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Three Myths Explored On The 40th Anniversary Of Foreman vs. Ali

Frank Lotierzo

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It’s been 40 years since Muhammad Ali 44-2 (31) upset the boxing world as a 3-1 underdog and knocked out undisputed heavyweight champion George Foreman 40-0 (37) in the eighth round to become only the second fighter in history to reclaim the heavyweight title. Today, Ali, 72 and Foreman, 65, are America’s guest whenever they appear in public. With all the years and the passage of time, most have forgotten just how big of an event and fight Foreman-Ali was back on Oct. 29, 1974. Through the years there’s been so much discussed pertaining to the fight that it’s impossible to reveal anything that hasn’t already been hashed over ad-nauseum.

The fight took place in Kinshasa Zaire and was fought at the 20th of May Stadium. It was former Cleveland racketeer Don King’s first venture into big time boxing as a promoter and he titled it “The Rumble In The Jungle.” King used his gift of gab to coax all within his voice’s reach that the coming together of Foreman and Ali was symbolic. “The prodigal sons will be returning to Africa,” was his theme during the months leading up to the fight.

September 25th was the original scheduled date of the bout, but it was pushed back to October 29th when sparring partner Bill McMurray cut George over his right eye during a training session on September 16th. When the bout was postponed both Foreman and Ali were forced to remain in Zaire despite the fact that they both wanted to come back to the United States. However, the fast- thinking Ali turned the tables on Foreman and embraced staying there and roamed with the people of Zaire once word leaked out that George wanted to leave the country. In a short time Ali became a man of the people and by fight night Foreman felt as if an entire country was against him.

The fight started at four in the morning on Wednesday October 30th, 1974 in Zaire to accommodate audiences in the United States at ten in the evening Tuesday night October 29th. At the time George Foreman was thought to be the most unbeatable and invincible heavyweight champion in history. He demolished “Smokin” Joe Frazier in two rounds to capture the undisputed title in January of 1973. This was the same Frazier that Ali had to fight twice before he could claim a victory over him. In his second defense of the title Foreman mutilated Ken Norton in less than two full rounds in March of 1974, and yes, Ali needed to fight Norton twice before he could say he beat him. So the back-story for the “Rumble In The Jungle” was this: the only two fighters who ever defeated Ali just so happened to be two of Foreman’s easiest and most impressive victories. Foreman was often quoted saying in the weeks before the fight, “I hit a guy and it’s like magic. You see him crumbling to the floor. It is a gift from God.” And there were many astute boxing observers who saw Ali being the victim of the same fate. In fact it led George to believe that there was no way he could lose to Ali and it probably wouldn’t even be his toughest fight. If ever there was a supremely confident fighter before an historic bout, it was George Foreman before he fought Muhammad Ali.

The documentary “When We Were Kings” pretty much covered what transpired leading up to, during and after the “The Rumble In The Jungle.” However, there are three popular myths regarding the fight that neither the film nor anyone has ever really touched on or addressed. We start with the ring size, Foreman’s lack of a backup plan when the fight began to slip away from him, and the myth of Ali introducing the “Rope a Dope” strategy during the bout.

The Ring Size:

Much has been made about the loose ring ropes for the Foreman-Ali bout over the years. And yes they did have slightly more give than the ropes usually have around a boxing ring. And the reason for that was because the ropes were for a 19-foot ring. Before the fight Ali stressed he wanted a 20-foot ring and Foreman wanted a 19-foot ring. What they got in Zaire was a 16-foot ring. This is documented by the October 29, 1974 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel, and countless interviews that referee Zack Clayton gave over the years after the fight. In fact this was discussed between me and Mr. Clayton when I mentioned it to him at the post fight press conference after Michael Spinks stopped Murray Sutherland in the eighth round on 4-11-82 to retain his WBA light heavyweight title in Atlantic City N.J. And Mr. Clayton confirmed to me that Foreman and Ali fought in a 16 foot ring in over 80 degree heat. He then added that he was somewhat surprised that, “Ali agreed to fight Foreman in a phone booth with ropes.”

The size of the ring was a definite benefit for Foreman because he knew the less room that Ali had to move and box the larger the advantage for him. The conventional wisdom before the fight was this: Ali would look to circle and box George from the outside, utilizing his superior hand and foot speed the way he did when he fought Sonny Liston and George Chuvalo the first time he fought them. Ali also circled and boxed and used the entire ring 20-foot ring for seven or eight rounds of his rematch with Joe Frazier in his last bout before challenging Foreman. As witnessed by re-watching the fight, Foreman easily crowds Ali after taking only three or four steps to either side in the smaller ring. One of the things Foreman worked on and stressed before the fight was his ability to cut the ring off and how that would force Ali to have to mix it up and trade punches with him. That was considered ring suicide against Foreman circa 1973-74. Aside from forcing Ali to wear cement boxing shoes during the fight, Foreman couldn’t have been blessed with a better advantage than fighting Ali in a 16 foot ring. The ropes may have been a little loose during the bout, but the size of the ring was a bigger issue and a huge plus for Foreman.

Foreman’s corner and strategy:

On the night that he defended his title against Muhammad Ali, George Foreman’s corner consisted of all-time boxing greats Sandy Saddler and Archie Moore, along with trainer Dick Saddler. Before the fight it was assumed in order for Foreman to beat Ali, all that it would take was for him to be turned loose when the bell rang. As long as George didn’t hit the referee he’d enjoy clear sailing and win the fight in a spectacular fashion. Back then Foreman was boasting about his two famous punches: the “anywhere punch,” as in, anywhere it lands it does damage and the “deep sleep” in the other hand. At the time the prevailing thought was, Ali isn’t strong enough nor is he young enough at age 32 to hold off Foreman, age 25, or dance and use his legs to avoid George’s two handed rampage. The thought that Foreman would need a plan “B” or have to adjust to what Ali did during the fight wasn’t even a consideration to anyone before the bout.

The dynamic of the fight changed towards the end of the first round when Foreman managed to blast Muhammad to the head and body, and Ali openly talked to and mocked George after getting hit flush. The thought that Ali wouldn’t crumble once George caught him good wasn’t even a remote possibility before the fight in Foreman’s mind. And as George has said countless times over the years, Ali drew from his ability to take his punch and became more confident, and conversely, George began to lose confidence in his ability to hurt or defeat Ali as the fight progressed. Yes, Ali used the “Rope a Dope” strategy during the fight, but in a 16 foot ring, it’s not like his legs and lateral movement would’ve been all that effective in neutralizing Foreman’s power and aggression. In essence, because of the small ring, Ali had no choice other than to fight Foreman the way he did.

Archie Moore stated that everything they did with George in training for the Ali fight was to get Muhammad to the ropes, to cut the ring and maneuver him against the ropes. What they didn’t work on was what to do once George got him there and for some unforeseen reason Ali was able to take George’s punch. What they overlooked, along with the rest of the experts was, Ali’s body and ring strength were equal to George’s even though he wasn’t as big of a puncher. As the fight proceeded it was obvious because of Foreman being the same height as Ali, his punches to the head were wide and from outside, making them easier for Ali to see, anticipate and pick off or parry. As opposed to, say, Joe Frazier who started his tighter shots from down low and came up with them, making it more difficult for Ali to see and defend.

Immediately after the fight Foreman’s corner was wrongly excoriated and unfairly criticized by many fans and media for not instructing George on what he should do because their “catch ‘n kill” style of attack wasn’t working. Ali was handling Foreman’s power and aggression and in the midst George was walking into Ali’s lead rights and lefts. However, there was nothing they could’ve instructed Foreman to do in the middle of the fight that would’ve altered the result. By the time Team Foreman realized that George wasn’t going to get the anticipated early knockout, the fight was four rounds old and Foreman was starting to tire from throwing the kitchen sink at Muhammad. Aside from urging Foreman to stop head hunting, there’s not much else they could’ve instructed him to do differently. Foreman’s biggest advantage over Ali was his overload of punching power, and if Ali could withstand his Sunday punches, which he did, Foreman wasn’t going to beat him. He certainly didn’t stand a chance of beating the faster hand and footed Ali by trying to out-box him or out point him from center ring.

Had Foreman eased up and not been so aggressive, he would’ve been throwing away his only path to victory in the fight. Foreman minus his aggression would’ve been a sitting duck for Ali’s fast hands and combinations. Had Foreman chose to box and fight more in a more measured way instead of going after Ali, Muhammad would’ve peppered him at will from outside the way he did George Chuvalo, Ernie Terrell and Mac Foster. If you remember, after George lost to Ali he returned to the ring 15 months later a more measured fighter under new trainer Gil Clancy. And he looked good against contenders like Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, Scott LeDoux and Dino Dennis, fighters who had no means to get away from him while fighting on the move. Then he fought Jimmy Young. Against Young, Foreman fought much more measured than he did against Ali, hoping to conserve his energy and stamina. And what happened? Young peppered Foreman and won a decision over him because he never had to cope with the out of control wrecking machine that Ali had to confront. Jimmy never really had to address Foreman’s overwhelming power and strength because for most of the bout, George kept it under wraps looking to conserve his stamina and energy.

Try to imagine Foreman switching in the middle of the bout with Ali and fighting him like he did Jimmy Young. Ali was quicker, threw faster and harder combinations and had better legs than Young. Not to mention he was physically bigger and stronger. Had Foreman’s corner implored George to back off and pick his shots against Ali, sure, he might’ve lasted longer or even perhaps gone the distance – but he would’ve lost every minute of every round along with the fight.

So the reality is, Foreman’s corner shouldn’t be faulted for not having a plan “B” for George the night he fought Ali. The simple truth is, if Foreman couldn’t knock out Ali by forcing the fight and trying to make Muhammad fight and trade with him, he’s wasn’t going to beat him. There was nothing that Archie Moore, Sandy Saddler or Dick Saddler could’ve instructed Foreman to do in the middle of the bout, simply because there was no plausible plan “B” that they could’ve implemented to salvage the fight. As we learned, Foreman just didn’t match up with Ali.

The Introduction of “Rope A Dope” is a Myth:

Over the last 40 years since Ali defeated Foreman, the “Rope A Dope” strategy has been hailed as being some stroke of genius on Ali’s part that he invented on the fly during the fight. The “rope a dope” strategy was implemented by Ali during the second round of the fight. The strategy saw Ali go to the ropes and cover up with his guard high, thus allowing Foreman to punch at him. Sometimes Ali would get off a few quick one-twos in between Foreman’s already launched incoming bombs, hitting George squarely as he was coming in. And then George would reload and start the process all over again. Foreman used up a lot of his energy throwing looping punches at Ali looking to take his head off. Many of them grazed Ali and the ones that did get through, he took. Ali also out-wrestled Foreman in the clinches and held his head down by pushing on the back of his neck so George couldn’t get a good shot at him. This tired Foreman, along with Ali’s taunts of telling him to punch harder and calling him a big sissy. Finally in the eighth round Ali got off a beautiful combination that ended with a hard right hand to Foreman’s face and he went down. Foreman rose but didn’t beat the count and referee Zach Clayton waved the fight over.

Let it be noted that had any other fighter tried to beat Foreman using the “rope a dope” tactic that Ali employed against him, they would probably be beaten to death. The strategy worked for Ali because Muhammad was blessed with a concrete body and a cast iron chin. That, along with his very underrated mental toughness and constitution. The only fighter who could’ve beat George Foreman by allowing George to work him over, did. It would be suicide for any other “boxer” to try and duplicate what Ali did against the undefeated raging Foreman who didn’t believe anyone could stand up to his punch or beat him. The “rope a dope” worked against George Foreman and enabled Ali to regain the undisputed heavyweight title seven years after being stripped of it.

The myth of the “rope a dope” strategy is that Ali had used it unsuccessfully twice before he fought Foreman, only he didn’t name it. Ali tried to “rope a dope” Joe Frazier from the sixth round on during the “Fight Of The Century.” Only it didn’t work because Frazier’s shorter punches and everlasting stamina piled up points and won rounds. Frazier’s lower center allowed him to be in the perfect position to work Ali over to the body, and at the same time, stay low and slip many of Ali’s return shots to the head. Punching down and missing Frazier actually drained Muhammad’s stamina. Ali sought a quick knockout against Frazier, who was a slow starter. When he failed to get the quick execution, he realized that in order for him to finish the fight, he was going to have to pace himself and see if at the same time Frazier would punch himself out. Only Joe never slowed down and his body work against a stationary Ali against the ropes sapped Muhammad’s stamina. So the “rope a dope” strategy failed Ali the first time he tried it.

Ali also tried to “rope a dope” Ken Norton the first time they fought two years after he lost to Frazier. Ali didn’t think much of Norton as a contender and was in terrible shape for the bout. Ali thought he could toy with Norton and stop him whenever he wanted. Once he realized that that wasn’t going to happen and the fight was probably going to go the distance, he went to the ropes and tried to get Norton to punch himself out so he could come on late in the fight. In the process Ali suffered a broken jaw. Again, he fought off the ropes and tried to pick his spots, but like Frazier, Norton had built up a head of steam and never slowed down.

You’ll notice that after the “rope a dope” failed against Frazier and Norton the first time he fought them, Ali abandoned it for the rematches with both men. What he did was get himself into great shape and down to 212 pounds for both rematches. Ali was never that low in weight before or after his rematches with Frazier and Norton during his comeback in the 70s. And before both rematches he promised not to lay against the ropes and give away rounds. He promised to dance and use his legs and not be the stationary target he was the first time he fought Joe and Ken. And in both fights Ali boxed and danced beautifully for the first half of the fight and banked those rounds. He eventually came down off his toes for a few rounds, but just when Frazier and Norton started to get back into the fight, he started circling and moving again because he was in great shape. Down the stretch his movement and his ability to fight effectively in retreat, something he was great at, enabled him to even the score with the only two men who ever beat him.

Let it be said for the record that Muhammad Ali used his famous “rope a dope” strategy twice before he fought George Foreman, and it failed both times. The only difference is, Ali didn’t coin it the “rope a dope” after if failed against Frazier and Norton. What he said was, he needed to lay against the ropes and rest against Frazier and Norton because he was coming off a long layoff when he fought Frazier – and he wasn’t in top condition when he fought Norton.

It wasn’t until the “rope a dope” strategy finally prevailed for Ali against George Foreman that he smartly gave it a catchy name. That’s part of the genius of Muhammad Ali.

In closing, Ali used the “rope a dope’ strategy once after he fought Foreman, and that was during his first fight with Leon Spinks, a fight he lost. Guess what he said after fighting Spinks? He said I underestimated him and wasn’t in top condition, that’s why I laid back against the ropes and rested, hoping the inexperienced Spinks would tire. For the rematch a determined Ali was in great shape and danced and boxed for 11 of the 15 rounds the fight went. Ali won an overwhelming decision victory and became the first fighter in history to win the world heavyweight boxing title three times.

In hindsight the “rope a dope” strategy didn’t serve Muhammad Ali well. He was 1-3 in fights when he used it. However, the one time it worked for him just so happens to be the signature win of his stellar career And that was 40 years ago. We are getting old!

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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Serhii Bohachuk in Montebello and More News and Notes

David A. Avila

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Serhii Bohachuk leads an impressive lineup put together by 360 Promotions and returns to Southern California ready to resume an assault on the super welterweight division.

Asked how he intends to proceed?

“I don’t talk, talk, talk,” said Bohachuk. “I just show with action.”

Bohachuk (19-1, 19 KOs) meets southpaw Raphael Igbokwe (16-2, 7 KOs) in the main event on Thursday Sept. 16, at Quiet Cannon Events Center in Montebello, Calif. UFC Fight Pass will stream the boxing card that begins at 5:30 p.m. PST.

Early in the year Bohachuk, nicknamed “El Flaco,” was winning a showdown against Brandon Adams staged in Puerto Rico, when he was caught with a sneaky left hook. The fight was eventually stopped and the amiable Ukrainian fighter suffered his first loss.

But he’s back.

He scored a knockout win in July and now seems poised to make a run at the top, starting with Houston’s Igbokwe. For Bohachuk, 26, losing a fight actually could make world champions more inclined to accept a match with him. Who wanted to face a fighter with every win coming via knockout? Bohachuk just needs to continue winning.

Another contender looking to rebound is Ali Akhmedov (16-1, 12 KOs) who lost a bid for the IBO super middleweight world title to Carlos Gongora last December. No shame losing to the world champion from Ecuador.

Kazakhstan’s Akhmedov sits in the same situation as Bohachuk in that a loss actually makes him more alluring for a world champion to accept. Losing a fight did not hurt contenders like Sullivan Barrera or Sergey Kovalev.

Akhmedov, 26, meets Peru’s David Zegarra (34-5, 21 KOs) in an eight-round bout in the semi-main event. It should be interesting.

Rounding out the rest of the heavy duty card will be undefeated Adrian Corona (7-0) fighting undefeated Danny Robles (7-0-1) in a super featherweight six round bout. Also, undefeated female lightweights Elvina White (5-0) and Chelsey Anderson (3-0) clash in a four-round bout.

A special amateur feature pits national champion Chantel Navarro against Daniela Rojas for a special title to open the show that encompasses a total of eight pro bouts. Doors open at 4:30 p.m.

Previously 360 Promotions staged its boxing cards at the Avalon Theater in Hollywood, but they outgrew that venue. The Quiet Cannon venue in Montebello had been used for a couple of decades for boxing quite successfully. Now, 360 Promotions has picked up the gauntlet to provide boxing to that area in one of the best venues in Southern California.

For tickets and information go to: https://hollywoodfightnights.festivalsetup.com/ or to @360 Promotions on Instagram.

Coming Soon

Aside from Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder meeting on Oct. 9, at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, several other shows are coming down the pike.

Oct. 15, at the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, Calif. a Top Rank show brings WBO featherweight titlist Emanuel Navarrete (34-1, 29 KOs) of Mexico defending against Southern California’s Joet Gonzalez (24-1, 14 KOs). Also on the same card, San Diego’s Giovani Santillan meets Angel Ruiz

Las Vegas

Two weeks apart, two of the top Pound for Pound fighters in the world invade Las Vegas for their piece of the boxing pie.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs) shoves in all his multiple world titles against Caleb Plant (21-0, 12 KOs) and his IBF super middleweight belt in an attempt to claim the undisputed super middleweight world championship on Saturday Nov. 6, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Canelo has three of the four belts not including those he took at light heavyweight. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade but the Mexican redhead doesn’t care. Plant is a right-handed version of Billy Joe Saunders and will use the exact same method of attack.

Terence Crawford (37-0, 28 KOs) defends the WBO welterweight title against Shawn Porter (31-3-1, 17 KOs) on Nov. 20, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The Nebraska welterweight finally gets an opportunity to prove he’s at the top of the welterweight rung when he meets Porter. It’s a very good chance to compare how Crawford stands against Errol Spence Jr. who barely defeated Porter a couple of years ago in Los Angeles.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. UFC Fight Pass 7 p.m. Serhii Bohachuk (19-1) vs Raphael Igbokwe (16-2).

Sat. Fox S1 4 p.m. Jose Valenzuela (9-0) vs Denier Berrio (22-3-1), Rajon Chance (5-0) vs Elon De Jesus (3-0).

Pictured left to right: trainer Manny Robles, Serhii Bohachuk, assistant trainer Ben Lira, Ali Akhmedov, promoter Tom Loeffler. Photo credit: Al Applerose

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40 Years Ago This Week: Sugar Ray Leonard TKOs Thomas Hearns in an Instant Classic

Bernard Fernandez

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Whoever coined the phrase that “you can’t please ’em all” might have been referring to someone like Doug Blackburn, one of the rare dissenters in assessing what he had seen during the classic welterweight unification showdown of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981, in the outdoor stadium at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace.

Writing for the Town Talk in that noted boxing hotbed of Alexandria, La., Blackburn, who saw the fight at a closed-circuit venue, wrote a column in which he offered his opinion that the matchup of two great champions in their prime “like many heavily-hyped, much anticipated meetings, failed to live up to prefight expectations. Despite Sugar Ray’s dramatic rally, neither man can be too satisfied with the way he fought.”

Yeah, well, there are still people here and there who insist that the Earth is flat and the sun revolves around the moon. But for most fight fans fortunate enough to have witnessed Leonard-Hearns I – there would be a too-long-delayed rematch, on June 12, 1989, which ended in a desultory split draw that many thought should have gone Hearns’ way – the classic original, in which Leonard, trailing on all three scorecards, staged a dramatic rally to win on a 14th-round stoppage, is a gold standard for what such megafights are supposed to be, but frequently aren’t.

Think not? In the 40 years since Leonard and Hearns made ring magic, similarly stratospheric hopes were tied to the Sept. 18, 1999, unification bout between undefeated welterweight titlists Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, which was not exactly a thrillfest when measured against Leonard-Hearns I. The outcome was tinged in controversy, true, but only because De La Hoya, mistakenly thinking he was too far ahead on points to lose on the scorecards, coasted the last three rounds and was stunned when Tito was awarded a majority-decision victory. There would be no rematch.

In a financial sense, the May 2, 2015, pairing of celebrated welterweight champs Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao obliterated all revenue records with an overall take of $600 million, far outdistancing the then-high-water mark of $50 million-plus nearly 34 years earlier for Leonard-Hearns I, when the technology for milking every available dollar from fights of that scope was still comparatively primitive. But Mayweather, an indisputably great fighter whose strengths are pinpoint counterpunching and impenetrable defense, was content to craft another workmanlike performance in handily outpointing “PacMan,” who claimed he was hindered by a shoulder injury. Both fighters greatly enriched themselves, but the fight, which was generally conceded to be four to five years past its optimal date, did little to satisfy most fans’ craving for the kind of two-way action that was promised but not delivered.

Leonard-Hearns I, on the other hand, had more than its share of exclamation-point moments, for each fighter, the most obvious being the finishing flurry in which Leonard, his left eye badly swollen and increasingly aware that the victory he had presumed would be his was becoming less and less likely, seized command in the 14th round with, depending on whose count you choose to believe, 23, 25 or 28 unanswered blows. It was left to referee Davey Pearl to rescue the dazed and defenseless Hearns after an elapsed time of 1 minute, 45 seconds.

At the post-fight press conference, Leonard, his ugly, purplish left eye and puffy cheekbone hidden behind oversized dark glasses, explained why and how he had been able to mine a vein of toughness many had presumed the 1976 Olympic gold medalist lacked.

“I was afraid of the right hand of his until the very end,” Leonard admitted of Hearns’ vaunted power. “He dropped some real bombs on me, and I knew he had another one left.

“I pulled this one out by reaching down into my guts, into my heart. I knew I was behind. I knew I had to keep the pressure up. There wasn’t anything I could do but find out what was inside me.”

Sometimes, the beauty of boxing is most illustrated by the unsightly. Leonard, whose inner iron had been glimpsed most notably in his close, unanimous-decision loss to Roberto Duran on June 20, 1980, in Montreal, demonstrated to any remaining doubters that he was so much more than the possessor of a dazzling smile, matinee-idol looks and a glib way in expressing himself.

John Schulian, the outstanding sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, described Leonard’s come-from-behind surge thusly:

After all those miles and all those smiles, Sugar Ray Leonard wasn’t pretty any more. He was a one-eyed man in an ugly fight that had nothing to do with the glitz and glamor that have been his calling card. There had been a time when he could have avoided this grim marathon, a time in the sixth and seventh rounds when he could have added Thomas Hearns to his list of victims. But the moment had passed and Hearns had escaped, and now Leonard, his handsome face a scowling bruise, was struggling for survival.

And this, from the New York Daily News’ Mike Lupica:

Away from the ring he fools you with the con man’s smile and the smooth patter and the slick attitudes about his own high finance …This is Ray Charles Leonard, child of hype, maker of millions, the 25-year-old man who will soon be the richest fighter in the history of the game. And that is why he fools you when he steps out of Dun and Bradstreet and into a pair of boxing trunks and becomes Sugar Ray Leonard. Boxing will never seem hard enough, dirty enough, bloody enough for Sugar Ray Leonard. Only in special moments will we see the man’s steel, and heart, and extraordinary ability to bang and grapple when a fight is on the line. Only when someone tries to take his title away from him will we realize there is a hoodlum inside the tuxedo.

To the winner go the spoils, or at least that is what usually happens. While Leonard added another layer to his burgeoning reputation as a special fighter, a historically significant fighter, the vanquished Hearns – not known as a fount of nifty sound bites and attention-grabbing quotes – might have gained nearly as much in defeat as had the triumphant Leonard. It had been generally conceded going in that, were the fight to end in the early rounds, it would be Hearns who would have his hand raised. If enough rounds tolled by, perhaps all the way to the conclusion of the scheduled 15, the momentum would necessarily shift to Leonard (30-1 with 21 KOs entering the bout), widely seen as a less devastating puncher than Hearns (32-0, 30 KOs) but also as a more polished stylist and executor of strategical options. That scenario was repeated so often during the run-up to the bout that it almost came to be accepted as incontrovertible fact.

Team Leonard, for the most part, rolled with the notion that Hearns was a human robot whose Plan A was to land that pulverizing overhand right, as early as possible and as often as necessary. His Plan B would be … well, there really wasn’t one, if Leonard and his crafty trainer, Angelo Dundee, were to be believed.

“This is the first time in my career I’ve had visions of a fight,” Leonard said a few days before he would get the opportunity to implement his imagination. “I see thousands and thousands of people. I see Hearns missing and being aggravated and frustrated. I see me raising my hands. I’ve had this dream, this vision, for over two months. It just has to come true.

“I’ve said Hearns fights one way and can’t fight no other way. I heard he might try to box me. I wish he would try. Hearns is a puncher. With that reach of his, well, he’s a freak, really. He comes straight at you. He doesn’t need to think.”

And if the “Motor City Cobra” did find that he might need to think?

“He’ll blow a fuse.”

Added Dundee: “Hearns might be 6-foot-2, (actually 6’1”) but he spreads his legs and that will bring him eyeball-to-eyeball with Leonard. He tries to sucker you by carrying the left real low like Bobby Foster used to do, and then he rears back and nails you with the right. But Leonard isn’t going to fall for any of those traps. It will be interesting to see what happens to Hearns if he sees he can’t take Leonard out in a few rounds. Will he panic and punch himself out like Foreman did against Ali?”

Like Ali, Leonard was a master of mind games meant to mentally discombobulate an opponent if possible. But Hearns’ manager-trainer, Emanuel Steward, had worked with Hearns since he was 12, and he insisted that Leonard’s taunts and posturing would have no effect on his guy.

“Both (Wilfredo) Benitez and Duran took a lot out of Leonard, physically and mentally,” Steward suggested. “I know that after the Benitez fight Leonard was mentally exhausted. Besides, now that he has made all those millions from all those fights, he no longer has that burning ambition. The fire is gone out of him.”

Perhaps the most prescient prefight comment came from Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali’s longtime personal physician, who insisted that Hearns was hardly the one-trick pony described by Leonard. Pacheco predicted that Hearns’ 78-inch reach, unusually long for a welterweight, would help Hearns control the flow of the fight until the proper moment presented itself for him to deliver a put-away right.

“Leonard will have to pay an awful toll to travel down that 78-inch speedway,” Pacheco said. “Thomas will control him with his long, hard jab, and somewhere along the way Leonard will move into a right hand he won’t see. It will be like a fuse going off in his brain. All the lights will go out.”

Truth be told, Steward’s fight plan did indeed call for heavy usage of Hearns’ jab, the presumed key which would serve to open the door to Leonard’s chin for that concussive right. And even if a terminating detonation of the right never occurred, what exactly would be wrong if Hearns confounded all the prefight conjecture by outboxing Leonard over the long haul? He’d still come away as the unified 147-pound champion, adding Leonard’s WBC and The Ring magazine straps to his own WBA strap. It was the same conservative mindset De La Hoya had in putting as much distance between himself and the dangerous Trinidad in those final three rounds 18 years later, with one difference – De La Hoya’s lead was not as wide as Hearns’. Leonard had won only four of the 13 completed rounds on two judges’ cards at the time Pearl waved the fight off, and five of 13 on the third judge’s tally.

But in the 14th round Hearns – who had overcome shaky rounds in the sixth and seventh to again gain the upper hand — chose to engage Leonard in another in-tight exchange, and got popped with a hard left hook that instantly shifted momentum. Leonard tore into Hearns with a renewed sense of purpose, and it wasn’t long before Pearl stepped in.

“It was kind of silly,” Duke Durden of the Nevada State Athletic Commission said. “All Hearns had to do was either stay away, or grab and hold Leonard – spit in his eye, or anything – the rest of the way, and the fight was his.”

Although he never could hope to match Leonard as a media darling, in losing his first bout as a professional Hearns demonstrated that he had ample charisma of his own, and a willingness to go for broke where it counted, inside the ropes, stamping his future fights moving as must-see events. Now 62, he is as fondly remembered for losing his epic, throw-caution-to-the-wind three-round war with Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 15, 1985, as for his spectacular, second-round stoppage of Roberto Duran on June 15, 1984.

Given all that they had shared, and the place each holds in the other’s legacy, it should not come as a surprise that Leonard was Hearns’ presenter when his former arch-rival was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in Aug. 2017.

“We’re friends now,” Leonard said in introducing Hearns. “Tommy had the whole package. He was a freak of nature with his height, with his reach, with his power, with his speed.”

FACTS ABOUT LEONARD-HEARNS I

*Main Events president Dan Duva served as lead promoter, another building block in the march toward big-time status for the New Jersey-based company, which was founded in 1979 as a mom-and-pop operation. Main Events took another major leap forward following the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when it signed U.S. Olympians Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland and Tyrell Biggs.

*Leonard opened as a 2-to-1 favorite, but by fight time enough money had come in on Hearns that he went off as a 13-10 wagering choice.

*At a Leonard workout in Vegas, Muhammad Ali was asked who he liked in the fight. “I pick Leonard ’cause he’s just like me, fast and pretty. He’ll dance circles around Hearns,” Ali replied. Then, at a Hearns workout an hour later, Ali said the Detroit scrapper “is awesome, man. Tommy Hearns is sooo big to be a welterweight. He should knock out Sugar Ray.”

*Celebrity quote of fight week came from Charo: “I think the beeg one – Hearns – will cuchi-cuchi Sugar to sleep.”

*The live attendance at Caesars Palace was 24,083, with 1,100 credentialed media members.

*Hearns’ best quote during fight week: “Everybody talks about how great a boxer Ray Leonard is, especially Ray Leonard.”

*Because of the television lights, the temperature in the ring at the time the main event started was right at 100 degrees.

*According to Emanuel Steward, preliminary negotiations for a rematch began on Sept. 21, five days after the fight. Hearns-Leonard II, however, did not take place until June 12, 1989, nearly eight years later.

Editor’s Note: Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Vol. 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, arrives this fall. The book can be ordered through Amazon.com, in hard or soft cover, and other book-selling websites and outlets.

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The Hauser Report: Oscar Valdez, Phentermine, and the Larger Issue

Thomas Hauser

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The-Hauser-Report-Oscar-Valdez-Phentermine-and-the-Larger-Issue

On September 10, Oscar Valdez successfully defended his WBC super-featherweight title with a twelve-round decision over Robson Conceicao in a bout contested under the auspices of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson, Arizona.

That’s the short version of what happened. The long version is more complicated.

After their fight was signed, Valdez and Conceicao enrolled in the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) drug-testing program. Top Rank, which promotes both fighters, forwarded their paperwork to VADA and contracted to pay for the VADA testing. This was in addition to the fighters’ mandatory participation in the World Boxing Council Clean Boxing Program (CBP).

In late-August, a urine sample taken by VADA from Valdez tested positive for phentermine – a prescription medication used as a stimulant and appetite suppressant. The use of phentermine is classified by VADA as prohibited at all times.

VADA does not adjudicate performance enhancing drug matters. It tests fighters and reports its findings to contractually mandated parties. In this instance, after receiving the test result, VADA notified Top Rank, the World Boxing Council, and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe commission of the adverse finding.

Athletes rarely say, “I was using a PED and you caught me.” Valdez didn’t either. “What I can say,” he told Mark Kriegel of ESPN, “is that I’m a hundred-percent clean fighter. I don’t know how that got into my body.”

Patrick English (the attorney who represents Valdez) voiced the view that herbal tea, innocently ingested, was the most likely source of the phentermine and that various supplements Valdez took during training are being tested for any hint of contamination. He further noted that only a trace amount of phentermine was found in Valdez’s system and that all other blood and urine samples taken from Valdez by VADA tested negative.

Those arguments aren’t persuasive. Victor Conte (the nutrition and conditioning guru whose involvement with PEDs decades ago is a matter of record) states, “There is no connection between any herbal tea and phentermine in terms of molecular structure. No tea has ever been reported as being contaminated with phentermine. Ever in history. If you google ‘herbal tea phentermine,’ a company called their product by this name as a marketing ploy. But there’s not a shred of credible evidence I’m aware of to support the notion that phentermine is present in herbal tea. There has never been a positive test associated with any herbal tea. There is zero connection between herbal tea and phentermine.”

Conte also makes the point that, in today’s world of micro-dosing, drugs quickly leave a fighter’s system. All a negative test result means is that a fighter was clean on a particular day.

But Valdez had an ace in the hole. For purposes of drug testing, athletes are considered either “in competition” or “out of competition.” In competition begins at 11:59 PM on the night before an event.

When fighters enroll in VADA, they’re told that VADA has one prohibited list and that it doesn’t distinguish between in competition and out of competition drug use. Thus, VADA classifies phentermine as a prohibited substance at all times.

But – and this is a big but – while phentermine is banned in competition under the World Anti-Doping Agency code, its use out of competition is not prohibited by WADA.

Adjudication of Valdez’s case was left to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission (which had jurisdiction over the fight) and the World Boxing Council (whose title belt was at stake). There was one hearing overseen jointly by both organizations. The tribal commission opted to follow the WADA standard and allowed the fight to proceed without punishment of any kind. The WBC’s position was a bit more complicated because the WBC Clean Boxing Program is, in theory, guided by VADA standards and the use of phentermine – even out of competition – is a violation of the CBP.

However, WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman found a way around this inconvenience, declaring, “This substance [phentermine] does not give you any competitive advantage. It is the equivalent of having three energy drinks.” Sulaiman also noted that only a trace amount of phentermine was found in Valdez’s system.

The WBC then ruled that it would officially sanction Valdez-Conceicao as a title fight. But at the same time, it placed Valdez on probation for twelve months. In addition, Valdez was ordered to take part in and pay for several unspecified educational programs, undergo an unspecified number of random drug tests, and make a minimum of six personal appearances as a WBC Ambassador to promote and educate others with regard to principles consistent with clean boxing.

The WBC ruling ruffled a lot of feathers. Victor Conte is among its foremost critics.

“I’ve given phentermine to athletes in the past,” Conte says. “I know what it does. It’s a powerful central nervous system stimulant and one of the most effective PEDs a boxer can use. It increases heart rate and enables the heart to pump more oxygen to muscle tissue which delays the onset of fatigue and helps increase speed, strength, and stamina. It also suppresses appetite and burns calories to help with weight loss. And its use can lead to serious heart problems. Athletes in other sports are suspended for using phentermine. A player in the NBA [Lindsey Hunter] was suspended after he tested positive for phentermine. Jockeys in horse racing are suspended if they use phentermine to cut weight.”

Why does WADA allow for the use of phentermine out of competition if it has the performance-enhancing and dangerous qualities that Conte says it does?

“Let’s get real about this,” Conte answers. “First, WADA’s protocols were put in place with an eye toward protecting sponsorship dollars. Too many adverse test results are bad for business. And second, WADA’s protocols aren’t designed for boxers. If a stimulant is on the banned list on fight night and you acknowledge that it enhances performance, why would it be legal in training camp? Does this mean that someone can use all the phentermine they want up until the day of a fight? That would be dangerous and allowing it to happen would be negligent.”

“When Oscar Valdez signed up for VADA testing,” Conte continues, “he agreed to follow VADA’s protocols, which include not using phentermine in or out of competition. The WBC didn’t want to lose its sanctioning fee. The tribal commission didn’t want to lose the money that would come in from Valdez-Conceicao and future fights. It’s as simple as that.”

In 2018, Billy Joe Saunders tested positive for the stimulant Oxilofrine, which (like phentermine) is allowed by WADA “out of competition” but is on VADA’s prohibited list at all times. Saunders claimed that the Oxilofrine came from a nasal spray. The Massachusetts State Athletic Commission denied him a license to box and his planned WBO title defense against Demetrius Andrade was cancelled.

“It is the classic case of rules in one place count for nothing in another,” Boxing News editor Matt Christie writes. “The problem lies with a complete lack of uniformity across the governing and sanctioning bodies. Even more problematic is that the sanctioning bodies appear to pick and choose what rules suit them on a particular day.”

Christie is right. There are too many variables. Is there PED testing for a given fight? Which tests? Which commission has jurisdiction over the fight. Who’s administering the tests? Is a sanctioning body involved? To cite one example of an absurd situation, human growth hormone and EPO are still not on the New York State Athletic Commission’s list of banned substances.

In so far as phentermine is concerned, California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster says, “The California State Athletic Commission views the use of phentermine out of competition in the same way as the World Anti-Doping Agency. Phentermine is not a banned substance out of competition by WADA, so it is not banned by the CSAC either.”

Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett says that Nevada also adheres to the WADA list.

Does this mean that Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, Canelo Alvarez and Caleb Plant can use all the phentermine they want prior to their upcoming fights in Las Vegas as long as it isn’t in their system on the day of the fight?

“Not exactly,” Bennett answers. “Phentermine is a prescription drug so, if a fighter uses phentermine, he must declare its use on a pre-fight form and answer questions as to where he got the prescription and why he’s taking it.”

I don’t know what Oscar Valdez did and didn’t do. I do know that most of the moneyed interests in boxing couldn’t care less about protecting the health and safety of fighters except to the extent that they’re protecting their own financial interests. Clean fighters have to stand up and take control on this issue. As part of their effort, they should demand one national standard.

As Andre Ward stated during ESPN’s coverage of Valdez-Conceicao, “We can’t keep moving the goal posts.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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