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SPECIAL FOR TSS: The Crown Fits, by David Linden

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“ You start a fighter in kindergarten, and hope that one day, if they’ve got the ability, heart and desire, they’ll graduate with a master’s degree—a championship.”
–Manager and trainer, Angelo Dundee

On an autumn evening more than 30 years ago, Sugar Ray Leonard won the World Boxing Council world welterweight championship by lifting the crown from defending champion Wilfred Benitez with a technical knockout at 2:54 of the fifteenth and final round before a capacity crowd of 4,589 and a national television audience at Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada.

With the champion trapped along the ropes after suffering his second knockdown of the fight, and Leonard on the attack with both fists, referee, Carlos Padilla Jr., called a halt to the hostilities with six seconds remaining in the bout to spare Benitez further punishment and awarded the undefeated challenger his 26th consecutive victory and 17th by knockout.

At the time of the stoppage, Leonard wheeled around, sprinted across the ring, and vaulted upon the second tier of ropes in a neutral corner—arms raised high above his head in victory. The elated new champion then jumped to the floor and sprang into the arms of his co-trainer and advisor, Janks Morton.

“And there is a new world welterweight champion!” long-time boxing commentator, the late Howard Cosell, declared with gusto to a television audience estimated at some 55 million viewers tuned into the fight live on the ABC television network.

“First of all, I made a million dollars (and) I was in a different tax bracket,” said Leonard in recalling his triumphant leap onto the ropes.

“I mean, the fight was huge.  It was Las Vegas. It was at Caesars Palace—it was like, ‘Wow!’

“I think I just out-hustled (Benitez), I out-fought him. My hand speed—I think I was a little faster than he was, but he was just so slick. It took every ounce of me to beat him. He had the experience, but I had the heart and determination, and I think that’s why I prevailed.”

For Leonard, the title-winning effort capped a busy 1979 in which the Palmer Park, Maryland welterweight fought and won nine times while registering eight knockouts in being honored as “Fighter of the Year” by The Ring magazine.

Change in plans:

Ironically, after punctuating an outstanding amateur career with a gold medal in the 139-pound light-welterweight division at the XXI Olympiad at Montreal, Canada, in 1976, the then-20-year-old future world champion never intended on a professional boxing career.  After winning the Olympic title, Leonard believed that a college degree from the University of Maryland was in his future until family health issues forced a change in plans.

“Being in the Olympics in ’76 was truly an incredible accomplishment, and going for the gold medal was awesome, it was incredible,” said Leonard. “To have made it that far and then be just one fight from bringing home a gold medal was just unbelievable.”

After recording decisions over Ulf Carlson of Sweden, Valery Limasov of the Soviet Union, Clinton McKenzie of Great Britain, Ulrich Beyer of East Germany, and Kazimier Szczerba of Poland, Leonard was matched against the heavy-punching Andres Aldama of Cuba for the gold medal on July 31, 1976.

The American pounded out a unanimous 5-0 verdict to become an Olympic champion and closed out his amateur career with a record of 145-5.

“I was somewhat the underdog because Andres Aldama had just annihilated everybody,” Leonard remembered. “He was so dominant. He wouldn’t just knock guys out; he would knock guys senseless. He put guys on their back; he was such a powerful puncher—a tall, southpaw.

“Even one of my local papers at home in D.C. predicted that I would lose, that I had no chance of winning. But I beat the guy; I beat the guy with hand speed and with foot movement. It was a big win.

“My mom and dad were there, my family was there. My dad was sick at the time and to have him sitting ringside was just so inspirational.”

With his father suffering from spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, the Olympic titlist felt obligated to put plans for higher education aside and explore the monetary potential of the professional ring.

“I had no intention of turning professional,” Leonard explained. “I had received a scholarship to the University of Maryland, so I was going to college. The only reason I turned pro was because of my dad’s illness. He went into a coma once we got home (from Canada). I just felt I was the only one in the family that could bring in some quick money to pay off the hospital bills and I did just that—that was my intention. So I turned pro, and made a couple dollars, paid off the bills, my dad regained his health, and I said, ‘You know what? This is not a bad job,’ and I continued.”

Managed by Angelo Dundee, and trained by Dave Jacobs, Morton and Jose ‘Pepe’ Correa, the former Olympic gold medallist received a then-record $ 42,500 debut purse for his CBS-televised professional baptism on February 5, 1977 –a unanimous six-round decision against 8-11-2 Luis ‘The Bull’ Vega in Baltimore, Maryland.

During his first 33 months as a professional leading to the title bout with Benitez, Leonard fought on the major television networks of ABC, CBS and NBC as well as cable television’s HBO to help the boxer record, according to one estimate, approximately three million dollars in professional ring earnings prior to challenging for the world title.

Different level:

When asked if there was a bout in which he realized that he could be champion, Leonard pointed to his second professional fight held in Baltimore on May 14, 1977—a unanimous six-round decision against the 10-1 Willie ‘Fireball’ Rodriguez.

“I think that one fight that really taught me that (professional boxing) is a whole different level than amateur boxing was my second professional fight. (Rodriguez) not only introduced me to the fact that if you get a tooth knocked out, you can get cosmetic surgery to have it fixed, he nearly knocked me out.”

“It was an uppercut,” Leonard said in recalling the punch that Rodriguez delivered to put him in serious trouble. “A big, vicious uppercut and I remember that like it was yesterday.

“He had the experience, but I had the hand speed, I had the determination and I think that was what pulled me through.”

The bout with Rodriguez also showed Leonard that he would be better suited to the heavier 147-pound welterweight division rather than the lighter 140-pound junior welterweight classification.

“I think that fight also indicated that fighting at 140 was just a bit too much because I was getting bigger and trying to make 140 was senseless because it was taking away the fun of training and the joy and the pleasures of getting in shape because I was so concerned about making the 140 weight limit.”

Championship dreams:

In the fall of 1979, Leonard, rated as the world’s number-one welterweight contender by The Ring magazine, boasted a record of 25-0 with 16 knockouts, and was ready to challenge for the WBC world championship.

The 15-round Benitez-Leonard title bout marked the first time in boxing history that fighters outside of the heavyweight division would earn purses of seven figures.

Leonard’s payday for challenging the 21-year-old, undefeated champion was a reported one million dollars.

For his first professional fight as a 15-year-old in 1973, WBC welterweight champion Wilfred Benitez received a purse of $50 dollars for his one-round knockout of Hiram Santiago in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

On March 6, 1976, Benitez became the youngest champion in professional boxing history when, as a 17 year-old teenager, he took a 25-0 record into the ring in San Juan and captured a 15-round split-decision and the World Boxing Association junior welterweight title from the highly respected, 30-year-old defending champion, Antonio ‘Kid Pambele’ Cervantes, a fighter who held a record of 73-9-3 and was making his 11th title defense.

After successfully defending the WBA 140-pound crown three times, Benitez moved up in weight and added a second world championship to his resume when he won the WBC welterweight championship from titlist, Carlos Palomino, on a 15-round split verdict in San Juan on January 14, 1979.

The Bronx, New York-born title-holder, sporting a record of 38-0-1 with 25 knockouts and fighting out of San Just, Puerto Rico, earned a reported $140,000 for his first successful defense of the WBC crown, a 15-round unanimous decision over Harold Weston on March 25, 1979, and would now receive $ 1.2 million in compensation for risking the title against the 23-year old Leonard.

“I’m not scared of nobody,” the champ was quoted as saying before the bout by the Associated Press. “I’m the champion. That’s why I fight the greatest. I beat Pambele and Palomino and when I beat Leonard I’ll fight (former world lightweight king and welterweight contender) Roberto Duran,” said Benitez who would be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996.

“Benitez was one of those rare fighters that’s so gifted, it’s sickening,” Leonard said. “So elusive, great hand-eye coordination. He’d slip a punch just by a millimeter. A pretty solid puncher. Not really a knockout puncher, but he still could hurt you. Just a smart, technical fighter. Benitez had no weak points, he had no weak areas. As much as we watched tapes, there were no weak points. You had to catch him (and) you had to make that happen.”

Preparation:

“I trained very, very hard for the fight,” said Leonard who had never fought past ten rounds prior to the title match.

“When I trained, I (sparred) five-minute rounds sometimes with 30-seconds of rest. Going down the stretch, (of a fight) I had the ability to become rejuvenated. I had great recuperative powers, and I could bounce back—and going down the stretch, really engage in some (effective punching) combinations.”

The challenger, a 3 ½ -1 betting favorite to take Benitez’ crown, felt no need to increase his regular daily roadwork mileage for the demanding 15-round championship distance.

“I always felt, ‘What’s the difference between running ten miles or running five miles?’ You won’t go any more rounds than I. If I run five miles a day and you run 15 miles a day, does that mean you can go 20 rounds? No. It’s just a way of training.

“I would run like I’m fighting. Every now and then I’d sprint, jog a little bit, slow down, run backwards, run sideways—and I got that from Muhammad Ali, he gave me that advice. ‘Run like you fight’,” said Leonard in crediting the former three-time world heavyweight champion.

Fight night:

For his second title defense, the 5’10” Benitez weighed in at 144 ½ pounds while the 5’10” challenger came in at an even 146.

After entering the 19’6” x 19’6” ring, both welterweights participated in psychological warfare as they engaged in a face-to-face stare-down prior to the opening bell.
“I think there was such a mental intensity in that fight when we stared each other down. I was pissed, (Benitez) had fun,” said Leonard in recalling the moment. “I learned so much from that fight—that you’ve got to be calm. Always be calm. My first big championship fight, I’m almost gnawing through my mouthpiece, but (Benitez) was so ‘Cool-hand-Luke’ and that’s what made him such a great fighter—his breathing patterns, his poise, his coolness.”

The first big moment of the evening came late in the third round, when a left jab from the challenger deposited the champion on the seat of his trunks.

“It was more of a flash-flood knockdown,” Leonard said. “He wasn’t really hurt; I think I just caught him at the perfect time with the perfect punch. It wasn’t a big punch per se, but it was a punch that just caught him right on the button and put him down.”

In Round 6, an accidental collision of heads resulted in a welt on Leonard’s forehead and left Benitez with a gash that oozed blood down the champion’s forehead and face.

“It happened so quickly,” Leonard said. “It startled me because when you collide with your head, that’s pretty traumatizing. I was shaken up a little bit. Thank God I wasn’t cut, but I looked at him and he had like a little gash in the middle of his forehead. He smiled it off.”

Leonard praised the effectiveness of the champion’s defensive skills.

“When I was fighting him, it was like a mirror. I’ve never missed that many punches. So that told me that he had that elusiveness. It’s like a mirage—one time he’s there, the next time he’s not. So slick, so talented. It was just so difficult to land combinations with him. But the good thing about it, when I threw combinations, I may miss two, three punches, but the fourth punch would come in and catch him.”

Round 11 saw a left hook, followed by a right hand that knocked Benitez’ mouthpiece out as Leonard had the champion in trouble along the ropes.

“I think my hand speed and the number of punches we threw; I think I just wore him down. Because it’s 15 rounds of just punches and punches. I tried left hook, uppercut, I tried everything in the book. Whatever landed, I tried.”

With one round remaining, the challenger enjoyed a clear lead on all three official ringside scorecards. Judge Harry Gibbs scored the contest 136-134; judge Ray Solis saw the fight 137-133, and judge Art Lurie’s card read 137-130, meaning that Benitez would have to knock Leonard out in order to retain the title.

“I was totally exhausted, just spent,” Leonard remembered about heading into the final stanza. “Just so physically tired. I knew it was the last round and I was giving it all I had. (Benitez) was giving it all he had. I ended up catching him with some combinations and the referee jumped in.”

With approximately 30 seconds left in the bout, both fighters exchanged uppercuts on the inside. Leonard missed with a chopping right but followed with a left hook that caught Benitez high on the head and dropped the champion to one knee.

With crimson leaking from his forehead, Benitez rose and walked to a neutral corner while taking an eight-count. When the fight resumed, the challenger pounced on his foe and forced Padilla to intervene.

“I stayed on top of him, in the corner,” Leonard remembered. “And the referee was seeing that he wasn’t really punching back, and jumped in.”

In the aftermath of the stoppage, Benitez walked over to Leonard and embraced his conqueror in the crowded ring.

“(Leonard) won good,” Benitez told the press following the fight. “I don’t have any question. No excuse. This tremendous champion—he won the fight.”

“I’ve always respected him, he always respected me. There was mutual respect,” Leonard said. “He was a true, true champion.”

Recovery:

“After the fight I got back to my room (at Caesars).  I was just so exhausted. It took that much out of me to beat Benitez. I went to my room and unfortunately they put me in a tub of hot water and I dehydrated and I had to be rushed to the hospital.

“You don’t put a man who went 15 rounds in a tub of hot water. Your body is already overheated. So (if) you put yourself in hot water, you are going to start to draw out the little bit of fluids in your body.”

The new champion received intravenous fluid treatment during his hospital stay.

“It was just to hydrate myself. I was there in the hospital for like an hour or two. No big deal.”

With a portion of the purse from his first title fight, Leonard purchased some new transportation and had a gift for his parents.

“I think I bought a Mercedes, (and) I bought my mom and dad a new house too. That was my treat (to myself).”

Leonard, who finished his professional career with a mark of 36-3-1, would be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, having won professional world championships in the welterweight, junior middleweight, middleweight, super-middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions.

When asked where his title-winning effort against Wilfred Benitez ranks among his boxing accomplishments, the champion said: “That’s up there. That (victory) started me, with my confidence and with the experience I got from fighting Benitez, to capture many more titles. So that (bout) ranks very high up there.”


Bibliography:

1.    Interview with Ray Leonard. December 2008.
2.    Goldstein, Alan 1981. A Fistful of Sugar: The Sugar Ray Leonard Story P. 119.
3.    David Condon, Chicago Tribune 2, December 1979. World Champ Sugar Ray Quiets Skeptics.
4.    Associated Press Report, Wisconsin State Journal, 30, November 1979. Champion Benitez Must Prove Ability In Bout With Sugar Ray.
5.    Ross Newhan, Los Angeles Times 1, December 1979. Another Sugar Ray Rules Welterweights.
6.    Michael Katz, New York Times 1, December 1979. Leonard Stops Benitez In 15 To Win Welterweight Title.
7.    Red Smith, New York Times 30, November 1979. Appeal of Sugar Ray Leonard The Greatest Thing Since Ali.
8.    Gary Deeb, Chicago Tribune 14, December 1979. Surprise KO: Boxing Still Attractive Prime-time Draw.
9.    The Ring magazine: June/December 1979/ March 1980.
10.    Video: Original telecast of the Wilfred Benitez-Ray Leonard WBC world welterweight championship title fight: Aired Friday, November 30th 1979 by the American Broadcasting Company.
11.    Roberts, B.James and Skutt, Alexander G. 2006 The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Record Book: 4th Edition PP. 295, 343-344.
12.    Website of the International Boxing Hall of Fame: IBHOF.com
13.    Website: Boxrec.com
14.    Website: Sports Reference.com: Olympic Sports.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 126: Viva Puerto Rico, Claressa Shields, Canelo and More

In the age of Covid-19 fights get canceled and re-arranged and that’s found here in this second attempt to stage Serhii Bohachuk versus Brandon Adams in a super welterweight showdown.

This pairing was first talked about back when the Dodgers and Lakers both won world championships last October. Finally, it’s ready to cast off.

Beautiful Puerto Rico will be the locale for Bohachuk (18-0, 18 KOs) when he meets Adams (22-3, 14 KOs) on Thursday March 4, at Felix Pintor Gym in Guaynabo. NBC Sports Network will televise the Ring City USA fight card.

“Flaco” Bohachuk has rampaged through the super welterweight division like a ravenous Ukrainian version of Pacman. Who can stop him?

Adams has fought the better competition including a world title match against Jermall Charlo that he lost by decision less than two years ago.

Other factors exist.

Bohachuk was formally trained by Abel Sanchez in Big Bear Mountain but now works with Manny Robles at sea level. Will it make a difference when he trades blows against the smaller but seemingly stronger Adams?

“We’re taking this fight seriously against Adams,” said Robles who has trained numerous world champions including Oscar Valdez and Andy Ruiz. “Adams is a very strong fighter.”

Bohachuk last fought deep in the heart of Mexico and emerged with a stoppage that saw him scrap with little-known but tough-as-nails Alejandro Davila. Both landed serious stuff but Bohachuk just had more firepower.

Adams says he has seen firepower like Bohachuk’s before. He went toe-to-toe with Charlo for the WBC middleweight title and never touched the canvas. He’s smaller but more muscular and has fought taller guys most of his career.

This is one of those fights that used to be held at the Olympic Auditorium back in the day. Ironically, there is a documentary that has just been released about those days before it was closed to boxing in 2005.

Added note: Fernando Vargas Jr. will also engage on the fight card. The son of “El Feroz,” Fernando Vargas Jr. fights out of Las Vegas and will be in his second pro fight as a super middleweight.

Women’s pay-per-view

An all-women fight card led by Claressa Shields takes place on Friday March 5. It will be streamed by FITE.tv beginning at 6 p.m. PT. Price is $29.99.

Shields (10-0) faces her toughest foe yet when she steps in the boxing ring against Canada’s undefeated Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0) for the undisputed super welterweight world championship.

Dicaire is a tall southpaw with speed and agility who has defeated several world champions.

Shields is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former undisputed middleweight world champion and super middleweight titlist who dropped down two weight divisions to pursue this venture.

Also, just added is Marlen Esparza, a USA Olympic bronze medalist, and current flyweight contender.

Esparza (8-1) agreed to fight on the pay-per-view card and meets Shelly Barnett (4-3-2) in a six-round bout set for the super flyweight division. Her last fight took place in October and she handed talented Sulem Urbina her first loss as a pro.

Barnett is a Canadian veteran of nine pro fights including an eight-round battle with Florida’s Rosalinda Rodriguez.

Rumor has it that Esparza is getting prepared for a showdown with Mexico’s Ibeth “La Roca” Zamora for the WBC flyweight world title later in the spring.

It’s a pretty good pay-per-view card that also features Danielle Perkins, Logan Holler and Jamie Mitchell in competitive fights. If you haven’t seen women fights, take a look. Shields alone can astonish with her fighting skills.

Canelo

That redhead from Mexico continues to decimate the competition whether its from England, Turkey or Russia. Line them up and let them fly.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez holds the WBA and WBC super middleweight world titles and was forced to fight the number one contender Avni Yildirim and promptly stomped him out like a bug on the rug.

Fans get upset. They don’t understand that ratings exist and with four or five sanctioning organizations all having different standings, a fighter like Alvarez who has two titles is forced to fight fighters ranked number one through 10. But it’s just a part of boxing that has to be done.

Alvarez had already skipped Yildirim before to fight Callum Smith for the WBA title which he won by unanimous decision. Now he will be meeting another Brit in Billy Joe Saunders who has the WBO version of the super middleweight title. It will take place on May 8, most likely in Las Vegas. That’s Cinco de Mayo weekend. Las Vegas needs the bank. Once again it depends on the Covid-19 situation.

Off topic, Canelo recently had an exchange with Claressa Shields who posted on social media that the Mexican redhead is one of her favorite fighters. She likes working on technique and posted one of her workouts where she is hitting a heavy bag with a combination that she saw Canelo use.

Canelo saw it and gave her a few tips. Champion to champion. That was kind of cool.

Farewell to L.A. Favorite

Featherweight contender Danny Valdez passed away on Sunday February 28 in Los Angeles. He was 81.

Valdez held the California Featherweight title when the state championship was not easy to gain. He also vied for the world title against Davey Moore in April 1961 in Los Angeles.

Many of his battles took place at the vaunted Olympic Auditorium where he fought the likes of Gil Cadilli and Sugar Ramos. Back in those days there was no better place to fight than the Olympic. But Valdez did engage in battles at Wrigley Field and the Hollywood Legion Stadium too.

Though Valdez fought up and down the West Coast in Oregon and California, he primarily battled at the Olympic Auditorium, a total of 24 times in all. If you ever watched a boxing card at the Olympic, it was a magical place.

Fights to Watch

(All Times are Pacific Time)

Thurs. 6 p.m. NBC Sports Network Serhii Bohachuk (18-0) vs Brandon Adams (22-3)

Fri. 6 p.m. FITE.tv.  Claressa Shields (10-0) vs Marie Eve Dicaire (17-0); Marlen Esparza (8-1) vs Shelly Barnett (4-3-2); Logan Holler (9-0-1) vs Schemelle Baldwin (3-1-2); Danielle Perkins (2-0) vs Monika Harrison (2-1-1); Jamie Mitchell (5-0-2) vs Noemi Bosques (12-15-3).

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Ramirez vs. Taylor Adds Luster to an Already Strong Boxing Slate in May

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing will heat up big-time in May. Canelo Alvarez will defend his WBC 168-pound title on May 8 against Billy Joe Saunders. Two weeks later, WBC/WBO 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez (26-0, 17 KOs) meets his IBF/WBA counterpart Josh Taylor (17-0, 13 KOs). Teofimo Lopez’s title defense against George Kambosos may transpire in May and now there’s talk that Manny Pacquiao will also return in May with Mikey Garcia in the opposite corner.

The Ramirez-Taylor fight was announced today (March 2). The match between the undefeated belt-holders, both former Olympians, will produce the fifth unified champion of the four-belt error. Middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, junior welterweight Terence Crawford, and cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk are the only boxers to have held this distinction.

Ramirez vs. Taylor will be on ESPN. The fight appears headed to an MGM Grand property in Las Vegas. The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor sports arena, is likely in the running. The arena houses the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights, which played their first game in many moons with fans in attendance on Monday. Attendance was capped at 15 percent of capacity and the game was a “sellout” with all 2,605 available seats attracting occupants.

Josh Taylor, who made his pro debut in El Paso, of all places, will be making his second appearance in Las Vegas, assuming the fight transpires there. The Tartan Tornado appeared at the MGM Grand Garden on Jan. 28, 2017, on a card topped by the WBA featherweight title rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. Taylor and Frampton then shared the same trainer, Shane McGuigan.

In the words of Bob Arum, “Ramirez vs. Taylor is the best boxing has to offer, two elite fighters in the prime of their careers colliding in a legacy-defining matchup for the undisputed championship of the world. It’s a true 50-50 fight….”

In boxing, unlike other sports, anything under 2-to-1 is basically a “pick-’em” fight, so Arum isn’t far off the mark. For the record, however, the first betting lines to appear show the Scotsman the favorite in the 7-to-4 range, a price obviously based on the assumption that the fight will be held in Nevada, or at least anywhere other than Glasgow or Fresno.

Ramirez didn’t look sharp in his last outing when he scored a majority decision over Victor Postol at the MGM Bubble. Ramirez said he was burned-out after a long training camp – the fight was postponed twice – and said he thought the sterile atmosphere affected him; he was used to feeding off the energy of a crowd. Josh Taylor also had a tough time with Postol when they met in a 12-round bout at Glasgow on June 23, 2018 (the gritty Ukrainian is a tough nut to crack), but one would not have gleaned that from the scorecards which were soaked with hometown bias.

Josh Taylor’s last fight was at fan-less York Hall in London. The Scotch southpaw was entitled to a breather after his epic encounter with Regis Prograis and the IBF had just the ticket in mandatory challenger Apinun Khonsong. Taylor dismissed the overmatched Thai in the opening round with a body punch. This was Taylor’s first fight with new trainer Ben Davison.

The last time that Arum called an upcoming match a 50-50 fight, he was hyping the all-Mexican showdown between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. That was no 50-50 fight, Berchelt was a solid favorite, but as it turned out, the pricemakers had underestimated the underdog who delivered the goods in a wildly entertaining skirmish.

On paper, Ramirez vs. Taylor will also be a very entertaining affair.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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