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Danny McDermott Could Still Be A Contender

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Update: Contender no more. Danny graduated. He won his fight on Saturday night, via KO in the sixth, with a body shot. Took out the liver belonging to Ronnel Esparas.

Four punch combo, top to bottom, Arturo would have smiled.

“It just happened a few hours ago, and I feel like I’m dreaming,” Danny told me Saturday night. “It’s amazing, WBU World and International light welterweight champion!”

Having Manny’s guy Buboy Fernandez wrap his hands, work his corner, made it that much more special, he said.

“This was all for my boys. I wanted to show them they can do anything they want. Nothing is impossible. Anyway, it’s not about the title, WBU, WBC whatever..It’s the story I guess people care about.”

 

There are too many good people in New Jersey for it to be rightfully derided as The Armpit of America.

Yes, yes, so the brand of moron specific to that region can possess a specific blend of nacho-cheesy exterior, and speech betraying a gleeful distaste for intellectual curiosity, and an un-earned and grating tendency to possess an elevated sense of worth commensurate with the circumference of out-sized biceps, in direct counter-proportion to the underdeveloped calf muscles which lay flat with vestigial flare.

The propensity to confuse the color “tan” with “orange” and fondness for spray tans maybe makes some of their citizens deserved of snickers, but all in all, Jersey receives too much scorn per capita.

The world has known too many kind souls from that place on the map to see that parcel of land as one big town full of losers.

Please allow me to introduce you to a Jersey guy, a fighter whose charm and wit and heart leaped out at me right away. I had no way of knowing, since our relationship was so casual, how trying the life of Danny McDermott had been, how much he’d needed to employ the traits and strategies of the best prizefighters outside of the ring. And since Danny possesses immense pride, the sort that can alternately lift you up, and also spur you to not reach out when asking for help is the wisest play, I had no way of knowing the soul-piercing issues which had plagued him recently, and left him an emotional robot, lights barely flickering, really nobody home but a sad ghost. After absorbing blow after blow outside the ring, in the manner of the most ubiquitous record-padding specialist, the traveling salesman of losing who travels from town to town to do his thing, which is lose to the up and coming golden boy, McDermott’s mind is today in a far better place, and he will in fact be fighting for the WBU light welterweight title on Sept. 13. Boxing, it’s fair to say, could well be responsible for saving his sanity, and helping him keep chugging when he’d be partially excused if he sleep-walked through life, or worse yet, opted out through a slow-motion slide featuring a sad symphony of bar-stools and popping pain pills, which would probably lead to a coda of an existence that reeks of confirmed desperation, and sad summations by family and friends when the music ends.

Here is Danny’s tale, one familiar to people who know the sport intimately, and don’t succumb to the easy path to omnipresent cynicism and critique….

 

Danny McDermott, a 35-year-old New Jersey resident, came from a blue collar family which had boxing in the DNA. Dad boxed in the Marines, and when fighting was on the tube, everyone clustered around and watched. Grab the TV dinner, don’t spill on the carpet, but don’t take eyes off Tyson

Ring mags lay around the house, and while other small fries would pore over Spiderman comic books, little Mac would read from the boxing Bible. “My dad hung a heavy bag and speed bag in our backyard in New Jersey,” he tells me, “and we would learn a little here and there and workout.”

At 12, Danny picked out his profession. Prizefighter it would be. Mattingly is cool, but c’mon. Firefighters are to be admired, but fighters are to be adored, and respected at another level, OK?

Living with his aunt and uncle in North Bergen, NJ during the week, and dad on weekends, and with his mom once a month, he learned a most useful trait for boxers…to adapt. He had to, had to learn to deal when he was hit with an out-of-nowhere uppercut, the death of a beloved cousin. “In 1991, I lost my 23 year old cousin, who was like an older brother to me, from heart failure in his sleep, ” Danny says. “My brother and I found him in his room. He was a lead singer for a rock band. A few weeks after he passed away, a record producer from a big label came looking for him to talk about his band signing a record deal. It was heart-breaking. His dream had finally came true but he wasn’t there to live that dream. I realized I needed to create my dream.”

A documentary on the greatest boxers of all time pushed him to get more serious about becoming a pro fighter, rising in the ranks, and snagging a title. He went from training in dad’s backyard, to the gym. Jersey boy Arturo Gatti, a Canadian transplant, was a considerable influence on young McDermott.

“My first fight I attended was him winning his first world title against Tracy Patterson at MSG in 1995. I was actually given the hand-wraps he wore in that fight–I have them in a glass case in my home. If you were to tell me I would have been making my pro debut on his card 10 years later I may have thought you were crazy. He was from my area in New Jersey and I wanted to be as exciting as him.”

As Gatti was edging closer to the finished line, Danny kicked off his pro career. Some Jersey boys grab a guitar, try and learn how to make it sing. Danny grabbed gloves and tried to learn how to throw his fists to make ’em sting. He debuted in January 2005, far down on a card topped by a Gatti/Jesse James Leija face-off. Gatti won by KO5, and Danny beat Jason Chacon via UD4. He won three straight, and there were post-win toasts, and so much promise, and so much tavern optimism. Too many toasts? There was a draw with Ed Valdez in November 2005.

He rebounded with a win, and lost to Manny Garcia in November 2007, but was started on a solid run, momentum and confidence building when he beat Floriano Pagliara in May 2009. Then the Fates—or was it God trying him, or is there a God and if there is, why does he dispense tests in such flippant fashion?–tucked their talons into McDermott.

“I felt like life was good and only was going to get better going into the summer of 2009. I had an 8-1 professional record,” he recalls. “I was coming off the biggest victory in my career, over Pagliara. I had plans of fighting for a regional title in the near future. I had just started a family. (Danny Jr. is now five years old.) I moved into one of the best neighborhoods in New Jersey, Fort Lee. Everything seemed like it was great. I was living ‘the American Dream.’ Then, in July I was at a family BBQ down the shore when I got the phone call about Arturo, I’ll never forget it. My heart sunk. I just couldn’t believe it. I had spoken to him a few weeks before he had left for Brazil. We had planned to get our boys together to meet in the summer when he got back. Both of our sons are the same age. It sunk in when I saw the reports on TV later that day. From that point on the downward spiral began. A week later my uncle who helped raise me had a severe heart attack while at physical therapy. He held on for a few days but didn’t survive. I watched him leave us as I held his hand. It was heart-breaking, I can’t describe it. He was my baseball and football coach as a kid. He taught me toughness in sports, to get up when knocked down and come back harder the next time. He was very proud to be from North Bergen, NJ. He said you had to be tough if you’re going to say your from that neighborhood.”

Danny would need that toughness, but more so from an emotional standpoint, as the flurries of hard to hear news, following the death of his mentor, Gatti, and his uncle, did a job on his head. Punches were way easier to absorb, shrug off, than this stuff. Broken nose seemed like a hangnail compared to this stuff…

“During this time I was having some turmoil at home with my significant other. We weren’t on the same page with a lot of things. The in-laws were involved too much, typical problems for many new families, I’d say.”

McDermott lost back to back fights, against Brian Miller (SD8) and Osnel Charles (UD6). It’s fair to say that the home front was not helping him gain the focus needed to train right, and be ready to rock on fight night. “I needed an escape and thought taking this fight against Miller was it,” he continues. “I was depressed after that. I didn’t care that people had said it was a great fight and I looked great. I lost. I guess I felt a bit better months later when some of the local writers voted it the 2010 New Jersey Fight of the Year.”

A second son, Kain, born to the missus provided a bump, but the dynamic at home was subpar. Moving in with her parents, in order to ‘save money to buy a house’ proved counterproductive.

“Things were so bad that I had made a terrible choice to use prescription pain killers after work so I could deal with (the atmosphere at home). Months later things got so bad that I had moved out. I refused to fight and argue in front of my babies. I had no idea were I was going to go. I didn’t tell my aunt, father or mother because I didn’t want them to worry or to get involved. I slept in the park a few nights until I spoke to my step-brother who let me live with him in the Bronx. I stayed there for four months. It was during this time that I took the fight with Osnel Charles. I was in no way ready for this fight. I was 165 a week before the fight which was contracted for 143 pounds.”

Fighting with the mother of his kids, feuding with a co-promoter, this is the sort of stuff that many of us fightwriters don’t know about when we analyze a fight, and focus solely on technique, and such. Being right mentally is maybe as key as being physically ready, right? Perhaps more, because you can be body beautiful but have a hidden head full of fear, doubt and insecurity.

“So now I was 8-3,” says the hitter, who will glove up at his new boxing ‘home away from home,’ the Philippines, in General Santos City on Sept. 13. “To make ends meet I was working as a day laborer, riding on the back of a pick up truck with immigrants. I couldn’t find work. The friends that were around when I was up and coming were nowhere to be found.” Another hard lesson learned for those that see their bandwagon get crowded with new friends who want to be in the mix when the parties getting cooking, but blow off cleanup duty. Who’s left picking soggy cigarette butts off the beer-soaked, butt-stained carpet?

“A few moths later my Aunt Maureen went in for minor surgery and never left the hospital. Her kidneys failed. I again watched another loved one take her last breath in front of me. This woman was my mom. She was there at every moment for me, supported me, loved me, raised me. At the time of her death we weren’t talking to each other for about month. We had gotten into an argument. Mind you she didn’t know about the problems I was having. She didn’t know about me living in the Bronx. So that was added sadness. I felt like a jerk after she died. I can totally value the lesson of never holding a grudge. We had a stupid little argument. Her birthday was the week after she had died—before she went in to the hospital I had planned to bring my kids over and surprise her and make up with her. I never got to do it.” More swift and severe combos whacked McDermott. Someone up there don’t like me, he had to think.

“Later that year I found out that my father had liver cancer. My brother and I stepped up and moved in to help him try to beat it. We took him to doctors, chemo, radiation. Tried to do the right thing. It was around this time that I linked up with Tommy Gallagher and Rich Komissar. I had a fight against Bryan Abraham in my hometown in North Bergen and won. I forgot what it felt like to win.”

Around the time he lost a majority decision to Carl McNickles at the MSG Theater, underneath the Sergio Martinez-Matthew Macklin main event, the phone brought more bad news. “It was about this time I got the phone call from my brother that my mother died of an apparent heart attack,” Danny said. “I couldn’t believe it. Here we were, trying to get ready for our father to check out and mom checks out on us first. It was a little more depressing, to say the least. ”

Real-deal friend Komissar helped him get a job as a maintenance worker and doorman in NYC, and chats with boxing lifer Gallagher helped him process the anxiety and sadness some. But another defeat was added to his record, when he lost to Andre Baker in North Carolina, in September 2012. Danny says his foe was 13 pounds heavier than him, and he agreed to fight him as an exhibition. He was surprised and irked when the fight showed up on Boxrec as his fifth loss, and is fighting the W with the aid of an attorney.

Then, another loss.

“Last September 9th my father lost his battle with cancer. He died at home with me and my brother by his bedside. I got to tell him everything I wanted to and it felt good to know that he knew how much he meant to me before he died.” But all those losses, in the ring, out of the ring, so much despair and death. McDermott was in rough shape, emotionally and physically. Listless mind, inert body, an American Dreamer reduced to sleepwalker. Eyes open but always clouded by the wafting fogs of despair that would only break for spells when the boys did something or said something cute.

“So here I was in January 2013, I was a fat out of shape mess. I was tipping the scales at 195. One morning I had terrible stomach pains and I didn’t pay mind to them until I was vomiting pure blood later in the day. I figured I should go to the hospital,” he said, making me almost grin, as I noted how sometimes “toughness” can be an impediment to sensibility.

“It was 4 AM. The doctor had informed me that my appendix burst hours earlier and ‘peritonitis’ set in, which infected my liver and kidneys. This is the same infection that killed Harry Houdini. The doc told me if I hadn’t sought medical attention I would have been dead within two hours. I had to go into surgery to remove the appendix. I thought this was it. I know how surgeries go, sometimes infections spread during surgery like what happened to my aunt. I cried thinking about my two kids and how they were upset when they learned about my father’s death and how he was ‘up with the angels.’ I spoke to my boys, who are 5 and 4, before surgery and his mom had told him that daddy was in hospital with a bad stomach ache. So they were both on the phone crying and telling me I can’t go to the angels, which started to make me cry. After I hung up the phone, I said a prayer to God that I would change my life around. I will do all the things I promised myself I would do if He got me through this.”

He started out on a regimen which is prototypical for a before and after weight loss product advertisement. “I reached out to my friend, trainer Mike Rodriguez who lives in Florida and works with today’s top MMA fighters from UFC and Bellator. I asked him if I could come down and train with him for two months. He said absolutely. Mike has worked with great boxers like Agnaldo Nunez, Freddie Cadena and Archak TerMeliksetian. He’s a great strategist when it comes to the fight game. So for two months I was in the gym two or three times a day, boxing, strength and conditioning and cardio. And of course diet was key as well.”

After two straight losses, McDermott got back on the bright side with a DQ1 win over Jesar Ancajas in the Philippines. Wait…in the Philippines? How’d that come about?

“My last fight was in Manny Pacquiao’s home town in General Santos City, Philippines, thanks to my dear friend Ryan Songalia (a writer and editor who grew up in NJ and now lives in the Philippines). The fans were very receptive to me. The children in the arena surrounded me and were coming to give me hugs, chanting my name from my ring walk till the end of the fight. It was just an overall humbling experience and it was even better after I won. I’m looking forward to going back for sure and winning this world championship.”

But wait…isn’t if for one of those cheapie titles, for a subpar sanctioning bodies, the WBU. That’s what I read on Twitter, anyway…

“Everyone has an opinion,” Danny says. “Especially the non-fighter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under the impression that this WBU world title is on the same level of a WBC, WBA, IBF or WBO. I know what this “world” title is. It’s a stepping-stone title to that next level, but in the same respect it’s a portion of the light welterweight championship of the world, even if it’s a little portion. By no means do I think people, fans or writers should discredit or take away the accomplishment any fighter achieves when winning any championship. Many great fighters have held the WBU title. Granted, it was more popular in the mid-to late 90s and early part of this century when it was in England. This particular title is special to me because it is the “WBU Light Welterweight title.” The same world title and only world title “Irish” Micky Ward won. Shoot, they made a damn movie about him winning this title. It was also held by Ricky Hatton for years. So that right there makes it very meaningful for me. Let people talk s–t, if it was good enough for these two legendary fighters, it’s good enough for me.”

McDermott offers some insight which can be useful to us all. His words spill faster, hit harder, like he’s stepping it up on the heavy bag. “I don’t care about the opinions of anyone except my two little boys at home,” he says. “That’s my motivation to do what I’m doing now. For the people to say its a s–t title, go tell Micky Ward that or Ricky Hatton or even Mark Wahlberg and the producers of the movie ‘The Fighter.’ It would also highlight me being the first North Bergen, NJ native to win a “World Championship” since James J. Braddock, which is special to me for historic reasons. Those components make this very meaningful and the fact that I’m fighting in Manny Pacquiao’s home-town, thousands of miles from US soil for the title, makes it even more special. It will feel good winning it and bringing it to the US. Which is what I plan on doing.”

We all live our own memoir. We admit to just enough personal deficiencies to keep us honest, ideally, while deflecting enough so we’re able to get out of bed, some of us. Allow me to shift from a memoir-ish POV, to an unauthorized auto-bio slant, compliments of two men who McDermott relies on to dispense tough love when he needs it. And sometimes doesn’t want it, but needs it anyway. Trainer-manager-father figure Tommy Gallagher gave me the crack on the kid. Punches weren’t pulled…

“He’s got a lot of things going for him, but he also has that Irish tough guy syndrome,” Gallagher says. “He can do thing to get noticed besides getting his head bashed in.”

Gallagher, if you don’t know, has been in the game since diapers, basically. Hooking off the jab before potty-training kicked in…

Many of his types are long past their ‘see no evil’ period regarding boxing. They’ve seen too much, seen ring deaths, seen blatant theft of money and spirit, to look the other way, and not let some earned cynicism influence them. He says some guys, cough cough, would be better off spending less time sitting on stools and being caught in the whirl of mood lighting and amber liquids and the intoxication of impending successes.

“You can be a playboy and a drunk and be a writer. You can’t be a playboy and a drunk and be a fighter,” Gallagher says. By all accounts, McDermott can’t be reduced to be labeled those things, but it can be said he’s done his time chasing tail and ale…Remember how he said he “wanted to be as exciting as” Gatti? Fast and furious, inside ring, outside ring, that’s a young man’s game and it turns you old pretty quick. “I think he’s pretty bright,” Gallagher continues. “I think he will shine somehow, something will click and he’ll get on track. He could have maybe been special as a fighter…He deserves something, but he did it looking for shortcuts. You root for guys like that, hope they make it. Yeah, he could have been a great fighter, but he wasn’t respectful to the game. He was caught up in a sparring partner mentality. He had the,’The “On the Waterfront” thing, Terry Malloy, “I coulda’ been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.””

Gallagher has seen too many Terrys and Dannys toss it away. So he has a street brand way of looking at people who waste potential. “I’d rather see someone go to jail, make sure their kids get fed, rather than be drunk on the street, or whatever. Anyway, I think it’ll happen for him, somehow, and I’ll be rooting for him.”

Mentor Rich Kommissar, son of Stanley Kommisar, who co-founded the fabled Starrett City gym in East New York, Brooklyn roots for McDermott, and since he has more hair to pull out than Gallagher, has lost a few strands in exasperation.

“Danny’s had a tough life… Irish twin, brought up in Hell’s Kitchen and North Bergen by a compilation of people,” Kommisar synopsizes. “He was a good amateur, Gatti sparring partner, but life always seemed to get in his way. He seems to finally be eliminating his excuses for failure and maybe starting gutting it out emotionally. Boxing-wise, he has a tough chin, is a good puncher. Danny has been a bit lazy in his training and likes to ‘hustle’ into his own situations, which frustrates me tremendously because I love him.”

This being boxing, where maybe the most useful trait to possess, both inside and outside the ring, is the ability to adapt, McDermott has had to wrap his brain around a couple foes as he looks to Saturday. On Sunday, he posted to Facebook this update for fans and friends.

“After 2 opponents pulling out for my fight, the promoter had no choice but to scramble and get a local fighter or scrap my fight,” he wrote. “So Ronnel Esparas 10-14 will be my opponent. Despite his record, Esparas, a crafty southpaw was a Filipino amateur standout who built up a pro record of 6-1 before going on a roller coaster of a career. He was also a sparring partner of Manny Pacquiao. I wish he looked better on paper to silence the critics that no doubt will come at me win or lose but it’s out of my hands at this point. I’m just coming to win my titles, and journeymen that have nothing to lose like Esparas are dangerous fighters. I’m expecting a tough fight regardless of his record.”

Kid knows tough fights…He has the ability, those close to him maintain, to succeed and it seems like the maturity has kicked in so that chapters yet to be written will feature a more upbeat tone. And doesn’t he deserve, if nothing else, the chance to have the last words here?

“Boxing HAS given me a reason to live, if I can tell my kids to shoot for their dreams, that they can be whoever they want to be in life, I want it to ring true,” McDermott says, indicating that he sees the door is open, and understands that the ride ain’t free. “If Daddy can do it, so can you. Nothing is impossible.”

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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