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Wladimir Klitschko’s Astounding Comeback

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George Foreman fashioned the most noteworthy comeback in boxing – perhaps in all of sports – when he returned after a 10-year absence and went on to regain the world heavyweight title. But Wladimir Klitschko also forged a remarkable comeback. The difference is that he did it without ever saying goodbye. There was no interregnum in his timeline; no second act.

Now that his career has come fully into focus, it’s plain that Klitschko will follow in the footsteps of his older brother and enter the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. And it’s easy to forget that there was a time when many pundits thought he was something of a tomato can.

Former Las Vegas Review-Journal sports editor Joe Hawk said this about Klitschko following his loss to Lamon Brewster: “Wladimir Klitschko joins the likes of John Ruiz and David Tua as purported boxers who should never again have their names appear on a sports page. We should’ve known about Klitschko, though. The Ukrainian-to-English converter on our computer says his full name translates to ‘Big Slow Stiff With Glass Chin.’” Associated Press sports columnist Tim Dahlberg was less snarky, but basically echoed that sentiment: “Wladimir Klitschko better get used to working in his brother’s corner during fights,” said Dahlberg in 2005. “It might be the only future he has left in boxing.”

Although he was reportedly 134-6 as an amateur and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, Wladimir Klitschko (henceforth WK) wasn’t highly thought-of when he turned pro. He had two strikes against him. He didn’t look like a future heavyweight champion. The last lineal heavyweight champion that shared his pigmentation was one-trick pony Ingemar Johansson who captured the title in 1959 which was back in the Stone Age in the eyes of some young sportswriters. And WK was European, hailing from a part of the world once lampooned as the land of horizontal heavyweights.

And then, while he was still something of a mystery fighter, WK’s reputation was stained by losses to three fighters dismissed as second-raters: Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster. Each of those fights ended inside the distance. Against Puritty and Brewster, WK simply ran out of gas. He was leading both fights comfortably on the scorecards. Against Sanders, who knocked him out clean in the second round, he simply forgot to duck.

Let’s look a little more closely at those three fights.

Ross Puritty could fairly be classified as a journeyman, but his record (24-13-1 going in) was very deceiving. The former UTEP defensive lineman had gone the distance with future heavyweight title-holder Chris Byrd, had knocked out former heavyweight title challengers Joe Hipp and Jose Luis Gonzalez, and had boxed a draw with fearsome Tommy Morrison…all this despite a very limited amateur background.

WK fought Puritty on Dec. 5, 1998, in Kiev. The match was assembled in a hurry. Wladimir had fought three weeks earlier and this was his ninth start of the year. The bout was for a minor title so it was scheduled for 12 rounds rather than ten. When the big Ukrainian fell in the 10th round, it was from sheer exhaustion. His corner stopped the fight moments into the 11th.

The fight wasn’t big news in the U.S., warranting only a paragraph or two in most papers. What most took from the story was simply that another undefeated European heavyweight had been exposed by an American boxer. Ho hum; what else is new?

WK won 16 straight after this mishap. During this skein he won the WBO title, outpointing Chris Byrd, and successfully defended it six times. But the WBO, the newest of the four major sanctioning bodies, had little cachet. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield ruled other roosts and were considered more legitimate.

In his title-winning match against Byrd, WK went to post the favorite, but only because he was the bigger man. The presumption was that if the fight went the full 12, Byrd, a slick southpaw, might steal the decision.

Hardly anyone out-boxed Chris Byrd, but WK put on the clinic, pitching a near-shutout. In fact, one of the judges did award Wladimir every round. He didn’t merely out-box Byrd, he punished him. When the fight was over, one of Byrd’s eyes was completely closed and the other was barely half-open. But the fight was held in Cologne, Germany, and didn’t receive the media attention it would have received if it had been held in the United States.

WK’s WBO title reign ended with a loud thud in Hanover, Germany, when he was annihilated by the aforementioned Sanders, a 37-year-old South African who boasted a 38-2 record but whose best sport was actually golf. With 33 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, Sanders, a southpaw, caught WK napping and put him on the canvas. Three more knockdowns would follow before the bout was stopped in the following round, but the other knockdowns were extensions of the first. And then, three fights later, Waldimir suffered another mortifying defeat, this coming at the hands of Lamon Brewster.

The Brewster fight was a repeat of WK’s match with Ross Puritty, only shorter. Wladimir won the first four rounds on all three scorecards. Brewster barely made it back to his corner at the end of the fourth. But then WK suffered a mysterious meltdown. He was knocked down twice in the fifth, the second coming just as the bell sounded to end the round. Ascertaining that he was in no condition to continue, even with a 60-second respite, referee Robert Byrd waived the fight off.

Wladimir was of the opinion that he had been drugged and, according to one post-fight story, his blood sugar level was discovered to be abnormally high. But when his attorney went to the press and demanded an investigation, important boxing writers, in the main, dismissed it as sour grapes. Where once they had questioned his chin, they now questioned his chin and his heart and his integrity.

Having been upset twice in a span of four fights, WK had a lot of making up to do to win back the affection of his fans and the respect of the media. Seventeen months after his loss to Brewster, with two more fights under his belt, he dispelled any questions about his heart, rallying to defeat Samuel Peter in a match in which he suffered three knockdowns. Wladimir was in distress in round five and again in round 10, but he won the last two rounds and prevailed by three points on all three scorecards.

Peter, a New Jersey-based Nigerian, trained by future Hall of Famer Lou Duva, was undefeated coming in with 22 knockouts among his 24 wins. With the fight being staged at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, he was chalked the favorite – the only time that WK was cast in an underdog role by the bookies until the final fight of his career.

The victory set up a rematch with Chris Byrd who now owned the IBF title. The second meeting was a carbon of the first through the first six rounds, but this time Byrd wouldn’t still be standing at the final bell. WK finished him off with a right hook in the seventh.

WK’s second world title reign lasted nine years and seven months. During his tenure he made 18 successful defenses and acquired the other two meaningful belts. He avenged his loss to Brewster (TKO 6), repeated his triumph over Samuel Peter (KO 10), comprehensively out-boxed former unified cruiserweight champion David Haye and, in a match between two former Olympic gold medalists, thoroughly outclassed previously undefeated Alexander Povetkin (that’s Povetkin eating a left hook in the photo).

WK would have pitched a shutout if not for having a point deducted after shoving Povetkin to the canvas. As it was, he won by 15 points on all three cards. The fight, however, was a stinker and there were precedents for it.

Wladimir was too dominant during his title reign. When he won lopsidedly, as was usually the case, it was said that he was too robotic. And the emphasis shifted away from him to his opponent who was seen as just another mediocrity plumbed from the wreckage of a weak division.

Yes, the heavyweight division was inferior relative to the days of Ali and Frazier and the young George Foreman. However, that was the Golden Era of Heavyweights and WK’s opposition stands up fairly well when juxtaposed against the heavyweight class of other eras. Overall, he opposed a more worthy cast of challengers than Joe Louis who was carefully steered away from good black fighters until he was deep into his 13-year title reign.

Klitschko vs. Povetkin was marred by excessive clinching. In hindsight it was precursor of the match that marked the end of WK’s title reign, his November of 2015 contest with Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf. That was an ugly fight, a poor effort by both contestants, although a few pixilated British scribes credited Fury with painting a masterpiece.

There was a rematch clause that to Wladimir’s dismay was never activated. If Tyson Fury had been fit to honor it, perhaps WK would have left the sport on a winning note. But from the standpoint of his legacy, perhaps it was better that his career ended as it did.

His farewell fight with young gun Anthony Joshua was a see-saw thriller contested under a clear sky before a great multitude at London’s venerated Wembley Stadium. And when it was over, folks that previously knocked him were forced to concede that he may have actually been pretty darn good. He was still pretty good, just not good enough to overcome Anthony Joshua but by then he was 41 years old!

If I were to ask you if WK ranked among the greatest heavyweights of all time, you should take that as a rhetorical question. Wladimir Klitschko was special.

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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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