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Tony Bellew’s Mission Impossible

Matt McGrain

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It is my opinion that boxers who insist they are going to “take his soul” when discussing a forthcoming opponent can be placed in one of two categories: group A, which is formed exclusively of Bernard Hopkins; group B which is formed entirely of people who don’t understand what it is they are saying.

So Tony Bellew seems bound to join either the former, very exclusive group, or find himself among the unknowing and which way the nut turns depends on his contest with no less a figure than Oleksandr Usyk, a Ukrainian genius pound-for-pounder with a record of 15-0 and the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world, whose soul Bellew has promised to capture.

“The man’s the biggest monster in boxing, second only to Lomachenko,” Bellew states, but also believes that he will “break his heart.”

It is reasonable for Bellew (30-2-1) to back himself in this way, not least because he is a professional fighter. More than that though, he is on a very decent run across the cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions.

Bellew was beaten thoroughly by Adonis Stevenson back in 2013, struggling with the weight as a light-heavyweight and apparently with his best behind him. Even his best had seen him ranked no higher than seventh by the TBRB.

So many were surprised when Bellew embarked upon a ten fight winning streak that has yet to be ended, not least because after much celebrated back to back stoppages of David Haye the lugubrious Liverpool man retired and turned his gig as a broadcaster for a British sports television company from part time to full time. Bellew, who had achieved a legitimate ranking as a heavyweight behind these two wins, walked away at what was arguably the absolute peak of his career.

That was until he tuned in to watch Usyk’s fight with Murat Gassiev, a fight which was to crown the undisputed #1 cruiserweight in the world and which was, on paper, a close contest. Usyk out-classed Gassiev in a non-competitive one-sided rout and when he had a microphone pushed in front of his face he did what fighters do and called a prospective opponent out.

“I was retired,” as Bellew put it. “Then he said my name.”

Usyk’s selection of Bellew as a prospective opponent made total sense to me at the time. As Bellew put it, “I’ve got what he wants, a name in the UK.” This is a good read from Bellew. Usyk not only called out a British fighter, he signed with a British promoter in Eddie Hearn. Hearn is perhaps the shrewdest operator in promotion today and signing Usyk must be seen in the light of Hearn’s association with world heavyweight kingpin Anthony Joshua. Usyk has been clear for the past two years that when he comes to heavyweight he wants Joshua and he thinks he can beat him. What did Eddie’s signature of Usyk mean for the heavyweight division? Was be being signed to keep him out of Joshua’s ring, a move as old as boxing? Or was he being brought in to ease the matchmaking between the two; was Usyk getting exactly what he wanted?

Before any of that could be properly addressed, a complication emerged.

Bellew-Usyk wasn’t being made at heavyweight. It was being made at cruiserweight.

“He wanted it at heavyweight,” says Bellew. “I gave him a flat no…I’ve got what he wants, a name in the UK, he’s got what I want, them four belts.”

Bellew got his way. Whether it’s because of his existing relationship with Eddie Hearn, or because of Bellew’s name recognition in the British market (the fight is to take place this Saturday in Manchester), the fight was made at cruiserweight rather than heavyweight. There would be no exploratory contest with a small heavyweight for Usyk. He was instead to defend his cruiserweight belts.

Bellew, who had nearly 240lbs sitting on him when negotiations began, has already lost most of them.  As of this week he is three pounds above 200lbs and barring disaster is set to make weight comfortably – probably. Occasionally an older fighter, as Sweet Science readers will know full well, can hurt themselves during weight-making and not realize the disaster that has occurred until the bell. Bellew is thirty-five, and although he’s no punching bag, he’s been through it.

Usyk, of course, has been fighting fit at 200lbs for years, having never weighed in at more than 206lbs for a professional contest. This is just the latest and possibly greatest advantage that Usyk enjoys. He is faster, more fluid, more technically assured, he is better balanced, has better footwork and more variety. Stacked against this is Bellew’s greater experience (balanced by Usyk’s amateur pedigree), power, home support, and, according to the man himself at least, heart.

To be fair, this is not a short list and fighters have done more with less; nevertheless it is a fact that the last TBRB ranked contender Bellew dispatched was Ilunga Makabu, who was the world’s #7 cruiserweight back in May 2016. In the intervening thirty months Usyk has by contrast defeated Krzysztof Glowacki (2), Marco Huck (3), Mairis Briedis (6) and Gassiev (2), all in their own boxing homes.

Probably it’s fair to scratch “home support” and “experience” from Bellew’s list of advantages then. This leaves him with power and an alleged superiority in heart. To be fair to him, Bellew has the more proven heart of the two but the fact that a litany of high class opposition has failed even to test Usyk’s tells its own story.

The Ukrainian then, is an overwhelming favorite. When trying to establish just how big an upset a given victory would be I always ask myself what would be said if the underdog won; what volume of internet geniuses would be saying “I told you so!” and more importantly, why?

The only chink in the armor of Usyk in this respect is the Briedis contest. Briedis, who boxes Noel Mikaelian (aka Noel Gevor) at the top of an interesting card in Chicago this weekend, “succeeded in making every round close” but that “Usyk was the clear winner in the great majority of them” according to my coverage of that fight. Most people who want to make Bellew’s chances real point to that contest as the one most in support of their position.

But Briedis troubled Usyk – and the fight was rendered a split decision in Briedis’s native Riga, so whatever my card says, “troubled” is a reasonable word – not by way of pressure and heart (though he showed great bravery) and certainly not by power-punching; rather he tried and failed to out-touch Usyk, to take advantage of Usyk’s perceived lack of power by dialing back the weight of his own shots and trying to out-pop and out-work him.

The idea that Bellew will throw more shots than Usyk in this fight is ridiculous. The idea that he can outland the Ukrainian is preposterous.

And I don’t think he’ll try. Bellew will take the pain while keeping the pressure on and looking to land big hard punches, probably to the body. He may even have some success. But I think a responsible corner would end up pulling Bellew after nine or ten. David Coldwell, who handles Bellew, is an excellent cornerman but he may succumb to Bellew’s ultra macho attitude and “never give up” brand. It’s probable and it is worrying to me that Bellew quitting two rounds before his media career becomes permanent is absolutely impossible due to wider considerations. It may fall to a reluctant referee, then, to pull the injured party late. Barring that I think we are looking at a wide unanimous decision for Oleksandr Usyk.

Because in the end, Bellew may be right: Usyk really may be the second best fighter in the entire world.

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Carlos Morales and Mercito Gesta Fight to a Technical Draw in L.A.

David A. Avila

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LOS ANGELES-Two of L.A.’s most popular prizefighters collided with Mercito “No Mercy” Gesta and Carlos “The Solution” Morales matching wits and crowds before an accidental clash of heads ended the lightweight fight in a technical draw on Thursday night.

It was fun while it lasted.

Gesta (32-3-3, 17 KOs) and Morales (19-4-4, 8 KOs) tested each other before a sold out crowd at Belasco Theater. Both combatants brought their small armies of supporters to the downtown entertainment venue. It was colorful and it was loud.

Behind a small coterie of fans carrying blue, white and red flags, Gesta walked into the boxing ring with a well-known resume that includes two world title challenges. Morales walked with banda music playing loudly as he trotted into confidently to meet the classy Filipino fighter. The crowd was anxious.

Both fighters found it tough to connect against each other. Their defense was tight and their punches tighter. But soon Morales began finding the range and began shooting rights to the body and head.

Gesta, 32, a southpaw who moves smoothly on his toes, needed a little time before he began finding the range with body shots and shorter punches. In the third round, as the fight was heating up, a clash of heads occurred during an exchange of blows. Morales emerged with a small cut above his left eye. It would not go away.

For three more tense rounds the two popular fighters tested each other’s defense and neither could surge ahead to any definitive advantage. At the end of the sixth round the ringside physician looked at Morales and ruled he could not continue. According to California State Athletic Commission rules the fight was stopped because of an accidental cut and would go to the scorecards.

“The ref said the cut was too deep. I had trouble seeing out of my left eye. The medicine kept getting in my eye, and I kept trying to get it out,” said Morales, 29.

One judge saw Morales winning 58-56, but two others saw it 57-57 to make it a technical majority draw.

“I wanted to keep going, and I know he wanted to keep going,” said Gesta. “But that’s the way it is. This is boxing, and it happens. We can definitely do this again if the fans want it.”

Other Bouts 

Puerto Rico’s Jonathan Oquendo (31-6, 19 KOs) shut out Charles Huerta (21-7, 12 KOs) a local fighter by winning every round in their 10 round super featherweight showdown fought mainly in the trenches.

After a close opening round that saw Oquendo barge in and hold, Huerta seemed to be unable to match the Puerto Rican fighter’s energy. He was always a step behind in every round as Oquendo barreled his way inside and simply out-hustled Huerta. It was a surprising display for the local fighter from Paramount who has a large fan base.

All three judges correctly scored it the same 100-90 for Oquendo.

“I knew he was the kind of fighter who likes to trade and I think I used that to my advantage,” said Oquendo.

Texas super welterweight Travell Mazion (16-0, 12 KOs) won a hard fought 10 round bruising battle by unanimous decision over Mexico City’s Diego Cruz (19-8-2, 15 KOs). Both landed crushing blows against each other from the opening bell but it was the taller Mazion who was able to use his skills and size to his advantage. Surprisingly there were no knockdowns despite crushing blows from Cruz left hooks and Mazion right hand scud missiles.

Cruz had never been knocked out and though Mazion clobbered him with some bombs he also took a few himself to show he also has a pretty good chin. After 10 rounds one judge saw it 98-91 and two others 99-90 all for Mazion. Both hugged it out after the war.

“He was really tough. I knew he was going to come in with some hell of a shots, and he did, but I knew I was going to come up top,” said Mazion who fights out of Austin.

A battle between southpaws saw Evan Sanchez (6-0, 5 KOs) blast out Mexico’s Hector Hernandez (2-2, 1 KO) in a mere 23 seconds of their welterweight clash. If you blinked it was over as California’s Sanchez and Hernandez immediately exchanged and the undefeated lefty landed a crisp right hook and left cross combination that delivered Durango’s Hernandez to the floor. Though he beat the count, referee Raul Caiz saw that Hernandez was unsteady on his feet and stopped the contest giving Sanchez the win by knockout.

Undefeated lightweight Oscar Acevedo (6-0), a southpaw, had a little trouble with Darel Harris (3-18-1) but was able to pull out the win by landing the stronger punches. Harris gave problems with his skittish movements but only landed touch punches and seldom connected with any power. It works in the amateurs but not in the pros with judges that are looking for punches with force. After four rounds one judge scored it 39-37 and the other two 40-36 all for Acevedo who hails from Kansas.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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New Zealand Heavyweights Fa and Ahio Have a Home Field Advantage in Utah

Arne K. Lang

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Go West, young man,” said Andrew Greeley, a New Hampshire man by birth best remembered as the founder and publisher of the New York Tribune. Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, a hard-shell New Yorker, is the latest to heed Greeley’s famous admonition. This Friday, Nov. 15, DiBella is anchoring his long-running Broadway Boxing series in Salt Lake City.

With heavyweights Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio appearing in the main bouts, the Utah city was a natural destination. Fa (18-0, 10 KOs) and Ahio (15-0, 10 KOs) are New Zealanders, but their family roots are in the kingdom of Tonga.

Approximately one in every four Tongan-Americans resides in Utah. There are more than 9,000 Tongans in Salt Lake County, roughly a third of whom reside in Salt Lake City proper.

The presence of a large body of Tongans in Utah is a residue of the work of Mormon missionaries in Polynesia in the late 19th century. The population of Tonga is now about 60 percent Mormon. As a percentage of the population, Tonga ranks #1 in Mormons (more formally members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Regional rival Samoa is #2.

It figured that when land became hard to acquire in Tonga, an agricultural nation, many emigrants would choose to settle in Utah where they knew they would be welcome.

In Utah, Tongan and Samoan males are noted for their prowess on the football field. The best high school players in the Beehive State are disproportionately Polynesian, and overwhelmingly Polynesian in the offensive and defensive lines. There’s now a fierce tug-of-war for their services between Utah’s two major universities and out-of-state schools, particularly schools in Washington, Oregon, and California. The head football coach at BYU, Kalani Sitake, was born in Tonga, but even he has had limited success in slaking the scattering of standout Polynesian players to out-of-state schools.

Tonga is a small country, so it’s no surprise that few Tongans have made their mark in professional boxing. Paea Wolfgramm was an Olympic silver medalist whose pro career never did gain traction. He retired with a pro record of 20-4 after getting stopped by Corrie Sanders. Samson Po’uha, who fought out of St. George, Utah, was a great prospect who lacked the discipline to maximize his potential. He was stopped by journeymen Jesse Ferguson and Craig Payne and by Andrew Golota.

As weird as it sounds, if Junior Fa and Hemi Ahio are looking for a former boxer to serve as a role model, we would suggest Vai Sikahema. Yes, the same Vai Sikahema who set NCAA records for punt returns at BYU, was a great special teams player in the NFL and, in retirement, settled into a nice career as a TV personality in Philadelphia.

Sikahema, who was born in Tonga, boxed in the amateurs. In 2008, 15 years after he left the NFL, Sikahema was matched against former baseball star Jose Canseco in a celebrity fight in Atlantic City. Sikahema gave away seven inches in height and 40 pounds, but he blew right through Canseco, knocking him down twice before the bout was stopped in the very first round.

Of the two Kiwi heavyweights on DiBella’s Salt Lake City show, Junior Fa is the most advanced. As an amateur, Fa, now 30 years old, split four fights with fellow New Zealander Joseph Parker who went on to win the WBO version of the world heavyweight title. He twice represented Tonga in the Commonwealth Games and had eight bouts in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing where he defeated highly touted Arslanbek Makhmudov and lost a 5-round decision to Oleksandr Usyk.

In his last two starts, Fa knocked out Neufel Ouatah, a hapless Frenchman, in the opening round and was extended the full 10 by ancient Dominic Guinn. For the Guinn fight, he carried 259 ½ pounds on his six-foot-five frame.

On Friday, Fa is matched against Toledo’s Devin Vargas, a former U.S. Olympian. As a pro, Vargas’s career was moving along smoothly until he was stopped in the sixth round by Kevin Johnson. By all appearances, Vargas then lost his passion for boxing. Fighting sporadically, he’s 4-4 since then with all four losses coming inside the distance. But in his last fight in August in Massachusetts, Vargas stopped house fighter Niall Kennedy so perhaps his enthusiasm for boxing has been re-kindled.

Hemi Ahio, 29, kas fought once previously in the United States, stopping unnoteworthy Ed Fountain on a DiBella show in Columbus, Ohio. His last start was in Saudi Arabia where he knocked out an undefeated (7-0) fighter from Germany who had previously fought only cadavers.

Short for a modern era heavyweight at 6’0”, Hemi’s torso coupled with his aggressive style of fighting has led some to anoint him the Tongan Tyson. He’s matched against fluffy Joshua Tufte (19-3, 9 KOs) who hails from Kernersville, North Carolina, and probably would have no stronger chance of winning if the fight were being held in Kernersville.

The Nov. 15 edition of Broadway Boxing will be live streamed on UFC Fight Pass starting at 8 pm PST/11 pm EST. Topping the undercard is a 10-round welterweight contest between Brooklyn-based-Ukrainian Ivan Golub (17-1, 13 KOs) and Columbia’s Janer Gonzalez (19-2-1, 15 KOs).

There’s something intrinsically magnetic about an undefeated heavyweight who may have a big upside, even if he’s being thrust against an opponent with scant chance of causing a derailment. On Friday we get two for the money and considering the venue, it’s a safe bet that both will bring their “A” game.

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Avila Perspective, Chap 73: Gesta vs Morales, Celebrity Boxing, Liston and More

David A. Avila

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One of the rewards for journalists following smaller boxing cards is watching new talent emerge. Every so often you spot the gold nuggets among the heap.

Some fighters stand out immediately before even stepping in the prize ring. Others walk in hesitantly with dirty towels wrapped around their shoulders.

On Thursday, Carlos “The Solution” Morales (19-4-3, 8 KOs) and Mercito “No Mercy” Gesta (32-3-2, 17 KOs), who arrived on the hard road of boxing, meet in a lightweight match set for 10 rounds at Belasco Theater in downtown L.A. DAZN will stream live.

Two classier guys you will never meet than Gesta and Morales.

Gesta, a southpaw from Cebu, Philippines, arrived in 2007 and immediately found work on casino fight cards in Arizona, California and Nevada. His athleticism was obvious and he raced through competition till he met Mexico’s Miguel Vazquez for the IBF lightweight world title.

In that first loss, fans learned what Gesta was all about. He was gracious in defeat and fans loved his character. From that point on more people wanted to see the Filipino lefty perform. After Top Rank let him go, Golden Boy Promotions picked up his contract and he became a staple on the Southern California fight scene.

Win or lose, fans adore Gesta who was trained by Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing club in Hollywood but now works with Marvin Sonorio. A decision loss to WBA lightweight titlist Jorge Linares at the Inglewood Forum did nothing to diminish Gesta’s fan base.

“I need challenges and I like challenges,” said Gesta during an interview with Beto Duran on Golden Boy’s Ring Side show. “I still feel great and still feel in the game.”

How could you not like a fighter like Gesta?

On the opposite corner at Belasco Theater will be “The Solution” Morales.

When Morales first entered the professional fight scene he stumbled a bit with a loss then three consecutive draws. I saw all four fights in person. The Mexican-born fighter needed about two years to figure out what worked for him.

He’s found it.

Morales, a gym rat if I ever saw one, purchased his own gym in the Alhambra area. He’s a family man, worker and businessman all rolled into one. The Mexican fighter needed time to discover his assets in the ring and use them in a productive manner.

Though he’s lost three of his last six fights they all came against top competition such as world champion Alberto Machado, ranked contender Rene Alvarado and current star Ryan Garcia. In each and every one of those fights Morales was up to his neck in battle.

“I definitely need a win over a name like Mercito Gesta,” said Morales. “He’s been in the game a long time.”

In local gyms he spars with many of the best and on occasion they understand what “the Solution” is all about.

“He is very, very good,” said one visiting Japanese fighter who witnessed Morales knock out a sparring partner in one particular session. “A very professional style.”

Both Gesta and Morales represent the side of Los Angeles most fans don’t get to see. Once upon a time, matchups like these were common in the L.A. area. Golden Boy Promotions has been slowly building up these local fighters and if you have paid attention you know this will be a firecracker of a show.

This is a 1930s kind of match you used to see at the old Olympic Auditorium or Hollywood Legion Stadium when guys like Speedy Dado, Baby Arizmendi, Chalky Wright and Newsboy Brown would fight each other and fill the arena. Dado would bring the Filipino crowd, Arizmendi the Mexican crowd, Wright the African- American fans, Newsboy Brown the Jewish fans and so on.

Gesta versus Morales has that 1930s flavor. If you close your eyes you might expect a ghost or two from boxing’s past to be in attendance at Belasco Theater. It’s an old venue where famous bandleaders like Duke Ellington once played. It’s got a lot of history and this fight was tailor-made for the old stylish building.

Celebrity Boxing

Nowadays celebrities come from different directions.

Last week, celebrities who gained fame via social media avenues like YouTube.com, Twitter and Instagram, arrived at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with hands wrapped, gloves on and a license to box professionally.

Their names were not familiar to regular boxing fans, but to millions of youngsters and young adults who do not normally follow boxing, these guys named Logan Paul, KSI and Joshua Brueckner were super stars.

It was a massive hit according to DAZN and Matchroom Boxing, the promoters.

I walked around the arena to take a look at the people arriving to see the boxing card. What I saw were moms and their sons and daughters, groups of girls in their early teens, and pale boys who normally don’t see much sun because they’re usually planted behind a computer playing video games. They all had a blast.

Most of these fans had never seen live boxing and got their first glimpse of prizefighting at a high level when Ronny Rios defended his WBA Gold super bantamweight title against Colombia’s Hugo Berrio. The Santa Ana fighter Rios came out firing thudding body shots that echoed in the arena. You could hear the responses from the new fans who openly expressed their amazement with a roar of applause at the display of power.

It’s one thing to see a fight but a whole new thing to hear power shots bouncing off another human being. Rios pummeled Berrio up and down and eventually knocked out the Colombian with a three-punch combination in the fourth round. Fans were awestruck.

You never forget your first live prizefight. It burns in your memory forever. All of these new fans will never forget watching a live boxing card.

Watching the responses of the new kind of crowd was an experience in itself. Many of these fans will return for more. Their excitement was pure and untainted.

Showtime

A feature documentary visiting the life of Sonny Liston called “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston” makes its debut on Friday Nov. 15 on Showtime at 9 p.m. (PT).

Liston was one of the most mysterious and feared heavyweight champions of all time. Read the story by Bernard Fernandez to get a preview of what to expect from the documentary. It’s riveting stuff: https://tss.ib.tv/boxing/featured-boxing-articles-boxing-news-videos-rankings-and-results/61445-from-womb-to-tomb-the-fate-of-sonny-liston-was-seemingly-preordained

Though Liston died 49 years ago in December 1970, he’s still discussed by boxing people especially in Las Vegas where he lived and died.

Fights to Watch (all times Pacific Coast time)

Thurs. DAZN 7 p.m. Mercito Gesta (32-3-2) vs Carlos Morales (19-4-3).

Fri. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Rocky Fielding (27-2) vs Abdallah Paziwapazi (26-6-1).

Fri. Showtime 7:30 p.m. Erik Ortiz (16-0) vs Alberto Palmetta (12-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 12 p.m. Lee McGregor (7-0) vs Kash Farooq (13-0).

Photo credit: Kyte Monroe

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