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Don King: The Last Roar of the Lion in Winter?

Bernard Fernandez

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It has been a remarkable run for a remarkable character, truly an American original, unique even by boxing’s fast-and-loose, anything-goes tolerance and even compliant acceptance of outrageous behavior.

But Don King, he of the electrified hair, bombastic personality and streetwise cunning, has slowed down from full-throttle manipulation of boxing to a minor role that seems to shrink with each passing day. The “Teflon Don,” as he once was dubbed for his ability to unstick himself from the many lawsuits filed against him, is 83 now, a graying lion in winter. Forty-plus years of wheeling and dealing can sap the vitality from even the most driven of alpha males, and especially so if the aging go-getter is an octogenarian who no longer is dealing from a position of near-absolute control.

That familiar, bellowing roar – well, more of a heh-heh-heh cackle – now comes with the volume turned low. At least the message being barked out isn’t reaching as many listeners. Maybe that is because the man himself is simply tuckered out, and maybe because his depleted stable of fighters is basically down to one lead pony that, upon further inspection, is lacking the regal bloodlines and staying power of many of his predecessors. But regardless of their place in boxing’s pecking order, King’s fighters during his glory days were obliged to pledge fealty (and hefty percentages of their purses) to the boss as a condition of their servitude.

Some observers have made the mistake of writing off King in the past, but whenever it appeared he was becoming less relevant, he simply found a way to restock his talent pool with a fresh influx of elite attractions, more than a few of whom were lured away from rival promoters. If it is indeed possible for a slick enough huckster to sell sand to Bedouin tribesmen, it was a near-certainty that DK would find a way to run the largest, most profitable concession stand in the desert.

All of which makes tonight’s Showtime-televised pairing at the MGM Grand King’s last, best hope for an important toehold in the sport, WBC heavyweight champion Bermane “B. Ware” Stiverne (24-1-1, 21 KOs), and challenger Deontay Wilder (32-0, 32 KOs) more notable than it might be solely on its pugilistic merits. Should Stiverne – a 36-year-old Haitian, formerly based in Quebec City, Canada, now living in Las Vegas – lose a fight that is by no means a sure thing either way, it could have the effect of ushering King off to the side, once and for all.

But if King is indeed on his way out, he’s going the same way he came in, with heaping measures of defiance, bluster and bullspit.

”This program is America’s return to glory in the heavyweight division,” King harrumphed, ignoring the fact that only one fighter, the one he doesn’t control, is a United States citizen. “It’s going to be a great event. This is a fight to bring boxing back to where it should be, and the glory back to the heavyweight division that has been lacking for quite a while now.

“A guy named Bermane Stiverne is an extension to (Mike) Tyson – awesome, brutal, a devastating puncher.”

Perhaps Stiverne will be all of that on Saturday night, or at least show flashes of the form King has assured everyone he possesses in sufficient supply to be compared to iconic heavyweights Tyson, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, all of whom His Hairness promoted at one time or another. But it seems more plausible that Stiverne is a cut or two below that uppermost tier, more in line with such King roster-fillers as Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Bonecrusher Smith, Tony Tubbs and Tony Tucker, talented bench guys whom he had rounded up primarily to serve as opponents for his marquee attractions. It was standard practice for King to arrange title fights between two of his fighters, assuring that the only guaranteed winner after the last punch was thrown was … Don King.

It is a ploy also used by King’s longest-running and most-bitter competitor for promotional domination, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, 83, who, on the surface, is everything that King is not. But while their pre-boxing experiences are hardly identical, their management objectives are eerily similar: Always, always be the one calling the shots and directing the play.

Forget Ali-Frazier; that series was a fleeting blip on the radar screen compared to the decades-long blood feud between Arum, the “master of trickeration,” as so dubbed by King, and his hulking, flag-waving nemesis with the mountain-range coif. But it says something about the arch-rivals that they occasionally got together to do business because, well, declaring intermittent truces was good business.

A couple of months prior to the April 8, 2006, matchup of King’s Zab Judah and Arum’s Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas, the enemies-turned-temporary-allies held a remarkable press conference in Atlantic City, N.J., to not only chat up the upcoming fight, but to turn their verbal guns on a nagging irritant, then-Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, whom each considered to be a threat to their established turf.

“If you were making a chart from zero to a hundred, Bob Arum – Harvard graduate, Kennedy raider, Jewish ethnic, got the complexion for the connection – would be the most likely to succeed,” chortled King as Arum sat close by, forcing a smile.

“Don King – African-American, ex-convict, served time in jail – on (a scale) of zero to 100, it would be 100 to zero for Bob Arum. But in reality, is hasn’t been that way because I’ve been extraordinary at what I do. Us playing off each other has been a blessing more than anything. At the end of the day, only the two of us are left standing. Collectively, the rest can’t tie our shoestrings.”

In the eight-plus years since that pronouncement, Arum has separated himself from King more than Dez Bryant putting a double-move on a confused rookie cornerback lacking top-end speed. Arum’s company remains a behemoth of the industry, with a deep roster ranging from the more-established likes of Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley Jr., Nonito Donaire, Terence Crawford and Nicholas Walters to such emerging attractions Vasyl Lomachenko, Zou Shiming, Felix Verdejo and Jesse Hart … about 50 fighters in all.

And it’s not just the quantity and quality of Arum’s inventory that keeps Top Rank strong. Ever the globe-trotting entrepreneur, Arum has made Macau, China, boxing’s hot, new destination for major bouts, and the recent thawing of his company’s frosty relationship with Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy, facilitated in no small part by the departure of Schaefer, his King-like substitute as an object of derision, has further entrenched Top Rank as a major player going forward. Arum also has a successor waiting in the wings in Todd duBoef, his stepson, who for years has been groomed to keep the TR brand buffed and polished.

King’s operation hasn’t fared nearly so well by comparison.

The tried-and-true tricks King used to telling effect in the past – opening up a satchel of money, dumping it on a table, and telling a fighter raised in poverty that he had to sign multiple blank contracts with King if he wanted to leave with the booty, and maybe the keys to a new car – aren’t the guaranteed deal-closers that they once were. Nor is the race card King has been known to play with black fighters who were schmoozed into feeling more comfortable with one of their own.

Don King Productions moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan – the tony section of New York that, rightly or wrongly, perceives itself as the center of the known universe – to Deerfield Beach, Fla., in the late 1980s. Once, DKP handled a Top-Rank-sized lineup of premier fighters, necessitating a staff of around 50 to keep the operation humming. Now, the number of employees has been pared to 10 or so, with many of King’s most trusted lieutenants having either died off or, sensing the seismic shift taking place within the organization, gotten out while the getting was good.

But the man himself remains in the game, even if marginalized, even if an increasing number of former employees and associates, having broken free from his iron grip, now excoriate him as a ruthless taskmaster whose public persona is as purposefully crafted as anything that has ever been sold to gullible consumers.

Bernard Hopkins was unhappily under contract to King when he won the middleweight unification tournament with a surprise (or so some thought), 12th-round stoppage of a King favorite, Felix Trinidad, on Sept. 29, 2001. It gnawed at Hopkins that the Sugar Ray Robinson Award, which had been commissioned to go to the ultimate victor, had been engraved with Trinidad’s name before the final. And if there is anything that can be said about B-Hop, it is that he files away all real and perceived slights, and draws upon them for inspiration as needed.

When Hopkins, no longer with King, was to take on King fighter Tavoris Cloud, the IBF titlist, on March 9, 2013, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the then-48-year-old Philadelphian, who would go on to score a unanimous-decision victory, reveled in the notion that he was going to shovel the last spadeful of dirt upon the professional grave of his onetime promoter.

“I am surprised that King agreed (to make the fight) because Cloud losing to me will shut down what’s left of King’s company,” Hopkins said. “He’s pretty much down to Cloud. Cloud is Don King’s last big hope.

“Who would have thought that I would have stayed around long enough to destroy Don King? I started the process with Tito (Trinidad). Look, I made a history of beating Don King fighters. Robert Allen, John David Jackson, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, Trinidad. That’s five so far. There’s probably more.”

Nor is Hopkins the only former King fighter who has told tales of chicanery and financial improprieties of a colossal magnitude, which served to mostly enrich the promoter instead of the guy eating the punches. Former heavyweight champion Tim Witherspoon filed a $25 million lawsuit against His Hairness in 1987, alleging that he had been bilked out of significant chunks of his purses. When Witherspoon, the WBA champ, fought Frank Bruno in London on July 19, 1986, for instance, HBO paid King $1.7 million to deliver “Terrible Tim,” and the Associated Press reported that his share of the pot would be $900,000, the same as Bruno’s. But although Bruno – a non-King fighter whom Witherspoon stopped in 11 rounds – received his full guarantee, ’Spoon was handed a check for $90,094.

“It’s like we’re racehorses,” Witherspoon, who after years of legal wrangling settled with King out-of-court for $1 million, said of his role as one of the King-controlled “Lost generation of heavyweights” in the 1980s. “They race us ’til we drop and then they shoot us. And if we win, they tie a blue ribbon around our neck.”

More damning accusations were cited, chapter and verse, in “Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King,” by Jack Newfield, which was published in 1995. In the book, Newfield, who died in 2004, wrote that Muhammad Ali was shorted about $1.2 million of his contracted $8 million purse for the horrific beatdown he suffered at the hands of Larry Holmes on Oct. 2, 1980. While a clearly diminished Ali was recovering, Newfield detailed how King got a trusted Ali associate, Jeremiah Shabazz, to bring “The Greatest” a suitcase filled with $50,000 and a contract that not only precluded him from pursuing punitive damages against King, but gave King the option to promote any of Ali’s future fights. Weary and confused, Ali signed the contract and took the cash.

By his own estimation, King has spent $30 million defending himself against lawsuits, and not only those filed by disgruntled fighters. The FBI went after him for tax evasion, among other things, but King beat the rap that landed Al Capone in Alcatraz. In 1995, he beat a nine-count indictment on insurance fraud. Almost without exception, King, claiming he was the target of jealous or unscrupulous adversaries, came away unscathed.

“They went down the list of every known charge conceivable to man,” he said after outpointing the feds on the tax-evasion beef. “Racketeering, skimming, kickbacks, ticket-scalping, fixing fights, preordaining fights, corrupting judges, all the way down to laundering money. Everything but the Lindbergh baby. Instead of using me as the true attestation of the American dream, they threw the book at me.”

The book missed King, as large as he is, but maybe Deontay Wilder will land the takeout shot to Stiverne’s jaw that will finish the job so many have taken upon themselves dating back to the 1970s. Then again …

There are two sides to every story, of course, and King has an array of accomplishments to counteract the impression that he is a shameless con artist who only takes and never gives anything back to the sport that made him a legend and instantly recognizable figure here, there and everywhere. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, which is a pretty big deal, even though some critics said his enshrinement was akin to electing Willie Sutton or John Dillinger to the banking hall of fame. But, DK’s acknowledged warts aside, it is also undeniable that he has promoted more than 500 world championship fights and made millionaires (90 or so, at last count) of numerous children of poverty who were handy with their fists. OK, joke if you must about how he showed all those people how to make a small fortune: Start out with a large fortune, then watch as Don King chipped away at it with a laundry list of dubious deductions.

But even the most persistent snipers who have always taken aim at King would have to admit that boxing would seem, well, a little less interesting with him totally absent from the picture. And he was totally in the picture during his decades-long heyday, hogging more on-camera face time than even today’s most ubiquitous grandstander, Al Haymon associate Sam Watson, who is as out there as Haymon, boxing’s hermit-like Svengali, is not.

When King – who had been prohibited from doing business in Atlantic City for seven-plus years while his insurance-fraud case was pending (he finally was acquitted) – returned to the Jersey shore with a Dec. 5, 1998, show headlined by the matchup of WBA bantamweight champion Nana Konadu and popular challenger Johnny Tapia at the new Convention Center, the focus was on you-know-who. In King’s world, he is always the centerpiece, with the fighters playing support roles.

“I don’t understand this. I’m the one who’s fighting, right?” a perplexed Tapia, who claimed Konadu’s title on a 12-round majority decision, said of the prefight press conference whose prevailing theme appeared to be “Don King makes triumphant return to Atlantic City!”

King has his familiar props and mannerisms, from the electrified hair to the little flags he always waves to the brandished stogie to the malaprops he sprinkles into his every turn at the microphone or even in casual conversation. Ask him a question, about anything, and a reporter is apt to get 15 minutes of stream-of-consciousness, with King randomly dropping such names as W.E.B. duBois, Frederick Douglass, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, occasionally making you chuckle with a misstatement that, upon further reflection, seems part of a well-rehearsed act.

This was – and probably still is, even in his dotage – one very shrewd dude. When I introduced my father to him at the second Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock fight in Las Vegas, King immediately turned on the charm. “So you are the daddy of one of the boss scribes!” he bellowed, enveloping my 5-6½ father in a bear-hug.

“He must like you,” my dad said as we walked away.

“Depends on the most recent story I wrote about him or one of his fighters,” I replied.

But I wondered then, and still do, if King was playing me, the media being as susceptible to mind games and flattery as anyone else. And now Bermane Stiverne could be the last twitching fish on the end of King’s line, ready to be reeled in along with a new generation of willing and malleable reporters whose first rule of journalism is the insatiable need to find the most interesting story, and to ride it hard.

After all these years, Don King – Mr. Only in America – remains a story that can still be milked. He and I probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 110: Chocolatito, Lipinets and More

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 110: Chocolatito, Lipinets and More

In the middle of the former Aztec Empire, now called Mexico City, a series of super flyweight world championships will be staged for the entire world to see on Friday.

If this were the 1500s there would be blood. This is 2000, there will be knockouts.

Leading the charge WBC super flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada (40-3, 27 KOs) defends against former champion Carlos Cuadras (39-3-1, 27 KOs) at Gimnasio TV Azteca in Mexico City. Also joining will be Nicaragua’s Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, the WBA super flyweight world champ. DAZN will stream the card live.

Both Estrada and Cuadras want another crack at Chocolatito.

This is the second time around for the Mexican fighters. Estrada won their first encounter when they met at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. Cuadras just could not pull the trigger. Blame it on Estrada.

Cuadras, 33, has more to lose than just consciousness. The fighter known as “Principe” will be fighting in his hometown. That’s bad for business to lose in from of your home boys especially if you talk as much smack as Cuadras.

Northern Mexico’s Estrada, now 30, handily defeated Cuadras three years ago but views the Mexico City native as a stepping stone to his true target Chocolatito. The fighter known as “Gallo” wants revenge.

Back in 2012, in the city of Angels, “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Estrada met at the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. That arena no longer exists but the memories of their encounter blazed its way to most fight fans brain cells. Although under-publicized, it was one of the best fights of that decade.

Nobody knew much about Estrada at that time, but Gonzalez was in the middle of a triumphant run toward becoming the best recognized fighter “pound for pound” in the world. He would reach it against Cuadras of all fighters. But against Estrada the Nicaraguan master fighter nearly was toppled.

The several thousand fans in attendance knew they had witnessed a classic. Many wanted to see a rematch. If both win on Friday, it’s likely that rematch will take place early next year.

Chocolatito

Gonzalez (49-2, 41 KOs) meets Israel Gonzalez (25-3, 11 KOs) of Los Cabos, Mexico. Many fans thought Chocolatito was done when he lost twice to Thailand’s Sor Rungvisai. It was the knockout loss that seemed to be the clincher. But he found a solution training in the desert sands of Coachella, California and now he’s back stronger than ever.

Chocolatito ripped the WBA world title away from Khalid Yafai last February and that left fans speechless. But at 33 how much is left for this 115-pound warrior?

What better place than Mexico City to discover who emerges from the smoke?

It was here in Mexico City, formerly known as Tenochtitlan, that the Aztec empire ruled over much of North and Central America. Battles were held constantly just for practice. True story. The Aztecs would have practice wars to keep up their killing skills and lives would be lost. It still remains one of the world’s greatest fight capitals.

Another bout features WBC flyweight world titlist Julio Cesar Martinez (16-1, 12 KOs) the fiery Mexican City fighter defending his throne against Moises Callero (33-9-1, 17 KOs).

The card on Friday night will be a strong one. Don’t miss it. It all begins at 4 p.m. PT on DAZN.

Showtime

Former super lightweight titlist Sergey Lipinets (16-1, 12 KOs) moves up a weight division and battles Canada’s Custio Clayton (18-0, 12 KOs) for the interim IBF welterweight title at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Showtime will televise.

Lipinets, who trains in Los Angeles, has long sought another title shot at super lightweight and now heads into the welterweight realm and finds himself facing a Canadian fighter. You never know how good these guys are until they step in the boxing ring.

Also, on the same card, undefeated Xavier Martinez (15-0, 11 KOs) meets former world champion Claudio Marrero (24-4, 17 KOs) in a 12-round super featherweight match. Martinez, 22, may not be ready for the super slick Marrero but the Californian hasn’t had much trouble so far.

Fights to Watch

Thursday Oct. 22, UFC Fight Pass 7 p.m. Luis Torres (8-0) vs Orlando Zepeda (9-1).

Fri. Oct. 23, DAZN, 4 p.m. Roman Gonzalez (49-2) vs Israel Gonzalez (25-3); Juan Francisco Estrada (40-3) vs Carlos Cuadras (39-3-1); and Julio Cesar Martinez (16-1) vs Moises Calleros (33-9-1).

Fri. Oct. 23, Telemundo, 11:30 p.m. Belmar Preciado (20-3-1) vs Rodolfo Hernandez (30-9-1).

Sat. Oct. 24, Showtime 7 p.m. Sergey Lipinets (16-1) vs Custio Clayton (18-0).

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

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The Top Ten Flyweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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The Top Ten Flyweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

As we near the end of a lengthy series, a reminder of our criteria.

These are decadal lists, placing under the microscope the fights and fighters that occurred between January first, 2010 and December the thirty-first 2019; no fights outside these dates are considered.

Fights that occurred outside the weight class to hand, in this case flyweight, are only of passing interest – we appraise here the men who fought at 112lbs only. In doing so I utilise a number of different tools, from the video upload sites delightfully stuffed with boxing of all shapes and sizes, to the DVDs I continue to buy with inexplicable regularity to the detailed rankings helping to decipher who was who the day two contenders met.

Those rankings are from Ring Magazine from 2010 through 2012 before the founding of the TBRB allows independent rankings to be utilised for the remainder of the decade.

Finally, achievement, the who and the how, are given much heavier weight than more speculative concerns like perceived skillset and projected head-to-head predictions.

With the boring stuff out of the way, allow me to introduce you to the top ten flyweights of the decade past.

10 – Sonny Boy Jaro

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-7-5 Ranked For: 10% of the decade

The Tale of Sonny Boy Jaro is one of the great and under-told stories of the decade.  A journeyman, he also had an iron will that saw him bounce his equally iron-hewn physique from 108lbs up to 118lbs and back, fighting a busy schedule in his native Philippines and beyond. Problematically, he would also lose whenever he stepped up to elite level.

Until he ran into the great Pongsaklek Wonjongkam. That Jaro was able to beat him is astonishing.  Then ranked the world’s number eight fighter pound-for-pound, Wonjongkam was probably approaching a place where he might have been ready to be taken, but he just didn’t lose to the likes of Jaro, a type he ran into often. Jaro though, had learned his trade. He hurt the champion with the very first punch he threw and dropped him with the fourth or fifth, then he stayed right on him throwing consistent, hard punches, staying rough and aggressive. In the sixth, Wonjongkam was suddenly and finally worn, down twice, the second time dangerously under a vicious assault; the fight was waved off.

Jaro, alas, did not shake off his tendency to lose the big ones and dropped the title in his first defence. This makes Jaro’s hold on the number ten spot a little tenuous, but the fact is that nobody in contention held anything like as superb a win over so accomplished a fighter. From Daigo Higa to Artem Dalakian to Hernan Marquez, nobody did enough to supplant him.

09 – Amnat Ruenroeng

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 20-3 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

First, let’s get Amnat Ruenroeng’s 2015 defeat of John Riel Casimero out of the way. You can read about this insane parody of a prize-fight, for which Ruenroeng receives no credit, here. As I wrote at the time, “referee Larry Doggett…was very clearly guilty of, at the least, ineptitude. Like much in life that is truly ludicrous, it was funny and tragic in equal measures.”

His best win neutralised by his indiscipline, Ruenroeng’s victories of note become a little thin on the ground, but as we have seen, there is no depth of competition for these lowest slots. 2014 was his key year and in May Kazuto Ioka, one of the better 108lb boxers in the world, stepped up. It was bizarre to see the smaller man bringing the pressure while Ruenroeng maneuvered, seemingly spooked by Ioka’s beltline work and prodding straight; he found the gaps though, especially for an impressive uppercut which allowed him to hang on to Ioka’s coattails and a late rally saw him hold on to his strap in a widely judged split decision where each and every card somehow seemed reasonable.

This confusion, this chaos, is Ruenroeng’s hallmark, and whether he was throwing knees and elbows or waiting and deploying his jab, he had an air of intimidation matched by his ability to get under his opponent’s skin. Against McWilliams Arroyo he was dropped in the sixth by a winging left hook, cast adrift on the cards left and in need of five of the remaining six rounds. He got them. He got them by swapping out his cautious countering for sudden, rampant aggression and discombobulating holding and wrestling, culminating in his throwing Arroyo to the canvas in the tenth. Arroyo, furious and thrown from his rhythm, won only the last of the second six.

Ruenroeng earned supplemental wins over Rocky Fuentes and Shiming Zou and was a bubbling, vicious handful for absolutely every flyweight he ever met.

08 – John Riel Casimero

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 15-4 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

After being mugged by Amnat Ruenroeng in Bangkok, Filipino John Riel Casimero was made to wait an entire year for a rematch, to be fought on neutral territory in China. Preparation was disastrous for Ruenroeng who managed to weigh in over the super-flyweight limit on his first attempt, finally making the 112lb limit four hours later at the hotel in front of few witnesses. Whatever occurred, Ruenroeng looked sharp in bagging the first but his dark arts were firmly under the control of referee Tony Weeks, although he did manage to cast Casimero to the canvas in both the third and the fourth.

But later in the fourth, Casimero did the casting, dumping Ruenroeng into prayer position with a lighting left hook as the two twisted inside. Ruenroeng made it up but in what must rate as the most satisfying moment of his career, Casimero achieved his revenge, untidily but definitively by knockout in the fourth.

This was a good summary of Casimero in those flyweight days. He was brave and direct but sometimes disorganised; fun but a little frothy although he had more than enough though to see off future beltholder Charlie Edwards, among others. Casimero couldn’t hold the poundage long enough to make a serious dent but he is happily locked above his nemesis Amnat Ruenroeng, a real case of the good guy finishing first.

07 – Pongsaklek Wonjongkam

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-2-1 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (also known as Phongskorn Wonjongkam or Pongsaklek Sitkanongsak) is the greatest flyweight on this list – but as far as the decade goes, we capture only the last meaningful wins of a once pre-eminent fighter’s career, followed by his shocking loss to Sonny Boy Jaro. Behind that loss, Wonjongkam achieved no other wins of interest and in fact managed to throw in another shocking loss.

In 2010 though, Wonjongkam was holding onto the very last of it and in the ring with the division’s number one contender no less, Koki Kameda. In an impressive veteran’s performance, Wonjongkam won clear, despite the inexplicable drawn card found by judge Predrag Aleksic. He can be seen punishing Kameda for even minor transgressions in positioning, finding him with punches if Kameda moved across him rather than taking a half step back and going across him, forcing Kameda to circle more widely, taking more steps than he would have wished, forgoing the range and movement he appeared to have trained for. Perhaps not unrelated was Pongsaklek’s strong finish. Despite being the more shopworn of the two, he dominated the late action.

A year later, Wonjongkam met the final ranked contender he would defeat in his storied career in the form of Edgar Sosa, a near peer, a man born just two years after him who nevertheless had fought just over half the contests. It showed. Once more Wonjongkam finished the fight the stronger of the two in winning a wide decision victory fighting at a fast pace but he earned that right by out-hitting his fresher opponent throughout the entire contest, by wasting little, by knowing where his opponent was at almost all times. These behaviours are learned rather than taught and it was wonderful to watch a master of them ply his trade.

Not so much that Wonjongkam could be installed at number six though; he does post losses to Jaro, perhaps the least likely true champion since James Douglas, and then Rey Megrino, a professional loser of the type Wonjongkam had been beating up for walking-around-money for years. Still, his sun setting on the era was one of the events of the flyweight decade.

06 – Kosei Tanaka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 15-0 Ranked For: 11% of the decade

Kosei Tanaka stepped up to 112lbs early in 2018, quickly tested the water versus the overmatched Ronnie Baldonado, then steamed headlong into Sho Kimura and the fight of the flyweight decade.

Writing about Tanaka back in 2015 with his record at just 4-0, I named him the world’s brightest prospect but pointed out that his mobile but aggressive style was a demanding one. “Does he have the engine for it?” was my question. “If he does, will he hold his power late enough for it to matter?”

Tanaka answered the first of these questions gloriously and forever against Kimura. Kimura, at that time the world’s number two contender, is a granite-jawed pressure fighter with the type of insistent pressure that only elite power can dissuade. Tanaka whaled on him early, a glorious left hook to the body his main power shot, but straight punches and dashing hooks were sprinkled liberally throughout. Tanaka has delightful footwork but rather than moving (some short late spells aside) he used it to form a tight, constricting circle while throwing serious punches with a fluidity which would have pleased Roman Gonzalez. Kimura, ceding rounds early, nevertheless threw return punches relentlessly, himself a technician of no small note.

Re-watching them for this article (and for any other reason I can think of) I had the sense that each man’s punch resistance relative to the other’s power meant they could barely hold one another’s punches comfortably enough to retain form and no more; slightly more power on either side would have upset the rhythm of this glorious fight. As it was, each hurt the other but once, Tanaka bending Kimura’s knee briefly in the second, himself stalling under the fuselage that was the height of Kimura in the twelfth and final round.

A lifelong atheist, I occasionally pray for a rematch.

Also, in my 2015 appraisal of Tanaka I claimed that his power would remain a limiting factor – that “I don’t think he will ever be the kind of fighter to be rescued by his power.” One of the great glories of following Tanaka’s career has been watching him emerge as a puncher, not a darkening one, but something more than just stinging, too. He proved this most of all in August of 2019 against number ten contender Jonathan Gonzalez. Gonzalez is far from impossible to stop, the trick has been pulled twice before but it was Tanaka’s relentlessness that impressed me as much as anything else. He determined to apply pressure to a moving opponent and at some point around the sixth his technically sound punches morphed into technically competent meathooks. Gonzalez went from moving to outright fleeing to being lashed to the canvas by a body-attack that is painful to watch.

One suspects the next flyweight decade will belong to Tanaka.

05 – Akira Yaegashi

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 16-5 Ranked For: 15% of the decade

Akira Yaegashi wasn’t really a flyweight but a Japanese superfight with Toshiyuki Igarashi was impossible to turn down; Yeagashi won and found himself on an exciting, enriching and impressive flyweight adventure as well as the legitimate flyweight champion of the world. It made his legacy.

Igarashi just didn’t have the power to keep Yaegashi under control, nor the silk to throw fluidly enough on the move to consistently outscore him, so the fight devolved into a brutal and aggressive shoot-out, a fight that Igarashi could not possibly hope to win. Yaegashi was the champion of the world. He beat up a wilted Oscar Blanquet in his first defence and then matched the number three contender, Edgar Sosa, a tough fighter in the best form of his life.

Yaegashi thrashed him. This fight was a little different, the Japanese working to keep one step ahead of his opponent, but generally speaking, he was a shark in the ring, irrefutable upon smelling blood but vulnerable when he ran up against superior firepower. Such was his fate in 2014 when he ran into the irresistible Roman Gonzalez in the absolute prime of his career.

He immediately dipped back down to 108lbs, where he probably belonged, re-emerging briefly at flyweight in 2019 where he suffered another loss. More of Yaegashi, who may prove to be underrated in a pound-for-pound sense, next time, but credibly cracking the top five at 112lbs is no mean feat. It will be his highest divisional ranking.

04 – Brian Viloria

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 12-4 Ranked For: 66% of the decade

It makes me uncomfortable when a fighter’s keynote win is a fighter from the division below moving up, but I make an exception for Brian Viloria in the case of Giovani Segura, who moved up from 108lbs to take him on at 112lbs in 2011. Segura was, at that time, ranked among the top ten fighters in the world pound-for-pound having twice blasted out the great Ivan Calderon and if anyone deserves the nod four pounds north it is him. Viloria though demonstrated how much those four pounds can matter, negotiating Segura’s hard-swung punches to stop him in eight one-sided but exciting rounds.

This fight came as a part of Viloria’s golden 2011/12 run and even more exciting had been Viloria’s nine round destruction of Julio Cesar Miranda five months earlier. Viloria, a powerful puncher, dropped Miranda in seven but the number seven contender came back steaming and an electric battle for territory followed, fought at pace and for the most part on the inside, a fight which Viloria won. Miranda, unable to fight going backwards, was neatly dispatched in the ninth.

Viloria looked near invincible when he was dominating but in fact he was easier to hit than is normal for an elite flyweight. This cost him later in his career when he had slowed down a bit and in truth, despite his lingering in the rankings until 2018, his last truly meaningful win came in late 2012 over the excellent Hernan Marquez. This was a painful memory for me as Hernan was one of my favourites and Viloria soundly thrashed him around the ring, dropping him in the first and fifth before stopping him in the tenth. Viloria was a fighter of real talent on offence, but a certain vulnerability meant he was always to come up short against the division’s true elite.

03 – Moruti Mthalane

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 14-0 Ranked For: 95% of the decade

South African Moruti Mthalane cracked the Ring Magazine rankings back in 2008 behind his defeat of the formerly ranked Australian Hussein Hussein. Today, TBRB ranks him at number two and although he was removed for six months for inactivity in 2013, he has spent 95% of the decade past operating as a ranked flyweight. This is astonishing.

And yet, rather like Omar Narvaez at 115lbs, although the overall career-arc is impressive, the detail feels underwhelming. In thirteen years hunting straps Mthalane has met so few Ring/TBRB ranked contenders it can be painted a deliberate strategy. In fact, Mthalane never met a fighter ranked higher than nine, which is a travesty.

Almost despite himself though, Mthalane built a solid resume in taking on lowly or unranked fighters who would reach the top of this division or who had previously made their mark. Such victories bookend his decade.

In September 2010 Mthalane posted a knockout over the budding (but ranked) flyweight Zolani Tete. Tete was unbeaten at 13-0, but Mthalane just rounded him up with an insidious pressure that must be awful for an inexperienced fighter to face, before dispatching him in the fifth. Six months later he pulled an almost identical trick against none other than John Riel Casimero.  Nearly ten years later Mthalane stopped former champion Akira Yaegashi in nine. Three different seek-and-destroy missions played out against three different opponents with ten years separating the first and the last; it is impressive stuff.

Mthalane’s legacy problem is that in between, he did so little of note, Muhammad Waseem and Masayuki Kuroda his best performances in the interim, but his longevity and his undefeated status for the decade impresses so much he is rendered at #3. That he made a victim of Yaegashi last year gets him over that line.

02 – Juan Francsico Estrada

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 28-3 Ranked For: 31% of the decade

Juan Francisco Estrada emerged from 108lbs with the brakes off, matching the world’s number one contender Brian Viloria in June of 2013 in an immediate and violent assault on the division.

Clearly unintimidated, Estrada stepped into Viloria’s wheel-house and out-fought him there, matching his armaments, and out-hitting him. It was the seventh when the divisional number one finally broke before him and the fight was a foregone conclusion from that point. Estrada did not drop another round on my scorecard.

Variety was the key for Estrada in this fight. He eschewed the jab in favour of leading with right hands, left hooks, and especially uppercuts, sometimes stepping in with the front foot and bringing up an “L” while face to face with his prestigious foe. It was a risky strategy and Estrada suffered for it in the sixth, but as he continued to mix leads at speed regardless of cost, Viloria found himself more and more on the end of punches he was not prepared to counter. Once the pre-counter was beaten out of him he fought on without real hope.

Rocketed to the very top of the division, Estrada certainly did no hiding meeting ranked contenders Milan Melindo and Giovani Segura (by then an established flyweight) and the sliding Hernan Marquez. Of these, his performance against the unbeaten Melindo most impressed me. His left, as always, weaved magic, a combination of push jabs, uppercuts, hooks, especially to the body and of course feints; but it seemed that the right spoke more forcefully than it had until this match, too. A slingy, overhand punch was perhaps the most damaging and persistent he threw, and a menacing right uppercut, though less frequent, partnered it.

A preference for the brutal, heart-rending knockout he scored against Marquez is valid but either way, it’s a resume and execution worthy of the number one spot. Sadly, he once again has to make do with number two, which is the same position he landed at 115lbs. An old adversary edged him out.

01 – Roman Gonzalez

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 25-2 Ranked For: 29% of the decade

Juan Francisco Estrada may have had the best uppercut/power-punch combination of the flyweight decade, but there were no other two-pieces, combinations or flurries of any designation where any flyweight could rival Roman Gonzalez. He is a superb puncher and perhaps the best composite puncher in the division’s entire history. His coming to flyweight was a sure reckoning.

Gonzalez had probed the division for years but arrived in earnest in 2013 against no-less a figure than Francisco Rodriguez, a component rather than a great fighter, but one who is always in great fights. Rodriguez’s Mexican approach could not stand Gonzalez though, who turned him away in seven. One year later he stood in the ring with Akira Yaegashi, the flyweight world champion.  Yaegashi had until this day demonstrated a heart of oak and elite punch-resistance but he never recovered from what Gonzalez fed him.

No fighter is more comfortable at all distances than Gonzalez and he gave a masterclass in seek and destroy when Yaegashi tried to move. Yaegashi tried to check his man’s momentum with brave forays but over and again he was out-hit, out-thought. Never was the right hand better; Gonzalez threw it in all shapes and at all ranges and at many different carefully selected targets. The glove eventually became a living feint, something that made Yaegashi flinch away in uncertainty, even as Gonzalez began to wind up the left. The referee eventually intervened after the second knockdown of the fight in the ninth round, and a new champion was birthed.

Gonzalez did good business in the top five as king, without making his claim as one of the great ones.  He staged four defences, chief among them Edgar Sosa and Brian Viloria ranked four, and McWilliams Arroyo ranked seven. He brooked no resistance, rolling over Sosa in two, outfighting a brave Brian Viloria who managed to survive for nine rounds, before finally going the distance with Arroyo. This last is the most fascinating fight of these three in that Arroyo found a way to survive.  Gonzalez ceded the opening rounds, as he often did against bigger men, but, like Joe Louis, like Ray Robinson, once he had found you, he had found you for all time. Gonzalez decoding how a man below 112lbs moves is the same as his winning the fight, going on all available evidence.

Arroyo covered up, staged resistances but he was outhit for the third through to the twelfth by four and five punch combinations, narrow, webbed punches within which net Gonzalez responded to movement with the same sensitivity as a spider detecting prey. He took the closest range against Arroyo, a good fighter, and beat him up. This is Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez distilled.

It is also the last of him as a great fighter. He remains, to this day, a good one but his final fight at 112lbs was his last where he was able to work with fighters who did not hold over him a prohibitive size advantage. When he departed the division for the richer purses at 115lbs he also broke the lineage of the longest lineal title in the world, dating back to Miguel Canto and the 1970s. It was a prestigious crown to abandon.

You sense it would have come about either way though. Roman Gonzalez could be fighting at the weight still and it is unlikely they would have found a man to defeat him – whenever he departed the division he would have taken the title with him.

The uncontested number one decadal flyweight.

The other lists:

Heavyweight

Cruiserweight

Light-Heavyweight

Super-Middleweight

Middleweight

Light-Middleweight

Welterweight

Light-Welterweight

Lightweight

Super-Featherweight

Featherweight

Super-Bantamweight

Bantamweight

Super-Flyweight

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In Defense of Julie Lederman

Ted Sares

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In-Defense-of-Julie-Lederman

Some years ago, Matt Podgorski (a former boxing official) came up with a formula for evaluating the performance of boxing judges worldwide by determining the percentage of instances his or her scores were consistent with the other two judges working the same fights. He called it the Pod Index. It was a rare effort to quasi-quantify the work of boxing judges. “Boxing and MMA judges are often evaluated based on whether or not they have had a controversial decision. This is a poor way to assign and regard professional judges,” said Podgorski in an interview with former RingTV editor Michael Rosenthal.

Matt’s Disclaimer: “We are not claiming that judges with low Pod Index scores are bad judges. The Pod Index is simply a measurement of round by round variation compared to other judges.”

Julie Lederman placed very high in Podgorski’s study. In fact, only one  veteran judge — Canada’s Benoit Roussel — had a better score.

For more information about the Pod Index, see http://theboxingtribune.com/2014/12/19/the-pod-index-a-step-in-the-right-direction/

Confirmation Bias

Some of this writer’s favorite judges, in addition to Lederman, are Steve Weisfeld, Glen Feldman, Dave Moretti, Glenn Trowbridge, Joe Pasquale, Max DeLuca, Hubert Earle, Benoit Roussel, Burt Clements, Rocky Young, Joel Scobie, Tom Shreck, Don Trella, William Lerch, Pinit Prayadsab, and Raúl Caiz, Jr. All of them have been maligned at one time or another.

Being a judge is a thankless endeavor and attention is mostly received when something controversial happens. Once a judgment is made about a bad job, that judgment influences future perceptions. This is known as “confirmation bias.”

Thus, Julie Lederman’s highly questionable scoring in the Loma-Lopez fight, though it didn’t change the result, will most certainly label her a bad judge, tarnishing her reputation despite all of the fine work she has done in the past. Moreover, it’s now fashionable to “pile on” and castigate her with a nasty Bob Arum leading the charge.

“…what kind of fight was she watching,…these judges are the craziest…I would advise any fighter I would have to ask the commission not to appoint her…” — Arum

This wasn’t the first time that Arum criticized Julie. Back in 2014, Tim Bradley and Diego Gabriel Chaves fought to a draw. Lederman scored the fight 116-112 in favor of Chaves. Arum had this to say: “She should never be allowed to work in Nevada again….Her scorecard for Chaves is an absolute disgrace …[She was appointed] because they let these [expletive] Showtime guys put a fight on the same night that we did it. They don’t have enough judges. They don’t have enough referees. They want to accommodate both parties. Why? Because they’ll do anything the [expletive] MGM asks them to do.”

“It’s easy to criticize boxing judges. But it’s not that easy to have a sound basis for the criticism. One needs to see the fight the judge saw to be in the position to rightly criticize. Critics should temper criticisms in light of the situations boxing judges are in when judging fights. And judges should likewise understand criticisms from the boxing public, however baseless these may seem.”  — Epifanio M. Almeda

Lederman, 52, is in her 24th year as a professional boxing judge. Her assignments have taken her to eight foreign countries and Puerto Rico. And she has been a fixture this year at the MGM Bubble, working 18 fights across seven shows without incident prior to this past Saturday night.

This, of course, does not excuse Julie’s scoring on Saturday (119-109 for Teofimo Lopez), but it needs to be kept in mind that she has been ranked high over the years and does not have in her past work a pattern of poor judging such as seemed to exist, for example, in Texas and which drew the ire of Paulie Malignaggi.

When she first hit the scene, cries of nepotism and politics accompanied her, but those complaints quickly evaporated. Whether she can bounce back from this controversy remains to be seen. This writer hopes she can.

Photo: Julie Lederman and her father are flanked by Henry Hascup, President of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and Aaron Davis, former President of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board

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

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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