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Wladimir Klitschko Embraced Al Davis’s Mantra: “Just Win, Baby”

Bernard Fernandez

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Al Davis

Having maintained a home in Los Angeles for several years, there is at least a chance now-retired two-time heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko has some knowledge of Al Davis, the maverick former coach, general manager and principal owner of the NFL’s Raiders, in both their Oakland (twice) and L.A. residencies.

After the then-Los Angeles Raiders had hammered the Washington Redskins, 38-9, to win Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 22, 1984, a smiling and self-satisfied Davis repeated to CBS interviewer Brent Musburger what already had become his and his team’s enduring catchphrase: “Just win, baby.”

If there is a difference between a just-win Klitschko – whose retirement announcement on Wednesday, depending upon one’s point of view, was either shocking or very much expected – and Davis, it is in the manner in which they went about the victory process. Davis was always a proponent of the quick strike, forever fond of quarterbacks who could launch the long ball and often did. His prototypical passer was Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica, who would send receivers Warren Wells, Fred Biletnikoff and Raymond Chester sprinting downfield on go routes until they were totally gassed or hauled in a couple of touchdown throws, whichever came first. Thirty-three years after Lamonica retired from the Raiders in 1974, Davis used the first pick in the NFL draft to select LSU rocket-launcher JaMarcus Russell, who had Lamonica’s big arm but was hardly a Tom Brady when it came to conditioning or the mental aspects of a complex game. Russell was out of the league after three hugely disappointing seasons, one of the most colossal busts in NFL history.

The 41-year-old Wladimir “Dr. Steelhammer” Klitschko – who received a Ph.D. in sports science from the University of Kiev and speaks four languages (Ukrainian, Russian, German and English) – always had been a dash of Lamonica and heavy doses of Frank Ryan, a fellow Ph.D. and former quarterback who is best known for leading the Cleveland Browns to their last NFL title (1964), far less for publishing two seminal papers in the Duke Mathematical Journal.

At 6-foot-6 and 245 or so pounds distributed on a chiseled physique reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, the younger of the highly educated heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers – former WBC titlist Vitali “Dr. Ironfist” Klitschko, now 46, retired in 2013 and is the mayor of Kiev – could, and did, win using whichever method he deemed to be the most logical in a particular situation. He could air it out, if that best suited his purpose, as evidenced by the 54 knockouts he registered in fashioning a 64-5 record during a 21-year professional journey that five years hence will result in first-ballot induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. But Wlad, whose fragile chin was never his strong suit, was wise enough to understand that always going for broke in the ring sometimes can break even a heavyweight wielding a figurative steel hammer. He lost title bouts inside the distance to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, neither of whom will ever have a plaque in the IBHOF, and even had to overcome three knockdowns en route to a points nod over Samuel Peter in the first of their two meetings. And when Wlad also was dropped three times in his most recent bout, an 11th-round TKO loss to huge (6-6, 250), young (27) and strong Anthony Joshua on April 29, in which Joshua retained his IBF title and also annexed the vacant WBA belt before a crowd of 90,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium, a seed undoubtedly was planted in Klitschko’s analytical mind that apparently blossomed with Wednesday’s retirement announcement.

“… I’ve traveled the world, learned new languages, created businesses, built intellectual properties, helped people in need, became a scientist, entrepreneur, motivator, hotelier, trainer, investor and much else,” the statement read. “I was and am still capable of doing all this because of the global appeal of boxing. At some point in our lives we need to, or just want to, switch our careers and get ourselves ready for the next chapter and chart new courses toward fresh challenges.”

Reading the intelligently worded statement, I have no doubt it is factually correct and was actually composed by Wlad and not by a hired publicist, many of whom function as apologists for coarse practitioners of the pugilistic arts incapable of speaking complete sentences without a steady stream of vulgarities. Some fighters don’t seem to need or want such functionaries; witness the f-bomb-congested, four-city press tour to hype the upcoming Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor carnival sideshow. Raise your hand, perhaps sheepishly, if you are drawn to that bizarre matchup because of its gutter-level lead-up rather than in spite of it.

Klitschko, on the other hand, referred to the exciting slugfest pitting Olympic super heavyweight gold medalists (Wlad got his in 1996, Joshua in 2012) as a confrontation of “gentlemen,” staying classy despite the realization that he quite possibly was one big punch from career-rejuvenating success after he dropped the favored Briton in the sixth round, with over two minutes remaining to seal the deal. He didn’t, but considering his relatively advanced age and career-long 17 months of inactivity between his uninspired dethronement on points by Tyson Fury and showdown with Joshua, it could be argued that Wlad had been involved in his most exciting fight in years, and maybe ever. He immediately announced his intention to exercise the rematch clause in his contract, but with his retirement announcement negotiations for a do-over – in which the Kazakhstan-born, Ukrainian-raised son of a Soviet Air Force colonel stood to make upwards of $20 million on Nov. 11 at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Center – ended.

Fight fans are left to debate whether Wlad could have or would have spanked Joshua prime-on-prime, but such exquisitely timed confrontations of elite boxers are relatively rare. Someone always is on the way up, someone always is on the way down. Having lost back-to-back scraps for the first time as a pro, and already affluent enough to consider the move into a rewarding next phase of his life, the erstwhile “Dr. Steelhammer” again chose the safe course. Who knows? Maybe he was influenced by last week’s report issued by the American Medical Association that, of 111 deceased NFL players who had donated their brains for scientific research, 110 had varying degrees of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In boxing, the gradual and silent thief of mental faculties is pugilistica dementia, which can debilitate the body even as it wipes clean memories of boxing glory, and pretty much everything else. No one can fault Klitschko if he is stepping away to ensure more quality time in the long term with his fiancée, American actress Hayden Panettiere, and the couple’s 2½-year-old daughter, Kara Evdokia Klitschko. If the child turns out to be anywhere near as smart as her pop, perhaps Wlad soon will be reading Dostoevsky bedtime passages to her instead of Mother Goose nursery rhymes.

Of course, book smarts and ring smarts are not mutually inclusive. Wlad always marched to the tune of his own drummer, even when doing so put him somewhat at odds with his late, great trainer, Emanuel Steward, who constantly preached the gospel of Al Davis-like aggression and often stood by, perplexed, as one of his most accomplished pupils formulated his own fight plans on the fly. Manny always wanted to see a little more of let ’er rip Thomas Hearns in Wlad, and sometimes got an XXL-sized version of master technician Willie Pep.

“For one-punch power, Wladimir tops them all,” Steward, who was Klitschko’s chief second for 17 bouts prior to his death, at 68, on Oct. 25, 2012, once said. “If he ever becomes more aggressive and just went after people, he could be the most devastating puncher ever. I’ve trained many fighters and Wladimir is one of the few who can turn out the lights without using the dimmer switch first.”

Had Klitschko attempted to tailor his style to fit Steward’s more action-packed specifications, there is at least a possibility he would have placed higher than No. 16 in a recent poll of 30 trainers, historians, matchmakers and media members conducted by The Ring magazine to determine the top 20 heavyweight champions of all time. He also might have been more often on the wrong end of knockouts, as was the case when he threw down with Sanders and Brewster. His stylistic choices make for a debate with no quantifiable resolution.

Before his April 25, 2015, title defense against Bryant Jennings in Madison Square Garden, with Steward disciple Johnathan Banks serving as his chief second, Klitschko – who would win by unanimous decision – explained that he never was one to adhere to strict dictums. Every fight is different and, well, it’s like Al Davis declared. The first rule of athletic competition, be it boxing, football or whatever, is to just win, baby.

“I cannot make the fight by myself,” Wlad explained. “I need somebody who wants to fight back. That’s what makes an exciting fight. If somebody just doesn’t want to get knocked out, it’s very difficult because you have to chase him.

“There have been different fights I’ve had in the 25 years (including amateurs) of my career. I do have different qualities of boxing and punching and, if it’s needed, of clinching. It doesn’t matter. I know the game and I know how to win to have lasted this long.”

Fighting primarily in Europe, most often Germany, during his extended heyday, Klitschko never felt the need to apologize for the 160-plus clinches in which he was engaged, many initiated by him, in a unanimous decision over Russia’s Alexander Povetkin on Nov. 5, 2013, in Moscow. He would have been lustily booed for that performance in the U.S., but he did what he felt he had to do to win. End of story.

And now the end of the story, at least the boxing part of it, really is here. Some will dismiss his lengthy time upon the heavyweight throne – 29 title bouts spanning two reigns, breaking the record of 28 held by the legendary Joe Louis – as being too boring, too casually dominant in most instances. But guess what? Floyd Mayweather Jr. has followed more or less the same path, with far fewer knockouts and significantly more expletives uttered. Art appreciation is a matter of individual taste, whether the canvases being examined offer comparisons between Tyson and Ali or Monet and Picasso.

Now that Wladimir Klitschko has signalled his intention to take his leave, probably for keeps, an appreciation is in order. He utilized his superior power selectively, but with telling effect, and he called upon his myriad other skills as warranted. Most of all, though, he remained a bastion of honor and dignity in a profession that sometimes is bereft of both qualities.

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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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