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June Is Month of Triumph, Travails For Irish Fighters

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My last name has been a cause of some confusion to those boxing buffs inclined to jump to convenient conclusions. More than a few times, I have been asked, “So what are you? Mexican or Puerto Rican?” To which I reply, “I’m actually Spanish-English-French-Irish-Swedish.” That answer always leaves the questioner looking just a bit perplexed. But maybe it shouldn’t; it would seem that there aren’t that many blue-eyed, fair-complexioned Mexicans and Puerto Ricans for whom I might be mistaken.

The Irish-Swedish part owes to my paternal grandmother, and in a nod to her I chose Patrick as my confirmation name in seventh grade, as it is a popular choice by parents of male children in both those countries. My late father is of primarily Latin descent (Mom was of French-English lineage), but, interestingly, Dad (whose given name also is Bernard) was nicknamed Jack during his boxing days, because, during his very fine amateur career, someone thought his crouching style, and penchant for leaping left hooks, was somewhat reminiscent of Jack Dempsey. With just six pro bouts, which resulted in a nondescript 4-1-1 record (with one KO victory), no one should ever have confused my father, a welterweight, with the “Manassas Mauler,” but I did find it fascinating that the surname Dempsey is of Irish origin, and an anglicized form of O’Diomasigh.

As TSS readers know, I periodically do look-back pieces that tie in with the anniversaries of notable fights involving notable fighters. As June draws near its end, I found it curious that the sixth month of the calendar year is so heavily dotted with such fights involving Irish or Irish-American boxers. On June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes defended his WBC heavyweight championship with a 13th-round stoppage of Gerry Cooney in the sweltering outdoor ring at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace; 23 years later, on that same date, a lumbering Irishman named Kevin McBride ended the career of an out-of-shape, disinterested Mike Tyson, who quit on his stool after six rounds in Washington, D.C.

On June 18, 1941, Joe Louis, making his 18th defense of the heavyweight championship, might have caught a break when the much lighter Billy Conn, ahead on two of the three official scorecards and even on the other, decided to go for the knockout in the 13th round at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Conn’s boldness backfired when he was starched at the 2:58 mark of that round. Asked why he hadn’t tried to continue outboxing the dangerous Louis, Conn, who had relinquished his light heavyweight title to challenge the “Brown Bomber,” famously replied, “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t be stupid?”

Conn, who was taken out in eight rounds in his rematch with Louis in 1946, also posed this question to the longest-reigning heavyweight champ after their celebrated first match. “Why couldn’t you let me hold the title for a year or so?” Conn asked.

“You had the title for 12 rounds and you couldn’t hold onto it,” the great Louis replied.

Another date to remember is June 23, 1969, when “Irish” Jerry Quarry slugged it out with Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden, for Smokin’ Joe’s New York State Athletic Association “world” heavyweight title, which was also recognized by Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois, Texas and Massachusetts. The courageous but cut-prone Quarry gave as good as he got for a while, but in a humdinger of a scrap that was named Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine, Quarry, bleeding badly over his right eye, was not allowed to come out for the eighth round by referee Arthur Mercante.

It has been said that Quarry was a philosophical disciple of the unfortunate Conn in that he attempted to outbox Muhammad Ali (who defeated him twice) and overpower Frazier (against whom he also was 0-2), but that is a misrepresentation. Quarry went right at both of those all-time greats, but came up short. It should be noted, however, that Quarry likely have been at least an alphabet champion in a later era, and that he was more than capable enough to handily outpoint feared contender Ron Lyle and blow out the power-punching Earnie Shavers in one round.

In the forewords to “Hard Times: The Triumph and Tragedy of `Irish’ Jerry Quarry,” co-authored by Steve Springer and Blake Chavez, another elite heavyweight from that period, George Foreman, says that “Jerry Quarry was the best heavyweight fighter never to have won a championship belt. When I became heavyweight champion of the world, I dodged him purposely … He fought toe to toe with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, twice. He fought heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali twice. He outboxed two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. He outpunched Earnie Shavers. He destroyed Mac Foster and schooled Ron Lyle.”

As June melts into July, it should be noted that the upcoming month is largely reserved for some of the high points of the legendary heavyweight champion with that Irish surname. On June 2, 1921, Jack Dempsey knocked out Georges Carpentier in Jersey City, N.J., to retain his title in the first round of what was then the first million-dollar gate; on July 4, 1919, Dempsey flattened Jess Willard, also in four rounds, in Toledo, Ohio, to win the championship; on July 4, 1923, he outpointed Tommy Gibbons over 15 rounds in Shelby, Montana; on July 21, 1927, he starched Jack Sharkey in seven rounds in New York City, and on July 27, 1918, he needed only 23 seconds of the first round to blow away Fred Fulton in Harrison, N.J.

Not ceding the entirety of July to the incomparable Dempsey, one of my favorite fighters, “Irish” Micky Ward, took a 10-round decision over Emanuel Augustus on July 13, 2001, in Hampton Beach, N.H., which was so action-packed it was named Fight of the Year by The Ring.

What do all these fights, and fighters, have in common? It got me to thinking. There are certain generic groupings that instantly call to mind certain characteristics. Philadelphia fighters are said to come out of their mothers’ wombs firing that city’s signature punch, the left hook; Mexican fighters are acknowledged as being tougher than a 50-cent steak, and resistant to ever taking a backward step. If those generalizations are at least somewhat accurate, shouldn’t Irish fighters also have their own category? And what would be the most common trait, the thread that ties them together?

I asked Gerry Cooney, who, like Quarry, might have been a world champion, and a good one, if he had come along at a different time, if there are certain traits, in and out of the ring, that are common to fighters who are Irish to any appreciable degree.

“All fighters, whatever their background, fight their hearts out,” “Gentleman Gerry” responded. “I always fought my heart out. I fought to win. Jerry Quarry was the same way. But, really, all fighters are that way.

“But, sure, I’m proud to be an Irish-American. The Irish take pride in being tough guys.”

That toughness likely is an inherited quality. Remember, the Irish who came to America sought to escape economic hardship in their homeland (the Irish potato famine and a resistance, in some cases, to real or imagined British authority). Those who arrived on these shores often were relegated to manual labor and continued second-class citizenship, as was the case with other ethnicities arriving on these shores. And if boxing is proof of anything, it is that hard times make for hard men. Remember the Ron Howard-directed 1992 movie about Irish immigrants in the late 19th century, “Far and Away”? Tom Cruise played the role of Joseph Donnelly, a poor lad from the old country who earned his respect and a decent wage in a strange new land as a bare-knuckle fighter in bouts staged in waterfront saloons.

Donnelly is a fictionalized version of such very real Irish fighters as John L. Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Dempsey, Gene Tunney, James J. Braddock, Conn, Mickey Walker and Tommy Loughran, whose ideological successors were Quarry, Cooney, Barry McGuigan, Ward,  Wayne McCullough, John Duddy and Andy Lee.

The Irish have had more than their fair share of successes inside the ropes, to be sure, but their golden linings frequently have been obscured by dark clouds; even Dempsey had his Long Count, Conn his failed bid to put away Louis, Quarry his of-fer against Ali and Frazier, Cooney his courageous but doomed challenge of Holmes. Ward’s fights were pure entertainment, but he lost two of three in his epic trilogy with Arturo Gatti and never quite attained elite status. One of the more poignant stories I ever reported was that of Seamus McDonagh, the Pierce Brosnan lookalike who was stopped in four rounds by a pre-championship Evander Holyfield, lost himself in the bottle and gravitated westward, where he operated a shoeshine stand in San Francisco, showing patrons a wallet-sized photo of himself in action against Holyfield to anyone who expressed even a mild interest in boxing.

Then again, perhaps my interest in Irish boxers owes in part to the fact I am a writer, and the Irish are a people who, if anything, are better known for their mastery of the written word than their determination with padded gloves on their fists. Among the celebrated men of letters to have come from the Emerald Isle are James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats.

It is my Irish-Swedish grandmother, who died when I was in grade school, who encouraged me as much as anyone to read the classics and to write about anything and everything that drew my attention. Perhaps she intrinsically understood that one of my favorite things was to watch the “Friday Night Fights” with her son, the ex-fighter, and from that bonding experience a career in boxing journalism might someday evolve for Bernard the younger. Then again, probably not.

We are all the products of multiple influences, of genetic splicing, of curiosities cast as a wide net and eventually narrowed to one or two specialized interests. When I look at my red-haired grandchildren (well, two of them, anyway), I see that part of myself that was passed on by my Grandma Lala and somewhere along the way brushed up against fighters like Jerry Quarry and Micky Ward.

In Quarry biography, there is a reference to his last fight of any real significance, in which the used-up and cut-up former contender is stopped in four rounds by Ken Norton. As a despondent Quarry laid on a table in his dressing room, Bill Slayton, Norton’s trainer, came by to extend his well wishes.

“The doctors had him on the table because he was all busted up,” Slayton is quoted as saying. Jerry asked him, “Did I disgrace myself?” To which Slaton replied, “You fought like an Irishman.”

Then, as now, that should be taken as a compliment.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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