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Watching the Big Drama Show with Pops

Kelsey McCarson

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I try not to watch boxing with my dad. It’s not his fault. I just can’t stand to hear him compare every single fighter ever, regardless of weight class or boxing ability, to Muhammad Ali. It drives me crazy, mostly because I’ve heard the same thing over and over again for over 30 years now. Yes, I realize that one day when my dad is gone that I’ll miss it. But right now, it drives me crazy.

Pops is part of boxing’s most established and celebrated cult: the cult of Ali. We get it, people. He was great. But others have been, too, you know, and more will be as well. I think Ali has been given his fair share of credit. There are a billion books about the man already and I don’t know how many times I can watch the same documentary of him, or any of his fights, get remade over and over again as if it’s something new and interesting.

Here’s the thing about Ali. He’s not somehow being slighted if every single thing isn’t about him. He’s not somehow less noteworthy if other men and women ply his trade, too. If life worked that way, we boxing writers would have all put our pens down the moment Springs Toledo published Gods of War. Or maybe all writing would have ceased to exist the second Herman Melville wrote down the phrase “Call me Ishmael” for his 1851 novel Moby Dick. But no—none of that happened. Time marches on.

Still, it happened on Saturday that my dad and I crowded around a hotel room television set to watch middleweight monster Gennady Golovkin ruthlessly dispose of the game but overmatched challenger Martin Murray. I had told Dad all that day before the fight that Golovkin was a force to be reckoned with in boxing. Pops wouldn’t hear it.

“Yeah,” he’d argue. “But could he whoop Ali?”

At this point in the dialogue, as it is every single time it happens, I have to re-explain to my father the existence of weight divisions in boxing. I’m certain he knows all of this already, but we go through the very same motions every single time nonetheless.

So on to the next thing. Dad asks me how Golovkin, being established a middleweight now, would do against Marvin Hagler, Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns.

“Yeah, but could he beat Hagler or any of those guys?”

I get this question from him a lot after the Ali lead-in, and it’s a question that’s almost always impossible to answer. Again, we go over the existence and purpose of weight classes. We talk about Leonard and Hearns being more welterweights than middleweights historically and so on. And then we discuss how it’s not really fair to try and compare Golovkin to Hagler just yet as the latter is clearly one of the greatest middleweights of all-time while Golovkin is not yet even lineal champion.

The fight is almost set to begin now though, so Dad asks me which one of the men in the ring is, in fact, Golovkin. We establish that he is the smaller looking one but will ultimately turn out to be the bigger man once the bell rings. Dad asks me where Golovkin is from. I tell him Golovkin is from Kazakhstan, after which we determine that the Middle Eastern sounding place is really closer to Russia in distance, culture and history than it is to Iraq. Not that any of that matters, mind you. But these are the questions my dad asks me, and so I oblige him.

Right before the bell rings, I try to put it as succinctly as possible for him. “Look, Dad,” I said with an air of seriousness. “The best way I can describe Golovkin is to say he’s the dude in the room you shouldn’t —k with. Period.”

Dad understands now, and when Golovkin does his part by annihilating Murray, Pops comes away impressed. He went from questioning the fighter’s ability to joyfully pleading with the referee to stop the magnificent Golovkin from pummeling poor Murray in a one-sided massacre. “That man could stand in against anyone,” Dad admits after.

Maybe the best way I’ve seen Golovkin described was done so by UCN’s Kim Francesca. She called Golovkin “unbothered” on Twitter recently and that’s the best way I’ve heard to describe how he fights. Golovkin is unbothered by punches hurled at him by his opponents, even the ones that land flush. He’s unbothered whether his opponent would rather stand and fight or run away. It’s all the same to him. He’s going to come forward. He’s going to seek and destroy. He’s a wrecking ball and whatever stands in front of him is just an old building scheduled for demolition. The paperwork is all in. There’s no turning back now. Once he starts toward an opponent, he doesn’t stop until he has rendered the destruction complete.

Moreover, Golovkin is unbothered by comparisons. I don’t think he cares how people think he’d do against Hagler, Hearns or Leonard. I’m not even sure he cares how people think he’d do against a heavyweight like Ali. Because Golovkin isn’t the type to get bothered by trivial and meaningless things. He swats away punches as if they were bothersome little flies. And he knows he’s never met an opponent in a prizefighting ring that he hasn’t been able to destroy.

Golovkin isn’t a talker. He’s a doer. He’s the guy that kicks ass and let’s everyone else worry about dumb things. I’m not even sure he’s really listening when people ask him questions.

“I feel great. Why? This is my plan. Thank you very much for my knockout,” Golovkin said in his post-fight interview with HBO’s Max Kellerman. “This is my strategy: first five to six rounds just show my drama, and after six rounds just knock him [out].”

I’m not sure Pops or I heard the question. I am certain it doesn’t matter though, because both of us agree about Golovkin now.

He’s a badass. He wouldn’t beat Ali. Both of those can be true.

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A Big Upset in London as Oleksandr Usyk Outclasses Anthony Joshua

Arne K. Lang

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Oleksandr Usyk gathered up all four meaningful cruiserweight belts before leaving the division. Tonight, on a special night at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he acquired three of the four meaningful heavyweight belts to add to his rich collection. In a battle between former Olympic gold medalists, the 34-year-old Ukrainian cashed his ticket to the Hall of Fame (and on the first ballot) with a unanimous decision over Anthony Joshua. There were some strange scorecards turned in earlier in the evening so it was no sure thing that the judges would get it right, but they did. Usyk won by tallies of 117-112, 116-112, and 115-113.

There were no knockdowns but this was an entertaining fight with momentum shifts and the goosebumps that come whenever an underdog is acquitting himself well against a bigger man more capable of turning the tide with one punch.

Usyk, who improved to 19-0 (13) started strong. With his superior hand and foot speed, he actually looked a level above Joshua. But Usyk’s pace slowed in the fifth and Joshua started closing the gap. Usyk had a strong seventh round, but Joshua came back strong in the next stanza and it seemed as if he had more fuel in his tank and was capable of a Garrison finish. But no, Usyk closed strong and ended the match with a flourish.

Joshua, whose ledger declined to 24-2 (22), was expected to land the more damaging punches but it was Usyk, who suffered a cut around his right eye, whose punches were more damaging. At the end, Joshua’s right eye was swollen nearly shut.

Joshua’s defeat spoiled a lucrative match with his countryman Tyson Fury (assuming Fury gets past Deontay Wilder). That match will likely come to fruition someday, but it won’t be quite the mega-fight that it would have been under “normal” circumstances.

Co-Main

Lawrence Okolie drew a softie for the first defense of his WBO world cruiserweight title that he won with a smashing performance over Krzysztof Glowacki. In the opposite corner was Montenegro’s Dilan Prasovic who came in undefeated (15-0) but against suspect opposition and was out of his element. Okolie stopped him in the third round, improving his ledger to 17-0 (14 KOs).

A former McDonald’s burger-flipper who is co-managed by Anthony Joshua and trained by Shane McGuigan, Okolie decked Prasovic with a right hand in the second round and terminated the fight in the next frame with a body punch that didn’t appear to land especially hard. The official time was 1:57.

Standing 6’5 ½” with an 82 ½-inch reach, the ever-improving Okolie hopes to unify the division before moving up to heavyweight. He may out-grow the cruiserweight class before a unification fight presents itself.

Other Bouts

Liverpool’s Callum Smith, in his first fight as a light heavyweight and his first fight with Buddy McGirt in his corner, rolled back the clock to the days when he was running up a string of fast knockouts and sent Lenin Castillo to dreamland with a booming right hand in the second round. This was a scary knockout. Castillo’s leg twitched as he lay on the canvas. He was removed from the ring on a stretcher and taken to a hospital where, according to promoter Eddie Hearn, he was fully responsive.

Smith (28-1, 20 KOs) was making his first start since losing to Canelo Alvarez in a match in which he was reluctant to let his hands go. Castillo, from the Dominican Republic, had previously taken Dmitry Bivol the distance (albeit while losing virtually every round) in a bid for Bivol’s WBA 175-pound crown. He was 21-3-1 heading in and hadn’t previously been stopped.

Chicago middleweight Christopher Ousley (13-0, 9 KOs) stepped up in class and won a 10-round majority decision over former world title challenger Khasan Baysangurov (21-2). Baysangurov, a Ukrainian, did well in the late rounds but it was too little, too late. The judges had it 95-95 and 97-94 twice.

While Ousley, 30, didn’t look especially sharp, this was good win for him. He had been working with trainer Manny Robles and Anthony Joshua is one of his sponsors. Baysangurov had won four straight since suffering an 11th-round stoppage at the hands of Rob Brant.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Russian Lion, an Exemplary Judge and More

Arslanbek Makhmudov, says his promoter Camille Estephan, is the most feared heavyweight in the world. Makhmudov did nothing to discount that opinion last night (Friday, Sept. 23) in Quebec City where he needed only one round to dismiss Erkan Teper. That was his 13th knockout in as many pro starts. He’s answered the bell for only 22 rounds.

Makhmudov is ponderous as is to be expected for a boxer who stands 6’5 ½” and weighs 260, but what he lacks in foot speed he makes up in hand speed and he carries power in both of his hands. Teper came out intent on pressing the action, but Makhmudov quickly had him fighting off his back foot. Teper was on the canvas three times in all — the second knockdown could have been ruled a slip – and his corner threw in the towel as soon as the first round ended.

The outcome wasn’t totally unexpected although Teper, a 39-year-old German of Turkish descent, brought a 21-3 record and had gone 12 rounds on several occasions. In his previous match which was held at a Holiday Inn in Mexico, Makhmudov stopped Czechoslovakian slug Pavel Sour in 37 seconds.

Makhmudov’s nickname is “Lion.” He’s hardly the first Russian to be cloaked with this cognomen. The most celebrated of the Russian lions was George Hackenschmidt, a wrestler who rose to prominence in the first decade of the twentieth century. In those days, pro wrestling was legitimate, or at least quasi-legitimate, and the biggest matches attracted heavy betting.

At age 32, it’s past time for Makhmudov to ramp up his level of competition. He and his management say he’s ready to tackle any heavyweight in the world.

In the co-feature on the Quebec City show, Christian Mbilli stopped Ronny Landaeta in the third frame of a 10-round super middleweight match. Mbilli, born in Cameroon, represented France in the 2016 Olympics. Akin to Makhmudov, he came to Canada to launch his pro career.

Mbilli improved to 19-0 (18). He won a one-sided, 8-round decision over sturdy Mexican veteran Humberto Ochoa on the lone occasion when he was forced to go the distance. Landaeta, a 38-year-old Spaniard, brought an 18-3 record and hadn’t previously been stopped.

We would love to see Arslanbek Makhmudov fight the winner of the forthcoming battle between Efe Ajagba and Frank Sanchez and we would love to see Christian Mbilli in the ring with Edgar Berlanga. Of course, at the moment those are just fantasy fights not likely to happen anytime soon, if ever.

It’s old news now, but a boxing judge took to social media to apologize for a bad scorecard. Who ever heard of such a thing?

The fight in question was the WBC 130-pound title fight between Oscar Valdez and Robson Conceicao staged in Tucson on Sept. 10.

A common opinion expressed by those tuning in on TV was that Conceicao was entitled to a draw, notwithstanding the fact that he had a point deducted for hitting behind the head, a questionable call. But the judges disagreed. Two had it 115-112 for Valdez and the other favored Valdez by a 117-110 score.

The outlier was Stephen Blea, a veteran arbiter from Denver. After reviewing a tape of the fight, Blea decided that his unpopular 117-110 tally was too generous to the defending champion and felt compelled to offer an apology. “I have decided to reach out to my NABF/WBC ring officials committee to undergo a thorough training and review program and will not accept any championship assignments until I complete the process,” he wrote. “I am an honorable man with profound, love, knowledge and respect to the sport. I am sorry for having brought unnecessary controversy to such a sensational fight.”

Blea noted that he had judged over 200 fights and refereed over 500 with no controversy and that his assignments had taken him around the world. A theology major in college, Blea has been a long-time supporter of amateur boxing in Colorado and had served as the head boxing coach of the Denver Police Department.

Boxing writer Patrick L. Stumberg had this reaction to Blea’s letter of contrition: “We’ve seen tons of judges turn in inexplicably bad scorecards and just keep on trucking like nothing happened, so this is very refreshing.”

Indeed. The Boxing Writers Association of America has intermittently handed out an award for “Honesty and Integrity” at their annual banquet. Stephen Blea would seem to be a worthy nominee.

Heavyweight boxers just keep getting bigger. Top Rank’s newest signee, Antonio Mireles, stands six-foot-nine and weighs 265 pounds.

Mireles, 24, upset top-seeded Jeremiah Milton at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (held in December of 2019 in St. Charles, Louisiana) but didn’t get the chance to compete in Tokyo. The super heavyweight slot went to Team USA veteran Richard Torrez Jr who went on to win a silver medal.

Mireles hails from Des Moines, Iowa, a state that has produced a slew of outstanding wrestlers over the years but very few professional boxers. Only one Iowa man has fought for the world heavyweight title and he didn’t fare very well. Ron Stander, the “Bluffs Butcher” from Council Bluffs was butchered by Smokin’ Joe Frazier in 1972. Stander was a bloody mess when the ring doctor waived the fight off after four rounds.

Antonio Mireles has been training at Robert Garcia’s boxing academy in Oxnard, CA. He is penciled in to make his pro debut on the Oct. 15 Top Rank show in San Diego anchored by Emanuel Navarette’s WBO world featherweight title defense against Joet Gonzalez.

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The Hauser Report: Ken Burns Explores Muhammad Ali

Thomas Hauser

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“I wanted to write about Muhammad Ali,” Wilfrid Sheed told me years ago when we were discussing the text that Sheed had written for an elaborate coffee-table book. “He’s one of those madonnas you want to paint at least once in your life.”

Ali is also a subject that filmmakers want to make documentaries about. More documentaries have been fashioned about Ali than any other athlete ever.

There was a time when Ali was the most famous, most recognizable, most loved person on the planet. He was an important social and political figure in addition to being a great fighter. One day after Cassius Clay (as he was then known) beat Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight crown, he met with reporters and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be and think what I want to think.”

At a time when the heavyweight championship of the world was the most coveted title in sports, that lit a spark that grew into a raging fire. Commenting on the impact of Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam, Islamic scholar Sherman Jackson observed, “You can’t teach that kind of thing in lectures and books. That kind of thing has to be modeled.”

Now Ken Burns – one of America’s most honored filmmakers – has thrown his hat into the ring. Burns rose to prominence in 1990 when PBS aired his critically-acclaimed eleven-hour documentary on the Civil War. Since then, he has tackled subjects ranging from baseball, Mark Twain, and jazz to World War II, the war in Vietnam, and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005, he explored the life and times of Jack Johnson in a 3-1/2-hour documentary entitled Unforgivable Blackness. Now Burns has returned to the sweet science with Muhammad Ali – an eight-hour opus co-directed and written with Sarah Burns (his daughter), and David McMahon (her husband).

Muhammad Ali unfolds chronologically and is divided into four parts designated as “rounds” – a questionable designation since Ali was hardly a four-round fighter.

Round One: The Greatest (1942-1964) details Cassius Clay’s upbringing in Louisville through his first fight against Sonny Liston with considerable exposition of the Nation of Islam and the allure that it had for Clay.

Round Two: What’s My Name (1964-1970) covers Ali at his peak as a fighter [Liston II through Ali-Folley with Ali-Quarry I tacked on]. Also, Ali and the draft.

Round Three: The Rivalry (1970-1974) takes viewers from Ali-Bonavena, through Ali-Frazier I and II up to an introduction of Don King and the stirrings of Ali-Foreman.

Round Four: The Spell Remains (1974-2016) begins with “The Rumble in the Jungle” and lays out the remaining forty-two years of Ali’s life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I was one of several people asked by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018 to review Burns’s proposal for the documentary and answer a series of questions keyed to whether or not CPB should fund it. Given the excellence of Burns’s work, I began my response with the thought, “It feels presumptuous to be critiquing a proposal by Ken Burns,” and added, “I have no doubt that Ken Burns will do a masterful job in the areas that he covers. His track record speaks for itself. Muhammad Ali is important. And Mr. Burns’s proposal, coupled with his reputation for excellence as a filmmaker, promise a comprehensive entertaining look at his subject.”

The finished documentary bears out that promise. It’s thorough and nicely put together. Burns lays out both the positive aspects and also the ugly underside of the Nation of Islam without sugarcoating the principles that Ali espoused at a time in his life when he adhered to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The glorious and ultimately tragic arc of Ali’s ring career is well told. The cruelties that he visited on Joe Frazier outside the ring and Ali’s profligate womanizing are honestly addressed. The archival footage and still photos are excellent.

Keith David’s narration is smooth. Some of the talking heads are exceptionally good.

Former WBO heavyweight beltholder Michael Bentt is particularly insightful in describing Ali’s ring technique.

Professor and media commentator Todd Boyd is a welcome voice. Speaking about Ali’s taunting of Joe Frazier, Boyd declares, “Ali is making the sort of jokes that racist white people would make. I feel like, in that instance, he used his powers for evil as opposed to using them for good.”

Khalilah Ali (Muhammad’s second wife) and two of his daughters, Rasheda and Hana, provide valuable personal insights. Veronica Porche (Muhammad’s third wife) is a particularly welcome inclusion.

Journalist Salim Muwakkil makes a solid contribution. And Burns gives ample time to three wise men who covered Ali for much of his journey – journalists Robert Lipsyte, Jerry Izenberg, and Dave Kindred.

Kindred is the most lyrical of the three. Recalling Ali-Frazier III, he states, “They turned each other into monsters. That’s boxing at its cruelest. That’s what the game is. And they were at their best cruelest that night.” Later, commenting on Ali’s horribly debilitated physical condition, Kindred observes, “The game that we asked him to play to entertain us has left him looking like this.”

On the minus side, the documentary is too long. Its eight hours drag in places. Some of the material (e.g., the extensive film footage from Ali’s amateur career and some of his professional fights) could have been shortened with no loss in quality.

More significantly, Burns offers no new interpretations of Ali.

In responding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting questionnaire, I advanced the thought, “There has been an endless stream of Ali documentaries over the past half century. More are currently in production. For maximum impact and to make a maximum contribution to history, it’s not enough for Mr. Burns to do what has been done before better than it has been previously done. He has to break new ground.”

How could he break new ground?

“I hope,” my response continued, “that Mr. Burns devotes some time to the final twenty years of Ali’s life in a more than superficial way. These decades cry out for interpretation. What did Ali mean to the world over these years? Was his legacy corrupted by the calculated filing away of rough edges from his persona and the ‘sanitization’ of his image by CKX, ABG [two companies that owned commercial rights to Ali’s name, likeness, and image], and others for economic gain? Is there still an Ali message that resonates? In memory, can Ali be a force for positive change? Is there a way to harness the extraordinary outpouring of love that was seen around the world when Ali died?”

“Round Four” of the documentary could have addressed these issues. But it didn’t. The last thirty-five years of Ali’s life (everything after the end of his ring career) are compressed into twenty-five minutes. And much of this time is devoted to Ali lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The 1996 Olympics were an important marker in the public’s embrace of Ali. But they were also the point at which corporate America rediscovered Muhammad and the sanitization of his image for economic gain began. This was evident in everything from subsequent superficial advertising campaigns to the 2001 feature film starring Will Smith. Burns’s documentary doesn’t sanitize Ali. But it doesn’t talk about the sanitization either. And that sanitization was a corrosive force.

Decades ago, Alex Haley (who fashioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X with its subject) told me, “I think it’s important for future generations to know who Muhammad Ali was. So, if I were to talk to a young boy about Ali today – a young boy who wasn’t alive in the 1960s, who didn’t live through Vietnam, someone for whom Ali is history – I’d talk to that boy about principles and pride. I’d say, ‘If you really want to know about people and history in the times before you were born, you owe it to yourself to go back, not read books so much, but to go to a library where you’ll have access to daily papers and read about this man, every single day for years. That might give you some understanding of who Muhammad Ali was and what he meant to his people.'”

Every single day. Day after day. For years.

Muhammad Ali’s spirit is inside all of us. At its best, Ken Burns’s film reminds us of how charismatic, charming, electrifying, wise, foolish, generous, loving, cruel, kind, complex, simple, and great Ali could be.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published in October by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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