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Brener Zwikel’s Latest Challenge is More Than Buster Douglas-Sized Longshot

Bernard Fernandez

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Steve Brener, president of the California-based Brener Zwikel & Associates public-relations firm, had to chuckle at the analogy forwarded by a sports writer acquaintance of long standing. It was part of his job to create public interest in a seeming mismatch between heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and a 42-1 longshot named Buster Douglas. But Douglas shocked the world on Feb. 11, 1990, knocking out the supposedly invincible Tyson in the 10th round in what is widely considered to be the biggest upset in boxing history, maybe the biggest upset in all of sports.

“Sometimes there are surprises,” said Brener, whose firm’s business is about 40 percent boxing-related, with Showtime and MGM/Mirage Resorts among its major clients. “Anybody has a chance to defy the odds. Every football Sunday (in the NFL), with the parity that’s out there, you have a fighting man’s chance to do something that nobody expects.”

But even Buster Douglas’ impossible dream would have seemed a reasonable bet when compared against the latest challenge presented to Brener Zwikel, which involves a new client whose chances of gaining the desired prize would seem to be Powerball lottery-long. But somebody eventually holds the winning ticket after all his or her numbered ping-pong balls come up, and the reality is that you can’t win if you don’t at least attempt to play.

So here, cast in the no-chance role of Buster Douglas to the millionth power, is your Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, ranked No. 23 in the latest Associated Press and Coaches polls, but in reality much further down than that when it comes to gaining serious consideration for the four-team College Football Playoff, the first time there will be an actual tournament to determine a national champion in what is now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).

As was previously the case, teams that are not members of the so-called five “power conferences” – that would be the Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-10, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 – are holding nearly all the best cards in a high-stakes poker game, with even the best-positioned member of a less-influential conference (Marshall is in Conference USA) trying to bluff its way into winning the most lucrative pot with a skimpy hand. One of the factors that will be taken into consideration by the 12-member selection committee is strength of schedule, and despite the fact that Marshall is beating up on the teams it has played, including this past weekend’s 35-16 drubbing of Florida Atlantic, the Thundering Herd ranks just 125th among 128 FBS teams in SOS, ahead of only Georgia Southern, Texas State and Buffalo. Marshall could and probably will lay total waste to its remaining four regular-season opponents – that would be Southern Mississippi, Rice, Alabama-Birmingham and Western Kentucky (combined record: 14-16) – and the likelihood is that it wouldn’t budge the needle even a little insofar as gaining one of the four playoff berths.

But nobody can say that Conference USA, which initiated the contact with Brener Zwikel, isn’t making its very strongest case to have one of its representatives crash a party that almost certainly will consist solely of invitees from the blue-blooded prestige leagues.

“It’s a PR firm that does great work and we thought we really had a great story from a conference standpoint,” Courtney Morrison-Archer, a CUSA associate commissioner, said of the decision to bring in Brener Zwikel. “We’re excited to keep focusing on the great things around the (Marshall) program.”

Brener, whose company is perhaps best known for boxing (it has been a part of nine of the top 11 pay-per-view fights of all time) but which has also drawn assignments for such high-visibility sports concerns as the Super Bowl, soccer’s World Cup, thoroughbred racing’s Breeders’ Cup and various pro golf tour stops, isn’t afraid to get in there and make his pitch, regardless of the circumstances. BZA’s motto says it all: “We don’t wait for things to happen … We make them happen.”

“I wanted to be on the same page with the Marshall SIDs (sports information directors),” Brener said. “I certainly didn’t want to step on their toes, and I don’t think that’s the case. What we’re going to do is to reach out nationally to promote the Marshall football program and to educate folks about Marshall and what they’re doing this year. Bottom line, when those 12 individuals (on the selection committee) get in the room to decide the (final) rankings, we’re going to know we did all we could to provide them with any information about Marshall that can help them make their decision. There really isn’t any more to it than that.”

Brener makes it sound so simple, but his job and those of his top lieutenants – including BZA vice president Toby Zwikel and account executive John Beyrooty, his point man on many big-time boxing events – is all about the details, and there are quite a few of them that go into the overall fabric of a vast and complicated mosaic.

“Especially on a pay-per-view event, it’s a major undertaking,” Brener said of the task of making a big fight seem even bigger during the run-up stage to the opening bell. “It starts with the announcement tour, then you have the satellite tours, the weekly camp notes … just spreading the word and keeping the fight at the top of people’s minds. You want to maximize the awareness and the visibility of your event.”

Comparatively speaking, that wasn’t quite as difficult some years ago when Brener’s company was hyping PPV shows that were headlined by Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, superstars whose names were instantly recognizable to every fight fan and even non-fans. Sadly, that isn’t the case anymore.

“We’re not having as many major fights as we did in the past, during the Tyson/Holyfield era,” Brener acknowledged. “The heavyweights and the middleweights were getting a lot of attention then. Unfortunately, the heavyweight division has been overseas for several years now, so it’s lost a bit of its shine here in the States. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”

Brener, an inductee into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, didn’t start out in boxing. He was the 24-year-old publicity director of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the youngest person in Major League Baseball history ever to hold a team’s top PR position, and after 18 years there he moved on to horse racing at Hollywood Park, where he was the track’s vice president of marketing and public relations.

He founded Brener Zwikel in 1988 and, fortuitously, was asked by Top Rank honcho Bob Arum to facilitate media coverage of the great Sugar Ray Leonard toward the end of Leonard’s career. That association lasted four fights, including Leonard’s rematch with Tommy Hearns and the rubber match in his three-bout series with Roberto Duran.

Brener’s work with Leonard evolved into a long-standing relationship with Showtime that now has spanned 23 years, as well as a continuing deal with MGM/Mirage Resorts. But when you do something very well and for a very long time, a lot of interested parties will come knocking at your door – including CUSA, which wants more people to take note of a Marshall program that possibly could hang tough with the biggest of the big boys, if only given the opportunity. The idea is that, by banging the drum for the Thundering Herd, a bigger spotlight will be reflected onto the other members of the 14-team league.

It’s not a totally unreasonable premise. Marshall might be known for the worst tragedy ever in college football, the Nov. 14, 1970, airplane crash that claimed the lives of all 75 passengers aboard Southern Airlines Flight 932, including 37 players, an event depicted in the 2006 film, “We Are Marshall”), but hope often springs from the ashes of despair. The Thundering Herd was awful for a long time, with the worst record of any major college program from 1964 to ’83, including one stretch in which it went 0-26-1, but from 1984 to 2005 posted 21 consecutive winning seasons. Marshall – which was founded in 1837 and is named after John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — won the 1992 and 1996 national championships in Division 1-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision), and in recent years it has produced such NFL players as quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, safety Chris Crocker, defensive end Vinny Curry and, most notably, wide receiver Randy Moss.

The Thundering Herd’s current star is quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has shattered most of the passing records set by Pennington and Leftwich, and probably would be a Heisman Trophy candidate if he were posting the same numbers at, say, Alabama, Notre Dame or Florida State. He also is the primary reason why Marshall is 8-0, one of only three FBS teams (along with No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State), which is a nice thing to know if only it weren’t for that strength-of-schedule thing and the fact that CUSA’s other 13 members are a collective 0-21 against teams from the so-called power five conferences.

If the College Football Playoff were as inclusive as, say, the FCS version – 16 teams make the postseason field in what used to be 1-AA, as well as in Division II and Division III – Marshall might have a shot at getting its chance to play David amidst all the Goliaths. But even Rakeem Cato doesn’t wield that powerful a slingshot, and neither does Steve Brener.

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Conor McGregor vs. Pac-Man: The Circus is Back in Town

Arne K. Lang

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MMA superstar Conor McGregor stole some of the thunder from a busy Saturday in boxing with his announcement that his next fight would come against Manny Pacquaio. “boxing Manny Pacquiao next in the Middle East,” McGregor tweeted on Friday, Sept. 25.

Jayke Johnson, a representative of Pacquiao, confirmed that there have been preliminary talks. Johnson hinted that this would be Pacquiao’s final fight and said that Senator Manny would be donating a large chunk of his purse to COVID-19 relief in the Philippines. The situation is bad there. As of Sept. 22, there were 291,789 confirmed infections in a population of approximately 109 million. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that travelers postpone all travel to the Philippines, including essential travel.

The best guess is that the fight will take place early next year. Pacquiao is unlikely to leave his homeland until the pandemic has abated there.

Pac-Man, who turns 42 in December, last fought in July of 2019 when he further cemented his great legacy with a 12-round decision over previously undefeated Keith Thurman. McGregor, 32, last fought in January of this year. His fight with Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was over in 40 seconds. Cerrone left the ring with a fractured nose and orbital bone.

In June, McGregor announced his retirement, but few people gave it any credibility. McGregor was just making noise which he is very good at. But like him or loathe him, the fellow is certainly adept at selling his brand. In the world of combat sports, the Dubliner is Mr. Charisma.

In 2019, McGregor was reportedly the 4th wealthiest sports personality in the world, trailing only Mayweather, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo. And his bank balance was growing in leaps and bounds because the whiskey he was promoting was flying off the shelf. Proper No. 12, a three-year-old blended Irish whiskey bottled at Ireland’s oldest distillery, was launched in September of 2018 and reportedly attracted $1 billion in sales in its very first year. (The “12” refers to the postal code of the neighborhood where McGregor grew up.)

McGregor started the company; he wasn’t merely the spokesperson. The parent company of Tequila maker Cuervo recently upped their stake in Proper No. 12 to 49 percent. Without a punch or a kick, McGregor made a big score.

(By the way, the popularity of Conor McGregor’s libation isn’t matched by the reviews. A bottle was sent complimentary to a business magazine in London with instructions to pass it around the office. No one liked it. “It smelled like ethanol and tasted only marginally better,” said one imbiber.)

McGregor’s fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in June of 2017 attracted a whopping 4.3 million pay-per-view buys. The match at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas drew 13,094 paid and a live gate of $55.4 million, the second highest in Nevada history (albeit well short of the $72 million gate generated by Mayweather vs Pacquiao in 2015).

McGregor plainly won the first round in that fight and won the first three rounds in the eyes of many observers. But by the ninth round the Irishman was clearly fatigued and Mayweather stopped him in the 10th.

Many people, including this reporter, believe that there was a gentleman’s agreement in place whereby Mayweather agreed to fight the first few rounds under wraps to give the paying fans more bang for their buck. In a recent tweet, McGregor said that he was disgusted with himself for not following up his early advantage and that, if he could go back and do it over, he would give Floyd a good kick in the neck because getting disqualified wouldn’t have stung as bad as getting TKOed.

The preamble to the McGregor-Mayweather fandango was a four-city promotional tour that began in Los Angeles and coursed through Toronto and New York before concluding in London. At each stop, the public was invited to come and witness the fighters’ vent their mutual enmity and the circus was live-streamed on several social media platforms.

Each session was marked by an orgy of F-bombs. Veteran boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, after tuning-in to the Toronto segment, articulated the feelings of many as he voiced his disgust: “(The show) defiled whatever remained of the nobility of combat sports, and in a broader sense the fabric of civilized society.”

If there is a promotional tour for McGregor-Pacquiao, it will take a different tack. Manny is deeply religious; he won’t play that game.

Historically, some fights for charity have been little more than exhibitions. A writer for an MMA site speculates that McGregor-Pacquiao may be contested under a modified rule set, whatever that means. Regardless, if this event comes off, it wouldn’t command my patronage if I were anything other than a boxing writer obliged to give it a look-see.

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Emerging Heavyweights: Three to Watch

Ted Sares

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Victor Faust (Viktor Vykhryst), a 6’6” 232-pound Ukrainian heavyweight (and long-time amateur) is a product of the great amateur program in the Ukraine–one that has produced the likes of the Klitschko brothers, Oleksandr Usyk, Vasily Lomachenko, and more recently Sergiy Derevyanchenko.

At first glance, his amateur record does not appear stellar, but a closer review indicates several SD’s or MD’s.

Earlier this month, on Sept. 20, he scored a frightening one punch KO when he fought the more experienced Gabriel Enguema (10-9) in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. It was his third KO victory in three professional fights—all in 2020. The end came as a result of a Doctor Steelhammer-like perfect straight right to knock the Spaniard out cold. It brought back memories of Wladimir’s KO of Calvin Brock in 2006. Faust displayed skills, size, a solid chin, and power in dispatching his opponent.

“…Soon everyone will …see how skillful he is. He’s the complete package and will compete in massive fights sooner rather than later.” Erol Ceylan (Faust’s German promoter)

Oh yes, Faust beat Romanian Mihai Nistor in the amateurs and the talented Nistor in turn halted Anthony Joshua in the amateurs back in 2011. (Nistor also went 1-2 with Filip Hrgovic and lost to Tony Yoka in 2012.) Of course, one must be circumspect when using logic in boxing. Now that Nistor has turned pro, he will be worth following as his style is very much Tysonesque.

There are others who have—at a minimum– the same potential as Faust.

Tony Yoka

tony

Hard-hitting Frenchman 6’7” Tony Yoka (8-0) has beaten far better opposition than Faust and has a far better amateur record. In fact, he beat Filip Hrgovic and Joe Joyce in the 2016 Rio Games on the way to a Gold Medal. Recently, he dismantled veteran and fellow Frenchman Johan Duhaupas, a fringe contender with some notable notches on his belt. The end came in the first round by virtue of a crunching right uppercut.

Yoka perhaps could be slotted above Faust at this point.; he just might be the best of the new guys on the block. However, there are some dicey anti-doping issues that have tainted his reputation, though they do seem to be mostly resolved at this point.

Arslanbek Makhmudov

Arslanbek

This Russian “Lion,” 6’5 ½”, 260 pounds with an imposing muscular frame, is still another hungry prospect ready to break into the next tier. Nicknamed the “Lion,” — he also has been called “Predator” and “Beast — he is 10-0 (10 KOs).

He now lives and fights out of Montreal. The holder of two regional titles, he stopped a shot Samuel Peter in one round this past December.

“I’m confident that with my team, Eye of the Tiger Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions, I will reach my goal of becoming heavyweight champion of the world,” —Makhmudov.

This all said, The Lion needs some work on his technical skills as size can only go so far.

Makhmudov’s next opponent is Canadian heavyweight Dillon “Big Country” Carman (14-5) whose claim to fame is that he KOd comebacking Donovan Ruddock in 2015 in Toronto. This one will end differently for “Big Country.”

Others

Arguably, classy Americans Stephan Shaw (13-0), and Jared Anderson (6-0 with four KOs in the first round) could be added to the above. Filip Hrgovic and Efe Ajagba, both 6’6”, have already moved up.

A good yardstick is 6’5” American Jonathan Rice who lost a 10-round bout to Ajagba, was TKO’d in the seventh round Makhmudov, lost a 6-round decision to Tony Yoka, and a lost 6-round decision to Shaw.

Have I missed any?

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com of on Facebook.

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Jermell Charlo Unifies Super Welterweights Via Solar Plexus Punch

David A. Avila

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WBC super welterweight titlist Jermell Charlo knocked out IBF and WBA titlist Jeison Rosario with a knockout punch delivered to the solar plexus on Saturday to add two more belts to his collection.

“I’m definitely bringing home the straps,” said Charlo.

Shades of Bob Fitzsimmons.

Back in 1897, Fitzsimmons used the same solar plexus punch to dethrone Gentleman James Corbett for the heavyweight title in Carson City, Nevada.

In another casino city Charlo (34-1, 18 KOs) floored Dominican Republic’s Rosario (20-2-1, 14 KOs) three times at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. He and his brother co-headlined a heavy duty pay-per-view card with no fans in attendance on the Premier Boxing Champions card.

Charlo jumped on Rosario quickly in the first round when he charged and clipped him with a left hook to the temple. Down went the two-belt champion for the count. But he got up seemingly unfazed.

For the next several rounds Rosario was the aggressor and put the pressure on Charlo who was content to allow the Dominican to fire away. Occasionally the Houston fighter jabbed but allowed Rosario to pound up and down with both fists.

After allowing Rosario to get comfortable with his attack, suddenly Charlo stopped moving and connected with a short crisp counter left hook and right cross in the sixth round. Down went Rosario again and he got up before the count of 10.

Charlo said it was part of the game plan.

“I’m growing and I realize that the knockout will just come,” he said.

Charlo was in control with a patient style and allowed Rosario to come forward. But the Dominican was more cautious in the seventh.

In the eighth round Charlo jabbed to the head and then jabbed hard to Rosario’s stomach. The Dominican fighter dropped down on his seat as if felled by a gun shot. He could not get up and convulsed while on the floor. The referee Harvey Dock counted him out at 21 seconds of round eight.

“That jab that got to him must have landed in a vital point,” said Charlo after the fight. “I hope he recovers and bounces back.”

Charlo now has three of the four major super welterweight world titles.

WBC Super Bantamweight Title

Luis Nery (31-0, 24 KOs) captured the WBC super bantamweight title by unanimous decision over fellow Mexican Aaron Alameda (25-1, 13 KOs) in a battle between southpaws. The war between border town fighters was intense.

Nery, a former bantamweight world titlist, moved up a weight division and found Alameda to be a slick southpaw with an outstanding jab. At first the Tijuana fighter was a little puzzled how to attack but found his groove in the fourth round.

But Alameda, who fights out of Nogales, Mexico, began using combinations and finding success.  A crafty counter left uppercut caught Nery charging in a few times, but he managed to walk through them.

In the final two rounds Nery picked up the action and increased the pressure against the slick fighting Alameda, He forced the Nogales fighter to fight defensively and that proved enough to give the last two rounds for Nery and the victory by unanimous decision. The scores were 115-113, 116-112 and 118-110 for Nery who now holds the WBC super bantamweight world title. He formerly held the WBC bantamweight title.

Roman Wins

Danny “Baby-Faced Assassin” Roman (28-3-1, 10 KOs) managed to rally from behind and defeat Juan Carlos Payano (21-4, 9 KOs) in a battle between former world champions in a nontitle super bantamweight clash. It wasn’t easy.

Once again Roman fought a talented southpaw and in this fight Payano, a former bantamweight titlist, moved up in weight and kept Roman off balance for the first half of the fight. The jab and movement by the Dominican fighter seemed to keep Roman out of sync.

Roman, who fights out of Los Angeles, used a constant body attack to wear down the 35-year-old Payano and it paid off in the second half. Then the former unified world champion Roman began to pinpoint more blows to the body and head. With seconds left in the 12th and final round, a left hook delivered Payano down and through the ropes. Sadly, the referee missed the knockdown. It didn’t matter as all three judges scored it identical at 116-112 for Roman after 12 rounds.

“I made some adjustments and picked up the pace and got the win,” said Roman who formerly held the WBA and IBF super bantamweight world titles.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / SHOWTIME

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