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A Wrinkle in Time

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Three months ago, Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins raised his gnarled hand to fight the most dangerous light heavyweight on the planet. Many wondered why. Those who did so aloud found themselves rebuked by a serious man: “Have you been paying attention to my career?” I have. His career is a study in bootstrap pride and star-flung ambitions. One of his ambitions is to surpass the achievements of the Ursa Major of geriatric pugilists, Archie Moore.

Twenty years ago he was a workman toiling in the long shadows of Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney. Few saw him for who and what he was. The truth of him was obscured by more than an executioner’s hood or an alien mask. What is the truth of him? Ask him and you’ll be in for mind-bending misdirection. He knows better than you that words don’t matter. The answer has been unveiled, gradually, since he lost the middleweight crown at the ripe old age of forty. It’s in a remarkable campaign that saw him seize the light heavyweight crown at age forty-six, lose it at forty-seven, and spend the last seventeen months spanking top-ranked contenders twenty years his junior. But it’s his decision to face Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev two months before turning fifty that would make Moore tip his top hat.

“Alien vs. Krusher” was televised live from Atlantic City on HBO Saturday night. I wasn’t about to watch it from the couch. I put on a suit and boarded an Amtrak train at Boston.

The fellow traveler I shared a space with was too riveted to an iPad to acknowledge my greeting. He was watching a college football game, drinking Bloody Marys like my Camaro drinks gasoline, and cheering at turnovers with increasing bravura. Once, glancing up from Liebling’s essays, I found him in a fighter’s pose -his right fist cocked as if. He looked closer to fifty than me, but probably knew not a whit about Bernard Hopkins and what he was risking and reaching for that very day.

My seat faced backwards. For a sentimental sort who prefers books to iPads, this gives the unwelcome feeling of being pulled kicking and screaming into the future like a reluctant astronaut. I looked out the window at the things receding behind us. At Central Falls, Rhode Island a prison appeared, sprawled behind fences and great concentric circles of barbed wire. Hopkins history. The future fighter was convicted of armed robbery when he was seventeen and his name became a number. Inmate #Y4145 spent five years at Pennsylvania’s Graterford Prison thinking about life and all that comes with it. Archie Moore also did time after stealing seven dollars from a street car. Both counted those lost years as a turning point. Both found an older mentor inside, a necessary man who showed them the ropes and blessed the boxing ring and their place in it. “It was then that I made up my mind,” Moore said. “There were two ways to go, you understand, and only two.” One was surrender and single-file between cinderblocks. The other was hope and what Moore called “the glass mountain.” Hopkins knows what that is. Many who came out of big-city housing projects will tell you it’s the black man’s experience -two steps up to slide four steps down, scratching and clawing in a desperate effort “to touch that peak with outstretched fingertips.”

Moore and Hopkins made vows to climb.

It took years, but they proved their mettle as men and champions. And they wouldn’t let the formative past recede out of reach. They made it a point to visit reform schools and penitentiaries to place a strong hand on the shoulders of outcasts. They brought hope. In the early 1990s, Hopkins actually held a training camp at Graterford. “I’ve seen how Bernard inspires the inmates,” a promoter said. “I’ve seen their eyes light up. After sparring, he’ll sit down and talk to them for hours.”

I had a five-hour train ride to think about the fight and all that comes with it. Images strangely fitting flashed by the window; at times like archetypes, at times like credits in a movie trailer. Military trucks and other objets d’guerre at ease in Pawtucket and rubble strewn along the tracks in Providence called to mind the Russian puncher. Antique tractors of no use to anyone anymore, half-sunk in the ground. Somewhere near New Haven I saw cars piled like metal corpses in a dirt morgue, tires stripped, hoods open-mouthed. Only the graffiti had vitality. Crossing into New York City brought plenty -of graffiti, not vitality. Some of the tags took on a power of suggestion that a subtle-minded theorist like Hopkins would not miss: “Solo” “Shock” “Bard” “Stoic” “Distort” “Duzzit” “Ready”. One was not so subtle. Toward the end of a sun-splashed tunnel, twenty-feet of sharp angles and pastel green went racing by that read “Alien Intelligence.”

It got my hopes up.

In 1952, A.J. Liebling boarded this train at Penn Station when he covered Jersey Joe Walcott’s world title defense against Rocky Marciano in Philadelphia. Across the aisle from him was a contingent of Brocktonians laying 5 to 1 odds on their hero. “They might have been either union officials or downtown businessmen,” he observed. They were on the train with me, sixty-two years later, only the subject was less stirring than a championship bout and less historic than Hopkins’ battle against two destroyers in Time and Kovalev. “The Eagles lose their quarterback. The Giants can’t get out of their own way,” said one. “They’re supposed to have this lightning quick offense and they’re fumbling on their own line!” said another. I yawned.

At 4:10pm, I disembarked with Liebling’s book where Liebling did at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Before boarding the New Jersey Transit to Atlantic City, I scanned the concourse for some tribute to Hopkins, a statue maybe. I found one, though it was a memorial to other warriors from a greater war. “Angel of the Resurrection” by Walker Hancock features a forty-foot bronze Archangel holding up a fallen soldier. It was dedicated in August 1952. Liebling waddled past it only a month later on his way to the Municipal Stadium where he would witness “old man Walcott” collapse at Marciano’s feet. In September of 1955, he would witness the Ole’ Mongoose himself in the same undignified position. Both fell and could not get up.

I saw Youth deck Age yet again when Kovelev slung a right hand like an iron ball on a chain. It landed, literally and figuratively, on the temple of the Philadelphian.

But the Philadelphian got up.

Flying Objects
Kovalev’s tendency to sling first and think later was tempered by a masterful strategy. He began with a statement of power to keep Hopkins at bay. It worked. After Hopkins was decked, he adjusted his distance from the perimeter (only a half-step away from Kovalev’s chin) to just off the perimeter (a full step outside Kovalev’s reach). This adjustment was made early and told the story of the fight.

By round five, Nazim Richardson knew what was happening. He saw very human impulses of self-preservation. “You’re not trusting your weapons,” he told Hopkins in the corner. “Relax, get inside, and smother.” But Hopkins could not relax and had no inclination for close encounters of that kind. Kovalev only had to feint to send thirty years of drills into complete disarray. Jabs likewise forced the thinking veteran to think again while a debilitating body attack depleted his already suspect energy reserves. What had been well-timed invasions against lesser opponents became infrequent forays against Kovalev. He seemed content to hover.

Hopkins noted Kovalev’s strategy of stepping out of range after landing his punches, though there was more to it. When Kovalev wasn’t stepping back, he was finishing his combinations with a left hook or a jab. It’s called “finishing on your left” and Marciano’s trainer recommended it because it naturally returns the conventional fighter to the ready position. It does something else too; a left ‘going away’ is a surprise to opponents. A big right at the end of a combination registers as an exclamation point, a signal that the worst is over, and most fighters will follow it with their own attack. They don’t expect a left to pop them on the nose. Not even Hopkins could figure it out.

Plan B from Outer Space
Hopkins was forced to reconfigure his whole motherboard. As winning became more and more remote, his objective was reduced and he found new answers to new questions. He would do what neither Walcott nor Moore could do against Marciano. He would take him the distance. Kovalev, who had yet to stand around in his own sweat after twelve or even ten rounds waiting for judges’ scorecards to be read, would have to tonight. Hopkins switched into defensive overdrive and displayed a vast array of old ring foils to find an advantage. In the third round he landed a left hook to the body and at the same time swung his right foot behind Kovalev’s front foot, jammed his forearm under Kovalev’s armpit, and pushed him down. Then he raised his hands in hopes that the referee would take the cue and start a count. It was an underhanded version of the Fitzsimmons Shift, which is over a century old.

In the eighth round, Hopkins was hurt by a right hand. He sagged and stumbled like a septuagenarian in a stairwell-and what does he do? He does what he did in the first round when he got knocked down-he glances down at the canvas. It was a ploy to stunt Kovelev’s adrenalin-fueled rush with a suggestion that perhaps, just perhaps, he he’d slipped.

In the tenth round Hopkins surprised everyone. He gritted his dentures and landed a right blast that repeated all the way to the nosebleeds. Kovalev’s leg shuddered and the Russians seated near me jumped up and spilled their vodka. “Rossiya! Ataka!” they hollered as their hero resumed control of the bout.

Bernard Hopkins finished the fight going to toe-to-toe with Time the Destroyer and getting the worst of it. The crowd roared. I saw the glass mountain. I saw an old black man scratching and clawing in a desperate effort to touch that peak with outstretched fingertips.

……

It was 3:26am Sunday when the New Jersey Transit pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Eleven hours earlier, I hadn’t noticed its magnificence as a work of architecture. A coffered ceiling looms a hundred feet overhead and six Corinthian columns stand at the main entrances. The design of the building combines Neoclassicism with Art Deco -old with new.

With two hours to kill before the arrival of my Boston-bound train, I lingered with the low echoes in the main concourse. The chandeliers were dimmed and it was almost deserted. Spectral shoes clacked now and then on marble floors. An off-duty conductor was stretched out on a bench, snoring like three men in a chamber.

I wandered underneath Walker Hancock’s war memorial and was reading the inscription when I sensed a presence over my shoulder. An old man stood there gazing up at the angel and the fallen warrior. I didn’t hear him approach. His skin was the color of good coffee; gray mutton chops graced his face. He was smiling, as if he knew the answers.

And then he was gone.

 


Resources include Robert Seltzer’s article “‘E xecutioner’ Visits Prison” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/3/92); Archie Moore’s “glass mountain” found in his autobiography Any Boy Can: The Archie Moore Storywith Leonard Pearl (Prentice-Hall, 1971); Charley Goldman recommendation to “finish on your left” was found in A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science (Viking, 1956). Special thanks to Jason McMann for coming through in a pinch.

Springs Toledo is the author of the newly-released book, The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora,2014,$25).Contact him at scalinatella@hotmail.com for signed copies.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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