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THE FERNANDEZ FILES: Two Ships Passing in the Night

Bernard Fernandez

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Nobody knew it then, but separate boxing matches on Feb. 24 and 25, 1989, might have made for a classic representation of the familiar two-ships-passing-in-the-night theme, even if those ships were 2,500 miles apart and one of them was sailing in the Nevada desert.

On Feb. 24 of that year, the seemingly stalled career of Roberto Duran, 37, was revived with his exhilarating, 12-round split decision over WBC middleweight champion Iran Barkley in snowy Atlantic City, N.J., a fight which the “Hands of Stone,” a 3-1 underdog, would later call “the greatest of my life.” And why wouldn’t he? Not only did the Panamanian legend capture his fifth world title in four weight classes when many were suggesting he was a shot fighter, but Barkley was coming off his championship-winning third-round technical knockout of the great Thomas Hearns, who had smoked Duran in two rounds on June 15, 1984. The Ring magazine would later select Barkley-Duran as its Fight of the Year.

One night later, at the Las Vegas Hilton, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, just 23 years old and just eight months removed from his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks, did as expected, stopping British challenger Frank Bruno in five rounds. But this was not the same Tyson who blew away Spinks as if he were a rusty trailer in a tornado; the first tiny cracks in Iron Mike’s armor were revealed, cracks that would widen and eventually split wide-open on Feb. 11 of the following year in Tokyo, when Buster Douglas took a wrecking ball to the notion of Tyson’s invincibility with his 10th-round TKO victory as a 42-1 longshot.

Given the fact that Tyson was the Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth of boxing then, most fight writers from around America and the world were in Vegas 26 years ago, their respective news organizations sending backups to A.C., or simply relying on wire-services coverage. As a courtesy to large group of reporters on hand, the Hilton had set up a spacious hospitality tent in a parking lot with the closed-circuit feed of Barkley-Duran available for those who wanted to see it.

As Duran, who had taken off nearly 40 pounds in preparation for one of the several crossroads bouts he would be involved in during his remarkable pugilistic journey, reached back in time to summon some of that old magic, a lot of us in that tent were thinking that maybe, just maybe, we were at the wrong fight site. But nobody could have known or predicted the ramifications of those two February nights in the first year of the George H.W. Bush presidency. Who could have said with any degree of certainty that Duran would fight on for 13 more years? Or that Tyson would come back from his three-year incarceration on a 1992 rape conviction a husk of his former self, still good enough and scary enough to beat fringe-type fighters but exposed against elites like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis? Could anyone who saw the young, fearsome Tyson crush Spinks have then believed that it would all end with him quitting on his stool against somebody named Kevin McBride?

When the opening bell for Barkley-Duran rang, my overriding sentiment was that I was glad I was in much-warmer Vegas, and had not been obliged to make the 65-mile trip by car from Philadelphia to Atlantic City during the worst snowstorm of the winter. A colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, Paul Domowitch, whose regular beat was pro football, had drawn the assignment, perhaps grudgingly, to drive through the blizzard to pinch-hit for me at ringside in Boardwalk Hall.

But as the rounds unfolded one by one, it became apparent to those of us at the Hilton that Duran had again found something within himself that for so long had stamped him as a very special fighter. The Duran we were watching on TV in the hospitality tent clearly had rediscovered his passion for boxing, and the exclamation point to his bravura performance came when he connected with three right hands to the jaw in Round 11, flooring a stunned Barkley for the bout’s only knockdown.

For this story, I contacted Erie, Pa.-based promoter Mike Acri, who took a chance on Duran when few believed he had much left to give after 91 bouts and nearly 22 years in the pro ranks. In his most recent outing prior to Barkley, an out-of-shape and seemingly disinterested Duran had struggled to a 10-round split decision over the unintimidating Jeff Lanas.

“People thought he was just in there to get a payday,” Acri recalled. “But I knew better. At breakfast that morning, me and him and all of our guys were sitting there eating and Roberto said, `I feel like fighting tonight.’ Right then and there I thought, `This is going to be my first world champion.’ I had no doubt Roberto would win that night.”

Others had their doubts, and plenty of them. Even though Duran weighed in at a trim 156¼ pounds, 3¾ below the middleweight limit, everyone knew that his best days were at lightweight, a division in which he just might have been the best that ever was. But Duran liked to eat, a lot, when he wasn’t in training, and he had trouble keeping the weight off as he got older. At 5-7½, he looked like a stumpy, black-haired Buddha when he puffed up to the 200-pound range, as he had in the months before he was to square off with Barkley. Acri, however, said that with Duran, appearances could be deceiving.

“In December, we got the contract,” Acri said. “Duran wasn’t that crazy with the weight then, maybe 180 or 190, but a lot of it was water weight that came off easy. The first 10 or 12 pounds came off real quick. And once he started sparring, the weight came off even quicker.

“People would say he’d get up to 220 between fights. Total b.s. Well, maybe later. But he didn’t take diuretics. He didn’t use Ex-Lax or anything like that. He didn’t trust it.”

Once he worked himself into fighting trim, though, Duran was an absolute beast. Retired AP boxing writer Ed Schuyler Jr., who like Duran is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, recalled his first glimpse of the human dynamo, on Sept. 13, 1971, in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Duran was 23-0 with 20 KOs at the time and making his U.S. debut, against a credible opponent, Benny Huertas, on the undercard of a show headlined by WBA lightweight champion Ken Buchanan.

“Huertas wasn’t a great fighter, but he was a tough guy who could have gone 10 rounds with 82nd Airborne Division,” Schuyler said. “Duran got him out of there in a flash. You could see he was evident to me that this was someone who was just born to fight. As a lightweight, Duran was the best fighter I’ve ever seen. He’s the best lightweight that ever lived, in my opinion.”

Acri shared Schuyler’s opinion that Duran, when in shape and motivated, deserved to be any best-ever conversation.

“Some people are just meant to become what they became,” Acri told me. “With Roberto, I think God said, `I’m going to make this guy a real badass. I’m going to make him a great fighter.’”

Tyson, for a more abbreviated period, bore the same unmistakable mark of greatness. He had Duran’s finishing instincts, for sure, but also the same tendency to put on a lot of unwanted weight – especially if there were complications in his personal life. And there were more than a few of those during the stretch between Tyson’s demolition of Spinks and the first of his two fights with Bruno. His marriage to actress Robin Givens had broken up, and he had replaced longtime trainer Kevin Rooney with Jay Bright, whose ineptitude in that role was starkly evident when Tyson fell to Douglas.

Believing he had been wrongly terminated, Rooney filed a $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against Tyson in the leadup to the Bruno fight, further poisoning the waters.

“I had nothing personal against him,” Tyson had said of Rooney after the legal action that ensured that the two never again would work with each other. “What he did was unprofessional, that’s all. But now the suit makes it personal. As far as I’m concerned, he’ll never have a chance of working with me again. Never.”

Perhaps, had Rooney been his chief second instead of Bright, Tyson wouldn’t have gorged himself up to nearly 260 pounds before he went into training. Like Duran, he did take the excess poundage off – he was a ripped 218 at the weigh-in – but physically and emotionally, hints were being dropped that the guy who destroyed Spinks and so many others was being transformed into a lesser version of himself. But few picked up on the evidence Tyson was providing of his dissolution, if only because what we all were seeing was still far better than whatever the crystal-chinned Bruno brought to the table.

Tyson had always seemed, well, a bit unhinged, which added to his aura of danger, but in retrospect his actions at the weigh-in for Bruno were indicative of a deeper disturbance. For whatever reason, he dropped his shorts and exposed himself to Bruno, an act of public lewdness that was minimized only because three security guards swiftly moved in to form a human shield.

Whether he was or wasn’t at his very best, Tyson, a 7-1 favorite, was still too much for the Jamaican-born Bruno, whose popularity in the United Kingdom was such that nearly 3,000 of his supporters were on hand to be eyewitnesses to what even they had to believe would be a ritualistic execution. Many other Brits watched the fight on closed-circuit in the UK, despite the fact the fight didn’t begin until 5 a.m. local time.

It ended, as it surely had to, as referee Richard Steele stepped in to protect a clearly buzzed Bruno from further damage. But sometimes it takes only a single loose thread to begin a garment’s unraveling. Tokyo and Douglas awaited Tyson a year later.

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Fast Results from Las Vegas: Shakur Wins a Snoozer; Pedraza Stops Rodriguez

Arne K. Lang

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Shakur Stevenson, the 23-year-old Newark native and 2016 Olympic silver medalist, had the distinction of headlining the first of Top Rank’s two dozen MGM “Bubble” shows, an event that marked the return of boxing to Las Vegas after a 101-day absence. Tonight, he headlined the first true post-pandemic boxing show in Nevada, the first show that allowed full capacity.

Stevenson was matched against Jeremiah Nakathila at the Virgin Hotels (an awkward plural). A 31-year-old policeman, Nakathila hailed from the same town in Namibia that produced Julius Indongo, fodder for Terence Crawford in 2017.

Indongo lasted into the third round vs Crawford; Nakathila went the distance vs Shakur and lost every round on all three scorecards.

In common with virtually all of Stevenson’s former opponents, Nakathila found Shakur almost impossible to hit. But Stevenson respected Nakathila’s big right hand and kept the fight at a distance, pot-shotting the Namibian rather than throwing combinations. He knocked Nakathila down in the final seconds of the fourth round with a right hook that landed high on the head, but Nakathila wasn’t badly hurt.

Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs) pitched a shutout but yet lost luster in a monotonous fight. This was the U.S. debut for Nakathila (21-2) who had won 10 straight, all inside the distance, since traveling to Ekaterinburg, Russia, and losing a majority decision in a 12-round fight with a local man.

Shakur is expected to fight WBO 130-pound champion Jamel Herring next but also has his eye on Oscar Valdez. A match against Herring wouldn’t get the juices flowing, but Valdez may bring out the best in him.

Co-Feature

Junior welterweight Julian Rodriguez stepped up in class and suffered his first pro defeat at the hands of Puerto Rican veteran Jose “Sniper” Pedraza. Rodriguez’s corner stopped the fight after nine rounds owing to severe swelling over both of Rodriguez’s eyes.

Pedraza switched from southpaw to orthodox effectively while repeatedly peppering his opponent with an effective jab. New Jersey’s Rodriguez entered the contest 21-0. Pedraza, a 2008 Olympian and former 130-pound world title-holder, improved to 29-3 with his 14th knockout.

Other Bouts

In a mild upset, Dallas junior lightweight Manuel Rey Rojas (21-5, 6 KOs) won a unanimous 8-round decision over Toledo’s Tyler McCreary (16-2-1). McCreary, who had a strong amateur background, was making his first appearance since being widely outpointed by Carl Frampton in November of 2019. The judges had it 79-73 and 80-72 twice.

Welterweight John Bauza, in his first outing since joining David McWater’s stable, had a laugher vs. Houston’s Christon Edwards who left his corner without his mouthpiece and likely would have been easy meat without this oversight. Bauza knocked him down three times before the bout was halted at the 0:40 mark of round two. From North Bergen, New Jersey via Puerto Rico, Bauza (15-0, 6 KOs) was purportedly 178-8 as an amateur. Edwards (12-3) entered the contest riding a 6-fight winning streak.

Welterweight Xander Zayas, an 18-year-old rising star from Sunrise, Florida, via San Juan, improved to 9-0 (7) with a third-round stoppage of Larry Fryers (11-4). As a pro, Zayas has answered the bell for only 21 rounds. It was the third straight loss for Fryers, originally from Clones, Ireland, who was making his first start with new trainer Wayne McCullough.

In his final fight before the Tokyo Summer Olympics, middleweight Troy Isley (2-0, 2 KOs) scored a fourth-round stoppage of Philadelphia’s LaQuan Evans (4-2). Evans was losing but didn’t appear hurt when referee Russell Mora waived it off with 34 seconds to go in the fourth and final round.

Photo credit: Miket Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Marco Antonio Barrera and More at the First SoCal Club Show in More Than a Year

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RINGSIDE REPORT by special correspondent Tarrah Zael — MarvNation Promotions hosted “Return of the Legends” on Friday, June 11, at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena in Whittier, CA. Along with a pro card, there was an exhibition featuring the legendary Mexican warrior Marco Antonio Barrera.

It was the first club show in more than a year in Southern California. Local celebrities eager to watch live boxing were everywhere.

In what seems to be a trend of former boxers entering the ring after their retirement, the “Baby-faced Assassin” Marco Antonio Barrera (67-7, 44 KOs) boxed with retired brawler Jesus Soto Karass (29-13-4, 18 KOs) in a six-round bout with two-minute rounds. It was Barrera’s first fight in a decade. He last fought in 2011 when he TKOed Jose Arias in the second round. This win came not too long after a bloody defeat from the heavy puncher Amir Khan, leaving Barrera fans worried that he may have lost his fire.

Soto Karass’s last fight saw him win a majority decision over undefeated Neeco Macias in a 10-round super welterweight contest in 2018. The win would be his first in five years and last of his professional career. But he was competitive in virtually all of his defeats.

Barrera and Soto Karass battled with big 16-ounce gloves in an exhibition with no judges. The 47-year-old, former three-division world champion Barrera landed multiple hooks upon the former title challenger 38-year-old Soto Karass. The living legend had fun and the two hugged at the finish of what looked like a sparring session.

The exhibition was the main event. When it was over, boxing legends Antonio Margarito and Erik Morales entered the ring for pictures and conversation. Marco Antonio Barrera and Morales had a well-known trilogy and hope to continue their rivalry next month with an exhibition in Dallas.

Pro Bouts

In the co-main event, upcoming Pico Rivera boxing star Angel “El Moreno” Rodriguez (9-0, 6 KO) returned to the ring after a long pause from the 2020 pandemic in a six-round lightweight bout against southpaw Bergman Aguilar (15-8-1, 5 KOs).

In the early rounds, Rodriguez unloaded a flurry of body shots upon Aguilar, a Costa Rica native, causing him to take a knee. There wasn’t much coming back from Aguilar and when Rodriguez connected with a power shot in the second round, Aguilar took a knee again and stayed down for a count of “7.”

In the third round, Rodriguez invited his opponent to come into his range and Aguilar took the bait. Once there, Rodriguez unloaded hard power shots upon the body of Aguilar and down to his knee he went once again. Referee Ray Corona counted to seven and allowed the Costa Rican to continue as he did not look badly hurt. But when it happened yet again, Corona did not fall for his antics and called the fight off. It ended at the 1:40 mark of round three, a KO win for Rodriguez who retained his undefeated record.

Undercard

Two heavy hitting super welterweights fought to a bloody majority draw in the fight before the co-main event. Diego Padilla (1-2-1) of South-Central Los Angeles and Oleg Zumenko (3-1-1) representing the country of Ukraine laid into each other all four rounds.

In the first round, Padilla going forward delivered wide punches and uppercuts while Zumenko chose to study his opponent. But after being dropped by an uppercut, studying by the Ukraine fighter was over. A hard right cross by Zumenko slowed down the Los Angeles fighter and we saw an almost even amount of power shots from both brawlers that continued until the end of the fight. Padilla switched his stance multiple times to offset his opponent but that did not stop the Ukrainian from moving into his line of fire. Judge Ron Stevens scored the bout 40-36, but Max DeLuca and Damian Walton both had it 38-38.

Long Beach native Tyrell “Dirty Left” Washington (3-0, 3 KO) knocked down Nebraska’s Ginno Montoya (0-4) with a three-punch combination in the opening round of a scheduled four-round welterweight bout and referee Raul Caiz Jr. halted it at only 1:19 of the first.

Houston featherweight Adrian Leyva (2-2) won a four-round decision over Pablo “Bam Bam” Meglar (4-1-1, 3 KO) of South-Central Los Angeles. Although Meglar landed some good combinations and showed a lot of heart, the Texan was the sharper, more technical fighter. One judge scored the bout 39-37 and the others had it 40-36 for Leyva.

Other Fights

 Michael Land (1-2-1) of Houston, Texas and South-Central Los Angeles’ Oliver Galicia (3-0-1, 3 KO) fought to a draw in a four-round super featherweight fight. All three judges had it 37-37.

The opening fight of the show, a scheduled 4-round lightweight clash between Mexico native Braulio Avila (3-9, 1 KO) and Honduras resident Cris Reyes (10-0, 9 KO), ended after two rounds. Reyes stayed calm, cool and calculated against the wild-swinging Avila and sent him to the canvas for an 8-count in the second round with a left hook to the chin. Avila didn’t come out for the third.

Celebrity Watch

Besides Erik Morales and Antonio Margarito, others in attendance included Tattoo, Big Boy, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Tom Loeffler, Roberto Diaz, and DJ Ray.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Fury-Wilder III Particulars, Kirkland Laing and More

Arne K. Lang

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The third fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder will be staged at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on July 24. The pre-fight hoopla kicks off on Tuesday at a press conference in Los Angeles.

The date was no secret. Co-promoter Bob Arum had circled it even before an arbitrator ruled that a unification fight between Fury and Anthony Joshua could not jump the queue. It was Team Fury’s Plan B. But speculation about the venue had centered around two other properties in Las Vegas: Allegiant Stadium and the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

It will be the eighth boxing card in the five-year history of the T-Mobile. The benchmark, attendance-wise, was set on Sept. 16, 2017, when Canelo Alvarez opposed Gennady Golovkin in the first of their two encounters. The event attracted an announced crowd of 22,358 (17,318 paid).

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum notes that the T-Mobile is superior to the MGM Grand in that the operators of rival casinos are more willing to purchase tickets for their best customers. The T-Mobile sits on MGM property behind New York-New York and is half-owned by the MGM (the other half is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group which owns arenas around the world including LA’s Staples Center and the O2 Arena in London) but yet is considered neutral territory in that it isn’t attached to a casino. Casino operators have always been skittish about sending their best customers to an event at a rival property for fear they will be wooed away.

There are no plans to hold press conferences in other cities before the final press conference in Las Vegas. London is out because of Covid restrictions and Arum believes that a conference in New York would be superfluous as that would be redundant.

Arum orchestrated the most dappled (and most frenetic) press tour in boxing. Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, traveling in separate Gulfstream jets, covered 21 cities in 12 days to hype their April 15, 1985 clash at Caesars Palace.

“There was no internet in those days,” says Arum. He did not need to elaborate. Press conferences nowadays are live-streamed and people around the world can tune in. Reporters for traditional newspapers, whose ranks have been thinned, are no longer an indispensable conduit for selling a fight.

Kirkland Laing

The late Harry Mullan, who served 19 years as the editor of British Boxing News, had a grand opinion of Kirkland Laing. “He is the most technically gifted boxer I’ve ever seen, a genius in an odd sort of way,” wrote Mullan of Laing who defeated Roberto Duran and was a three-time British welterweight champion, but would be best remembered for squandering his talent. Born in Jamaica and raised in Nottingham, Laing died on Wednesday, June 9, at age 66.

Laing, who often wore dreadlocks, was quite a character. Lore has it that he once adamantly denied using weed to an interviewer while forgetting that he had a joint tucked behind his ear. He purportedly fought most of his fights while stoned.

Laing brought a 23-3-1 record into his date with Duran on Sept. 4, 1982 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. The first two losses were incurred in domestic title fights with Colin Jones who stopped him in the ninth round on both occasions.

Laing won a split decision but there was no controversy. The consensus among ringside scribes was that Laing won seven of the 10 rounds. He was too quick for the Panamanian tough guy. The Ring magazine named it the Upset of the Year.

This was Duran’s third loss in his last five fights. Reporters, by and large, wrote him off as finished. Needless to say, that appraisal was premature as Pipino Cuevas, Davey Moore, and Iran Barkley would attest.

A year would elapse before Kirkland Laing entered the ring again. For a long stretch during this lacuna, his whereabouts were unknown. His manager Mickey Duff could not find him.

Laing returned on Sept. 10, 1983 in Atlantic City. In the opposite corner was Fred Hutchings, a fighter from Stockton, California with a 22-1 record. Hutchings blasted him out in the 10th round. The last punch landed with such force, said the correspondent for a New Jersey paper, that Laing “fell over backward, his head crashing to the canvas with a loud thud.” Referee Frank Cappuccino started his count but waived the fight off when he reached “6.”

Laing went on to recapture the British welterweight title, but he never fought in the U.S. again. He left the sport with a record of 43-12-1. He scored 24 knockouts and was stopped eight times.

Within months after his final fight in 1994, Laing and his partner Paula Chen who was carrying his child, were reportedly living on the dole. In December of 2001, he was arrested during a massive sweep of East London crack dens. In 2013, he almost died after he fell or was pushed from a fourth-floor balcony. He was then living in a flat in a council estate (i.e., government subsidized housing) in the London borough of Hackney. At the time of his death, he was said to be residing in a nursing home in Yorkshire.

Kirkland Laing was always eccentric, but some of his aberrant behavior may have been a residue of his bout with Fred Hutchings. He was taken to the hospital with a concussion and remained there for four days. His cause of death has not been disclosed.

Sky

Ever the opportunist, Bob Arum was quick to reach out to the honchos at Sky Sport which was left in the lurch when Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn jumped ship, giving DAZN an exclusive. Great Britain’s premier sports channel, Sky needed a new content provider.

Josh Taylor, the fighting pride of Scotland, recently took Sky to task for failing to pick up his recent fight with Jose Ramirez. That was an egregious oversight on the part of Sky – the network missed out on a whizbang fight that produced a result that will live long in British boxing lore – and Arum allows that Sky executives may have been somewhat embarrassed, making them more receptive to his proposal.

The Sky/Top Rank partnership begins immediately with Saturday’s card in Las Vegas headlined by the match between Shakur Stevenson and Namibia’s obscure Jeremiah Nakathila.

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