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The Event in 1968 That Forever Changed My World

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It was the most tumultuous year in one of the most tumultuous decades in American history. For those of a certain age, 1968 was a year unlike any other, a time of national angst and change. The country was roiled by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the Tet Offensive unexpectedly launched by North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong raised the stakes in the seemingly endless Vietnam war; there were violent clashes between antiwar protestors and Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention, and tensions ran high after a North Korea gunboat captured the adrift Navy intelligence vessel USS Pueblo in international waters and 83 crew members were held as hostages before their release was negotiated.

What happened in the sports world that year in no small part reflected what was happening in society on a broader scale: 200-meter American sprint medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Mexico City Olympics, and Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament when he beat Tom Okker at the U.S. Open. In boxing, a power-punching kid from Houston, George Foreman, presaged his two widely separated rises to world professional championships by winning the heavyweight gold medal in Mexico City, and the leaner but just as hard-hitting Bob Foster won the light heavyweight title by knocking out Dick Tiger, the only time in Tiger’s 77-bout pro career in which he lost inside the distance.

For a not-quite-21-year-old Marine reservist and his 19-year-old bride, however, all those events took a back seat to something that occurred on Aug. 24 in New Orleans, and was of no particular significance to anyone other than the newly married couple and a selection of their friends and relatives. That was the day when my life forever changed for the better when I took Anne Marie d’Aquin as my soulmate, future mother of our four children and cooler-headed adviser on any number of critical domestic issues.

Now that we have reached the occasion of our golden anniversary – and 53½ years together, if you consider the formative stages of a relationship that began with a blind date of teenagers on Feb. 12, 1965 – I think it is high time to publicly acknowledge what those who know us well have known all along. Were it not for my Annie, I would be poorer and less fulfilled in every conceivable way. What’s that saying about certain sports teams? Oh, yeah, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And so it is with me; I am better, and probably much more so, as part of “us” than I could ever be as just me, a truth that likely would not be so had not I had the incredible good fortune to find a partner who meshed with me as no one else ever could, or probably would even dare to try.

Life deals you a hand of cards, and how that hand plays out depends in part on luck and in part on how you manage the cards you are holding. Consider this: the girl who lived next door to me during my high school years, a girl who was the same age as I and who also had a policeman father, turned out to be the regular-woman version of Elizabeth Taylor, having been married seven times. I even introduced her to her first husband, a friend of mine who has been married four times. That’s 11 marriages between them. I have known others who have made frequent excursions into marital hell, and it has occurred to me that I might have been a victim, or maybe a victimizer, of the serial wedding craps games were it not for one constant. I got it right the first time, even if Annie – and I’m being painfully honest here – has had cause to wonder if she did.

My temperament is, uh, a bit more mercurial than hers, and there were occasions when I made the egregious mistake of putting Fernandez the sports writer ahead of Fernandez the husband and Fernandez the father, making for lost moments I can never reclaim, like the time I rationalized that it was proper for me to head off to Las Vegas to cover a Oscar De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez bout instead of staying home to attend my daughter Melanie’s high school graduation.

This is a boxing web site, so some of you are probably wondering why I am writing this very personal column, which is a one-time-only thing. Not that my wife planned on taking on the responsibility of being my de facto copy editor, but I do frequently ask her to read my stories before I send them in, in case there are errors I have made or improvements she might suggest.

This has enabled her to know more about fights and fighters than she ever could have imagined, which is kind of remarkable considering that, as many times as she has accompanied me to boxing events in and out of the country, she has only physically attended two cards. One of those was a show in Atlantic City headlined by an aging Roberto Duran, which Annie chose to be at since she served as a companion to a Panamanian girl who was living with us at the time as a foreign exchange student. Bottom line: I ask Annie to read my stuff because she is the only person I truly seek to impress, in the hope it will deter her from realizing she probably could have found someone more worthy of her as husband material, if only she’d been a bit more discerning and patient.

Not that she hasn’t been patient. Whenever I informed her of a move I was considering that would benefit my career, to newspapers in larger markets or which offered me better compensation and higher levels of responsibility, she agreed to pack up the house and the kids because what was good for me was good for the family, even if it meant giving up a home, a job or friends she loved. She has always put others, not only me, ahead of herself because that is who she is and why she is so well-liked by everyone who knows her. It is one of the little injustices I can’t explain that I have accumulated a number of journalism awards but there is no plaque or framed certificate in our home that pronounces my Annie as the best daughter, best sister, best wife, best mother, best nurse, best friend or best person.

There is another reason for this story, and it is that I am honoring a pledge I made to a now-deceased friend, Lucinda, who was the third wife of one of my former sports editors. Lucinda, who had earned her Ph.D. in psychology, always spoke to me of the love letters she cherished from her late husband Lee, who found the kind of bliss with her he apparently missed out on with his previous wives. “You should write a love letter to Annie,” Lucinda would scold me. “Tell her how you really feel. It will mean more to her than you realize.”

But I never got around to doing that, maybe because I do tell Annie that I love her every day, and maybe because it always has been easier for me to write about touchdowns, home runs, jump shots and guys who could hook off the jab than to channel my inner Percy Bysshe Shelley or William Wordsworth. I am too set in my ways to suddenly try to frame my innermost thoughts into couplets or iambic pentameter.

Hopefully, this paean to the great gift I was given a half-century ago, the angel who is forever at my shoulder, will suffice. And if not, I will reference some lyrics to one of my favorite Bonnie Raitt songs, You, which get to the point better than I or even Shelley or Wordsworth could:

Isn’t it love that keeps us breathing

Isn’t it love we’re sent here for

Wasn’t that loving we were feeling

It was something, baby

Deep in our souls … Deeper than we know

Keeping me holding out for

You … There was never any question

You’ll be forever on my mind

You and I, we were meant to be together

True hearts in a world where love is dyin’

Happy golden anniversary, my darling. Thank you for being, well, you. Being with you is more important than the winning Powerball Lottery ticket I might have bought, the Pulitzer Prize I would love to have received, the best-seller boxing book I often thought about doing but never got around to writing. It’s too late for any of those things to happen, but you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Because I got what I wanted, and what I needed, when you said “I do” one fine August day in 1968.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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Boxing fans in Australia are still buzzing over Jai Opetaia’s gritty, title-winning effort on Saturday, July 2. Opetaia overcome significant adversity to wrest the IBF and lineal world cruiserweight title from Mairis Briedis in a pulsating and bloody battle in Broadbeach, Queensland.

A two-time finalist in the World Boxing Super Series, Mairis Briedis was widely regarded as the sport’s best cruiserweight. His lone defeat prior to Saturday was a narrow setback at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk.

It was plain at the end of the fight that Opetaia had suffered a broken jaw. The words coming out of his mouth during the short, post-fight interview were unintelligible. However, it was worse than assumed. An x-ray showed that the jaw was actually broken in two places and that the fractures were on both sides of the mandible. The first break occurred in round two and the second in round 11.

“Opetaia would have to be considered the toughest fighter on the planet after continuing on from round two with one side of his jaw broken, then the other side broken late in the fight and still winning rounds against a vicious puncher in Briedis,” Opetaia’s promoter Dean Lonergan told Sky Sports.

Opetaia turned 27 two days before the fight. The match transpired exactly five years to the day from Jeff Horn’s massive upset of Manny Pacquiao in Brisbane.

Briedis was a consensus 11/5 favorite, but there was plenty of money on the undefeated (21-0, 17 KOs) Opetaia who represented Australia in the 2012 Olympics at the age of 16, making him the youngest Aussie boxer to ever compete in an Olympiad.

Opetaia will reportedly need at least three months to recover before he can resume sparring. As for what is next for him, speculation has centered on a pair of undefeated Brits – Richard Riakporhe and Lawrence Okolie. Riakporhe is the highest-rated contender in the IBF rankings; Okolie owns the WBO cruiserweight belt.

Opetaia would be favored over Riakporhe, but not over Okolie. However, at six-foot-five and with an 82 ½-inch reach, Okolie is poised to join the heavyweight ranks and may not be willing to wait around for a unification fight.

A rematch with Briedis is also a possibility. The decision in Opetaia’s favor, although unanimous (115-113, 116-112 x2), was far from clear-cut. Had the fight been held on Briedis’s turf in Latvia, the decision would have likely gone the other way.

To Briedis’s credit, he offered not a whimper of protest when the decision was read and went to Opetaia’s dressing room to congratulate him before leaving the arena.

Zolani Tete

He’s back

On Nov. 18, 2017, Zolani Tete stopped Siboniso Gonya with a KO that went viral. If you choose to check it out — it’s still up there on youtube — don’t blink. The entire fight, which ended with Gonya flat on his back, unconscious, lasted all of 11 seconds. A world bantamweight title was at stake and the one-punch knockout stands as the fastest stoppage in world championship boxing history.

Three fights later, on Nov. 20, 2019, Tete was stopped in three rounds by John Riel Casimero. Prior to this fight, he had been forced to pull out of his scheduled match with Nonito Donaire in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series because of a shoulder injury.

Tete was out of action for 25 months after the Casimero defeat. He returned to the ring in December of last year in Johannesburg in his homeland of South Africa for a tune-up fight in which he blasted out his overmatched opponent in the opening round. This past Saturday, he resurfaced in London and resurrected his flagging career in a super bantamweight contest for the British Commonwealth title.

Tete was pit against Jason Cunningham, a Doncaster man riding a seven-fight winning streak. On paper it was a competitive match, but Cunningham was out of his element. Tete controlled the first three rounds with his jab and then brought the heavy artillery. It was all over at the 0:34 mark of round four.

At age 34, it would appear that Tete still has a lot of mileage left in him. There was a time when people were salivating over the thought of a match between him and Naoya Inoue. That match may well come to fruition, but not likely anytime soon. A match between Tete and WBO 122-pound title-holder Stephen Fulton is no less intriguing and may well happen within the next 12 months.

Looking Ahead

The boxing slate over the Fourth of July weekend was rather soft – there was nothing of consequence on American soil – and this coming weekend is also skimpy.

Saturday’s heavyweight match In London between 41-year-old Kubrat Pulev (29-2, 14 KOs) and 38-year-old Derek Chisora (32-12, 23 KOs) doesn’t get the juices flowing. They fought six years ago in Hamburg, Germany, and although the decision favoring Pulev was split, that was only because of a head-scratching scorecard. The Bulgarian controlled the fight which wasn’t particularly entertaining.

The co-feature between super welterweights Israil Madrimov (8-0, 6 KOs) and Michel Soro (35-3-1, 24 KOs) is also a rematch. The talented Madrimov, who has never fought a pro fight scheduled for less than 10 rounds, won the first meeting on a controversial stoppage. The Spanish referee did not hear the bell ending the ninth frame and stopped the bout well after the bell had sounded. The match was held on Madrimov’s turf in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The WBA, which sanctioned the bout as a final eliminator for Jermell Charlo’s 154-pound title, let the result stand but ordered an immediate rematch.

Looking further down the road, the Sept. 10 card at London’s O2 Arena shapes up as a lively affair. The women take center stage with a pair of title unification bouts. WBC/WBA/IBF world middleweight champion Claressa Shields (12-0, 2 KOs) meets WBO title-holder Savannah Marshall (12-0, 10 KOs) in the featured bout. Marshall, who hails from the English port city of Hartlepool and had her first pro fight in Las Vegas under the Mayweather Promotions banner, is the only person to defeat Claressa Shields in a boxing ring, accomplishing the feat in 2012 at an amateur tournament in China.

Shields has out-classed all of her professional opponents — has she even lost a round? – and it’s odd to find her in the role of an underdog, but Marshall, who packs a bigger punch, is currently a small favorite. No odds have yet been posted on the co-feature, a 130-pound title unification fight between Americans Mikaela Mayer (17-0, 5 KOs) and Alycia Baumgardner (12-1, 7 KOs), but on paper this will be Mayer’s toughest fight.

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When Boxing Was Big on the Fourth of July: A TSS Classic

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We’re going way back, but there was a time when the Fourth of July was a big day for boxing in the U.S. The high-water mark, according to BoxRec, was set in 1922 when there were 67 shows spread across 27 states. In that year, the holiday fell on a Tuesday.

Two of the most historically significant fights were staged on the Fourth of July. In 1910, in a fight that “marinated” for almost five years, Jack Johnson successfully defended his world heavyweight title at the expense of former champion James J. Jeffries. Measured by the amount of newsprint expended on this story as it developed, Johnson vs. Jeffries was the biggest single-day sporting event in the history of man. In 1919, Jack Dempsey dethroned Johnson’s conqueror Jess Willard, the first big bang in the Golden Era of Sports. And although it didn’t move the needle, how appropriate in hindsight that Joe Louis began his pro career on the Fourth of July.

During the early years of the 20th century, promoters often hitched their events to other events – county fairs, carnivals, race meets, national conventions of fraternal organizations, and so forth. One might call these festival fights. The 1931 show in Reno featuring Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun was an example. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Fourth of July boxing show, a window into western Americana.

In 1931, Reno (the “Biggest Little City in the World”) was home to about 20,000 people. Twice that number swarmed into Reno on that year’s Fourth of July. “Special trains by the score, automobiles by the hundreds and airplanes by the dozen poured into the famous divorce metropolis from the Pacific Coast. From the sandy wastes of Nevada came prospectors on burros, cowboys on horseback and ranchers in buckboard wagons,” said the correspondent for the United Press.

The race meet was in progress and there were sundry other activities arranged to make the day special, but the big shebang was the prizefight.

The spearheads of the promotion, Bill Graham and James McKay, owned the Bank Club, Reno’s biggest casino. Business was booming now that Nevada had legalized gambling, not that it made much difference in Reno where gambling was wide-open before the new law took effect.

Graham and McKay had made their fortunes running gambling saloons in Nevada mining towns and could afford to commit big dollars to the promotion. They brought in the great ring announcer Dan Tobey from Los Angeles (520 miles away) to serve as the master of ceremonies — Tobey was the Michael Buffer of his day — but their big coup was getting Jack Dempsey involved. Dempsey was retired, having last fought in 1927, but the Manassa Mauler was still a towering personality and his involvement ensured good national newspaper coverage. For advertising purposes, he was named the actual promoter, the makeshift wooden stadium erected in the infield of the thoroughbred track was named for him, and he would serve as the bout’s referee.

At this stage of their respective careers, Max Baer and Paulino Uzcudun were borderline journeymen. Baer’s best days were ahead of him, but he had lost three of his last five. Uzcudun had lost four of his last seven beginning with a 15-round setback to Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium. But Baer was still recognized as a man with a pulverizing punch and the pairing was smart from a geographical perspective. Baer had cultivated a strong following in northern California, Reno’s primary tourist market. Uzcudun, who had his early fights in Paris, hailed from the Basque region of Spain.

The Reno area was home to many people of Basque descent, and Uzcudun, nicknamed the Basque Woodchopper, had a ready-made fan base. It was 11 pm on June 4 when Uzcudun arrived in Reno on the Southern Pacific to set up his training quarters, but despite the late hour, thousands were reportedly at the rail terminal waiting to greet him.

Baer arrived a few days later. It was customary in those days for the headliners in a big show outside a major metropolis to arrive in the host city several weeks before the event. They held public workouts and were squired around town to press the flesh to goose the gate.

With the city about to be inundated by a great throng, the Chamber of Commerce undertook a campaign to discourage price-gouging. The District Attorney cautioned homeowners renting beds to visitors to exercise caution when accepting checks, “particularly checks drawn on banks in other cities.” Those that came by rail and could afford a berth in a Pullman car brought their own hotel rooms. The Pullmans were diverted to a side track where they sat until the excursionists were ready to leave.

There was never a dull moment in Reno, a place where gambling houses operated around the clock. Reporters had plenty to write about besides the big fight. The cantankerous mayor, E.E. Roberts, was quite a character. To boost tourism, he “advocated placing a barrel of corn whiskey on every corner of the city with a dipper attached and a sign directing all favorably inclined to drink as much as they pleased.” Prohibition was still in effect and this didn’t sit well with federal prohibition agents. On June 30, the day prior to the start of the racing meet and four days before the big fight, agents from the San Francisco office descended on the city, raiding 19 saloons and arresting 37 people for violating the Volstead Act. By most accounts, this barely dented the city’s saloon industry.

The Fight

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Although no title was at stake, the bout — billed as the “Battle of the Sagebrush” — was scheduled for 20 rounds. It was a messy affair fought on a sweltering day where the temperature at ringside climbed into the mid-90s. “On occasion they butted like goats,” said a ringside reporter.

The match, which lasted the full distance, struck some reporters as vicious and others as rather tame – there were no knockdowns — but on two matters everyone agreed: it was a closely contested contest and both Baer and Uzcudun exhibited great stamina. By and large, Baer landed the cleaner punches but Uzcudun, who had a famously awkward style, a peek-a-boo defense grafted to a low crouch, stubbornly pressed the action and was commended for his tenacity.

At the end of the 19th round, referee Dempsey, the sole arbiter, leaned over to a group of reporters and told them that he would award the fight to the man that had the best of it in the final round. That proved to be the Basque Woodchopper, who had attracted most of the bets in the betting shed built adjacent to the arena.

The attendance was listed at 18,000, but it would be reported that only 9,260 paid. Looking back 10 years later, an attendee recalled that “gatecrashers by the hundreds swarmed over the racetrack fences and infiltrated from all angles. There just weren’t enough cops, ushers, and guards to handle them.”

The promoters reportedly lost money, but the visitors must have been good spenders because Dempsey was back in Reno with another Fourth of July prizefight the following year. The 1932 promotion, pitting Max Baer against King Levinsky in the main event, was a big disappointment, playing out in a half-empty stadium, but at least those in attendance could say that they got to see a future heavyweight champion in action. Not quite two years later, Baer massacred Primo Carnera at an outdoor arena in Queens, igniting a short- lived title reign. (Rising heavyweight contender Joe Louis would subsequently defeat all three of the Reno headliners, knocking out Levinsky, Baer, and Uzcudun, in that order, in consecutive bouts.)

Reno’s second “Battle of the Sagebrush” was a would-be extravaganza that fell flat, the fate of most holiday festival fights, a development that the late, great sportswriter John Lardner attributed to “chuckleheaded boosterism.”

That’s a story for another day. In the meantime, here’s wishing everyone a Happy Fourth of July.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a reprint of a story that ran on these pages on July 2, 2018.

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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The Hauser Report: The ESPY Awards and Boxing

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The annual ESPY Awards are a celebration of sports and the role that they play in American society. Jim Valvano, who was dying of cancer, energized the first ESPYs telecast in 1993 with his powerful message, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” The ESPYs have gotten bigger since then. They’re now a mainstream cultural happening. But for knowledgeable boxing fans, their credibility just took a hit.

The ESPYs are (in ESPN’s words) about “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the preceding twelve months. On June 28, ESPN announced the nominees for the 2022 ESPY awards. The winners will be revealed during a July 20 telecast. Most of the nominees were well-chosen. But the nominees for “best boxer” appear to have been chosen with an eye toward promoting fighters aligned with ESPN rather than “celebrating major sports achievements, remembering unforgettable moments, and honoring the leading performers and performances” of the past twelve months.

The ESPY nominees for “best boxer” are Tyson Fury, Katie Taylor, Shakur Stevenson, and Mikaela Mayer. In other sports (such as soccer, basketball, golf, and tennis), the ESPYs have separate categories for male and female athletes. Rafael Nadal doesn’t compete against Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon or in the ESPY balloting. So, it’s unclear why Tyson Fury should compete against Katie Taylor.

The ESPY’s tilt toward boxers who are aligned with ESPN is more troubling. Fury and Taylor belong on the ballot. During the preceding year, Fury knocked out Deontay Wilder and Dillian Whyte, while Taylor decisioned Jennifer Han, Firuza Sharipova, and Amanda Serrano. The historic nature of Taylor-Serrano validates Katie’s inclusion.

But Stevenson and Mayer are a stretch. Both of them have promotional contracts with Top Rank which has an exclusive licensing agreement with ESPN. During the preceding year, Stevenson beat Jamel Herring and Oscar Valdez. Those were nice wins but hardly remarkable. Mayer’s ESPY credentials are limited to decisions over Maiva Hamadouche and Jennifer Han.

Why isn’t Oleksandr Usyk (who dethroned Anthony Joshua) on the ballot? What about Terence Crawford (KO 10 over Shawn Porter) and Dmitry Bivol (whose victories included a unanimous-decision triumph over Canelo Alvarez)?

Hint: Usyk and Bivol are currently aligned with DAZN. And Crawford has signaled his intention to leave Top-Rank-slash-ESPN to pursue a unification bout against Errol Spence on Showtime-PPV or Fox-PPV.

If Netflix hosted the Oscars and stacked the ballot with Netflix programming, it would be comparable to the ESPY’s handling of this year’s “best boxer” award.

When the ESPY nominations were announced, I reached out to ESPN for comment. Initially, I asked, “What is the process by which the four nominees for ‘best boxer’ were chosen?”

Speaking on background, an ESPN publicist responded, “Nominees are chosen by a mix of ESPN editors, executives and show producers.”

“On background” means that a reporter may quote the source directly and may describe the source by his or her position but may not attribute the statements to the source by name.

I followed up by asking, “How many people choose the nominees and what are the criteria for choosing them?” There was no response.

I’m also curious to know the identity of the “editors, executives and show producers” who selected the ESPY nominees. Did knowledgeable ESPN boxing people like Tim Bradley and Mark Kriegel have a significant voice? I think not. Here, I should note that ESPN analyst Andre Ward is also knowledgeable about boxing. I omitted his name from this paragraph because, given Ward’s ties to Shakur Stevenson, he probably shouldn’t participate in the nominating process.

In recent years, boxing fans have grown accustomed to boxing telecasts on all networks being as much about hype as honest commentary. The 2022 ESPY nominations for “best boxer” are about ESPN hyping its own fighters and advancing its own economic interests.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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