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A Love Letter to Boxing

Kelsey McCarson

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tumblr lovyaaDACG1qcw9y0o1 500Tyson-Spinks hooked the writer on the sweet and savage science…and the sport has never let go of his heart and soul since then.

September is one of the better months in recent memory for our fine sport. We’ve already witnessed the coming-out party of future middleweight star Gennady Golovkin (RELEASE THE GOLVKIN!), we saw a barnburner between Daniel Geale and Felix Sturm, and we’ve got potential super fights Ward-Dawson and Chavez-Martinez yet to come. Augmented by a solid Showtime card featuring Canelo Alvarez as well as both a Klitschko title fight and documentary on HBO – well, what better time to reflect on why I love the sport?

It’s easy to get down on the sport sometimes. We all know how many things boxing seems to get wrong. There’s no reason to list them here.

For all its ailments, though, boxing does a lot of things right. The very nature of the sport draws men and women to it like moths to a flame and for damn good reason. There’s simply nothing like it.

A fight is like nothing else.

If you’ve ever been in a fist fight, you know that every second can feel like an eternity. It’s everything at once. Parts of it seem so long. Other parts seem so short, and before you know it, it’s all over. It’s like it never happened, but it did: like a dream.

So it is for those of us who try to capture the sport in written word, too. There is simply not enough time to capture the ebb and flow of a round (much less the entire fight) between the time the final bell rings to when an article goes to press. At the same time, a good fight seems to last forever.

It seems a riddle, this boxing of ours, but perhaps it’s no more strange than the very idea of the sport itself – two men (or women) enter a ring on guts and guile alone, intent on bashing each other’s faces in, and leave with a closer bond than even the best of friends could forge together.

So very strange it is, this sweet science, that all any of us can do is gather round to watch.

It is a science. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Find the meanest, toughest guy you can find on the street and have him head to a boxing gym. He’ll learn quickly the importance of method and approach.

It’s also an art. I dare say there is more art in today’s pugilism than what’s left in our popular music. Have a listen to your radio. You’ll see. Even our culture’s authors have left us rifling through bins of classic literature searching for something appreciable.

Ah, but boxing…

Behold Floyd Mayweather, the most gifted fighter in our sport. Like his outside the ring antics or despise them, you cannot help but be rendered speechless by his fistic brilliance.

Hail Manny Pacquiao, the brilliant embodiment of weaponized aggression. You may prefer a more defensive approach than his, but you can’t help but shudder at the piston-like precision of his ferocity.

Observe Andre Ward. His technical acumen is only superseded by the workings of his inner spirit aimed carefully towards doing what must be done to maintain his status as victor.

The list goes on and on.

Boxers are infinitely appreciable. So much so, in fact, that we give them nicknames to try and capture the essence of their craft. We call them things like “Sugar,” “Hitman” and “The Real Deal.”

Boxing is bigger than any other sport in the world, but it’s also somehow the least appreciated in today’s world. Any barfly will tell you the world’s greatest sportsman in the last 100 years was a boxer named Muhammad Ali. The same know-it-all tells you other combat sports have somehow passed it by.

He is wrong because his definition of our sport lacks authenticity. Boxing isn’t just a combat sport. It is more than that. Boxing is savage poetry. It is music infused with fire and spit and blood. It’s teeth and tenacity bolstered by artful repose.

Boxing is all that and more.

Yes, they kick and punch in mixed martial arts, but boxing is more than that. It is a gentleman’s agreement to tactically engage in the rhythm of souls brought together solely by a mutual intention to dole out punishment on each other’s bodies for the simple reason that each man exists.

Or maybe it’s just a fist fight for money. I can never tell.

But boxing is for everyone. Its fierce aggression and brutality can be appreciated by anyone, from the artist to the street vendor to the businessman. It’s for the barfly who thinks he knows about the sport because he hit his brother once and the busboy who’s never dared to punch anyone but can list every heavyweight champion who has ever lived. It’s for wives and sisters who see art in the decadence of bloodlust, and it’s for husbands and brothers who live vicariously through the Hectors and Achilles of their day.

Have you ever met a fighter in his old age that couldn’t help but stammer out words of longing for the bygone days that made him that way? Do you know boxing writers who travel by hook or crook to get to gigs that never pay more than their trip fare?

Boxing isn’t for the faint of heart. It is for the full of heart.

It is for men like Evander Holyfield and Arturo Gatti. It’s for those who see victory in defeat and hope when the dawn seems darkest. It is for women like Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza who have so few shoulders of giants to stand on, but do so anyway. It’s for men who carve livings out of it any way they can and for the rest of us who try but can’t seem to do it. It’s for the people who save up money to travel hours away from their homes to see a fight from the most expensive seats they can afford, and it’s for the working men and women who scrounge together just enough cash with their friends and relatives to buy this month’s big pay per view.

Boxing is for anyone and everyone who wants it. It is ours.

I remember the first fight I ever saw. Don’t we all? I was just a boy then. Mike Tyson was the scariest man on the planet. I was mesmerized by him the way we used to be with ghosts, goblins and the boogeyman, but Mike Tyson was real.

Some would say he came to the ring that night against Michael Spinks like a crazed animal, but there was more to it than that. Spinks would not fear senseless violence. Spinks would have a plan against such a Neanderthal tactic as that. He’d have strategy against directionless savagery, but scientifically trained brutality was all together a different kind of beast. Tyson was honed fury, forged under the watchful eye of Cus D’Amato, a professor of the sport who filled Mike’s brain with images of frightful pioneers like Jack Dempsey and Sonny Liston.

Tyson stormed through the helpless Spinks in ninety-one seconds that night, and I was hooked forever.

It is perhaps too ambitious to transmit all that boxing means to me in something as silly as words, but maybe, like boxing, the reward isn’t always in the result, but in the undertaking.

Someone once told me that burning embers don’t remember what they were before the flame. So it is with the souls engulfed in the fires of boxing. Whether it was because of my age or my vocation at the time, I do not remember who I was before I began to love boxing. Frankly, I would not want to.

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Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

Arne K. Lang

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Twenty-six years have elapsed since the first boxing card at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The inaugural show took place on Jan. 29, 1994, the eve of Super Bowl XXVII.

A little background: The MGM Grand opened on Dec. 17, 1993. With its 5,005 rooms, it was the largest hotel in the world. The MGM Grand Garden arena, effectively the municipal auditorium of the self-styled “City of Entertainment,” was christened on New Years Eve with a concert by Barbara Streisand. Twenty-nine days later, the bill of fare was an 11-fight boxing card promoted by Don King.

Looking back, seven of the participants – boxers Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, and Christy Martin and referees Richard Steele and Joe Cortez – would go on to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hearns, who was nearing the end of his career, having grown into a cruiserweight, was matched soft, as was Christy Martin who was making her Las Vegas debut and was then looked upon as a sideshow novelty act. Two other notables, heavyweight Razor Ruddock and welterweight Meldrick Taylor, were likewise deployed in stay-busy fights. The undercards of Don King’s major promotions typically took this tack – big names in little fights.

Topping the bill were three world title fights. WBC 154-pound title-holder Simon Brown opposed Troy Waters. Trinidad defended his IBF welterweight title against Camacho. And in the grand finale, the great Chavez, who held a junior welterweight title, was matched against Frankie Randall.

Simon Brown had a more difficult time than expected against Troy Waters, a teak-tough Australian, but prevailed on a majority decision. Trinidad, at age 21 the younger man by 10 years, chased Camacho all over the ring en route to winning a unanimous decision. And Chavez….

The MGM Grand Garden was scaled to hold 15,200, but there were a lot of empty seats; the announced attendance was 12,777. One would have expected a sellout as Las Vegas is chock-full of revelers on a Super Bowl weekend, but there was an extenuating circumstance.

Twelve days before the fight, at 4:30 am on Jan. 17, Southern California was struck by an earthquake. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge Earthquake damaged buildings as far as 85 miles away. It buckled portions of some heavily-traveled freeways, forcing their closure and repairs were hindered by a scattered series of aftershocks that lasted the better part of two weeks.

Visitors from Southern California are the backbone of the Las Vegas tourism industry. Most arrive by car. The earthquake had the effect of reducing hotel occupancy as many Southern Californians cancelled their reservations and that assuredly spilled over into the fight, hurting attendance. But those that were there witnessed a memorable main event.

Frankie Randall, nicknamed the Surgeon, hailed from Morristown, Tennessee. He had an excellent record (48-2-1, 39 KOs), but Julio Cesar Chavez, who owned the most eye-catching record in boxing (officially 89-0-1), was so highly regarded that he was listed as a 17/1 favorite in the MGM sports book.

Randall started strong, an indication that he would be a hard nut to crack. But the middle rounds belonged to Chavez with his patented body attack. In round seven, one of those body punches strayed too low and Richard Steele deducted a point.

In round 11, Steele deducted another point for the same infraction and, worse for Chavez, he was knocked down for the first time in his career. It was a straight right hand that did the damage, a clean punch, and although Chavez was up at the count of “three,” it was a 10-8 round for Randall.

During the early rounds, shouts of “May-hee-co, May-hee-co” reverberated through the arena. Late in the fight, when one could sense that an upset was brewing, shouts of “USA, USA” punctuated the din.

The 11th round proved decisive. When the scores were read, the Mexican judge favored Chavez 114-113, but he was overruled by the Puerto Rican judge (114-113) and the Las Vegas judge (116-111). If not for those two points deducted by referee Richard Steele – the same referee who had controversially stopped Chavez’s fight with Meldrick Taylor with one second remaining on the clock in the final round – Julio Cesar Chavez would have retained his title — and his undefeated record — on a split decision.

Chavez did not take losing very well. He bellyached that he was robbed, an opinion that found few sympathizers. A fast rematch was arranged which took place at the MGM Grand on Cinco de Mayo weekend. In this fight, an accidental clash of heads late in round eight left Chavez with a bad gash on his forehead and the fight was stopped. By rule, it went to the scorecards where Chavez emerged the winner by split decision, a very controversial denouement (and a story for another day). There would be a rubber match in Mexico City when both gladiators were in their 40’s, a dull 10-round affair scored in favor of Chavez.

By the way, on the day following the debut of boxing at the MGM Grand, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 30-13 at Atlanta. As Super Bowls go, this one didn’t attract all that much buzz. The same teams had met in the Super Bowl the previous year and Dallas had won by “35.”

By all indications, the forthcoming Super Bowl will be a doozy. Enjoy the game.

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Introducing Top Prospect Raeese Aleem, the Pride of Muskegon

Arne K. Lang

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At age 29, Raeese Aleem has yet to appear in a 10-round fight, but that will almost assuredly happen this year. The undefeated (15-0, 9 KOs) super bantamweight from Muskegon, Michigan, takes another step in that direction on Friday, Feb. 14, when he opposes San Antonio’s Adam Lopez (16-3-2) at Philadelphia in a bout that will air on “ShoBox,” the long-running SHOWTIME series that’s been a springboard for 81 fighters who went on to win world titles.

Aleem earned a black belt in karate before taking up boxing and becoming a four-time Michigan Golden Gloves champion. As an amateur, he and his coach Terry Markowski did a considerable amount of traveling between meets to find good sparring. Grand Rapids, an amateur boxing hotbed, was just down the road, but Detroit and Chicago were a good three hours away and on occasion they went on an even longer excursion into Ohio.

Aleem turned pro in 2011 and had his first 10 fights on the Midwest circuit, venturing as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Cincinnati. At the time, he worked in the produce department of Meijer’s, a regional rival of Walmart. His bosses, he notes, were generous in letting him juggle his work schedule around his boxing assignments.

For a boxer with designs on winning a world title, the Midwest circuit is like a bicycle with training wheels. Aleem had to shake free of it to see how far he could go. Besides, getting fights was getting tougher and tougher. There’s a 28-month gap in his pro timeline that includes all of 2013. He had several fights fall out during this frustrating quiescence.

If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.

“When I came to Las Vegas,” says Aleem who has a daughter back in Michigan, “I had no family here, no friends.” He was directed to Barry’s boxing gym, run by ex-boxer Pat Barry and his wife Dawn, retired Las Vegas police officers, and started training under their son-in-law Augie Sanchez. But Sanchez, the last man to defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr (accomplished when they were amateurs), had other priorities. He is an assistant coach with Team USA which obligates him to spend a good deal of his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Things started looking up for Aleem when he joined the Prince Ranch stable under the management of Greg Hannley. At the Prince Ranch Gym, where the head trainer is Bones Adams, he has sparred with such notables as Nonito Donaire and former WBO 122-pound champion Jessie Magdaleno.

Aleem doesn’t miss the weather in Muskegon, a lakefront city where sub-freezing temperatures are the norm in the dead of winter and snow is forecast for all of next week. But he still has one foot in his hometown, as evident by his unbroken bond with Terry Markowski. In an era when some boxers appear to change trainers as often as they change their underwear, Aleem has remained loyal to Markowski who has been in his corner for all of his pro fights and will be there again on Feb. 14.

Markowski, who teaches boxing at the Muskegon Rec Center, is a protégé of Muskegon’s most esteemed boxer, the late Kenny Lane. The epitome of a crafty southpaw, Lane, a lightweight and junior welterweight, was a three-time world title challenger during a 100-fight career that began in 1953.

The relationship between Raeese Aleem and Terry Markowski dates back to 2003 when Aleem resided in the nearby village of Ravenna, where Aleem’s father, the patriarch of a large blended family, planted Raeese and his siblings to get them away from the temptations of Muskegon which has several blighted areas. “It was a culture shock for me when I started going to school in Ravenna,” says Aleem, looking back, as none of his schoolmates looked like him.

This will be Aleem’s fifth fight in Pennsylvania where he has made four of his last five starts. The connecting thread is Reading, Pennsylvania gym operator-turned-promoter Marshall Kauffman who has been credited with keeping boxing vibrant in the Keystone State.

This being Aleem’s national television debut, it’s important that he make a good showing. His Las Vegas trainer Bones Adams, a former world champion in Aleem’s weight division, expects nothing less. “I’m confident he will be a world champion someday,” says Adams.

Photo credit: Mario Serrano / Prince Ranch Boxing

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A Bouquet for Danny Garcia in This Week’s Edition of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Two-division champion Danny Garcia had the spotlight all to himself over the weekend in a stay-busy fight against Ivan Redkach on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader that had the odd privilege these days of not being counterprogrammed by a Top Rank show on ESPN or any other kind of boxing card on DAZN.

So Garcia, 31, from Philadelphia, had the chance to remind people how excellent a fighter he is in full force, which would help him greatly in his effort to secure an unlikely bout against WBA champ Manny Pacquiao or remain first in line to face WBC and IBF champ Errol Spence whenever the Texan recovers from the injuries he sustained in a car accident in October.

But did Garcia pull it off? Here’s the latest edition of HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Danny Garcia’s Pristine and Precise Technique 

The best parts about Garcia were on full display against Redkach. That was made easier by Redkach’s lack of anything that might have given Garcia any real problems, but nonetheless Garcia was able to show the lovely footwork and balanced countering ability that made him so formidable at junior welterweight. There’s just something special about seeing Garcia fight. The economy of his movement inside a boxing ring is something that is just plain different than just about any other world-class fighter in the world today. In a fight that most people probably would have preferred he just skipped, and one that didn’t turn out to be any different than everyone expected, at least Garcia’s beautiful boxing was on display.

MISS – Showtime Sparring Sessions

In addition to Garcia-Redkach, Showtime rounded out its tripleheader with undefeated junior featherweight Stephen Fulton taking on former Muay Thai fighter Arnold Khegai and former unified junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd taking on career welterweight Francisco Santana. While Fulton’s fight against Khegai seemed like a legitimate prizefight, there was something about the other two bouts that screamed sparring sessions. That was especially the case for Hurd’s bout. Not only was Hurd in there with a middling welterweight, but he also used the rounds of the fight to work on vastly different boxing techniques than what made him so popular in the first place. Showtime might not have the pull they once had with the people over at the PBC offices, but they for sure need to get more involved in vetting matchups if they hope to remain afloat within the competitive boxing landscape of today.

HIT – Stephon Fulton’s Title Chances at 122 Pounds

Fulton is a very solid boxer who digs to the body and has a fast, clean jab. Khegai was the perfect kind of opponent for the 25-year-old. He was very game and never stopped trying to win. Additionally, his background in Muay Thai offered some different looks to Fulton that should help him on his way toward world title contention. In the end, Fulton outworked Khegai to hand the tough 27-year-old the first loss of his career. Now let’s hope Fulton is off to bigger and better things such as challenging for a world title. He’s ready right now.

MISS – Andy Ruiz’s Continued Soap Opera

The best thing former unified champion Andy Ruiz could have done after blowing the rematch against Anthony Joshua in December is getting right back to work in the gym. What better way to show trainer Manny Robles that he was taking responsibility for his actions than to get right back to work with the same team he had just let down so badly? Instead, Ruiz fired Robles and is considering other trainers. That would make more sense if there had been some sort of tactical error in the fight. But Ruiz already admitted he simply didn’t train for arguably the biggest fight of his life, and that’s not anyone’s fault but his own.

HIT – Former Middleweight Titleholder Andy Lee’s Second Act

It appears former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee found his second act in life as a trainer, which makes a ton of sense if you followed Lee’s career under the tutelage of the late Emanuel Steward. Lee, 39, left Ireland after his amateur days to live with Steward in Detroit and train at Kronk. The two had a very close personal relationship and that experience ultimately helped Lee win the world title in 2014 two years after Steward’s passing. Now, Lee is passing on what he knows in the same way Steward did with him to other fighters. He trains and manages Irish upstart Paddy Donovan, is guiding Jason Quigley back to contention and even helped orchestrate distant cousin Tyson Fury bringing on Javan “SugarHill” Steward for the heavyweight’s upcoming rematch against Deontay Wilder.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

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