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Why ‘The Old Mongoose’ Means So Much To Me

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The framed poster, from a fight card staged on Aug. 18, 1944, in San Diego, Calif., had yet to be picked up by its owner from the custom frame shop in the leafy Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, Pa. It was lying against a wall behind the counter when Philly-based promoter J Russell Peltz, an avid collector of vintage boxing memorabilia, saw it and decided it would make a nice addition. So he asked the proprietor, who did all of Peltz’s framing, to whom the poster in question belonged.

As it turned out, I was that owner. Ironically, it had been Peltz who, in response to a question I had posed to him several days earlier, had suggested I bring a boxing item that was near and dear to me to that particular shop.

“I’ll give you $300 for that poster,” Peltz told me the next time we spoke. I presume his offer was in addition to the cost of the framing, which was a bit pricier than what you might expect at a shopping-mall frame shop.

“Not for $300,” I told him. “And not for $3,000.”

Probably not for $30,000, either, although in these difficult economic times, I might have had to consider an offer so exorbitant that no memorabilia collector in his right mind, unless he was Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or George Steinbrenner, would have made. But this poster was special to me, and not just because the main event, in large block print, hyped a main event in which evolving legend Archie Moore was to take on Jimmie Hayden.

It was a name, in smaller print, listed below “The Old Mongoose’s” that set this poster apart for me from so many others made distinguished by the Hall of Fame-level fighters at the top of the card. Two bouts – listed by promoter Onyx Roach as “Double Semi-Final –Each 6 Rounds” — advised would-be attendees that Bill Campbell was be swap punches with Kid Hermsilla, and that Jack Fernandez was paired with Jimmy Hatmaker.

Jack Fernandez’s given name was, in fact, Bernard J. Fernandez. The eighth of eight children born to Lillie Fernandez and her husband Emile Fernandez Sr., Jack’s lengthy and quite accomplished amateur career was forged in large part during the Great Depression, as was the case with so many fighters in those days. His nickname was conferred upon him by observers who thought his crouching, attacking style was somewhat reminiscent of Jack Dempsey’s, and his many friends continued to call him Jack until his death, at 74, on March 4, 1994. For purposes of this story, let it be noted that the fighter’s full name underwent a slight renovation when he became Bernard J. Fernandez Sr., after his only child, a son, was born amidst the howling winds and flooding storm surge of a hurricane (the National Weather Service had yet to begin naming them) that struck Jack’s hometown of New Orleans, La., on Sept. 21, 1947.

That poster is not the only memento I have of my father’s brief professional boxing career, but it is the most treasured and now something of a family heirloom, to be passed down to one of my two sons after I, too, receive the eternal 10-count. There also is a belt buckle with Jack’s name engraved on it, for winning an amateur tournament of some importance in New Orleans, and a raft of yellowing newspaper clippings that have had to serve as the only portals I have into his boxing past, as there are, to the best of my knowledge, no tapes or film clips existing of his six pro bouts (final record: 4-1-1, with one knockout victory). One clipping tells the tale of Jack, then in the Navy and in training in Corpus Christi, Texas, for his World War II sea duties, scoring an electrifying knockout victory over a local fighter, Manny Gonzales.

“Fernandez, fighting in a crouch, literally won the fight with the first punch he threw – a stunning left hook to the jaw – which sent his opponent crashing to the floor for the count of nine,” the story recounted. “Fernandez’s sharp left hooks and powerful rights found their mark repeatedly the remainder of the first round and only the sheer gameness enabled the Corpus Christi idol to last the round.

“Early in the second round Fernandez floored his foe again with a hard right to the left ear. Gonzalez staggered up at the nine count, but the New Orleans slugger tore in for the kill and finished the fight with a right smack flush on his opponent’s jaw.”

Another article, written for a New Orleans newspaper by the paper’s future sports editor, Art Burke, who also was serving in the Navy, read, in part:

“We had a monthly `smoker’ here at the gymnasium (in San Diego) Wednesday (which opened with the returns of the Conn-Louis fight) and one of our New Orleans Reservists, Jack Fernandez, fought on the eight-bout boxing program and scored the only clean-cut knockout of the night. You may remember this boy since he reached the semifinals of the Sugar Bowl boxing tournament in 1940. His victory was all the more thrilling by the fact that the boy he kayoed in the second round was Utah state champion for three straight years and had not been knocked out in 75 fights.”

Perhaps, had he not spent the better part of four years in a desperate fight to avoid being killed by the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II, Jack might have had more than the few pro bouts he accepted when his damaged ship, a destroyer escort, was in San Diego and being refitted for combat. Perhaps he might have fulfilled the ring promise so many believed he had until the bombing at Pearl Harbor changed everything for millions of Americans.

Then again, my dad was a realist. His window of opportunity as a fighter had closed, or at least was closing, and, besides, his fiancee – that would be my mother – didn’t want him to expose himself to further danger, as would be posed by opponents’ gloved fists. So upon his return from WWII Jack promised her that he would give up boxing and take up a safer pursuit, which turned out to be a 27-year career with the New Orleans Police Department, where he might – and did – occasionally come up against armed felons. Go figure.

I always think of my father – well, at least more than usual – in March, around the anniversary of his death, as well as in June, when the annual International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend is staged, and in December, because that is a month that has special significance to me because of his link, however tenuous, to the great Archie Moore. They appeared on the same card just that once, Archie knocking out Hayden in three rounds while my dad – in his final pro bout — and Hatmaker had to settle for a one-round technical draw after an inadvertent clash of heads left both men with nasty gashes that left them unable to continue, at least in the eyes of the ring physician or the referee, as the case may be.

As a child who worshipped his father, and came to love boxing because he loved it so, I remember asking him if he knew Archie Moore, given a moment in time when they shared the same stage at more or less the same time. Jack said no, that the Mongoose was probably having his hands wrapped when he and Hatmaker were butting heads like frisky mountain goats. But I always chose to believe that Archie had slipped out of his dressing room to catch a glimpse of the left-hooking sailor from New Orleans who, in my mind, surely was winning his bout with Hatmaker until the inopportune butt deprived him of the victory to which he surely headed.

Many years later, when Moore was training George Foreman in the second stage of Big George’s remarkable career, I might have had the opportunity to query him about that long-ago August night in San Diego. But those interviews were always in group sessions, with other reporters present, and I thought it unseemly to take up part of the available time with so personal a question. Then again, it could be I just preferred to preserve my own wishful version of what had or hadn’t happened. And in that version, Archie Moore was as big a fan of Jack Fernandez as Jack Fernandez was of Archie Moore.

Until the day he died (more on that a bit later), my father always contended that I had achieved more in boxing that he ever had. It was, of course, a crock. He made his mark with blood and sweat and the kind of courage all fighters have to find within themselves when the going gets tough, while I typed away on a portable word processor, crafting stories about individuals who risked so much more than I ever had, or ever could. Jack was my hero, my role model, and a better man than I was then, or am now.

To repay the debt I always believed I owed him, for basically giving me my career as a boxing writer born of together watching so many “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” TV fights on Friday nights on our little black-and-white home screen, I flew dad to London, his only trip to Europe, for the Lennox Lewis-Razor Ruddock fight on Oct. 31, 1992. He also accompanied me to Las Vegas, for the rematch of Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock on June 28, 1991. They were the kind of big fights, on brightly lit stages, that I suspect he always hoped would have been his destiny under different circumstances.

TSS readers know that I sometimes write about the anniversary dates of certain fights that should be remembered regardless of how much time has passed since they occurred. In recent months I have authored pieces on Rocky Marciano and the Spinks brothers, among others. It is perhaps a concession to my senior-citizen status that I more cherish the memory of classic bouts in my rear-view mirror than some that will or might happen in the future. When I sat down to write this piece, it was to have been about watershed events that took place in December during Archie Moore’s long march into boxing history: His death on Dec. 9, 1998, in San Diego; his 11th-round knockout of Yvon Durelle in Montreal on Dec. 10, 1958, an electrifying rally in which the Mongoose weathered four knockdowns before turning the tide, and his long-delayed winning of the light heavyweight title, after 16 years as a pro, on Dec. 17, 1952, when he outpointed Joey Maxim over 15 rounds in St. Louis, Mo.

Then I looked up at the poster hanging in my home office, and my approach changed, something akin to Muhammad Ali deciding on his own that what later came to be known as the “rope-a-dope” might work better against the heavily favored George Foreman in Zaire than the presumably more sensible stick-and-move strategy that had been laid out by trainer Angelo Dundee.

The International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015 was announced on Thursday, which also has special significance to me because there wouldn’t even be an IBHOF in Canastota, N.Y., were it not for the fact that that central New York village’s favorite son is the late, great Carmen Basilio, who happened to be Jack’s favorite fighter in the 1950s. It stood to reason that Basilio was my favorite fighter, too, during my early grade-school years, with Jack and I cheering him from the semi-comfort of our cramped living room whenever the “Onion Farmer” was appearing on those Friday Night Fights telecasts.

Canastota also was a favored destination of my dear friend Angelo Dundee, who was to the IBHOF what the Pied Piper of Hamelin was to the children who were so drawn to the sounds of his magic flute. Every time Angelo, who died on Feb. 1, 2012, returned for IBHOF induction weekend, fight fans surrounded him, in part because of who he was and what he meant to boxing, but also because even in a minute of pleasant conversation he could make everyone he encountered feel like a friend of long-standing.

Jack had his own moment with Angelo, which actually was an hour and a half in duration. During the trip my dad and I made to London for Lewis-Ruddock, we came down for breakfast at the White House Hotel in the Kensington section and ran into Angelo, who was also staying there. The three of us shared a table, ate a little and talked a lot, with Jack and Angelo exchanging tales, as fight people are wont to do. Angelo’s two most famous pupils, Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, were topics of discussion, but not as much as Basilio and two champion fighters from New Orleans Ange had also worked with, Ralph Dupas and Willie Pastrano. It was the happiest I had seen my dad during that trip; by then his legs were giving him trouble, he tired easily and he either couldn’t complete or begged out of standard sightseeing ventures to the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Whenever I’d speak to Angelo thereafter, he inquired after Jack. One day in 1994, however, I had to tell him that my father had passed away, during the last and worst of his several hospitalizations for cardiac problems. My mom, Alice, had called to say that I needed to get to New Orleans as quickly as I could, that this one was serious. The emergency trip from Philadelphia lasted the better part of six hours before I made it to East Jefferson General for what would prove to be the last hour of Jack’s life. It was then that I was informed that my father, in terrible pain, had refused medication that would have eased his suffering because he didn’t want to be unconscious or unresponsive when his son made it to his bedside. To this day I am convinced he held on in those figurative championship rounds until I got there.

As I recounted the particulars of Jack’s most heroic battle, which he lost only on the ultimate judge’s scorecard, the usually upbeat Angelo turned serious. “I’m not surprised,” he told me. “Your dad was a fighter.”

So it doesn’t matter much whether Archie Moore and Jack Fernandez actually met. They probably didn’t, and I know for sure Jack and Carmen Basilio never spoke. To me, they, and Angelo, are all part of a broader mosaic that comprises the fabric of my life. As far as visitors to the IBHOF are concerned, only Archie, Carmen and Angelo are Hall of Famers. Most wouldn’t have a clue that a fighter named Jack Fernandez ever existed.

But a plaque on a wall shouldn’t be all there is to certify a Hall of Fame life. As I look upon the framed poster that is at once my proudest possession and the standard of personal conduct to which I constantly aspire, I understand that some memories can’t, and shouldn’t, come with an attached price tag.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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