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JONES GOES FROM “RELUCTANT ROY” TO “RUSSIAN ROY”

Bernard Fernandez

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It isn’t the kind of box-office smash more likely to draw teenaged crowds to movies about the fictional exploits of a billionaire crime fighter dressed in a bat costume, a flying man from the planet Krypton, a science nerd bitten by a radioactive spider or a guy with extractable steel claws, but “Bridge of Spies,” currently in theaters, is a gripping, inspired-by-true-events tale of early 1960s Cold War tensions starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Fortunately for all of us on either side of that great ideological divide, the Cold War began to thaw on June 12, 1987, with American President Ronald Reagan’s plea to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev “to tear down this wall” during a speech in West Berlin. Demolition of the infamous barrier separating East and West Berlin did, in fact, begin in June 1990 and was completed in 1992, two years after the reunification of Germany.

Of even more significant note, the dissolution of the Soviet Union formally was enacted on Dec. 26, 1991, bringing sighs of relief to hundreds of millions of Cold War-era survivors around the world who dared to believe that the leaders of the United States and Russia no longer were apt to consider actually punching in the numbers to nuclear launch codes that would mark the beginning of World War III and, quite likely, the end of civilization on a global scale.

Recent events, however, have raised alarm that the old Cold War is again getting frosty. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has hardly made a secret of his desire to resurrect the USSR, and his first step toward that end, but quite possibly not the last, was Russia’s forcible annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine. The United States and Russia seemingly are at cross-purposes in Syria, a crisis that has sent millions of refugees scurrying for safe haven in any country that will take them in on compassionate grounds.

Into this maelstrom of intrigue, deceit and apprehension steps a onetime superhero of the boxing ring, Roy Jones Jr., who represented the U.S. with distinction at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and once possessed such luminescent skills that his many admirers could be excused for mistaking him for one of the Avengers.

In his June 24, 1995, bout against Vinny Pazienza in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, Jones unleashed a burst of eight left hooks, a one-handed combination so blurringly quick and accurate it stunned even those who had come to expect uncommon feats from the boastful Floridian.

“George Foreman (who did color commentary for HBO that night) told me after that fight that Roy fights like a great jazzman plays,” former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham told me in 2007. “He improvises. He does riffs. I thought that was such an insightful way to describe Roy Jones. George said, `Seth, I’ve never seen anyone throw eight hooks in a row like that. I’ve never seen anything remotely close to that.’

“And that wasn’t the only such conversation George and I had about Roy. George told me something later, not at that fight. We were talking one night and he said, `You have to understand something about Roy. The better he is at his craft, the less people understand it because he breaks the mold.’”

Jones’ mold-breaking apparently is a pendulum that swings both ways. No longer the electric talent he was in his prime, the now-46-year-old holder of world titles in four weight classes (middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight) is still an active boxer, albeit a severely diminished one, and still capable of feats that are perplexing and, to many, polarizing.

Once called “Reluctant Roy” for his seeming proclivity for sidestepping dangerous opponents and his aversion for fighting abroad, Jones picked up a new nickname – “Russian Roy” – last month when he was personally handed his Russian passport from Putin inside the Kremlin. Putin signed a decree to grant immediate citizenship to Jones after the boxer made the extraordinary request during a trip to Crimea in August. Jones said at the time he hoped boxing could help “build a bridge” between the U.S. and Russia.

“Thank you very much to everybody, mostly Mr. Putin for presenting me with a passport,” Jones said at a press conference in Moscow. “Nothing feels better than to be a citizen of the United States of America and Russia, two powerhouses of the world.

“This was definitely something that was ordained by God and not myself. I had no clue, no thought in life of ever becoming a Russian citizen. This is much bigger than life. For me, personally, I am here to be happy, to enjoy people, to help make it a better place, to encourage other people to come to Russia because Russia is good and the people of Russia are good. This is one of the happiest days of my life.”

Jones further stated his intent to learn the Russian language, to establish residency in Russia and “earn 2 or 3 billion dollars” from what remains of his career as an active fighter while opening boxing schools in Russia and continuing his attempts to become a well-compensated rapper, presumably a bilingual one.

In and of itself, Jones’ divided loyalty isn’t as startling as it would have been in “Bridge of Spies” 1960 or even 1980, when the U.S. hockey team shocked the heavily favored USSR squad in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. There are Russian fighters happily living in America these days, such as IBF, WBO and WBA “super” light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, who now calls Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. The once-stark lines of demarcation separating the U.S. and Russia have gotten fuzzier; an avowed socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is seeking the Democratic nomination to the Presidency and capitalism-loving Russian billionaire Mikhail Dimitrievitch Prokhorov owns the Brooklyn Nets NBA franchise. At first glance, it does seem that what for so long was, no longer is. If there is a loose-cannon American sports figure, Jones would have to take a back seat to retired power forward Dennis Rodman, who traveled to North Korea several times without State Department approval and is the subject of a documentary, “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang,” which details his failed efforts to organize a basketball game between retired NBA players and a team of North Koreans to “celebrate” the 31st birthday of the communist nation’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.

No doubt, it is a different world than it was in December 1989, when California entrepreneur Lou Falcigno brought the first three Russian professional boxers to these shores in an experiment to bring about peace through pugilism. But for the most part, those early U.S. tour stops by middleweight Viktor Egorov, heavyweight Yuri Vaulin and lightweight Sergei Artemiev, presumed representatives of what President Reagan had termed the “Evil Empire,” were met with undisguised hostility.

“He wants so much to be liked,” New York-based trainer Tommy Gallagher said of Vaulin, “that when he hears that `USA! USA!’ stuff, he feels like a villain. He has to be able to learn how to deal with that b.s., to block it out of his mind.”

Maybe the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so good, or the “bad guys” so dastardly, when viewed through a less-judgmental prism. Progress toward a higher purpose almost always is slow and arduous. Whether or not any athlete, even an internationally renowned one, can accelerate the process remains to be seen, particularly when his rationale for the healing of old wounds can be deemed to be self-serving. And that is the test that Jones must pass as he straddles the gap between the U.S. and Russia that alternately expands and constricts, depending upon the political climate of the moment.

Would RJJ be doing what he is doing now if he were still at the top of his game, as he was in being voted “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1990s by the Boxing Writers Association of America? Are his motives for making nice with Putin as unsullied as he would have people believe? Or is he merely seeking to trade upon the remnants of his ring fame in a closed society that had previously known him mostly by reputation?

Jones’ star power began to dim, precipitously so, in 2004, when he was knocked out by Antonio Tarver in the second of their three bouts and then even more emphatically by Glen Johnson. The man who made HBO dance to his tune suddenly found himself without a backing orchestra, and he was reduced to playing off-off Broadway in places like Boise, Idaho, before getting his passport stamped for working trips to Russia (three times), Latvia and Australia. He is still a champion, but the only title he holds now is the German version of the low-rent WBU cruiserweight crown.

So why does a man, who had no qualms admitting that he feared sustaining the kind of permanent injuries that left his friend, former WBC/WBO middleweight champ Gerald McClellan, severely brain-damaged, blind and nearly deaf, continue to court disaster inside the ropes?

Money, or lack of it, and ego, a surfeit of it, are two possible answers.

Retired HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, who at various times has described Jones as a “prima donna” and a “diva,” in 2007 said that financial pressure and an inflated sense of worth has kept more than a few elite fighters in the game well past the time when good sense dictates that they step away.

“Will somebody pay him what he wants to see if he has anything left? You never know,” Merchant said. “It all depends on how desperate he is for money and attention. I’ve heard he had significant losses in investments he made in the hip-hop industry. Then again, this (making outlandish purse demands) may be his way of retiring. He gets close to the fire, then pulls out before he gets burned.

“As long as he was performing at the top of the world, people would let him get away with anything. But once he started to sink, nobody was eager to throw him a rope. Look, Roy Jones is not the only fighter who looked at himself as being above it all. Ray Robinson was like that. But you can only rub people’s noses in it so often.”

Perhaps Vladimir Putin is the Russian rope-thrower who finds it suits his purpose to haul Roy Jones, who has maintained his vanity and billion-dollar dreams, onto dry land. Who knows? Perhaps there really is a last hurrah for a fighter who, at his absolute peak, had faster hands and more pulverizing power than Floyd Mayweather Jr. ever demonstrated, if not Mayweather’s defensive genius.

Just last week British promoter Frank Warren and Russian promoter Vlad Hrudnov announced that Jones (62-8, 45 KOs) would take on former WBO cruiser titleholder Enzo Maccarinelli (40-7, 32 KOs) for the WBA’s vacant “super” cruiserweight championship in Moscow. But WBA president Gilberto Mendoza Jr. responded to an inquiry from ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael by stating in no uncertain terms that a sanctioning request had not been made for Jones-Maccarinelli, and likely wouldn’t be granted in any case.

“Well, I’m not fighting for a regional belt,” a miffed Jones texted Rafael when informed his shot at a world title in a fifth weight class might never be fired.

It might or might not have occurred to Jones that Putin has welcomed him to Russia not so much for his charm and engaging personality as for his usefulness as a propaganda tool. Echoes of the Cold War are beginning to be heard again, and it just might be that what was, still is.

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Brandon Figueroa KOs Nery and Danny Roman Wins Too

David A. Avila

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LOS ANGELES-Brandon Figueroa took the air out of Mexico’s Luis Nery to win by knockout and unify the WBA and WBC super bantamweight titles on Saturday. It was a belly buster that did the job.

Texan Figueroa (22-0-1, 17 KOs) set out to prove that Tijuana’s two-division world champion Nery (31-1, 24 KOs) could not endure a toe-to-toe battle with the bigger guys and he proved it before several thousand fans at the Dignity Health Sports Park.

It was a back-and-forth battle that saw Nery attack the body and head while Figueroa focused on winging big blows from a distance and in close. Many of the rounds were extremely close to score.

When Nery was able to battle from a distance and dive inside, he seemed the much more athletic between the two champions. But Figueroa just seemed stronger and unfazed by any of the Mexican fighter’s blows.

Though Figueroa absorbed a lot of punishment, he never seemed in trouble. When Nery connected with a several combinations in the fifth round by landing five-punch and three-punch combinations, it looked like he was taking control.

He did not.

Figueroa opened the sixth round with two left hook blasts that reminded Nery that the taller Texan had a punch. When Nery tried to rally with his own blasts, Figueroa slipped under back-to-back left hooks. It seemed to change the tide.

“I knew he was getting tired,” said Figueroa. “He was trying to box me.”

In the seventh round Figueroa was able to connect with a left hook and followed up with a lead right. Nery countered with a three-punch combination that was met with Figueroa countering with a three-punch combination to the head and body. Then both fighters exchanged inside and Figueroa connected with a right to the chest and a left uppercut to the solar plexus and down went Nery.

Nery could not beat referee Tom Taylor’s count and was counted out at 2:18 of the seventh round.

Figueroa is now the WBC and WBA super bantamweight unified champion.

“It feels amazing,” said Figueroa. “I know everyone doubted me.”

Roman Wins Super Bantam Eliminator

Los Angeles-based Danny Roman (29-3-1, 10 KOs) battered Mexico’s Ricardo Espinoza (25-4, 21 KOs) to win convincingly by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a super bantamweight fight.

After a slow start Roman began to out-maneuver the heavy-punching Espinoza and found openings for left uppercuts. Boy did he find openings.

“I concentrated on finding my distance,” said Roman.

Roman snapped Espinoza’s head back so many times it seemed that the Mexican fighter would not be able to last the full 10 rounds. But like most Mexican fighters he would not quit.

Espinoza tried every move in his catalogue but nothing worked against the superb technique used by Roman, who formerly held the IBF and WBA super bantamweight world titles. It was a perfect example of technical prowess defeating raw power.

The uppercut was the chosen weapon of choice and Roman exhibited how to throw it from various positions and angles. It landed perfectly every time as if targeted by a laser. Espinoza never could avoid the uppercut.

During the last three rounds Espinoza’s face was bloody and battered while Roman looked as if he were merely sparring. The end seemed near but the fighter from Tijuana battled until the final bell.

“I thought he was going to go down,” said Roman. “But he had a big heart.”

All three judges scored it for Roman at 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

“It’s a step closer to getting back my titles,” said Roman who lost the titles to Murodjon Akhmadaliev a year ago by split decision. “I’m here to fight the best.”

Martinez Beats Burgos

Sacramento’s Xavier Martinez (16-0, 11 KOs) discovered that Tijuana’s Juan Carlos Burgos (34-5-2, 21 KOs) still has plenty of fight remaining and showed it with a gutsy 10 rounds of back-and-forth battering. Still, Martinez won by unanimous decision though every round was competitive.

Boy was it competitive.

Martinez, 23, had a 10-year advantage in youth but was unable to convince Burgos. Every round saw savage combinations connect by each fighter, but the judges all felt that the Sacramento fighter was superior. All three scored it 99-91 for Martinez. The crowd booed the decision.

“I was landing the cleaner shots,” said Martinez. “He’s a tough competitor.”

Other Results

A super lightweight match saw Jose Valenzuela (8-0) knock out Nelson Hampton (7-4) in the first round.

Gabriela Fundora (1-0) won her pro debut by unanimous decision over Jazmin Valverde (2-2) in a four round flyweight match. Fundora is the sister of super welterweight contender Sebastian Fundora.

A lightweight bout was won by Justin Cardona (5-0) by first round knockout of James De Herrera (4-7).

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Buatsi Flattens Dos Santos in Manchester; Charr KOs Fraudulent Lovejoy in Cologne

Arne K. Lang

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In a Knockout of the Year candidate, rising light heavyweight contender Joshua Buatsi (14-0, 12 KOs) leveled Daniel Blenda Dos Santos, an unheralded Frenchman, in the fourth round, closing the show with a pulverizing right hand – and for good measure, touching him with another right as he fell. A 2016 Olympic bronze medalist for England, the Ghana-born Buatsi trained for two months in the California Bay Area under his new trainer Virgil Hunter and his American sojourn paid dividends.

Dos Santos, who found his way to boxing after serving three-and-a-half years in prison, was undefeated (15-0, 8 KOs) coming in, but hadn’t fought beyond six rounds. He was knocked down earlier in the fight with a chopping right hand. There were less than 20 seconds remaining in the fourth when Buatsi put Dos Santos to sleep, and to his credit he did not celebrate but consoled his distraught victim.

Other Bouts

In a shocker, 31-year-old southpaw Jason Cunningham improved to 29-6 (6) with a unanimous decision over Gamal Yafai (18-2) who was making the first defense of the European bantamweight title that he won in Milan.

Cunningham had Yafai on the canvas three times — knocking him down with left hands in the second, fourth and sixth rounds — but Yafai, the younger brother of former 115-pound world title-holder Kal Yafai — wasn’t deterred and kept coming forward. In the end, however, Cunningham’s lead was too big for Yafai to overcome. The judges had it 115-110 and 114-111 x2 for the southpaw who was a consensus 10/1 underdog.

Super middleweight Lerrone Richards breezed to a lopsided 12-round decision over Italian veteran Giovanni DeCarolis to snatch a vacant European title. Trained by Dave Coldwell, who previously handled Tony Bellew, Richards was content to rack up points and the one-dimensional DeCarolis, who was making his first start in 23 months, had no way to stop him.

The judges had it 120-108 and 119-109 twice. The London-born Richards, whose family roots are in Ghana, improved to 15-0 (3). This may have been the last rodeo for the 36-year-old DeCarolis who fell to 28-10-1.

Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy (18-2, 9 KOs) was fed a softie for his first defense of his European cruiserweight title in the form of 36-year-old Romanian Alexandru Jur who brought a 19-4 record but had defeated only four men with winning records. Except for a few brief moments, Jur showed little inclination to mix it up. McCarthy put Jur down with a body punch in round four and finished him off two rounds later with another body punch. The official time was 2:09.

McCarthy, who is of Irish and Jamaican descent, moves on to a date with fellow Brit Chris Billam-Smith. Jur lost for the fourth time in his last six starts.

Cologne

Credit Christopher Lovejoy for having the gumption to defy Don King who threatened legal action if Lovejoy went ahead with his match today with WBA “champion in recess” Mahmoud (Manuel) Charr. But the 37-year-old Lovejoy, who arrived in Germany all by himself, traveled a long way to destroy whatever credibility he may have had. Fighting off the grid, he had rung up 19 fast knockouts in 19 fights against 19 presumptive Tijuana taxi drivers.

Carrying 306 ½-pounds, the six-foot-five Lovejoy lasted less than two full rounds against Charr who was making his first ring appearance in 42 months. Lovejoy was counted out after being dropped with a volley of punches in the second round.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

David A. Avila

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 135: Danny Roman and Super Bantamweights Perform in L.A.

The super bantamweight division was virtually unknown by most fans of prizefighting for the last decade.

Then Danny Roman arrived and re-booted the 122-pound division virtually by himself by challenging and defeating world champions from Japan and the United Kingdom.

Roman (28-3-1, 10 KOs) no longer holds the world titles but itches to regain his footing when he fights Ricardo Espinoza (25-3, 21 KOs) at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday May 15. Showtime will televise the battle on the Premier Boxing Champions card.

“Everything I do in boxing from here on out is to regain my status as a world champion,” said the normally ultra-reserved Roman, 31.

Ironically, both Roman and Espinoza turned their careers around with numerous battles at boxing shows in Ontario, California. They entered as boys and emerged as battle-tested men.

For the last 20 years Thompson Boxing Promotions has been pumping out world champions and contenders at a furious rate despite their small size in Southern California. They do not pamper or cajole their prospects.

Both Roman and Espinoza suffered their first losses as professionals at Thompson Boxing’s bloody battles at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario. But despite losing, they continued to learn and evolve. Now they meet in Los Angeles on the big stage.

When Roman lost to Japan’s Takashi Okada in 2011 and Juan Reyes in 2013, that could have derailed the Los Angeles-based fighter for good. Instead, he re-grouped and reloaded to become a unified world champion. Roman traveled to Japan and won the WBA super bantamweight world title by stoppage of Shun Kubo in 2017. A couple of years later after several defenses, he clashed with WBO super bantamweight titlist TJ Doheny to win an incredible battle by decision in Los Angeles. It was perhaps the Fight of the Year in 2019 and gained Roman the WBO belt.

Though Roman lost both the WBA and WBO titles to Murodjon Akhmadaliev, it was a disputed split decision. Many felt Roman was the true winner. So now he must battle back toward the top.

Espinoza also fought many bloody affairs at the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario including his first two losses. He lost to Sam Rodriguez in 2016 and Christian Nieto in 2017. Then the power-punching fighter from Tijuana, Mexico knocked out 12 of 13 of his opponents to gain a world title fight that he lost in April 2019. Since then, he has returned to his winning ways and upset undefeated Brandon Valdes last year.

“Danny Roman has fought some really quality opponents that are high in the rankings, but this is my time. This is when I show that I can step up in competition and prove that I belong with the best,” said Espinoza who is very familiar with Roman.

The Tijuana fighter is a punching machine.

“This is not going to be an easy fight because I know my opponent is a tough fighter from Tijuana who is coming with everything he’s got. He’s got a lot of power, so I must be smart on how I throw my combinations,” said Roman who lives within 10 miles of the event. “I believe my experience in big fights is going to be the difference on May 15. I’m expecting a rough fight and I’m ready for an intense battle.”

Now the two veterans of the Ontario, California wars finally meet each other to see who advances toward a world title fight. They won’t have to look far. The main event pits two titleholders against each other.

Unification Battle for Super Bantam Belts

Mexico’s Luis Nery holds the WBC super bantamweight world title and faces Texan Brandon Figueroa who holds a version of the WBA super bantamweight title in the main event on the Dignity Health Sports Park card on Saturday. Showtime will televise.

Nery formerly held the bantamweight title too. But the Tijuana-based fighter had problems making weight and wisely moved up a weight division. So far, the extra pounds hasn’t been a problem.

The problem facing Nery is Figueroa has a solid chin.

Figueroa may look like a pretty boy but he fights like he’s ugly. The Weslaco, Texas native has firepower and a rock chin but does he have the skills to match Nery?

“I come forward. I bring the pressure and I’m definitely going to bring the power, the size and all the advantages I have to make sure that we give the fans a great show. I do respect him as a fighter but we’re just going to have to find out Saturday,” said Figueroa whose brother Omar Figueroa fought in the same venue two weeks ago.

Nery has quickness and agility to supplement his power. He also has experience in world class opposition and that’s something Figueroa lacks.

“Brandon’s style really fits with what I want to do in the ring,” said Nery, a boxer-slugger. “This is going to be an all-out war from the first round on. People are going to be talking about it for a long time after.”

The winner of this clash will hopefully meet the winner of Roman and Espinoza. That would really heat up the super bantamweight division to blue hot levels.

Some of my favorite fighters of the past occupied the super bantamweight division like Wilfredo “Bazooka” Gomez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Israel “Magnifico” Vazquez who twice fought in this same venue. His third fight with Rafael Marquez on March 1, 2008 was voted Fight of the Year for its brutal but spectacular display of super bantamweight power.

The winners of this quasi-super bantamweight tournament can equally achieve the same kind of greatness those former stars achieved. This is a good start.

Fights to Watch (All times are Pacific Coast)

Friday UFC Fight Pass 5:30 p.m. Heather Hardy (22-1) vs Jessica Camara (7-2); Melissa St. Vil (13-4-4) vs Olivia Gerula (18-18-4).

Friday Telemundo 11:30 p.m. Denilson Valtierra (14-0) vs Emanuel Lopez (30-12-1).

Sat. DAZN 10 a.m. Lerrone Richards (14-0) vs Giovanni De Carolis (28-9-1).

Sat. Showtime 7 p.m. Luis Nery (31-0) vs Brandon Figueroa (21-0-1); Danny Roman (28-3-1) vs Ricardo Espinoza (25-3).

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

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