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“He’s Still The Most Handsome Man, And Everything To Me”

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Magomed Abdusalamov entered the ring the night of November 2nd at the Madison Square Garden Theater with a brand of confidence not unfamiliar to boxing fans in many fighters they’ve seen who have called Russia home. His face impassive, eyes locked in, not darting or downcast, indicating the presence of excessive nerves or self doubt. Body language readers would agree this athlete had the look of one possessing a decent degree of certainty, at least, that he’d perform the violent waltz he’d engaged in 18 times prior as a professional since entering the pro side in 2008 in similar fashion to the way he’d done before, in accumulating an 18-0 mark, with 18 knockouts to his credit.

Exactly when Mago, the son of a hard-ass dad who told him he could be a bandit or boxer, but that he’d off him if he chose the life of crime, the brother to three sisters and a devoted younger brother, the husband to a woman who found herself attracted to the burly physique and softer emotional availability when they were put together by family members who reckoned they’d be a nice fit, developed a blood clot in his brain absorbing punishment at the hands of opponent Mike Perez is not a mystery that can be solved.

If you guessed that at the very least, the satanic door to the traumatic head injury which has placed Mago at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital where he was brought after complaining of feeling unwell, and vomiting, after losing to Perez in a fight shown on HBO occurred early on, your guess wouldn’t be ridiculed by an expert in brain trauma who watched the ten round contest of strength and will at MSG.

Of course, all examinations of these such tragedies are performed within the safe confines of a bubble of hindsight, and the natural instinct to accuse, diagnose, and elevate oneself to a zone of self righteousness which allows a follower of the fight game to sleep with clear conscience. Looking back, it is easy to say that the ref, the cornermen, the New York State Athletic Commission personnel present ringside, the physicians employed by the commission overseeing the contest, that any and maybe all of these folks could have and should have read the signs, and saved Mago from his downfall, his immense heart, and propensity for enduring levels of discomfort in the course of combat which would have forced lesser men to utter No Mas.

Certainly, Dr. Rupendra Swarup, the director of Roosevelt Hospital’s neurosurgical intensive care unit, who assessed Mago and demanded a Catscan, stat, for the boxer after midnight on Nov. 3, would have preferred that someone had chosen differently, so this man wouldn’t have been rendered so stricken, so compromised, that hope is the lifeline his family clutches at, and prayers are what they are asking for in this holiday season.

Mago had been seen by several doctors after losing a unanimous decision to a guy that had a rep as someone who sometimes would coast during bouts, and for that matter, in training camp. Perez didn’t coast during the fight with Mago, or, it appeared, during camp, as his pressure didn’t cease and the volume of his power punching troubled the Russian-born hitter.

But as the main event unfolded, as Gennady Golovkin exerted his power edge on fellow middleweight Curtis Stevens, Mago’s body rebelled against him. His brain signaled that the punches thrown by Perez were not just in a day’s work, were not to be absorbed and mitigated over days and weeks, and maybe dealt with decades down the line, but were a clear and present danger to his life.

Sanity and caution were late to the sad party but finally, Mago was ferried to the hospital. Tests showed a clot on the left side of Mago’s head, and a traumatic subdural hematoma. Fight fans know that condition is too often a fatal one, and in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, it looked like the inappropriately named “sweet science” would claim another victim, another combatant who gravitated to the ring to test his will and saw the sport as a means to economic stability, if not security.

Was it one blow that resulted in a brain hernia, or an accumulation? Impossible to know, but on the operating table, staff had to remove a portion, on the left side, of this 32-year-old man’s skull, to allow the brain to swell. Medical staff wanted to reduce that swelling, performing a decompressive hemicraniectomy to allow the brain to swell, without being squeezed and suffering further damage. The clot was evacuated, the swelling was kept under control, with the administering of hypertonic saline solution being a key element. A cooling catheter also helped keep the swelling manageable. IV medication got pumped into Mago, who lived in Florida after moving from Russia, to decrease his brain activity, to help keep pressure down. Reports in the days after the tragedy said that the boxer was placed into a coma, but, in fact, he was already comatose on the operating table. There was a pronounced lack of hope in some circles, of those that knew the brutal true toll the Perez punches had taken on Mago, in the days following Mago’s time on the operating table. “He was in very bad shape,” Dr. Swarup told me during a visit to see Mago at Roosevelt 46 days after his world jarred off axis. But the man is a fighter. Not was. The same elements that brought him to contender status were and are present now that his first identity is that of patient.

Somewhat miraculously, after docs and close family feared that he’d be unable to bounce back, he did. Not to where he was, but to a place that allows for hope. Twenty days after his near fatal fight, he was woken up. “But this is just the beginning,” Swarup told me. “He’s going to get better, I’m confident. But he will not be the same. He’s going to have neurological deficits.”

After detailing portions of Mago’s medical journey, Swarup, no fan of boxing, told me he’d be fine if the sport didn’t exist. I told him I understood that stance, but asked him to consider a bigger picture. Men like Mago, I told the doctor, aren’t built like you and me. He had a desire to test himself to an extreme degree, to fire walk in a realm that we would regard as absurdly self-destructive. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and resign themselves, in between periodic bursts of self-laceration and subsequent heart-felt resolutions to elevate, to an unexceptional existence. The super-majority will live leaving next to no imprint upon this plane, and in 150 years, a name carved on a stone on a grassy knoll will be their sole marking left behind. But the Mago’s of the world seek a grander legacy, and are willing to risk much to achieve that. Also, I noted to the doctor, when the times comes–and, I dare say, it won’t–that income and opportunity inequality evens out, and persons on the lower rungs are afforded educational and economic footholds afforded to people like me and the doctor, then I will be willing to entertain the push to abolish boxing. But until that time comes, I asked the doctor humbly, please be careful of lobbying for the removal of a path to personal and economic stability and prosperity for a segment of the world population which is in dire need of every single avenue to enrichment. And finally, just know that if boxing is abolished, and the structures, even if they can be wickedly imperfect and sub-sufficient, we have in place are removed, fights will still be held. But they will take place in dark warehouses, they will be run by sociopaths that make today’s promoters look like Mother Theresa’s, and safety measures, like trained referees and mandatory ambulances, will be nothing but vestiges of an era of supposed barbarism, of pre-enlightenment.

The doctor, bless him, listened intently and patiently, and admitted his eyes had been opened, even if he hadn’t been swayed to the opposite aisle. He was still no proponent of pugilism, but at least now he’d heard other sides, and some some merit in the oppositions’ defense. But no, I hadn’t convinced him, however, and, it must be admitted, I hadn’t fully convinced myself. Not when I looked at Mago in that bed. The left side of his skull featured a marked indentation. His body–once 6-3, 230 pounds–had shrunk in the six weeks, and wasn’t any longer the vessel of a warrior, but rather the remainder and reminder of a previous status which would never again be regained.

But in situations such as these, it is counterproductive to focus on what was. The strides the fighter has made in recent weeks are considerable; as I stared at Mago, his eyes were open, and his right pupil would follow an object held in front of him, like, say, pictures of his three children, age 7, 4 and almost one. He is breathing on his own, and he is holding onto his weight OK, taking in liquid food through a feeding tube. “When he came in, he was almost dead,” Swarup reminded me, “and from that point of view he’s come a very long way. But forget about boxing, he will never be the same, period.”

But back to that optimistic outlook, Mago can move the right side of his body some. And because he’s left handed, left-side dominant, the doctor tells me, he has a better chance of regaining the ability to speak.

Boxing runs in the Abdusalamov family, though it looks like the chain has been broken.

“Boxing my life,” the brother who virtually lives in Mago’s hospital room in the neuro unit, Abdusalam, says to me, “now boxing I no like.”

He places his left hand on his big brothers’ brow, to check for a fever. Little brother boxed himself, but, he says, he won’t ever again lace on a pair of gloves. He looks at Mago.

“I am Mago situation, like, no.”

In that halting imperfect but completely comprehensible English, he tells me that back in Russia, he works as a city administrator in the city they lived in, Dagestan. He’s been living here at Roosevelt, but will have to go back to Russia, and re-apply for a visa to come back here, at the end of February. And how is he doing, overall?

“Sad,” he says. “Morning, day, night, here. Sleep, no.”

Mago’s wife Bakanay, staying in Connecticut, in an apartment with the kids, which HBO is paying for, comes all the time, too. The little brother, as he wipes Mago’s face with a tissue smeared with moisturizer, tells me the kids have not seen dad. He makes a motion with his hands, to his eyes, the universal sign for crying. Mago’s mom and dad, he says, are back in Russian having a hard time dealing with the new reality. Mom is having heart problems, and dad too is being treated for stress. Mom is able to get rest after she gets a sedative shot, he says. And, he admits, mom doesn’t even know quite how dire things were, and how compromised Mago is. We communicate more clearly when Abdusalam installs a translation app on his phone.

“Mago very much loves his daughters, he never imagined himself in such a situation,” he types, and shows to me. “He always said boxing is his life.”

The quality of the devotion the brother shows for the elder needs no explanation or translation. During the almost three hours I spent in Mago’s room, Abdusalam showed himself to be an effective a caregiver as a squad of nurses. He wiped Purell on a tissue, and wiped Mago’s cheeks. Every fifteen minutes he checked his brow, for fever, which has been a persistent issue during the Roosevelt stay. He moved Mago’s head, so the big man didn’t get locked into a position for too long. He rubbed oil on Mago’s feet, and then a bit later cracked his toes.

“He like,” the brother told me.

A bit later, he squeezes Mago’s left foot, then right foot, then left, doing a reflexes check. “You’re a good brother,” a nurse says admiringly, stealing my thought. Abdusalamov massages Mago’s back, and then tracks his pupil movement, sweeping his right hand in front of Mago’s face. On this day, there is progress, as now both pupils are tracking movement. The nurse is pleasantly surprised at the development.

“Mago, he was a good brother growing up?” I ask little brother.

“Very good brother,” the younger man answers. “Brother…friend.”

Near the end of my visit, I ask Abdusalam if I can buy him a meal. I appreciate the time he takes with me, the patience he has with me, and admire the resolve and uncommon decency he displays.

“I OK,” he says, turning down the gesture. “Thank you. I cannot leave brother for a moment.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 22, word comes that a bed has opened up at the Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, NY, a well-regarded rehab for people in Mago’s position, and that Mago will be moved there, either today or tomorrow. Wife Bakanay is present for the possible transition day. I ask her how she is holding up, how she is feeling.

“Hopeful, optimistic,” she says in Russian, as translated by a nurse. “I’m hoping he will recover and am in good spirits, with lots of hope.”

Bakanay has no love for the sport of boxing, understandable as it is pugilism which has made it so she feels unwilling to come clean with her kids about dad’s condition. “I told them he has a fractured hand, and is in the hospital,” she says.

As a holiday gesture of goodwill, Bakanay says, she’d be grateful if fans of the fighter put in a good word to whatever Almighty they choose to believe in for his recovery. “I want people to pray for him,” she says.

The 27-year-old tells me how she and the boxer came to meet. It turns out they were matched up, as two families thought they’d be a good pairing. They were.

“I like him right away, I was very attracted to him,” she says. “Handsome man. Strong.”

There’s no delicate way to communicate this brutal truth, that a man who had dreams of winning title belts and building a considerable trove of winnings to sustain his family is now unable to walk or talk. The indentation on his skull is jarring to eyes not used to seeing the carnage of traumatic brain injury up close. But Bakanay stares at Mago and doesn’t see what I do: “Even in this condition, he’s still the most handsome man, and everything to me.”

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 105: Angry Welterweights and More

David A. Avila

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Those welterweights don’t play.

One welterweight just got out of jail and wants to take out his angry frustrations in the boxing ring.

“One of us is getting knocked out. If it gets to where I’m behind on points, I’m just going to come forward and try to take him out, even if I end up getting knocked out,” said Juan Carlos Abreu. ““If he stands and fights, it’s better for me. That’s what I want.”

Standing in front of Abreu (23-5-1) will be one of the top welterweights in America, Philadelphia’s Jaron Ennis (25-0, 23 KOs). This is could be Ennis’ first true test against an experienced foe on Saturday Sept. 19, at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Showtime will televise the Premier Boxing Champions card.

Ennis, 23, has been breezing easily since first jumping in the prize ring in April 2016. So far, the competition has been unable to cope with the athleticism he possesses. Will Abreu be the first to pose a problem?

“Whatever he brings, we are going to be ready. I’m going to go out there, do my thing, be smart, have my fun, and get that stoppage at the end of the night,” said Ennis, whose last opponent Bakhtiyar Eyubov was eliminated in four rounds in January. “You can’t just go in there and go for the knockout. That’s how you get tired and lose your cool or even get hit with punches that you shouldn’t be getting hit with.”

Abreu hopes he loses his cool.

“If he stands and fights, it’s better for me. That’s what I want. I really want one of us to get knocked out,” says Abreu of the Dominican Republic who was purportedly jailed for street fighting.

This welterweight matchup is the precursor to the WBC super welterweight eliminator between Terrell Gausha (21-1-1, 10 KOs) and Erickson Lubin (22-1, 16 KOs).

Gausha and Lubin both have lost once in their pro careers and need a win to get another crack at a world title.

Gausha lost a decision to Erislandy Lara three years ago. Lubin was stopped in one round by Jermell Charlo three years ago. Both realize the nature of the beast.

“I think Gausha has some problems with southpaws, but I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on my game plan and coming out victorious Saturday night,” said Lubin, 24, a southpaw called “the Hammer” for a reason.

Gausha is originally from Cleveland, Ohio but trains in Southern California and has fought four elite southpaws in his career. He believes one more is not a problem.

“This will be my fourth southpaw in a row. So, I’m more comfortable and familiar this time around,” said Gausha, 33, a former US Olympian who trains with Manny Robles Jr. “The guys before me, they all fought each other. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran. They all fought each other. To be the best, you have to beat the best. And you can see that the fights I take, even after a long layoff, they are tough fights.”

Top Rank

Also, on Saturday Sept. 19, heavyweights and super lightweights lead a Top Rank card featuring some interesting bouts that will be shown on ESPN+.

Newly acquired Efe Ajagba (13-0,11 KOs) meets Jonnie Rice (13-5-1) in a 10-round heavyweight clash. It’s Nigeria’s Ajagba’s second fight this year. Though still a little raw he shows immense potential and great natural strength.

Rice fights out of Bones Adams’ Gym in Las Vegas and has some power. He built up his record on heavyweights in Tijuana boxing rings but has some pop. He’s a sizeable heavyweight and good measuring stick for Ajagba.

The main event is a doozy.

Puerto Rico’s Jose “The Sniper” Pedraza (27-3, 13 KOs) meets Southern California’s Javier Molina (22-2, 9 KOs) in a 10-round super lightweight bout at the MGM Grand Bubble in Las Vegas.

This should be good.

Pedraza, 31, is a former WBO lightweight world titlist who lost in his first defense to Vasyl Lomachenko. Nothing bad about that. He defeated Mexico’s Raymundo Beltran for the belt and has shown a penchant for showing up big when you least expect it.

Molina, 30, is a 2008 US Olympian and a member of the fighting Molina family. His brother Oscar was a member of Mexico’s 2012 Olympic team. His other brother Carlos fought for the world title against Amir Khan. Though Javier Molina has never shown great power, he can truly fight.  His last win came against Amir Imam this past February.

Pending Lightweight Clash

Speaking of the lightweight division, is anyone else as excited as me about the looming showdown between the remarkable Vasyl Lomachenko and impressive Teofimo Lopez coming in less than a month?

Lomachenko, 32, the Ukrainian stylist known as “Hi Tech,” has that incredible footwork and ability to control distance. He’s a master of frustrating opponents and imposing his style of darting in and out of danger. But as good as he is, he can’t sell tickets. Only hardcore fans appreciate his peerless boxing skills.

Lopez, 23, hails from Brooklyn and has that ex-factor you can’t teach. He’s pizzazz and panache with a punch. That combination of flair and power excites fans and seemingly makes him a natural gate attraction. But in spite of his electric abilities, he’s facing a master boxer. Is he ready?

Top Rank is known for having a team of matchmakers headed by boxing wizard Bruce Trampler. It makes me wonder why they are pitting these two against each other?

The probable answer: neither sells out an arena alone. May the best man win.

A friend of mine from East L.A., who formerly boxed and comes from a boxing family, shared his knowledge and opinion on the matchup. He has an interesting take.

“His footwork is incredible,” said George Rodriguez about Lomachenko. “Don’t get me wrong, Teofimo is an incredible talent, but Lomachenko has that footwork.”

Any way you look at it, the winner of this clash clearly bumps up his own image.

Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs) versus Lopez (15-0, 12 KOs) at the MGM Grand Bubble in Las Vegas on October 17. Mark down that date. It will be televised on ESPN.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Sept. 26 Horn of Plenty and Other Notes

Arne K. Lang

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Considering the constraints, the month of September has been a pretty good month for professional boxing. And the month will close with a flourish. Eight world title-holders will be in action on the 26th, the last Saturday of the month.

Five of the belt-holders will appear on the SHOWTIME PPV doubleheader featuring the Charlo twins. The most intriguing fight on that card finds Jermall Charlo risking his belt and his undefeated record against rugged Sergiy Deveryanchenko. At last glance, Jermall was a consensus 17/10 (minus-170) favorite. In baseball, a 17/10 favorite is a heavy favorite. In boxing, not so. A serious handicapper who wouldn’t think of laying 17/10 in a baseball game would have no hesitation about laying these odds in a boxing match.

When Deveryanchenko steps into the ring, 51 weeks will have elapsed since his last fight, his bruising tiff with Gennadiy Golovkin. Jermall Charlo hasn’t been on the shelf for quite that long, having last fought in December.

A more interesting match on this particular Saturday, at least in the eyes of this reporter, will unfold earlier that day in Munich when the curtain finally comes down on Season 2 of the long-drawn-out World Boxing Super Series. Two titles will be on the line when Mairis Briedis (26-1, 19 KOs) meets Yuniel Dorticos (24-1, 22 KOs).

Briedis’ lone defeat came at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk in a very competitive fight. Briedis won five rounds on two of the cards and won six rounds on the other. Dorticos’ lone defeat came on enemy turf in Sochi, Russia when he was stopped with eight seconds remaining in a doozy of a fight with Murat Gassiev.

Forget the titles; titles are a dime a dozen. These two guys are plainly the two best cruiserweights on the planet.

“The tickets are flying out the door and we expect to sell out within hours, if not days,” said co-promoter Kalle Sauerland at a pre-fight press conference.

That assertion was made way back on January 22 when the fight, originally targeted for late December of last year, was headed to Riga, Latvia, on March 21. That date didn’t work, nor did the re-scheduled date of May 16, and ultimately Riga didn’t work either.

Whatever tickets were sold, had to be refunded. There will be no fans in attendance when Briedis and Dorticos finally lock horns on Sept. 26 at a TV studio in Munich. The fight will air on DAZN in the U.S.

“Rest makes rust” was an often-heard caution when big gamblers of yesteryear dissected a boxing match. The late, great pricemaker Herb Lambeck reflexively shied away from boxers that had been inactive for a considerable period of time. For him, the Briedis-Dorticos match would likely be a head-scratcher. Both combatants have been inactive since June 15 of last year when they appeared in separate bouts on the same card in Riga, Briedis’s hometown. And they aren’t getting any younger. Briedis is 34 and Dorticos is 35.

The odds got nicked down somewhat when the site shifted from Riga with fans to Munich without, predictably so as Briedis, the first fighter from Latvia to win a world title, has an avid local following.

Briedis, the superior boxer, is a consensus 9/5 favorite. That seems a shade high as he won’t be able to feed off the crowd – there won’t be a crowd – and Dorticos, the Cuban KO Doctor, has a better chance of ending the fight with one punch. It wouldn’t be shocking if the fight followed a similar tack as the recent fight between Dillian Whyte and Alexander Povetkin.

In case you missed it, Whyte was dominating his Russian adversary when things changed in a flash in the fifth round. Out of nowhere, Povetkin, the underdog, unleashed a picture-perfect uppercut that left Whyte flat on his back, unconscious before he hit the canvas. There have been other smashing one-punch knockouts this year – Ryan Garcia’s demolition of Francisco Fonseca comes quickly to mind – and there may be a few more, but it’s hard to visualize anyone topping Povetkin in the voting for Knockout of the Year.

By the way, if he wins it, Povetkin, 41, would be the second-oldest boxer to score the Knockout of the Year. George Foreman was 45 when he knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994. The source is The Ring magazine which has been issuing this award since 1989.

And if you happen to know the youngest fighter to score The Ring Knockout of the Year, then you’re pretty sharp. No, it’s not baby-faced Naoya Inoue, who is older (27) than he looks. The honor goes to the long-forgotten African-American/Filipino southpaw Morris East who was 19 when he knocked out defending WBA 140-pound champion Akinobu Hironaka in 1992.

In a rarity, it didn’t take long for Alexander Povetkin and Dillian Whyte to agree on a rematch. They will meet again on Nov. 21. The venue is undecided, but Eddie Hearn is hopeful that he can pot the fight somewhere outside his backyard “fight camp” with fans in attendance. The first lines on the fight show Whyte the favorite in the vicinity of 13/5. Povetkin-Whyte II will be a nice appetizer for the Errol Spence vs. Danny Garcia match that goes off later that day.

In an unrelated development, Fury-Wilder III is purportedly going to Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, in late December. Bob Arum anticipates a crowd of 10,000-15,000 with social distancing protocols in place.

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Meekins vs. Kawoya: File It Under Bizarre

Ted Sares

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 It was August 8, 1988. The location was Resorts International in Atlantic City. The main event featured New Yorker John Wesley Meekins (18-1-2) vs another New Yorker (via Uganda and Denmark) Mohammed Kawoya (11-3).

The rangy and skilled Meekins with a stellar amateur career was a clear favorite over the lesser known Kawoya who had fought only once in the US, losing to Jorge Maysonet on cuts at the Felt Forum. Meekins was expected to move on to a world title fight after dispatching Kawoya.

Meekins enjoyed a successful career between 1984 and 1994, fighting the likes of Davey Montana, Mike Mungin, Harold Brazier, Saoul Mamby, Santos Cardona, Darrin Morris (who won his last 16 fights in a row), and Terence Alli. He would lose to a prime Meldrick Taylor (20-0-1) in 1989 with the IBF World Super Lightweight title at stake.

On June 15, 1990, Meekins beat Santos Cardona over 12 rounds to win the NABF light-welterweight championship, but would lose it to Terence Alli some seven months later. It was downhill after that and he retired in November 1994 with a record of 24-5-2 after being stopped by so-so Darryl Lattimore.

Back to Meekins vs. Kawoya

 This one did not go as expected. After being decked in round 2, Kawoya dropped Meekins in the opening seconds of round 3. An exciting fight with multiple knockdowns and furious exchanges was in progress and the fans loved it.

An aroused Meekins then went after the Ugandan with a vengeance and set up one of the most bizarre endings that few boxing fans have ever heard about, much less witnessed, as he again dropped Kawoya this time with a fast left hook. He then went for the kill. Referee Paul Venti sensed it and moved in—perhaps prematurely– as Meekins unleashed what he hoped would be a fight-ending volley of hard shots.

 As soon as Venti stepped in to stop the fight, Kawoya landed a right that dropped Meekins and had him crawling on the canvas and holding on to the ropes devoid of his senses for at least ten seconds. The punch was thrown at the exact moment that Venti ended matters and Venti didn’t realize what had occurred.

 While Kawoya thought he has scored a clean KO and celebrated wildly, the fact was that Venti had ended the fight a fraction of a second before and his decision would stand.

The fans not only enjoyed a great fight, they witnessed something truly memorable—something that had to be seen to be believed; namely, a winner struggling to get up and a loser celebrating what he thought was a knockout.

Kawoya pulled out of the rematch because of a throat infection and Saoul Mamby took his place as a late sub. The Ugandan never fought again, while Meekins never got the title shot that a more impressive effort might have gotten him.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook and welcomes comments.

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