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Steve Little Should Have Come Up Bigger

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There is a saying among compulsive gamblers: The next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing.

Perhaps the opposite is true of certain fringe boxing contenders who, for one magic moment, rise above their circumstances and become champions. For those predetermined by fate to fail even when they succeed, the next worst thing to fighting for a title and losing can be fighting for a title and winning.

The late Steve Little is in a Hall of Fame – the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame – but there never will be a time when any member of his large family receives a telephone call from Ed Brophy, the executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, relaying the good news that the Reading, Pa., native has been elected to the IBHOF. Not even Little’s most ardent admirers, and there are many in Reading and Philadelphia, have any illusions about his standing in boxing history. He is a minor footnote in the annals of the sport he loved, but didn’t always love him back. That makes him one of many dreamers and pluggers who give so much of themselves and receive so, well, little in return.

When Steve Little shocked Michael Nunn – as a 40-to-1 underdog – to capture the WBA super middleweight championship in London on Feb. 26, 1994, it should have been the proudest moment of his professional life. And, really, it was. But the giddy blush of victory was soon replaced by the sobering reality that he was an unmarketable champion with a mediocre record, no discernible punching power and a promoter who probably wanted him quickly dethroned by a more high-profile client. So what if Little was one of boxing’s good guys, a solid citizen with a wife and six kids at home? No bejeweled championship belt was ever going to elevate him above what he already was: a disposable and easily replaceable commodity.

All of which makes Little’s one-and-done reign as the WBA 168-pound champ – he dropped a unanimous decision to Frankie Liles on Aug. 12, 1994, in Argentina – unfortunate, but hardly a tragedy. The real tragedies came in February 1999 when Little was diagnosed with colon cancer, and Jan. 30, 2000, when, at 34, he succumbed to the dreaded disease.

“Steve Little was the most courageous person I’ve been around,” Rob Murray Sr., Little’s former manager, who, somewhat ironically, three months later would also succumb to cancer, said in March 2012. “He fought those last few fights (Little was 3-3-1 after upsetting Nunn) when he was terminally ill, although nobody knew it then. One day he was playing around in the gym with this guy, and he started bleeding and it wouldn’t stop. That’s when they found he had Stage 4 cancer.”

Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins, the former middleweight and light heavyweight champion whose eventual first-ballot induction into the IBHOF is guaranteed as anything ever gets, counts himself fortunate to have been Little’s friend.

“We were close, age-wise (Hopkins is 50; Little would now be 49 had he lived), and in other ways, too,” Hopkins said. “He traveled from Reading to North Philadelphia every day to Champ’s Gym when I trained there, so a lot of people thought he was from Philly. He was also a first or second cousin of Meldrick Taylor, I can’t remember which, which also kind of played into that that perception.

“We became friends because A, I need a sparring partner and B, he was a veteran who began fighting long before I did, at least in the pros. If Steve told you he would do something, he did it. I never heard nobody talking bad about him. I mean, how could they? As a man, they don’t come any better.”

So, what did Hopkins think of Little, whose final record – 25-17-3, with just six victories inside the distance – as a fighter?

“Steve was a bold, durable guy who couldn’t crack an egg, but he had a good chin and he was relentless,” Hopkins recalled. “He might not have been a pound-for-pound guy, but trust me, he would give any top fighter all he could handle. Even when he didn’t win, the other guy came away knowing he had been in a scrap. Steve was all heart and determination. “

A devoted husband and father, a straight shooter who never embarrassed himself or his loved ones in or out of the ring, Little’s stunner over Nunn should at least have afforded him a chance for one major score, which would at least provide some measure of financial stability for the family whose welfare was always his first priority. But professional boxing is a business, and Steve Little as world champion was never going to contribute to the bottom line of the sport’s true power brokers.

The late Butch Lewis once told me a story that sounded like it could have been true, and since has been confirmed by one of the principals. It is a tale of expediency over compassion, and the greater likelihood of blood being spilled inside the ropes than the milk of human kindness being ladled at a negotiating table.

To secure his shot at Nunn, Little had to sign over options to Nunn’s then-promoter, Don King, which was and is standard practice among certain operatives in a cutthroat industry. It never occurred to anyone, certainly not Nunn or King, that Little would actually win. But win he did, the guy who “couldn’t crack an egg” flooring Nunn in the first round and going on to take a 12-round split decision.

According to Butch Lewis, King’s plan was to have Little make his first title defense against one of the most devastating punchers of the era, Gerald McClellan, for a payday not much larger than the then-career-high $60,000 (minus deductions, of course) for challenging Nunn. Little might have been willing to fight anybody, but if he was going to sign up for an inevitable beatdown from McClellan, he wanted what he considered to be fair compensation.

Bill Cayton, who managed the popular Vinny Pazienza, a good fighter but someone who wasn’t as likely as McClellan to hospitalize an opponent, thought Little was just vulnerable enough to again make the “Pazmanian Devil” a world champion. But Cayton had lost control of Mike Tyson to King, the two men were none too fond of each other, and Cayton was never going to sign over options on Pazienza in any case. So Cayton enlisted Lewis to approach King with an offer: a much larger purse for Little to defend against Pazienza, without signing over options. Not surprisingly, King refused and Little wound up relinquishing his title to Liles for a reported $100,000, of which he probably was fortunate to receive half.

Not the kind of jackpot that would long ensure the financial well-being of a family as large as Little’s.

I talked to Pazienza – he goes by Vinny Paz now – and he said Cayton had indeed told him he was angling to secure a title shot at Little, but things never worked out, “I think because of King.”

“I never met Steve Little, but I think I would have liked him,” Paz continued. “He just seemed like a good guy, and I know he was a tough little bleeper. Me and him would have been a real battle, although I think I would have beat him.”

Little’s subsequent illness and death placed a significant financial burden on his widow, Wanda, a stay-at-home mother who considered him so much more than the family breadwinner.

“My husband was one-of-a-kind in many amazing ways,” Wanda said. “People here (in Reading) remember him as much or more for his good deeds as for his boxing He was my best friend, someone who worked so hard to be a great provider. I was blessed to have him for as long as I did.”

When contacted for this story, King said he did not recall particulars of the 5½-month period between Little’s unexpected upset of Nunn and the loss to Liles.

“The Rolodex is spinning in my brain,” he allowed after momentarily pondering the question. “Steve Little was a guy who really wanted to do something, but he never got the opportunity until we gave him the opportunity. He saw his chance and seized the moment. He pulled it off, and you got to give him credit for that.”

Asked if the Butch Lewis version of the way events played out is factual, King said, “It’s not my recollection, but I can’t really say how that went down. It’s, what, 20 years ago? Look, I understood Bill Cayton. One of the assets God blessed me with is the ability to look or talk to a person and almost tell what they will or will not do in certain circumstances. Bill Cayton was Bill Cayton, and I would go against him on anything I thought was not right. And I won more times than I lost.”

Hopkins, who does not part with his hard-earned cash readily, tried to do right by his late friend when he pledged $200,000 of his purse for the Feb. 2, 2002, defense of his undisputed middleweight title against Carl Daniels, in Reading, to the Little family. It was a magnanimous gesture, but one that didn’t help as much as it might have. Hopkins said he has heard reports that a slick operator, promising huge returns on investments, talked Wanda Little out of $100,000, which soon evaporated like morning dew.

“I heard that that guy was right on her, telling her about all these ideas he had on how she could double the money,” Hopkins said. “It was like one of those Ponzi schemes, from what I heard. She really got took.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have set her up with some reputable financial planner, somebody who was licensed and bonded. I can’t beat myself up about it now because I tried to do a good thing, but looking back, I think I could have done more.”

King might not be all that clear on the aftermath of Little’s longshot win over Nunn, but he keenly remembers the run-up to that fight. He said Nunn, who is now serving hard time in an Iowa penitentiary on a cocaine trafficking conviction, lost his title more because of overconfidence and lackadaisical training preparations than because of anything Little had done.

“Michael Nunn was one of the most misguided fighters I’ve ever met – one of the most misguided people, actually,” His Hairness opined. “He was a great fighter, but he messed around, got caught selling drugs to an undercover agent and now he’s in prison. What a waste. He was a very talented guy. He went out searching for something he already had, in an illicit type of situation.”

Upon his Steve Sr.’s induction into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame on March 11, 2012, Steve Little Jr., then a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, disputed any notion that his dad had won his championship only because Nunn was out of shape and undisciplined.

“I finally got to see the DVD of that fight, in 2008 after I obtained it from a boxing historian when I was stationed at Cherry Point (North Carolina),” he said. “This was not a case of Michael Nunn fighting down to a lower level; he was fighting just as hard as my dad was fighting his fight. But, on that night, my dad was the better man.”

Not every winning lottery ticket pays off to the same extent. A 42-1 underdog, James “Buster” Douglas, knocked out heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on Feb. 10, 1990, and in his first defense, in which he relinquished his crown on a third-round KO by Evander Holyfield, he earned $23.2 million. Four years later, as a 40-1 no-hoper, Little outpointed Nunn and made 1/232nd of Big Buster’s windfall.

In boxing, as in life, the scales of justice do not always balance. The good often die young and virtue sometimes goes unrewarded. But for one glorious moment forever frozen in time, Steve Little won a fight no one thought him capable of winning. That is something all of us can aspire to, and reason enough to keep the small flame lighting the memory of a special but mostly forgotten champion from flickering and dying out entirely.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 254: Canelo vs Jermell Charlo in a Battle of Undisputed Champions

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LAS VEGAS-Less than the usual massive crowd gathered for boxing kingpin Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Jermell Charlo in the desert heat outside of the T-Mobile Arena on Friday afternoon. Usually the weigh-ins are slightly bigger for Mexico’s idol.

Is the declining crowd an indicator of Alvarez fans ebbing belief in his abilities?

Still, on Saturday night, two undisputed world champions from differing divisions will collide as Guadalajara, Mexico’s Alvarez (59-2-2, 39 KOs) meets Houston’s Charlo (35-1-1, 19 KOs) at T-Mobile Arena for the super middleweight world championship. PPV.Com will stream the clash of champions.

This year has seen a hyper-speed uptick in champions fighting other champions, perhaps the result of watching their female counterparts Amanda Serrano and Katie Taylor produce the biggest fight of 2022. This year several marquee collisions were spawned from lightweights to heavyweights.

Or maybe the pandemic lull created a twitch panic among the elite.

Charlo was one of those who had been sidelined while others like Gervonta “Tank” Davis, Naoya “Monster” Inoue and Canelo Alvarez filled their pockets with cash. And others like Devin Haney and Teofimo Lopez gained undisputed glory.

Instead of watching on the sidelines, Charlo decided to make his move for greater glory by attempting to dethrone one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, if not the kingpin of boxing when it comes to money.

“If I accomplish this massive goal, it will be hard to top,” Charlo said a few weeks ago during his media workout. “I’ll be in the record book with the greats of boxing for a long time.”

Risks brings rewards.

Canelo, long a member of the boxing elite, has held his position as the box office king for many years now by taking the daunting risks throughout his boxing life.

“Jermell is right, I have nothing to prove. But this time I have something to prove to him,” said Alvarez while in Las Vegas on Wednesday. “He never believed in my skills. He’s been calling me out. Now I have an opportunity to show him my skills.”

Undisputed super welterweight will challenge undisputed super middleweight in a two-division jump not often seen, except for Henry Armstrong, Roberto Duran and Sugar Shane Mosley. It’s the road taken by those who seek to be great.

Both are 33 but the redhead Alvarez has been fighting professionally since he was 15. That’s a lot of bullets in the chamber he has already used. Charlo has height, speed and the ability to adapt to different styles. Stylistically, it’s a battle that makes even the skeptics take pause.

It all depends on Alvarez’s resiliency. Charlo has ring rust, while Alvarez seemingly has lost the hunger. Whose weakness will prove the greater?

“Now is the time for this fight. We’re in our primes and at our best,” said Charlo. “I wanna shake the doubters off and prove to the world why I”m in this position. There’s a reason I made it this far.”

Alvarez remembers being as hungry as Charlo.

“I never overlook any fighter,” Alvarez said. “I know what he’s going to bring and I’m ready.”

Undercard

Several other notable bouts are included on the pay-per-view card.

Former world titlists and current welterweight contenders Yordenis Ugas (27-5) and Mario Barrios (27-2) battle for an interim title set for 12 rounds.

Super welterweights Jesus Ramos (20-0, 16 KOs) and Erickson Lubin (25-2, 18 KOs) match skills  in a match that pits a southpaw veteran against an undefeated southpaw from Arizona. For the past three years Ramos has been moving up the ladder and was last seen pounding out highly-touted Joey Spencer. Can he survive Lubin who nearly toppled Sebastian Fundora?

Doors open at T-Mobile Arena at 2 p.m. Pacific Time.

Lampley is back

Legendary HBO announcer Jim Lampley was hired along with ace reporter Lance Pugmire who will co-host the Saul “Canelo” Alvarez versus Jermell Charlo showdown via viewer chat live on PPV.com.

It’s the same concept used by Monday Night Football that features former quarterback greats Peyton Manning and Eli Manning in alternative programming.

Lampley returns to boxing after a five-year absence following HBO’s yanking of the popular program that vaulted elite boxing to the top behind the likes of George Foreman, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao.

The veteran announcer will be live streaming all the action on media platforms before and during the fight action. He was sorely missed by all who follow the sweet science.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk a Go for Saudi Arabia: Date TBA

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It is now official. Representatives of WBC and Lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and WBO/WBA/IBF title-holder Oleksandr Usyk have come to terms. The Fury-Usyk fight will be staged at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on a date to be determined. (Speculation centers around Dec. 23.)

Fury vs Usyk is the latest addition to Riyadh Season, a months-long, state-sponsored, city-wide entertainment and sports festival that commences this year on Oct. 28 with the fight between Tyson Fury and MMA star Francis Ngannou serving as the centerpiece of the grand opening ceremony.

A point that will be central to the pre-fight hype is that more than three decades have passed since boxing had a unified heavyweight champion. The last man to be recognized as such was Lennox Lewis who unified the title in November of 1999 when he won a unanimous decision over Evander Holyfield at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. Lewis entered the contest sporting the WBC belt whereas Holyfield held the WBA and IBF diadems.

As noted in boxrec, the vacant IBO heavyweight title was also at stake, a fact acknowledged in most British pre- and post-fight reports, but largely omitted from stories in American papers. As for the WBO, which was born the same year as the Florida-based IBO and came to leapfrog past it in credibility, it was out of the loop. Their heavyweight champion was Vitali Klitschko who had won the belt from Herbie Hyde.

The Lewis-Holyfield fight in Las Vegas was a rematch. They had fought eight months earlier at Madison Square Garden. That fight was ruled a draw, a decision deemed so unjust to Lennox Lewis that it spawned a federal investigation.

The tentative Dec. 23 date for Fury-Usyk would be a quick turnaround for the Gypsy King but would give him two months to heal in the event that he emerges from his non-title fight with Ngannou with a facial cut or another issue requiring medical attention. As noted in a story in the London Mirror, the date of Dec. 23 has also been bandied about as the likely date for the resurrection of the aborted fight between Chris Eubank Jr and Conor Benn. Something would have to give and it wouldn’t be Fury-Usyk.

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Atlantic City Welcomes the 7th Annual Boxing Hall of Fame Weekend

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While the world of boxing will be focused on Las Vegas and the mega showdown between two undisputed champions, across the country Atlantic City will play host to the seventh annual Hall-of-Fame Induction Weekend. This year’s festivities are highlighted by the celebration of heavyweight boxers that once helped make Atlantic City the leading destination for “big time” fights. At the top of this year’s class are names like George Foreman, David Tua, Shannon Briggs, and Pinklon Thomas. With names like these, it’s easy to understand why this year’s Induction Weekend, now a staple of the city’s entertainment calendar, figures to be the best ever.

Ray McCline, a lifelong boxing fan, is the brainchild behind the event which has matured beyond the infancy stage. For McCline (himself a 2022 inductee into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame), creating an entire weekend around the sport in a way that could also benefit the city financially was a no-brainer.

“It’s great to see what this weekend has become. It’s been a long road from the original idea, but with great support and partnerships, it’s been possible,” states McCline.

In the past the ACBHOF has had to be as nimble as some of the fighters that they’ve honored to continue making sure the weekend wasn’t lost in the shadows of a city that has dealt with economic struggles. McCline and his staff at the ACBHOF have done an excellent job integrating the history of boxing with the history of Atlantic City. They’ve done this by offering fans the opportunity to spend more than just one evening immersed in the culture of the sport.

“It continues to grow and get better and that’s what it’s all about; making this the type of weekend that boxing fans mark on their calendars each year. This year we’re fortunate to partner with Hard Hitting Promotions to provide a great night of live professional boxing for fans as well,” says McCline. It’s the type of addition to an already full weekend schedule that only strengthens the ACBHOF brand.

A partnership with the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino has also been a key to recent enhancements for the weekend of events.

After years of having to adapt the schedule to the schedules of their host properties, having this partnership with Hard Rock has allowed for the ACBHOF to lock in the final weekend of September or first weekend of October which is important because it allows fans to plan out their post summer and pre-holiday schedules without having to skip their trip to Atlantic City. “A major bonus,” says McCline. “It was one of the major hurdles that we had to jump over. Integrating Hard Rock and their established relationships in the world of entertainment only benefits both parties.”

It’s a fact that isn’t lost when you see crowds of concert-goers and people arriving in the city for other events enter the Free Fan Expo that takes place prior to the award ceremony.

Which brings us to this year’s schedule of events. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 29) will be the customary V.I.P opening cocktail reception followed by the live fights at Bally’s Casino. On Saturday at Hard Rock is the free Fight Fan Experience which allows fans to interact with legends of the sport from the past and fighters of today and tomorrow. During the evening hours. the actual awards and induction ceremony will take place at the Hard Rock. The weekend activities culminate in a legends brunch on Sunday morning at the Blue Water Grille at the Flagship Hotel.

What’s going on in Las Vegas isn’t lost on McCline. “This year is going to be great for those attending the induction ceremony at the V.I.P. level. We were able to set up our post ceremony cocktail reception in conjunction with showing the Canelo-Charlo fight. At the end of the day, we’re all fans of the sport so why miss a historic fight?”

Just listening to the joy that springs from the voice of Ray McCline when discussing both this year’s event and plans for the future is refreshing, especially when one considers all of the roadblocks that he’s overcome to bring his vision to reality in the form of a full weekend of celebration.

Note: The main event of the boxing show on Friday is a 10-round contest between super lightweights Branden Pizarro (18-1-1) and Esteban Garcia (16-2). For more information on event tickets, room reservations, and weekend schedules, visit the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame website at: www.acbhof.com

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