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A New Book on Jack Dempsey is Worth a Look

But certain new arrivals sometimes are promptly moved to the front of the line, which was the case with The Million Dollar Man: Jack Dempsey

Bernard Fernandez

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Dempsey

My personal library contains hundreds of books, dozens of which this voracious reader has yet to get around to. There is, after all, only so much time in any given day to spend large chunks of it curling up with a mystery novel or biography of a notable person. But certain new arrivals sometimes are promptly moved to the front of the line, which was the case with The Million Dollar Man: Jack Dempsey, authored by Thomas Brennan, which came in the mail recently with a written request from the publisher (Regent Press of Berkeley, CA) that I kindly review it for the edification of would-be purchasers.

Well, OK. The life and times of William Harrison Dempsey – the “Manassa Mauler’s” birth name – is of such import that it has been covered at length in previous literary ventures, including Round by Round, Dempsey’s autobiography written in conjunction with contributor Myron M. Stearns, and Dempsey, again written by the great man himself with input from Jack’s stepdaughter, Barbara Piatelli Dempsey. There aren’t wide swaths of untilled soil in The Million Dollar Man (a reference to Dempsey being the attraction in the first five fights to generate million-dollar live gates), and some of Brennan’s prose tends to be excessively flowery, as was frequently the case with such legendary early-20th-century sports writers as Paul Gallico, Damon Runyan and Grantland Rice, inflatable garden slide whose ruminations on the most compelling sports superstar (along with New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth) of the Roaring ’20s include descriptions of the punches Jack delivered as “lusty cracks” and “wallops.”  But a bit of excess is perhaps allowable if the lead character is larger than life, and the nearly century-old past from which Dempsey emerged serves as prologue. Bits and pieces of the enthralling road traveled by Dempsey were played out, in one form or another, by such later heroes of the ring (or anti-heroes, depending on one’s point of view) as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson.

I admittedly remain a moth drawn to Dempsey’s flame because of his connection, however tenuous, to my all-time favorite fighter, a quite unrenowned welterweight whose professional record was 4-1-1, with just one victory by knockout. But Jack Fernandez, like Jack Dempsey, came into this world with a different birth name. He departed this mortal coil at age 74 as Bernard J. Fernandez Sr. on March 4, 1994, my father’s nickname having been conferred upon him as an amateur by someone who compared his boxing style – crouching, bobbing and weaving, always coming forward – to that of the infinitely more celebrated former heavyweight champion.  Some yellowed clippings of Dad’s fighting days variously describe him as a “left hook specialist” and a “wild-hooking slugger.” I wish I had video of him in action, but I do have a poster from 1944 in which his name appears right under that of main-eventer Archie Moore.

But I digress. Gallico once described Dempsey (and this particular passage is not in Brennan’s book) thusly: “His weaving, shuffling style of approach suggested the stalking of a jungle animal. He had a smoldering truculence on his face and hatred in his eyes.” Brennan supports the notion of Dempsey as predator, claiming that he “singlehandedly brought shock and awe to the sport of boxing like no one before or since … The Manassa Mauler backed down to no man in the ring. He stalked his opponents much the same way a tiger stalks his prey.”

Many of the better fighters from every era arise from abject poverty, and Dempsey was no exception. He was the ninth of Hyrum and Celia Dempsey’s 13 children, and perhaps the only one predestined to follow a particular career path. Before Jack was born, his mother had read and re-read a book given to her by an old peddler, Life of a 19th Century Gladiator, supposedly authored by John L. Sullivan but no doubt assisted in no small part by a ghost writer. Celia told Jack years later that, before he was born, she wanted her next male child to be the next John L. Sullivan.

In truth, Harry – which is what the rest of the family, which relocated often in search of better financial opportunities, called him – was preceded as a boxer by older brother Bernie, who for reasons unstated billed himself as Jack Dempsey. But Bernie had a liability, a glass jaw that precluded him from ever making it big as a fighter. In the hope of avoiding the pugilistic fate that had befallen Bernie, Harry – then going by the nom de guerre of “Kid Blackie” in mostly unsanctioned (and unrecorded for historical purposes) bouts – chewed rosin gum to strengthen his jaw muscles and soaked his face in beef brine to toughen his skin and make it less susceptible to cuts.

“Who knows how many fights I had between 1911 and 1916?” the former Kid Blackie said years later, after he had officially switched his ring (and legal) name to Jack Dempsey in tribute to the retired Bernie. “The record books don’t contain them, and I couldn’t name the number or identify all the faces today if my life depended on it. I’d guess a hundred. But that’s still a guess. Whatever the number was, it wasn’t enough to support me. To fill the gaps and my belly, I was a dishwasher, a miner or anything else you could dig up in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho – I dug potatoes and beets, punched cattle, shined shoes and was a porter in the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City.”

In search of more and better-paying fights, and to capture the attention of nationally influential sports writers, Dempsey relocated to New York City. He did have some spot success – Damon Runyon was the first columnist to refer to him as the “Manassa Mauler,” a reference to the Colorado mining town in which he was born, and a sobriquet which eventually took root with the public – but the constant struggle for recognition wore on him and he moved back to his comfort zone out west.

Except that Dempsey’s comfort zone wasn’t any more comforting than New York. He was still scuffling along, considering quitting the ring, when a fortuitous turn of events – a barroom brawl – essentially turned his life around. He was having a drink in a saloon in Oakland, Calif., when he noticed several men attacking another bar patron, who was by far getting the worst of it. Jack went to the aid of the customer being pummeled, driving off the assailants. The guy he saved from taking a more severe thrashing was Jack “Doc” Kearns, a boxing manager, who figured anyone that handy with his fists had to have boxing potential. He immediately offered to take his accidental savior under his wing.

Kearns might have been many things, not all of them good – Dempsey later claimed Kearns had shortchanged him on several purses, and the two had a bitter falling-out that led to Kearns filing a lawsuit against his onetime meal ticket – but their association soon began to pay major dividends, with Jack rising to the position of the top-ranked heavyweight contender to champion Jess Willard after he starched the previous No. 1, Fred Fulton, in a mere 18 seconds on July 27, 1918.

But Willard, nicknamed “The Pottawatomie Giant” (for his hometown of Pottawatomie, Kan.) at 6-6½ and 245 pounds, dismissed Dempsey as too small to pose much of a threat. Kearns and Dempsey were obliged to embark on a nationwide tour in which Dempsey registered five consecutive first-round knockouts in early 1919 while constantly chirping for Willard to come out of hiding and face him. Given the immense size difference – the 6-foot-1 Dempsey was scarcely 180 pounds then – there was some concern that Willard might lethally dispose of the mouthy challenger, as he had six years earlier when another opponent, John “Bull” Young, died of a brain hemorrhage a day after he was knocked unconscious. Willard even asked Kearns to provide written assurance that no attempt would be made to file charges if he did unto Dempsey what he had done to Young.

America was still not that far from its frontier days when the Willard-Dempsey fight finally took place on July 4, 1919, in Toledo, Ohio. Legendary Old West lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, serving as human metal detectors, were charged with the responsibility of collecting guns and knives from armed fans before they could enter the outrageously hot stadium.

Willard was correct, in a sense; a slaughter did indeed take place. But it was not Dempsey’s health and well-being that were in jeopardy, it was Willard’s after the ferocious aspirant to the title – perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that Kearns had bet $10,000 of their money (at 10-to-1 odds) on him to win by first-round knockout – beat the champion bloody in the process of flooring him seven times in that opening stanza. Willard was counted out by referee Ollie Pecord after the last of those knockdowns, but the bell sounded just prior to the toll of 10, obliging the battered Willard to submit himself to more punishment while Kearns and Dempsey missed out by a couple of ticks on $100,000 additional income on the wager. Willard did not come out for the fourth round, having gone down twice more in round three.

Handsome in a rugged, outdoors kind of way with his chiseled physique, jet-black hair, bushy eyebrows, piercing eyes and mesmerizing air of malevolence, Dempsey, already on the way there, was instantly confirmed as the USA’s new king of the ring following his beatdown of the favored Willard. Damon Runyon, ever the wordsmith, wrote that Willard’s submission came “just as the bell was about to toss him into the fourth round of a mangling at the paws of Jack Dempsey, the young mountain lion in human form, from the Sangre de Cristo Hills of Colorado.”

But those placed upon a pedestal learn fast that the fall from grace can be swift and damaging. Dempsey was soon thereafter denounced as a “slacker” after reporters learned he had not served in the U.S. military during World War I, prompting Grantland Rice of the New York Tribune to temper his praise of the new titlist’s ferociousness inside the ropes with his presumed lack of patriotism outside of them.

“Let us have no illusions about our new heavyweight champion,” Rice wrote. “He is a marvel in the ring, the greatest hitting machine even the old-timers have ever seen. But he isn’t the world’s champion fighter. Not by a margin of 50,000 men who either stood or were even ready to stand the test of cold steel and exploding shell for anything from six cents to a dollar a day.”

By and by, Dempsey’s undeniable charisma and crowd-pleasing savagery in plying his trade won over that portion of a nation, and the world, that would have preferred him to have included a Sergeant York chapter in his thickening book of pugilistic accomplishments. During a trip to Europe he literally had to fight off female admirers, and his popularity soared to a point that an envious Babe Ruth reportedly considered taking up boxing before coming to his senses and sticking with baseball.

A four-round destruction of France’s Georges Carpentier was the first of five fights involving Dempsey to have generated million-dollar live gates, to be followed by those against Luis Angel Firpo, Jack Sharkey and the two losing matchups with Gene Tunney, his stylistic opposite.

Where Dempsey had always fought to win as quickly and emphatically as possible, a boiling pot of explosive energy always on the verge of eruption, Tunney, a former Marine, was a scholarly type who, despite a decent KO percentage, considered boxing to be something of a sweaty but nonetheless intellectual pursuit.

“I am here to train for a boxing contest, not a fight,” Tunney said before the rematch with Dempsey on Sept. 22, 1927, the notorious “Long Count” bout. “I don’t like fighting. Never did. But I’m free to admit that I like boxing.”

Such comments by Tunney did not set well with fans that preferred Dempsey’s familiar go-for-the-jugular aggression. Gallico claimed that Tunney’s image was that of a “priggish, snobbish, bookish fellow, too proud to associate with common prizefighters.”

By the time an aging Dempsey, by now accustomed to taking long breaks between fights, entered into his fire-and-ice meetings with Tunney, however, his internal blaze was already set to low flame. Even a jungle cat might be capable of fighting mad only so long. Even before his epic slugfest with the much larger Firpo, in which the Argentine went down nine times and Dempsey twice in two rounds, the champion spoke wistfully of the changes brought about when the desperation of poverty is replaced by the comfort of wealth and privilege.

“Maybe I can’t take as much now as I took then,” Dempsey said. “It’s much easier you know and more fun fighting your way to the top and defending it. Being champion isn’t as great as it seemed before I was champion. I have more money and softer living, but there are more worries and troubles and cares than I ever dreamed of before. The glory and even the money don’t mean as much as they did in the days when you belonged only to yourself – not the public.”

Now, regarding those parallels between Dempsey and those who would later fill his role and his shoes as elite heavyweight champions. That crouching, swarming, no-reverse-gear, left-hook-heavy attack? “Smokin” Joe Frazier fits the bill.

What about the controversy and loss of fan support that arose from Dempsey’s lack of military service during wartime? Sounds a lot like Muhammad Ali staying on the sidelines during Vietnam, doesn’t it?

Dempsey’s bitter split with his longtime manager, Kearns? How about the unpleasant professional separation of Mike Tyson from his disliked co-manager Bill Cayton after the two father figures in Iron Mike’s life, Cus D’Amato and Jimmy Jacobs, passed away?

Nor were Dempsey’s marital difficulties lastingly unique. His first wife, Maxine, was a prostitute 16 years his senior. His second wife, Estelle Taylor, was a stunningly beautiful model and actress who detested her husband’s boxing friends and considered them to be low-class and beneath her station. Tyson’s first wife, Robin Givens, apparently didn’t much care for anything about him except for the lavish lifestyle he was able to provide her.

Fortunately for Dempsey, his post-boxing life was as rich and fulfilling, in its own way, as had been his ring career. Not only did he enjoy a long and successful run as a New York restaurateur, but he served in the Coast Guard during World War II and was part of the American assault on Okinawa in 1945, when he was 49. Doing so mollified whatever holdovers were still resentful about his non-participation in the so-called war to end all wars.

If there is a lingering knock on Dempsey, it is the lack of black opponents on his otherwise sterling resume. He never did swap punches with such highly capable men of color as Sam Langford and Harry Wills, a taint that still clings in part to his legacy and is a shameful reminder of the bigotry prevalent in America in the early 20th century. It should be noted, however, that Dempsey urged promoter Tex Rickard to arrange a fight with Wills, but Rickard either was unwilling or unable to do so because of the tense racial politics of that time. Too many managers and promoters remembered the race riots that erupted throughout the country after Jack Johnson, a black man with swagger, conquered James J. Jeffries in 1910.

Dempsey was 87 when he died on May 31, 1983, but he remains a pivotal figure in the first golden age of American sports in the 1920s, a heyday also marked by Ruth, football’s Red Grange, golf’s Bobby Jones and tennis’ Bill Tilden. If you think Tom Brady and LeBron James are big deals today, beamed into your living room or den in high-definition color with regularity by the miracle of satellite communications, imagine yourself and a dozen friends hunched around an upright radio, listening to an excited announcer describe the majesty of a Ruth home run or a Dempsey knockout.

The very inaccessibility of such athletes in the 1920s stamped them as wondrous, almost mystical individuals. Were they mortal men, hewn of flesh and bone? Or did some elixir of the gods course through their veins, enabling them to extend the boundaries of athletic capability to limits once thought unimaginable?

The Million Dollar Man might not be a long (262 pages) or classic read, but its subject matter will grab anyone who wants to know more about one of the fight game’s most enduring and cherished legends. It might make a nice Christmas present for any fight fan willing to open an important portal to boxing’s past.

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3 Punch Combo: Scoping Out Teofimo vs Nakatani, Ajagba vs Demirezen and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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THREE PUNCH COMBO — Boxing on ESPN+ returns this Friday with a card from the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, MD headlined by the fast-rising lightweight sensation Teofimo Lopez (13-0, 11 KO’s). Lopez will be facing the undefeated Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KO’s) of Japan in a final IBF eliminator to become the mandatory challenger for champion Richard Commey (29-2, 26 KO’s). While Lopez is a known commodity to most boxing fans, the same cannot be said of Nakatani. So just who is this unheralded fighter from Japan and does he pose any threat to Lopez?

Nakatani, 30, turned pro in 2011 after an amateur career that by most accounts consisted of somewhere between 50 and 60 bouts. As a pro, he has never fought more than three times a year and never outside of Japan, but by managing to stay undefeated he has crept into the Top 15 rankings of three of the four major sanctioning bodies in the lightweight division.

Looking closer Nakatani’s resume, the overall level of his competition is highly questionable.  Probably his best win was in his eighth pro fight when he won a 12-round unanimous decision against Ricky Sismundo. Sismundo has sprung some surprises in the past and as a matter of fact gave undefeated rising contender Maxim Dadashev a scare earlier this year, but this is the same Ricky Sismundo who was defeated by Ruslan Madiyev last week in California, bringing his record to 35-14-3.

Other than Sismundo, the names on Nakatani’s resume are hardly recognizable.

Nakatani, an orthodox fighter, is tall for the lightweight division standing nearly six feet in height. As such, he likes to work behind the left jab. However, that jab is not very sharp or powerful, but used as more of a range finder and to set up his right hand. Sometimes he will follow the right with a left hook but his primary offense is the left jab followed by the right.

Nakatani is not that athletic or quick inside the ring. His hand speed is below average for the division. He is also not a powerful or heavy handed puncher. The knockouts are more from his level of competition than anything else.

Here are a few other notes on Nakatani based on my observations: He does not like to fight on the inside and will initiate clinches when his opponent closes the distance. And he has a habit of trying to avoid punches with his legs, often times pulling straight back with his hands down. He has gotten clipped quite a few times but fortunately for him those fighters that have done so have not possessed big punching power.

I actually do think Nakatani is the strongest opponent for Lopez to date. That being said, however, I do not think he will give Lopez much trouble. Teofimo may get frustrated some by Nakatani’s constant clinching on the inside, and he may get hit with a few range finding jabs, but expect another Lopez knockout here sometime in the first half of the fight.

Under The Radar Fight

The attention of the boxing world this week is going to be focused on the big welterweight pay-per-view title fight between Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KO’s) and Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KO’s). Also on the show is an intriguing heavyweight fight that is falling deep under the radar between a pair of 2016 Olympians in Efe Ajagba (10-0, 9 KO’s) and Ali Eren Demirezen (11-0, 10 KO’s).

Ajagba, 25, represented his native country of Nigeria in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Ivan Dychko in the quarterfinals. Since turning pro, he has really turned heads, building a reputation as a fearsome puncher.

Ajagba is a big imposing heavyweight. He stands 6’5” tall and possesses a massive 85-inch reach. Best described as an aggressive boxer puncher, he will press the action, often times behind a very stiff and powerful left jab from the orthodox stance. Very athletic for a man his size, he possesses above average hand speed for the heavyweight division. His best trait is his power; he possesses legitimate one punch knockout power in both fists. The natural tools are all there for Ajagba to potentially one day be a dominant force in the division.

But there are things Ajagba needs to work on, namely his defense. Right now, he lacks any sort of head movement and often poses in front of his opponents after punching them to admire his work. He hasn’t paid yet for his lack of attention to defense but that may change as his competition rises.

Demirezen, 29, represented Turkey in the Super Heavyweight division of the 2016 Olympics where he lost to Filip Hrgovic in his opening fight. Since turning pro he hasn’t had much fanfare, but has amassed quite an impressive early pro record while fighting mostly in Germany.

Though he may not have the imposing physique of Ajagba, Demirezen possesses some solid skills as well as some surprising athleticism. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call him a poor man’s version of Andy Ruiz Jr.

Demirezen will look to apply pressure behind the left jab and work combinations with his quick hands behind that jab. He does not really possess one-punch power but is heavy handed and his punches can take a cumulative effect on his opponents. His best punch is a quick left hook to the body that he often lands with precision.

If physiques won a boxing match, this would be no contest. But as we saw with Joshua-Ruiz, physiques don’t always win. Ajagba will be favored and rightfully so, but Demirezen can fight. This is an interesting fight between two undefeated heavyweight prospects who were recent Olympians and one that I am very much looking forward to on Saturday.

Prospect Watch – Luis Arcon

 There is a lot that gets me excited about the future of the sport. Not only is the sport being broadcast like it never has before but we have many good prospects who are beaming with talent. So many good prospects, as a matter of fact, that some very talented young fighters are falling a bit under the radar. One such fighter is junior welterweight Luis Arcon who moved to 8-0 with 8 knockouts this past Friday with a third-round knockout of Mario Lozano.

Like many of today’s top prospects, Arcon has a strong amateur pedigree. His amateur background includes representing his native country of Venezuela in the 2016 Olympics.

Arcon, 27, turned pro in March of 2018 in Mexico. So far he has breezed through his competition though it must be noted that he hasn’t faced the toughest of challenges. But he has looked very good so far in his early pro career and has been flashing some incredible talent.

Fighting from the orthodox stance, Arcon likes to work behind a well-timed and very powerful left jab. His footwork is excellent and he often positions himself at the right angles to land combinations behind that jab. He possesses very fast hands and can often fire off a volley of power shots before his opponent can react.

And then there is the power. Perhaps this is what stands out most when watching Arcon on video. Granted, as noted earlier, the competition has not been the stiffest, but he has displayed devastating knockout power in both fists. His best punch is the left hook to the body which often has a paralyzing effect on his opposition.

With his amateur background, Arcon is ready to take the next step in his career. His game is polished and he possesses massive power in both of his hands. He belongs on all top prospect lists and has a bright future in this sport.

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R.I.P. Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, One of the All-Time Greats

Arne K. Lang

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Tributes are pouring in for Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker who was killed last night (Sunday, July14) after being struck by a car while walking across a busy intersection in Virginia Beach, Virginia. An Olympic gold medalist who won six world titles in four weight classes,  Whitaker was a defensive wizard. At his peak he was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. In 2002, The Ring magazine named him the 10th best boxer of the last 80 years.

Whitaker, who turned 55 in January, turned pro in 1984 at Madison Square Garden on a show that included five of his U.S. Olympic teammates – Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, Tyrell Biggs, and Virgil Hill.

As a pro, Whitaker was managed by Main Events, a Duva family company, and did most of his training in Philadelphia under the watchful eye of George Benton. In his 17th pro fight, Pernell ventured to Paris to challenge WBC lightweight champion Jose Luis Ramirez who was 100-6 going in. Whitaker came up short on the scorecards, losing a split decision.

This ranked among the worst decisions in boxing history. Whitaker’s chief second Lou Duva accused WBC president Jose Sulaiman of fixing the fight so as not to spoil an all-Mexico showdown between Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez.

Two fights later, Whitaker won his first title, taking the IBF lightweight belt from Greg Haugen. Pernell won all 12 rounds on two of the cards. He added the WBC belt in a rematch with Jose Luis Ramirez, winning a wide decision, and added the WBA belt with a first-round stoppage of Puerto Rico’s Juan Nazario in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Between his first fight with Ramirez and his April 4, 1997 encounter with Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas, Whitaker was undefeated, a span of almost 10 years consisting of 26 fights. During this run he won world titles at 140 and 154 pounds before dropping back to welterweight for four successful title defenses.

There was one “blemish” late in this 26-fight run, a draw at the San Antonio Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez. This was also controversial. The post-fight report by William Nack was the cover story in Sports Illustrated. The headline was “Robbed!”

Sweet Pea lost a unanimous decision to De La Hoya that most ringsiders thought was a lot closer than what was reflected by the scorecards (DLH won by margins of 4, 6, and 6 points). A poll of 26 ringside reporters by the Las Vegas Review Journal revealed that 14 scored it for Whitaker with one having it a draw.

Six months after his bout with De La Hoya, Whitaker opposed Andrey Pestryaev at Foxwood’s Resort in Connecticut. He won a unanimous decision but wasn’t himself. A post-fight urine test revealed the presence of cocaine. That dictated a six-month suspension during which he failed a random drug test. He wouldn’t step back into the ring until Feb. 20, 1999, when he opposed IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden.

This would the first fight in Whitaker’s remarkable career that he lost without controversy. Trinidad broke Pernell’s jaw during the bout and retained his title with a clear-cut unanimous decision.

Whitaker retired, but launched a comeback 26 months later with a fight in Lake Tahoe against Mexican journeyman Carlos Bojorquez. In this fight, Whitaker suffered a fractured clavicle in the second round. He soldiered on, but 27 seconds into the fourth, seeing that Whitaker was a one-armed fighter in considerable pain, referee Joe Cortez pulled the plug. This would be the final fight of his career. He left with a record of 40-4-1 and 1 “NC” (the Pestryaev contest).

Less than 48 hours later, back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Whitaker was rushed to the hospital with an apparent overdose. His girlfriend called 911 after finding him having a seizure on the floor of the bathroom, his body covered in sweat.

Sweet Pea, who worked as a boxing and personal trainer in retirement, appeared to have it all together back in June of 2007 when he was formally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His emotional speech was the highlight of the induction ceremony. But in 2014 he was back in the news again when he was forced to evict his 73-year-old mother from the home she had occupied for 30 years. He said that he could no longer afford to maintain the home which he had always kept in his name. The United Press wire story said that Whitaker had squandered millions on drugs and legal expenses.

The man that struck Whitaker with his vehicle remained on the scene. Preliminary reports indicate that the driver was not impaired in any way. We here at The Sweet Science extend our condolences to Whitaker’s family and loved ones.

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

Bernard Fernandez

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The Battle of Wits Between Roach and Birmingham May Decide PacMan vs. Thurman

It is the boxers who are the center of attention, of course, and that is how it always has been and always should be. But there are a select few high-visibility bouts in which the lead trainers play a more significant role than usual, so much so that their prefight and in-fight strategizing could make the difference between victory and defeat for their guy.

Although it isn’t an undercard attraction in its own right, a mental scrap worth monitoring pits Freddie Roach, Manny Pacquiao’s longtime strategist and a seven-time winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America Eddie Futch Award as Trainer of the Year, against Dan Birmingham, a two-time BWAA Futch winner whose status as one of the elite trainers has dimmed somewhat over the past decade and a half. But the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Birmingham’s reputation could be buffed and polished to its former sheen should Keith “One Time” Thurman win as spectacularly as he has vowed to do on July 20.

The matchup of Pacquiao vs. Thurman might turn out to be just such a fight in which a spotlight, for better or worse, is shone upon the handiwork of the trainers. Those in attendance in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena won’t able to hear their spoken instructions between rounds, but subscribers to the PBC on Fox Sports Pay Per View telecast should pay close attention to what takes place in those vital one-minute interludes when all the preparation that went before is either working as planned, or is undergoing a hurried rewrite on the fly. Seemingly unlikely victories have been procured, more often than casual observers of the sweet science might realize, because the chief second offers just the right bit of tactical advice or just the right inspirational message at precisely the right moment.

The prevailing story lines before the first punch that counts is thrown have been fairly standard stuff: Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), the living legend and only world champion in eight separate weight classes, attempting to extend the outer limits of his prime at the improbable age of 40, and Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs), the WBA welterweight champion and 10 years Pacquiao’s junior, out to demonstrate that injuries and two-plus years of near-total inactivity haven’t done to him what the natural laws of diminishing returns might or might not have done to the Fab Filipino.

If there were sports books odds dealing with the corner battle involving Roach and Birmingham, Roach, a disciple of the late, great Eddie Futch who has had Pacquiao’s ear for their 16 years together, with the exception of a one-bout absence, almost certainly would be as much a favorite as Mike Tyson was over Buster Douglas or Anthony Joshua over Andy Ruiz Jr. Roach, 59, doesn’t need to make a case for his future induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as he already has been enshrined, in 2012. Should Pacquiao demonstrate that he is still an elite fighter of the here and now instead of a cherished but faded icon of the past, Roach could take a step toward an almost-unimaginable eighth Futch Award.

And Birmingham?

Like Roach, a former lightweight who posted a 40-13 record with 15 knockouts in a professional career that spanned from 1978 to ’86, Birmingham is a life-long devotee to a sport that got under his skin at an early age and took permanent root. Unlike Roach, who at one point was 25-2 and world-rated under the tutelage of the sainted Futch, Birmingham, 68, never even sipped the proverbial cup of coffee as a pro. He began boxing at 15, weighing all of 112 pounds, in his gritty hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, until he decided that sun and surf were preferable to soot and rust, necessitating a relocation to more pleasant environs along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

There are other differences between Roach and Birmingham, both subtle and stark. As a devotee to Futch, Roach was always in relatively close proximity to the old master’s retinue of stars and hot prospects, laying the groundwork for Roach to begin his own career as a trainer, if not exactly at the top, then at least a ways removed from the bottom. Birmingham, whose other passion besides boxing is rock ’n’ roll – he describes himself as a “guitar-playing 1960s hippie who was at Woodstock” – also had a mentor in Ben Getty, Thurman’s original coach, who took the Ohio transplant on as an assistant trainer to Thurman, then a youthful prodigy.

And while Roach has long since established his bona fides apart from Futch, who was 90 when he passed away on Oct. 10, 2001, to some it might appear that Birmingham is still playing the role of understudy to Getty, who was 63 when he died unexpectedly in 2009.

Thurman was a seven-year-old kid with no discernible purpose in life when he came into contact with Getty, a former serviceman whose post-military life had been unceremoniously reduced to that of a janitor at a Clearwater elementary school. It was Getty who brought Thurman to his after-school YMCA boxing program, where he learned – and loved – to shadowbox, jump rope and spar. It was like the boxing version of Luke Skywalker mastering nuances of The Force under Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda.

“Ben Getty was a very special man,” Thurman said in 2015.  “He was the one who taught me to go for the KO. He used to say this line that pissed me off a lot. I don’t know if he said it to piss me off, or if he just said it because he never wanted me to forget. But he used to say, `You are nothing without your power.’ It took me a long time to understand what that really meant.

“To me at first it was real basic. I took it as telling me I can’t box. Maybe to a degree he did mean that, but throughout the years as I reflect, I think he just never wanted me to forget how important my power is, and how my power has the ability to change the outcome of a fight.”

Getty’s sudden death left a still-developing Thurman at a career crossroads. Shelly Finkel, manager of or adviser to some of boxing’s greatest champions and biggest draws, recommended that Thurman turn himself over to Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles had become a preferred destination for fighters such as himself, brimming with potential yet to be maximized. Thurman politely declined, choosing instead to remain on home turf and with Getty’s right-hand man, Birmingham, who might have been better known at that time than Getty thanks to those two Futch Awards. Thurman continues to publicly revere Getty, wearing trunks with “Ben” stitched across the waistband. You might think that Birmingham takes at least some umbrage to that, but he insists it isn’t so.

“It hasn’t been uncomfortable at all,” Birmingham said of his station as a sort of ersatz Getty, as far as Thurman is concerned. “Ben Getty and I were very close friends. I gave him the keys to my gym so he and Keith could come and go as they pleased. When Ben passed away, just a couple of days later Keith came to me and asked, `Would you take over?’ I said, `Absolutely.’

“Keith’s history with Ben makes my job a lot easier. I don’t have to teach him any basics, that’s for sure. We just analyze the opponent, see what we need to do on fight night to win, and I train him that way. Pacquiao is a diverse fighter. He’s got quick hands, quick feet and he’s a good boxer. He’s fairly unpredictable.”

Not so Thurman, who apparently is holding firm to Getty’s sacred mandate that punching power must remain his No. 1 priority. He has predicted that Pacquiao will go down inside of six rounds, which might be easier said than done even against a Manny who no longer is at peak form.

Make no mistake, though, Birmingham should not be considered a Getty clone that has slavishly adhered to every verse from the Gospel of Ben. In 2004 and 2005, the years he won his Futch Awards, Birmingham was boxing’s tastiest flavor of the moment. His charge Ronald “Winky” Wright, who was inducted into the IBHOF in 2018, outpointed Shane Mosley in a super welterweight unification showdown on March 13, 2004, and followed that up with another points nod over Mosley the same year. In 2005, Wright turned in a career-best performance, utterly dominating Felix Trinidad en route to a one-sided decision, to which he added another UD12 over veteran Sam Soliman.

While Birmingham primarily was recognized for his work with Wright, he augmented his rising profile by taking a lesser talent, 2000 U.S. Olympian, Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, to the IBF super middleweight title in 2004. Lacy won four times in those two years, three coming inside the distance.

It should be noted that Wright, a clever southpaw who was never known for his ability to get opponents out of there with one shot or even a semi-fusillade of them, was far different stylistically than is Thurman. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that this updated version of Dan Birmingham is no more an exact duplicate of Ben Getty than Freddie Roach is of Eddie Futch.

There are different methods by which a trainer gets his fighter to rise to the occasion when the stage is most brightly lit. Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva and Richie Giachetti, all regrettably gone, embodied the motivational techniques favored by excitable men of Italian heritage. Who can forget Dundee, in maybe the signature moment of his remarkable career, forcefully telling Sugar Ray Leonard, “You’re blowing it, son!”  after the 12th round of his epic welterweight unification matchup with Thomas Hearns on Sept. 16, 1981. An energized Leonard, his eyes swollen and behind on the scorecards, responded by flooring the Hit Man in the 13th round and stopping him in the 14th.

Futch and George Benton, also regrettably gone, were more professorial in their demeanor, rarely raising their voices and disinclined to resort to rah-rah stuff. If Thurman, who has a Nepalese wife and has walked the Himalayas in a quest to find some measure of inner serenity, were to seek out some ancient and wise soothsayer he could do worse than to come across some Tibetan version of a Futch or Benton.

So pay keen attention to the 60-second breaks between rounds when Roach – who, it should be noted, is listed as Pacquiao’s co-trainer, in addition to Manny’s friend and associate Buboy Fernandez – and Birmingham dispense their abbreviated instructions. Whoever wins those small battles of the brain might determine who wins the larger conflict inside the ropes.

Photo credit: Andy Samuelson / Premier Boxing Champions

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