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The Tale of Gatti-Ward Has An Untold Rest of the Story

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Paul Harvey, the iconic radio announcer who was 90 when he passed away in February 2009, wasn’t into merely repeating to his listeners what they already knew, or thought they knew. Harvey understood there was always something in every breaking-news bulletin that wasn’t so much at the forefront of the discussion as on the back burner. It was there, behind that curtain, where he felt it was his duty to take those listeners.

“You know what the news is,” he would say in that familiar chirpy voice, rife with his signature dramatic pauses. “In a minute you’re going to hear … the rest of the story.”

HBO Sports, which hauled in a load of awards with its 12-episode boxing documentary series, Legendary Nights, in 2002, is heading back into its comfort zone on Oct. 19 with the premiere of the first of several new Legendary Nights, “The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” which chronicles the epic trilogy that pitted blood-and-guts brawlers Arturo Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward from April 18, 2002, to June 7, 2003. The first of several play dates comes at the witching hour of midnight, following the live telecast of the Mike Alvarado-Ruslan Provodnikov junior welterweight clash from Denver, Colo., which begins at 9:45 p.m.

The nine George Foster Peabody Awards and 33 Sports Emmys for documentaries racked up by HBO Sports, a number of which were won for work done on the 2003 Legendary Nights, are an indication that the pay-cable giant is back to doing something it has always done exceptionally well. And there is an undeniable sense that, in many ways, things are picking up right where they left off a decade ago, when “The Tale of Lewis-Tyson” ended the series run. The production again is high-level, the highlight clips exciting, the remembrances of those involved (Gatti died, far too soon, at 37 on July 11, 2009) compelling. Executive producer Rick Bernstein, an integral part of not only prior Legendary Nights but other award-winning HBO Sports documentaries, is back to helm “The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” providing the common thread that connects what was, what is and what will be.

But former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, the master of the sports documentary and driving force behind the 2002 Legendary Nights, is now performing similar duties at HBO’s increasingly bitter rival, Showtime. The narrator for “The Tale of Gatti-Ward” is Mark Wahlberg, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as Ward in 2010’s The Fighter, which didn’t deal with Ward’s career-defining bouts with Gatti but with his contentious relationship with his half-brother/trainer, the drug-addicted former boxer Dicky Ecklund. Wahlberg takes over for HBO Sports’ longtime narrator, Liev Schreiber, because Wahlberg is so obviously identified with Ward. But look for Schreiber, who has the title role in Showtime’s new drama series, Ray Donovan, to still be the voice of HBO Sports’ various reality series and other projects.

It’s impossible to fit a gallon of material into a quart bottle, and so it would have been difficult to wrap all those curious, behind-the-scenes developments around a three-act passion play that has been elevated to a special place in boxing history even though Gatti and Ward were fighters with as many flaws as strengths, Gatti’s June 9 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame notwithstanding. It is perhaps because their ring traits were so alike that Gatti and Ward were repeatedly able to make magic, even if neither attained greatness in the same talent-drenched manner as such past Legendary Nights subjects as Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Aaron Pryor, Alexis Arguello, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Julio Cesar Chavez, Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, George Foreman and Riddick Bowe. What Gatti and Ward might have lacked in natural ability they made up for with almost bottomless wells of want-to.

“In the last few rounds, Arturo and Micky looked like they had nothing left, but they kept digging deeper and deeper and found what it took to keep going,” HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant said after their first slugfest, which the underdog Ward won on a 10-round split decision at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., a quote I fetched from my voluminous personal files and not from “The Tale of Gatti-Ward” preview DVD. “Whether it’s on the highest level of Arguello and Pryor, or Bowe and Holyfield, I can’t say. But I don’t know how anything could be more exciting.”

Round 9 of that fight is time-capsule-preservable quality, with Gatti going down from a crushing hook to the body, seemingly in deep trouble after beating the count, then rallying with a flurry of his own before Ward roared back to again regain the upper hand.

Blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley summed up that back-and-forth round thusly: “Every once in a while, someone will ask me, `What’s the greatest fight you’ve ever called?,’ or `What’s the greatest round you’ve ever called?,’ or `What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever seen in boxing?’” Lampley said, still amazed by what he witnessed 11-plus years earlier. “And the answer is, `Gatti-Ward I, Round 9.’ I think that will always be the answer.”

So we got it then, and we get it now. Something out of the ordinary unfolded in and out of the ring between Ward, the red-haired journeyman from Lowell, Mass., and Gatti, the Italian-born, Montreal-raised, Jersey City-based basher who used to be leading-man handsome until too many smacks to the face on too many fight nights had him resembling Quasimodo after some of his more punishing adventures in pugilism. And Ward willingly accepted as many lumps, abrasions and stitches from his future best friend as he dished out in those three wars of attrition.

“I didn’t mind taking the pain, taking the punches,” Ward said of a career that featured enough trips in ambulances that he conceivably could have qualified for frequent-rider status. “I didn’t mind the stitches, I didn’t mind getting cut.”

Said Gatti’s longtime manager, Pat Lynch: “Arturo always said, `My toughest fight is when I fight someone just like me.’ After that (first Ward) fight he said to me, `Guess what? I just fought someone just like me.’”

It could very well be that “The Tale of Gatti-Ward” represents the high-water mark for this updated round of Legendary Nights. HBO got into boxing business way back on Jan. 22, 1973,with its telecast of a young George Foreman wresting the heavyweight championship on a second-round technical knockout of Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica, so Greenburg, Bernstein and Schreiber had a wealth of material from which to draw when the 2002 slate of Legendary Nights went into production. In the 11 years since … well, maybe the number of fight nights that could justifiably could be described as “legendary” are fewer and farther between, which is what happens when the really good, really interesting matchups are now more evenly parsed between HBO and Showtime, with each entity taking strict care to ignore the other when they aren’t publicly bickering like, say, the Kardashians and their husbands/boyfriends du jour. In other words, don’t expect “The Tale of Corrales-Castillo” or “The Tale of Mayweather-Alvarez” to turn up any time soon on HBO. To the suits at HBO headquarters in midtown Manhattan, it’s like those Showtime bouts never happened.

It’s here where Paul Harvey would jump in with “the rest of the story,” telling tales out of school about the cross-pollination that have those trying to keep up with the respective networks’ management affairs unable to tell the players without scorecards.

Not only do you have Greenburg, who was HBO Sports president from 2000 to 2011, now consulting for Showtime’s “All Access” advance peeks at Mayweather’s bouts with Robert Guerrero and Canelo Alvarez, and Schreiber carrying the load with Ray Donovan, but HBO replaced Greenburg with Ken Hershman, who had been executive vice president and general manager of Sports and Event Programming at Showtime. It’s like the Hatfields and McCoys of premium cable, replete with occasional cross-breeding. The feud figures to get even hotter moving forward; Showtime barely had half the number of HBO subscribers in 2005, but now, thanks in no small part to its increased involvement in big-time boxing, the gap has narrowed significantly, with HBO sitting at approximately 27.5 million subscribers to Showtime’s 22 million. At least Showtime didn’t poach its top sports executive from HBO, instead installing Stephen Espinoza, who had been a partner in Ziffren Brittenham LLP, as well as lead counsel for Golden Boy Promotions, in Hershman’s old role.

Game on … and on, and on.

It would be one thing if HBO and Showtime followed the advice of King (Rodney, not Don) and found a way to, you know, just get along. Then maybe some of the bouts fight fans would like to see, legendary nights in theory, would become reality instead of unfulfilled wishes upon excluded stars. But HBO won’t open its arms to Golden Boy fighters, and Showtime is deprived of the usage of members of Bob Arum’s Top Rank stable, so the Cold War continues with no thaw in sight.

There are always winners and losers in boxing, and not just on the scorecards or with a referee tolling to the count of 10 over a fighter who’s been knocked to the canvas. Early in “The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” there is a snippet of footage of a bleeding Gatti getting popped in the chops by a fighter Wahlberg doesn’t identify. That fighter is Ivan Robinson.

There are those who would say that Gatti’s two fights with Robinson in 1998 – both razor-thin decision losses – were every bit as action-packed as his three more heralded clashes with Ward. But while the 2002 Legendary Nights series included multiple episodes involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Tyson, don’t expect “The Tale of Gatti-Robinson” any time soon.

“Those (Gatti-Robinson) fights were technically better, I thought, than Gatti’s fights with Ward,” said Joseph Pasquale, the New Jersey-based judge who worked both Gatti-Ward II and Gatti-Robinson II. “Of course, that’s just my opinion. But you know what they say. The winners are the ones who write the version of history that sticks.”

Robinson, with two wins in as many tries with Gatti, wonders if that’s really true. He said he might have been better off if referee Benjy Esteves Jr. hadn’t docked Gatti a penalty point for low blows in the eighth round of their rematch. Had that not been the case, the two scorecards on which he won by a single point would have evened out, resulting in a majority draw and a possible third meeting for big bucks and greater glory. Had that scenario played out, a Gatti-Robinson trilogy might now be held in the same lofty esteem as Gatti-Ward.

“After my second fight with Arturo, I was, like, `I beat him twice, I don’t need to fight him again,’” Robinson said. “I thought, maybe foolishly, that’s I’d get more credit than I did. Instead, everybody talks more about Arturo and Micky Ward, and that’s fine. Those were really good fights. I loved Arturo and I like Micky a lot, even though me and Micky never fought for whatever reason. I wanted that fight and so did he, but it didn’t happen.

“But who knows? If I had lost that second fight with Arturo, I don’t think they would have ever given me a third fight with him. I really believe that.”

Meanwhile, fight fans never got to see a first fight between Tyson and Bowe, or Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. So legendary nights, whenever and wherever they occur, should be cherished for the mere fact of their existence. Because wonderful stuff doesn’t happen as nearly as often as it should, a situation that could become even more acute if the real rivalries continue to be played out in mahogany-paneled boardrooms.

As Mr. Harvey might say, that’s the rest of the story.

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A Conversation with Legendary Phoenix Boxing Writer Norm Frauenheim

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It seems all along that Norm Frauenheim was destined to become a boxing writer.

Two critical elements were at play that led the 75-year-old scribe to that profession.

“I was always interested in boxing, even as a kid,” said Frauenheim who spent 31 years with the Arizona Republic beginning in 1977. “I’m an Army brat. I was born in January 1949 on a base, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, a city I didn’t really see until I hit the NBA road covering the [Phoenix] Suns for more than a decade starting in 1979-80.”

Frauenheim, a longtime correspondent for The Ring magazine who writes for various boxing sites such as boxingscene.com and 15rounds.com, added more background: “One of the many places I lived was Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu from 1962 to 1966,” he continued. “I delivered The Stars & Stripes to troops with the 25th Infantry Division, which was headed to Vietnam, along with my dad.

“Anyway, boxing and Schofield have long been linked, mostly because of a novel and film, ‘From Here to Eternity’ (the James Jones novel starring Frank Sinatra on the big screen). The troops were still boxing, outdoors, at the barracks along my newspaper route. I was 13 to 17 years old. I’d stop, watch and get interested. I’ve been interested ever since.”

Frauenheim added: “From there, my father and family shipped to Fort Sheridan, then a base north of Chicago where I spent one year and graduated from high school. Then my dad went back to Vietnam and I went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville (1967 through 1971) and graduated with a major in history. I was also a competitive swimmer, pre-Title IX.

“Competitive swimming is also at the roots of my sportswriting career. I was frustrated that Vanderbilt’s student newspaper didn’t cover us. I offered to do it. The newspaper agreed. I don’t swim as well as I used to. I look at a surfboard and look at the waves I used to take on and wondered what in the hell I was doing. It’s a lot safer to be at ringside.”

After a more than five-decade stint covering boxing, Frauenheim is glad that the manly sport is still around but with more outside competition.

“It’s surely not the [Muhammad] Ali era. It’s not the Golden 80s, either. It’s a fractured business in a world with more and more options for sports fans. MMA is just one example,” he said. “Boxing is not dying. It has been declared dead, ad nauseam. I read the inevitable obits and think of an old line: Boxing has climbed out of more coffins than Count Dracula.

“Still, the sport has been pushed to the fringe of public interest. But it’s been there before. Resiliency is one of its strongest qualities. It’ll be around, always reinventing itself.”

In some respects, boxing, like the other sports, has always been dependent on rivalries like the NBA’s Celtics versus Lakers, which drives the public’s interest and storylines.

“[Larry] Bird-Magic [Johnson] was basketball’s Ali-[Joe] Frazier,” Frauenheim says. “It transformed the league, setting the stage for Michael Jordan. It can happen again, in boxing or any other sport.”

Boxing is still the same but with tweaks here and there.

“When I started, championship bouts were 15 rounds instead of 12,” said Frauenheim who began his journalism career in 1970 at the Tallahassee Democrat and worked at the Jacksonville Journal before being lured in Phoenix. “There were morning weigh-ins instead of the day-before promotional show. There was also a lot more media. A big fight in Vegas meant all of the big media people were there. The last time that happened was Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2015, a fight that failed to meet expectations and I think eroded much of the big media’s appetite for more,” continued Frauenheim whose byline has appeared in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

Mexican legend Saul Alvarez is still a major draw, but there are others on the horizon who are ready to step in and take over like the undefeated super middleweight David Benavidez.

“The clock is ticking on Canelo’s career, and I think he knows it. At this point, it’s about risk-reward. The 27-year-old Benavidez is too big a risk. Canelo, I think, looks at Benavidez and thinks he’ll beat him. I don’t think he would,” Frauenheim noted. “Benavidez is too big, has a mean streak and possesses a rare extra gear. He gets stronger in the late rounds.

“Even if Canelo wins, there’s a pretty good chance that Benavidez hurts him. There’s still a chance Canelo-Benavidez happens. But I think it’ll take some Saudi [Arabian] money.”

Boxers stand alone in the ring, literally and figuratively, but have a small supporting crew.

This makes them unique compared to baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

“Boxers are different from any other athlete I’ve ever covered. It’s why, I guess, boxing has been called a writer’s sport. There are plenty of NFL and NBA players who have grown up on the so-called mean streets,” Frauenheim said. “But they have teammates. They don’t make that long, lonely walk from the dressing room to the ring.”

Stripped naked, boxers are an open book, according to Frauenheim.

“They can be hard to deal with while training and cutting weight. But after a fight, no athlete in my experience is more forthcoming,” he said. “Win or lose, they just walked through harm’s way in front of people. In my experience, that’s when they want to talk.”

Selecting a career highlight or highlights isn’t easy for Frauenheim, but he tried.

“There are so many. I was there for the great Sugar Ray Leonard victory over Thomas Hearns [1981], a welterweight classic,” he recalled. “A personal favorite was Michael Carbajal’s comeback from two knockdowns for a KO of Humberto Gonzalez in 1993, perhaps the best fight in the history of the lightest weight class. I was also there for the crazy, including Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield’s “Bite Fight” and the “Fan Man” landing in the ring like the 82nd Airborne Division midway through a Riddick Bowe-Holyfield fight behind Vegas’ Caesars Palace.”

Three boxers set the tone and backdrop for Frauenheim’s illustrious tenure as a writer.

“Roberto Duran is the greatest lightweight ever. His lifestyle sometimes got the best of him. That was evident in his infamous ‘No Mas’ welterweight loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in New Orleans,” he said of that November 1980 bout. “He told me that he took the rematch, on short notice, because of the money. “Women-women-women, eating-eating-eating, drinking-drinking-drinking,” he told me in an interview of what he had been doing before Leonard’s people approached him for an immediate rematch of his Montreal victory. But take a look at Duran’s victory in Montreal [June 1980]. Watch it again. On that night, there’s never been a better fighter than Duran.”

Frauenheim added another titan to that short list: “Leonard, who is the last real Sugar,” he said, and ended with the only eight-weight division king. “Manny Pacquiao, an amazing story about a starving kid off impoverished Filipino streets. He was a terrific fighter, blessed with speed, power and instinct. Add to that a shy personality unchanged by all the money and celebrity. He is an example of what can still happen in boxing. He’s the face of the game’s resiliency.”

That’s quite a trio, and they’re the best of the best that Frauenheim’s seen and covered from ringside.

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Aaron McKenna and Kieron Conway Victorious in Osaka

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Aaron McKenna scored a 10th-round stoppage of Jeovanny Estela today (Monday, July 15) in Osaka, Japan. The bout was one of four scheduled 10-rounders in the middleweight division in a revamped Prizefighter Tournament with a $1,000,000 prize at stake for the winner.

One of two fighting brothers from the little town of Smithborough in County Monaghan, Ireland, the undefeated (19-0, 10 KOs) McKenna (pictured) was well ahead on the scorecards when the referee stepped in and halted the match at the 2:02 mark of the final round. He entered the ring a 4/1 favorite over Estela (14-1), a 23-year-old Floridian of Puerto Rican descent who began his pro career at 147.

McKenna’s opponent in the next round (at a date and place to be determined) will be England’s Kieron Conway (21-3-1, 6 KOs) who scored a seventh-round stoppage over China’s obscure Ainiwaer Yilixati (19-2). All three of Conway’s losses were to opponents who were undefeated when he fought them with two of those setbacks occurring on Canelo Alvarez undercards.

Two Japanese fighters – Riku Kunimoto and Kazuto Takesako – were victorious in the other bouts and will meet in the semifinals.

Local fan favorite Kunimoto, recognized as the middleweight champion of Japan, advanced to 12-1 (6 KOs) with a fifth-round stoppage of countryman Eiki Kani (8-5-3). This was a rematch. The two fought earlier this year in Nagoya with Kunimoto registering a fifth-round TKO.

Takesako (17-2-1, 15 KOs) registered the lone upset on the card with a hard-earned decision over England’s Mark Dickinson. It was the first pro loss for Dickinson who had only six pro fights under his belt but was a highly decorated amateur. The scores were 98-92, 97-93, and 95-94.

The next fight for Kunimoto will be another rematch. Takesako saddled him with his lone defeat, knocking him out in the first round at Tokyo’s venerable Korakuen Hall in May of 2021.

The tournament, co-sponsored by Matchroom and televised on DAZN, offers an aggregate $100,000 per event for knockouts. McKenna, Conway, and Kunimoto scooped up $25,000 apiece.

Aaron McKenna, his brother Stephen, and their father/trainer Feargal McKenna were the subjects of a story that ran on these pages. Stephen McKenna (14-0, 13 KOs) returns to the ring next month against 14-2 Joe Laws on a BOXXER promotion that will air on Sky Sports in the UK.

Aaron McKenna entered the Prizefighter Tourney as the pre-fight favorite and Matchroom honcho Eddie Hearn has indicated that he will be in line for a world title shot if he wins his next two matches.

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Results and Recaps from Philly where ‘Boots’ Ennis Stomped Out David Avanesyan

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PHILADELPHIA, PA — On what Matchroom Boxing Promotions called the most important night in Philadelphia boxing in over 40 years, Jaron “Boots” Ennis (32-0, 29 KOs), the current IBF welterweight champion from the city of Brotherly Love, attracted a larger-than-expected crowd of 14,119 to the Wells Fargo Center where he stopped David Avanesyan who was pulled out after five rounds. In Avanesyan (30-5-1, 18 KOs), Ennis looked to impress on two fronts, both commercially and critically.

It didn’t take long for there to be some excitement after Ennis landed a clean jab that caused Avanesyan to stagger momentarily. Ennis turned southpaw and the action stopped after Ennis landed a low blow. Rounds two and three saw both fighters decide to fight on the inside. Ennis was able to land crisp upper cuts while only getting hit with a few shots in exchange. After four rounds, the evidence was clear that Avanesyan was getting hit with clean shots as his face started to get busted up. Avanesyan had a moment when he landed a right hand that got the attention of the crowd and Ennis.

In return, Ennis continued to press forward, this time behind a straight left and combinations. A huge overhand left floored Avanesyan who rose to his feet. Round five ended with Ennis landing some clean power shots that had Avanesyan looking deflated. The ringside physician called an end to the fight after the conclusion of round five.

After the fight, Ennis agreed that he would love the opportunity to fight Terence Crawford if Crawford were to win next month, this despite not having the type of performance that he would have loved to have had after having a year-long lay-off. Eddie Hearn mentioned that he would love to have Ennis return to Philadelphia sometime in October or November if the Crawford fight can’t be made in a possible unification fight.

Other Bouts

After three pedestrian rounds, what sounded like it would be a grudge match between Jahlil Hackett (9-0, 7 KOs) and Pete Dobson (16-2) finally turned into a fight in the fourth. With both fighters finally warming up, Hackett used his jab to continue to work his way inside to land power combinations. Dobson was forced to back up into the ropes and take shots after a large lump formed on his forehead above his left eye.

The action settled down after the sixth round with Hackett taking total control. He continued to work behind an educated jab that stunted any offensive attack that Dobson tried to muster. After all ten rounds, two of the judges saw the fight 97-93, while the third had it 96-94 all in favor of Jahlil Hackett.

Skye Nicolson (11-0, 1 KO), the 2020 Tokyo Olympian and current WBC featherweight champion, utilized her skills in every way to defeat Dayan Vargas (18-2, 12 KOs). All three judges scored the fight 100-90 after Nicolson completed the shutout in dominating fashion through her command of range with a sharp jab and lateral movement. Moving forward unification fights and a possible move up in weight may force Nicolson to face the type of opposition that could make for more entertaining fights in the future.

Light heavyweight action kicked off the main portion of the DAZN telecast. Jersey City native Khalil Coe (9-0-1, 7 KOs) made short work of Kwame Ritter (11-2). After an uneventful first round, Coe started to close the distance to start the second round and as a result he landed a hard straight right that hurt Ritter. A left hook dropped Ritter and he fell backwards into the ropes. When he got up, Coe was able to swarm him with hard shots and the referee called a halt to the action with just one second remaining in the second round.

Former world title challenger Christopher “Pitufu” Diaz (29-4, 19 KOs) made quick work of the game but clearly overmatched Derlyn Hernandez (12-2-1). A short-left hook hurt Hernandez and the seasoned Diaz took his time applying the follow-up pressure that forced the referee to wave off the action at the 2:36 mark of the second round. Diaz stated prior to this comeback fight that he’s looking for one more run towards a world title.

Christian Carto (23-1, 17 KO’s) looked impressive in three rounds of action against Carlos Buitrago (38-14, 22 KOs). Both fighters were happy to exchange from the opening bell. Carto took the punches he was hit with well and was able to return fire with combinations that caught and dropped Buitrago to start round three. A series of well-placed power combinations hurt Buitrago as the round came to an end, which prompted the referee to stop the bout at the end of the round.

A pair of Boots Promotions fighters kicked off the night with entertaining bouts:

It took all six rounds to decide the Ismail Muhammad (5-0, 1 KOs) Frank Brown (3-5-2) fight. Brown pressed the action early and caught the cold Muhammad in an exchange knocking him down for the first time in his career. Muhammad rose to his feet and proceeded to work the gameplan to get himself back into the fight. Muhammad scored his own knockdown in the fourth round and finished the fight strong to earn the unanimous decision victory by scores of 58-54 twice and 57-55.

Dennis Thompson (1-0) won his professional debut at bantamweight with a unanimous decision over the game Fernando Valdez (1-8).

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