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Slight Return: Andre Ward Crushes Paul Smith In the Ninth

Matt McGrain

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It’s Christmas of 2011 and as he sits down to pray before the Christmas turkey, Andre Ward is First in Line to The Throne. Manny Pacquiao has been dispatched by nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez and it is now Ward who is able to gaze at Floyd Mayweather’s star unfettered. No other pugilist stands between him and the undisputed #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He has a style that is reminiscent of Mayweather’s too, the sportsman’s parody of hit-and-don’t-be-hit; he was fast of hand, foot and mind, and he is armed with the nickname “Son of God”, the type of moniker that radiates the same arrogance as “Money” Mayweather.

Eight days earlier, Son of God had thrashed Carl Froch in Atlantic City to become the lineal champion at 168lbs. Froch, who has only recently been stripped from pound-for-pound lists himself for inactivity, was as world-class an opponent as could be found for Ward in his division and he beat the Englishman out of sight. I gave only one of the twelve rounds to Froch, who was as brave and game as always but who was stripped of his defence and robbed of his offence by a fighter who was a class removed from him.

It wasn’t that he just out-jabbed and out-boxed Froch – this, everyone had expected – he out-muscled him. He bullied him. He out-fought him up close where Froch’s superior strength and size were meant to buy him points. Instead, he was roughed up badly by the stronger, dirtier American who mixed his otherworldly left-hook, right uppercut, left hook type combinations with a healthy dose of forearm and head when challenged in a like manner. The fight was not close. The fight, a meeting between two of the ten best super-middleweights of all time, was embarrassingly one-sided. It may be the best performance of the decade.

He was twenty-seven years old and entering his physical prime; he was heir apparent; my opinion was that we were looking at an all-time great talent who would mop up the leftovers at 168lbs, probe for superfights at 160lbs before moving up to dominate at 175lbs. I thought we were seeing the man who would move Floyd Mayweather over.

Four years later:

Andre Ward has just boxed his first contest in little over nineteen months and has been almost universally stripped of any pound-for-pound recognition at all, because, as the man said, how can you be the best at something if you don’t do it? A short rest on the laurels seemed reasonable; after all, there wasn’t a lot left at the weight for him to do – but that short rest turned into a difficult dispute over promotional rights (now resolved). Since, opposition has emerged which is so good that not only would an unbeaten Ward have risen to the pound-for-pound #1 slot, still one of the most affluent position in all of sports, questions have arisen as to whether or not Ward could emerge triumphant. One down there is Gennady Golovkin, a pure stalker of lethal intent, as terrifying a spectre as can be seen in the ring currently. One up, there is Sergey Kovalev, perhaps not quite as special as Golovkin, but in real terms the harder assignment due to his size. Ward, who remains the legitimate king of the super-middles, even if he tarnishes the crown he wears with inactivity, has spent time flirting with light-heavyweight just recently.

His last fight at 168lbs was fought almost three years ago – a liftetime in boxing terms. It was against the reigning 175lbs champion Chad Dawson, who volunteered to dip down to super-middle where Ward happily obliged and then obliterated him. Next up was Edwin Rodriguez, in an over-the-weight super-middle contest, Ward a happy winner on points; finally, tonight, Ward weighed in as a light-heavyweight, coming in at just under the agreed 172lbs. His opponent, Paul Smith, out of Liverpool, England, didn’t make the 172lb limit; he didn’t even manage the 175lb limit; Paul Smith, now 35-6, weighed in at 176lbs. Worse still, when an additional weight limit of 181lbs was introduced for 11 am on the day of the fight, Smith decided not to bother with that one, either, weighing in at 184lbs. Mutters began to circulate that Smith, who was rumoured to have weighed around 180lbs just two days before, had turned up in the States out of shape, in attendance just to pick up his paycheck. For a limited but brave fighter like Smith, looking at Ward and trying to figure out a way to win must be the same as you or I trying to launch ourselves up Mount Everest without oxygen. Of course Smith took the fight, but once he and his team settled down to uncovering a strategy that might defeat Ward, it is possible none could be found. Whatever the truth of the mater it was clear: something had gone wrong in Smith’s camp.

Still, as a come-back opponent, Smith was probably just the right side of acceptable for any super-middleweight other than Ward. Although he must now be regarded as a professional loser at the absolute elite level, Smith, in his two fights with Arthur Abraham, looked like a real test for a world-class fighter. Their first fight, especially, was close and exciting for all that cries of robbery at the decision in favour of Abraham were a little hysterical. The Englishman fought a very good fight and was probably deserving of the rematch he was granted – a fight he clearly lost. Fellow Brit George Groves dusted him in just two back in 2011, a sharp right hand over the ear discombobulating him and another almost identical one ending proceedings. James Degale did the same job with the left in the ninth round a year before. The point is that there are many British super-middleweights that Ward could have called upon to welcome him back that are considerably better than Smith. The joke, at least on the British side of the Atlantic, is that Andre Ward has decided to take on the second best super-middleweight in Paul Smith’s family. On these shores, brother Callum is held to be the best of the four boxing Smith brothers.

So it can come as no surprise that what we saw tonight in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California was Paul Smith defeated without resistance in a one-sided fight that qualifies, basically, as a workout for Ward; a chance for him to get the meat back on his gristle, so to speak.

He certainly found his jab quickly enough, crackling it out throug the first round as Smith moved around the ring getting hit, Ward’s golden gloves ablur. The Oakland man remained standing between the first and second rounds and padded back out to jab Smith to the ropes in the opening moments of the second; Smith didn’t seem to panic outwardly, but he also appeared hypnotised by the jabs snaking into and between his high guard. Bereft of a meaningful plan, he likely had won no ten second spell of the fight by the end of the third, although he had managed to take away Ward’s left-hook with his high guard. Still, Ward was finding him with the late punches in combinations and with that jab.

Ward flirted with a guard-splitting uppercut in the fourth and began to relax into the fluidity of his offence, spared the vague possibility of any rust gumming up the works by the fact that Smith wasn’t really bothering to fight. Ward went to the body in the fifth but was twice warned to keep them up by the referee, sending him back to the head, but hurtful jabs to the body were his preferred flavour at the opening of the sixth. Pegged to the canvas by his own limitations and Ward’s brilliance, Smith looked a well-worn punching bag and as the round wound down as Ward’s right handsbegan to creep in.

Finally Smith’s moment came – and went – in the seventh as he landed a stinging right hand over the top, winging a left behind it, catching Ward near flush. This punch, if nothing else, reminded us that Ward had a solid chin. Ward celebrated this news with surgical precision, opening Smith up with punches, cracking him with rights of his own at bell. That such a one-sided fight had been allowed to reach the eighth seemed both strange and explicable in the light of Smith’s safety-first strategy. He bled freely from the left-eye but seemed determined to take his beating like a man, walking in, dipping and jabbing for openings, generally finding a punch for his trouble, a left uppercut up the middle the pick of the bunch. Smith, his face now a mask of red, looked a little sorry for himself in his corner between the eighth and ninth.

The advice dished out to Ward in his corner, meanwhile, was chilling – Ward was to “stop fooling around” and “ice” Smith. Generally, Ward doesn’t take corner advice well. Like his friend and mentor Bernard Hopkins he has the look of a man who may be content to listen politely but knows his own mind. On this occasion, he seemed happy to oblige. Ward beat Smith to a standstill, chucking rights over the top and into Smith’s seemingly unprotected face; suddenly Smith’s guard was meaningless and Ward was free to do what he wanted. Smith never quit – he was front and centre throughout – but when the towel came fluttering from Smith’s corner I felt relief rather than disappointment. The glorified spar was at an end.

Smith, who embarrassed himself with his inability to make an agreed weight well above the 168lbs limit he favours, will return to the UK and have success at British and European level. He will deserve that success. He’s a heart-fuelled fighter, for all that he never really showed that in Oakland this evening. And Ward? What does this victory mean for him?

Something and nothing, I would suggest. I suspect that Ward will re-emerge on a handful of pound-for-pound lists over coming weeks but don’t believe the hype. Beating Smith does not make Ward one of the ten most accomplished fighters in the world and wouldn’t even if he had out-boxed Godzilla back in 2013. Ward has a long way to go to claim his likely birthright, that of the best fighter in the world and his destruction of Paul Smith brings him no closer than Odysseus blinding the Cyclops brought him closer to home. There is an ocean to cross and suitors to best before he ascends to that throne, if he ever does.

It must also be uncertain whether his future even lies at super-middleweight. Ward hasn’t made 168lbs since the end of 2013 and the 172lb figure was Ward’s idea. Smith, ironically, favoured 170lbs but Ward declined – what was it about making 170lbs that Ward disliked? If he can still make super-middleweight with ease, German Robert Stieglitz and Brit James DeGale will be keen opposition, but are far from being marquee names. Arthur Abraham is ranked #1 in the division currently but Ward beat him twelve rounds to zero four years ago; it is unlikely that there will be public appetite for a rematch. Despite the one-sided nature of their contest, a rematch with Froch would be valid given Froch’s form since their first match, but the Englishman speaks of meeting Ward again only on the condition that they box in his hometown of Nottingham. This will not happen.

So perhaps Ward’s future lies with the twin moons of Golovkin and Kovalev still. Certainly nobody will be complaining about the opposition on the night of those meetings.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Crawford, Canelo, Caleb Plant and More

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Crawford, Canelo, Caleb Plant and More

Although a lot of disinformation comes out of the mouths of boxing promoters, Bob Arum was apparently serious when he broached the idea of a two-fight series between Terence Crawford and Conor McGregor, the first fight to be conducted under MMA rules and the second under boxing rules.

Crawford is amenable. “I just have to have the proper time to prepare myself,” he told ESPN’s Dan Rafael. “…I haven’t been in that (wrestling) environment in a long time, but most definitely I feel I can compete with anyone given the proper time to train on the MMA side, being that I have a wrestling background.”

Crawford, 32, last wrestled in middle school so he would certainly need a refresher course. However, he would have a better chance of defeating Conor McGregor in an MMA match than McGregor would have of defeating him in a boxing match. So, if Arum’s proposed two-fight series ever comes off, the tailpiece may be unnecessary.

– – –

As first reported by ESPN’s Steve Kim, Andy Ruiz Jr. has dumped trainer Manny Robles. According to Kim’s report, Ruiz’s father informed Robles of the decision and said it was Al Haymon’s idea.

Andy Ruiz appears to be one of those people that can gain weight just looking at food. He weighed 297 ½ pounds for his pro debut at age 19, carried 268 pounds for his first meeting with Anthony Joshua, and ballooned up to 283 ½ for the rematch after leading reporters to believe that he had actually slimmed down for the sequel.

Ruiz, noted Kim, went from a feel-good story to a cautionary tale in just six months.

– – –

Who ya’ gonna believe?

A certain disreputable web site, bragging that it had an exclusive, told its readers that Canelo Alvarez had settled on Billy Joe Saunders as his next opponent and that they would meet on Cinco de Mayo in Las Vegas. The next day, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, a far more trustworthy source, reported that Ryota Murata had emerged as the frontrunner and that negotiations were underway to stage the fight in Japan.

Perhaps it makes sense for Canelo to promote his brand in a new market. However, if he fights Murata, who holds a WBA belt, he would reportedly be dropping back to 160 and at age 29 he appears to have outgrown the weight class.

Stay tuned.

– – –

If Caleb Plant were an NBA player, his name would be Kevin Love. Plant, who recently married FOX/PBC reporter Jordan Hardy, is the only U.S.-born, non-Hispanic white person among the various champions in the 17 weight divisions.

Plant, who hails from tiny Ashland City, Tenn. (23 miles from Nashville) defends his IBF super middleweight title on Feb. 15 at Nashville’s 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena. In the opposite corner will be Germany’s Vincent Feigenbutz who will be making his U.S. debut.

The 24-year-old Feigenbutz, who turned pro at age 16, has won 10 straight and 30 of his last 31. He represents a big step up in class from Plant’s last opponent, Mike Lee, who was in way over his head.

– – –

A sad note from South Africa: Five days after the death of trailblazer Peter Mathebula, his widow, Emma Gabaitsiwe Mathebula, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Peter Mathebula’s funeral, originally set for Saturday, has been pushed back until Tuesday and will now be a joint funeral.

Mathebula, who won the WBA world flyweight title in 1980, basically died a pauper, having sold all of  his boxing memorabilia to keep his head above water. His heirs had reached out to the government for assistance in defraying the costs of his burial.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 82: Jason Quigley Returns to SoCal and More

David A. Avila

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Southern California prizefighting heats up with Jason Quigley headlining a fight card in Orange County and then, two days later, another fight card takes place in the heart of Los Angeles.

Ireland’s Quigley (17-1, 13 KOs) faces Mexico’s Fernando Marin (16-4-3, 12 KOs) on Thursday Jan. 23, at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions fight card live.

Quigley, 28, seeks to reclaim territory lost when he suffered a defeat last July against Tureano Johnson. Ironically, Marin would lose 10 days later in Hollywood to super welterweight contender Serhii Bohachuk.

For several years Quigley had trained in Southern California but decided to change trainers and location. He moved to Great Britain and still prepares near his native country but primarily fights in the U.S.

At one time Quigley clamored for a match against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin or Saul “Canelo” Alvarez but now finds himself trying to prove he belongs in the upper tier of the middleweight division. It’s loaded with talent.

Also on the same fight card will be popular North Hollywood super welterweight Ferdinand Kerobyan who was headed to contender status when he ran into Blair “the Flair” Cobbs. At the time Cobbs was an unknown quantity but no longer.

Kerobyan (13-1, 8 KOs) meets Azael Cosio (21-8-2) in an eight-round clash in the semi-main event at OC Hangar. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Red Boxing International

On Saturday Jan. 27, Red Boxing International hosts its first boxing card of the year at Leonardo’s Night Club located at 6617 Wilson Ave. L.A. 90001. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Super welterweight Bryan Flores (13-1, 6 KOs) meets Brandon Baue (15-17) in the main event  in the first event of the year for the ambitious promotion company. For the past two years Flores fought primarily in Tijuana, Mexico where he racked up six wins. Now he’s back on Southern California soil.

Another match features lightweights Angel Israel Rodriguez (5-0) facing off against Braulio Avila (3-6) in a six-round fight.

Rodriguez fights out of Pico Rivera, Calif. but recently fought in Costa Rica where he won by first round knockout in November. He will be fighting Avila who just fought two weeks ago at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif.

It’s a long fight card with 11 bouts on the schedule.

JRock and Rosario

Boxing fans received another lesson on never underestimating a ranked contender regardless of the name recognition.

Jeison Rosario knocked out Julian “J Rock” Williams who was making the first defense of the WBA and IBF super welterweight world titles he won last year in my selection as “Fight of the Year.”

Rosario walked in with little recognition and was thought to be a soggy piece of bread for Williams. The long armed Dominican fighter walloped Williams in front of his hometown fans in Philadelphia. It was yet another warning for fans to understand that anyone who steps in the boxing ring ranked as a contender can do the unthinkable. In this case Rosario knocked out the champion in five rounds.

Many felt Williams was far too skilled, especially on the inside where he showcased those skills last May against former titlist Jarret Hurd. It was a remarkable display of the art of inside fighting. But against Rosario, he never got a chance to exhibit those skills.

The loaded super welterweight division has another dangerous champion in Rosario.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. 6 p.m. DAZN – Jason Quigley (17-1) vs Fernando Marin (16-4-3).

Sat. 6 p.m. Showtime – Danny Garcia (35-2) vs Ivan Redkach (23-4-1).

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Recalling Three Big Fights in Miami, the Site of Super Bowl LIV

Arne K. Lang

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The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs collide on Feb. 2 in Miami in Super Bowl LIV (54) in what will assuredly be the biggest betting event to ever play out on American soil. It’s the 10th Super Bowl for the South Florida metropolis which ties it with New Orleans as the most frequent destination for football’s premier attraction.

With its heavily Latin population, Miami would seem to be natural for big fights. However, this hasn’t been the case. Several great champions fought here, including Roberto Duran who twice defended his world lightweight title in these parts, but these weren’t big fights. In the case of Duran, his opponents were lightly regarded and the Panamanian legend was still three years away from his first encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard, a match that increased his name recognition a hundred-fold.

There were, however, three fights in Miami that summoned the interest of virtually all of America’s A-list sportswriters. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello (Nov. 12, 1982)

Alexis Arguello (72-5) was bidding to become boxing’s first four-division champion. In his way stood WBA junior welterweight title-holder Aaron Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs), a man now widely regarded as the best 140-pound boxer of all time.

Arguello, a Miami resident, having been exiled from his Nicaraguan homeland by the Sandanista rebel occupation, was a textbook boxer who defeated his opponents with surgical efficiency. Pryor was a typhoon. He mowed down his opponents with relentless pressure. It was a great style match-up and it didn’t disappoint. Contested before nearly 30,000 at Miami’s iconic Orange Bowl, Pryor vs. Arguello was a fight for the ages.

“There was power, finesse, poise, courage and a tremendous ebb and flow,” said Associated Press writer Ed Schuyler who dubbed it Manila in Miniature. In the ninth, 11th, and particularly the 13th rounds, Arguello hit Pryor with straight right hands that would have felled an ordinary fighter, but Pryor had an iron chin.

In the 14th, Pryor buckled Arguello’s knees with a straight right hand and then unloaded a furious combination as Arguello fell back against the ropes. He was out on feet when referee Stanley Cristodoulou intervened and he would lay prone on the canvas for several minutes before he could be removed to his dressing room.

Sonny Liston vs. Muhammad Ali (Feb. 25, 1964)

If you happen to find a poster for this fight with the name Muhammad Ali on it, don’t buy it. It’s bogus. Liston met up with Muhammad Ali in their second fight. In their first encounter, Liston opposed Cassius Clay.

Clay’s Louisville sponsors, after a brief flirtation with Archie Moore, settled on Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Angelo operated out of his brother Chris Dundee’s gym located at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The fighter who took the name Muhammad Ali trained here and kept a home in Miami for most of his first six years as a pro.

Clay/Ali was 22 years old and had only 19 fights under his belt when he was thrust against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Liston was riding a 28-fight winning streak after back-to-back first-round blowouts of Floyd Patterson.

In a UPI survey, 43 of 46 boxing writers picked Liston. “Clay has no more chance of stopping Liston than the old red barn had of impeding a tornado,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine.

This would be the first of many famous fights for Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious when Liston quit after the sixth frame citing an injured shoulder. What is not widely known, however, is that the fight, which was shown on closed-circuit in the U.S. and Canada, was a bust at the gate. The 16,448-seat Convention Center was only half full.

The expectation that Liston would take the lippy kid out in a hurry depressed sales, as did sky-high ticket prices ($250 tops when $100 was the norm). And there may have been more subtle factors. “This may not be the best place for a fight between two Negroes,” wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, cognizant that people of color were not welcome as guests at the ritzy beachfront hotels along Collins Avenue.

Jack Sharkey vs. W. L. (Young) Stribling (Feb. 27, 1929)

A big fight, as I define it, doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. An important fight that produces an upset automatically becomes a bigger fight in hindsight. The Sharkey-Stribling fight of 1929 didn’t draw an immense crowd by Jack Dempsey standards, but the turnout, reportedly 35,000, far exceeded expectations and the fight – which preceded Miami’s first Orange Bowl football game by six years — really established Miami as a potentially good place for a big sporting event.

Promoted by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, the bout was originally headed to a dog racing track but it quickly became obvious that a larger venue was needed. A stadium was erected on a Miami Beach polo field, taking the name Flamingo Park (not to be confused with the thoroughbred track of the same name).

Slated for 10 rounds, the bout was conceived as one of two “eliminators” to find a successor to Gene Tunney who had retired. What gave the fight it’s primary allure, however, was the North-South angle. Sharkey, born Joseph Zukauskas, hailed from Boston. Stribling, born into a family that traveled the fair circuit with a variety act, was from Macon, Georgia.

The fight, which aired on the NBC radio network, was a dud, a drab affair won by Sharkey who had the best of it in virtually every round. Both went on to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title. Stribling, dubbed the “King of the Canebrakes” by Damon Runyon, lost by TKO in fight that was stopped late in the 15th round. Sharkey took the title from Schmeling on a split decision after losing their first meeting on a foul.

Young Stribling died in a motorcycle crash at age 28, by which time he had engaged in 251 documented bouts, the great majority of which were set-ups. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91.

—-

The strong earnings of the Sharkey-Stribling bout inevitably drew the Madison Square Garden Corporation back to Miami for an encore. On Feb. 27, 1930, Jack Sharkey opposed England’s “Fainting” Phil Scott. Four years later, on March 1, 1834, Primo Carnera defended his world heavyweight title here against former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, the Philadelphia Phantom.

Both bouts were big money losers, as were the great majority of major fights during this period. Eight months after the Sharkey-Stribling cash cow, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Few Americans could afford to vacation in Florida, let alone travel anywhere for a big fight.

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