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

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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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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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

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

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

Co-Feature

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

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

Other Bouts of Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dixon Wins WBO Title

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hometown Fighter Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll leave it at that.

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