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Hopkins Looking At Stevenson, Ward, Even Mayweather

Bernard Fernandez

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HopkinsCloudWorkout Kane24 5e1ffThere is a dark cloud from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean that hovers like radioactive fallout over IBF light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins’ Oct. 26 defense against Germany’s Karo Murat in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.

That dark cloud has a name: Morrade Hakkar.

Even with the emergence of highly credible European champions and contenders in multiple weight classes, those fighters tend to mostly ply their trade in and around their own countries, and off American TV. (Hopkins-Murat will be televised by Showtime Championship Boxing.) There is a lingering suspicion among more than a few U.S. boxing buffs that foreign fighters with whom they are generally unfamiliar – be they from Europe, Asia, South America or Africa – are somehow less worthy than homegrown Americans, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And, let’s face it, Murat (25-1-1, 16 KOs) – who will be making his first professional appearance on these shores – is very much a mystery man, despite his No. 2 ranking from the IBF, to fight fans who will be in attendance in Boardwalk Hall or catching the action on Showtime.

No wonder there are those, including Hopkins (53-6-2, 32 KOs; seen above in Hogan photo) who are hoping, even praying, that the 31-year-old German is a vast upgrade over Hakkar, who furnished the opposition (well, sort of) for B-Hop’s only world title bout in his hometown of Philadelphia. That matchup, in which Hopkins successfully defended his IBF/WBC/WBA middleweight crowns on an eighth-round stoppage of an overmatched and clearly frightened Hakkar on March 29, 2003, in the since-demolished First Union Spectrum, was such a stink bomb that Larry Merchant’s post-fight interview with the winner began with him asking if Hopkins was “embarrassed” to have fought someone as inept as the French stiff.

“Why should I be embarrassed?” an indignant Hopkins responded. “I didn’t make the guy the No. 1 contender. (HBO) gave Roy Jones four years to fight school teachers and policemen. Roy can do it and I can’t? I’m asking to fight the best fighters. I’m 38. I’m so ancient, why aren’t the great, young fighters calling out the old man?”

If he truly felt that way, why didn’t Hopkins simply ditch one of his bejeweled championship belts, Merchant persisted, as Riddick Bowe once did, rather than to proceed with a mandatory that he felt was beneath him?

“To give up any of my belts would be like taking a shotgun and blowing my own foot off,” Hopkins explained. “If I’m not getting big fights with three belts, how am I going to get them if I give any of my belts away? I don’t see why I should be punished when (the world sanctioning bodies) continue to put guys (at No. 1) who ain’t supposed to be there. I’m not the problem.”

But there was a problem, according to HBO senior vice president Kery Davis, and one that boxing, or maybe Hopkins, needed to correct if it was to avoid what had just taken place in the ring when Hakkar did his impression of a fleeing thief being pursued by a satin-trunked cop.

“This was an embarrassing mismatch in terms of a mandatory,” Davis fumed. “This is why you hate mandatories. We wanted to get Bernard a bigger name, but this is the guy he wanted to fight.”

It should be noted that Karo Murat is Hopkins’ mandatory challenger. The IBF’s No. 1 contender, Polish-born, Chicago-based Andrzej Fonfara (24-2, 14 KOs), is coming off a ninth-round stoppage of Gabriel Campillo on Aug. 16, and thus was unavailable to jump in against Hopkins on such short notice. And, besides, is Fonfara any more of a household name in the U.S. than Murat?

Ten years after Morrade Hakkar and things would not appear to have changed much for the aging legend or for the fight game in general. Hopkins is now 48, the last of the padded-glove dinosaurs, still guarding the belt he said offers him a measure of protection against sinister guys in suits who would strip him of his relevancy, and still calling out the hot, young stars who could give him the big fights, big paydays and historic significance he says are necessary to keep him interested.

“If there was something more significant on the table, even without a title, sure, we could have rolled with that,” said Hopkins, the oldest man ever to have won a widely recognized world championship, a distinction he clearly cherishes. “I’ve done that before. I could vacate my title, say this guy (Murat) is not worthy, go for somebody with a bigger name. But there was nothing like that out there for me at this time. I can’t just sit around, close to 50, and not fight. So Golden Boy wants me to go ahead with this and keep my title, so we all decided to do it.

“Look, the light heavyweight division is heating up. I was watching when Adonis Stevenson (the WBC 175-pound champ) beat up Tavoris Cloud. Me and him would be a big fight. Me and (Sergey) Kovalev, too, or me and Andre Ward, even me and (Julio Cesar) Chavez Jr. You know Chavez can’t make 160 anymore, or even 168. (Gennady) Golovkin could come up and we could maybe do something at a catch weight.

“I’ll even throw another name out there that might sound crazy. If Floyd Mayweather is what he says he is, if he wants to come up in weight like Oscar did, I can come down and we can come to some sort of arrangement. I want to do something really big before I leave this game because that’s why I’m in the business. Yeah, I got the record for being the oldest world champion, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But I want to go out with a fight as big as when I fought my friend and business partner, Oscar De La Hoya. I prefer superfights. I don’t want to fight mandatories. For what? Unless it’s a mandatory against somebody that everybody knows, a superstar like myself.”

To get to that megabucks finale, or maybe similarly important fights on the way to his big sendoff, Hopkins believes he needs to hold onto a title that is anything but worthless, no matter what some pundits insist. Maybe Mayweather is so monstrously important that he doesn’t need a belt to command public attention, but Hopkins, ever the conspiracy theorist, said that without one he is naked to the whims of behind-the-scenes types that have long sought to shuttle him off to the sideline where his big mouth would be effectively silenced.

“To get these guys to fight me I must hold my belt,” Hopkins said. “I got to hold the belt hostage. Because if I don’t, some of these guys are always going to choose a less dangerous champion to fight than Bernard Hopkins.”

Which brings us back to Karo Murat, the German who at least talks the talk. And maybe he is the unexpected rock slide that will derail Hopkins’ 25-year chug into boxing history.

“Bernard Hopkins is 48 years of age,” Murat said after the fight with Hopkins, which originally had been scheduled for July 13 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., before it was delayed due to visa problems for Murat. “Will he be ready for me? I do not know. What I can say is that I will be my best on Oct. 26. When I am through messing up his old bones it will make me a star in an instant.”

So what does Hopkins think of Murat, who is making the familiar I’ll-kick-your-ass noises that everyone makes before the first bell rings?

“I can’t tell you s— about the guy, other than what I seen on YouTube,” Hopkins admitted. “Naazim (Richardson, Hopkins’ trainer) said he seen him once or twice when he was over there in Germany with Steve Cunningham.

“But, really, I’ve fought so many guys with so many different styles in my career, I can adapt and make whatever adjustments I need to make. And it’s not like I’m taking him light in any case. I’m preparing for him like he’s somebody that everybody knows because that’s the way I have to think. Fighters like this are tricky. You want people to come up to you on the street and say, `Man, that guy you’re fighting is good!’ You know they’d be saying that if I was fighting Adonis Stevenson or Andre Ward.

“I mean, the fact that he isn’t known much in the U.S. doesn’t mean he can’t fight. It’s just that you have to get as up mentally for someone who’s not known as you do for the guys everybody knows. I’ve always got my mind right for every fight, which is why I’ve stayed on top as long as I have. If I wasn’t like that, I could easily overlook this guy then, boom, he beats me because I didn’t bring my `A’ game.”

One wonders what would have happened to Hopkins had he gone to sleep on Hakkar, whom he probably could have defeated even if he had brought only his `D’ game.

“I once fought a guy like this from France – uh, what’s his name again? – who literally ran around the ring all night. A horrible fight. I won, I stopped him, but it was horrible.

“This guy (Murat) is way better than the French guy, but the situation is sort of similar. I know (Murat) got knocked out by Nathan Cleverly, and I’ve got that fight on DVD, but to be honest, I stopped watching it.

“Is he fundamentally sound? Yeah. He basically comes straight forward, hands up, tries to outwork you. He’s got that European style, doesn’t do anything fancy. So, yeah, the burden is on me to perform. I’m carrying all the weight for this fight, even in the promotion of it.

“There are a lot of possible distractions, but I know what I got to do, and I’m gonna do it.”

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Boxing Odds and Ends: ‘Stitch’ Duran at the Top Rank Gym and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jacob “Stitch” Duran is the most famous cutman in the world. But this past November, when he was working the first of the four Triller shows — the show in Los Angeles anchored by the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr exhibition – Duran realized for the first time that his renown wasn’t confined to the insular world of combat sports.

“Snoop Dogg came up to me and said, ‘man you’re a legend, may I take a picture with you?’ I was shocked. I had no idea that anyone knew me in that world. It was a memorable moment.”

Duran, who turned 70 this month and looks years younger, has had many memorable moments. The night that he plied his trade in London’s Wembley Stadium before 90,000 screaming fans is forever embedded in his memory. But that adventure was bittersweet. He worked the corner of Wladimir Klitschko, with whom he had a 12-year relationship, and that see-saw fight between Klitschko and Anthony Joshua ended with Klitschko on the receiving end of a barrage of punches, forcing the referee to step in and call off the contest in the 11th round.

Duran grew up in Planada, CA, an overwhelmingly Hispanic community where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Planada is in the agriculturally fertile San Joaquin Valley. Most of the working adults are employed by the farms or in a food-related industry. Duran’s memoir, “From the Fields to the Garden” (as in Madison Square), written with Zac Robinson, was released in 2011 and spawned a sequel.

If there is ever a third book, one chapter will likely be titled “Life in the Bubble.” Duran and Mike Bazzel, and eventually Floyd Mayweather’s associate Bob Ware, were tabbed to be the house cutmen for all of Top Rank’s so-called Bubble Fights, 22 in all, a series that ran from June 23, 2020 to Feb. 20 of this year from the sterile MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

The cutmen and other essential employees were quarantined on the 12th floor of the hotel, departing only for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and for the weigh-in. Bazzel, who has a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, never left the hotel. Duran, who lived 20 minutes away, was able to go home between assignments but the better part of his week was still spent in his 12th-floor “crib.”

It was boxing’s version of the “Shawshank Redemption,” says Stitch, referencing the 1994 prison movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. “We were literally in solitary confinement.” But he is thankful that Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs called him and offered him the gig. Duran was one of the few people in boxing who was able to stay busy when things slowed to a crawl.

Duran, an Air Force veteran, came to Las Vegas in 1995. During his early years in the city, he prowled the boxing and MMA gyms, looking for work. Nowadays, he doesn’t have to look for work, it seeks him out, but Duran is still an insatiable gym rat of sorts.

Earlier this week he was at the Top Rank Gym which was bustling with activity. Tyson Fury was there being put through his paces by trainer SugarHill Steward, as was Scotland’s Josh Taylor, who has a big fight upcoming with Jose Ramirez. The winner will be the undisputed 140-pound champion owning all four meaningful belts.

Duran and the Gypsy King are well-acquainted. When Fury hooked up with Steward, the nephew of the late Emanuel Steward, Stitch Duran came along in what was something of a package deal. Their first fight together was Fury’s rematch with Deontay Wilder. Staged at the MGM Grand Garden on Feb. 22, 2020, it was a tour-de-force for the Gypsy King.

“Working with Fury was a seamless transition because I was so familiar with the Kronk way of doing things,” says Duran. The legendary Emanuel Steward handled Wladimir for 17 fights. When Steward died of colon cancer in 2012, the torch was passed to Emanuel’s longtime assistant Johnathan Banks.

One can number Stitch among those who thought that Emanuel Steward had no peer as a boxing coach: “Emanuel’s work with Wladimir in his first fight with Samuel Peter was the best corner work I ever saw. Emanuel’s instructions got him back in the fight.”

Klitschko looked like a cooked goose after Peter knocked him down twice in the fifth round, but the big Ukrainian went on to win a clear-cut unanimous decision.

There was a camera crew at the Top Rank Gym gathering up the final pieces for a Stitch Duran documentary that commenced filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It should prove interesting.

Nat Fleischer Award

The Boxing Writers Association of America has named Joe Maxse the 48th recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award. The award, which recognizes Excellence in Boxing Journalism, is voted on by previous honorees.

A Cleveland native, Maxse, 69, covered boxing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1987 to 2013. Cleveland was an important fight town during most of those years. Don King built his empire there before relocating to New York City and eventually Deerfield Beach, Florida.

The Fleischer Award has been presented every year since 1973. The first recipient was Barney Nagler who went on to helm the BWAA from 1984 to 1989. Nagler was then the sports columnist for the Daily Racing Form. He had begun his journalism career with the Bronx Home News and was the author of two boxing books, most notably “James Norris and the Decline of Boxing,” a book that still appears on many lists of the best boxing books of all time.

Former recipients include two members of the TSS family: Bernard Fernandez (1998) and Thomas Hauser (2004). Last year’s winner was Graham Houston, the longtime North American correspondent and sometimes editor for several British boxing publications including the venerable Boxing News.

Maxse will be honored along with other award winners (a two-year supply) at the 95th BWAA awards dinner, the date and site of which have yet to be determined. Hopefully, when Maxse takes the podium, he won’t conclude his speech without tossing in an impression of the late Harry Carey. Maxse’s spot-on impersonation of the iconic baseball announcer endeared him to his peers.

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Canelo vs. BJ Saunders: Predictions and Analyses from the TSS Faculty

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More than 60,000 fight fans are expected to gather at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, on Saturday. The turnout for the fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders represents a turning point in the COVID-19 era. Boxing has been pretty much walled-off to the general public since a sellout crowd of 15,816 witnessed the second encounter between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder on Feb. 20, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Canelo Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) holds the WBC and WBA world titles at 168 pounds. Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs) owns the WBO belt. However, the hardware is largely immaterial whenever Canelo steps in the ring as he is widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. In Saunders he is meeting a slick southpaw bidding to become the second member of the Traveling community to hold multiple title belts simultaneously, joining his friend Tyson Fury. The bout headlines a 7-bout card that will air on DAZN in 200+ countries and territories worldwide and on TV Azteca in Mexico.

Whenever a fight of this magnitude comes down the pike, we invite members of our editorial staff to provide a quick analysis of the match and forecast the outcome. Their prognostications appear below with the respondents listed in alphabetical order.

The graphic is by Colorado comic book cover artist ROB AYALA, an honored guest whenever we perform this kind of exercise. Check out more of Rob’s cool illustrations at his web site fight posium.

PICKS and ANALYSIS

No gimme for Canelo here, as Saunders is a southpaw who can box, has a bit of pop in his punch, as well as a knack for making his opponents look not quite as impressive as they normally are. Still, Canelo is at the top of the boxing food chain for a reason. It’s all right for him to win some fights and not be spectacular in doing so. Figure the Mexican icon on scoring a knockdown or two along the way, but he may have to be satisfied with a win on points this time out. – BERNARD FERNANDEZ

I no longer pick against Canelo Alvarez. And certainly not against a boxing basket case like Billy Joe Saunders. There’s a huge difference in the level of maturity between these two fighters and that will be seen in the ring when Canelo becomes the first to corner the fleet-footed Saunders and put him on his back. Canelo KO in 10. – JEFFREY FREEMAN

Canelo by decision. He does everything better than Saunders, who will fight well enough to survive but not win. – THOMAS HAUSER

Billy Joe is formidable. You don’t lock in an Olympic berth at age 18 without natural talent. You don’t run circles around a big puncher like David Lemieux without a high ring IQ. But Saunders, despite his undefeated record, has been inconsistent. Canelo, as Kevin Iole noted in a recent column, doesn’t do one thing great, but he does everything well. How does one formulate a smart game plan for a boxer with no flaws to exploit? Canelo UD. – ARNE LANG

Much has been made by Saunders’ camp this week about the size of the ring that will be used in the fight. While it seems strange and even unruly that there can be such vast disparities in how large the boxing ring is or how spongy the mat can be for any professional fight card in our sport, the truth of the matter is that Saunders probably doesn’t have much hope in beating Alvarez no matter how those other factors play out. They could fight on a basketball court, and I’d still pick Alvarez. The best the cagey UK fighter will be able to muster is trying to go the distance with the Mexican. Callum Smith pulled it off back in December, but Saunders won’t quite get there. CANELO via 9th-round stoppage. – KELSEY McCARSON

There was a time, not that long ago, when I would have favoured Saunders to beat Canelo and stylistically I still feel Saunders holds all the aces. Canelo’s improvements in the last 30 months have astonished, though. He has found a meaningful fourth and fifth punch for his combinations and his strength, for whatever reason, is prestigious at whatever weight he fights. Saunders, something of a persona-non-grata here in his home country after a series of public relations disasters, is very much a man out of time.  Canelo, bodyshots, between the eighth and the tenth. – MATT McGRAIN

There is a case to be made that Canelo Alvarez has not faced a pure boxer on the level of Billy Joe Saunders since his do-si-do with Erislandy Lara in 2014, in a fight that still has some screaming robbery (Alvarez won by split decision). Of course, that was nearly seven years ago, back when Alvarez was still trading on his telenovela bonafides. Since then, he has gone on to distinguish himself as arguably the best boxer in the sport today. The same cannot be said for the erratic and self-sabotaging Saunders, who has squandered his impressive showing against David Lemieux in 2017 with consecutive lackluster outings against mostly middling opposition. The southpaw will find ways to frustrate Alvarez at times, to be sure, but expect Alvarez to slow down the jittery motions of the Brit by punishing him to the body en route to a mostly clear win on the cards. Canelo by majority decision. – SEAN NAM

I see a feeling-out type fight in the first two rounds and then Canelo begins the stalk. Saunders will be more elusive and more savvy than most of Canelo’s opponents, occasionally getting in some sharp counters. However, he will begin to tire late from an accumulation of Canelo’s body work and from backing up. This will allow the Mexican to increase the tempo looking for a way to close the show. The Traveler will survive. But Canelo will win with a dominating UD. – TED SARES

Two names come to mind for me when deciding how this fight will play out. First, Erislandy Lara, who I saw outbox but not outfight Alvarez. Second is Alexander Povetkin, whose horrible performance against Dillian Whyte was reportedly due to coronavirus residue, which Alvarez also claims to have been afflicted by. Can Saunders, another left-hander with a bit more of a reach advantage than Lara, take advantage of a possibly weakened Canelo? Don’t bet on it unless Cinco de Mayo weekend gets cancelled and nobody from Texas or Mexico shows up for the fight. Saunders seems capable of making it interesting, but Alvarez wins by wide decision or late TKO.  – PHIL WOOLEVER

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A Heinous Crime Will Likely Land Felix Verdejo in Prison for the Rest of His Life

Arne K. Lang

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“Felix has a sparkling personality, a flashy fighting style, and he’s good. He’s also f-a-s-t.” The quote is from Thomas Hauser who wrote those words in June of 2015 after Verdejo improved his record to 18-0 with a near-shutout of fellow unbeaten Ivan Nejara on an HBO card from the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

At this juncture it appeared that Verdejo, a former Olympian, was destined to become the next icon of Puerto Rican fight fans, the heir-apparent to Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto.

Today, news stories about Verdejo make no reference to his sparkling personality. It’s an attribute inconsistent with the portrait of a monster.

This past Saturday, as hardcore fight fans were glued to the telecast of a show in Manchester, England, it came to light that authorities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had found the body of a young woman who had been reported missing after failing to turn up at her job at a dog grooming salon on Thursday morning, that the decedent was plainly the victim of foul play, that Verdejo was the primary suspect in her murder, and that he wasn’t cooperating with the authorities.

When the corpse of the missing woman was fished from a lagoon, her body was reportedly so mangled that forensic examiners had to consult dental records to confirm that the decedent was indeed Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz, the 27-year-old woman they were looking for. The boxer and Ms. Rodriguez had reportedly known each other since middle school. According to Rodriguez’s family members, she was pregnant with Verdejo’s child and the boxer, who was married with a 2-year-old daughter, wasn’t happy about it.

Keishla

Keishla Rodriguez

With each new detail, the story became more sordid.

It is alleged that the victim was thrown off a bridge after being punched in the face and injected with a syringe filled with an unidentified substance. Verdejo and an accomplice – who hasn’t been charged and is identified only as a witness – then tied her hands and feet with wire and weighed the body down with a cinderblock before tossing it into the water. When the body was slow to sink, Verdejo allegedly fired a bullet at it. A shell casing was found on the bridge and the authorities have corroborating evidence from toll booth cameras.

As first reported by veteran boxing writer Jake Donovan, the boxer surrendered to FBI agents yesterday evening (Sunday). He appeared this morning via zoom before federal magistrate Camille Velez Rive who ordered him returned to prison and held without bail.

Many of the headlines in the tabloids say that Verdejo is facing the death penalty. That’s technically true. The three crimes for which he has been charged — carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping resulting in death, and intentionally killing an unborn child – are federal crimes. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws. However, Puerto Rico abolished capitol punishment in 1929. The country hasn’t executed anyone since 1927 when a man named Pascual Ramos was hanged for killing his boss.

It’s doubtful that prosecutors would pursue the death penalty unless the trial were moved to the mainland. However, domestic violence has become a hot-button issue in Puerto Rico and the national mood toward crimes of this nature is trending toward harsher retribution. Yesterday, according to the Daily Mail, hundreds of people, mostly women, including Rodriguez’s sister, gathered at the bridge that spans the lagoon to pay their respects and demand justice for the victims of domestic violence.

Felix Verdejo turned pro  at age 19 after representing Puerto Rico in the 2012 London Olympics. He rose to #1 in the WBO lightweight rankings after defeating Oliver Flores in February of 2017, but was demoted for inactivity. There were extenuating circumstances including fights that fell out and a 6-day stay in a hospital following a motorcycle accident.

He returned to the ring after a 13 ½ month absence and suffered his first pro defeat. An unheralded Mexican, Antonio Lozada, stopped him in the final round, the 10th. Verdejo was ahead on two of the scorecards through the nine completed rounds. There were 23 seconds remaining in the contest when the bout was stopped.

Verdejo’s most recent fight came in December of last year. He was stopped in the ninth round by Masayoshi Nakatani at the MGM Bubble in Las Vegas, reducing his pro record to 27-2. As happened against Lozada, Verdejo faded late, squandering a big lead.

Verdejo photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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