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27 Years Ago, Ray Mercer was `Army Strong’ in Rallying Past Tommy Morrison

Bernard Fernandez

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Marine Corps

Former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe lasted just 11 days at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., until he was voluntarily granted his release and returned to civilian life. “Big Daddy” might have won two of his three classic battles with Evander Holyfield, but his approach to training camp was seldom military-grade and, besides, gentlemanly trainer Eddie Futch treated him with more patience and fewer cross words than did his expletive-spewing drill instructors. 

Before he even took up boxing, future WBO heavyweight titlist Ray Mercer spent nine years in the U.S. Army. He was the recruiting-poster epitome of “Army strong,” toting an M-60 machine gun on his shoulder on 12-mile hikes without complaint, mentally and physically conditioned enough to tough it out on reforger exercises in the snowy woods of Germany, by survival courses in desert heat. In the ring and in the field, Mercer might have been fallible enough to lose, but nothing and no one was ever going to make him quit. 

Roommates in the Olympic Village at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, the less-talented but more positive-thinking Mercer was so put off by what he perceived to be Bowe’s nagging self-doubts about his medal chances that he sought and was granted different quarters so as to not to have his temporary living space infected by what he later termed the younger fighter’s “defeatist attitude.” 

Did removing himself from Bowe’s presence help? Well, let the record show that Mercer took the gold medal in the heavyweight division by winning all four of his bouts inside the distance, the last of which was an emphatic, first-round knockout of South Korea’s Baik Hyun-Man. Bowe had to settle for a silver medal in the super heavyweight division, losing in the final on a second-round stoppage. By maybe he shouldn’t be faulted too much for that; his opponent, after all, was some guy named Lennox Lewis, who was representing Canada. Maybe you’ve heard of him. 

By any measure, Bowe, now 51, had the more distinguished of the former Olympic teammates’ professional careers, good enough to merit his 2015 induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. And, as he demonstrated in his trilogy with Holyfield, he had enough heart and commitment as the occasion warranted to satisfy even the saltiest Marine DI. It’s just that Bowe never found himself in  as many pugilistic firefights as did Mercer, now 57, who had to fall back on his Army training whenever the going inside the ropes required he dig deep inside himself to find whatever was required to keep going and, ultimately, win. He has yet to be inducted into the IBHOF, despite having had his last pro bout in 2008, which would have made him eligible for consideration in 2013. Since his name has never even appeared on the ballot, it’s very possible he will never get a call to the hall.  

It was the good-soldier Mercer who achieved perhaps his most memorable victory as a pro on Oct. 18, 1991, when the WBO heavyweight champ overcame three-plus rounds of having his butt kicked by young phenom Tommy Morrison to score a fifth-round TKO in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. The final barrage, which came after an elapsed time of 28 seconds, saw Mercer pummel “The Duke” into unconsciousness along the ropes before referee Tony Perez could jump in.  

“I’m kind of glad it went like it did,” Mercer said afterward. “You like to take your man out convincingly, just so people will know he was really out.” 

For those who were not in the arena or did not see the entire USA Network telecast, just the brutal knockout sequence that made all the late-news sports segments (and it was most definitely a KO; the only reason it went into the books as a TKO is because Perez dispensed with the formality of a count), it must have appeared that Mercer won in a rout. But for much of what had transpired earlier, quite the opposite was true. Morrison, who went in with a 28-0 record that included 24 KOs, 15 of which were one-round quickies, came out from the opening bell as if he imagined Mercer would also fall victim to his early onslaught. Sylvester Stallone’s co-star (as ungrateful protégé Tommy Gunn) in 1992’s Rocky V landed flush with an assortment of loaded-up punches, most notably his signature left hook but also a ripping right uppercut that would have taken off the head of most opponents. But Mercer was not like anyone Morrison had ever fought to that point as a pro, as he would eventually demonstrate. 

The two big hitters – Mercer went in 17-0, with 13 KOs – actually had squared off once before, at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials. The older, more physically mature Mercer won on points, leaving Morrison with a taste for revenge he figured he would satisfy if and when they ever crossed paths again. 

“I took a very long walk back to my locker room and looked at myself in the mirror,” Morrison said in the lead-up to the rematch of sorts in Atlantic City. “What I saw looking back at me was a very disappointed 19-year-old with a big decision to make. 

“By pursuing my Olympic dream, I passed up several football scholarships and the education that in no way could be paid for by my family. (A linebacker and tight end, he had received an offer from Emporia State in Kansas.) But I knew I had the determination and desire that has driven me forward to the day I become a world champion. Now, the opportunity I’ve longed for is here. I have a chance to legitimize myself as one of the top heavyweights in the world today. And one thing is certain: it’s not 1988 anymore. 

“Look, I know Ray’s got one of the best chins in boxing, and certainly he’s got the biggest heart. People like that, it’s not a matter of knocking them down. You have to break their will, make them want to quit. Nobody’s ever done that to Ray before, but I’m going to do it.” 

Mercer, who went off a slight 6-5 underdog, listened to Morrison’s tale of festering resentment and shrugged. So what if the kid said he was determined and had desire. He’d never been in the Army, or the Marines for that matter. Pride in your branch of service is important to veterans, and it had rankled Mercer, the Olympic gold medalist, that a story in USA Today had referred to him as an “ex-Marine.” 

“I’m not going back to the locker room and look at myself in the mirror,” the seemingly implacable Mercer said in comparing his state of mind and readiness to that of Morrison. “I look in the mirror before something bad happens. That way, I prevent it from happening. I wish Tommy all the luck in the world, but it’s not going to happen for him. He’s going to be right back in the locker room, looking at himself in the mirror again.” 

Did Mercer, so capable of soaking up punishment and shaking it off as if punches were raindrops, intentionally expose himself to Morrison’s penchant for going hard and fast with the idea that the popular and possibly overconfident kid, who had never before gone more than six rounds, would burn himself out in a scheduled 12-round bout? Possibly, but not likely; in Mercer’s two previous bouts he had claimed the minor NABF title on a wide 12-round decision over Bert Cooper despite finishing with a grotesquely swollen jaw, and then won the WBO title on a bolt-of-lightning, ninth-round knockout of Italy’s Francesco Damiani, who was so far ahead on points as to be almost uncatchable had the fight gone to the scorecards. 

Morrison easily won the first three rounds and was well on his way to winning the fourth when he seemed to tire in the last minute of that round, opening the door for a revived Mercer to launch a counterattack that foreshadowed the brutal ending. As the final seconds of the fourth ticked off, Akbar Muhammad, a Mercer adviser who was seated in the press section, leaped up and excitedly yelled, “Morrison is finished! He’s punched himself out!” 

It was a spot-on assessment. Gasping as he came out for round five, Morrison quickly found himself with his back to the ropes, slickly maneuvered there by a spin move from Mercer, who unleashed a rapid-fire, 16-punch volley. 

There would be moments later on in his career that Mercer would not be quite so proud of, most notably the $100,000 bribe he allegedly offered Jesse Ferguson during clinches of their Feb. 6, 1993, bout at Madison Square Garden to intentionally lose. The underdog Ferguson declined repeated enticements to go into the tank (apparently verified by enhanced HBO audiotapes) in a fight which the underdog was in the process of winning, and did. The upset loss put the snafu on a proposed shot for Mercer at his onetime Olympic teammate, WBA/IBF champ Bowe, which instead went to Ferguson. This time, however, Mercer – who would have been paid $2.5 million for the Bowe fight — had no one to blame but himself for the missed opportunity; he came in at a then-career-high 238 pounds, or 13 more than weighed for his fight with Morrison 15½ months earlier. Although charges brought against Mercer were eventually dropped (he faced up to seven years in prison had the case gone forward and he was convicted), his once-sterling reputation took a hit from which it might never have fully recovered. 

But Mercer was still “Merciless” Ray the night he again played the familiar role of unconquerable soldier against Morrison, doing unto Morrison for real what Sly Stallone had done to the Tommy Gunn character in the closing scenes of Rocky V. To some, Mercer’s escape from the brink was a surprise; to one veteran observer it was anything but. 

“I love Mercer’s chances,” Angelo Dundee, the legendary trainer of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard who had no ties to either fighter, had surmised beforehand. “To me, he’s a devastating inside puncher. I noticed that in the amateurs. His footwork is not that fluid, but when he gets inside, he can really percolate. Outside, he looks ungainly. But inside, it’s goodbye, Jack. I honestly believe he’s going to do a number on Morrison.” 

Mercer appreciated the positive remarks from Dundee, but he did take exception to one thing. “Angelo Dundee is one of the greatest trainers around,” Mercer said. “It makes me feel good that he feels that way about me. That’s the way I feel about myself, except that I don’t think I’m that ungainly.”

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Teddy Atlas, Keeper of His Late Father’s Flame, Called to a Higher Mission

Bernard Fernandez

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – What people see, and hear, is not always what they get or expect. That is especially true of Theodore A. Atlas Jr., whom the world at large, and particularly the boxing world, knows as a first-rate trainer of fighters and an astute, opinionated longtime analyst of the sport for ESPN and for four Olympics televised by NBC.

For most individuals who have fully devoted themselves, or nearly so, to the sweet science, there can be no greater point of pride than to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, which Teddy Atlas was on June 11 of this year in the Observer category. But for a very select few individuals even that signal achievement must yield precedence to a higher mission and purpose which more clearly defines who and what they are as human beings.

So, for those whose sensory perceptions of this special man are limited to his commendable corner work and heavy Staten Island accent, be advised that, as much as he loves boxing, the greater measure of who he is was on display here Thursday night at the Hilton Garden Inn. At the 23rd annual Teddy Dinner, the founder, chairman and driving force behind the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation was again at his persuasive best, urging diners to again open their hearts and minds to those less fortunate. The dais again was filled with like-minded celebrities who gladly lend their time and prestige to such a worthy ongoing project.

Recently retired ESPN broadcaster Bob Ley, who received an award named after the late journalist Jack Newfield, was making his first appearance at the event and he was visibly moved by tales of pain eased, wrongs righted and hope restored.

“I had heard this much about this dinner, and it was totally undersold to me,” Ley said. “This is an experience. These incredible stories, anecdotes, human tales, (are about) making a difference. Teddy Atlas, the man, he makes a difference. Jack Newfield made a difference. He was driven by his principles. To be here tonight, in this company, and to accept an award in Jack Newfield’s name, is to me a great honor.”

To have a better understanding of the charitable principles which have arguably made Teddy Atlas Staten Island’s most prominent citizen and resident angel of mercy, it is required to know the history of his late father, Dr. Theodore A. Atlas, a physician who over decades unselfishly became a local legend. Dr. Atlas dispensed his time, more than a little of his own money and especially his genuine concern for his patients, especially the poor, and even more especially the children of the poor. His level of compassion must have seemed bottomless to those residents of this comparatively unglamorous borough of New York City who seldom are served much when life’s better things are handed out.

Dr. Atlas waded through snow drifts and climbed through windows to deliver babies during winter’s worst storms; he went into the projects to provide needed medical services while other doctors refused to go there, and on Wednesdays he used blankets and pillows to make makeshift beds in his office and performed tonsillectomies on patients who could not afford to pay for surgery. He founded two hospitals whose first function was not to ascertain how much and how soon their patients will be able to pay for the services they received. He served his community for 55 years until his death, at 88, in 1994, leaving a void so wide it must have seemed impossible to even consider the possibility it could ever be bridged.

But Teddy Atlas, his father’s son and namesake, was determined that the legacy of the dad he held in such towering esteem not fall into disrepair. He established the Dr. Atlas Foundation in 1997, whose modest early successes have, if anything, matched or even exceeded those of the original Theodore A. Atlas, in no small part because of the platform that boxing has afforded him.

Like his father, Teddy, well-known for his work in boxing, would prefer not to take credit for all the good deeds made possible by the Dr. Atlas Foundation. But that credit comes nonetheless from the recipients of those good deeds, who understand that Teddy, although assisted by so many devoted friends and supporters drawn to the cause, is no mere figurehead. As has been the case with the many accomplished fighters with whom he has worked, such champions as Michael Moorer (who was in attendance), Wilfred Benitez, Simon Brown, Joey Gamache, Donny Lalonde, Barry McGuigan, Tracy Harris Patterson, Timothy Bradley and recently dethroned WBC light heavyweight titlist Oleksandr Gvozdyk (also in attendance), Teddy is a hands-on, all-in, heart on his sleeve kind of guy when it comes to his interaction with those who come to the Foundation seeking assistance.

So diners learned of the two severely impaired children who found reasons to smile after they received motorized wheelchairs furnished by the Foundation; the single mother of four, one autistic, who feared she would be forced to live in a city shelter because she had fallen behind in her rent, until the Foundation stepped in; and another mom, with a son inflicted with muscular dystrophy, whom Teddy said was his “hero.”

“Her husband, obviously not a hero, took off” after his son’s disability was diagnosed,” Teddy said. “She was no longer able to bathe him properly in her small apartment bathroom. She needed a handicap setup put in. She was also sick, and she was living on her Social Security disability check.” Yep, the Foundation provided her with what she needed to get by.

You think there’s pressure to win a fight which seems lost in the prize ring? To sink a couple of free throws when there’s only a second or two on the clock and you’re down a point? To make that 15-foot putt with the green jacket that goes to the Masters champion on the line, and a national TV audience watching? Well, yeah. But pressure comes in many forms for many people, and in many ways.

“We all feel it, and we all are impacted by it, and we all react differently to it,” Teddy said. Of the aforementioned cases mentioned in this story, and others, the pressures can be enormous. But they can be alleviated by the people like Teddy Atlas, his cadre of Foundation workers and the hundreds of diners who attend his dinner not only for a good meal but for the opportunity to also do what they can to bring a little light into the darkness of despair.

“These pressures can also be a privilege, our privilege, our gift, that we are lucky enough and blessed enough to be able to make a difference in people’s lives, to sometimes awaken them from their individual nightmares so they can have hope to feel loved and care off,” he continued.

For all his excitability on-camera, Teddy’s multifaceted nature includes the gentle soul of a poet. While he was in Philadelphia for two months, preparing Gvozdyk for a sure-to-be-difficult Oct. 18 unification showdown with IBF champ Artur Beterbiev, a bout won by Beterbiev on a 10th-round stoppage, Teddy wrote a quite literary message to his guy, which he intended to be relevant regardless of the outcome. But the message conveyed really applies to everyone, as he told his audience.

“There is a darkness that one works into, knowing there is risk and uncertainty waiting for them,” it begins. “But there is also a certain light that can be found through the dark, an understanding that comes from having gone to the inner caves of one’s self and discovering what is there. That journey can create a path, that can lead to new and greater places that would not have been possible before.

“The courage it took to walk into this place allows you to now leave with a lantern of knowledge and awareness that will forever provide a beacon of light, wherever you go. You will be a champion. Again.”

For those interested in contributing to the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation, donations can be sent to 543 Cary Avenue, Staten Island, N.Y. 10310.

Photo credit: Jason Paderon

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 74: Cancio, Wilder, Santa Cruz and More

David A. Avila

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Cancio vs. Alvarado, Wilder vs. Ortiz, Santa Cruz vs. Flores and More

Casinos are getting rich and boxing fan grunts are getting slightly frustrated.

It’s the big guys versus the little guys on Saturday with heavyweights in Las Vegas and featherweights in Indio, California going head to head in separate shows.

If only I could be in two places at once.

Let’s start with the little guys as WBA super featherweight titlist Andrew Cancio (21-4-2, 16 KOs) and his jackhammer hands defends against former foe Rene Alvarado (31-8, 20 KOs) at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions fight card.

They clashed once before in 2015 with the Cancio winning by technical knockout in the eighth round due to a cut from a punch suffered by Alvarado. Until the stoppage, it was fierceness at its best.

“I wanted to give him (Alvarado) another chance,” said Cancio who still has his day job breaking cement with a jackhammer. “He deserves it. Who knows if I would have won if not for the cut?”

Cancio is a cool customer.

Also on the same card will be China’s Can Xu (17-2, 3 KOs) defending the WBA featherweight title against Manny Robles III (18-0, 8 KOs), the son of trainer Manny Robles Jr. who works with IBF, WBA, WBO heavyweight champ Andy Ruiz.

Xu, who only has a couple of knockouts, can’t help from being involved in wars. He endured hell and back against Puerto Rico’s Jesus Rojas in his last U.S. appearance at the Toyota Center in Houston back in January. Now he gets Robles who has improved tremendously since his pro debut at the same venue back in 2012. It was not an impressive moment. But he’s slowly and determinedly added more skills in the last seven years. Now he’s 25 years old and has his man strength. It makes a major difference.

Another interesting return match features Rashidi Ellis (21-0, 14 KOs) against Eddie Gomez (23-3, 13 KOs) at the same venue as their first encounter. That first fight only lasted one brutal round. Can Ellis duplicate his first victory over the Bronx fighter?

Las Vegas

Speaking of rematches, WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay Wilder (41-0-1, 41 KOs) has to reload when he meets Cuban challenger Luis Ortiz (31-1, 26 KOs) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. FOX pay-per-view will televise the PBC fight card. It’s been 20 months since their first clash ended in a knockout win for Wilder.

For those unaware, Wilder has held the WBC version of the title for almost four years and that includes nine title defenses. All but one has ended by knockout and the one that got away (Tyson Fury) will be his new date should he prevail against the southpaw Ortiz.

Wilder has pure athleticism and has added more technique each time he jumps in the boxing ring. The first time I witnessed Wilder in person was at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas back in 2010. He’s improved immensely since that time. I saw him later that year at Fantasy Springs. He traded knockdowns with Harold Sconiers and actually could have lost that fight, but the referee missed a crucial knockdown. Wilder could not get up and had there been a count, he would not have survived. But sometimes you get a break and Wilder has shown he knows how to cash in.

Ortiz has more skills than the champion but lacks the athleticism and is older. Some say he is much older than Wilder. He’s made some astute changes for his career and now the Cuban heavyweight can cash out or cash in, depending on the outcome. Either way he’s going to make some heavyweight money.

Heavyweights are a different ilk. They are large, carnivorous and pack immense power. Anything can happen at any time of the fight.

Need convincing?

Look at the Andy Ruiz fight against Anthony Joshua. The Mexican heavyweight was supposed to be an easy substitute opponent and despite getting knocked down, he got up and wiped the mat with Joshua.

In this Wilder-Ortiz rematch anyone can win. Ortiz had Wilder down in their first fight but could not finish the job. Wilder finished the job when he put Ortiz down. Will we see a repeat?

The MGM Grand should be packed with fans eager to see the result.

Santa Cruz

In another world title clash Leo Santa Cruz (36-1-1, 19 KOs) moves up a weight division and fights Miguel Flores (24-2, 12 KOs) at the MGM Grand on the pay-per-view portion on Saturday. It’s for another version of the WBA super featherweight title that Cancio is defending on the same day in California.

Yes, it’s confusing. You got a title and I got a title and everybody’s got a title.

Still, Santa Cruz is hunting for his fourth division world title. I still remember watching him for the first time in November 2007 at Morongo Casino. Bobby Pacquiao was the main event, Carlos Baldomir was a semi-main eventer and Santa Cruz wore braces for his teeth into the fight if I’m not mistaken.

Back in those days no major promoter wanted to take a chance on Santa Cruz. Though his older brothers had fought and were successful, many matchmakers were not convinced on little Leo. But he could always fight up a storm. He had a life and death struggle at Pala Casino with Robert DaLuz in 2009. After that fight he seemed to find himself and got on a tear much like a Major League Baseball player finding his stroke.

Since 2012 he’s won the bantamweight, super bantamweight, and featherweight world titles. He lost to Carl Frampton in 2016, then regained it in 2017 in the rematch. Now he fights Flores for the super featherweight title. They were supposed to fight back in February but Flores was forced to pull out with an ankle injury. Now they are finally meeting.

“I’m really glad I’m getting this second opportunity to fight Leo Santa Cruz,” said Flores. “I thought I would never get a second chance, but here I am.”

Santa Cruz has bigger plans than just securing a fourth division world title, he wants world domination at 130 pounds.

“I want to unify and fight everyone at 130,” said Santa Cruz. “Whoever they throw in front of me.”

First up is Flores. But 300 miles to the west, Cancio will be defending his version of the WBA super featherweight title too. And he’s not too happy.

“I think it’s a bunch of B.S. I got the short end of the stick once again. I’m not a big name to a lot of people like Leo Santa Cruz is. I feel like that’s why they did it,” said Cancio. “If I come out victorious Nov. 23 and if Leo comes out victorious Nov. 23, that’s a fight I definitely want to make. I feel like I’m the bigger, stronger 130-pound guy.”

That’s a fight many people would like to see made.

Friday Fights

In the sleepy town of Ontario, California, another Thompson Boxing Promotions card takes place at the Doubletree Hotel on Friday, Nov. 22.

Three interesting eight-round fights highlight the card including the newest finds by the Orange County based company in a lightweight contest. They specialize in finding talent.

Ruben Villa (10-0, 8 KOs) seeks to extend his unbeaten streak against Eduardo Lionel Rodriguez (8-1-1). The lanky Santa Monica fighter Villa emerged on top with a win over another undefeated fighter George Acosta last May. He followed that up with a quick two-round destruction over veteran Ruben Tamayo last July. Now he faces another test with Rodriguez.

Also on the Thompson card, is the return of Giovani Santillan (24-0, 14 KOs) who meets Wilfrido Buelvas (20-12) in a welterweight match. It’s been 19 months since Santillan was last in the ring and knocked out Alejandro Barboza on a televised match to retain the NABO title.

Santillan, 28, fights out of San Diego and his southpaw style allowed him to rise up the rankings in impressive fashion until his disappearance from the fight scene.

Does he still have it?

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the first bell starts around 8 p.m. For more information call (714) 935-0900.

Al Mitchell

Al Mitchell, the trainer for female super featherweight star Mikaela Mayer, will be inducted to the USA Boxing Alumni Association Hall of Fame on Friday Dec. 13, it was announced this week.

Mitchell, 76, has been an advisor for many top amateur boxers throughout the past 60 years and was the head coach for the 1996 US Olympic Team. He also advised on numerous Olympic teams that featured boxers such as Vernon Forrest and Floyd Mayweather.

“I want to thank all the coaches who worked under me and all the young fighters I’ve worked with,” said Mitchell. “I’m thankful that USA Boxing believed in me, putting 13 to 15 boxers in my program, and cream does rise to the top.”

Today, Mitchell has female fighter Mayer headed to a world title bid in 2020. The tall super featherweight will be accompanying Mitchell when he is inducted to the Hall of Fame at ceremonies held at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Al Bernstein will host the proceedings.

Others being inducted are George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Mark Breland, Ray Rodgers and Sen. John McCain.

Fights to Watch

Fri. ESPN+ 7 a.m. Jack Caterall (24-0) vs Timo Schwarzkopf (20-3)

Fri. WWW.RingTV.com

Sat. DAZN 11 a.m. Callum Smith (26-0) vs John Ryder (28-4).

Sat. WWW.DBE1.com 4 p.m. Marie Eve Dicaire (16-0) vs Ogleidis Suarez (29-3-1); Raquel Miller (9-0) vs Alma Ibarra (7-0).

Sat. DAZN 4:30 p.m. Andrew Cancio (21-4-2) vs Rene Alvarado (31-8); Can XU (17-2) vs Manny Robles III (18-0)

Sat. FOX pay-per-view 6 p.m. Deontay Wilder (41-0-1) vs Luis Ortiz (31-1); Leo Santa Cruz (36-1-1) vs Miguel Flores (24-2); Luis Nery (30-0) vs Manny Rodriguez (19-1); Brandon Figueroa (20-0) vs Julio Ceja (32-4)

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Dubai Poised to Mirror Saudi Arabia in the New World Order of Boxing

Arne K. Lang

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The royal family of Saudi Arabia is committed to making their fiefdom a major player in the world of professional boxing. The grand finale of the super middleweight tournament of the 2018 World Boxing Super Series (Callum Smith vs. George Groves) was held in Saudi Arabia as was Amir Khan’s last fight against overmatched Billy Dibs. Those fights, in retrospect, were overtures to the big shebang on Dec. 7, the rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr.

Saudi Arabia’s next-door neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, is poised to join the party. Tomorrow’s show at the plush new Caesars Palace resort at Bluewaters, a man-made island overlooking Dubai, is the latest manifestation of the incursion of boxing into the Arab world.

This isn’t the first boxing show in Dubai. In 2008, former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer closed the curtain on his pro boxing career in Dubai, knocking out South Carolina no-hoper Shelby Gross in the opening round. That allowed Moorer to bookend his career with KOs in one, taking his leave on the same note on which he walked in the door. (You could probably win a few bar bets with this piece of trivia.)

When that odd event took place, there was only one registered professional boxer in all of the UAE.

That number is growing in leaps and bounds thanks to Ahmed Seddiqi, the driving force behind Dubai’s Round 10 Boxing Club. Founded in 2013, Round 10 is the first gym in Dubai built specifically for boxing.

Seddiqi (pictured on the left with his cousin and business partner Abdulla Khoory) subsequently became a regional manager for MTK Global, a powerful boxing management company with a murky past. His association with MTK Global, which is now headquartered in Dubai, gave him the resources to bring in fighters from overseas to spiff up his promotions. And the relationship between Top Rank and MTK Global gave Dubai boxing greater exposure via Top Rank’s affiliation with ESPN+.

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Seddiqi and MTK Global manufactured the inaugural boxing show at Caesars Palace Dubai this past Sept. 13. The main event pitted Pakistan’s Muhammad Waseem against Conrado Tanamor of the Philippines. The super flyweights were penciled in to fight eight rounds.

Tomorrow’s show has a larger budget reflected in a more interesting main event. England’s Jack Catterall, ranked #1 by the WBO at 140 pounds, opposes Timo Schwarzkopf, the Kosovo-born German, in a match slated for 10.

The undefeated Catterall (24-0, 13 KOs) is on a collision course with WBC/WBO 140-pound title-holder Jose Carlos Ramirez. That bout will almost assuredly take place, notwithstanding the fact that the fans would much prefer to see Ramirez, the pride of Fresno, in a unification fight with Josh Taylor and that Ramirez’s next title defense will apparently come against Viktor Postol, a bout seemingly headed to China in February.

Catterall is handled by longtime British promoter Frank Warren who currently has a very cozy relationship with Ramirez’s promoter Bob Arum, an upshot of their shared financial interest in Tyson Fury. Being ranked #1 by the WBO carries sway with Arum who is a de facto member of the WBO Board of Directors. Arum’s current title-holders (Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko, Jamel Herring, Shakur Stevenson, Emanuel Navarrette, and Ramirez) sport WBO colors.

For Dubai locals, the undercard holds more appeal than the main event. Vijender Singh and Muhammad Waseem, who returns for an encore after knocking out Conrado Tanamor in the opening round, have built-in fan bases in a country where immigrants outnumber natives by a 9/1 margin with ex-pats from India (27.5 percent) and Pakistan (12.5 percent) comprising 40 percent of the total immigrant population.

Vijender Singh, 34, is a three-time Olympian. In 2008, in the second of his three Olympic engagements, he won the bronze medal — the first Olympic medal of any kind for a boxer from India. He returned to his homeland a national hero, a man who would transcend boxing in the world’s second-most populous country, appearing in layouts in popular fashion magazines and on numerous TV shows.

Singh (11-0, 8 KOs) signed a multi-fight contract with Top Rank in November of last year. His opponent, Charles Adamu, is a 42-year-old Ghanaian with a 33-14 record.

Adamu, who went 12 rounds with Carl Froch back in 2004, has been stopped only twice but Singh, despite being relatively inactive, expects to win comfortably. “I don’t expect him to put up too much of a challenge because I have noticed he is slower than me…So I am relaxed, nothing to worry there,” he told a reporter for the Hindustan Times.

In common with Singh, Muhammad Waseem (9-1, 7 KOs) is the most well-known boxer in a country where cricket is the national sport. The Quetta, Pakistan, native, 32, previously fought for the IBF world flyweight title, losing a close but unanimous decision to South Africa’s Moruti Mthalene in Kuala Lumpur.

Waseem has something in common with headliner Jack Catterall. Both spent an extensive amount of time in Las Vegas at the Mayweather Gym. Catterall helped Floyd Mayweather Jr prepare for his bout with Manny Pacquiao. For a time, Muhammed Waseem’s head trainer was Jeff Mayweather.

Waseem had a wealth of international amateur experience, but has answered the bell for only 61 rounds as a pro. By contrast, his Mexican opponent, former WBC light flyweight champion Ganigan Lopez (36-10, 19 KOs), has answered the bell for 311 rounds. It’s an interesting match, notwithstanding the fact that Ganigan, 38, was knocked out just six weeks ago by a journeyman in Mexico City.

In common with the first boxing show at Caesars Palace Dubai, tomorrow’s event is called the Rotunda Rumble. The Rotunda is the free-standing entertainment venue at the resort, a structure, says management, inspired by the Roman Pantheon although for most folks the referent would be an Eskimo’s igloo. Nearby on the island, accessible to the mainland by a causeway, sits the world’s largest ferris wheel.

rotunda

Can boxing at Caesars Palace Dubai ever match the heyday of boxing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas? That’s very doubtful. In Las Vegas, the early Caesars Palace shows in the indoor tennis pavilion were designed to showcase the property. The fights were televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Management expected an increase in casino activity, but were surprised at the extent of the increase. Boxing, they quickly learned, was a magnet for high rollers, the impetus for raising the bar, begetting the outdoor extravaganzas.

Caesars Palace Dubai is a non-gaming hotel. There is no legal gambling in the Arab world. Moreover, the crowds at the fights in Dubai will never resemble the crowds at the big fights in Las Vegas where a secondary diversion is ogling the scantily-clad young women who arrive on the arms of their benefactors. Dubai is a country where an unmarried couple can be arrested for sharing a hotel room.

But let’s not sell Dubai short. You won’t find a pari-mutuel window at Dubai’s swanky Meydan Racecourse, but since 1996 the facility has been home to the world’s richest thoroughbred horse race. So, if the nation’s rulers become enamored of boxing, it’s a fair guess they will parrot neighboring Saudi Arabia and go all in.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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