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When Fighting in a Ballpark Really Meant Something

Bernard Fernandez

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Nowadays, in the technologically advanced age of satellite communications and pay-per-view, live attendance at a boxing match is not nearly as consequential to the bottom line as it once was. Remember when the guaranteed purses of $2.5 million apiece for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, for the first of their three epic fights, on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden, was as jaw-dropping as the action in the ring? There were fighters – superb, Hall of Fame fighters — who never came close to grossing that kind of money in their entire careers. The “Fight of the Century” was seen via closed-circuit in 50 countries by 300 million people, which largely contributed to total revenues of nearly $20 million, also numbers that were then record-shattering and considered astounding.

But the sellout, in-house crowd of 20,455, all of whom paid premium prices to be in attendance for Smokin’ Joe’s rousing, 15-round unanimous-decision victory, left the arena with the satisfaction of having experienced something that could not possibly be matched by those watching in a movie theater in, say, Shreveport, Louisiana.

From the giddy heights of Ali-Frazier I, let us flash forward to the most financially profitable boxing event of all time, the much-anticipated, long-delayed pairing of welterweight superstars Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao on May 2, 2015, at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. Mayweather’s 12-round unanimous decision, a relative exercise in tedium compared to the mega-wattage generated by Ali and Frazier 44 years earlier, was of more interest to readers of Forbes than of The Ring, with 4.6 million pay-per-view buys, $600 million in gross revenues and a live gate of $72,198,500 on a paid attendance of 16,219, according to records furnished by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. For a night’s work, Mayweather came away with roughly $250 million before taxes and Pacquiao with somewhere between $160 million to $180 million.

Recent bouts in soccer stadiums involving WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua have served to remind the boxing world that, despite the convenience of someone being able to kick back in his living room to watch a fight on large-screen, high-definition television, there still is nothing quite like the sense of purpose that comes from sharing the moment with tens of thousands of fellow fans. And make no mistake, performing before massive crowds can be as much of an aphrodisiac to a fighter as it is to a rock musician, calling to mind the sad lament of Marlon Brandon’s ex-pug Terry Malloy character in the 1954 Academy Award-winning film, On the Waterfront.

“Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, `Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson,’” Malloy tells his mobbed-up brother Charley, played by Rod Steiger. “You remember that? This ain’t your night? My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in a ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville!”

Outdoors in a ballpark.

That line calls to mind boxing’s glory days, before television and even to some extent afterward, when the most compelling fights almost necessarily had to be staged in baseball or football venues such as Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Soldier Field in Chicago and long-gone Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia. Spectators were like moths drawn to a flame because the mere fact of being there was important to them, even if it required binoculars for those in the cheap seats to see what was taking place down in the ring.

For a fight to be staged “outdoors in a ballpark” – or even indoors, after the advent of domed stadiums or those with retractable roofs – usually required the participation of two elite fighters, or just one, if he was prominent enough or popular enough to draw in the masses on his own. But sometimes there are other factors involved, as was apparently the case on Oct. 20, 1979, when white South African Gerrie Coetzee (then 22-0, 12 knockouts) squared off against black American “Big” John Tate (19-0, 15 KOs), a bronze medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, for the vacant WBA title which had been relinquished by Muhammad Ali.

Apartheid was still the official national policy in South Africa then, which no doubt played as much a factor in a huge – and segregated – crowd of 86,000 packing Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. Although each fighter was undefeated, Coetzee had never fought outside his home country, with the exception of a one-round stoppage of washed-up former champion Leon Spinks in Monte Carlo, which led to his being paired with Tate. It could be argued that neither man had established himself as a fully legitimate aspirant to a throne only recently vacated by the great Ali. Coetzee’s most significant wins had come against fellow white South Africans Pierre Fourie and Kallie Knoetze, as well as one against former world title challenger Ron Stander, who had been beaten to a pulp by Joe Frazier. Tate’s resume was similarly thin, buoyed somewhat with wins over Knoetze and the overrated Duane Bobick.

What happened throughout the remainder of their careers stamps their confrontation as an outlier in the otherwise significant history of major fights contested before exceptionally large stadium crowds. Although Tate won a 15-round unanimous decision over Coetzee, in his first title defense he was dethroned on a 15th-round knockout by Mike Weaver in a bout Tate was winning handily on points, and even as his promoter, Bob Arum, was negotiating at ringside for him to be matched with Ali in his next outing. It was a fight that never would happen; Tate basically unraveled in finishing with a career mark of 34-3 (23) and weighing a jiggly 281 pounds for his final bout, losing on points to Noel Quarless on March 30, 1988. Even before then, Tate had fallen victim to cocaine addiction and constant scrapes with the law. His boxing earnings gone, he panhandled on the streets of his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., and reportedly ballooned to over 400 pounds. He was just 43 when he died on April 9, 1998, of a massive stroke.

Coetzee fared somewhat better. He wangled two more shots at a world title; a 13th-round knockout loss to Weaver in Sun City, South Africa, that preceded an upset, 10th round KO of WBA champ Michael Dokes on Sept. 23, 1983, in Richfield, Ohio. Alas, Coetzee would hold onto the title as briefly as Tate had, losing on an eighth-round knockout by Greg Page on Dec. 1, 1984, in Sun City. The “Boksburg Bomber” would retire with a 33-6-1 (21) record.

Clearly, Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), the WBA/IBF/WBO champion and a super-heavyweight gold medalist for England at the 2012 London Olympics, is a significantly superior talent to Tate and Coetzee, and enough of a national hero in the United Kingdom to fight before 90,000 for his 11th-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko on April 29, 2017, in London’s Wembley Stadium. He since has posted victories over Carlos Takam (TKO10) and Joseph Parker (UD12) that each drew more than 78,000 in Wales’ Principality Stadium, and another 80,000 for his seventh-round stoppage of Alexander Povetkin on Sept. 22 in Wembley Stadium. If and when he takes on WBC champ Deontay Wilder, that unification extravaganza likely will take place in Wembley before another capacity-straining throng of 90,000-plus.

Almost single-handedly, Joshua has revived the tradition of fighting “outdoors in a ballpark” (although Principality Stadium has a roof), which largely owes, if not exclusively, to the generational allure of history’s finest heavyweights.

Although the largest live attendances for boxing matches involved non-heavyweights – middleweight champion Tony Zale knocked out Billy Pryor in nine rounds in a free, non-title bout staged by the Pabst Brewing Company before a crowd of 135,000 at Milwaukee’s Juneau Park on Aug. 16, 1941, and WBC super lightweight titlist Julio César Chávez stopped Greg Haugen in five rounds with 132,274 in the stands at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium on Feb. 20, 1993 – the big boys otherwise rule supreme.

There were 120,757 on hand at Sesquicentennial Stadium on Sept. 23, 1926, to watch Gene Tunney lift the legendary Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight crown on a 10-round unanimous decision. A year less a day later, Tunney retained the title on another 10-round unanimous decision in the famous “Long Count” bout, before 104,943 at Soldier Field.

Dempsey, along with baseball’s Babe Ruth, football’s Red Grange, golf’s Bobby Jones and tennis’ Bill Tilden, was one of the seminal figures in sports’ “Roaring ’20s” golden age. Dempsey drew 91,613 for a fourth-round knockout of George Carpentier in Jersey City, N.J., on July 2, 1921, and 80,000-plus for bouts with Luis Angel Firpo (KO2) at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 14, 1923, and Jack Sharkey (KO7) in Yankee Stadium on July 21, 1927.

Former world champion Max Schmeling kayoed fellow German Walter Neusel in nine rounds before a crowd of 102,000 on Aug. 26, 1934, at Hamburg’s Sandbahn Loksgtedt, a European attendance record for boxing attendance that still stands and may be out of the range of even Anthony Joshua, unless a more spacious stadium than Wembley is constructed. Schmeling was on the wrong end of his one-round beatdown by Joe Louis in their much-anticipated rematch on June 23, 1938, in Yankee Stadium, which drew 70,043 and held the world’s attention to a degree that few if any fights before or since could approach.

Rocky Marciano’s largest live crowd was the 47,585 that showed up on Sept. 21, 1955, for the final fight of his career, a ninth-round knockout of Archie Moore in Yankee Stadium.

Ali, of course, was no stranger to fights that filled stadiums. The largest attendance for any of his ring appearances was the 63,350 that filed into the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans to see him become a three-time world champion when he avenged an earlier upset loss to Leon Spinks by scoring a 15-round unanimous decision on Sept. 15, 1978. However, of far greater significance to his legacy was his stunning, eighth-round knockout of seemingly invincible champion George Foreman in their “Rumble in the Jungle” fight on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). That fight was seen by “only” 60,000 spectators in Stade du 20 Mai, but in truth the entire world was watching by whatever means were available.

There are drawbacks, of course, to stadium fights, particularly those without a roof. Such fights have been staged in blistering heat, numbing cold, and sometimes pelting rain. It also stands to reason that the larger the crowd, the more difficult it is to later work your way free of the exiting masses in a reasonable amount of time. The trade-off is the sense of community when attending a sold-out event in a massive venue, which contributes to the electricity that one feels emanating from the event itself. That’s the way it is for Super Bowls, World Series and the World Cup, and it’s the way it should be, at least occasionally, in boxing.

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Canelo and Krusher Kovalev Meet at Union Station in L.A.

David A. Avila

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LOS ANGELES – About 113 years ago a historic heavyweight world title fight took place near Union Station, the location where Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev announced their light heavyweight world title fight on Wednesday.

Back in 1906, a middleweight named Tommy Burns moved up in weight and defeated Marvin Hart at Naud Junction Pavilion for the vacant world heavyweight title. It’s the exact location where Philippe’s Restaurant resides, 200 yards away from the L.A. train station.

Funny how history sort of repeats itself.

Canelo Alvarez (52-1-2, 35 KOs) the middleweight world champion moves up two weight divisions to challenge WBO light heavyweight titlist Sergey Kovalev (34-3-1, 29 KOs) on Nov. 2, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions and Main Events card.

The Mexican redhead already conquered the super welterweight, middleweight and super middleweight divisions. Now he wants to add light heavyweight to become a four division conqueror for Mexico.

One who knows the significance of making the attempt is Bernard Hopkins, the East Coast chief for Golden Boy Promotions.

“There are very few fighters who have accomplished 160 to 175 and been successful. As you know, you’re standing and hearing from one right now,” said Hopkins who accomplished the feat in 2011 and then lost to Kovalev in 2014. “I have a personal feeling about making history because I’ve been there and done that and now it’s Canelo’s time. I understand what it’s like to be in there with the Krusher.”

Down the Block

History has seen this act before down the block from Union Station where the press conference took place. The actual arena that housed the heavyweight world title fight between Burns and Hart and also Burns’ title defenses  against Fireman Jim Flynn and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien in the early 1900s has long been gone and replaced by the restaurant famous for French dip sandwiches.

If you know your boxing history, you would also know it was Burns who would later fight Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1908 and lose in Australia. Johnson fought about eight times in Los Angeles and held the actual heavyweight title until 1915.

Now it’s Alvarez’s turn and the popular Mexican fighter dares to be great and challenge Kovalev for the light heavyweight title.

“I think this is a big test for me in my boxing career because this is one of the best fighters in the world in boxing right now. I’m happy and I am excited,” said Kovalev who is being trained by Buddy McGirt.

The tall Russian light heavyweight just recently defended the WBO title and seemed to be losing when he rebooted and retired Anthony Yarde with a left-handed blow in the 11th round last August 24 in Russia.

But this is another test entirely and though he is the bigger fighter, he maintains this is a tremendous challenge.

“This is the biggest fight in my life. If I win it’s my legacy,” Kovalev, 36, said. “If I lose I get experience.”

Alvarez, 29, is several inches shorter in height, but known for his vicious body punching. He wants this fight because it appeals to him to be among the greats in both Mexican history and boxing history overall. His last fight was a decision win last May over another taller fighter, Daniel Jacobs.

“This is important to me,” said Alvarez, who previously won the super middleweight world title last December against Britain’s much taller Rocky Fielding. “I like challenges.”

It’s a challenge that others have made throughout boxing history, including Sugar Ray Leonard who was in attendance. Alvarez also wants to be a four division winner like fellow Mexicans Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales, and Jorge Arce.

“Canelo hopes to become the fourth Mexican to win a world title in four divisions,” said Oscar De La Hoya, the CEO of Golden Boy. “One big difference (between Canelo and the others) is that Canelo is at a higher weight class. And this opens the possibility for many more matchups, and bigger opponents with strong punching and star power. When talking with Canelo about his career goals, he said he wanted to make history and fight the best.”

Its Alvarez’s overall fighting skills versus Kovalev’s punching power and physical advantages.

Kathy Duva, whose company Main Events promotes Kovalev, was ambivalent about the matchup.

“Canelo, you may have bit off more than you can chew, but that’s okay. Great fighters are not afraid to challenge themselves. And win or lose, history will reward you for taking a risk,” said Duva.

Risks are what make prizefighting shine.

Ryan Garcia

Another who looks to shine on the same boxing card will be Ryan “The Flash” Garcia who appeared in the press conference with a huge smile, despite warring with Golden Boy head honchos this past weekend.

When asked if things were patched up with his promoter Garcia responded, “What do you think? Can’t you see how happy I am?”

Unknown to reporters at Union Station, Garcia signed a new contract with Golden Boy Promotions that allegedly makes him much wealthier. He will also be fighting Romero Duno who was the subject of public arguments when Garcia refused to fight him without renegotiating the contract. The original opponent for last Saturday’s fight card at Dignity Health Sports Park – Avery Sparrow – was arrested and unable to fight. Duno and others were mentioned as possibilities through social media sites and a public war ensued between De La Hoya and Garcia.

Things were resolved this week.

“This fight week was exhausting,” admitted De La Hoya about the verbal skirmish with Garcia. “Boxing is like a marriage, you have your little scuffles.”

Garcia was signed to an extension which De La Hoya said makes him one of the richest prospects. The Victorville native trains in San Diego with Alvarez and trainers Eddy Reynoso and Jose “Chepo” Reynoso.

“We’re all good,” said Garcia beaming with happiness. “I get to fight the guy I wanted to fight most in Romero Duno.”

Photo credit: Al Applerose (pictured left to right: Canelo Alvarez, Bernard Hopkins, Ryan Garcia, Oscar De La Hoya, and Sergey Kovalev)

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Holmes-Spinks I: The Grassy Knoll for Boxing’s Conspiracy Theorists

Bernard Fernandez

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The most enduring of American conspiracy theories involves a gunman who may or may not have existed and may or may not have been on a grassy knoll in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the subject of numerous speculative books and movies, all of which involve some individual’s ironclad take on what happened, why it happened and who was involved in making it happen, will always be grist for the mill for those still dissecting that national tragedy. More than a few of those arguments dispute the Warren Commission’s official conclusion that presumed killer Lee Harvey Oswald acted on his own and not in concert with unidentified, shadowy figures.

On a more recent and lesser scale, a raft of conspiracy theories arose in the wake of the alleged Aug. 10 jailhouse suicide of multimillionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, whose list of celebrity acquaintances includes two presidents of the United States and even a member of the British royal family. As was the case when nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald before he could go on trial, conspiracy theorists on all sides have conjectured whether Epstein’s suspicious death was actually a hit and, if so, ordered by whom?

Boxing, with its blemished past dotted by nefarious power brokers and decisions that sometimes defy logic, also has provided conspiracy junkies with ample material to analyze and debate. Olympic boxing, often characterized as a cesspool of corruption, immediately comes to mind. So does the Sept. 10, 1993, majority draw in which WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, whom almost everyone without an official scorecard saw as the clear victor, was obliged to settle for a dissatisfying standoff with crowd favorite and Mexican national hero Julio Cesar Chavez in a bout that drew a live crowd of 60,000 or so in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Although Whitaker retained his title on the draw, he and his outraged supporters were convinced the outcome was predicated more on the WBC, headquartered in Mexico City, exerting behind-the-scenes influence to ensure that Chavez came away with his undefeated record still intact. Irrefutable truth is often difficult to pin down in such matters, but the 55-year-old “Sweet Pea,” who died after being struck by a car on July 14, went to his grave believing he had been cheated out of a deserved triumph that would have further embellished his Hall of Fame legacy.

Given its historical implications, what is arguably the grassy knoll of boxing remains the Sept. 21, 1985, pairing of long-reigning heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and undisputed light heavyweight titlist Michael Spinks, who was attempting to become the first (or maybe not) 175-pound champ to move up in weight and capture his sport’s most prestigious and lucrative prize.

Spinks – who came away with a razor-thin and controversial 15-round unanimous decision — was bidding to do something no other light heavyweight had ever done, although there are those who cite Tommy Burns, who outpointed heavyweight champ Marvin Hart over 20 rounds on Feb. 23, 2006, as the first 175-pound titlist to accomplish the feat. In any case, since Burns, 13 light heavyweight champs had tried and failed in their bids to become king of the heavyweights, a list that included such ring legends as Billy Conn, Archie Moore and Bob Foster.

Given the fact that the 35-year-old Holmes was making his 20th title defense and was widely considered as one of the best heavyweight champions of all time, he was installed as a prohibitive favorite over Spinks, who was not only bucking tradition but the perceived limits of his own body. Even respected Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, noting that Spinks had weighed in at 199¾ pounds – heavier than such legendary heavyweight champions as and Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano ever did for title bouts – went a bit overboard in writing that the challenger looked “like a blowfish” and that his weight gain was accelerated by a 4,500-calorie-a-day diet that might be “all right for a guy getting ready to play Henry the Eighth.”

But Spinks’ bulking-up process was not the result of having scarfed down a bunch of French fries, chocolate milkshakes and doughnuts, but rather the calculated machinations of New Orleans-based fitness coach and nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, whose then-unorthodox methods would soon gain wider acceptance but then were seen by the boxing establishment as, well, somewhat bizarre.

“We have a scientific, unique program that is secret – a program that was developed specifically for Michael, using techniques that would be revolutionary for boxing,” Shilstone said to the bemusement of hidebound traditionalists.

Spinks, whose walking-around weight between light heavyweight matches was usually 10 pounds or so above the division limit, said he was already familiar working with Shilstone – to shed unwanted pounds.

“Mackie had already helped me lose weight to get down to light heavyweight,” Spinks said when contacted for this story. “He told me that if I wanted to fight Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship, he could help me put the weight on the right way. And that’s what he did. He also said he wouldn’t take anything from what I already had, in terms of what I did well as a light heavyweight, that I still would be able to do all that as a heavyweight. He was right, too. I was as fast as a heavyweight as I was as a light heavyweight.”

Unlike Conn, Moore, Foster and other light heavyweight champs who made no secret of their ambition to storm and conquer the heavyweight division, Michael admits to initially lacking the burning desire to replicate the feat of his older brother and fellow 1976 Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks, who dethroned WBC/WBA heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali via 15-round split decision in a monumental upset on Feb. 15, 1978. Leon had always been naturally larger than Michael, never weighing less than 194 pounds for any of his first 23 outings as a pro. The mere notion of moving up to heavyweight seemed unlikely and more than a bit risky to Michael, who figured he would continue to do what he’d already been doing, which was to dominate all comers at light heavy.

It was Butch Lewis, who promoted both Spinks brothers, who determined that Michael going to heavyweight was not only doable, but highly advisable financially.

“Butch told me I could fight Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship,” the younger Spinks recalled. “I was, like, `What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, and you can beat him.’ I said, `You really think so?’ And he said, `Absolutely.’

“Butch (who was 65 when he died of a heart attack on July 23, 2011) had faith in me, so I took that and ran with it.”

Maybe what bottom-line Butch had was absolute faith in the economic realities of boxing, which always hold that heavyweight champions are vastly better-compensated than their light heavyweight counterparts. Consider these numbers: Michael Spinks’ purse for his final light heavyweight defense, an eighth-round stoppage of Jim MacDonald on June 6, 1985, was a relatively paltry $100,000, a pittance compared to the $1.1 million contract he signed to challenge Holmes.

Say what you will about the flamboyant Lewis, who was noted for wearing a tuxedo and bow tie but no shirt on fight night, but his steering of Michael Spinks’ career was a case study on how to milk the system for every available dollar. It was Lewis who made the bold call, after Spinks had followed up his stunner over Holmes by outpointing the “Easton Assassin” on another close and controversial call, a 15-round split decision in the rematch seven months later, to hold Spinks out of the heavyweight unification tournament being put together by HBO Sports president Seth Abraham and promoter Don King. In doing so Spinks passed on a potential $5 million payday against eventual tourney winner Mike Tyson, but he was paid about the same amount to defeat the formidable Gerry Cooney, putting into motion a series of events that led to his June 27, 1988, megafight with Tyson in Atlantic City. OK, so Spinks didn’t make it through the first round, but he received a career-high $13.2 million for what proved to be his final fight and only professional loss, a pretty nice parting gift when you get right down to it.

Holmes had his own potential date with destiny in that first clash with Michael Spinks. Were he to win, it would be his 49th consecutive victory without a loss, matching the record set by Marciano – ironically, against Archie Moore and, even more ironically, 30 years to the day after The Rock knocked out the Ol’ Mongoose in the ninth round in what turned out to be his final fight.

In the lead-up to the fight at The Riviera in Las Vegas, for which members of the Marciano family were invited guests, Holmes seemed to chafe at constantly being compared to a beloved fighter who had died in a crash of a small private plane on Aug. 31, 1969. “I’m not fighting Marciano,” Holmes complained. “He’s dead. I never knew him. I’m fighting for Larry Holmes, for me, for what I can do for my family.”

To Holmes, who was no stranger to the seven-figure club and who was down for a $3 million purse, there was a racial component to the constant comparisons to Marciano, who was white, much in the same manner that black baseball great Hank Aaron was the target of unfair and sometimes cruel criticism as he neared the sacrosanct record of 714 career home runs set by Babe Ruth. When Aaron passed Ruth by homering for the 715th time on April 8, 1974, the feat was celebrated by many Americans and baseball fans in general, but not by everyone.

Members of the Marciano family, who ostensibly had been summoned to congratulate Holmes in the event of his making it to 49-0, celebrated when the close decision for Spinks – by margins of 143-142 (twice) and 145-142 – was announced. That did not set well with Holmes, who felt such a display was disrespectful to him and, additionally, was the wrong call historically as long-reigning champions such as himself usually got the benefit of the doubt in close fights.

“I was robbed,” Holmes, in announcing one of his several retirements from boxing that didn’t stick, said at the postfight press conference, suggesting that alleged conspirators in influential places who finally had brought him down can “kiss me where the sun never shines,” which meant “my big black behind.”

Nor was Holmes any more disposed to be gracious to Peter Marciano, Rocky’s younger brother and the foremost keeper of the “Brockton Blockbuster’s” eternal flame. “You are freeloading off your dead brother,” Holmes told Peter, tossing in the zinger that “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.”

Months later, after the heat of the moment had long since cooled down, Holmes, in most instances a respectful and thoroughly decent man, offered a public apology to anyone he might have offended with his earlier intemperate remarks.

“I’m sorry for what I said, for the way things came out,” Holmes told a Boston reporter. “I don’t want to take anything away from Peter or the Marciano family. I haven’t slept for two months thinking about this.

“I’ve reached out to Peter Marciano. I’d like to get together with him, either in his town or mine (Easton, Pa.). There must be something that can be done to make this right.

“I have no hard feelings against Rocky Marciano. He was one of the greatest fighters of all time. His 49-0 record speaks for itself. If I hurt Marciano’s family, I regret it.”

What Holmes did not back away from, not then and not now, is his belief that he deserved to win both of his fights with Michael Spinks, with the first loss a thinly veiled and successful attempt to keep him from sidling up alongside the sainted Marciano.

“There was no doubt about it,” he said of a decision he still regards as a cold slap in the face. “I knew what they were going to do to me. I knew if I didn’t knock him out, I wasn’t going to get the decision.” Nor is he alone in that contention, just as there are Spinks partisans who are just as insistent that the judges got it right.

Asked if he thought then, or does now, that he did not receive all the credit he was due from Holmes and his other persistent proponents of the conspiracy theory that refuses to die, Spinks said it shouldn’t matter at this point. The record book indicates he won, so that should be that.

“It was a close fight, but I did think I won,” he reiterated. “There’s no animosity between me and Larry. We get along. He’s not really sore about it anymore. At one of his golf tournaments that I attended, he took the microphone and said something about how he’d lost to me, but that wasn’t all bad because he made so much money for losing.”

What Holmes wants to make clear more than anything is that he wants to forever bury any hint that race is or should still be a part of the discussion. He said there was too much of that in the past, and still too much now. He pointed out that Gerry Cooney, the white guy against whom his high-visibility fight was neatly divided into opposing racial camps, as well as Spinks have been regular participants in his charity golf tournament.

“Half of my family is white,” Holmes pointed out. “I’m not a racist. I don’t have anything against white folks or anybody else. My son is getting ready to be married in a couple of weeks to a white girl. My daughter is married to a white guy.

“I didn’t really care about racial s— then, and to this day I don’t care about it. Gerry Cooney is my friend. Now, I didn’t like the decisions in my fights with Michael Spinks, but you can’t dwell on that. You got to move past that.”

Which might be one man’s way of saying that any lingering ghosts on that figurative grassy knoll overlooking a boxing ring where a fight took place 34 years ago should finally be allowed to just fade away.

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The Hauser Report: Fight Notes on Mexican Independence Day Weekend

Thomas Hauser

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Boxing is accustomed to having a major fight in Las Vegas as the centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day Weekend. This year, Canelo Alvarez was penciled in as the star attraction. But Canelo and his presumed challenger, Gennady Golovkin, couldn’t come to terms, and boxing’s PPV-streaming-video king decided that he would enter the ring next against Sergey Kovalev on November 2. That left a holiday void to fill and three separate promotions vying to fill it.

The action began on Friday, September 13, at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater. Three bouts were billed as featured attractions on a Matchroom USA card streamed on DAZN.

First up, as expected, Michael Hunter (17-1, 12 KOs) outslicked Sergey Kuzmin (15-0, 11 KOs). Kuzman had an extensive amateur background in the Russian amateur system but is a one-dimensional fighter. For most of the fight, he plodded forward while Hunter potshotted him at will in what looked like a spirited sparring session en route to a 117-110, 117-110, 117-110 triumph.

Next, Amanda Serrano (36-1-1, 27 KOs), who has won belts in weight classes ranging from 118 to 135 pounds, challenged WBO 126-pound beltholder Heather Hardy (22-0, 4 KOs). It was expected to be an ugly beatdown with Hardy on the receiving end. The only open issue for most fight fans was how long Heather would last.

Hardy only knows one way to fight. Moving forward, which she has been able to do in the past against stationary opponents who had less of a punch that she did. All of her previous fights had been made for her to win. Questionable hometown judging carried her across the finish line on several occasions when it appeared as though she had fallen short.

At the final pre-fight press conference for Hardy-Serrano, Heather proclaimed, “I’m the toughest girl I know.”

But tough alone doesn’t win fights. Against Serrano, Hardy took a pounding in a lopsided first round that two of the judges correctly scored 10-8 in Amanda’s favor. Round two was more of the same. Serrano was the more skilled, faster, stronger fighter and a sharper puncher. Heather hung tough. But she was hanging from a thread.

Over the next eight rounds, Hardy showed courage and heart. For the first time in her career, she was in the ring against an opponent who hadn’t been chosen because it was presumed that Heather would beat her. She survived and legitimately won a few rounds against Serrano in the process.

The final scorecards were 98-91, 98-91, 98-92 in Serrano’s favor. Each woman received an $80,000 purse. Hardy earned every penny of it. And she earned respect for her effort in a way that none of the “W”s on her ring record had brought her.

The main event showcased lightweight Devin Haney (22-0, 14 KOs) against Zaur Abdulaev (11-0, 7 KOs). Haney is 20 years young and a hot prospect. Abdulaev, age 25, is a solid fighter but in a different league than Haney.

Devin entered the ring as a 20-to-1 favorite. At this point in his career, he appears to be the whole package with speed, power, explosiveness, and good ring skills. Physically and mentally, he’s mature beyond his years as a fighter but still has the enthusiasm of youth. Over the course of four rounds, he gave Abdullaev nothing to work with, broke the Russian down, and fractured Zaur’s cheekbone. Abdullaev’s corner called a halt to the proceedings after the fourth stanza.

Haney has The Look that fighters like Shane Mosley and Roy Jones Jr. had when they were young. He and boxing are in their honeymoon years. As for the immediate future; Devin has been calling out Vasyl Lomachenko. But given the different promotional entities and networks involved, the chances of that fight happening anytime soon are nil.

Twenty years ago, fight fans could have looked forward to Haney being meaningfully challenged at each level as he moved forward in an attempt to prove how good he is. In today’s fragmented boxing world, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

On Saturday, the scene shifted to Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, for another DAZN telecast. This one was promoted by Golden Boy and was supposed to showcase 21-year-old lightweight Ryan Garcia (18-0, 15 KOs), who’s being marketed as a heartthrob who can fight, against light-punching Avery Sparrow (10-1, 3 KOs). That match evaporated one day before its scheduled date when Sparrow was arrested and taken into custody on an outstanding arrest warrant issued after he allegedly brandished a handgun in a domestic dispute this past April.

The main event wasn’t much of a contest either with Jaime Munguia (33-0, 26 KOs) defending his WBO 154-pound belt against Patrick Allotey (40-3, 30 KOs) of Ghana.

Munguia had nice wins last year against Sadam Ali and Liam Smith. Then, five months ago, he was undressed by Dennis Hogan (although the judges in Monterrey, Mexico, found a way to give Jaime a dubious home country majority decision). Allotey’s record looked good until one checked the quality of his opponents on BoxRec.com. Munguia was a 30-to-1 favorite.

When the fight began, Allotey seemed most comfortable on his bicycle and decidedly uncomfortable when he was getting hit by the hooks that Munguia pounded repeatedly into his body. Two minutes into round three, one of those hooks put him on the canvas. A combination dropped him for the second time just before the bell. Patrick seemed disinclined to come out of his corner for round four but was nudged back into the conflict. Two minutes later, he took a knee after another hook to the body and his corner stopped the bout.

The third significant fight card of Mexican Independence Day weekend was the biggest of the three. Promoted by Top Rank and streamed on ESPN+, it featured Tyson Fury vs. Otto Wallin at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Like the other two shows, this one disappointed at the gate. The Hulu Theater had been reconfigured on Friday night so the rear sections were curtained off. There were more empty seats than seats with people in them at Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday.

When Fury fought Tom Schwarz at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on June 15, Top Rank had announced a crowd of 9,012. But according to final receipts submitted to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, only 5,489 tickets were sold for that event with another 1,187 complimentary tickets being given away. The announced attendance for Fury-Wallin was 8,249. T-Mobile arena seats 20,000 for boxing.

ESPN+’s featured three-fight stream didn’t begin until 11:00 PM eastern time. Jose Zepeda (30-2, 25 KOs, 1 KO by) won a 97-93, 97-93, 97-93 decision over former beltholder Jose Pedraza (26-2, 13 KOs, 1 KO by). Then WBO 122-pound titlist Emanuel Navarrete (28-1, 24 KOs) cruised to a fourth-round stoppage of Juan Miguel Elorde (28-1, 15 KOs). That set the stage for Fury-Wallin.

There are plenty of “world heavyweight championship” belts to go around these days. Claimants during the past four years have included Manuel Charr, Joseph Parker, Ruslan Chagaev, Lucas Browne, Charles Martin, and Bermane Stiverne. Fury (who entered the ring with a 28-0, 20 KOs record) is currently being marketed as the “lineal” heavyweight champion and can trace his lineal roots all the way back to Wladimir Klitschko (which falls short of going back to John L. Sullivan). The best things said about Wallin (20-0, 13 KOs) during fight week were that he was probably better than Tom Schwarz (Fury’s most recent opponent) and that, as noted by Keith Idec of Boxing Scene, Wallin was “perfectly polite” during the fight-week festivities.

Bob Arum, who shares a promotional interest in Fury with Frank Warren, praised Fury as the second coming of The Greatest and advised the media, “People are seeing things that they haven’t seen since Muhammad Ali. You’re seeing a great fighter who can connect to the people and he’s a real showman.”

Fury (born, raised, and still living in the United Kingdom) got into the spirit of things and proclaimed, “I am going to change my name for the weekend to El Rey Gitano [which translates from Spanish to English as “The Gypsy King”]. And he further declared, “Isn’t it a great thing that a total outsider is showing so much love, passion, and respect for the Mexican people. At the minute, they are being oppressed by the people here [in the United States]. Building a wall, chucking ‘em all out, and treating them terrible. I don’t know what is going on, but it is nice to see a total stranger, heavyweight champion of the world, coming here and respecting people and paying homage to their beliefs and special days. I’ve got the Mexican shorts, the Mexican gloves, the Mexican mask, the Mexican music, the Mexican flag. I have Mexicans as part of my training team. There is a lot of honor and respect in fighting on this date.”

That elicited a response from WBA-IBF-WBO heavyweight champion Andy Ruiz, who declared on social media, “Tyson Fury’s talking sh**. He’s representing Mexico – he’s not even Mexican, what kind of sh** is that? A British f***in, he ain’t even Mexican, wearing the f***ing Mexican flag, messed up man. Stay in your lane.”

Meanwhile, with no existing World Boxing Council title at stake, WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman stepped in and announced that Fury-Wallin would be contested for a special “Mayan belt” that was also offered to the winner of Munguia-Allotey. Maybe someday boxing will have interim Mayan belts and Mayan belts in recess as well.

Fury was a 25-to-1 betting favorite. For two rounds, everything went according to plan. Then, in round three, a looping left by Wallin opened a horrible, deep gash along Tyson’s right eyebrow. The cut gave the fight high drama. There was a real chance that it would worsen to the point where there was no alternative to stopping the bout. Despite the efforts of cutman Jorge Capetillo, blood streamed from the wound for the rest of the fight.

Knowing that he was in danger, Fury abandoned what he likes to think of as finesse boxing and began to brawl, coming forward and trying to impose his 6-foot-9-inch, 254-pound bulk on his opponent. By round eight, Wallin was exhausted. Tyson was teeing off from a distance and, when he came inside, bullying Otto around.

Wallin fought as well as he could. But he was being pounded around the ring and getting beaten down. Then, remarkably, 38 seconds into round twelve, he whacked Fury with a good left hand and, suddenly – if only temporarily – Tyson was holding on.

The final scorecards read 118-110, 117-111, 116-112 in Fury’s favor.

“I was happy that he was cut,” Wallin said afterward. “But I wish I could of capitalized a little more on it.”

And a final thought . . . When there are three heavyweight “world champions” (which is what boxing has now), there is no heavyweight champion at all.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – A Dangerous Journey; Another Year Inside Boxing– will be published this autumn 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.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank (note Fury’s jumbo-sized sombrero)

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel  

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