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Hopkins Hoping To Avoid Bittersweet Taste of Stale Sugar

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Boxing writers are only human, so members of our curious fraternity perhaps can be excused for repeating certain mistakes, if for no other reason than force of habit. A lot of us appear ready to trudge down that potentially crooked path again as Saturday night’s HBO-televised light heavyweight unification bout between IBF/WBA champion Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) and WBO titlist Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall nears.

Consider the poll of fight scribes taken by our veteran colleague, Jack Obermayer. Of 23 media types asked to predict the outcome of Hopkins-Kovalev, a slight majority, 12, went with ageless wonder Hopkins, who turns 50 on Jan. 15, to 11 votes for the much-younger (31), much harder-hitting Russian.

Among those who grappled with the improbable notion that B-Hop might again bridge the Grand Canyonesque age gap was yours truly. This is how I called it for KOJO: “Can’t believe I’m going to the well again. Hopkins has a history of success against big punchers who come forward and try to take his head off. Will Kovalev be the guy who finally hands it to him? No. Hopkins by decision.”

Hopkins has made me appear smart more often than not. Oh, sure, I whiffed badly in going with Kelly Pavlik in 2008, but I was spot-on (and definitely in the minority) when I picked Hopkins to not only defeat, but to stop Felix Trinidad in 2001. I also correctly predicted B-Hop victories against Joe Lipsey, Oscar De La Hoya, Winky Wright, Jean Pascal, Karo Murat and Beibut Shumenov. But, in addition to the miscall on his scrap with Pavlik, I stubbed my toe in going against Hopkins in his matchups with Chad Dawson, Antonio Tarver and Joe Calzaghe. Still, I figure my perhaps excessive confidence in the Philadelphia boxing master has me mostly on the plus side of the ledger.

Face it: Boxing writers, and quite a few fight fans, are enthralled by anyone who wears a robe of greatness, even when that robe begins to get a bit threadbare. There is a hesitancy to let go of the idea that a surefire Hall of Famer has regressed to the point where he no longer can routinely dial up past glories as if he were ordering takeout pizza. But that most relentless of opponents, Father Time, doesn’t always rush onto the scene while blaring a trumpet. He frequently sneaks up on even the best of the best on little cat’s paws, stealing bits and pieces of reflexes, mobility and punching power until even the most celebrated of fighters reveals that he is, finally, past the point of no return.

Not that it’s certain, or even likely, that a still-very-capable Hopkins will suddenly fall into that familiar trap, but it has begun to occur to me that Hopkins-Kovalev could turn out to be a repeat of the Feb. 9, 1991, pairing in Madison Square Garden of 23-year-old WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris and the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. The Sugar man was three months shy of his 35th birthday and hadn’t fought since scoring a unanimous decision over the even older Roberto Duran in their rubber match on Dec. 7, 1989.

The public, and the press, had grown accustomed to seeing Leonard – who had already retired and unretired three times – pick right back where he had left off, the most stirring example being his shocking split-decision nod over the heavily favored Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987. Few people expected Leonard to fare so well; he had not fought in three years and had answered an opening bell only twice in the preceding five years. Still, that Leonard was only 30, and a comparatively low-mileage 30, in terms of professional wear and tear.

An ascending Norris figured to be a different and maybe even tougher test at that stage of Leonard’s career, but, hey, there was a widespread school of thought that this was still Sugar Ray Leonard. And so those inclined to bet with their hearts instead of their heads sent the five-time former world champion off as a 12-5 favorite. I sort of rolled with the prevailing tide, predicting a Leonard victory via ninth-round technical knockout.

I wasn’t the only one to figure Leonard’s glorious past again would serve as prologue to future triumphs. Before the fight, Thomas Hearns said, “Ray wouldn’t have picked anyone he wasn’t certain he could beat. This kid Norris has no chance.”

Norris, for his part, felt he had a very good chance. In fact, he was absolutely convinced that the ghost of the Sugar Ray that had been wouldn’t be glimpsed that evening.

“Ray is a great fighter, or at least he was a great fighter,” Norris judged. “I know he has a big edge in experience in big fights, but you know what they say about youth being served.

“No matter what he does, no matter what he says, he can’t do anything about the difference in our ages. I’ve seen the tapes of Ray when he was at his best, and I’ve seen tapes of his last few fights. It should be obvious to anyone that the Ray Leonard of today is not the same fighter as the Ray Leonard of five, six years ago. I’m stronger than him. I’m faster. My endurance is greater. I can outbox him and I can outpunch him. Really, I don’t see any way how he can beat me.”

The bout, as it turned out, went exactly as Norris had imagined. He floored Leonard in the second and seventh rounds en route to a rout on the official scorecards, which read 120-104, 119-103 and 116-110.

At the postfight press conference, Norris was almost apologetic at having won so emphatically. “It’s a sad victory because of the way the fight ended,” he said. “Ray took a pretty bad beating, and that was sad for me. Ray was my idol … still is my idol. That’ll never change.”

During his turn at the podium, Leonard announced his fourth retirement from the ring. But it would not be the one that stuck.

“I don’t listen to anyone but myself, so I had to find out for myself,” he said of his decision to test himself against the hot young kid whose attributes closely mirrored that his decade-younger self. “I’ve always been a risk-taker, and tonight I took a risk that didn’t pan out for me. This fight showed me it’s time to move on.”

Sugar Ray moved on from boxing all right, but the incessant itch to test himself required another scratch on March 1, 1997. After a ring absence of six years, Leonard, 40, came back against 34-year-old Hector “Macho” Camacho in Boardwalk Hall. As had been the case when he took on Norris, Leonard was viewed as somehow being immune to the natural laws of diminishing returns, or maybe his legion of admirers were still hesitant to let go of their fondest memories.

“Ray is an athlete,” said Leonard’s former trainer, Angelo Dundee. “Ray’s always doing something. Basketball, tennis. I understand he’s into golf now. I haven’t seen him play, but I bet he’s shooting pretty good scores. Any kind of sport, Ray picks up right away, like he’s been doing it his whole life.

“I think Ray will beat Camacho. I strongly believe that. I know what Ray can do. Macho’s thing was his speed, his quickness. Grabbing on to you. He won’t be able to do that with Ray.”

As might be expected, Leonard – who by then had become a grandfather – retained traces of a confidence that verged on arrogance. Asked if he still considered himself one of the top 10 middleweights in the world, despite his age and inactivity, he said, “Hell, yes.”

Top five?

“Yeah.”

Leonard said he was coming back, again, because “I need the attention that boxing brings. My ego is what made me who I am.” It was that ego that prompted Leonard to say that he could beat Camacho even if he was just 50 percent of his prime self, and that he would win “comfortably” at 75 percent of peak efficiency.

And if he somehow was able to reach back in time and make it to 100 percent?

“Annihilation,” he proclaimed.

His many acolytes bought into Leonard’s sales pitch, big time. Although Camacho opened as a 2-1 favorite, by fight night the line had moved so much that Leonard went off as a 7-5 favorite. He was, as always, the people’s choice.

But what happened that night was as jarring to the public’s sensibilities as had been the one-sided loss to Norris. Camacho, never noted for his punching power, had proclaimed “I ain’t running from no 40-year-old man,” and he didn’t, standing and trading in the center of the ring with no apparent fear of retaliation. And when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to stop the bout 68 seconds into the fifth round, after Leonard had been wobbled and then knocked down by two left uppercuts, it was time to bring down the curtain on a career that ranks among the grandest the fight game has ever seen. The fifth retirement announcement by Sugar Ray Leonard, the first man ever to have earned $100 million in purses, would be the one that was carved in granite, not written in wet sand.

“When I was knocked back and staggered, Joe Cortez said, `Ray, are you OK?’ And I was OK,’” Leonard said at the postfight media gathering. “Then when I went down, he asked, `Are you OK?’ I said yes again. But you know what? There was no sense pushing it. I was in trouble.”

Still reluctant to admit that his skills had faded, Leonard cited undisclosed injuries and other factors – to his right calf vs. Camacho, to his rib cage and the emotional turmoil of his divorce from his first wife, Juanita, vs. Norris – for those unsugary performances. But who could blame him for raging, raging against the dying of his once-luminescent light as a fighter?

“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were. That’s human nature,” Leonard, now 58, told me in March 2013 for a story I did for THE RING about fighters who keep saying goodbye, then hello again. “And that’s not just how highly successful people think. Everyone thinks that way.

“Most guys come back for money. They need another payday, and there are people around them feeding their egos, telling them how good they still are, because they want a piece of the action. Maybe they come back because they really don’t know anything but boxing, and they’re apprehensive about entering the next phase of their lives that doesn’t include it.

“But even if money is not an issue, and you have other options, you never lose that belief in yourself as a fighter, particularly if you’ve been to the very top of the mountain. (Being retired) eats at you. It’s hard to find anything else that can give you that high. Once you accomplish what I did against Marvin, you tell yourself, `I did it before, I can do it again.’ I felt that way about Muhammad Ali when he fought Larry Holmes. I had so much belief in Ali because of all the miraculous things he’d done, like going to Africa and beating George Foreman. But that Ali didn’t exist anymore by the time he fought Holmes.

“The reason I came back those last couple of times was because I was not happy. I was dying inside. The only place I felt truly comfortable and relaxed was in the ring. I needed that safety net. But at some point you have to face up to whatever problems you might have and deal with them. Nine times out of 10, it’s disastrous if you continue to push the envelope.”

One of these nights, if Hopkins continues to thumb his nose at Father Time while simultaneously offering it as a target for the fists of a lights-out puncher like Kovalev, he might know what it feels like to be have been Sugar Ray Leonard against Terry Norris or Hector Camacho. Will that night be this Saturday? I don’t think so, but then maybe that’s just the sentimentalist in me refusing to let go of the comfort zone B-Hop has made for me and so many others who are unwilling to turn away from yesterday in order to face tomorrow.

Photo Credit : Tom Hogan – Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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Rising Contenders Gor Yeritsyan and Cain Sandoval Stay Unbeaten at Chumash

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Rising Contenders Gor Yeritsyan and Cain Sandoval Stay Unbeaten at Chumash

Two Southern California-based fighters cracked the top 10 list on Friday in Central California on the 360 Promotions card.

Armenia’s Gor Yeritsyan (18-0, 14 KOs) captured the WBC Continental Americas welterweight title with a steady and persistent attack against defensive-minded Quinton Randall (13-2-1, 3 KOs) of Texas at Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, California.

“This is my first step,” said Yeritsyan (pictured with promoter Tom Loeffler). “Remember my name.”

Yeritsyan was always on attack but had prior knowledge and preparation under trainer Freddie Roach for the counter-punching style of Randall. He pounded away while rarely unleashing more than three-punch combinations. It was effective.

Randall was never over-run by the strong Armenian fighter but he rarely stepped into an offensive mode. That cost him over the 10 rounds and all three judges scored for Yeritsyan who captured the WBC title and will now be ranked in the top 10.

“My opponent was a very good boxer,” Yeritsyan said of Randall.

In a super lightweight match, young firebrand Cain Sandoval (12-0, 11 KOs) met former contender Javier Molina (22-6, 9 KOs) and had his knockout streak snapped, but still won by unanimous decision. The Sacramento fighter now has the WBC Continental Americas super lightweight title.

Molina has never been stopped and showed why over the 10 rounds. In his 15-year career despite facing knockout punchers such as Jesus Ramos Jr., Amir Imam, and Artemio Reyes, none of his losses were via knockout.

Despite a consistent Sandoval battering from the third round on, nothing seemed to penetrate Molina’s defense. But when Sandoval directed his blows to the body it opened up more opportunities and the Sacramento fighter maintained control.

After 10 rounds all three judges scored in favor of Sandoval by unanimous decision, but his knockout streak was stopped. Molina’s streak pf never being knocked out continues.

“I thought I would stop him,” said Sandoval. “I just want to win.”

Other Bouts

Central California’s Jorge Maravillo (9-0, 8 KOs) out-fought Santa Ana’s Jesus Gonzalez (7-2-1) in a six-round super welterweight fight. Maravillo, who is trained by Max Garcia in Salinas, used crisp rights to batter the gritty Gonzalez especially inside.

Maravillo was sharp throughout the fight and though his knockout streak was snapped it took a determined Gonzalez to gut out the fight after being dominated in the fifth round. All three judges scored it 60-54 for Maravillo.

Upland, California’s Daniel “Chuckie” Barrera (5-0-1) floored veteran Jonathan Almacen (7-10-3) twice in the second round with lefts. The end came at 2:35 of the round when Barrera knocked out the Filipino fighter with a left hook in a super flyweight match.

Cuba’s Osvel Caballero (5-0, 4 KOs) was too sharp and too strong for Jason Buenaobra (10-10-3) and won by stoppage at 2:22 of the fourth round in a featherweight fight.

A super bantamweight clash saw Mexico’s Alfredo Castro (10-0, 7 KOs) and Riverside, California’s Ezekiel Flores (4-3) engage in a back-and-forth battle for six rounds. Castro could not miss with the right cross and Flores could not miss with uppercuts. But two knockdowns by Castro proved the difference and he won by unanimous decision after six exciting rounds.

Photo credit: Lina Baker

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 274: Yeritsyan vs Randall at Chumash Casino, Japan and More

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Violence of an organized nature begins in the rustic and peaceful surroundings of Santa Inez, California as welterweights Gor Yeritsyan and Quinton Randall headline a 360 Boxing Promotions card at Chumash Casino on Friday.

Hours later, three world championship fights erupt in Japan. And hours after that, super middleweights tangle in Florida.

All will be streamed.

Undefeated Yeritsyan (17-0, 14 KOs) meets Randall (13-1-1, 3 KOs) for the WBC Continental Americas title on Friday, Feb. 23, at Chumash Casino. UFC Fight Pass will stream the 360 Boxing Promotions card.

Others on the card include undefeated super lightweight Cain Sandoval (11-0, 11 KOs) meeting Javier Molina (22-5, 9 KOs) in a battle set for 10 rounds. It’s a stronger test for Sandoval who has blasted out every opponent. Molina is one of the fighting twin brothers who both were Olympians.

Javier was an Olympian in 2008 for the USA and Oscar Molina an Olympian for Mexico in 2012.

“I’ve been hearing about Cain for a while, but I know my skills and experience will give me the victory,” said Molina who fights out of Los Angeles.

Sandoval, 21, last November won by knockout in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“Javier is a very good veteran who has had many more fights than me, but he’s never felt my power before,” said Sandoval who fights out of Sacramento.

Chumash Casino is located near one of the old California missions and built by the Spaniards in 1804. You can see open land for miles with the next nearest town of Solvang a short driving distance away.

Over the decades I’ve seen some memorable fights including Timothy “Desert Storm” Bradley’s wild victory over Manuel Garnica in 2007 and Seniesa “Super Bad’ Estrada’s pro debut win in 2011 against Maria Ruiz.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Tokyo Hosts Three World Title Fights

It’s a triple-header in Tokyo for real fight lovers.

Early Saturday morning at 1 a.m. (Pacific Time) three world title matches headed by WBC bantamweight titlist Alexandro Santiago (28-3-5, 14 KOs) of Mexico defending against Japan’s Junto Nakatani (26-0, 19 KOs) take place.

Santiago defeated legendary champion Nonito Donaire last July in Las Vegas in an upset. He also fought to a draw against Filipino slugger Jerwin Ancajas who is also on this card.

Nakatani is a big hitter and two-division world champion. He is very familiar with Mexican fighters and often trains in Southern California. I saw him in Maywood, California a year ago. He’s quite a fighter.

In the other co-main event WBA bantamweight titlist Takuma Inoue (18-1, 4 KOs) defends against former super flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas (34-3-2, 23 KOs) of the Philippines. Its speed against power.

A third co-main features WBO super flyweight titlist Kosei Tanaka (19-1, 11 KOs) defending against Mexico’s Christian Bacasegua (22-4-2, 9 KOs).

ESPN+ will stream the card live on Saturday.

Matchroom in Orlando

It’s a showcase for contenders.

Brooklyn native Edgar Berlanga (21-0, 16 KOs) “the Chosen One” meets United Kingdom’s Padraig “the Hammer” McCrory (18-0, 9 KOs) in the super middleweight main event on Saturday, Feb. 24. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card from Orlando, Florida.

Berlanga, of Puerto Rican descent, burst on the pro boxing scene by knocking out 16 consecutive foes. But ever since 2021 he has been unable to win by knockout. Five consecutive opponents went the distance.

Can Berlanga still punch?

Facing the Boricua slugger will be McCrory a 35-year-old from Northern Ireland who remains undefeated. To put it into perspective, the United Kingdom is filled with very good super middleweights and none have beaten McCrory so far.

Also on the card is Cuban Olympic gold medalist Andy Cruz (2-0) defending a regional lightweight title against Mexican southpaw Brayan Zamarripa (14-2, 9 KOs). Cruz has blistering speed and an aggressive style as a pro.

Other interesting fights feature bantamweight prospects Antonio Vargas (17-1) and Jonathan Rodriguez (17-1-1). Both can punch but each lost via knockout. Whose chin will prove sturdier in this clash?

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Time)

Fri. UFC Fight Pass 7 p.m. Gor Yeritsyan (17-0) vs Quinton Randall (13-1-1)

Sat. ESPN+ 1 a.m. Alexandro Santiago (28-3-5) vs Junto Nakatani (26-0).

Sat. DAZN 4 p.m. Edgar Berlanga (21-0) vs Padraig McCrory (18-0).

Photo: Tom Loeffler is flanked by Javier Molina and Cain Sandoval. Photo credit: Lina Baker

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