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HBO’s Exit From Boxing More Proof That All Empires and Title Reigns Eventually End

Whoever first coined the phrase “All good things must come to an end” might have been talking about the 1,500-year run of the Roman Empire

Bernard Fernandez

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Roman Empire

Whoever first coined the phrase “All good things must come to an end” might have been talking about the 1,500-year run of the Roman Empire, the somewhat more abbreviated domination of Major League Baseball by the New York Yankees or the even shorter reigns of even the greatest and most enduring of boxing champions. But Thursday’s announcement that HBO would shut down its boxing operation by the end of 2018, after a mostly successful (if not so much lately) 45 years, nonetheless sparked multiple expressions of sadness while raising questions as to why and how such a thing could come to pass.

“There was a time when everything HBO Boxing touched turned to gold,” said promoter Lou DiBella, 58, founder and chief operating officer of DiBella Entertainment and a longtime senior vice president of HBO Sports until his departure in the fall of 2000. “I’m sad. This is like the Yankees going out of business in a way, in terms of a brand. HBO was the most powerful brand in televised boxing throughout the world, not just the United States. And now it’s going away. That’s pretty amazing.”

The same sentiment was more or less echoed by Larry Merchant, 87, the erudite former newspaperman who served as an analyst for HBO’s boxing telecasts until he left the premium-cable channel in December 2012.

“I was part of something that worked out well for me for 35 years,” Merchant said from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “The way I try to put it is that we were once a good-looking prospect, then a challenger, a champion and a great and long-time champion. Then we were an ex-champion and a has-been who finally retired. All I can say is, `So long, champ.’”

HBO’s abdication – and that’s essentially what it is, the one-time “Heart and Soul of Boxing,” as it once billed itself, quitting on its stool at the same time that Showtime, Fox, ESPN and various streaming services are investing significant resources into the sport – hardly comes as a surprise to those who have been tracking its incrementally decreasing commitment in recent years. At the height of its involvement with the sweet science, with which it had become inextricably identified, HBO’s deep-pocketed, blow-the-competition-out-of-the-water approach came with an annual budget of $80 million for marketing and rights fees. But as its corporate identity changed (HBO and its parent company, Time Warner Inc., were acquired for $85.4 billion by AT&T Inc. in June), boxing’s place in the HBO lineup became less about the good old days and more about a diminishing bottom line.

“I don’t know, that’s above my pay level. I don’t work at HBO anymore,” Merchant said when asked why the plug was being pulled and what might have been done to prevent death by disinterest. “But just as (the new executives in charge) became hard-core numbers guys, where the original executives had a passion and a vision in their approach to boxing, things changed.

“They haven’t had many prime-time heavyweights from America for some time. The (ratings and income generated from boxing) have gone down. HBO is now a mature company, and the guys who care just about the numbers decided that boxing wasn’t popular enough to keep going. They were putting fractions – small fractions – of the money into it that they used to put into it.

“Today the real opposition for HBO is Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and so on. The people in charge of HBO now are trying to see the future from the present, not the past. We’ll see if the paltry amount of money they were putting into boxing recently is put to better use elsewhere. But it is interesting that Fox comes in with some serious money, as is ESPN, Showtime and some streaming entities. Somebody obviously cares about boxing. Fox isn’t putting tens of millions of dollars into it because they don’t want to make money. They want to make money. So the sport, like water, will find its own level. It always has.”

The timing of HBO’s announcement, with a release from HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson, 37, on the New York Times web site, is especially curious in light of the fact that it was largely obscured by the overriding national interest in the he-said, she-said testimony in Washington involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the woman who has accused him of sexual assault in an incident dating back 36 years to when both were in high school. One former HBO official, who asked not to be identified, called the timing of the announcement “cowardly,” comparing it to the massive television coverage of June 17, 1994, car chase involving football legend and accused killer O.J. Simpson. As untold millions of eyes followed the path of that now-infamous white Ford Bronco and its celebrity occupant, several important sports events going on that same day were basically overshadowed, including the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup Parade, the World Cup Opening Ceremony,  Game 5 of the World Series and Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open round.

“It’s sad to see it all go away by its own hand and their own decision-making,” DiBella said. “You would have loved to see them to go out on top, not with a whimper.”

Not that boxing on HBO started out on top, even if it’s first telecast, the Jan. 22, 1973, heavyweight title bout in Kingstown, Jamaica, in which George Foreman dethroned Joe Frazier on a brutal second-round stoppage that saw Smokin’ Joe floored six times, was an aesthetic success for action-craving fight fans. Many Americans were reluctant to take the leap of faith to pay extra to receive programming for access to a new phenomenon known as premium cable. When HBO officially launched on Nov. 8, 1972, the time between the movies that constituted the bulk of its programming was filled by video of a bicyclist’s ride through New York’s Central Park, the taped feed coming from a camera mounted on the handlebars. Hardly cutting-edge stuff.

Foreman, now 69, not only appeared as a boxer on HBO in both phases of his remarkable career, but as a color commentator. He said he was not surprised that HBO was bailing because the network had “used” boxing until it had served its purpose, and is now casting it aside as so many other media outlets have in the past.

“Joe Louis-Max Schmeling really made boxing on radio important,” Foreman opined. “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports made boxing on television important in the 1950s and ’60s, as did ABC’s Wide World of Sports a little later on. HBO wasn’t really HBO until it started putting boxing on with me and Joe Frazier. That was the beginning of building something and making it extra-special.

“But whenever (those media outlets) make it on a bigger scale, what do they do? They drop boxing, which is a reason they got big in the first place. What’s happening now is nothing new. I’m surprised they just announced it.

“For years I traveled around the country and people told me, `George, I don’t really care that much about HBO, but because you’re on it, I’m going to buy it.’ They were probably saying the same thing to other fighters who were bringing (subscribers) to HBO. The (heavyweight unification) tournament with Mike Tyson really sealed the deal.”

Foreman cited former HBO Sports executive Michael Fuchs, who paid Tyson an almost-unthinkable $26.5 million to cover his appearances on the network for 1987 and ’88, as being an important factor in HBO’s emergence as the dominant force in TV boxing, as well as the golden era heyday of DiBella and former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham. They were as bottom-line conscious as their successors at HBO’s corporate headquarters, but they brought a passion to their work that some say has not been maintained at the same level. Business is business, but unbridled enthusiasm is an ingredient that is imperative to the success of any venture. The guys at the top of the boxing operation might have gotten the most credit for those decades of success, but they had a lot of help along the way.

“It’s sad because it’s the end of an era,” acclaimed former HBO Sports director Marc Payton, 69, said of HBO’s impending exit from boxing. “I’m sad for friends of mine that are still at HBO who will be affected by the loss of its boxing programming. For me it was an era that was an incredibly fun time. I was there for 35 years doing boxing and made a lot of great, lifelong friends and with whom I shared a lot of great memories.

“The economics of the business, such as the deal Top Rank recently cut with ESPN, I’m sure contributed to the decision on HBO’s part, as well as the loss of some of its marquee fighters which diminished the star value at the network. (HBO mainstays Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin became free agents with the conclusion of their Sept. 15 rematch, and another headliner, Sergey Kovalev, lost for the third time in his last five bouts when he was stopped in seven rounds by Eleider Alvarez on Aug. 4).

“We were the home of the stars for so long. We had Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather. We did the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy, and Tyson from the time he was a young challenger to becoming a champion before he went to prison. We had them all!”

To date, HBO has televised 1,111 fights, an ironic figure indicative of its former No. 1 status in an industry that is proclaiming its continuing health by branching out and lapping up new revenue streams. Oh, there is one more event on the schedule, on Oct. 27 from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden headlined by the scrap for the vacant IBF middleweight title between Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Derevyanchenko. There might be another farewell fight or two scheduled between then and the end of the year, but Foreman’s hope that boxing will again find its way back to HBO beyond then, and to any significant degree, appears to be wishful thinking. Like all love affairs, when it’s over, it’s over.

“To have the tremendous legacy and incredible history that HBO  had … certain fights we did became the sport’s Super Bowls,” a reflective DiBella said. “Boxing on HBO was must-see programming as much as The Sopranos was must-see programming.”

But Tony Soprano is gone, as is the deceased actor who superbly played him, James Gandolfini. The king is dead, long live the king, whoever and whatever that is.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Javon ‘Sugar’ Hill Keeps the Kronk Flame Burning in Banged-up Detroit

Arne K. Lang

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Anthony Dirrell, who risks his WBC 168-pound world title against former title-holder David Benavidez this Saturday, Sept. 28, is one of the last of a dying breed, one of the last active fighters who earned his spurs at the fabled Kronk Gym, by which we mean the original Kronk Gym at 5555 McGraw Street on Detroit’s west side, the place that the late great trainer Emanuel Steward put on the map.

Steward, an electrician by trade and former National Golden Gloves champion, built an amateur boxing powerhouse in the basement of the Kronk Rec Center before attracting national notice for his work with Kronk alumni who turned pro, most notably Tommy Hearns. Anthony Dirrell and his older brother Andre Dirrell represented Kronk as amateurs. They learned their craft in the original gym, often with Emanuel Steward present, watching over them like a mother hen and giving pointers.

Steward always had assistants (in the beginning unpaid volunteers) and their roles became larger as Steward became the sport’s most prominent hired gun, taking him away from Detroit for long stretches to coach such notables as Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko, plus serving as a member of HBO’s boxing broadcasting team. The most prominent of the assistants were Johnathan Banks, who currently trains Gennady Golovkin, and Javon “Sugar” Hill who will be in Anthony Dirrell’s corner on Sept. 28, having trained both Dirrell brothers off and on since their amateur days.

Emanuel Steward died in 2012 after a short illness at age 68. By then the Kronk Rec Center, built in 1921 when the area around it was heavily Polish, was no more. As the economy of Detroit worsened – the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 – instances of vandalism increased as desperate people took to stealing anything that could be sold on the black market. In September of 2006, thieves entered the rec center in the still of the night and disemboweled it, removing all the copper fixtures. With its budget strapped, the city couldn’t afford the cost of repairs. Six years later, most of the building was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. Last year, what was left of the structure was finally demolished.

But the Kronk Gym, a hallowed name in boxing, never perished; just the place where Emanuel Steward worked his magic. The gym is currently housed in a former church, school and convent that has passed through several hands since being closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. There you will find Javon “Sugar” Hill when he’s not out of town at an amateur boxing tournament or on the road with a professional fighter. The 48-year-old Hill, above all others, is the man keeping the Kronk flame burning.

It was inevitable that Javon Hill would take on this responsibility; he is Emanuel Steward’s nephew. “Emanuel was his parents only boy,” notes Javon, “and I am my parents only boy.” That common circumstance strengthened their tie. For much of his youth and into his adult years, Hill resided in Steward’s home.

Hill spent 12 years on the Detroit police force. In 2007 he took an early retirement so that he could focus more fully on the gym. “When I was growing up,” he says, “I never thought about becoming a policeman. For me, it was an opportunity to get off the street and keep myself out of trouble.” (With his uncle Emanuel looking after his welfare, it’s doubtful that Hill would have strayed too far from the straight and narrow, but we will take him at his word.)

When Emanuel Steward died, Wladimir Klitschko went with the aforementioned Banks as his new trainer. Hill wasn’t resentful – he and Banks are best buddies – although he had more longevity with Kronk.

“Jonathan had been with Emanuel at Klitschko’s training camps and he and Wladimir had developed a special relationship. I was less involved because of Adonis Stevenson. Adonis wasn’t yet a champion when Emanuel died and I had the satisfaction of helping him grow into a world champion.”

Stevenson suffered a traumatic brain injury in the 10th defense of his world title on Dec. 1 of last year when he was stopped in the 11th round by Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

How is he doing? “We talk quite a bit,” says Hill, “and he is making steady progress.”

Hill draws a comparison between Stevenson’s current situation and one of those old dial-up computers that took forever to download a song. But little by little, things are slowly getting back to speed for him. “He can’t drive yet, but he can communicate in French, English, or Creole,” Hills says of the ex-champion who was born in Haiti and grew up in Montreal.

In the heyday of Kronk, the program had a big booster in Coleman Young, the city’s five-term mayor whose 20-year reign began in 1974. Subsequent mayors have been far less supportive (understandable considering the budget constraints), making it that much harder to recapture the glory days anytime soon.

In his quest to make boxing relevant again in Detroit, Hill found an unlikely ally in Ukrainian-born Dmitriy Salita. A former world title challenger who retired with a record of 35-2-1, Salita launched Salita Promotions in his hometown of Brooklyn as his career was winding down. When the New York Athletic Commission effectively put him out of business by adopting more stringent insurance requirements, prohibitively expensive for a grass-roots promoter, Salita shifted his base to Detroit where he had trained for his last few pro fights.

Salita, 37, has made great strides as a promoter. His clients include Claressa Shields, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller and Norway’s newest sporting hero, Otto Wallin. Salita has also roped in a number of promising prospects from Russia and her former satellites, the most arresting of whom is Uzbekistani knockout artist Shohjahon Ergashev (17-0, 15 KOs), currently ranked #6 at junior welterweight by the IBF. Ergashev trains at Kronk as do three fighters who appeared on the same card last week in Grozny, Russia: heavyweight Apti Davtaev, light heavyweight Umar Salamov, and super middleweight Aslambek Idigov.

The Eastern European contingent has introduced a new strain into Kronk’s inner city vibe. It’s also made life somewhat more challenging for Javon Hill, especially on those occasions when he is working a corner and has only 60 seconds before the start of the next round to convey the message he wants to convey. But, Hill insists, it hasn’t been as challenging as one might think.

“Boxing is a universal language,” he says. “All of our foreign fighters take classes in English.” Alexey Zubov, a 32-year-old Russian cruiserweight with a 17-2 record, speaks almost flawless English and is often there when a translator is needed.

Kronk Gym became something of a foster child when the rec center shut down. For a time, Kronk fighters trained in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. The gym’s current home, at 9520 Mettetal, six miles away from where it all started, suits Javon Hill to a tee because the surroundings so closely mirror the original.

“We’re back in the basement again, just like the old days,” says Hill, “and in a place very much like a rec center. Upstairs there are programs for adults that teach certain skills. And I like the fact it’s a small gym, just like our old gym.”

In a big gym, notes Hill, it’s harder to know when someone is slacking off. When a boxer hits a heavy bag and does it correctly, it emits a certain sound. A good trainer in a gym where there’s a lot going on, knows how to keep tabs on things with his ears as well as his eyes. “Here,” he says, “I can hear everything going on.”

The boxers who work out at Kronk are as young as eight years old. When school is out, says Hill, there may be as many as 25 or 30 amateurs on the premises. Emanuel Steward, were he alive, wouldn’t have it any other way. Steward believed that if a gym had a strong amateur program, the professional side would evolve organically.

If boxing in Detroit never gets back to where it once was, it won’t be for lack of trying. And the man doing the heavy lifting is Javon “Sugar” Hill, Emanuel Steward’s nephew and surrogate son.

Anthony Dirrell

Anthony Dirrell (pictured below) turns 35 next month. His fight this coming Saturday with undefeated and heavily favored David Benavidez, 12 years his junior, may be his last rodeo. He has hinted at retirement.

dirrell

It’s hard not to root for him as few fighters have overcome as much adversity. Born and raised in hardscrabble Flint, Michigan, Dirrell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in December of 2006. He was out of action for 22 months while undergoing chemotherapy. In May of 2012, he broke his leg and fractured his arm in a motorcycle accident. That dictated another long layoff. But he persevered and on Aug 16, 2014, he won the WBC world 168-pound title with a unanimous decision over Sakio Bika in a rematch after their first encounter ended in a draw.

Dirrell lost the belt in his first defense on a close decision to Badou Jack, but regained it earlier this year at the expense of Turkey’s Avni Yildirin after the title became vacant when Benavidez was stripped of it for testing positive for cocaine. His fight with Yildirin was stopped by the ringside physician after 10 rounds because of a worsening cut caused when the fighters clashed heads three rounds earlier, sending the fight to the scorecards. It was a tougher-than-expected fight for Dirrell who prevailed on a split decision.

The bout between Dirrell (33-1-1, 24 KOs) and Benavidez (21-0, 18 KOs) is the chief undercard bout underneath the welterweight title unification fight between Errol Spence Jr. and Shawn Porter. It will air on FOX pay-per-view.

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PBC in Bakersfield: Angulo Upsets Quillin: Colbert and Ramos Sizzle

Arne K. Lang

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Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions was in Bakersfield, California tonight with a 14-bout card featuring veterans Peter Quillin and Alfredo Angulo in the main go. The 36-year-old Quillin, a former WBO world middleweight title-holder now competing as a super middleweight, was a solid favorite over Angulo who had lost five of his last eight coming in and was presumed to be shopworn. But Angulo, with the help of his new trainer Abel Sanchez, turned back the clock and won a well-deserved split decision. Two of the judges favored him (97-93 and 96-94) with the dissenter giving the nod to Quillin by a 96-94 tally.

A 2004 Olympian for Mexico, Angulo, 37, kept up the pressure and had Quillin fighting off his back foot all 10 rounds. There were no knockdowns, but the methodical Angulo hurt Quillin on several occasions.

Angulo improved to 26-7.  The Brooklyn-based Quillin, a former WBO middleweight champion, lost for only the second time in 37 starts.

In the co-feature, rising lightweight contender Chris Colbert, a stablemate of Peter Quillin, scored his most impressive win to date with a one-punch knockout of Mexico’s Miguel Beltran Jr. A 22-year-old southpaw making his fifth start of 2019, Colbert (13-0, 5 KOs) followed a probing left jab with an overhand right that knocked Beltran out cold, landing him face first on the canvas. Beltran, who fell to 33-8, needs to retire. Forty months have elapsed since he last defeated an opponent with a winning record.

Other Bouts of Note

In a 10-round welterweight fight, Puerto Rico’s Thomas Dulorme (25-3-1) won a unanimous decision over LA’s previously undefeated Terrel Williams (18-1).  Dulorme, coming off a 12-round draw with Jessie Vargas in his last fight, applied consistent pressure and had the heavier hands, but Williams had his moments in what was a very entertaining fight.

Dulorme, who suffered a bad cut over his left eye from an accidental clash of heads in round eight, finished strong, scoring the bout’s lone knockdown with a left hook with a minute remaining in the final round. Williams was hurt, but made it to the finish. The scores were 96-93 and 98-91 twice.

Hot prospect Jesus Ramos, a lanky 18-year-old welterweight from Casa Grande, Arizona, scored a smashing one-punch, third-round knockout of Rickey Edwards. A southpaw, Ramos (11-0, 10 KOs) has his first eight fights in Mexico. Edwards, from Paterson, New Jersey, falls to 12-4.

2016 Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell, 23-year-old southpaw from Capitol Heights, MD, needed just 32 seconds to score his 11th knockout in as many opportunities. His hapless opponent, 20-year old  Luis Ronaldo Castillo of Mexico,  has now been knocked out in the opening round of consecutive fights spaced four weeks apart.

Gary Antuanne Russell’s older brother Gary Antonio Russell, an undefeated bantamweight, was slated to appear but his opponent fell out.

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The Fifty Greatest Flyweights of All Time: Part One 50-41

Matt McGrain

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The Fifty Greatest Flyweights of All Time: Part One 50-41

Research on the greatest heavyweights of all time was easy. Fire up YouTube or Dailymotion, watch the career-defining fights of a given contender, compare and contrast, order and write-up, delivered.

By lightweight, things were considerably more difficult.

This is to do with a diminishing interest in boxers by size. It is literally the case that available information is reduced coextensively with the poundage of the fighters in question. By the time I was involved with the bantamweights, things had become extremely difficult, unwholesomely greedy of my time and actually rather expensive.

Needless to say, the flyweights have been even more demanding.

The temptation to cut corners was, at times, enormous, but I allowed myself only one of meaning: this list is cognitive only of flyweights who fought from the Jimmy Wilde title reign to the present day. While every one of these projects has had a cut-off, flyweight’s is the most recent, the World War I era.  Partly, this is due to the absurd difficulty in researching 1900 contenders of this size but it is in the main due to uncertainty surrounding the poundage. Flyweight was paperweight for a long time and paperweight was never better than partially established globally. Tough on Johnny Coulon, but there it is.

Otherwise, the flyweight list has been put together under the same rules as governed the others. First and foremost, it should be stated the list considers only fights that took place at flyweight or just above.  So a 108lb fighter boxing in 2017 is a light-fly but a 108lb fighter boxing in 1925 was a flyweight, because light-fly did not then exist. This is an appraisal of flyweight in the truest sense, as it existed in boxing history.

Most important in conducting these appraisals: who a fighter beat and how he beat them. Secondarily, what was a fighter’s status in his own era? Was he a lineal champion? A belt-holder? Or just a brilliant contender who amassed a wonderful body of work in his forlorn hunt for the title?

Lastly, skillset as it appears on film and head-to-head considerations, the most speculative of criteria, are taken into account.

With that out of the way, here we go, for the last time a divisional top fifty, this one more obscure, unexpected and mysterious than any that has gone before.

The flyweights; this is how I have them:

#50 – Corporal Izzy Schwartz (1921-1932)

Izzy Schwartz lost thirty-two fights.  The good news: many of these were above flyweight.  The bad news: many of them were not and he was as likely to drop a decision to an unheard-of novice as he was an all-time great monster.

What gets Schwartz over the line despite this litany of losses is two things.  First, he took some really, really impressive names in his career; secondly, flyweight rather bizarrely drops off a cliff after #49 leaving me with about twenty good candidates for #50 and no outstanding ones.

But if you’re going to compromise on your gatekeeper to greatness, it might as well be for a fighter who defeated old-time legends like Black Bill and Willie Davies, men you have either heard of or will in the course of this series. Supplementary wins over future bantamweight beast Newsboy Brown and ranked men John McCoy and Ernie Jarvis do him absolutely no harm either.

It’s worth noting, of course, that Bill and Davies both avenged themselves on the Corporal four times over but also that he was a man who never shirked a challenge.

An air of respectability rather than true wonder purveys a career that was carried out between the two world wars and saw him share the ring with a generation of great flyweights. Noteworthy for his speed, he is also a fighter who completely lacked power, scoring a mere handful of knockouts.  A powerful Schwartz would have been a wonderful thing.

49 – Little Pancho (1927-1942)

 The younger half-brother of the immortal Pancho Villa, Eulogio Villaruel Tingson was bequeathed the catchier moniker “Little Pancho” in a nod to his much more powerful, much more brilliant relation.

But Pancho, for all that he is not the best fighter in his family, was one of the best flyweights of his era.  He lost twice to the great Midget Wolgast in 1932 and a decade later was beaten by the deadly bantamweight Manuel Ortiz. In between he drifted to and from flyweight and the poundage that would become superfly, which left a rather confounded shade to his legacy – but Pancho did good work while he flitted to and from.

He also managed to meet and defeat a boxer once in the class of Wolgast, the shadow of the fighter once known as Frankie Genaro. Pressuring, harassing, and finally cutting the old man he forced him to quit after the eighth.

Genaro makes the bedrock of a fine resume, but he was unranked and basically washed up at the time of his defeat. Pancho though, picked off several other good fighters in the course of his prolonged career, including Joe Mendiola (who he bested no fewer than three times), Jackie Jurich (who holds a precious victory over Manuel Ortiz) and the colorfully named Small Montana, also a ranked fighter.

A failed single tilt at a strap underlined his limitations, a ten-round draw with Little Dado in 1940 the closest he came to that glory.

#48 – Brian Viloria (2001-Active)

Brian Viloria, now a shell of his former self, still trades on the name that once bought a sigh of contentment from your hardcore purist.

Never the lineal flyweight champion, he was nevertheless arguably the best flyweight in the world for a brief period in 2012, before Juan Francisco Estrada sent him back on his heels and Roman Gonzalez finished the job by way of ninth round stoppage.

So never better than the third most impressive flyweight of his era, Viloria nevertheless did enough to creep in to the fifty, preferred to old timers like Sid Smith and Jackie Brown and near-peers like Donnie Nietes and Akira Yaegashi. Based upon his high level of operations in 2011-2012, this is justified.

Julio Cesar Miranda, a storm of pressure and gloves, represented the beginning of Viloria’s summit as he out-manned and out-fought his highly ranked Mexican opponent in a glorious slugfest. 108lb champion and pound-for-pounder Giovani Segura was dispatched that December by fast handed bunches of punches that cut and broke him before he was stopped in eight.

The jewel in the crown of his resume, however, is his 2012 destruction of Hernan Marquez. Marquez, himself a brief contender for this Top Fifty, was the world’s #1 contender when Viloria, one of America’s most underrated pugilists, ushered him from that spot via tenth round technical knockout.

Viloria is easy to hit for an elite flyweight and this cost him against the best but a combination of fast hands, great punch selection and unerring accuracy certainly forms an impressive first line of defence; quick feet spares his often poor spatial awareness; he could hit and he could certainly box.

Unlucky to run into two monsters in Estrada and Gonzalez, another era may have been kinder to him, and seen him earn a higher berth here.

#47 – Juan Francisco Estrada (2008-Active)

Juan Francisco Estrada nips in ahead of Brian Viloria by virtue of the most old-fashioned and perhaps best of reasons: he beat him.

The two met in April of 2013 in what was, for eight rounds, one of the great flyweight contests of this decade. Estrada, beautifully compact, the less expansive of the two despite his being the rangier, was a little spooked by Viloria’s layers early. The more experienced Hawaiian gave ground and countered to dangerous effect, rounding the relatively inexperienced Estrada up with virtual threats and feints.  Estrada screwed the nut and by the ninth, having split, on my card, the first eight with his opponent, began to dominate. It was a glorious combination of will and skill, burnished by one of the beautiful left hands of our time; a great jab and a honeyed uppercut that makes me blink every time I see it landed.

Estrada (pictured on the right) drove Viloria to the very edge and only heart and experience got him to the final bell in a borderline great fight.

Giovani Segura and Milan Milendo were the other major scalps of a truncated flyweight career. Estrada has spent time at both 108 and 115lbs making his flyweight career too short to rank him any higher here but it should be noted that he emerged from his three year stay at flyweight undefeated.

#46 – Gabriel Bernal (1974-1992)

Gabriel Bernal, a southpaw out of Guerrero, is one of the least heralded Mexican champions and in many ways it is not difficult to see why. Bernal was something of a soft-touch as a championship opponent, having lost eight fights before getting his shot at Koji Kobayashi in 1984. He made only a single successful defense before running into the punching machine Sot Chitalada. His final paper record of 43-14-3 perhaps does not lend itself to the hero worship reserved for Mexico’s more admired kings.

Bernal did do two things so worthy of note, however, that his inclusion here cannot be seen as controversial. First, in 1981, he scraped past the immortal Miguel Canto over ten rounds to go 1-1 in a two fight series with the living legend. The truth is, I can’t tell you whether or not Canto inhabits the number one spot at this time, because I don’t know, but if he isn’t #1 he will be close. True, Canto had faded from the shining brilliance of his prime, but he was still a ranked fighter in the early 1980s and one that had only been defeated by two men, both champions, since 1970.

Secondly, when he did get that shot at Kobayashi and the title, he knocked the champion out in just two rounds. Nobody had done that to the Japanese since the wonderful Jiro Watanabe turned the trick in Kobayashi’s ninth fight. Bernal’s free-swinging, full-hearted attack prostrated him quite literally face-first into the canvas for the first knockdown before depositing him neatly into the prayer position for the stoppage. It was one of the most stunning knockouts of the eighties.

#45 – Dado Marino (1941-1952)

Dado Marino was another wonderful but flawed fighter out of Hawaii; he retired thirty years before Brian Viloria was born. He ruled as the flyweight champion of the world between 1950 and 1952.

An inconsistent and frequent visitor at bantamweight, when he showed the discipline to make the 112lb limit he morphed into a different animal, one that was impossible to stop and difficult even to dent, one who threw a confused and frothy tide of punches inside and out, as direct and aggressive a fighter who has appeared at the weight.

Nevertheless, he requires that juicy three calendar-year title reign in order to make the fifty. His legacy rests heavily upon two wins over Terry Allen, the Brit he wrenched the championship from in 1950 with some vicious right-handed punching in the middle rounds.

Apart from his two impressive defeats of Allen, his resume is underwhelming, a dubious disqualification win over Rinty Monaghan probably his next best. The loss of his title to Yoshio Shirai followed by a failed attempt to reclaim it mirrored his own conquest of Allen and sent Marino into retirement.

There will be more of Yoshio Shirai in coming weeks.

#44 – Sid Smith (1907-1919)

Sid Smith is most famous, if he is famous at all, for being one of Jimmy Wilde’s many victims, but that is a little unfair. Smith was a centurion of pioneer boxing, taking part in more than a hundred contests and winning eighty-five of them.

Wilde crushed him three times between 1914 and 1916, but that aside, Smith’s results against the best of his era was more than respectable. First among them are his 1913 victory over French idol Eugene Criqui, who he defeated by twenty round decision in Paris in April, and his victory, less than forty days later, over Englishman Joe Symonds, who he defeated over fifteen in his hometown of Plymouth. Smith, a Londoner, reached his beautiful peak with these two fights.

“Since the Americans have not yet seen fit to recognise [a flyweight champion],” wrote Boxing of Smith’s fight victory over Criqui, “Smith now has every right to the…championship of the world.”

Wilde would have plenty to say about that, of course, but Smith scored wins over the cream of European competition, and as intimated by Boxing, Europe was then the world as far as flyweights were concerned.

Smith deserves wider recognition than as a footnote to the career of Jimmy Wilde.

#43 – Joe Symonds (1910-1924)

Joe Symonds, as detailed above, was beaten by Sid Smith, but avenged himself eighteen months later; no rubber match was made and so the head-to-head question remains unanswered.

Neither did Symonds have more meaningful success against Jimmy Wilde, the bane of a talented batch of European flyweights, although he did make the fifteen-round distance with Jimmy, something Smith never did manage.

Symonds struggled with the brutal Percy Jones, losing a series to him on the eve of World War I, but Smith never met with Jones, making any comparison impossible.

What sets Symonds apart is his 1915 victory over Tancy Lee.

Lee was the best of Wilde’s flyweight foes, but Symonds got him out of there in the first of their two contests, staged in 1915. 5’1”, Symonds was nevertheless physical enough to find himself boxing at featherweight before his career was over and it was above 120lbs that most of his 29 recorded losses were suffered, so it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that once he got Lee on the hook he didn’t let him off. Pressure and volume brought him a priceless stoppage win over a man who had scored a stoppage against Jimmy Wilde nine months earlier.

Lee scored his revenge, but not at the flyweight limit.

It is a win that buys Symonds several spots on this list, and more importantly separates him from his old enemy Smith.

#42 – Lorenzo Parra (1999-Active)

One of the saddest sights the ring brought us in 2018 was that of Lorenzo Parra, gut spilling over his trunks, a twenty-year professional campaign behind him, seeking desperately for the spark of timing that made him memorable in the 1990s. He buckled in three rounds for a 0-0 prospect named Arsen Garibian.

Parra’s career above 112lbs has been a bad joke. When he departed the flyweight division in 2005 his record was 28-0.  His record now reads 32-18-2. He hasn’t so much tarnished his legacy as filled it with gunpowder and set it on fire.

Between 1999 and 2005, however, this was a man to be reckoned with.

Venezuelan by birth, Parra stayed home until he was 21-0, fattening his record on soft opposition, but when he landed in Puerto Rico in December of 2003, he made his mark. Eric Morel, then 33-0, himself a contender for this list, was favored to turn back the young pretender despite his burgeoning reputation as a puncher.

Parra did land a knock-down quality punch, in the third round, but through the tenth it was his boxing that marked him. Fleet and fast-handed, he out-skilled, out-moved and in the final two rounds when his engine betrayed him, out-gutted his bigger and more experienced foe.

It was a consummate strap-winning performance that marked him one of the best in the world. It was also his high-water mark. A desperately close call followed with contender Takefumi Sakata; a rematch produced an equally close result. Parra and Sakata aside, a domination of Olympian Brahim Asloum is probably his best result, another unbeaten scalp belonging to a highly ranked fighter.

After that, flyweight lost him and Parra lost the essence of what made him great. A genuinely special fighter for a two-year spell, he is neither the first nor the last to be found out by a higher weight class.

#41 – Luis Ibarra (1975-1990)

 Luis Ibarra was a rather strange and beautiful fighter, styling elements of the Panamanian but very much as a part of his own idiom. At first, his approach seems insensible; tall for a flyweight he adopted a relatively deep stance, narrowed himself over his front leg and presented his jab. He then neglected to throw his jab despite a slick moving style and instead preferred power punches to body and head, leaving himself at risk despite all that innate mobility, to the attentions of his opponent’s hook, especially to the body. His own hook was a strange punch, thrown long and short, all the while using the same fist to stir and feint and paw and prod with what surely should have been a stiff jab.

But whatever the detail, Ibarra came together in the ring as a strange and frightening proposition for some excellent fighters. Lacking power, he nevertheless threw with absolute commitment leading to a split pair with feared puncher and future world champion Prudencio Cardona when both were still serving their respective apprenticeships. Clearly, his eventual victory over Cardona seemed something of a graduation for Ibarra, for later that same year, 1979, he took to the ring with the superb Betulio Gonzalez (more of whom in part three) and over fifteen sizzling rounds he dominated the little Venezuelan and lifted an alphabet strap in the process. It was a masterful performance.

It was inevitable a fighter of his type would be found out but when the limited Tae-Shik Kim obliterated him in just two rounds in his very next defense, it was seen as something of a shock. Ibarra, too, believed there was more, and he proved it when he battled back to edge out a fighter even more special than Gonzalez when he sprang another surprise, this time over the Argentine legend Santos Laciar in Argentina. It made him a strapholder for a second time, and although the true title evaded him, Gonzalez and Laciar are two wins special enough to hang a strong top fifty ranking upon.

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