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MAY-PAC: “HIGHEST-GROSSING” DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN “BIGGEST” OR “BEST”

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There are many ways to keep score, but in today’s bottom-line world, whoever racks up the most cash often is presumed to be the winner. And when you’re talking about a boxing match whose principal revenue-producer’s nickname is “Money,” it’s only natural that the magnitude of the financial bonanza is a major topic of discussion.

There is no disputing that the May 2 pay-per-view pairing of WBA/WBC welterweight champion Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. (47-0, 26 KOs) and WBO welter titlist Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs) will be the highest-grossing prizefight ever. Projections are for total revenues exceeding $300 million, which would shatter all records, with Mayweather expected to add another $120 million or so to his net worth of $280 million. Pacquiao, on the short end of a 60-40 split, will have to “settle” for $80 million or so to add to a personal fortune estimated at $100 million, although it can be said that a dollar buys a lot more in his native Philippines than it does in the United States.

As might be expected, the income-generating aspects of Mayweather-Pacquiao were a major topic of discussion at Wednesday’s press conference at the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, which was nearly as glitzy as the Academy Awards show in the same city just 18 days earlier. There was a red carpet, of course, and over 700 credentialed media from around the world were in attendance. It’s almost amazing that Floyd and Manny didn’t wear designer tuxedos when they stepped onto the stage.

It didn’t take long for anyone holding a microphone to focus on the almost incomprehensible amount of money this fight – which had been in a holding pattern for five years – figures to tally.

“They’re calling this the biggest payday in sports,” said Brian Custer, who, along with Kieran Mulvaney, co-hosted the offstage portion of the globally streamed presentation. “There’s no other sporting event that has generated the type of money that they expect that this fight will generate. When Floyd Mayweather fought Oscar De La Hoya, it set so many box-office records, especially when you talk about pay-per-view buys – 2.48 million. Bob Arum (the CEO of Top Rank, who promotes Pacquiao) says he expects this fight to do three to four million. Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather generated $150 million. They expect this fight to generate $300 million.”

Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather Promotions, got the gig as emcee at the podium and he, too, hammered home the point that every revenue stream is apt to turn into a raging, flood-level river.

“Hello, welcome to this amazing moment in boxing and sports history,” Ellerbe said. “We’re very excited to be making history today by officially announcing the biggest boxing event in the history of the sport, and one of the biggest events ever in all of sport – Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao.”

In introducing Mayweather, Ellerbe again referenced the spreadsheet logic that the worth of this fight is largely tied to its financial implications, and to Mayweather’s status as the world’s No. 1 PPV attraction.

“He’s been named the world’s highest-paid athlete by Forbes magazine, ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated, which is truly a testament to his great popularity around the world,” Ellerbe said. Showtime ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. also touched on the familiar theme, calling Mayweather “the pay-per-view king” who is “recognized as the world’s highest-paid athlete, for good reason.”

All well and good. But to me, and I’m sure a lot of other fight fans, rich guys getting richer isn’t a reason to pony up wallet-draining amounts for tickets in the arena (face values range from $1,500 to $7,500, with scalpers likely to get much more) or for PPV subscriptions set at $89.95 (regular TV) or $99.95 (high-definition). What matters is this: Can the action in the ring possibly live up to the incredible hype? Because if it’s one thing that we all ought to know by now, it’s that, in boxing, “highest-grossing” isn’t necessarily tantamount to “biggest” or “best.”

There have been fights that were bigger and better than Mayweather-Pacquiao is likely to be, despite technological that have made the concept of superstardom in sports a much more lucrative proposition. Consider this: Maybe the most dominant lefthanded pitcher ever, Sandy Koufax, was paid $125,000 by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, and he had to hold out to get that. In today’s dollars, Koufax’s career-high salary equates to $904,440. Another Dodgers southpaw ace, Clayton Kershaw, recently signed a seven-year, $215 million contract, with an annual payout of $30.7 million. Anyone who saw Koufax in his prime would dispute the notion that Kershaw, as good as he is, is 30 times better than Koufax, if at all.

Money skews all debate. Are Mayweather and Pacquiao, at 38 and 36, respectively, better fighters than, say, Micky Ward and the late Arturo Gatti? They are, without question. But will their May 2 showdown approach the fury and competitiveness of any or all of the three fights in the Gatti-Ward trilogy? That remains to be seen, although it wouldn’t surprise a lot of people if May-Pac doesn’t rise to the excitement level of those bouts, and any number of others involving lesser talents.

There have been highly anticipated bouts involving big-name fighters that were aesthetic disappointments, such as the welterweight unification pairing of WBC champ De La Hoya (who at the time was 31-0 with 25 knockouts) and IBF titlist Felix Trinidad (35-0, 30 KOs) on Sept. 18, 1999, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Believing himself to be too far ahead to be in danger of losing on points, the “Golden Boy” played keepaway the final three rounds and was shocked to lose a 12-round majority decision to Trinidad, whose largely ineffective aggression was nonetheless rewarded. Statistics compiled by CompuBox revealed that De La Hoya had landed 263 punches to 166 for Trinidad.

In his account of that fight in The Ring magazine, editor Nigel Collins wrote: “The real loser, regardless of what you thought of the official verdict, was boxing. When the spotlight shone the brightest and the challenge was the greatest, neither risked all in the pursuit of ultimate glory, settling for a restrained, conservative approach.”

In truth, De La Hoya-Trinidad was a decent fight if viewed from the perspective of normalcy. Given the exaggerated expectations, though, it fell short. And therein lay the danger of everyone who presumes that Mayweather and Pacquiao will engage in a war for the ages simply because the stacks of high-denomination bills are so high. Consumers contributing to the fighters’ windfall are going to assume they will be rewarded with their money’s worth of spills and thrills, which is at best an iffy proposition.

Mayweather might still be the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, but his age suggests he has at least started on the downhill slope of a remarkable career. He is also known for his splendid defense, which could make it difficult for Pacquiao, who also isn’t quite all that he once was, to find openings. If Pacquiao, a 3-to-1 underdog, finds himself constantly flailing at empty air, as some are predicting, the latest “Fight of the Century” could turn tedious fast.

Face it: if these guys give fans merely a good fight, it won’t be enough, just as De La Hoya-Trinidad wasn’t enough. Risks will have to be taken, caution thrown to the wind, and mindsets will have to be shoot-the-works. Even if all that happens, magic isn’t always made. You never know what’s going to happen until you get there. Prefight hype does not a great event make.

The bar that Mayweather and Pacquiao will try to clear has been set very, very high by fighters from other eras whose historical significance on certain dates might be unapproachable in any case. Even if “Money” and “Pac-Man” fling themselves at each other with reckless abandon, the end result won’t – can’t – approach that of these classic bouts:

Jack Johnson-James J. Jeffries: July 4, 1910, Reno, Nev.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, and his convention-flouting ways – openly consorting with white women, among other perceived transgressions – made white America nervous. Jack London – yes, the same Jack London who authored “Call of the Wild” — was at ringside for Johnson’s victory over Burns, and, writing for the New York Telegraph, he urged retired heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries to come back and restore the fight game to its proper order.

“Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face,” London wrote. “Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Jeffries, who hadn’t fought since 1904 and was fat and happy in California, didn’t want the fight. But as public pressure mounted for him, or someone else, to put Johnson in his place, he returned to training.

The first so-called “Fight of the Century” was staged in a temporary stadium specifically erected for this fight, and from the opening bell it was obvious that Jeffries, who had had to lose 70 points to get back into fighting trim, was no match for Johnson, who openly taunted him. Johnson floored him in the first round, the first time Jeffries had ever been on the canvas, and he went down twice more before promoter/referee Tex Rickard stepped in and put a stop to the slaughter in the 15th round of the scheduled 45-rounder.

Johnson walked away with $120,00 – that’s $2,918,100 in today’s dollars – and Jeffries with a nice parting gift of $117,000. He never fought again.

Joe Louis-Max Schmeling II: June 22, 1938, New York City

Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had hoped the 1936 Berlin Olympics would serve as a showcase to promote the notion of Aryan supremacy, but black American sprinter Jesse Owens put the kibosh to that by winning four gold medals. Still, the German hierarchy saw the outcome of the first Louis-Schmeling fight, on June 19, 1936, in Yankee Stadium, as proof that their ideology was correct. Schmeling, a former heavyweight champion, floored the favored and undefeated Louis with an overhand right in the fourth in the fourth round and he remained in control until closing the show on a TKO in Round 12.

For the rematch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Louis, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany,” an allusion to the likelihood of America entering the burgeoning global conflict that became World War II. Louis took the admonition to heart and, before a crowd of 75,000, again in Yankee Stadium, he went right at Schmeling from the opening bell, knocking him down four times in Round 1 before the German’s corner threw in the towel.

In Germany, the radio broadcast – which began at 3 a.m. local time – was cut off before the final knockdown. In the U.S., the victory by the “Brown Bomber” was hailed by whites and blacks alike as an affirmation of American values. Modest and clean-living, Louis was widely seen as the antithesis of Johnson.

“He’s a credit to his race – the human race,” New York sports columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote of Louis’ avenging his only previous loss with the emphatic dispatching of Schmeling.

Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier I: March 8, 1971, New York City

In “Boxing,” the epic coffee-table publication authored by Bertram Job, he notes that Ali-Frazier I “was not simply just one more heavyweight world championship bout. It was the greatest event that had taken place since two men walked on the surface of the moon three years before.”

Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, which had resulted in an enforced 3½-year absence from boxing. During the interim, Frazier had rose up to claim the title, with their first meeting also the first time that two undefeated heavyweight champions: Ali went in at 31-0, with 25 KOs, while Frazier was 26-0 with 23 wins inside the distance. In demeanor, style and appearance, the two men could hardly be more dissimilar: Ali was tall, lithe, narcissistic and controversial; Smokin’ Joe was short, stumpy, taciturn and relentless.

If the old bromide that “styles make fights,” then Ali and Frazier were made for one another. Before a sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden, the two – each man was paid a then-record $2.5 million ($14.64 million in today’s dollars) – gave every bit of themselves. Frazier, however, came away with a unanimous decision, punctuating his performance with a leaping left hook that deposited Ali onto his back in the 15th and final round.

Ali would win two subsequent matchups, and it can be argued that Part III in the series, the “Thrilla in Manila,” was even more riveting. But the anticipation of something great, which was delivered in full, and then some, in Part I perhaps is unmatched in the history of boxing.

If there is a fight that, hopefully, holds the most potential parallels to Mayweather-Pacquiao, it is Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns I, which took place on Sept. 16, 1981, in the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It also was a welterweight unification fight, with Leonard, the WBC 147-pound champion, coming in with a record of 30-1 (21) to 32-0 (30) for Hearns, the WBA ruler.

Perhaps because he had that one loss – to Roberto Duran – Leonard was the underdog, albeit a close one, at 6½-5 odds. There was a feeling in some quarters that the 6-1½ “Hitman,” with his imposing 78-inch reach, would put his physical advantages and superior punching power to good use against the quicker, more mobile Leonard.

But the action didn’t follow the script most had visualized. Hearns boxed, and masterfully, for long stretches, so much so that he began to build a substantial lead on the scorecards. Leonard, his left eye swelling, had little choice but to become the aggressor as the fight entered the championship rounds. Advised by his chief second, Angelo Dundee, that “You’re blowin’ it, son,” after the 12th round, he hurt Hearns in the 13th and was able to close the deal with a barrage of blows along the ropes in the 14th.

Six years ago, Leonard looked back at that first scrap with Hearns as the highlight of professional career, even more so than his stunning upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.

“To me, those were the great days of boxing, when there were rivalries, personalities, legends,” Leonard said. “There was such an abundance of talent in every division.

“Tommy Hearns seemed like an indestructible machine, so to beat him, I think that was my defining moment, the pinnacle. Those kind of matchups don’t come along too often.”

They seem to come along less often now, in an era where there are fewer great rivalries, personalities and legends. We look to Mayweather-Pacquiao because, where Leonard, Hearns, Duran and Hagler were able to test each other on almost a rotating basis, May and Pac were left with few attractive options except each other.

And so we pay, and pay big, for an oasis of a big in a parched landscape. Here’s hoping that Floyd and Manny provide us with the cool sip of pugilistic refreshment to carry us through until the next water hole shimmers somewhere off in the distance.

Photo by: Chris Farina / Top Rank

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

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Will Eumir Marcial be the First Filipino Boxer to Win an Olympic Gold Medal?

Over the years, some of the world’s best boxers have been Filipino. Long before Manny Pacquiao there was Pancho Villa (Francisco Villaruel Guilledo) who became a national hero at the age of twenty-one when he captured the world flyweight title with a one-sided beat-down of Jimmy Wilde in 1923, knocking the legendary Welshman into retirement. But one thing is missing from the Pinoy boxing catalog, an Olympic gold medal. There have been eight medalists in all, four silver and four bronze, but the coveted gold has proved elusive.

Eumir Marcial came close in Tokyo. He advanced to the semi-finals in the middleweight competition where he lost a razor-thin decision to his Ukrainian opponent. Two of the judges favored him, but that was one short of what was needed.

“It took a long time for me to get over it, but I came to accept that God had a different plan for me,” says Marcial who gets another crack at it next month. He survived the qualifying tournaments and is headed to Paris where he will carry the flag of the Philippines into the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.

Eumir (you-meer) Marcial grew up in Zamboanga City in the southern region of the archipelago, a two-day trip to Manila by ferry. He was introduced to boxing by his father Eulalio Marcial who besides being a farmer and a jitney driver is also the head coach of the Zamboanga City (amateur) boxing team.

Eulalio’s son is a big wheel in his native habitat, one of the more urbanized areas of the Philippines. This past October, when Eumir returned to Zamboanga City with his silver medal from the Asian Games in China, a motorcade awaited him at the airport and he was whisked to City Hall where he was feted in a ceremony organized by civic leaders.

In Las Vegas, where he was been training for the Olympics, he’s anonymous. No one genuflects when he walks into the DLX Gym in the company of his attractive wife Princess. He’s just another face in the crowd and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcial had one pro fight under his belt before the Tokyo Games. In December of 2020, he won a 4-round decision over a 3-1 opponent from Idaho on a card in Los Angeles. Not quite two months before that fight, while training at Freddie Roach’s gym, Marcial, who has two sisters, received the devastating news that his only brother Eliver had died in the Philippines of a sudden heart attack at age 39. Despite the age difference, the two were extremely close.

Marcial has had four more pro fights since then, advancing his record to 5-0 (3 KOs). In two of those fights, he had anxious moments.

In his second pro fight, he was knocked down three times in the first two frames, but gathered his wits about him and stopped his opponent in round four. In his next outing, a 6-rounder on the undercard of a Showtime PPV, he fought through a bad gash over his right eye, the result of an accidental head butt.

“I learned a lot from those fights,” says Marcial, “and they will make me a better Olympian than I was in 2021.”

Marcial spent nearly 10 years in the Philippines Air Force, but as somewhat of a civilian employee, spending little time around aircraft. He attracted a lot of attention after winning the AIBA world junior championship as a 15-year-old bantamweight in Kazakhstan in 2011. The Air Force seized on his growing fame to make him a recruiting specialist.

The word icon is over-used, but not when applied to Manny Pacquiao who overcame abject poverty to become an international superstar. “He was an inspiration to me,” says Marcial who references “PacMan” as Sir Manny or Senator Manny when he speaks about him.

The two would become well-acquainted. Pacquiao co-promoted Marcial’s last pro fight in Manila which was nationally televised in the Philippines and billed as a homecoming for Eumir who hadn’t fought in a Manila ring in five years. (He knocked out his Thai opponent in the fourth round.)

Marcial recalls some advice that Pacquiao gave him: “He said to me, ‘the higher you get, the more humble you should be.’”

Humbleness comes natural to the affable Marcial who is unstinting in his praise of those who have helped him along on his journey. “I would not have gotten through the qualifying tournament for the Paris games if not for my coach Kay Koroma,” he says.

Nowadays, whenever a Filipino boxer appears for a photo-op, Sean Gibbons is certain to be standing close by. Gibbons, who has homes in Las Vegas and the Philippines, has had an amazing ride since the days when he plied the Oklahoma and Midwest circuits, driving hundreds of miles each month to small shows in the sticks, transporting carloads of journeymen boxers with him. “[Sean Gibbons] helps us with accommodations, rental cars, whatever we need, and I am so grateful to him,” says Marcial of the man (pictured above on the left) who wears many hats but is perhaps best described as a facilitator.

Making matters more daunting for Marcial going forward, his weight class was eliminated when the governing body of the Olympics added a new weight category for women, subtracting one from the men. A middleweight (165-pound ceiling) in Tokyo, he will perform as a light heavyweight (176-pound ceiling) in Paris.

Eumir Marcial will return to the pro ranks regardless of what happens in France, but lassoing that elusive Olympic gold medal would likely bring him more joy than anything he may accomplish at the next level.

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A Pearl from the Boxing Vault: Fritzie Zivic Will See You Now 

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“He was a great teacher,” said Billy Conn. “[Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…”

Fritzie Zivic never asked why. He never asked if his opponent hit hard, if his opponent deserved the shot, if the opponent would be tough. He just said “yes” and signed the contract. While [Jake] LaMotta, who somehow gained the reputation for fearlessness of which Zivic was more deserving, was asked about Charley Burley, he is supposed to have muttered “Why do I need Burley when I have Zivic?” Zivic, of course, stepped out of his weight class to lose an under-celebrated series with LaMotta, and was one of the few top white contenders to ever meet the avoided Burley.

Perhaps this fearlessness is the reason why Zivic may have fought a better array of boxers than any fighter in history. In addition to the multiple contests with LaMotta and Burley, he met Kid Azteca, Bob Montgomery, Beau Jack, Henry Armstrong, Freddie Cochrane, Lew Jenkins, Izzy Jannazzo, Phil Furr, Bummy Davis, Sammy Angott, Lou Ambers and Jimmy Leto, something very close to a “who’s who” of boxing’s golden age, and he met most of them more than once. He didn’t always win, but he always gave his all and for this the people and the promoters of his hometown of Pittsburgh and beyond loved him. Other fighters? Not so much.

“He’s the dirtiest fighter I ever met,” claimed Charley Burley after his disputed points loss in their first fight. “He thumbed me over and over again.”

“When you fight for a living,” Zivic would explain years later, “if you’re smart you fight with every trick you know. If I hadn’t known nine zillion of them I never could have won the welterweight title from Henry Armstrong.”

In the modern era, fighters can come to a title without even matching a top contender. Forty fights is a career. But in the 1940s, it was unusual to see a champion with so few fights, even a young one. Like other trades, to reach the top of the heap a fighter had to become a master craftsman, the tools at his disposal needed to be of the highest quality. To this end, fighters needed to be matched often or tough or both. But there were and are some fighters who can provide a special lesson to that prospect or contender, a boxing lesson that, win or lose, crystallizes the nature of the sport for the man in the opposite corner.

Fritzie Zivic was such a fighter. Unquestionably world class in his own right, Zivic was a quick learner who took his “zillion tricks” and applied them to roughhouse boxing that tested every corner of his opponent, technical, physical and mental. Anybody that beat him looked destined for the top, anyone that lost could still pick up more than a thing or two. Unquestionably teak-tough, a stinging if not prohibitive puncher, he could box inside or out and a tight defense and iron chin kept him to two legitimate stoppage losses in a 232-fight career. But unquestionably, Zivic’s greatest strength were his smarts, the tricks, traps and roughhouse tactics he absorbed like a sponge during his eighteen years in the ring.

In December of 1936, Zivic would teach some of these tricks to a wonder-kid tearing his way up the middleweight division, one Billy Conn. Zivic was not yet in his own absolute prime but he was twenty-three and listed as a veteran of some sixty-eight fights. Still a teenager, Conn would at least have had bulk to fall back on as a substitute for experience, weighing some seven pounds heavier on fight night at just under 157lbs.

Zivic started fast, attacking with both hands and Conn allowed him his way, trying to outbox and outpunch the smaller man in the pocket. This had become Billy’s habit, fighting, as he did, in a fan-friendly manner that had made him Pittsburgh’s favorite prospect. He had been in a desperately close series with resident local tough and brutal infighter “Honey Boy” Jones. According to some, Conn had been lucky to emerge from their third fight with a decision, his inability to adapt costing him dear in points and punches. Now Zivic fought in a style intent on taking advantage of the same flaws Jones had partially exposed, and Billy was paying for it in blood.

“Through two torrid rounds,” wrote Regis Welsh for The Pittsburgh Press, “Fritzie belted Conn to a fare-thee-well, but never quite touched the vital spot. At the end of the second…[Conn] was smeared with blood from a cut on his left cheek and a badly battered mouth.”

The press hadn’t yet been enlightened to Conn’s iron chin and it’s quite possible that Fritzie had found the “vital spot” over and again throughout the fight. As time would tell, even history’s mightiest puncher would struggle to get over on the near invulnerable Conn. However, at the beginning of the third Billy looked “tired, weary and worn out” and “in the fourth and fifth, Zivic, in a rushing charge, bore Conn to neutral ropes and belted him about the head and body until it seemed that the anticipated kayo was inevitable.”

It needs to be said though, that in spite of his fighting the wrong fight, Conn was doing his own good work, mainly to the body. Some reports credit Conn with turning the fight with a body punch as early as the third, but whilst the supposed fight of two halves (Zivic winning the first five, Conn coming back in the second half of the fight) did not occur, it’s unlikely that Conn’s hooks had the supposed affect this early. Only two judges scored the third for Conn, and all three gave Zivic the fourth. Conn wouldn’t win a round on all three judges’ scorecards until the sixth.

It was in the sixth round that Conn cracked, and went outside. In the seventh and eighth Conn “boxed beautifully…he danced, feinted, pranced and punched.”  Zivic, now out of his element as a bullying counterpuncher and destructive infighter struggled to get past Billy’s “piston-like” jab. Conn had been trained for this by defensive specialist Johnny Ray from the very beginning, but he had been unable to make the transition in the ring until Fritzie had forced it. As one would expect, Zivic now changed tactics too, gunning almost exclusively for the body, only hunting Conn with power punches, bringing him the eighth round on one card. In the tenth, they went at it toe-to-toe again. “The boys used everything but knives,” stated the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “A wild-eyed crowd looked on.” The final round was shared on the three official cards resulting in a split decision win for Conn (6-3-1, 5-4-1, 4-5-1).

“From a mile in the rear to a nose in front takes heart in a man or a horse,” wrote Welsh in The Press. “Particularly in a novice of Conn’s immature ring experience against a seasoned veteran of Zivic’s type.”

Zivic’s type indeed! Fritzie was hell on wheels for a young fighter, one that hadn’t seen a top class cutie, never mind a back-alley wizard. But Conn knew what that fight had been worth, and he knew he was the better for it.

“He was a great teacher. [Fighting Zivic] was like going to college for five years, just boxing him ten rounds…I learned a lot in that fight. He’s a tough fighter, but I believe I’m just as tough.”

It’s a double lesson for a relative novice like Conn. First, he remembers every foul, every slither out of sight of the referee, every feint that cost him a round, every dig inside on the break. But it also teaches him that he can take it, that he can get in there with world-class fighters who know more than him and beat them. The first lesson is priceless, but the second can be the key to a career. Over the next twelve months the young Conn, who had struggled so desperately with Honey Boy Jones only three months earlier, would defeat great champions and ring legends such as Teddy Yarosz, Young Corbett III and Vince Dundee before adding Fred Apostoli and Solly Krieger and annexing the world’s light heavyweight title in 1939.

In 1941 he would be matched with the great Joe Louis. It would be unfair to Conn’s great trainer Ray, and to Conn himself, to lay too much credit for Conn’s legendary performance at Zivic’s door, but Conn’s tactics against Louis—mixing careful, punch-picking infighting with beautiful movement and judge of distance on the outside—were basically a more perfect version of the tactics he used in rounds six, seven, eight and nine against Zivic.

As for the teacher, he was naturally disappointed and was keen on a rematch, but fate was to intervene. Zivic would contract pneumonia the following summer whilst training for a match with Vince Dundee.

Chet Smith, then editor of The Pittsburgh Press: “There didn’t seem to be a chance for him…so we collected all we knew about him, wrote it into a story and sent it to the composing room…There were two weeks when it was touch and go with Fritzie, and the hospital folk refused to give out a single cheerful bulletin. We knew of course when he finally came out of the hospital that his boxing days were ended.”

I guess Zivic would have snorted at that. However they build them out in Zivic’s ancestral Croatia, they build them tough because Zivic was not only far from ended as a boxer, he would get better. There were more lessons to give out. The greatest fighter that would ever draw breath, he needed a lesson.

“I learned more in these two fights with Zivic than in all my other fights put together!”

So said Ray Robinson after pulling off the extraordinary feat of stopping Zivic in January of 1942. But this was the second time Zivic, a rarity in that he never discriminated against opposition on the grounds of colour or quality, had met Robinson. The first had occurred when Zivic had already slipped past his absolute prime, in October of 1941.

“It might have been a draw. It was close,” wrote the correspondent for The Telegraph Herald, but Zivic, the heavier man for a change, looked unsurprised at the unanimous decision against him. In the middle rounds he had, to a degree, had his way with Robinson but Sugar’s explosive domination of the ninth had left him struggling and at no time had he solved the Robinson jab. He knew he was beaten. “[Robinson] took a unanimous decision with such a convincing demonstration of speed and power,” wrote United Press ringside reporter Jack Cuddy, “that he will be favored to win the title.”

Robinson was learning from Zivic the same thing Conn had, that he could master a man at the next level, a veteran, a bigger one at that. But he learned more specific and unpleasant lessons in this fight, too.

“He was about the smartest I ever fought,” Robinson would later say in conversation with writer WC Heinz.  “…he showed me how you can make a man butt open his own eye…he’d slip my lead, then he’d put his hand behind my neck and he’d bring my eye down on his head. Fritzie was smart.”

He also taught Ray that he could coast a little in those middle rounds, that at the highest level he didn’t need to put forth every ounce in every moment, that he could let the occasional round go as long as he was paying attention. The same pattern that Sugar used in his first fight with Zivic he would use in his sixth fight with LaMotta, for the middleweight title, contesting the early rounds, easing off in the middle, and finishing so strongly as to stop the unstoppable, lifting the title on a late TKO. He sharpened that tool for the first time against Zivic.

By now Zivic was almost past the stage of teaching fighters of Robinson’s calibre lessons, but he had one more to give in their second fight just three months later.

Firstly, Robinson showed the importance of a lesson learned, nullifying Zivic’s darker arts, like Conn he was a better fighter for his 10 rounds in the ring with Fritzie. He worked hard to the body in clinches he couldn’t contest with craft or strength (something else he would repeat against LaMotta in their title meeting) and he was careful to break clinches at any cost when Zivic looked to utilize those lethal butts. When his opponent tried holding and hitting on the referee’s blindside, instead of trading he would dance away. Robinson had learned that the man who owned the real estate would win the negotiation and Zivic was being outclassed as a result. Of the first six rounds he won perhaps the first. In the seventh though, Robinson momentarily forgot himself and Fritzie delivered his last lesson. As Robinson came in Zivic stepped back and cracked Robinson with a left hook. “It really hurt. I was coming in and it met me on the chin!” Robinson would say afterwards that it was the hardest punch he had ever been hit with, according to The Afro American.

In the middle of the ninth, Robinson dropped Zivic with a perfect mirror image of the punch he had been shown in the seventh, using the right hand to ditch the heavier man as he was on the way in. Up at nine, Zivic never recovered, and although he was likely stopped prematurely in the tenth, he had nothing left to teach, at least not to Sugar. At 28-0, Ray, like Billy before him, saw his 20 rounds with Zivic as nothing less than finishing school for one of the most storied careers in boxing. They are only two of the dozens of fighters that Fritzie took to school, but perhaps they are the gifts he helped in giving that we can be most grateful for.

For the purposes of this article we’ve taken a look at three Zivic losses. I hoped, by looking at his fights with Billy Conn and Sugar Ray, we might see the benefit of letting a top prospect meet a dangerous genius-thug like Fritzie, the self-proclaimed “second dirtiest fighter in history” (he reserved top spot for Harry Greb). But Zivic did lose those fights. Let it not be forgotten then that between losing to Conn and Robinson, Zivic lifted the world’s welterweight title, destroying with a mixture of aggression, uppercuts and that dirty bag of tricks for which he remains famous, one Henry Armstrong. Zivic finished Armstrong as title material, beating him for the championship of the world not once but twice.

A 4-1 underdog, Zivic had been magnanimous about his own chances going in to their opener.

“If I lose it won’t be the first fight I lost, and if I win it, it won’t be the first fight I won.”

But Zivic had learned his own brutal lessons across the years and would be merciless in bringing them to bear. Also, across the years, between his title win and these more enlightened times, Zivic’s achievement in beating Armstrong has been undermined. Armstrong was old. He was past his best. Zivic had to get dirty to do it. All of that may be true, but it needs to be remembered that Armstrong had gone undefeated in thirteen bouts prior to meeting Zivic and that all of these fights were in defence of his welterweight crown, outside of one, his celebrated tilt at a world middleweight title. It needs to be remembered that in the previous three months, Armstrong had knocked out world-class contenders Phil Furr and Lew Jenkins. It needs to be remembered that Armstrong had his own bag of tricks, and that referee Arthur Donovan’s famous refrain, “if you guys wanna fight like that it‘s okay with me” was prompted by an Armstrong foul and not a Zivic one.

Most of all it needs to be remembered that Zivic never asked why, he just signed the contract. Whichever way you want to look at it, they just don’t make them like that anymore.

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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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