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What If Muhammad Ali Had Fought Wilt Chamberlain?

Bernard Fernandez

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Every great athlete in a sport other than boxing believes – or at least wants to believe – that, given enough time to prepare, he could successfully transfer his skills to the ring. That’s why every big-time boxing match has a glut of baseball, football and basketball stars in the premium seats, in addition to the usual coterie of Hollywood types.

It’s not surprising, really. We all like to think we can readily channel our inner tough guy if necessary. And who can blame a Jim Brown or a Herschel Walker for having the delusion that they might have become heavyweight champions of the world, if only they had taken up the sweet science at an early age instead of football. Brown, arguably the best running back and the best lacrosse player ever, even snagged the role of a former heavyweight champ in “Mars Attacks!,” which had a scene of him flattening a succession of alien invaders in that most appropriate of boxing settings, Las Vegas.

But let the record reflect that even the most accomplished of athletes fail or at least underperform when they attempt to make the difficult crossover into boxing. Probably the most notable of the wannabes was Charlie Powell, who spent seven years in the NFL as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, but who also was the world’s No. 2-rated heavyweight contender at one point in the late 1950s. And if anyone dares to mention Powell in the same breath with, say, Mark Gastineau or Ed “Too Tall” Jones, please lie down with a cold compress on your forehead until you return to your senses.

But what if “The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali – had found himself staring across the ring at a 7-foot-1, 275-pound giant who very well might be the most dominant athlete in the history of American team sports? A giant who demonstrated, time and again, that his abilities were so transcendent, so remarkable, that he could have been a nearly unstoppable force in almost any sweaty endeavor he would have taken up?

That athlete is the late Wilt Chamberlain, and we are fast approaching the anniversary date of what might have been the most intriguing oddity bout ever staged. Had Chamberlain not reneged on a verbal agreement to fight Ali by extending his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers for a significant pay hike, Ali-Wilt would have taken place on July 26, 1971 in the Houston Astrodome.

Sonny Hill, who played on the same basketball team as Chamberlain at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia and is the founder of the Sonny Hill League in his hometown, is the foremost keeper of the flame for all things Wilt. But even Hill has his doubts as to the legitimacy of the supposed pairing of Ali and his good friend, who somehow packaged Nikolay Valuev’s immense size as well as the breathtaking versatility of an Olympic decathlete.

“Was it a publicity stunt?” Hill wonders, reflecting back on the fuss made over the rumored bout between a couple of loud and proud superstars. “I’m not sure that it wasn’t. It just seems to me that there wasn’t a real affinity on Ali’s part or Dippy’s part (Chamberlain always preferred his “Big Dipper” nickname to “Wilt the Stilt”) to have a real boxing match.

“I’m not so sure that even a great athlete like Wilt, with limited training as a boxer, could have gone into such a bout and been competitive with someone like Muhammad Ali, who undoubtedly is one of the greatest fighters of all time. Ali was at the height of his career then.

“But if Wilt had had a full year to get ready? I don’t know. It would have been interesting.”

Hill is more certain of where Chamberlain, who was 63 when he died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 12, 1999, ranks as a basketball player. He said the debate as to who is the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James, is specious because any such discussion should begin and end with Wilt. Chamberlain, Hill noted, holds NBA records that almost certain will never be broken: 100 points in a game, 55 rebounds in a game (against Bill Russell!), a 50.4 scoring average for an entire season, 118 career games of 50 or more points, a .727 field-goal percentage for a season.

Although Chamberlain still holds or shares 62 NBA records, that figure would be even higher had blocked shots not become an official league statistic until the 1973-74 season, the year after Wilt retired. Harvey Pollak, a longtime statistician of the Philadelphia 76ers as well as for the NBA as an entity, kept track of blocks back in the day and he swears there was a night when Wilt blocked 28 shots against the Detroit Pistons. Chamberlain’s vertical leap measured out at 46 to 48 inches, and he once threw down a dunk at KU on a rim raised to 12 feet.

You want stamina, which is essential in boxing? With overtimes, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes for a season, an amazing feat given that NBA games consist of four 12-minute quarters. He also averaged 45.8 minutes per game over his 14-year career. Oh, and in all that time he never once fouled out.

You want strength? Hill said Wilt was demonstrably stronger than two burly guys with whom you might be familiar – Shaquille O’Neal and the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hill said a long-retired Wilt went head-to-head with the young Shaq in a pickup game and still was able to do whatever he pleased.

“Wilt moved Shaq around like he was a rag doll,” Hill said.

And Schwarzenegger?

“Arnold, who was a world-class weightlifter and bodybuilder, was making the movie “Conan the Barbarian” with Wilt,” Hill continued. “When he wasn’t shooting his scenes, Arnold would work out with weights, and I mean really heavy weights. One day he was straining with the bar and Wilt walked over, almost casually lifted it three or four times, and set it down. Arnold did not work out with weights again the entire time Wilt was around. Wilt had ungodly strength.”

But Chamberlain wasn’t just a marvel at hoops. He was a high jumper at the University of Kansas, a conference champion using the old-fashioned straddle roll, and he’d routinely outsprint the Jayhawks’ quarter-milers in practice, just for fun. He was an exceptional volleyball player, too, and the Kansas City Chiefs even inquired about any interest he might have in football, thinking he would be unstoppable as a tight end going after passes lobbed high. Several NBA teams – the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks and Sixers – all tried to lure Chamberlain out of retirement when he was in his late 40s, convinced that even an aging and diminished Wilt was better than many of the younger big men then patrolling the paint.

So it really should come as no surprise that the notion of an Ali-Wilt fight, as improbable as it may have seemed, gained traction in the spring of 1971. Cus D’Amato, who had trained world champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, and who later launched the career of future champ Mike Tyson, expressed interest in preparing Chamberlain for a fight with Ali, although circumstances dictated that Wilt would have had only about three months to get ready. Bob Arum would have been the promoter.

In “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” Arum told author Thomas Hauser of the far-fetched idea that didn’t seem so far-fetched to some of the principals.

“In 1971 before the (first Joe) Frazier fight, I heard that Wilt Chamberlain wanted to fight Ali,” Arum said. “So I went to Herbert (Muhammad, Ali’s manager), and we agreed that, whatever the merits of the fight, the gate would be tremendous. Then I went to see Wilt, and he told me his greatest dream was to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. And we signed a contract. But then Ali lost to Frazier, and Herbert came to me and said, `There’s no championship to fight for. What do we do now?’

“Well, we thought about it. And you have to understand, people pay millions of dollars to publicists and advertising agencies to promote themselves the way that Ali was instinctively able to. Even after he lost to Frazier – and later, when he lost to (Ken) Norton and (Leon) Spinks – he still overshadowed them all. So I told Herbert, `Let’s do the fight anyway.’”

Chamberlain’s interest was piqued, to be sure. He was always about doing things on a large scale, and he might have been the only athlete on the planet with an ego as colossal as Ali’s. If he was to box, the process wasn’t going to be a gradual build-up starting against hand-picked opponents in four-rounders.

“From the time I entered sports, guys tried to get me to become a fighter,” he said. “Ask any boxing manager, if they had to pick an athlete from another sport to develop who they would choose, and they’ll say a basketball player. That’s because of some very basic things basketball players have – size, speed, quickness and hand-eye coordination. And I always thought that if I had to fight somebody, it would be Ali for two reasons.

“No. 1, he was the greatest of his era. And two, he was a kind person, so if it turned out that I was in over my head, he wouldn’t take cruel advantage of it, where some other fighters might try to hurt me if I was vulnerable.

“I was offered more money than I’d ever gotten (as a basketball player). It would have been a scheduled 10-round fight and I honestly believe I had a chance. I thought a man as great at his job as Ali was might take me lightly. I could see that happening … Against Ali, I thought I could acquit myself reasonably well. Ali would be coming in blind; he’d have no idea what he was facing, whereas I’d know what to expect. And of course, I had God-given strength and athletic ability.

“If I’d been an oddsmaker, I’d have made Muhammad a 10-to-1 favorite. But I truly believed there was a chance for me to throw one punch and take Ali out.”

So why didn’t it happen? Arum, now 82 and recovering from knee-replacement surgery, was not available for comment, but in Hauser’s book he said Chamberlain’s very large feet got cold at an Astrodome press conference to announce the bout.

“I said, `Ali, shut your mouth. Let’s get him signed to the contract before you start riding him.’ Ali told me not to worry. Then Chamberlain comes in, and Ali shouts `Timber!’ Chamberlain turns white, goes into the next room with his lawyer, comes out and says he’s not fighting.

“I think Ali intimidated him; that’s all it was. At the moment of truth, Wilt realized that fighting Ali was a totally ridiculous concept.”

Perhaps Arum was correct. Perhaps no athlete, not even Wilt Chamberlain, could come into boxing on short notice and expect to take down one of the greatest heavyweights ever, maybe even the very best to ever lace up a pair of gloves. Then again, Arum had been down that path before.

Chamberlain, you see, isn’t the only other non-boxer endowed with such incredible physical ability that a lot of people believed he could return to action deep into middle age. Jim Brown, who won eight NFL rushing titles in his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, had been retired for 17 years when he appeared on the cover of the Dec. 12, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders uniform. The headline read “Jim Brown: Are you serious? A comeback at 47? Hey! You’re just what the boring NFL needs!”

Arum, interestingly, had introduced Brown to Ali after Brown’s final NFL season, in 1965. Arum began promoting boxing matches in 1966, at which point Brown asked the new president of Top Rank if he could arrange a title bout between himself and Ali.

Ali met with Brown at Hyde Park in London, where the champ asked the 6-2, 230-pound football legend to try to hit him, as hard as he could. A perplexed Brown then fired a succession of roundhouse shots for about 30 seconds, all of which Ali easy evaded, while occasionally landing stinging, open-palm slaps.

“Ali kept slapping him in the face, not hard, but hard enough and often enough to make the point that as great an athlete as Jim was, he’d have no change in the ring against Ali,” Arum is quoted as saying in Hauser’s book.

Bottom line: Boxing is not like any other sport. Just as there are great boxers who would be utter failures at football, basketball and baseball, so, too are there great athletes in those sports who would fare better trying to pole-vault across the Grand Canyon than stepping inside the ropes against an elite fighter.

ESPN released its totally arbitrary list of the Top 100 athletes of the 20th century in 1999. Ali got the No. 3 slot, behind only Jordan and Babe Ruth, with some of other boxers listed being Sugar Ray Robinson (No. 24) and Jack Dempsey (52). Chamberlain came in at No. 13, which Hill said is ridiculously low whatever the rating criteria.

Comparing apples to oranges is always an iffy proposition. As superb as Ruth was as a baseball player, can anyone imagine him challenging his contemporary, Dempsey, for the heavyweight championship of the world? It would be as absurd as Dempsey picking up a bat and competing against Ruth in home-run derby.

All that being said, the feeling lingers that Wilt Chamberlain is the one non-boxer who might have held a winning lottery ticket against Ali, or against quite a few pretty good heavyweights, if he could have just landed the right punch at the right time. Yeah, the Big Dipper was that exceptional.

If the fight had come off, we’d probably still be talking about it today. As matter of fact, that’s just what I’m doing now.

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132,000-Plus….A Boxing Attendance Record Unlikely to Ever be Broken

Bernard Fernandez

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You always hear that records are meant to be broken, but, barring a stunning change in national policy by a Communist country unwelcoming to outsiders, the 132,000-plus that turned out to see Julio Cesar Chavez pummel Greg Haugen on Feb. 20 1993, at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca likely will forever stand first for live attendance for a boxing event.

Chavez’s intentionally cruel thrashing of the lippy Haugen enabled the Mexican national hero variously known as “JC Superstar” and El Gran Campeon to successfully defend his WBC super lightweight title for the 10th time. That fight was the capper to an incredibly deep card dubbed the “Grand Slam of Boxing” by promoter Don King, which also featured title retentions by such top-shelf attractions as Azumah Nelson, Terry Norris and Michael Nunn. But make no mistake, those outstanding fighters – Nelson and Norris, like Chavez, have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – merely served as fillers until the main event. The massive crowd might have been nearly as large and boisterous had the only scheduled bout been the white-hatted Chavez vs. Haugen, the presumptive American villain.

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The announced attendance of 132,247 for a showdown fast approaching its 27th anniversary shattered the previous high for a boxing event, the 120,470 that filled Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium on Sept. 23, 1926, to see Gene Tunney lift Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight title on a 10-round unanimous decision. (A crowd estimated at 135,000 turned up in a public park in Milwaukee to see Tony Zale fight Billy Pryor on Aug. 16, 1941, but that doesn’t count as there was bleacher seating for only a few thousand and the event was free for everyone.)

The recent incidence of stadium bouts with impressively large gatherings – 90,000 jammed London’s Wembley Stadium on April 29, 2017, to watch Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua retain his WBA and IBF heavyweight titles on an 11th-round TKO of long-reigning previous champion Wladimir Klitschko – hints at more large throngs willing to leave the comfort of their living rooms to see live boxing, but no promoter can fit a gallon into a quart bottle. Live attendance at least partially hinges on how much space there is in a place, and there is only one stadium that presently has a seating capacity larger than that of Estadio Azteca in 1993. That would be Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea, which has a capacity of 150,000. But that huge facility is used primarily as a means of the country’s populace dutifully assembling for the purpose of feeding the ego of dictator Kim Jong Un.

It’s a sharp drop from Rungrado 1st of May Stadium to the 110,000-seat capacity of Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium in India, known mostly as a cricket venue, and the 107,601-seat Michigan Stadium, the “Big House” of college football in the United States. Sesquicentennial Stadium (later known as John F. Kennedy Stadium) was demolished in 1992, and even Estadio Azteca, which was erected to host the soccer matches at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, has been downsized, having undergone renovations in 1999, 2013 and 2016. It now lists a capacity of “only” 87,523.

All of which likely stamps Chavez-Haugen as a pugilistic equivalent to Woodstock as a you-had-to-be-there human magnet in the estimation of renowned ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., whose memories of the literally biggest event he ever worked are as vivid now as they were then.

“I can’t remember if they had large projection screens like they do now, but I’m assuming they didn’t have them then,” recalled Lennon, who joined referee Joe Cortez in sharing their recollections for this story. “Here you had this vast sea of people.  I saw these little fires high up in the stands. People brought their own food and were cooking way up in the more distant seats. I remember thinking this was more of a mass celebration than just a sporting event. Whether or not a lot of people could really see much down in the ring, it certainly seemed that they were enjoying themselves. It was kind of like the huge crowd for Woodstock; just being there was a huge part of it.”

Cortez, now 76 and retired from refereeing, said he also was amazed by the gargantuan crowd.

“Walking into the stadium that day was like walking into a different world,” he said. “You had to be there to believe it, an event with that many fans, almost all of them rooting for Chavez.

“When Chavez was making his walk to the ring, the cheers were so incredibly loud I almost had to cover my ears, and the boos for Haugen when he was making his walk to the ring were just about as loud. It was an intense feeling, I think, for everybody. I knew it was for me. I never had been in a situation like that. I remember thinking, `What the hell can the people in the seats farthest away from the ring see, unless they have binoculars? The fighters must have seemed like two little ants, with me the third ant, in a tiny box. I knew then it was going to be an experience I would remember the rest of my life, and I still feel that way.”

Even though Chavez was and is the most popular Mexican fighter ever, the scene might not have been so incredibly jam-packed or emotional were not for the opponent. The ill will Chavez harbored toward Haugen, a onetime “Tough Man” contestant who had risen above those humble circumstances to win titles at both lightweight and super lightweight, was palpable, and had been simmering for three years. Each new affront by Haugen only served to harden JCC’s determination to someday make him pay.

The feud began behind closed doors, when Haugen showed up at a Chavez sparring session. As Chavez left the ring, Haugen approached him and sneeringly said that his sparring partners were “nothing but young little girls with dresses on.”

“I hated him from that moment on,” Chavez would later say, with Haugen seemingly enjoying any occasion by which he could verbally torment a fighter who the trash-talking antagonist knew would represent his biggest payday.

The stakes were raised on Dec. 13, 1992, moments after Chavez had scored a sixth-round TKO of Marty Jakubowski at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Haugen entered the ring and again confronted Chavez, telling him that his 84-0, with 72 wins inside the distance, had been crafted against “Tijuana taxi drivers that my mom could whip.” But this insult was heard on television, a flung gauntlet that Chavez was only too glad to pick up. He would make Haugen, who came in 32-4-1 with 16 KO victories, regret such impudence.

“I will not have mercy on you,” Chavez told Haugen. “I will rip your head off.”

King immediately realized that this fight called for the biggest possible setting, and what could be bigger than Estadio Azteca? His Hairness played up the revenge angle to the hilt, which was to be expected, except that it wasn’t standard pre-fight hype this time. Chavez, who was known to inflict as much pain as possible on any opponent who did not pay him his due as a great fighter, was on a mission to hurt and humiliate Haugen more so than anyone he had faced. There is little doubt that Chavez’s making the bout personal imbued his many supporters with the determination to be there so they could someday regale their children and grandchildren with the tale of how they witnessed their glorious knight slay the impudent dragon.

“I arrived very early at the stadium, maybe 1 p.m. or 1:30,” Lennon recalled. “I was in my tuxedo and practicing my announcements, but even then, maybe nine hours before the main event went on, there had to be 15,000 people in the stands. They were cheering as I practiced my introduction of Chavez. It’s always kind of awkward to practice your introductions in an empty arena, but it sure wasn’t empty then. Of course, all 132,000 hadn’t shown up either.”

Cortez, as was the case with almost everyone there except the few hardy souls who had come to support Haugen, figured Chavez to win. But what if the brash underdog from Washington state pulled off the upset that could spoil the festive mood of all those JCC supporters?

“The security was unbelievable,” Cortez said. “There were so many police officers and military people with their plastic shields, and a lot of them had German Shepherds on leashes. If a riot broke out, which nobody wanted, the security people were ready, but how ready could they have been with a crowd that big?”

Fortunately for all concerned, maybe even Haugen, the hordes of Chavez fans who had come anticipating another sterling performance by their hero got it, which enabled all of them to go home happy. Chavez dropped Haugen with an overhand right just 25 seconds into the first round, the first time the challenger had been decked as a pro, and he might have finished him off shortly thereafter had he pressed the issue. But Chavez eased his foot off the gas pedal, the better to do what he had vowed to do, which was to prolong the pain he was so intent on dishing out. That plan must have been obvious to everyone, even to the folks in the nosebleed section who paid only 5,000 pesos for their bargain tickets, then the equivalent of about $1.65 U.S.

“He has no way to keep Julio Cesar Chavez off, except mercy on the part of Chavez, and he has none,” TV commentator Ferdie Pacheco said of the systematic disassembly of a fighter who had no chance of winning but was too proud and determined to quit.

“I remember the way Chavez punished Haugen to the body instead of getting him out of there quickly,” Lennon said. “But that was the way Chavez was. You had the sense he was controlling every moment of the fight and could have ended it whenever he wanted to.”

Finally, after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 2 seconds in the fifth, Chavez decided Haugen had had enough. Or maybe it was the compassionate Cortez who chose to intervene, wrapping his arms around the valiant but thoroughly beaten-up American.

Asked what he thought about all those “Tijuana taxi drivers” who he had characterized as Chavez victims, Haugen said, “They must have been very tough taxi drivers.”

No fight is made memorable solely by the number of butts occupying the seats. Upon reflection, Chavez vs. Haugen was utter domination of a good fighter by a clearly superior one. There have been many of those in the annals of the sport. But still …

“That is definitely one fight I won’t forget,” Lennon said. “When people ask me about the most memorable fights I’ve done, that one is right up there. If it isn’t No. 1, it’s pretty close, if only for the size of the crowd.”

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Ryan Garcia’s Thunderous KO Tops This Week’s Installment of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Ryan Garcia’s Thunderous KO Tops This Week’s Installment of HITS and MISSES

There was plenty to love about boxing over Valentine’s Day weekend. Heck, there were even a few reasons to feel jilted over what might have been. But the biggest story was that boxing absolutely delivered the goods just before the world was turning its full attention toward this weekend’s huge rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury.

Yep, Cupid slung plenty of arrows at boxing fans over the past couple of days. Here are his biggest HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Ryan Garcia’s Thunderous Valentine’s Day KO 

Heartthrob lightweight contender Ryan Garcia has over 5 million followers on Instagram, hangs around with other social media influencers/invaders like Logan and Jake Paul, and seems to be the biggest hit with the ladies in boxing since his promoter Oscar De La Hoya cut a musical album back in 2000.

But Garcia sure can fight, and that’s something that cannot be denied after seeing him shockingly knock out Francisco Fonseca in the first round of the main event of a Valentine’s Day special card showcased on DAZN Friday night in Anaheim, Calif. Garcia looked sensational, and the 21-year-old should only keep getting better under the tutelage of Canelo Alvarez’s trainer Eddy Reynoso. What a win it was for Garcia, and what huge statement the fighter made as he seeks to become boxing’s next big thing.

MISS – IBF’s Silly Super Middleweight Rankings 

German super middleweight Vincent Feigenbutz found himself with the opportunity of a lifetime on Saturday night in his main event battle against IBF titleholder Caleb Plant in Nashville, Tenn. The 24-year-old had only competed in fights on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean during his nine-year professional boxing career, and most of those were in his home country. But thanks to the IBF’s 168-pound rankings, which amazingly rated the one-loss fighter with no notable wins in the division at No. 3, Feigenbutz found himself with a huge chance to become the first German fighter to win a world title in the U.S. since Max Schmeling defeated Jack Sharkey in 1930.

The problem, of course, was the Feigenbutz was nowhere near ready for such a huge leap up in competition. That could easily be seen just from the 10 seconds of mitt work Fox showed the fighter doing before he headed into the ring on fight night. Look, it makes sense for the PBC, Fox and everyone else involved to operate within boxing’s current system, even if it’s an incredibly flawed one. But Plant vs. Feigenbutz was a silly mismatch that couldn’t possibly do anything for anyone beyond getting Plant paid for one easy night of work.

HIT – Abel Ramos’ Fantastic Final Round Effort Lands Fighter Epic Comeback KO

Welterweight Bryant Perrella was in control of the fight and on his way to scoring the unanimous decision victory over Abel Ramos on Saturday night on Fox’s Plant-Feigenbutz card. Perrella was ahead on all three scorecards entering the 10th round for good reason. According to CompuBox, for example, Perrella had the 200-79 edge in total connected punches.

But Ramos wasn’t prepared to let those last three minutes run off the clock without doing his best to nab the unlikely victory. He knocked Perrella down midway through the last round, then finished him off during the final seconds of the fight. It was an incredible display of fortitude.

Much was made afterward about referee Jack Reiss stopping the contest with just one second left on the clock. But I’d rather give credit here to Ramos for throwing the kitchen sink at his opponent when he had to know the odds were completely stacked against him.

MISS – Fighters Not Listening to Their Corners

Fighters aren’t really capable of judging fights while they participate in them, but 24-year-old lightweight Austin Dulay had the hometown gig against 33-year-old veteran Diego Magdaleno in Tennessee and absolutely should have been listening to his corner on fight night. Had he done that, Dulay would at least not have offered such a quizzical look on his face after judges turned in their scorecards in favor of Magdaleno. The elder had been busier, better and more active for most of the fight. Dulay can act as shocked as he wants over the scores after the fact, but what should really shock him is his own lack of attention to the simple act of listening to his corner’s instructions during the fight.

Magdaleno was winning the fight. Dulay’s corner told him that. Dulay didn’t change a thing to his approach.

HIT – Immediate Promotion of Ryan Garcia vs. Jorge Linares Summer Showdown

Former lightweight champion Jorge Linares returned to American soil on the undercard of Garcia-Fonseca, and the idea put forth by the DAZN crew was that if both Garcia and Linares won their fights, the two would meet in May. So, the apparent promotion of each man’s next fight started well before they even won on Friday night and kept going after each fighter delivered the goods.

Garcia appears to be a runaway train type of talent that could become a huge crossover star. But Linares has the talent, experience and punching power to stop that train in its tracks. Well done by DAZN, Golden Boy Promotions and the two fighters for getting the hype on the proposed Garcia-Linares going so early. It’s a big fight made even bigger by that smart approach.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan, Hogan Photos / Golden Boy Promotions

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Three Punch Combo: Two Intriguing Prelims on the Wilder-Fury Card and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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THREE PUNCH COMBO — Wilder-Fury II fight week is upon us and there will certainly be plenty of stories written about the remarkable comeback of Tyson Fury. But Fury is not the only comeback story this week. On the undercard as part of the televised pre-show leading up to the PPV event, Amir Imam (22-2, 19 KO’s) will look for his second straight win following a lengthy layoff after losing to Jose Ramirez in their 140-pound title fight in March of 2018.

Comeback stories in boxing come in many forms. Some, like Fury’s, derive from battling personal demons outside the ring. Some come from fighters suddenly figuring the game out after being seemingly vanquished to permanent journeyman status. Think of Orlando Salido and Tevin Farmer. And finally, some come from once promising fighters rebounding from setbacks that turned them into an afterthought in the sport. This is where Amir Imam falls.

Imam (pictured) is an afterthought at the moment. But as I have harped about on several occasions, just because a fighter suffers a setback or even multiple setbacks, that does not necessarily mean they should be seen as afterthoughts. Sometimes setbacks actually become a blessing in disguise.

Let’s not forget that Imam was a highly decorated amateur. He nearly qualified for the 2012 Olympics but was in the unfortunate position of fighting in the same weight class as Errol Spence Jr.

Early in his pro career, Imam showcased a telephone pole-like jab that was mindful of the jab of former welterweight champion Ike Quartey. Often freezing opponents in their footsteps, Imam often worked thunderous pinpoint combinations behind this jab. He had skill, power and speed. It is easy to see why so many, myself included, thought Imam could not only win a world title one day but become a superstar.

Remember just two-and-a-half years into his pro career Imam easily out boxed Yordenis Ugas in winning a wide eight-round unanimous decision. Fast-forward six years later and Ugas has turned into one of the best welterweights in the sport. That win by Imam showed just how good a fighter he can be.

In November of 2015, Imam was one step away from a title fight when he was upset by Adrian Granados in what was supposed to be a tune-up fight. Granados was a vastly underrated fighter at that time and Imam looked somewhat unprepared for the storm that he encountered that night.

Two-and-a-half years later, Imam held his own while losing a unanimous decision to Jose Ramirez. After this bout, a legal battle ensued with his then promoter Don King that caused an extended ring absence. Imam is now aligned with Top Rank.

Many in boxing have all but given up on Imam. But the talent that we saw when he was coming up the ladder is still there. And that was evident last November when in his first fight back from the Ramirez loss, he impressively knocked out Marcos Mojica.

On Saturday, Imam will be in the ring with Javier Molina (21-2, 9 KO’s) who is coming off an upset first- round knockout of Hiroki Okada. The fight is at a catch-weight of 142 pounds. Molina is a solid pro and an impressive win by Imam would put him back on the map. Not only do I expect an impressive performance by Imam here but I think he will one day soon complete his own comeback bid and become a world champion.

Who is Jeo Santisima?

On the pay-per-view portion of the Wilder-Fury II undercard, boxing’s busiest champion Emanuel Navarrete (30-1, 26 KO’s) will defend his WBO 122-pound title against the organization’s number five ranked contender in Jeo Santisima (19-2, 16 KO’s) of the Philippines. So, who is Santisima and does he pose any threat to Navarrete?

Santisima, 23, turned pro when he was 16 and has had all 21 of his fights in the Philippines. He began his career 2-2 but since then has reeled off 17 straight wins.

To put it mildly, Santisima has been in with soft competition. Even the most hardcore boxing fan would be hard-pressed to recognize any names on his resume. His best win on paper was a first- round knockout in 2017 of Goodluck Mrema who was then 16-0. Mrema has lost four more fights since then, including three by knockout.

There is actually quite a bit of footage available of Santisima on YouTube. He is an orthodox fighter who is a boxer-puncher by trade. He has a decent left jab and will look to work combinations behind that punch. Santisima also will sit back and look to counter. Again, against limited opposition, he has shown an ability to bait his opposition into throwing by using subtle feints to set up counter opportunities.

Santisima is fairly athletic. His hand speed is average, but he appears to possess heavy-handed power in both fists. I’d say his best punch is his left hook. It is often delivered short, quick and compact. He has hurt opponents to both the head and body with that punch.

One major flaw in Santisima’s game is that when he jabs, he often gets lazy when bringing it back. He has been clipped a few times when doing this and will need to correct this flaw to stand any chance against Navarrete.

I initially dismissed Santisima’s chances in this fight, but after watching him on YouTube, I suspect he may surprise some people. We all know Navarrete is a punching machine. But by throwing so many punches, Navarrete is somewhat susceptible to counter shots. With Santisima being a decent counterpuncher with heavy hands, I can see him landing some damaging punches. And that left hook, in my opinion, is for real.

Everything considered, I think Santisima will, at the least, make the fight with Navarrete entertaining for the fans. Yes, there is a good chance he may get overwhelmed but as long as he is standing, he will be dangerous and make things fun.

An Interesting Option for Diego Magdaleno

Diego Magdaleno (32-3, 13 KO’s) put a spark in his career when he won a clear 10-round unanimous decision over Austin Dulay (13-2, 10 KO’s) in a lightweight contest this past Saturday. Coming on national television, the win will certainly get Magdaleno another opportunity. And putting my matchmaker hat on for a second, I see one very interesting option out there for him.

Back in January, I was ringside at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, NY to watch one time can’t-miss prospect Felix Verdejo in action against journeyman Manuel Rey Rojas. The prevailing thought at ringside was “don’t blink” with the expectation that Verdejo would dispatch Rojas quickly and in a spectacular fashion.

Instead, Verdejo looked sluggish in coasting to a wide unanimous decision victory. The fight looked like a glorified sparring session and the explosiveness we once saw in the early portion of Verdejo’s career was once again non-existent. Despite the win, Verdejo’s stock continued to plummet.

Top Rank, Verdejo’s promoter, needs to find out what they have in Verdejo once and for all. There is no need to match him anymore with the Manuel Rey Rojas’ of the world. Verdejo needs a step-up and Magdaleno fits the bill.

Could Verdejo lose to Magdaleno? The answer is a resounding yes. But could Magdaleno with his aggressive style bring out the best in Verdejo? The answer is also a resounding yes.

Verdejo vs. Magdaleno would be a perfect co-feature to the big title unification fight that Top Rank is planning in the spring.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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