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All That Glitters Might Not Be Gold

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History tells us that North America’s two great gold rushes – one was when the precious metal was discovered, in impressive quantities, near Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, Calif., on Jan. 24, 1848; the other was when a similar find in 1896, northwest Canada’s Yukon territory, triggered another stampede of prospectors and land speculators hoping to strike it big.

Only a fortunate few of the hundreds of thousands of get-rich-quick dreamers found their figurative pots of gold in the soil, streams and mountains, but their successes kept well-heeled, bling-bling-craving consumers of their day adorned in shiny rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Those successes also inspired generations that followed to seek a way to take the fast route from having almost nothing to posh residences on Easy Street.

The boxing equivalent of those famous gold rushes came in 1984, at the Los Angeles Olympics, when attorney Dan Duva – president of a Totowa, N.J.-based boxing company, Main Events, which ran mostly mid-level shows at a local ice rink – convinced six Olympic medalists to sign on the dotted line. Not all of the new members of the Main Events stable won gold medals (Evander Holyfield settled for bronze, but was denied a shot at a likely gold due to a controversial referee’s call in the semifinals, while Virgil Hill took a silver), but four others did. Between them, Pernell  Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Holyfield and Hill won multiple world championships as professionals (Tyrell Biggs never made it all the way to the top, losing his only shot at a heavyweight title when he taken out in seven rounds by Mike Tyson on Oct. 16, 1987) and earned themselves, and the company for whom they fought, tens of millions of dollars. Almost instantly, Main Events became a major player in the promotional wars, muscling its way into the uppermost tier alongside longtime power brokers Bob Arum and Don King.

Dan Duva passed away far too soon, at 44, on Jan. 30, 1996, from a brain tumor. His death caused a split among squabbling family factions, and ultimately a loss of influence for the company. Main Events, with its role in NBC Sports’ reinvolvement in boxing, has assumed an important if somewhat lesser prominence that it once enjoyed, with Kathy Duva, Dan’s widow, as its CEO. But the lessons – both positive and negative – from that 1984 Olympic bonanza continue to resonate.

Top Rank founder Arum, who turns 82 on Dec. 8, has pulled several pages from the dusty Main Events playbook with his hoarding of the top performers at the 2012 London Olympics. The four most notable all scored gold medals – that would be Vasyl Lomachenko (pictured above, in pro debut, photo by Hogan Photos), Zou Shiming, Egor Mekhontsev and Ryota Murata – and are the faces of Top Rank’s new direction, but Arum and his stepson, Todd duBoef, also have high hopes for non-medal-winning Olympians Felix Verdejo, Jose Ramirez and Oscar Valdez.

If there’s a significant difference between what Main Events did in 1984, and what Top Rank is doing now, it is this: None of the highly regarded Olympic fighters snared by Arum are Americans; all of Duva’s Olympic acquisitions were from and represented the United States.

“It’s not necessarily a global strategy, but I guess it is to some extent,” Arum said of the additions upon whom so much of Top Rank’s future will hinge. “You have to remember that the gold medalists in London were not Americans, because no Americans came close to winning any medals, much less gold medals.

“We could have continued doing what we had been doing, which is to put fights on in the United States with primarily American and Mexican fighters. And indeed, we will continue to do that. But then I saw the opportunity to expand our reach all over the world, particularly with the Chinese fighters. (Shiming, a two-time gold medalist, is the marquee attraction, but three of his non-Olympic countrymen also turned pro under the Top Rank banner.) There is a hunger for our product in places like China, especially with Chinese fighters.

“We’re attracting tremendous turnouts in Macau, at the Venetian. Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios will be our third card there, and our biggest by far. We’re doing unbelievable business.”

And while Macau is morphing into boxing’s latest preferred destination – Arum noted that the gaming palaces in the gleaming Chinese city rake in nearly nine times the money of all the casinos in Nevada, making it “Las Vegas on steroids” – there are also profits to be mined in Japan, where Murata holds virtual rock-star status, and Eastern Europe, which is the region of the world from which two-time gold medalist Lomachenko (Ukraine) and Mekhontsev (Russia) emerged.

“Ukraine and Russia already have a tremendous interest in boxing,” said Arum, who pointed out that the Olympians sought him out at first, not the other way around. “Ukraine, thanks to the Klitschko brothers – one of whom (Vitali) is even going to run for president! – has shown itself to be an important market for boxing. And the popularity of boxing in Russia is going up as high as President (Vladimir) Putin’s approval rating.”

Curiously, all four members of Top Rank’s touted crop of golden boys have relocated to the U.S., where they can train under the watchful eyes of their employer. Lomachenko, Mekhontsev and Shiming have taken up residence in California, while Murata is training at the Top Rank gym in Las Vegas. It is possible that all or some could become headliners in this country, as did Panama’s Roberto Duran and the Philippines’ Pacquiao, but the plan for now is to showcase them in or close to their home countries, where they already are household names.

“The bigger weight guys (Lomachenko is a featherweight, Meihontsev a light heavyweight and Murata a super middleweight) came in as professional-ready fighters. I think their styles will translate well to the United States when they fight in the United States, but their (possible success) here will not be the be-all and end-all,” Arum continued. “Look at (Gennady) Golovkin. People in America want to watch him because he’s a tremendous fighter, a very entertaining fighter. Ruslan Provodnikov, Artie Pelullo’s fighter, same thing. These Eastern European kids are real warriors. People everywhere just love to watch them fight.

“That’s not especially true for Zou Shiming just yet. He was taught for so long to do what it took to score points in the amateur system. His trainer, the great Freddie Roach, has been working to get him to sit down on his punches and so forth. Right now, he’s more of a project than the other three. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s already hugely popular in China.”

But Kathy Duva, who has been down this path before, sounds a note of caution. Oh, sure, her husband struck the mother lode in those ’84 Olympians – well, at least some of them – but she said it would be a mistake for any promoter to presume that a gold medal automatically transforms an amateur phenom into a pro with vast earning potential. Besides, she said, many of the most highly regarded amateurs have developed a sense of entitlement that sometimes proves to be more trouble than they’re worth.

“We have evolved so far from the way things used to be,” Duva said. “Back then, before we signed those guys, we used to invest a fortune in them even though we had no right to sign them. Main Events and (manager) Shelly Finkel sank a fortune into certain fighters, even before the Olympics, to bring them into pro camps so they could train with the pros and to learn under good managers. It’s part of the reason they were so freakin’ good.

“Pernell Whitaker was in our camps years before we signed him. So was Mark Breland. There was a time when Riddick Bowe was in our camps. Evander and Meldrick Taylor, on the other hand, were people we first encountered at the Olympics.

“We used to bring these fighters in almost as a public service, to move them along and teach them what they needed to learn to succeed in the Olympics and beyond. At the Olympic Box-offs, Whitaker lost his first fight at Caesars Palace. That night he went into a ballroom with my father-in-law (Hall of Fame trainer Lou Duva),who shadowboxed him through what he was going to have to do to beat the same kid the next day and thus lock up his place on the team. To this day, Pernell attributes his victory in that fight to Lou showing him what to do.”

But there’s always a “but,” isn’t there? And Kathy Duva said gratitude on a fighter’s part can only take a promoter so far when someone else shows up waving a more lucrative contract.

“The world was different then,” she sighed. “We put a lot of money up. We didn’t get a lot of it back. We had to be wildly successful to reap the benefits of those investments. We were with Whitaker. We were not with Tyrell Biggs and Mark Breland. Holyfield turned out to be the guy we made the most money with, and we invested nothing in him prior to his turning pro, although we gave all of them big signing bonuses.

“One guy … Shelly even paid for his mother’s funeral, not to mention unbelievable amounts of training expenses and all kinds of other things. We put well into six figures in him. It was a lot of money. Then, when it came time for him to turn pro, the guy said, `Well, if you give me a million-dollar signing bonus, I’ll sign with you. If not, I’ll sign with these other guys who are offering me a million.’ I’ll never forget that my husband and Shelly fell out about this in a big way. My husband said … well, I’d rather not repeat what he said. His position was we had already put a half-million dollars into this kid, now we have to pay the same amount as somebody else?

“Really, I don’t think the old system was particularly good. If it hadn’t been for Evander Holyfield, that whole deal would have been a total bust for us.”

It’s a lesson which taught Kathy Duva never again to go all-in too soon on any Olympic hero.

“For years we have not signed an Olympic kid directly out of the amateurs since 2000,” she said. “I will never do it again. Golden Boy as well as Top Rank is playing into that world, but without the benefit of years of bad experiences. The thing is, you can’t sign up these kids forever. Whoever wants to make a big investment that early, God bless ’em.”

So who will be Top Rank’s Holyfield equivalent? There might be several gold medal winners to slide easily into pro superstardom, or there might be none. The only thing that’s ever certain in boxing’s big crap shoot is, well, uncertainty. You place your bet and take your chances, and hope that those old bones being rolled don’t come up snake-eyes.

Teddy Atlas doesn’t have a horse in this race, but, as a boxing commentator for NBC during its coverage of the past four Olympiads, he has observed Lomachenko, Mekhontsev, Shiming and Murata fairly closely.  He believes Top Rank’s gambit could pay off handsomely, even if he is not a fan – that’s putting it mildly — of what Olympic boxing has become.

“It’s a joke,” he said of the perceived miscarriages of justice that frequently have called into question the fairness of the scoring. “Take Shiming, for example. I don’t think he deserved the gold medal in London. I’m not alone in thinking that. I’m not so sure about the gold he got in Beijing (in 2008) either, but there was nothing to prevent him from getting a gold in Beijing, and probably not in London. A lot of what’s involving in the scoring of Olympic boxing is, let’s face it, political. AIBA is not an honest organization. Their body of work speaks for itself.

“So why did Top Rank sign Shiming? Because there’s a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow in China. There’s a pot of gold at the beginning of the rainbow, too. They love the guy in China and Top Rank saw him as a way to tap into that huge market, that virgin market. They’re going to reap the benefits whether he throws wide punches or not, or even whether he can really fight or not. Top Rank has the resources to pick the right opponents for Shiming and keep him moving on down the road.”

But if Shiming is a question mark, Atlas sees Lomachenko as an exclamation point.

“He’s the most interesting of them all because he’s the best of them all,” Atlas said of the 25-year-old southpaw, who posted a 396-1-1 record as an amateur that, at first glance, almost appears to be a misprint. “He’s a versatile fighter, but most importantly, he’s a real fighter. He’s a fighter in every way.”

Arum evidently also believes that Lomachenko is special. Coached by his father, Anatoly, he is 1-0 as a pro, having knocked out a tough Mexican, Jose Ramirez, in four rounds on the undercard of the Timothy Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez fight in Las Vegas on Oct. 12. Ramirez entered that bout with a 25-3 record that included 15 victories inside the distance, and had never previously been stopped.

No fighter ever has won a professional world title in his pro debut, and the only man ever to make the attempt was Pete Rademacher, the1956 Olympic gold medalist in Melbourne, Australia, who lasted four rounds with heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson on Aug. 22, 1957. Lomachenko, in what would be only his second pro bout, is likely to challenge WBO 126-pound champion Orlando Salido (40-12-2, 28 KOs) in January, and after that he wants to test himself against another former Olympic gold medalist, Cuban defector Guillermo Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs), who holds the WBA and WBO super bantamweight straps.

“I have it in my mind that Lomachenko is going to knock Salido out,” Atlas offered. “Lomachenko can fight inside, he can fight outside, he can box, he can use his legs, he can counter a little bit. He’s intelligent in the ring. And he has that supreme confidence that he can be and will be the best.”

Said Arum: “I’d heard for years that Lomachenko was the best amateur in the world, but I’d also heard that it would be nearly impossible to sign him because he wanted millions of dollars to turn pro. But that wasn’t true. He came to me and we made a deal in short order. All he asked is that we move him quickly, not with the usual four- and six-rounders.

“I tried to get Lomachenko a title fight for his pro debut, but these organizations, particularly the WBO, said, `Bob, we can’t do it. He’s got to fight some contender first.’ That’s why he fought Ramirez.

“All right, so I couldn’t get him a title fight for his pro debut, but I told him I could do that for his second fight and that’s what we’re doing.”

Maybe the real question is, regardless of how the Top Rank Olympic champs fare, whether there ever again will be the sort of gold rush that paid major dividends to Dan Duva in 1984 and possibly to Arum moving forward.

“We’re not producing fighters like we used to,” Arum said of the medal shutout for U.S. boxers in London, the first time that has ever happened in any Olympics. “There’s been a tremendous fallout. Just look at the guys who represented us in 2012. The only one we were really interested in was Jose Ramirez, who we signed. Verdejo (from Puerto Rico) might turn out to be the most outstanding of our Olympic guys. Lomachenko told me Verdejo was the toughest fight that he ever had in the amateurs, and Verdejo was just 19 at the time.

“Apart from the talent shortage, there’s also a bias against U.S. fighters. They know they’re going to get cheated in international matches. The people who run amateur boxing in the United States don’t stand up to these AIBA bums. You see the results.

“We have a kid, Jesse Magdaleno, who definitely has world-class potential. We told him to stay in the amateurs, to try to go to the Olympics and maybe win a medal. He held off on signing him. He went downstairs and about five minutes later he came back. He said, `Nah, I don’t want to put up with all that amateur crap. I want to go pro.’ He’s been fighting for us since he was 18. He’s undefeated, a junior featherweight and a tremendous talent.

“There’s a lot of guys like that. Look, I was in Atlanta (in 1996) when Floyd Mayweather got out-and-out screwed in the semifinals. He won that fight easy. If they can cheat a Floyd Mayweather out of a gold medal, or a Roy Jones, they can cheat anybody.”

But you have to wonder: If the pool of Olympic wannabes in America is drying up, what about the rest of the world? If Olympic boxing dies, is it even possible for a Lomachenko or a Mekhontsev or a Murata to rise up and become pro attractions? The NFL and NBA have colleges serving as their feeder system. The Olympics have been the launching pad for many outstanding pro careers, but what if some day viewers tune in to the quadrennial sports festival and find only synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics?

That is a question for another time. For now, Top Rank has staked its claim to a potential gold mine that it hopes will yield large nuggets of the real thing and not just a load of iron pyrite.

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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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UNDISPUTED ! – Usyk Defeats Fury ! – Plus Undercard Results from Riyadh

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The most ballyhooed fight of the young century played out today at Riyadh Arena in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where Ukraine’s amazing Oleksandr Usyk became an undisputed world champion in a second weight class with a split decision over WBC and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

This was a memorable fight with twists and turns. Usyk had some good moments early, but the middle rounds belonged to the Gypsy King. Heading into the second half of the bout, the old saying that a good big man will always beat a good little man, appeared to be holding up once again. Fury was having good success working the body as his trainer SugarHill Steward exhorted him to do, and when he went upstairs, he rattled Usyk, notably in round five when a big uppercut appeared to lift the Ukrainian off his feet. But Usyk finished round seven strong, a prelude of what was to come.

Usyk plainly won round eight and in round nine, he came within a whisper of ending it. A flurry of punches sent Fury reeling. He crashed into the ring ropes which dictated a standing-8 count from referee Mark Nelson. If Nelson had waited a few more seconds, he would have likely waved the fight off as Fury was on queer street. But this dramatic turnaround came late in the round and the Gypsy King was saved by the bell.

Among other things, Tyson Fury is known for his amazing powers of recuperation. He not only stayed the course, but appeared to win the final round. But in the end, Oleksandr Usyk, now 22-0 (14) saddled Fury (34-1-1) with his first defeat. Two of the judges favored him (115-112, 114-113) with the dissenter scoring it for Fury 114-113.

A draw wouldn’t have caused much of a stink and now they will do it again. The sequel is tentatively scheduled for October. Both are getting a little long in the tooth – Usyk is 37 and Fury is 35 – so we will be surprised if the rematch lives up to the hype.

Semi-wind-up

The first encounter between Jai Opetaia and Mairis Briedis was a grueling fight. Opetaia, an Australian Olympian at age 16, won the battle (a fair decision) but yet took the worst of it. Early in that bout, he had his jaw fractured in two places and for the next two months was forced to eat out of a straw.

The rematch tonight in Riyadh was a monotonous fight through the first nine rounds. Briedis, now 39 years old and inactive since their first meeting, looked old and rusty. But the fight heated up in round 10 and the championship rounds belonged to the Latvian.

It came too little, too late, however, as Briedis needed a knockout to win. At the conclusion, the judges favored the Aussie by scores of 117-111 and 116-112 twice.

Opetaia, 28, improved to 25-0 (19).  Briedis, who has defeated everyone that he has fought with the exceptions of Opetaia and Oleksandr Usyk (and the Usyk fight was close) falls to 28-3.

The first fight between Opetaia and Briedis was for the IBF cruiserweight title. Tonight’s match is for the vacant IBF cruiserweight title (don’t ask).

Cordina-Cacace

In a major upset, Belfast’s Anthony Cacace, a 12-year pro, captured the IBF 130-pound world title with a seventh-round stoppage of previously undefeated Joe Cordina who went to post a consensus 7/1 favorite. The end came 39 seconds into round seven with Cacace pummeling Cordina against the ropes.

The Irishman was the busier fighter and landed the harder punches, but the bout was not without controversy. In the third frame, Cacace stunned Cordina with a punch that landed after the referee ordered the fighters to break. That put Cordina on the defensive and before the round was over, Cacace put him on the canvas with a wicked uppercut and Cordina, badly hurt, barely survived the round. Cacace (22-1, 8 KOs) had a big sixth round and closed the show in the next stanza.

Cordina, a 2016 Olympian who was undefeated in 17 pro fights heading in, is a close friend and frequent workout partner of Lauren Price who captured the WBC female welterweight title last week. She now stands alone as the only current world champion from Wales.

Kabayel-Sanchez

In a mild upset, Agit Kabayel continued his late career surge with a seventh-round KO of previously undefeated Frank Sanchez. As was the case in his last fight when he upset Arslanbek Makhmudov, Kabayel (25-0, 17 KOs) finished his opponent with body punches. A left-right combination knocked Sanchez to his knees and then, after Sanchez got to his feet, a straight right to the belly sent him down again and he wasn’t able to beat the count.

Sanchez, who was 24-0 heading in, entered the bout with a brace over his right knee that compromised his mobility. Kabayel, the aggressor throughout, was comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage. The official time was 2:23 of round seven.

Kovalev-Safar

In a dull 10-rounder, unsung Robin Safar, a Swedish-born fighter of Kurdish descent, may have written the finish for the career of Sergey Kovalev. At age 41 in his second fight as a cruiserweight and coming off a two-year layoff, the “Krusher” was a pale imitation of the fighter that won nine straight light heavyweight title fights before losing a controversial decision to Andre Ward in their first encounter.

Safar, who improved to 17-0 (12) punctuated his triumph by knocking down Kovalev (35-5-1) with a big right hand inside the final 10 seconds of the final round. The judges had it 99-90, 97-92, and 95-94.

Two early fights ended in early knockouts.

Moses Itauma, a 19-year-old, six-foot-six southpaw who was raised in London by a Nigerian father and a Slovakian mother, stopped Ilya Mezercev at the 50-second mark of the second round. Mezercev made it to his feet after being decked with a big right hook, but his legs were jelly and the fight was waved off.

Trained by Ben Davison, Itauma (9-0, 7 KOs) has been hailed as the next Anthony Joshua. As an amateur, he was reportedly 24-0. Mezercev, a Germany-based Kazkh, declined to 25-9.

British lightweight Mark “Thunder” Chamberlain (16-0, 12 KOs) looked sensational while blasting out Joshua Oluwaseun Wahab in the opening stanza. Chamberlain had Wahab (23-2) on the deck twice before the bout was waived off at the 2:42 mark.

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