Upsets Trigger Memories of Forgotten Fights

Matt Andrzejewski

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upsets win world titles

THREE PUNCH COMBO — There is just something magical about a longshot overcoming seemingly unsurmountable odds to accomplish a major feat in boxing such as winning a world title.

Earlier this month, undefeated 130-pound champion Alberto Machado defended his title against Andrew Cancio in Indio, CA. Cancio (pictured) was considered a solid pro, but he had been outclassed on the occasions when he stepped up his level of opposition and few expected him to remotely compete with Machado. But Cancio elevated his game and sprung an unthinkable upset, stopping Machado in the fourth round to become a world champion. Cancio’s incredible backstory has since been well documented by several media outlets.

In terms of shock value, Cancio’s upset was mindful of another recent upset, Caleb Traux’s monster upset of James DeGale in December of 2017. Truax traveled to the UK to challenge 168-pound title-holder DeGale.  He was given no shot to win; most doubted that he would be competitive. But Truax overcame the odds and shocked the boxing world winning a majority decision to become a world title-holder. Truax’s story of overcoming incredible odds to dethrone DeGale became the feel good boxing story of 2017.

The underdog stories of Truax and Cancio are still fresh in our minds. But often times, such stories become somewhat forgotten as time passes. In this week’s three punch combo, I will look at three other incredible underdog stories that all occurred in 1997. They were all equally as heartwarming as those of Truax and Cancio.

Keith Mullings vs. Terry Norris, 12/06/1997

In 1997, 154-pound champion Terry Norris left his promoter Don King to sign with Top Rank with the express purpose of securing a big money fight against Oscar De La Hoya. After winning two non-title fights under the Top Rank banner against low level opponents, Norris was placed on the same pay-per-view card as De La Hoya who would be defending his WBC world welterweight title against Wilfredo Rivera. Top Rank was planting the seeds for a De La Hoya-Norris showdown the following year. Not wanting to take any chances, they selected a seemingly safe opponent for Norris in Keith Mullings.

Mullings entered with a record of 14-4-1. He had one win in his last six fights. However, Mullings was coming off a controversial split decision loss to another 154-pound champion in Raul Marquez three months earlier in a fight many believed Mullings deserved to win. The performance against Marquez gave Mullings credibility but his limited skills did not leave many to believe that he could compete with an elite fighter like Norris.

For the first seven rounds, the script seemed to be going according to plan. Norris boxed effectively using his left jab to control range and landing combinations behind that punch. He was seemingly in total control of the fight.

In round eight, Norris’s movement slowed and Mullings began to land on a more stationary target. Although not known as a puncher, he dropped Norris with a hard right hand. Norris survived the round but Mullings came out aggressive to start round nine. After reigning punch after punch on Norris in the first minute of the round, referee Tony Perez stepped in to save Norris from more punishment.

Mullings would make one successful defense of his title three months later, stopping Davide Ciarlante in round five, but that would be the last win of his career. He would lose his title in his next outing to Javier Castillejo and then lose three more times before hanging up the gloves for good in 2001.

Mauricio Pastrana vs. Michael Carbajal, 01/18/1997

Entering 1997, 108-pound champion Michael Carbajal had only two losses on his resume in 46 professional fights. Both losses had come in 1994 to the great Humberto Gonzalez. One was by majority decision and one by split decision. Carbajal had won 12 fights in a row following the second defeat to Gonzalez and was still considered to be in the prime of his Hall of Fame career as he entered a title defense against unknown Mauricio Pastrana on January 18th, 1997.

Pastrana had an undefeated record of 15-0 with 13 of those wins coming by knockout. But he had fought nobody of note, feasting on inferior competition in his native Columbia. He was given literally no shot by most in boxing to even be competitive with the much more experienced and seemingly more skilled Carbajal. As a matter of fact, so little was thought of Pastrana that during the beginning of the fight a promo was run hyping Carbajal’s next scheduled title defense in March.

The first two rounds were largely feeling-out type rounds. In round three, Pastrana announced his presence, shaking Carbajal with a hard right hand. From there, Pastrana upped his output using an effective well-timed stinging left jab to set up his combinations. He outworked Carbajal and landed the cleaner punches as the fight progressed. Carbajal certainly had his moments in what became a surprisingly exciting fight but in the end the judges preferred the activity and cleaner punching of Pastrana who would win a split decision.

Pastrana made two successful defenses against overmatched foes before losing his belt on the scales before a scheduled title defense in August of 1998. In his next fight, he would capture an interim title belt in the flyweight division but that would be his last success in any major title fight. He never was able to replicate the performance he had against Carbajal. Along the way, Pastrana suffered defeats to some big names including Rafael Marquez, Celestino Caballero, Jhonny Gonzalez and Gary Russell Jr. Following a knockout loss to Mikey Garcia in 2012, Pastrana retired with a final professional record of 35-17-2.

Uriah Grant vs. Adolpho Washington, 06/21/1997

In his second pro fight, Uriah Grant was fed to debuting 1984 Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medalist Henry Tillman and was knocked out in the second round. Three fights later, Grant was selected as an opponent for prospect Ricky Womack and dropped a six round decision. It appeared that Grant’s career was ticketed to being that of a journeyman.

Grant’s career would bounce up and down following the Womack loss. With a lack of depth in the cruiserweight division, Grant did get opportunities at bigger fights and even world title bouts but continued to fall short when he stepped up in class. The journeyman tag seemed appropriate as he entered his 13th year as a pro in 1997 with a pedestrian record of 25-12.

In August of 1996, Adolpho Washington traveled to Spain and scored a unanimous decision victory over the previously undefeated Torsten May to win a cruiserweight title. The win moved Washington’s record to 26-3-2. After a bit of a layoff, Washington settled on a title defense against Grant to help shake off the rust.

Stuffed deep on a Don King promoted card in Florida, the fight was thought to be a mismatch with no US television interested and barely anyone in attendance. But in an absolute shocker, Grant defeated Washington by split decision. The unheralded cruiserweight went from journeyman to world champion overnight.

Unfortunately for Grant, his championship reign would be short. Five months later in his first title defense, he was out-boxed by Imamu Mayfield losing a unanimous decision.

Grant would not fight for a major title again, but in 2000 he would gain a little more notoriety when he defeated a faded Thomas Hearns. Four years after defeating Hearns and following a string of losses, Uriah Grant retired with a final record of 30-21.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan Photos / Golden Boy Promotions

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Ringside in LA: Leo Santa Cruz Educates Rafael Rivera in an Entertaining Fight

David A. Avila

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Leo Santa Cruz

LOS ANGELES-Last minute substitute or not, Leo Santa Cruz met the future in Mexico’s Rafael Rivera and banged it out with the youngster for 12 entertaining rounds to retain the WBA featherweight world title by decision on Saturday.

It was all about that learning curve.

Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KOs) gave Tijuana’s Rivera (26-3-2, 17 KOs) a lesson on elite prizefighting before more than 5,000 at the Microsoft Theater. Despite the disparity in experience the featherweight clash was still packed with action.

If fans expected Rivera to be run out of town by the much more experienced Santa Cruz, they were badly mistaken. The Tijuana fighter had fought in Southern California twice before and exhibited a toughness and grit you don’t see from run-of-the-mill opponents. Though he was called in just weeks ago, Rivera was ready and willing.

Immediately Santa Cruz showed the skill and intelligence needed to be a world champion and targeted Rivera’s body from the first round. Despite the painful looking digs to the body, the youngster Rivera held firm.

It was all Santa Cruz for the first four rounds as he showed off his ability to blast body shots at will. The painful looking shots seemed to bother Rivera, not because of the pain inflicted, but from embarrassment from not being able to defend against the onslaught.

“I hit him hard to the body and head very well, but he didn’t go down,” said Santa Cruz.

Rivera found his break in the fifth round when he managed to give the champion a different look. Multiple left hooks connected on the champion and he then capped the end of the round with a vicious left hook body shot and right uppercut. Santa Cruz smiled at the effort.

Santa Cruz never allowed Rivera much more from there on. He mixed up his attack and confused Rivera with different looks, except in the ninth round when both flurried with a barrage of blows like angry alley cats.

The winner of the fight was never in doubt during the last half of the fight. But fans enjoyed the high caliber exhibition of the art of banging Mexican style. After 11 rounds both fighters looked at each other with respect and were ready for an eventful finale.

Santa Cruz probably knew he was far ahead and though he relishes bang, bang type of fights, he was still careful enough to not make obvious openings for Rivera. It was a careful and scientific round until the final 10 second warning clap, then both looked at each other and nodded simultaneously and proceeded to unleash a barrage of punches in tornado-like fashion. The fans yelled in unison for the flourish of blows and cheered at the final bell.

But after 12 rounds the judges were in agreement and all tabbed the fight 119-109 for Santa Cruz.

“I’m very happy with my performance and I thought I gave everyone a great fight. I was in there with one of the best fighters in the world and throwing punches and exchanging with him. More than anything, I’m very proud to have fought 12 rounds with a great world champion like Leo Santa Cruz,” said Rivera.

Santa Cruz was not as pleased with the performance, but happy that it was an entertaining fight.

“I tried to do my best and do what I could to give them a great fight,” said Santa Cruz. “I would have loved to have been even better, but he’s really tough and solid opponent.”

Santa Cruz fans were pleased by the effort and the champion himself seeks even more challenges this year.

“I want to fight the best. I want to fight any of the champions at featherweight or a third fight with Carl Frampton,” said Santa Cruz. “I want to be back this summer and fight three times this year against the best in the division.”

Figueroa Wins

A battle between welterweight sluggers saw Omar Figueroa (28-0-1, 19 KOs) out-punch John Molina (30-8, 24 KOs) and win by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a fight that surprisingly saw no knockdowns despite their lofty records for stoppages.

Figueroa was the busier fighter throughout but Molina had his moments especially with the overhand rights. Each fighter scored with heavy shots throughout the 10 round match but the judges liked Figueroa’s busier output. The scores were 97-93, 98-92, 99-91 for Figueroa.

It was expected to be a fight resulting in a knockout but each fighter showed a good chin despite the big blows scored. Figueroa, who hails from Weslaco, Texas, is a former lightweight world titlist but has been forced to move up due to weight problems. Southern California’s Molina showed a good chin and keeps his name in the game.

Ryosuke Iwasa Wins Elimination Bout

Japan’s Ryosuke Iwasa (26-3) won by technical decision after 10 rounds against Mexico’s Cesar Juarez (23-7) in an IBF super bantamweight elimination title fight. The fight was stopped because of a cut on Juarez from an accidental clash of heads in the second round, A ringside physician stopped the fight at the end of the ninth round and according to California rules it went to the scorecards where Iwasa was ruled the winner by majority decision 95-95, 97-93, 98-92.

Other Bouts

Giant super welterweight Sebastian Fundora (12-0, 8 KOs) knocked out Buffalo’s Donnie Marshall (10-1, 6 KOs) at 1:08 of the third round to win the battle of undefeated 154-pounders.

Despite the nine-inch reach advantage and the six-inch height advantage Fundor fought most of the clash on the inside and scored heavily with long right uppercuts. It was a long right uppercut that caught Marshall moving away and floored him in the third round. Fundora then chased the dazed fighter around the ring and battered him with a dozen unanswered blows that forced referee Jerry Cantu to halt the fight and declare a knockout win for Fundora.

Fundora fights out of Coachella, Calif.

Argentina’s Neri Romero (12-0) was blasted to the floor with a sneak punch by Thomas Smith (5-7-1) right during a break but managed to claw his way back to a win by unanimous decision after six rounds in a super featherweight match. Smith, who fights out of Dallas, showed he could really take a shot but tired at the end of the last three rounds and allowed Romero to win on endurance. All three judges saw it the same 58-55.

Shon Mondragon (1-0) stopped Julio Martinez (1-1) at 47 seconds of round two with a two-fisted attack that forced referee Ray Corona to halt the super bantamweight fight. Mondragon, a southpaw, fights out of Commerce, Colorado.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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