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Steve Cunningham, Who Almost Kayoed Tyson Fury, Believes Wilder Will Do It

Bernard Fernandez

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large heavyweights

If you want to call Tyson Fury’s style “Greco-Roman boxing,” that’s probably as good a description as any. Like most exceptionally large heavyweights who dwarf smaller opponents with significant advantages in height, weight and reach, an important element in Fury’s standard fight plan is to initiate multiple clinches, to lean on those figurative Lilliputians until their strength saps and, gasping, they become increasingly vulnerable to standard boxing tactics in the later rounds.

Hey, if it worked for the even more gigantic but far clumsier Nikolai Valuev (50-2, 34 KOs), a two-time WBA heavyweight champion, why shouldn’t it work for the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Fury (27-0, 19 KOs) when the former unified titlist challenges WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) on Dec. 1 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles? At 6’7” Wilder is almost tall enough to look Fury straight in the eye, and his impressive 83-inch reach is nearly a match for Fury’s 85-inch tentacles. But Wilder, who was comparatively lean even at his heaviest-ever official ring weight of 229 pounds, came in at an almost-skinny 214¾ for his most recent defense, in which he had to fight through several scary moments before stopping Luis “King Kong” Ortiz, who outweighed him by 26½ pounds, in the 10th round on March 3 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.  The differential in heft will be even more pronounced should the free-swinging Wilder find himself wrapped up time and again in Fury’s tactical bear hugs.

But two-time former cruiserweight champion Steve “USS” Cunningham, maybe more than anyone, understands that Fury’s strengths can be at least somewhat negated by the sort of advantages Wilder, an opening-line minus-160 favorite, holds over his hulking rival. Some of Wilder’s attributes are reasonably similar to those of Cunningham, who dropped and hurt Fury in the second round (that’s Fury on the seat of his pants) before being stopped himself in the seventh round of their April 20, 2013, bout at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. But Wilder hits a hell of a lot harder than Cunningham, which is the main reason why Cunningham is picking the Alabamian to finish the demolition job he might have shockingly pulled off 5½ years earlier had he been able to connect with just the right follow-up shot to a clearly buzzed Fury.

“In my fight with Fury, he totally underestimated me and we capitalized on that,” said the 42-year-old Cunningham, who has since dropped back down to cruiserweight and is still presumably active, although he has not fought since losing a 10-round unanimous decision to Andrew Tabiti on Aug. 26, 2017. “I was able to catch him when he was goofing off and playing. Even after he got up and got serious, I was still able to catch him coming in. I’d maneuver to put myself in a better spot to do that.

“So we know Fury can get knocked down with a big shot. I’ve done it.”

He did it despite not being known as a big hitter, but massive power is and has always has been Wilder’s calling card. With a knockout percentage of 97.5 that almost looks like a typographical error, Wilder, the super heavyweight bronze medalist for the United States at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, never goes into any bout expecting it to go the distance. If he hits Fury with the same sort of shot that Cunningham did, it’s a good bet that the big, burly Briton won’t beat the count, and even if he does he might not be able to recover from it as quickly as he did against Cunningham.

“With Fury fighting Wilder, I can’t go against Wilder,” Cunningham said. “I can’t really go against Wilder against any of the top heavyweights, including Anthony Joshua. Why? Because Wilder has that great equalizer, a sledgehammer of a right hand. We all know that once that right hand lands – and it’s going to land at some point in a 12-round fight – the outcome is pretty much a done deal.”

But what about Fury’s frequent clinches, which not only can fatigue the other guy, but frustrate him as well?

“I don’t see Fury’s weight being an issue because Wilder has good movement and he can box better than a lot of people think,” Cunningham continued. “Yeah, I know Deontay can look a little goofy and undisciplined at times, but he hasn’t been made to look like the boxer he’s capable of being. We’ve seen glimpses of it here and there, but he’d probably have to show more of that against Fury until the opening comes to him to deliver that great equalizer. No matter how I size it up, I see Wilder stopping Fury with that right hand. He keeps launching it and launching it and launching it until the big one connects.”

Fury has a back story – uh, make that stories – that has probably made him more recognizable and marketable than his relatively unexciting, albeit victorious, performances merit. He was a preemie as an infant, coming into this world at a little over a pound, making for exceedingly long odds of his even making it to childhood, much less filling out to his current gargantuan dimensions. There is the burden of his being an Irish Traveller, a group that is widely reviled in the United Kingdom but nonetheless holds a certain fascination to the public. And if all that weren’t enough, there is the epic cocaine-and-eating binges that he went on, and now has come back from, after he stunned the boxing world by outpointing long-reigning and lineal champion Wladimir Klitschko on Nov. 28, 2015, in Dusseldorf, Germany. A serial utterer of coarse and controversial quotes who fancies himself a better singer than fighter, Fury is a media darling right up to the time the bell rings and his crackling pre-fight wattage generates less electricity inside the ropes.

But it is a mistake to lump Fury, whose dad named him after Mike Tyson, with the robotic, lumbering and monosyllabic Valuev. He does have a skill set, and one that extends beyond his array of wrestling moves.

“Size doesn’t equate to boxing ability,” said Cunningham, who was up 57-55 on two of the official scorecards and even 56-56 on the other at the time he was knocked out by Fury. “It also doesn’t equate to punching power, not really. To Fury’s credit, he’s pretty athletic for such a big guy and he comes in shape, or at least he did when I was in camp with him (as a sparring partner) and fought him later on. He had a rowing machine and he rowed on it like a maniac. He did other things that were kind of unique. I remember thinking, `Wow, this guy does have a good engine in him,’ so he was capable of going a lot of rounds. If you don’t get him out of there early, he will use that size to wear you down. Because of that, the only two current heavyweights I see who are capable of knocking him out are Wilder and Joshua.

“Him being so much bigger than most of the guys he fights, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take a toll on you. Guys who fight Fury now, or who fought Valuev then, would train to be able to better cope with the wrestling and the holding. They’d train to not get in those type situations as often. Before I fought him, I knew Fury liked to lay on opponents. I sparred with big guys in camp for four or five weeks, but they weren’t that big and I just wasn’t able get anybody to really replicate him.

“My plan was to use my legs as much as possible to stay away from him, but I was coming off my second fight with Tomasz Adamek in which I felt I had done enough to easily win on points (Cunningham lost a disputed split decision). So you get it in your mind that, hey, maybe I should just try to knock (Fury) out instead.

“I had my chance. Wilder, I believe, will get his chance as well. Will he put the giant down and out? That’s my pick. But we won’t find out until fight night, will we?”

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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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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