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Courtside with David Diamante

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IMG 1129Boxing fans know David Diamante as a guy with dreadlocks that reach below his waist and as one of the best ring announcers in the business. The sweet science is his first love. But recently, it has been his secondary gig.

Since the start of the 2011-2012 NBA season, Diamante has been the in-arena voice of the New Jersey Nets.

Last fall, David read an article about the Nets holding auditions for a new PA announcer. He applied for the position, went through a rigorous audition process, and got the job. Then, like everyone else, he waited through a contract dispute between the owners and players that delayed the start of the NBA season until December 25th.

“It was tough sitting out the lockout,” David says, “although I’m sure it was tougher for the players and a lot of other people associated with the Nets. It was a great Christmas present for me when everything was settled and the games started. I’m passionate about sports. Boxing is my favorite; I want to announce fights forever. But I love basketball and I love doing this. I’ve got a multi-year contract with the Nets, which means I can put all of my energy and emotion into doing the job right rather than worrying about whether or not I’ll he hired to work the next fight.”

This season has tested the loyalty of Nets fans. Brook Lopez (the team’s elite center) has been sidelined with a foot injury. Point guard Deron Williams is the squad’s best player, but power forward Kris Humphries is the most famous by virtue of his ill-fated marriage to Kim Kardashian. The Nets didn’t win at home until their fifteen game; a 107-100 triumph over Golden State on January 18th. And it’s a matter of record that the team will move across the Hudson River to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the 2011-2012 season.

Diamante is responsible for creating an air of optimism in the here and now at the Prudential Center in Newark (where the Nets play their home games).

“I felt comfortable in the job from the start,” David says. “That’s partly because I’m backed by good people who give me great support. And some of the jobs I had before this, like working in clubs where anything can happen, means that the unexpected never shakes me.”

“And I love the job,” Diamante continues. “I’m a boxing guy. When you’re boxing and someone hits you in the nose and you feel the bone crunch and you taste your own blood, you can’t call ‘time out’. Basketball is a game. People die in boxing. But there’s a lot of physical contact in basketball. These guys are big; these guys are strong; and there are times when they beat each other up. Taking a charge in the NBA is like getting punched in the body by a heavyweight. And when a basketball player falls, it’s on a hard wood court, not a ring canvas. The best basketball players have the same killer instinct that fighters have. They’ll pay any price to win. And seeing them up close, you realize what amazing athletes they are. You can’t really see how good they are on television. But to sit at the edge of the court and watch them whiz by on a fast break; for men that big to move that fast with such agility is extraordinary. And it’s beautiful to see them work together as a team.”

On Sunday, January 29th, Diamante arrived at the Prudential Center at 4:00 PM. Wearing a navy-blue suit, striped shirt, and conservative tie, he moved easily through the back passageways of the arena, offering a warm hello to everyone he passed.

The Nets would be playing the Toronto Raptors. Game time was 6:05 PM. New Jersey had a 7-and-13 record, but was coming into the contest on a two-game winning streak. The Raptors sported a 6-and-14 ledger and were without their leading scorer (7-foot center Andrea Bargnani).

Diamante does his homework assiduously. He watches all of the Nets away games on television and researches upcoming opponents on the Internet. He’s constantly running inventive phrases through his mind. A three-point field goal for Deron Williams becomes a “three-Will” for D-Will. Alone at home, he rehearses his calls again and again to see how they sound and feel.

In the press room, David picked up a media packet and began highlighting names with a yellow marker.

The Nets have four players whose surname is Williams: Deron Williams, Sheldon Williams, Jordan Williams, and Shawne Williams.

“If I miss a play,” Diamante noted, “I can call ‘Williams’ and have a pretty good chance of getting it right.”

When his review was done, David ate a light dinner (there was a buffet for staff and working press). At 5:15, he entered the arena and took his place at a long table midway between the Nets and Raptors benches.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned, “welcome to the Prudential Center, home of Nets basketball.”

Over the next half-hour, Diamante offered a stream of information to those in attendance. He thanked various Nets sponsors; talked about ticket packages for upcoming games; warned against smoking in the arena, and welcomed a group of students from the Willard School in Ridgewood, New Jersey. In due course, he was joined at the table by the timekeeper, head scorer, and announcers for the YES television network.

At 5:47, the Raptors took the floor to warm up . . . “Ladies and gentlemen; please welcome tonight’s opponent, the Toronto Raptors.”

The Nets followed a minute later . . . “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your NEW . . . JERSEY . . . NETS !!!!!”

“In boxing,” Diamante notes, “I’m expected to be impartial. Here, it’s part of my job to be a Nets fan. I’m always respectful toward the other team. But when one of our guys scores, I don’t just say it; I sing it.”

At 6:05, Diamante introduced the Raptors starting line-up. Then —

Lights out . . . Spotlights . . . Pulsating music . . .

“The starting line-up for your NEW . . . JERSEY . . . NETS !!!!!”

And finally, Diamante’s signature line, modified for basketball.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen; from the four corners of the world to the four corners of this court, the game starts now.”

Tip-off . . . The Nets controlled the ball.

“Being the PA announcer for an NBA team requires a different skill set from ring announcing,” Diamante explains. “In boxing, there are times when I’m in the center of the ring reading the decision after a close fight and millions of people are hanging on my every word. Here, the focus is never on me. I’m heard but not seen. And unlike ring announcing, where I’m only on at the beginning and end of a fight, I’m calling the entire game for the crowd. There’s no downtime, no time to daydream. I have to pay close attention every second of the game.”

As the game progressed, Diamante catalogued the action, calling out the name of each player who scored and more.

“Traveling . . . Time out, Nets . . . Checking in for Toronto, number eleven . . . Please welcome the Nets dancers . . .”

At the end of the first quarter, the score was tied at 24. Toronto had a 44-39 lead at the half. A 10-2 spurt put the Raptors up by 13 points early in the third stanza. The Nets trailed by 17 at the three-quarter mark. With 7:24 left in the game and the Raptors ahead 82-to-62, the crowd began filing out.

At 8:15 PM, it was over. The Nets had lost a game that, on paper, they should have won. Final score: Raptors 94 Nets 73.

Diamante announced that Deron Williams was high scorer for the Nets with 24 points; then closed with, “Thank you for coming. And please, arrive home safely.”

Boxing fans should be pleased.  Another one of our own has made it to the bigtime.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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