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John Joe Nevin Fought For More Than A Medal

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John Joe Nevin “Can I have four tickets to whatever event is on here now?” asks a German tourist at the ticket office outside London’s Excel Arena.

“You mean the boxing? Not a chance, mate,” says the man behind the counter, unable to withhold a smirk. Tickets for the 10,000 seat arena are sold out for the Olympic semi-finals, just as they have been every day over the last two weeks.

Difficulties in viewing the competition aren’t limited to London. Across the sea in the Irish town of Mullingar the family of John Joe Nevin gather to watch the boxer in a local pub moments before he meets Cuba’s Lázaro Álvarez in the Olympic bantamweight silver medal contest. They enter the pub but are told to leave. Arguments ensue, accusations are made. Other pubs in the town shut their doors, not wanting the group’s business. Nevin’s family have to venture six miles outside Mullingar to find somewhere that will let them in to watch the bout.

***

It’s been a difficult few years for Ireland. The once heralded “Celtic Tiger” economy dramatically collapsed in 2008, with the nation subsequently forced to accept external financial aid as thousands of young jobseekers emigrate in search of work. The lack of opportunity in people’s lives has stymied their own ambition and seen an increased unity behind the national sporting teams; essentially anything that can distract from the perpetual headlines detailing rising unemployment and economic stagnation. 

The teams haven’t obliged, with the much-hyped rugby squad underperforming at the world cup late last year, while the soccer team was pitifully out-classed this summer at its first appearance in the European championships in 24 years. Those disappointments left a lot of scope for the Olympic boxers to capture public attention. Before London 2012, Ireland had won a total of four medals in all sports over the last three Games, and three of them were in boxing. Katie Taylor duly obliged public expectation and won the female competition and John Joe Nevin was seen as the best hope of emulating Michael Carruth to win Ireland’s first male gold since 1992.

John Waters of the Irish Times recently explained Ireland’s obsession with sport: “An Olympic medal, or a creditable appearance by an Irish team in the finals of some international competition, is proposed as something fundamental, rather than a mere passing cause for celebration. And it is indeed as if such successes occur to provide a kind of hope by proxy for the entire population, for whom more enduring forms of hope are nowadays culturally inaccessible.”

Nevin, 23, has been regarded as the best Irish male amateur since 2008. After being eliminated in his second contest at the Beijing Games, he later won two bronze medals at world championships. A relaxed counter-puncher in the ring, he boxes with a confident style, typically avoiding punches by a deft move of the head, putting himself in a position with strike with a sharp right cross. Yet in the months leading up to London his performances slumped. He was beaten by opponents that should have been routine tune-ups. Several members of the Irish team said the pressure was getting to Nevin. “He told me a few months ago that he wanted to pull out of the Games,” said 2008 Olympic silver medallist Kenny Egan. “He didn’t want to go through with it.”

In addition to dealing with the expectations of a success-starved nation, Nevin’s distinct heritage has brought additional difficulties. He is part of the Travelling community, a traditionally nomadic group considered a distinct ethnic minority in Ireland and Great Britain. The Traveller population in Ireland nears 30,000 and in recent years the group have become more integrated into the broader society, with many living in fixed houses and attending public schools. But the relationship between the communities is uneasy. The Traveller culture suffers from stigmas of violence and crime not helped by the portrayal of their idiosyncratic customs with a voyeuristic curiosity in the mainstream media via “exposé” documentaries on bare-knuckle boxing and reality shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. As with many minorities, the actions of a few taint an entire community.

Few Travellers have been depicted as positive role models. Former boxer Francis Barrett is the most notable exception. Barrett competed for Ireland at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the popularity of his story saw him carry the nation’s flag at the Games’ opening ceremony. The gesture was expected to be a major breakthrough moment for the Travelling community. It wasn’t.

“Six weeks after I came back from the Olympic Games, I was turned away from a bar,” recalled Barrett. “I wouldn't say all Travellers are good. Some cause fights, drunken arguments and break places up, but you should not paint them all with the one brush.”

Sixteen years later Nevin’s family had to journey miles outside their hometown to find a public place that would allow them watch their next of kin approach the zenith of his vocation.

“It is wrong,” said Barrett of the apparent discrimination that faced Nevin’s family on the day of his semi-final bout. “If African or Polish people were not served in pubs because of their nationality there would be big trouble and so there should be. It is a disgrace that these pub landlords closed the door of the pubs. By rights they should be proud; John Joe is fighting for his country.”

Nevin’s cousin Martin said John Joe learned of the situation just moments before his contest with Cuba’s Álvarez. “He really took it personally,” claimed Martin. “He asked me was there a problem with him, whether the local people unhappy with his performance at the Olympics. He was really upset because he thought it was about him. He was in tears.”

But the anguish seemed to stir Nevin into the greatest performance of his career, culminating in a 19-14 points win over Álvarez. Nevin became the first Traveller to win an Olympic medal and expectations were high that he could beat Great Britain’s Luke Campbell to win gold the following Saturday night.

***

The strains of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” bring the crowd to its feet, with John Joe Nevin emerging into the arena first. Significantly less Irish fans are here than for Katie Taylor’s bouts earlier in the week, but those in attendance do their best to make themselves heard. Decked out in red vest and shorts, Nevin bounces on his toes, wearing a broad smile. Accompanied by coaches Billy Walsh and Zaur Anita in resplendent green tracksuits, Nevin raises his gloves to the crowd, signalling a contentment with the task in hand. He may be genuinely at ease, or putting on a front, but in a few minutes it won’t matter; attempts at illusion are quickly dispelled in the ring. Bounding up the steps and through the ropes, Nevin skirts the ring’s perimeter before briefly settling in front of his opponent’s corner where he wipes the soles of his shoes on the canvas as if marking his territory. He moves to his own red corner where Walsh affixes a headguard that will protect from superficial injury, but can do little to diffuse the concussive blows of an Olympic opponent.

As Luke Campbell comes into view the noise of the crowd reaches new decibels. The Irish fans gallantly respond with soccer-style chants but are soon drowned out by the locals’ booming repetition of “Campbell, Campbell”. There’s sincerity in Campbell’s approach; head down, he walks quickly with purpose to the ring. His face expressionless, he seems tense, as he should be. At the foot of the ring’s steps he jumps in the air, bringing his knees into his chest in an effort to shake out the nerves that likely make his legs feel like lead.

With introductions underway, the boxers prepare for nine minutes of combat dissected into three rounds in which they hope the judges at ringside will acknowledge every punch they land by pressing an electronic button.

As the round starts Nevin, boxing from an orthodox stance, immediately looks to assert himself by stepping firmly onto his southpaw opponent’s lead foot. He does this several more times, but the referee is quick to issue a caution. Campbell, the taller, rangier boxer, seeks to keep the fight at a distance by constantly moving while launching long, straight punches. Nevin has a sturdier look about him and is prepared to stand flat-footed and lean away before quickly throwing looping right hands. Each man tries to impose his will, hoping to draw the other away from their well-rehearsed strategy.

Billy Walsh sits ringside gulping back water. He’s fidgeting, crossing his legs, cracking knuckles, trying to subdue the adrenaline. Nevin seems to be almost trying too hard, with his eagerness to score compelling him move forward instead of boxing off the back foot. He gets caught by Campbell’s long right hand through the round and as the bell sounds the Irishman is behind 5-3.

In the second, Walsh forgets his restraint, snapping out right hand– left hook combinations. Nevin lands a solid right and Walsh leaps off his chair, pumping his fist. The punch gives Nevin momentum and by round’s end the deficit is reduced at 8-9. Behind by one score, Nevin knows he has to press the action. Desperation leads him to chase Campbell, who midway through the round smoothly steps back and catches an onrushing Nevin with a hard right hook. Nevin falls to the canvas. He recovers his senses quickly and unleashes a flurry of combinations through the remainder of the round. Some blows appear to connect, while others are deflected off Campbell’s gangly arms.

As the contest ends Nevin stands in the ring’s center. He blesses himself and looks skyward, praying that the oft-erratic scoring will go in his favour. When the final result of 14-11 is announced for Campbell there are no complaints from the Irish contingent. As the arena lets out a thunderous roar, Nevin fulfils the obligatory congratulations for his triumphant opponent. After leaving the ring, Walsh puts a red robe onto Nevin’s listless body and a white towel over his bowed head.

Nearly half an hour later the boxers are summoned back into the ring for the medal ceremony. Nevin is cleaned-up and dressed in a green Irish tracksuit, but his face remains solemn. Just three punches landed or blocked and he could be standing up where Campbell is, allowing the Irish fans to wave their tricolours to “Amhrán na bhFiann” instead of enduring the deep bellows of “God Save the Queen”.

After descending from the podium the boxers make their way from the ring. Nevin gives Campbell a final pat on the shoulder, but it goes unnoticed as the gold medallist is quickly surrounded by a horde of cameras and reporters. Nevin circumvents the gathering toward a small gathering of Irish media. He says a few words, has his picture taken with the tricolour and walks alone into the bowels of the arena.

***

Back in Mullingar applause resonates around the town center where a crowd of 5,000 [one quarter of the town’s population] has just watched the ceremony on a specially erected 13-foot outdoor screen. While Nevin’s immediate family decided to stay away from the town, many of his extended clan are among the spectators. Yet it is difficult to tell people apart; most blend together in a sea of green and gold. The town center belongs to no one and everyone, each person sharing common ground without disagreement or unrest; a community brought together by a young man’s sporting endeavours.

“I’m glad of Mullingar, what they done for John Joe,” said Nevin’s mother Winnie later that night. “I was watching it on television and there was a queer [astonishing] atmosphere in Mullingar at the Market Square, and fair play to the Mullingar people, but not the pubs, the pubs is a disgrace.”

Around the country 1.2 of the 5 million population tuned into the bout on television, with many more venturing to pubs and other pubic venues. The following Monday an estimated 7,000 people lined the streets of Mullingar to welcome back Nevin as he was paraded on an open-top bus.

“Today it’s a dream come true for me to come back and get represented by such a big crowd,” said Nevin at his homecoming. “It’s great to see all my family here. I was devastated to lose the final but saying that, I’ve gotten so far and a month ago I was talking about not going [to the Olympics].”

That Nevin didn’t win gold is insignificant. He ultimately absorbed the expectation of country and community and as part of the most successful boxing team in Ireland’s Olympic history he showed that the small island can still compete with the best. Whether rich or poor, Traveller or settled, few can be untouched by the success of the Olympian that runs on their town’s roads, trains at a nearby gym and breathes the same damp Irish air.

Nevin’s success won’t see the masses flock to boxing clubs, nor will it wholly change broad perceptions of the Travelling community. But when the youth of Ireland are discouraged by the shortage of opportunity or fearing immigration, maybe in the coming months they will think of how Nevin had his own setbacks before he achieved on the grandest stage. He has provided a flicker of inspiration to a generation in danger of losing the ability to dream.

Ronan Keenan can be contacted at ronankeenan@yahoo.com

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ Jake Paul and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, an influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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