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The Night Andrew Golota Forever Became “The Foul Pole”

Bernard Fernandez

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He could have been great. Or maybe not.

The only thing that is indisputable about former heavyweight contender Andrew Golota is that he will forever be remembered as one of the dirtiest, most mentally unhinged fighters ever to lace up a pair of padded gloves. So often did Golota’s seemingly vast potential dissolve amid a barrage of low blows, head-butts, neck bites and bizarre behavior that the Polish-born, Chicago-based fighter came to be known as “The Foul Pole,” a nickname that might be the most appropriate nom de guerre in boxing history.

Golota is 47 now, his last bout coming on Feb. 23, 2013, when he was knocked out in six rounds by another then-45-year-old, Przemyslav Saleta, in Gdansk, Poland. It was the last of three consecutive defeats, all inside the distance, for Golota, who took a 41-9-1 record into retirement where, one would hope, he finally has found the peace that evaded him as a lightning rod for controversy and scandal. Thirty-three of his victories were by KO or stoppage, as were six of his nine losses. But it is the manner of four of those setbacks, and even of a couple of his successes, that have made the seven-time Polish national amateur champion and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist such an enduringly curious figure.

This Saturday marks the 19th anniversary of one of Golota’s infamous meltdowns, the first of his two disqualification losses to Riddick Bowe, each of which he appeared to be winning handily. When referee Wayne Kelly — who had already assessed Golota three penalty points for repeated low blows — DQ’d the 10-to-1 underdog in the seventh round as Bowe writhed on the canvas, clutching his groin, it ignited an ugly, half-hour riot in Madison Square Garden that resulted in 22 injuries, 16 arrests, heightened security for future events in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” and a $250,000 fine levied by the New York State Athletic Commission against Bowe’s excitable manager, Rock Newman, for leading an in-ring assault on Golota. One member of Bowe’s unwieldy entourage, Jason Harris, struck Golota in the back of the head with a walkie-talkie, inflicting a nasty gash. Two other credential-bearing Bowe supporters, Stephen and William Wright, were taken into custody by police.

Outraged by what he claimed was “premeditation” by Golota to maim his fighter, Newman taunted Golota and his handlers throughout the scheduled 12-round bout. It was a powder keg primed to blow up, and eventually it did.

“It was a very ugly night for everyone who was involved in the staging of the event,” a chastened Newman told reporters after he was socked with that quarter-million-dollar fine. “I wholeheartedly and very sincerely apologize for the pain, grief, anguish and embarrassment it has caused all of us.”

The thing is, given the combustible histories of Golota and Newman, it was not only possible that the fight could take a nasty turn, it probably should have been expected. There was, for instance, the night that Bowe and Elijah Tillery began jawing at one another after the first round of their 1991 bout in Atlantic City. Refusing to return to his corner, Tillery aimed several kicks at Bowe’s legs, Bowe fired back with his fists and Newman, who had jumped onto the ring apron, grabbed Tillery around the neck and flipped him over the ropes. Although there was ample blame to go around, it was Tillery who got the loss via disqualification.

Golota, meanwhile, was establishing his own bona fides as someone who was not adverse to bending the rules to the point of their breaking. He bit Samson Po’uha’s neck during a clinch in their May 16, 1995, bout, and flagrantly head-butted Danell Nicholson on March 15, 1996. In each instance he somehow managed to avoid disqualification, going on to win both fights on technical knockouts.

But it was that ill-fated night at the Garden against Bowe that forever cemented Golota’s reputation as “The Foul Pole,” and set the stage for more, similarly egregious incidents that forever tarred him as a near-lunatic and, worse, a quitter.

After Kelly waved a halt to the foulfest, Golota’s 74-year-old trainer, Lou Duva, was trampled in the ensuing melee. Duva, who had a history of coronary trouble, was rushed by ambulance to NYU Hospital, where he was reported to be in stable condition.

Duva might actually have fared better than some of the 11,252 spectators who found themselves caught up in a flash riot. Fistfights between supporters of the two fighters broke out throughout the arena and additional police had to be called in to assist the Garden’s overmatched security force. Even those who were trying to avoid the expanding violence couldn’t always steer clear. One woman, wandering around with both eyes nearly swollen shut, cried to no one in particular, “Look what they did to me.”

Why had Golota elected to frequently target Bowe’s not-so-protective cup, despite the urging of Duva and other members of his corner team to keep his punches up? At the time of the DQ, Golota, because of the three point deductions, led on the official scorecards by margins of 67-65 (twice) and 67-66. He certainly looked the part of an elite heavyweight, although it must be noted that Bowe, who had gone into training a couple of months earlier at an unsvelte 272 pounds, did himself no favors by coming in overweight and underprepared.

Several weeks after Bowe-Golota I, Larry Hazzard, executive director of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, weighed in on still another missed opportunity for a sport that had a chance to legitimately shine on the Big Apple’s brightly lit stage.

“What boxing needs is a high-visibility fight where an underdog pulls off a big upset,” Hazzard opined. “I love upsets. Look at all the excitement that was generated when Buster Douglas knocked off Mike Tyson in Tokyo. And you know what? We almost had that a few weeks ago. Andrew Golota beating up Riddick Bowe at Madison Square Garden was the closest thing we’ve had to Douglas beating up Tyson. It could have been the most spectacular night boxing has had in some time. Instead, it disintegrated into a disqualification loss and a postfight riot. Almost instantly, something great became something horrible. Upsets are good, but riots definitely are not good.”

So it was on to the rematch, on Dec. 14, 1996, in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, with Bowe again favored, this time by 4-to-1, the feeling being that he would commit himself to training harder and thus being in peak condition. In any case, the hope was that the nastiness of five months earlier could be avoided. There was no way another disqualification could occur, right?

Golota, as it turned out, was a leopard perhaps incapable of changing its spots. Part II was a virtual replay of the original, with referee Eddie Cotton taking over for Kelly and again penalizing Golota for infractions that were too frequent and severe to have been happenstance.

As had been the case in their first encounter, Golota was putting considerable distance between himself and Bowe on the scorecards, even with a pair of point deductions from Cotton (one for head-butting, another for low blows).

All he had to do was avoid doing something stupid. He couldn’t do it.

Golota did the unthinkable moments just before the end of the ninth of 10 scheduled rounds, blatantly slamming Bowe with two punches to the cup, the two-time former champion again slumping to the canvas in agony. Cotton had no alternative but to wave the fight to a halt and award Bowe another DQ win.

An incensed Duva screamed “You can be champion of the world!” at Golota. “The only guy stopping you is you! Nobody but you!”

Golota, sobbing, said, “I stupid. I stupid.”

“I’m going to ask Andrew, in no uncertain way, if he wants to continue fighting,” a more composed Duva said at the postfight press conference. “But if he does want to go on, it’s going to have to be like Frank Sinatra. He’ll have to do it my way.

“He has all the tools to do it the right way. Why the hell does he have to resort to that other stuff? Does he want to fight like a fighter, or like a brawler in a bar or an alley? We have to get that straightened out.”

The two blown chances against Bowe – who last month was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, a distinction that forever will be denied Golota – would have been enough to establish him as a screw-up to end all screw-ups. But there would be more stumbles, more missteps, more stains upon a legacy that soon would be beyond repair.

Even with the back-to-back DQ losses to Bowe, Golota received a shot at WBC heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis in his next bout, on Oct. 4, 1997, in Boardwalk Hall. Given Golota’s growing legend as a loose cannon, the jokes were flying fast and furious. One of the better ones advised fans to “Watch a fight for the heavyweight crown, and the family jewels.”

“What’s his best weapon?” cracked Lewis when asked about Golota. “His best weapons are his jab, his left hook and his punch to the balls.”

Duva, still in Golota’s corner, said he was satisfied that the 6-4, 240-pounder had finally harnessed his inner demons. Asked if he had recommended that Golota receive psychological testing, Capn’ Lou said, “Every time we approached him on the subject he said, `You talker. You handle it.’ So I’ve been teaching him how to say, `Excuse me. Pardon me.’ A lot of good stuff.”

Unfortunately for Golota, he didn’t get much of a chance to display the low blows of old or his newfound manners. He was blown away in the first round, nudging his career to the edge of irrelevance. But he rebounded from the Lewis debacle to post six straight wins, again putting him into a high-profile bout, this time against rising contender Michael Grant on Nov. 20, 1999, in Boardwalk Hall.

Once more, Golota looked strong early, flooring the undefeated Grant with a right hand in the first round and gradually building a substantial lead on points. But after being floored by Grant in the 10th round, Golota, who beat the count, twice refused to respond when referee Randy Neumann asked him if he was all right. Asked a third time if he wanted to continue, Golota said “No,” and turned his back. For many fight fans, someone being DQ’ed can be accepted under certain conditions; giving up, especially in a tussle you’re winning, is unforgivable.

“He got caught with one (good punch) and he quit,” said Golota’s manager, Ziggy Rozalski, “but he has nothing to be ashamed of.” That certainly would have to be considered the minority viewpoint.

It’s a funny thing about fame and notoriety, however. There is always another door that can be opened, if your name still holds some box-office magic. And whose name had more residual magic than that of Mike Tyson, maybe the only man in boxing with a reputation as sullied as Golota’s? Their Oct. 20, 2000, meeting, at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.), was labeled “Bad Boys,” a nod toward not only Golota, but to Tyson, who had chomped Evander Holyfield’s ears on his way to a disqualification loss even more outrageous than Golota’s double-DQs against Bowe. The volcanic Tyson also was cited for a failed attempt to break Frans Botha’s arm, the slugging of Orlin Norris well after the bell and, in his last fight prior to Golota, knocking down referee John Coyle when Tyson attempted to continue pounding Lou Savarese after a first-round stoppage had been declared.

By then Al Certo, best known as the trainer of two-division former world champ Buddy McGirt, had replaced Duva as Golota’s chief second. And, unlike Duva, Certo was amenable to Golota returning to his rules-flaunting roots.

“Neither I nor Golota wants a dirty fight,” Certo said. “Golota will play by the rules as long as he can. But if it gets dirty, Golota is a master at that. So, if Golota wants to body-slam Tyson, that is his business. I am not teaching him anything that he does not already know. Golota wrote the book himself.”

ESPN color analyst Teddy Atlas, who trained the young Tyson when both were at Cus D’Amato’s Catskill, N.Y., compound, figured the outcome hinged on which head case was mentally weaker. He did not discount the possibility that that might be Tyson.

“Tyson is always unsure of himself, and he always wants to know he has some kind of edge,” Atlas offered. “Tyson can sense a guy who’s intimidated, so he’s bargaining that he will be able to walk right out and get rid of Golota. He’s hoping Golota will just be waiting to be executed, so to speak. Tyson has gotten used to that, and he’s gotten weak with it.

“But I can tell you that it’s very possible and likely that if Golota is not intimidated – and the early part of the fight will tell everything – Tyson will become intimidated. Tyson is a very scared, fractured guy. He talks all of this stuff to scare other people so they won’t find out how scared he is.”

Perhaps, if the Golota who took it to Bowe twice before going off the rails had shown up, Atlas’ assessment would have been proven correct. But it was Golota who cracked early. He complained that referee Frank Garza had not penalized Tyson for head-butting, and he refused to come out for the third round of the scheduled 10-rounder. He even shoved Certo away when the veteran trainer attempted to insert his mouthpiece.

“I’m sorry for all my fans who count on me,” Golota said, nearly in tears. “It was not my day. But he head-butt me, you know? And nobody took care of this, you know? Nobody gave him a warning.”

Showtime executive Jay Larkin wasn’t buying any of it. His position was that Golota had more dog in him than the Westminster Kennel Club.

“I’ve never seen a more blatant act of cowardice,” Larkin fumed. “He will never fight on Showtime again.”

But Tommy Brooks, Tyson’s trainer, was more forgiving of Golota’s apparent act of surrender. It was, Brooks suggested, a sign of a deeper, more distressing condition.

“I never would have guessed that from Andrew,” Brooks said. “I truly believe that Andrew is not a coward. I think he suffers from anxiety attacks and I believe he was having one there.”

After his return to Chicago, Golota underwent a thorough medical examination that appeared to justify his decision to stop fighting. Neurosurgeon Wesley Yapor issued a statement that Golota had suffered a concussion, a fractured left cheekbone and a herniated disk between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae.

“There was extreme danger of sustaining another several blow to the head,” Dr. Yapor said, which posed a “threat of paralysis.”

It’s likely the good doctor’s explanation did not fully appease the 20 million Poles who stayed up to 4 a.m. in that country to watch Golota attempt to take down Tyson. But at least Golota came away with a non-loss on his record, the initial ruling of a second-round TKO for Iron Mike changed to a no-contest after Tyson tested positive for marijuana.

Incredibly, Golota got one more chance at the big time, or a reasonable facsimile. On Nov. 13, 2004, he challenged IBF heavyweight champion Chris Byrd in Madison Square Garden, the site of his first DQ defeat against Riddick Bowe nearly eight years earlier.

“We live in a capitalistic society,” reasoned MSG boss Charles Dolan. “This is a commercial undertaking for (promoter) Don King and the Garden. Golota is – in large part because of his unsavory reputation – an attraction. He’s notorious, and because of that he has the ability to put butts in seats. People are going to come out and see the train wreck. The same can be said of Tyson. That long has been part of both fighters’ appeal. They’re unpredictable. There’s an element of the absurd to each of them.”

Byrd retained his IBF strap on a split draw and, although he continued to hang around on the fringes for a few more years, the absurdity had ended for “The Foul Pole.” The train wreck of his career was no longer must-see TV.

But you have to wonder, what if he hadn’t gone goofy in the two fights with Bowe? Or run up the white flag against Grant and Tyson? When he was at his best, he could have been – should have been – a threat to anyone. Did a lack of talent do him in? Was it the anxiety attacks to which Brooks alluded? Some sort of mental defect or disorder?

Those are questions that provide only speculative answers, as is the case with another should-have-been-better-than-he-was heavyweight contender, Ike “The President” Ibeabuchi, whose prime was locked away behind prison walls.

Sometimes the toughest opponent to conquer is the one raging about inside a fighter’s own mind.

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The Top Ten Super Bantamweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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