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Olympic Boxing On The Brink

Matt McGrain

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In 2012, the United States Treasury Department identified a group called “The Brothers’ Circle” alongside the infamous Japanese Yakuza as being a “significant Transnational Criminal Organization” and, prompted by the then President, Barack Obama, set out in “pursuing additional sanctions against their members and supporters.”

This has been and remains standard practice for the U.S. in working against its enemies when they lie beyond its borders and ordinary legal jurisdiction. Typically a key member of a criminal or political organization will find his or her assets frozen and their ability to move freely restricted. More, they have been branded, publicly and loudly, as being the worst kind of criminal: organized, powerful and dangerous. This can make doing business and establishing new professional relationships difficult – or at least, that is the theory.

The Yakuza are well known but “The Brother’s Circle” I had never heard of, and apparently with good reason. In 2012, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project spoke to sometime Guardian journalist and expert in Russian and Eurasian criminal activity Mark Galeotti on the subject of The Brother’s Circle and he had this to say: “I have not found anyone in Russian law enforcement or elsewhere who actually says ‘yes, the brother’s circle is an organization and it exists.’ It’s either complete myth, or 99% myth.”

I spoke to Mark today and he confirmed that this remained his position.

“I suspect,” wrote Galeotti after the action was handed down, “that given the absence of any other meaningful specific individual gangs to identify, reference to the Circle represents a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included.”

Among those included is Gafur Rakhimov (pictured).

“Rakhimov,” claims the Treasury Department, “is one of the leaders of Uzbek organized crime with a specialty in the organized production of drugs in the countries of Central Asia. He has operated major international drug syndicates involving the trafficking of heroin.”

His passport number and an “alternative” passport number is listed as are other personal details including an address. His alleged background as car thief through to fixer through to drug dealer is laid out, albeit in very little detail. A power-point presentation illustrating some of the names of his associates and their subservient relationship to him is available. He is directly connected to and often identified as being in a position of authority over numerous men linked to murder, the trafficking of human beings and in one instance the assassination of a Ukrainian politician.

The U.S. Treasury Department is as serious about Gafur Rakhimov as they were about Al Capone.

Yesterday, Rakhimov was elected as the International Boxing Association (AIBA) president, amateur boxing’s global governing body.

If you were unaware of this story, and it has not been widely or properly reported by boxing media, take a moment to allow it to sink in.

The most acute problem here relates to the status of Olympic boxing. For some time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has harbored concerns about the AIBA and the corruption which purveys the sport it runs. Most Americans reading this will think of the alleged match fixing in Seoul that saw local Park-Si hun “triumph” over Roy Jones; perhaps for the Europeans it may be a fresher memory, that of Michael Conlan who branded the AIBA “f****** cheats” and “cheating bastards” who were “paying [off] everybody” after an inexplicable loss at the 2016 games.

Sporadically, good journalism has actually outed corrupt judging, as in 1996 when Independent boxing journalist Steve Bunce was all set to travel to Russia to interview a judge caught with a thousand dollar bung. Unfortunately the judge was murdered before Bunce could get to him.

Japanese administrator Akira Yamane resigned this summer after his association with gangsters and allegations of tampering with officials emerged. The 2012 Azerbaijani amateur boxing scandal was as embroiled and confounding as to defy any thumbnail explanation here, suffice to say that once every four years the Olympics spotlights amateur boxing’s vast and varied shortcomings but they remain a problem year round. The gloom outwith the illumination of the Olympic torch fuels dark deeds.

So even before the election of Rakhimov as permanent AIBA president, the IOC were “extremely worried” about the governance of the sport and were prepared to take “bold action” against it. Hideous financial mismanagement was as much a concern as corruption, as the AIBA flirted with bankruptcy behind its involvement with Eurasian loans. Rakhimov, who stepped out from behind the shadow of the hapless outgoing president Wu Ching-Kuo, proceeded to direct the rescue of the AIBA to the everlasting gratitude of many of its members.

The IOC, horrified by the corruption and financial irresponsibility in the sport of amateur boxing seemed dumbfounded by the appearance of Rakhimov as its potential savior. The AIBA was, however, preparing to launch itself out of the proverbial frying pan into the proverbial fire with all the force of an institution actively seeking its own demise.

“The IOC reserves the right to ­review the inclusion of boxing,” it offered, “in the programs of the Youth Olympics 2018 and Tokyo 2020.”

Boxing was included at the Youth Olympics but Rakhimov was reportedly not accredited. This is as clear an indication as the IOC could make to the AIBA of their opinion of the AIBA’s unopposed nominee for president. It responded by reluctantly allowing opposition which had previously been excluded for petty technical reasons, but nobody was going to beat Rakhimov cold; it’s arguable that nobody could have beaten him with even a fair shake such was his position of power after his handling of the Ching-Kuo debacle. Had Rakhimov come from nowhere it is likely his past would have counted against him but his association with the AIBA is long and strong.

How this came to be is explained in some small way by the OCCRP who deemed Rakhimov “the classic Uzbek gangster,” and noted that “you don’t get to be an Uzbek gangster without being a partner of powerful people in the state apparatus.”

Or, as Mark Galeotti so elegantly put it, “whatever you say about Russian OC, it’s outgunned by the state.”

It is Rakhimov’s very involvement in the upper echelons of organized crime that would provide him with access to the upper echelons of administrative power in his country.

It should be noted here that Rakhimov protests his innocence, and vigorously, but this, in a sense, misses the point. It is unfair that Rakhimov’s being accused of unproven criminality by the United States government, Mark Galeotti and the OCCRP, among others, should exclude him from working for the AIBA – but it should. Unquestionably and inarguably, it should. It should absolutely exclude him from running that organization.  He could be the most effective administrator to have ever lived and the fact would remain that his overall influence upon the sport he claims to love would be almost entirely negative. But his protestations of his innocence must be recorded.

In his own words, his inclusion as a U.S. Treasury target is a “mistake” that he hopes can be “corrected” within six months.

But he’s had six years.

Rakhimov has declared the date of his own election “a great day for the AIBA” and “an important step forward in boxing.” He spoke of the AIBA’s “commitment to the Olympic movement and Olympic values.” The IOC, meanwhile, are rumored to be weighing three options: excluding boxing from the Olympic games; staging an Olympic tournament without the inclusion of the AIBA (thereby withdrawing funding); or allowing the AIBA to run the Olympic boxing tournament under certain agreed-upon conditions.

None of these options are appealing, but I regretfully suggest that the third of these is the most harmful. While excluding boxing would deal a hammer blow to the sport that would be felt for a generation and the damage done to grassroots boxing by cutting off funding to the AIBA by the IOC would be enormous, either arrangement is likely preferable to doing nothing.

If there is a line of corruption our sport cannot be allowed to cross, I would suggest that it was reached and breached today. It saddens and shocks me that this has occurred in the world of amateur rather than professional boxing.

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Seven Boxers Who Have Been Inactive Too Long

Arne K. Lang

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Professional boxers need to stay active for two reasons: (1) They have a short window to achieve their goals and leave the sport well-off financially, and (2) rest makes rust as my old friend Herb Lambeck, a prominent boxing oddsmaker, was wont to say. (MMA superstar Conor McGregor cited inactivity as a factor in his poor showing in his most recent fight. Prior to meeting Dustin Poirier, who knocked him out in the second round, McGregor had fought only two fights inside an octagon in the previous four years and one of those fights lasted only 30 seconds.)

Staying active during the COVID-19 era is a major challenge for many boxers. Listed below are seven who missed all of 2020 and who currently have nothing firmed-up for the immediate future. The seven are listed in descending order of inactivity.

Andrew Tabiti

Cruiserweight…Current Record: 17-1 (13 KOs), age 31

We last saw Tabiti on June 15, 2019. Yunier Dorticos was in the opposite corner. At stake was the IBF world cruiserweight title and a berth in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament.

Dorticos, the Cuban “KO Doctor,” lived up to his nickname, knocking Tabiti from the ranks of the unbeaten in the 10th round with a smashing, one-punch knockout. The punch left Tabiti flat on his back, unconscious.

By now, Tabiti should have had at least one fight designed as a confidence-restorer, if not another high-risk assignment. Has he been sidelined by the coronavirus? Indirectly, yes. He trains at the Mayweather Gym in Las Vegas which has been closed for the better part of the last two months as a proactive measure to keep the virus away.

Rey Vargas

Featherweight…Current Record: 34-0, (22 KOs)…age 30

Vargas has been out of action since July 13, 2019, sidelined not by the coronavirus, but by an injury. Did he break his leg or his foot? And when did it happen? Reports are unclear, but it didn’t happen during the course of his most recent fight, a unanimous but yet unpopular decision over Tomoki Kameda in the fifth defense of his WBC 122-pound title. The organization would subsequently declare him “Champion in Recess” and then, more recently, make him the mandatory challenger for their featherweight title-holder Gary Russell Jr. Tall for his weight class, nearly 5’11”, it was inevitable that Vargas would eventually move up a notch.

Vargas left Golden Boy in January of last year and signed with PBC. There’s been no indication of when his fight with Russell may occur. The Russell brothers (it’s hard to tell them apart because they have the same first name) are never in a hurry to get back in the ring. Gary Russell Jr. has averaged one fight a year since 2015.

Keith Thurman

Welterweight…Current Record: 29-1 (22 KOs)…age 32

Thurman (pictured against PacMan) hasn’t fought since losing a split decision to the Filipino legend in July of 2019. Since that bout, he had surgery to correct an old hand injury. Hand and elbow injuries kept him out of the ring for 22 months following his victory over Danny Garcia in March of 2017 and prior to that he missed time with a neck injury suffered in a car accident.

Thurman hasn’t fallen completely off the radar. He has a following on social media and has served as a desk analyst for PBC boxing shows on FOX.

Keith Thurman “is one of the most beloved fighters in the world,” says a hammy FOX/PBC blurb promoting his TV work. “The welterweight division goes through Keith Thurman,” says Thurman.

Actually, it doesn’t. All the talk is about Errol Spence and Terence Crawford and when that megafight will finally get made. Thurman isn’t in that conversation. He called out Spence after Spence defeated Danny Garcia, but that “defi” created little buzz and Spence apparently has no inclination to fight him. Thurman would be wise to get back in the ring against any warm body just to remind people that he is still one of the top dogs in the welterweight division.

Marcus Browne

Light heavyweight…Current Record: 23-1 (16 KOs)…age 30

There are reports that there’s a fight in the works between Browne and 41-0 Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, the former 168-pound world title-holder who is now campaigning as a light heavyweight. We will believe it when we see it.

We last saw the Staten Island southpaw in action on Aug. 3, 2019, when he suffered his first pro loss in a quirky bout with veteran Jean Pascal. Browne out-landed Pascal by a 2-to-1 margin, but suffered three knockdowns and the decision went against him by a 75-74 margin on all three cards after the bout was halted in the eighth frame following an unintentional head butt. With the upset, Pascal became a three-time light heavyweight title-holder.

Browne desperately wanted a rematch and thought it would happen early in 2020, but Pascal had other ideas. Meanwhile, Browne made news for all the wrong reasons. In March of 2020, he pleaded guilty in New Jersey to violating a protective order against an ex-girlfriend, the mother of one of his children. It was his fourth domestic violence incident.

Browne has some good wins on his ledger including a one-sided triumph over Badou Jack, but the former Olympian has yet to fulfill his promise and the sand is running out of the hourglass.

Kanat Islam

Middleweight…Current record: 27-0 (21 KOs)…age 36

Islam is an interesting specimen. An ethnic Kazakh, born in China, the two-time Olympian turned pro in the Dominican Republic and had several of his early bouts in Ecuador. He last fought on Oct. 26, 2019 in Kazakhstan.

It appeared that Islam was poised to become an important name in boxing when his contract was purchased by Egis Klimas in February of 2018 and he joined the camp of Vasyl Lomachenko in Oxnard, California. But a leg injury kept Islam out of action until July of the following year.

According to various reports, Islam was slated to return to the ring next month, but was forced to cancel the engagement because of unspecified health reasons. In Kazakhstan, he is getting his feet wet as a boxing promoter. We may have seen the last of him.

Diego De La Hoya

Super bantamweight…Current record: 22-1 (10 KOs)…age 26

Oscar De La Hoya’s cousin, Diego was ranked #3 in his weight class by the WBA heading into his contest with Ronny Rios in July of 2019. Rios stopped him in the sixth round. He returned to the ring five months later in his hometown of Mexicali and got back on the winning track with a 10-round unanimous decision over Venezuelan journeyman Renson Robles.

De La Hoya was having trouble making weight when he fought Rios and one suspects that he put on a lot of superfluous flesh in 2020. Mexicali, Mexico, has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. All of the boxing gyms were shut down in the spring and although they would reopen, they were shut down again and remain shuttered as we go to press. In fact, the mayor of Mexicali recently mandated a 6 p.m. curfew.

A former Mexican National Amateur champion, De La Hoya launched his pro career at age 19 at the MGM Grand. It figured that he would have roped in at least one secondary title by now, but that hasn’t happened and now he finds himself on the outside looking in.

Moruti Mthalane

Flyweight…Current Record: 39-2 (26 KOs)…age 38

The reigning IBF world flyweight champion, Mthalane has won 16 straight since getting stopped by Nonito Donaire way back in 2008. Ten of those 16 wins came in IBF title fights including stoppages of future champions Zolani Tete and John Riel Casimero.

Mthalane isn’t afraid to leave the comfort of his South African homeland. His last four fights were in Asia with the most recent coming in December of 2019. With a few more wins, he just may punch his ticket to the Boxing Hall of Fame, but at age 38, he’s running out of time and it doesn’t bode well that he missed all of 2020.

Mthalane, by all appearances, is marooned. South Africa is dealing with a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Gauteng Province, where Mthalane hangs his hat, is one of the hot spots. Travel in and out of the country is difficult. The Centers for Disease Control advises all Americans to avoid all travel to South Africa.

Photo credit: Ryan Hafey / PBC

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Ryan Garcia, Canelo’s Protege, Announces Fight With Manny Pacquiao

Kelsey McCarson

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Ryan Garcia has just about everything he needs to become the next Canelo Alvarez, even the champ’s terrific training team led by Mexico’s Eddy Reynoso.

“It’s great, man. They support me. They stay by my side. They believe in me. They know what they see, even Canelo,” Garcia told me before his last fight.

So, it should come to no surprise that the 22-year-old lightweight contender would be attempting to pull off the same kind of trick that led to Alvarez’s first and only loss in the professional ranks, but the same one that probably helped the Mexican more than any other as a learning experience inside a boxing ring.

Just as Alvarez did in securing his 12-round dance with boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. back in 2013, Garcia wants to sign up for the same kind of tango with boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao.

“I’ve been boxing my whole life, and I’ve been ready for the biggest fights,” Garcia said.

Lots of fighters say things like that, but almost nobody actually attempts to do it.

Alvarez does.

Now, Garcia does, too.

“Canelo brings me to the side at times out of nowhere and says ‘you’re one of the most talented fighters I’ve ever seen in my life. I just want you to work as hard as I do and you’re going to have the world’,” Garcia said.

On Sunday, Garcia posted via Instagram that his dream fight vs. Pacquiao was a done deal, though it’s important to note no other confirmations of any kind have followed that post.

Additionally, the promotional poster used by the social media superstar in his announcement didn’t look official, and Pacquiao has remained eerily silent about the matter publicly.

Still, Garcia seems to believe his next fight will be against Pacquiao, and it must be a near-enough reality that everyone else involved with the matter has decided to remain silent until everything is sorted out.

“I want to leave a true legacy when I’m done with the game,” Garcia said.

That Garcia even wants to face Pacquiao right now testifies to that truth, and it’s absolutely something worth celebrating.

The undefeated Instagram idol might have over 8.3 million followers for many reasons, but the most notable claim Garcia has to the mantle of being boxing’s next big thing is less about those attributes and more about the talent, skill, and ability he possesses inside a boxing ring.

To put it another way, it’s one thing to be as handsome as Oscar De La Hoya. It’s quite another to actually fight like him.

Case in point, Garcia is coming off the most important win of his career.

Making good on his pre-fight promise to stop Olympic gold medalist and world title challenger Luke Campbell on January 2 was an important rung to take on the ladder to success, and that became especially true after Campbell dumped the prodigy to the canvas in the second round of the fight.

But Garcia weathered that early storm and eventually came back to pull the stoppage win over Campbell five rounds later.

Nobody had done that before. Campbell went 12 full rounds with both Vasyl Lomachenko and Jorge Linares in previous losing efforts against world-class lightweights, so Garcia’s stoppage win was more evidence that he’s legitimately special where it matters most.

After his viral knockout, Garcia was lauded by some of the most notable sports celebrities on the planet. The kid can barely purchase alcohol in all 50 states and his massive fanbase already includes the likes LeBron James, Damian Lillard, and Carlos Correa.

In some ways, that puts Garcia way ahead of Alvarez’s early all-star pace, at least at the level of notoriety.

Say what you want about Garcia’s social media-centric fanbase, the incredible level of fame the American has already achieved was previously only reserved for the likes of specific Olympic gold medal winners with a perfect mix of qualities.

De La Hoya comes to mind again, and that type of talent only comes around once a generation in our sport.

Look, Garcia isn’t ready for Pacquiao.

In fact, one can easily argue that the 23-year-old Alvarez that lost to Mayweather eight years ago was way more prepared for that fight than Garcia is right now for Pacquiao.

And we all know how that one went.

But Garcia’s daring attempt at making such a huge splash at such a young age is a wonder to behold.

A rising superstar like Garcia choosing to go against the conventional wisdom that would otherwise tell him to steer clear of fights he’ll probably lose is a breath of fresh air.

The reason he wants to do things like that is just as great.

“I have a gift. I’m a true talent. I can’t let all that go to waste,” Garcia said.

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Fulton Wins Inside War to Win WBO Title and Other Results from Connecticut

David A. Avila

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This time Stephen Fulton passed the Covid-19 test and then out-worked Angelo Leo in a brutal inside war to take the WBO super bantamweight world title by unanimous decision on Saturday.

Philadelphia’s Fulton (19-0, 8 KOs) was supposed to box and move against the body puncher Leo (20-1, 9 KOs) of Las Vegas but instead banged his way to victory with an artful display of inside fighting at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.

When Leo won the world title during this past summer, he was supposed to fight Fulton, but Fulton showed positive on a Covid-19 test and was forced out of the fight. Not this time. Instead, the Philly fighter would not be denied.

Fulton planted his feet and banged to the body against body shot artist Leo and kept it going toe-to-toe for most of the 12 rounds.

Leo had his moments and was able to start slightly quicker, but by the sixth round it seemed Fulton was the stronger fighter down the stretch.

“He started breathing a little harder,” said Fulton. “I pushed myself to the limit in training.”

It showed.

Fulton took control for the last four rounds and just seemed fresher and more active to win by unanimous decision. Despite fighting primarily inside, the Philly fighter seemed comfortable.

“The game plan was to box at first. But I had to get a little dirty,” Fulton said. “I made it a dog fight.”

All three judges scored it for Fulton: 118-110 and 119-109 twice. TheSweetscience.com scored it 115-113 for Fulton who now holds the WBO super bantamweight world title.

“I’m the only champion Philadelphia has,” said Fulton.

Aleem KOs Pasillas

A battle between undefeated power-hitting super bantamweights saw Ra’eese Aleem (18-0, 12 KOs) knock down East L.A.’s Vic Pasillas (16-1, 9 KOs) multiple times before ending the fight in the 11th round.

“I believe I put an exclamation point in my victory,” said Aleem who trains in Las Vegas but is a native of Michigan.

Aleem showed off his quickness and power in both hands that resulted in knock downs of Pasillas in the second, sixth, ninth and 11th rounds. It seemed that Pasillas never could figure out how to combat the awkward looping blows and quickness of Aleem.

Pasillas had a few moments with his ability to score with counter lefts and right hooks from his southpaw stance. But every time he scored big Aleem would rally back with even more explosive blows.

As Aleem mounted a large lead, Pasillas looked to set up a needed knockout blow but was instead caught with an overhand right to the chin and a finishing left that forced the referee to stop the fight at 1:00 of the 11th round.

Aleem picks up the interim WBA super bantamweight title. It’s basically a title that signifies he is the number one contender.

Lightweights

Rolando Romero (13-0, 11 KOs) floored Avery Sparrow (10-3, 3 KOs) in the first round and then exhibited his boxing skills to win by technical knockout.

It looked like the fight was going to end early when Romero caught Sparrow with a left hook. But Philadelphia’s Sparrow survived the first round and the next few rounds to slow down the attacking Romero. Things settled down but Romero kept winning the rounds.

Sparrow dropped to the floor during an exchange of blows in the sixth round which the referee quickly ruled “no knockdown.” Noticeably in pain Sparrow was under full assault from Romero and resorted to firing low blows. The referee deducted two points from Sparrow for the infraction.

The Philadelphia fighter limped out with a still gimpy knee to compete in the seventh round but within a minute Sparrow’s corner signaled to the referee to stop the fight. The stoppage gave Romero the win by technical knockout at 43 seconds into the round.

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