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ORTIZ DREAMS OF GOING SOMEPLACE CUBAN LEGENDS STEVENSON, SAVON DIDN’T

Bernard Fernandez

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VERONA, N.Y. – For more than 40 years, some of Cuba’s finest athletes, boxers and baseball players, have sought to flee their restrictive island nation for the shimmering promise of a better life in America or elsewhere. If they could just cross 90 miles of open and potentially hazardous water without being detained or apprehended, their dreams of freedom, not to mention the kind of wealth unimaginable in their Communist homeland, might be fulfilled. A few made it, on makeshift rafts or by procuring illegal passage on somewhat more seaworthy vessels. Others simply walked away from Cuban national touring teams and never returned.

But escape was never a sure thing, and there was often a steep price to pay for even making the attempt. Death by drowning was always a possibility for those who took to the sea. So, too, was capture and censure that stripped plotters of what little they had.

“You are a champion, and it means nothing,” Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Cuban Olympic champion, said in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue of ESPN The Magazine of his seven failed bids to reach the United States before succeeding on the eighth such try. “We are like dogs. After all your time is over, you end up telling stories on a street corner about how you used to be a star.”

For his refusal to accept the impositions placed upon him, Rigondeaux was incarcerated for a time and his most prized possession, a car, was seized. He also was officially stripped of his status as a national hero. But Rigo’s persistence served as a tale of reward as well as risk to other Cubans who might dare to follow him; in the U.S., he went on to capture two world professional titles in the super bantamweight division, a distinction unavailable to so many other great Cuban fighters who have been prohibited from turning professional since 1959, when the Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary government banned pro sports as being somehow subersive.

In 2009, another Cuban fighter of some renown, heavyweight Luis Ortiz, was faced with a similar decision. Stay or go? Since he was a child, watching fuzzy black-and-white images of Muhammad Ali on his family’s small television, he had fantasized of becoming heavyweight champion of the world – the real heavyweight champion. So he bribed his way onto a speedboat captained by a sufficiently shady character, made his way to Mexico and, ultimately, to Miami, Fla., a city with a heavily Cuban section appropriately called “Little Havana.”

At 36, Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs) hardly can be described as boxing’s hot new discovery. But, in a way, he is just that. The 6-foot-4, 239-pounder took another step toward becoming the first Cuban to win a widely recognized heavyweight championship as a pro when he scored an electrifying, seventh-round technical knockout of highly regarded Philadelphian Bryant “By-By” Jennings (19-2, 10 KOs) here Saturday night at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.

By virtue of his victory, Ortiz – who is ranked No. 1 by the WBA – retained his virtually worthless WBA “interim” belt, the existence of which seems purely arbitrary when one considers that the WBA already has a “super” heavyweight champion (England’s Tyson Fury) and a “regular” heavyweight champion (Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Chagaev). But winning as impressively as he did, in the main event of an HBO “Boxing After Dark” telecast, has to move the man known as “The Real King Kong” closer to a title shot at either Fury (25-0, 18 KOs), who also holds the WBO, IBO, The Ring magazine and lineal crowns, or WBC champ Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs), of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“I want to fight the best. Line them up. I’ll fight them all,” said Ortiz, who added he’d be more than pleased to fight Fury or Wilder as soon as possible. “HBO and Golden Boy (Ortiz’s promotional company) will decide. But I think I deserve to be there (at the front of the line for either) because I am one of the best out there.”

Ortiz’s breakthrough performance seems even more significant if stories about his physical condition in the days leading up to Saturday’s bout are accurate. To hear Ortiz’s trainer, Herman Calcedo, tell it, Ortiz spent six of the 10 days leading up to the fight in bed, battling a flu bug that proved more of an obstacle to be overcome than Jennings presented inside the ropes.

“He was really a mess,” Calcedo said of Ortiz, who kept his illness a secret and was determined to go through with the fight no matter what. “He couldn’t do anything. He had a fever, congestion, a runny nose and a cough. We went against the doctor’s orders and took nothing (by way of medication). But we told everyone we had to (including the Oneida National boxing commission) that Luis was sick.”

In addition to overcoming Jennings and that nasty flu bug, Ortiz was determined to restore his reputation as a clean fighter, which took a hit following his Sept. 11, 2014, first-round stoppage of Nigeria’s Lateef Kayode, an outcome that was subsequently changed to a no-decision when Ortiz tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. Ortiz claimed the test result was the result of having ingested horse meat, which is frequently infused with Nandrolone and is a not an uncommon part of many Cubans’ diets.

WBA officials apparently believed Ortiz, for he was allowed to fight again for that organization’s “interim” heavyweight title on Oct. 17 and he again claimed it with a third-round knockout of Argentina’s Matias Ariel Vidondo in Madison Square Garden, a bout also televised by HBO.

With a reported 343-19 amateur record that includes the 2006 Cuban heavyweight championship and the 2005 Pan American Games heavyweight gold medal, Ortiz had unquestionably established himself at the quasi-elite level before he took a leap of faith and made his way to America. But no one in Cuba or anywhere else was ready to anoint him as the best of the best of Cuban big men, nor are they now. It’s just that, well, he appears to be the right guy in the right place at the right time to possibly make history.

With a current population of just 11.27 million, or 0.035 percent of the United States’ population of 318.19 million, it can be reasonably argued that Cuba produces more great fighters per capita than any country. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that placed Fidel Castro in power, the small Caribbean island had produced six world professional champions, including International Boxing Hall of Famers Kid Gavilan, Eligio “Kid Chocolate” Sardinas, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez and Sugar Ramos.

But, beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics – the first Olympiad in which Cuba elected to compete – the success of Cuban boxers almost staggers the imagination. Since that time, Cuba has come away with 34 gold medals, 17 silvers and 14 bronzes, numbers which surely would have increased had not Cuba boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games for politically motivated reasons.

Of the three fighters to have taken gold medals in three Olympics, two are Cubans – legendary heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson (1972, ’76 and ’80) and Felix Savon (1992, ’96 and ’00). Hungary’s Laszlo Papp is the other.

In all of boxing history, one only Olympic champion, American heavyweight Pete Rademacher, made his pro debut by fighting for a world professional title. Rademacher, who took gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was knocked out in six rounds by champion Floyd Patterson on Aug. 22, 1957.

Two of the most intriguing bouts that never happened might have seen Stevenson and Savon achieve what Rademacher didn’t. There was some talk of pairing Stevenson against an aging Ali, which would have been a huge global attraction, and it wasn’t all idle gossip. Longtime boxing publicist Bill Caplan said the Cuban government was receptive to the idea, provided the fight not take place in the U.S. (the likely landing spot was Rio de Janeiro). But the man who was trying to put the deal together, Ben Thompson, mysteriously vanished and no one stepped forward to take his place.

Similar speculation that Mike Tyson might share a ring with Savon was more of a pipe dream, but that bout also would have been immensely attractive had it come off. Stevenson and Savon could have forced the issue had they joined the ranks of Cuban defectors, but they were committed to Castro’s socialist policies and frequently expressed their contentment at remaining in the land of their birth.

While Ortiz is one of several successful Cuban pros in recent years, joining the likes of lower-weight stars such as Rigondeaux, Joel Casamayor and Yuriokis Gamboa, among others, Cuban heavyweights who bolted have been unable to make that breakthrough to the very top. Jorge Luis Gonzalez was knocked out by WBO champion Riddick Bowe in six rounds on June 17, 1995, and Odlanier Solis didn’t even make it out of the first round against WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko on March 19, 2011.

Now along comes Ortiz who, he proudly notes, shares the same birthday (March 29) as the legendary Stevenson, who was 60 when he died of a heart attack on June 11, 2012. Upon the occasion of his death, the British Boxing Corporation pronounced Stevenson as “Cuba’s greatest boxer, and once its most famous figure after Fidel Castro.”

“Yes, of course. They were my idols,” Ortiz said when asked if Stevenson and Savon had had an influence on his career. “In Cuba, they’re everybody’s idols.”

The world as it was is changing, and some of those changes could present the kind of opportunities for Ortiz, or maybe some future Cuban heavyweight, that weren’t available to Stevenson and Savon. The Obama administration has taken steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, or at least reduce decades-long tensions, which could mean the end of dangerous flotillas on rafts in shark-infested waters. It could even mean Ortiz fighting for, or even defending, a world heavyweight championship in Havana.

“It’s a dream of his,” Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez said of Ortiz’s desire to return to his homeland as a conquering hero. “Obviously, with the history of heavyweights in Cuba, with Stevenson and Savon, it would be big – and I mean BIG. We’ve talked about taking him back to Cuba when the time is right. It’s not right yet, but it’s getting there.”

Gamboa (25-1, 17 KOs), a former WBA and IBF featherweight champion, defected while training in Venezuela, making his way to Germany and then on to the U.S. He fought on the Ortiz-Jennings undercard, scoring a 10-round, unanimous decision over Hylon Williams (16-2-1, 3 KOs). But leaving Cuba now does not necessarily mean that Cuban athletes can never go back.

“I trained in Cuba,” he noted, a prodigal returning to home, if only for a little while.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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