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Former HBO Sports Exec Kery Davis Thriving at Howard University

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Kery Davis

It was, in the words of the immortal baseball philosopher Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again for Kery Davis, the former senior vice president of HBO Sports. There the former Dartmouth College point guard was, back in Las Vegas where he had been a key figure in so many memorable boxing matches, enjoying what some would consider the intercollegiate equivalent of Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson, except that this new sense of exultation was not happening at ringside in an opulent casino-hotel on the neon-lit Strip. It was taking place in the press box at Sam Boyd Stadium, where Davis was watching the Howard University Bison shock the Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels, 43-40, in the most astounding upset in college football history, at least in terms of a point spread. The oddsmakers with the Vegas sports books had pegged the Bison as 45-point, no-chance underdogs, making the final result not so much Douglas over Tyson as, say, Don Knotts over Tyson.

Except that this miracle might not have as miraculous as it must have appeared at first glance. When Davis officially took over as athletic director at Howard on Sept. 9, 2015, the nation’s most academically prestigious but sports-deficient historically black college had a football program that wasn’t merely temporarily down. It was down and indisputably out, if not the most inept team in what is now known as the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA), then certainly in the conversation. The first game Davis attended in his new role, three days after his hiring became official, was Howard’s 76-0 loss at Boston College. In its opening game a week earlier, sans Davis, the Bison had taken a 49-0 whipping at Appalachian State.

“We are a long way from being competitive with a team like Boston College,” a stunned Davis said then about what had to feel like a cold slap of reality. “We play in a conference (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) where we think we can be competitive even this year. Our goal is to one day compete with the BCs and Notre Dames, but that’s a very difficult thing to achieve in one or two years on the football field. You can do it a lot quicker in some other sports.”

Davis’ tepid enthusiasm for the remainder of that 2015 season proved to be unjustified. The Bison finished 1-10, and they followed that with a 2-9 campaign in 2016, their 12th non-winning season in 15 years. That prompted Davis to dismiss fifth-year head coach Gary “Flea” Harrell, a former star Howard wide receiver who had played a key role with the school’s undefeated 1993 MEAC championship team. Davis set about identifying someone who could lead Howard, which had won mythical black national championships in 1997 and 1998, back to prominence and he determined that that person was Mike London, then the associate head coach at the University of Maryland. London had enjoyed success at both Richmond University, which he had guided to a FCS national championship in 2008, and at the University of Virginia, where he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coach of the Year in 2011. London has proven to be somewhat of a Magic Mike, at least if last weekend’s historic upset is any indication.

“Our win over UNLV was exhilarating and it was a huge shot of adrenalin for our program, but I had already seen the culture change,” Davis said. “We had done a number of things we needed to do in order to compete. It’s a process. Win or lose that game, I knew we were no longer the Howard that lost 76-0 to Boston College.

“Might we still have a couple of Saturdays like that? Yeah, we might. We only have 57 (football) scholarships as opposed to 85 for the UNLVs of this world. The numbers sometimes catch up to you. But in terms of our preparedness, we are now able to bring some resources to bear that will allow us a chance to compete at that level.”

Howard’s stunner over UNLV is important for reasons that transcend football. One of the most significant victories since the sport was first played at the Washington, D.C., school in 1893 came the day before Davis’ 58th birthday, and he shared the win in the company of his wife, Samantha, son Jourdan and daughter Lindsay. That this cornucopia of happy circumstances happened in Las Vegas, a city Davis had often visited and enjoyed during his 17 years at HBO, which began with his stint as director of programming and business affairs in 1997 and continued after he was promoted to senior vice president in 2000, was a homecoming of sorts, literally as well as figuratively as Jourdan is now the manager of a Vegas nightclub.

“My oldest daughter, Lindsay, is an actress who lives in L.A.,” Davis noted. “Samantha and the two kids we have together all were in Vegas and they went to the game. The plan was for me, my wife and the kids to all go out to dinner after the game. We won, and it was terrific. We reflected on how many times we had come to Vegas for big fights and how this felt as rewarding, if not more so, than any event I ever attended in Vegas.”

But wait, things would get even better as the evening wore on.

“As fate would have it, after dinner we went to the nightclub that my son manages and who do we see? Floyd Mayweather!” Davis continued. “We spent the rest of the night with Floyd at his table. One of the things he said to me was, `You were the first person at HBO who really believed in me and thought I could do the things that were necessary to become a pay-per-view star.’ I told him, `I did think you could become a pay-per-view star, but I never thought you’d make $300 million fighting a guy (Conor McGregor) who was 0-0.’

“I know Floyd likes to gamble so I said, `Can you imagine how you would have cleaned up had you placed a big bet on Howard?’ We had a good laugh over that.”

Davis’ path to Howard came through boxing, but it was a circuitous route that, upon review, is nearly as surprising as the Bison’s conquest of UNLV. Life deals the hand you play, and it was mostly happenstance that brought Davis, then a first-year law student, to the fight game in which he eventually became a major player.

“I was a boxing fan, the way most average boxing fans are,” Davis explained. “I wasn’t what you’d call a boxing geek. I couldn’t name the top 15 guys in the featherweight division off the top of my head or anything like that.

“But, you know, things happen. My first job in law school was working for a firm that represented Madison Square Garden, which was then suing Bob Arum and Don King for antitrust violations, among other things. As an assignment, they gave me a stack of three or four recent years of The Ring magazines. I was instructed – and remember, I was a first-year law student without a lot of legal skills then – to go through each issue thoroughly to identify every champion and significant fighter and align them with their promotional companies. So, for a while, I was a boxing geek. That was a pretty unique experience.”

Whether that first intense immersion into boxing proved useful when Davis, by then a practicing attorney, was interviewed at HBO by the man he eventually would succeed, Lou DiBella, is a matter of conjecture. What Davis is fairly certain of is that his time spent as a point guard for Dartmouth, where his role was to serve as a facilitator for his Big Green teammates on the basketball court, was a selling point.

“I talked a lot about the attributes of being a point guard, both when I was at HBO and here at Howard, too,” he said. “I can remember a couple of times saying to Ross (Greenburg, then president of HBO Sports) and Mark (Taffet, another former HBO Sports executive), `Hey, I was a point guard. I have no problem putting my ego to the side and doing what’s best for the team.’ I tried to bring the same attitude to Howard.”

Although it was Davis who first approached London about taking a pay cut to assume the reins of the Howard football program, Davis gives much of the credit for the hire to Howard president Wayne A. Frederick, of whom he says, “Sometimes my job is just to get him the ball. He’s young, dynamic, extremely intelligent and intuitive. Getting Mike London was a big coup on our part. Was it me who reached out to him at the beginning? Yes. But at the end of the day I had a president who I knew, if I could get both of them in the same room, we had a chance to close the deal.”

“Closing the deal” was a lot easier in the halcyon days at HBO when money was seldom an issue, unlike the tight budget Davis has to work with at Howard, where he has to find creative ways to make every sports-related dollar count. In that horrid 2015 football season that served as Davis’ introduction to his new and challenging role as a college athletic director, the Bison played just three home games in William H. Greene Stadium and averaged a paltry 3,465 spectators, and just 1,056 lonely souls for their sole victory, over Savannah State.

“When I first started (as senior vice president) at HBO after Lou left, the boxing budget was pretty substantial – certainly greater than any of the other premium networks,” Davis said. “Sometimes we solved problems simply by throwing money at them. If a guy came in and complained enough, be it Bob Arum or Don King or the Duvas, fine, go away, here’s an extra quarter-million dollars. But during my last few years there, the budgets were a lot different. We had to be much more cost-effective, if you will. The days at throwing more dollars at a problem to make it go away had ceased. We had to be more frugal.

“You have to know what your priorities are. At some point it became more important to do one or two big events and try to save money on other fights. It’s like that here at Howard; we have to make choices as to where to invest the limited resources that we have. The very first game I attended as AD was that 76-0 loss to Boston College. I sat there thinking, `OK, maybe this is a bigger uphill climb than I thought.’”

The current edition of the Bison features a “name” player  upon which further momentum can be gained, freshman quarterback Caylin Newton, younger brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Newton accounted for 330 yards and three touchdowns to spark the stunner over UNLV. His presence on campus reminds Davis of the time when he regularly was involved in the staging of matches involving such superstars as Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Lennox Lewis and Bernard Hopkins, as well as two of the last high-visibility fighters he signed to multifight deals with HBO, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.

“When Pacquiao and Mayweather took place (on May 2, 2015) I had already left HBO,” Davis said. “Floyd’s people invited me to the fight, which I thought was very nice. I went, and I did have a nostalgic feeling for two guys who I basically had been with for the majority of their careers.”

As a still-avid fight fan, Davis said he is very interested in the Sept. 16 megafight between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez, although his attention will be somewhat divided. Howard is playing a road game at Richmond that afternoon, another contest in which the Bison figure to be significant underdogs.

“I had a part in signing Canelo and GGG to their deals with HBO,” Davis recalled. “GGG was probably the last multifight agreement that I did for HBO. I have been there with both guys, although I don’t have the same long relationship with them that I had with Manny and Floyd. But it’s a fight I’ll appreciate as a fan. It’s a great one for boxing, in what has been a pretty good year for the sport.”

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Boxing Odds and Ends: A Travesty of a Heavyweight ‘Title Fight’ Jake Paul and More

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It’s official. On Wednesday, Feb. 22, a formal press conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, to announce the forthcoming fight between Mahmoud Charr, formerly known as Manuel Charr, and Kubrat Pulev. They will meet in Bulgaria’s capital city on March 30 at a 12,000-seat arena.

Charr vs Kubrat bears the imprimatur of a world heavyweight title fight (WBA version). Charr is considered the champion, notwithstanding the fact that others have held the title since he first laid claim to it more than six years ago.

The WBA, as we know, recognizes two champions in some weight classes, a “super” champion and a “regular” champion. The “super” designation was created in 2000. It was designed to segregate title-holders into levels of accomplishment. In theory, a “super” champion has made five successful defenses and is recognized as a world title-holder by at least one of the three other major sanctioning bodies. “Super” champions are allowed certain liberties with respect to mandatory title defenses.

The bifurcation was greeted with hoots of derision. The Panama-based WBA trivialized the sport.

Mahmoud Charr

Mahmoud Charr was born in Beirut but has resided in Germany since he was a little boy. He won the vacant title with a 12-round decision over unexceptional Alexander Ustinov in Oberhausen, Germany.  It was a close fight. TSS ringside correspondent Phil Woolever had Ustinov winning 7 rounds to 5, but conceded that the verdict could not be called an injustice.

The title that Charr won was vacated by Ruslan Chagaev who won the belt from Fres Oquendo, lost it to Lucas Browne, and got it back by decree when Browne’s post-fight urine tests showed evidence of banned substances. But Chagaev never fought again. His fight with Browne was his last.

Charr’s first defense was to come against Fres Oquendo. Slated for March 23, 2019 in Cologne after being pushed back from September of the previous year, the match never came to fruition when Charr tested positive for two banned substances. Things get really muddled from here with Charr pushed to the sideline by legal battles complicated by Don King’s shenanigans. King arranged a fight in Florida between Charr and his fighter Trevor Bryan and succeeded in getting Bryan the WBA belt when Charr was unable to get a visa. The belt is vacant again after Bryan was knocked out by Daniel Dubois who, in turn, was knocked out by “super” champion Oleksandr Usyk.

There are more threads to this saga but let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that after defeating Ustinov, Charr was out of action for the next three-and-a-half years. He’s had only three fights since 2017 and to say that his opponents were men of low repute would be giving them the best of it. In his most recent assignment, in December of 2022, he scored a second-round stoppage over 46-year-old Swiss-Albanian slug Nuri Seferi. That brought his record to 34-4 (20). He has been stopped three times, most recently in 2015 when he was halted in five frames by future cruiserweight champion Maris Briedis.

Kubrat Pulev

Kubrat Pulev will have the home field advantage in Sofia. Charr will have youth on his side. He’s 39; Pulev is 42.

Pulev sports a 30-3 record. The losses came at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko (L KO 5), Anthony Joshua (L KO 9), and Derek Chisora (L SD 12). He last fought in December at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, CA, where he won a lopsided decision over Polish journeyman Andrzej Wawrzyk.

In a previous engagement here at the Hangar, a concert hall that seats a shade over 3,000, he TKOed Bogdan Dinu. That bout is remembered mostly for what happened after it ended. In an incident that went viral on social media, Pulev surprised Jennifer Ravalo, a self-styled journalist, with a kiss on the lips. That animated women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and led to an 8-page spread in Playboy (of Ravalo, not Allred). The California State Athletic Commission fined and suspended Pulev and mandated that he undergo sexual harassment training. The suspension lasted 120 days.

The match between Charr and Pulev, says a blurb about it, is an “eagerly anticipated” clash between “two evergreen living legends.” We will let you provide the punchline, The winner is expected to fight Martin Bakole who was knocked out by Michael Hunter.

Jake Paul

Jake Paul, the enfant terrible of prizefighting, returns this Saturday on a card in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that will air on DAZN. Paul, an influencer who brought his big social media following with him when he took up fisticuffing, is coming off a first-round stoppage of Andre August, a no-name fighter from Texas. Saturday’s sacrificial lamb is a fellow from Dickinson, North Dakota (by way of Benicia, California) named Ryan Bourland.

Bourland, who is reportedly 35 years old but looks older, scored his signature win in 2018 when he avenged a previous defeat with a 10-round majority decision over Jose Hernandez. He has fought only one since then, TKOing a fighter with a losing record in a 6-rounder at a lodge on a remote Indian reservation in North Dakota. That improved his ledger to 17-2 (6 KOs).

Regarding Jake Paul, Thomas Hauser once wrote that he’s worked hard to become a better boxer and is “certainly better than a Golden Gloves novice.” There was a time when this reporter, perhaps naively, thought that Jake had the potential to become a legitimate top-15 cruiserweight, but his recent choice of opponents suggests that he is comfortable just spinning his wheels.

His bout with Bourland will play second fiddle to Amanda Serrano’s featherweight title defense against Germany’s Nina Meinke (18-3, 4 KOs). Although Amanda has a lot of mileage on her odometer, she is expected to have little difficulty with Meinke. In another bout of note, Puerto Rican campaigners Jonathan Gonzalez (27-3-1, 14 KOs) and Rene Santiago (12-3, 9 KOs) will meet in a 12-rounder with Gonzalez’s WBO light flyweight title at stake.

—-

Let’s conclude this write-up on an upbeat note. Hall of Fame boxing writer Bernard Fernandez, a frequent TSS contributor, informs us that his fifth and presumably final anthology is nearing completion with a likely release date of April or May. “Championship Rounds, Round 5” includes a foreword by Gerry Cooney and has drawn glowing reviews from the likes of Dave Kindred and Dr. Gordon Marino who both had an early peek at the manuscript. Kindred, a renowned sportswriter and author, was the subject of a 2021 piece on “60 Minutes.” Marino, a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, has written extensively about boxing for the Wall Street Journal.

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Results from Orlando where Berlanga KOed McCrory in a Possible Prelude to Canelo

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Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom organization was at the Caribe Royale tonight, a non-gaming resort near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Unbeaten super middleweights Edgar Berlanga and Padraig McCrory squared off in the main event.

The fight started slow, but it soon became apparent that McCrory, a 35-year-old father of three from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a domestic-level fighter, notwithstanding his undefeated (18-0) record. Berlanga, whose last five fights had gone the distance, roughed him up with some dirty tactics before taking him out in the sixth round with a crunching right hand that sent the Irishman face-first to the canvas. As McCrory pulled himself upright on rubbery legs, the towel flew in from his corner. The official time was 2:44.

As well-documented, Berlanga opened his pro career with 16 consecutive first-round knockouts. Nonetheless, he was let go by Top Rank in what purportedly was an amicable divorce. This was his second fight under the Matchroom banner. Eddie Hearn signed him with an eye on scoring a big-money match with Canelo Alvarez. The red-headed Mexican superstar is committed to returning to the ring in May on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Las Vegas, but hasn’t yet locked in an opponent.

If Berlanga gets the nod, he would be a heavy underdog, but the Mexico vs. Puerto Rico angle (coupled with Berlanga’s new-found reputation as a dirty fighter) would make it an easy sell.

Co-Feature

In only his third professional fight, Cuban defector Andy Cruz was bumped into the co-feature. That was in recognition of his amateur pedigree. Among his accomplishments, he was 4-0 vs. Keyshawn Davis with the last win coming in the gold medal round of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cruz, 28, was expected to win as he pleased against his Mexican opponent, Bryan Zamarripa, and he did win all 10 rounds on all three scorecards, but in common with many great Cuban amateurs, he seemed to lack something in the power department. Zamarripa was 14-2 heading in.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 12-round welterweight contest that was devoid of drama, Uzbekistan native Shakhram Giyasov, an Olympic silver medalist who has lost precious few rounds as a pro, won a lopsided technical decision over well-recycled 34-year-old Mexican Pablo Cesar Cano.

Giyasov (15-0, 9 KOs) sent Cano (35-9-1) to the canvas in the third round with a body punch. At the end of round 11, as their feet were tangled, he pushed Cano to the canvas and the Mexican ostensibly suffered a broken ankle when he fell. That sent the bout to the scorecards where the decision (109-99 x3) was a formality. With the victory, Giyasov earned a shot at WBA belt-holder Eimantas Stanionis.

The 12-round bantamweight match between Antonio Vargas and Jonathan Rodriguez, two fighters of Puerto Rican descent, was framed as a WBA bantamweight title eliminator. Rodriguez, the underdog, floored Vargas in the opening stanza. He had scored a stunning first-round knockout of 27-1 Khalid Yafai in his previous start and it appeared that another upset was brewing. But the match quickly turned one-sided in favor of Vargas who put Rodriguez on the canvas in the very next frame (and had two points deducted for hitting him after the bell) and then put him down again at the end of round seven with a sweeping left hook after which Rodriguez’s corner properly pulled him out.

Vargas, a 2016 Olympian who had home field advantage in Florida, improved to 18-1 (10 KOs) and became the mandatory opponent for Takuma Inoue who won earlier today in Tokyo. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Rodriguez declined to 17-2-1.

The opening bout on the TV portion of the card was a 10-round flyweight affair that looked like a runaway for showboating Yankiel Rivera until gritty Andy Dominguez made things interesting.

Rivera, who improved to 5-0 (2), was Puerto Rico’s lone representative in the Tokyo Olympics. In Mexico-born Andy Dominguez, he was fighting a former three-time New York City Golden Gloves champion who was also unbeaten (10-0 heading in). Rivera dominated the match but was caught napping in round nine and Dominguez, although all busted-up, hurt him and almost put him down. That was most lopsided round of the fight, but also the only round that Dominguez won in the eyes of the judges.

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

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Junto Nakatani Turns in Another Masterclass on Saturday’s Tripleheader in Tokyo

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In a rather odd juxtaposition, several of boxing’s best little men were on display today at Japan’s National Sumo Arena in Tokyo. The best of the lot, Junto Nakatani, improved to 27-0 (20 KOs) while tearing away the WBC world bantamweight title from Tijuana’s Alexandro Santiago (28-4-5) who was making the first defense of the title he won in Las Vegas in May when he upset Nonito Donaire.

It was a one-sided beatdown. Nakatani, who had a 5-inch height advantage, won every round before ending the contest in the sixth. The end came at the 1:12 mark when Nakatani terminated the affair with his second knockdown. The first came earlier in the round, the result of a straight left hand. The finisher was a big right hook.

With the victory, Nakatani became a world title-holder in a third weight class. He’s an outstanding talent, worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and would be favored in a unification fight with Takuma Inoue.

Inoue, the younger brother of pound-for-pound king Naoya “Monster” Inoue, did his part to bring the match to fruition with a ninth-round stoppage of Filipino veteran Jerwin Ancajas in the main event. Inoue (19-1, 5 KOs) was making the first defense of the WBA diadem he won with a wide decision over Venezuela’s mildewed Liborio Solis. That title was conveniently vacated by Takuma’s renowned brother.

This figured to be the most competitive match on the card and Ancajas (34-4-2) had his moments before Inoue ended the contest at the 0:44 mark of round nine with a four-punch combination climaxed by a shot to the liver. Heading in, Ancajas, who had a long title reign at 115, was 9-2-1 in world title fights and hadn’t previously been stopped.

In the first of the three title fights, 29-year-old Kosei Tanaka became a four-weight belt-holder in record time with a unanimous decision over Mexicali’s stubborn but out-classed Christian Bacasegua “Rocky” Rangel. At stake was the vacant WBO junior bantamweight title.

Tanaka, who previously held belts at 105, 108, and 112, started slow but the outcome was never in doubt after he knocked “Rocky” to the canvas in the eighth frame. The judges had it 119-108, 117-110, and 116-111. With the victory, Tanaka improved to 20-1 (11). In his only defeat, he was stopped by countryman Kazuto Ioka. He hunkers for a rematch but, if it happens, he might wish that it hadn’t. Ioka is long in the tooth – he turns 35 next month – but is very good and shows no signs of slowing down. Rangel (22-5-2) had won nine straight heading in, but against questionable opposition and was making his first start outside Mexico.

The Teiken Promotions card was presented in association with Top Rank and aired in the U.S. on ESPN+.

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