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A Panel of Media Titans Scopes Out the New Face of Boxing in the Digital Era

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On Wednesday, October 17, HBO Sports vice president Peter Nelson showed up to the Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan to partake in a panel on “storytelling” in documentary film, as part of the Sports Business Journal’s annual media conference. Among the topics that Nelson broached were the record viewership that tuned into “Andre the Giant” and the inception of “Barbershop,” the new chat show produced by and featuring Lebron James.

But looming over the discussion like a dark cloud was the recent news that HBO Sports would forgo live boxing from their programming slate starting in 2019 — a shocking, although not completely unforeseen, announcement. Between budget cuts, expanded competition, and the exodus of elite talent, boxing at HBO had been on the decline for several years. Still for more than 40 years, the two were inextricable. Household names like Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Oscar de la Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all, at one point, captured the zeitgeist by fighting on the premium channel. Indeed, long before its scripted series began stockpiling Emmys, HBO was associated with two things: movie reruns and boxing.

So finally, right before the end of the panel, the host, SBJ’s John Ourand, prodded Nelson to address the ungainly elephant in the room. “The idea of boxing not being on HBO is something that’s almost unthinkable,” began Ourand. “It’s been such a rich part of the network’s legacy. Take us through that decision. Why did you decide to step away?”

“Sure,” Nelson said, as he adjusted himself in his seat, “it wasn’t a subjective decision…”

Meanwhile that same day, 10 blocks south at Madison Square Garden, Mexican superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez was preparing for a press conference to announce his New York City debut on December 15 against Rocky Fielding. That was just the teaser. The real headline was that Alvarez had signed with the streaming platform DAZN for a staggering $365 million for 11 fights, or five years. John Skipper, DAZN executive chairman and ex-ESPN head, opened the presser by declaring that “Today represents a major shift in over-the-top sports content.” Alvarez, the biggest active draw in North America, has appeared exclusively on PPV — mostly on HBO — for the past five years going back to his fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2013. To see Alvarez fight once meant viewers had to pay upwards of $85, a hefty financial proposition. Now, it would cost viewers $10, or the price of a monthly subscription fee to DAZN.

“The only way to watch this fight is to download the DAZN app and activate it,” Skipper told The Sweet Science. “The first one’s free. The next ten, you’ll need to be a subscriber to DAZN to watch the fight.”

In a time in which cordcutting and rising rights fees have battered the traditional television model, streaming, or OTT, has been hailed as the new frontier of the sports media landscape. For the most part, its adherents are still striving to find the right balance between content and monetization. In the case of DAZN, the company is also at pains to create a public profile, as it remains virtually unknown in the United States, unlike, say, ESPN+, which benefits from its association with “The World Wide Leader in Sports.” That said, DAZN is fairly well known internationally, in countries such as Italy and Japan, where the company owns extensive baseball and soccer rights. The Alvarez signing, to some extent, provides an instant stimulus for their US enterprise.

DAZN is betting that they can convert the Alvarez PPV buyer into a DAZN subscriber. The logic, after all, is in their favor. Why pay $85 to see Alvarez fight once, when you can pay a fraction of that for not only Alvarez, but a host of other combat sports content for an entire month? (DAZN also owns global rights to Bellator). Skipper, though, acknowledged the marketing hurdles ahead. “We still have to find those (potential subscribers), activate them,” admitted Skipper. “But I think if you believe that the three plus million people (in his last three fights combined) who paid $85 dollars to watch ‘Canelo’ fight would be willing to pay a lot less to watch him fight, I think this is a game changer.”

In years past it would have been unfathomable to imagine boxing without HBO at its helm. But there it was, on Wednesday, in striking juxtaposition, a glimpse at the future of the sport without the premium cable giant: Alvarez leaping headlong into the booming streaming business with a quarter-billion dollar contract in his pocket; the HBO Sport head talking about documentaries at an industry convention.

Yet, as always, the sport moves on. The emergence of Fox as a boxing player, the continued commitment from Showtime, the growth of ESPN and ESPN+, and the arrival of well-heeled disruptors like DAZN, are signs that the business is more than prepared to fill the void left by HBO. Indeed, the shifting landscape in the sport is a microcosm of a larger ongoing media trend, and boxing, in many respects, finds itself in the middle of the mainstream muddle. To this end, the two-day SBJ conference in New York afforded a chance to view the latest developments in boxing from a more holistic perspective, to see it in relation to the larger sports world. The Sweet Science was on hand to listen to — and on occasion, speak with — top sports media executives from across the spectrum.

An Appetite for Live Sports

What was perhaps most ironic about the presence of Nelson at the conference was that for the most part his fellow speakers were evangelists for live sports programming. ESPN head Jimmy Pitaro set the tone when he declared, “Everybody in this room knows how important live sports are. Live sports are moving the needle more than anything else. Look at what the top 10, top 20 shows are every week.”

MLS Senior vice president Seth Bacon reiterated this belief. “Live sports are the center from which all cross-promotional content —storytelling, fandom — come back to,” said Bacon.

And Mark Shuken, president of Pac-12 Networks, expressed much of the same: “People like to talk about the DVR-proof nature of live sports, but I think it is that immediacy, that communal nature that you gotta be there now to see it. How are you taking part in the tribal nature of sports? People want to talk about it, especially in today’s landscape, sports are a great distraction.”

Given the current market for live sports, then, it is little wonder that those who own the content wield considerable leverage. “Rights holders are in the driver’s seat,” said Lindsey Ross, director of rights for FloSports. Most executives on hand see rights fees only continuing to rise. “I feel bad for some of my colleagues up here,” one executive joked. “Sports rights are expensive.”

In boxing, the bustling streaming market has been a boon to boxers. Previously unconnected boxers, like Tevin Farmer and Danny Roman, are now making career purses after signing with DAZN. For the first time in decades, the highest payday for a boxer — at any level — is no longer tied to an appearance on HBO or, for that matter, Showtime.

Of course, HBO’s reasons for leaving boxing are well justified. Citing internal research, Nelson suggested that boxing not only mattered very little to HBO subscribers, but that buying more fights would not improve the overall subscribership.“So in looking at that,” Nelson told Ourand, “it became impossible to ignore. You know, the old Peter Drucker line ‘there’s nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.’”

Since DAZN began in September, few weekends have gone in which there were not multiple boxing cards occurring — sometimes concurrently — from all around the world, from a variety of competing platforms. Some observers are convinced that boxing has turned over a new leaf and that the latest streaming ventures are evidence of a healthy sport. But it remains to be seen how long this level of pace and volume will last.

Boxing “Beachhead”

During a panel on direct-to-consumer relations, Brian Socolow, legal counsel for DAZN and co-chair at the firm Loeb & Loeb, had this to say: “DAZN wants to be the Netflix of sports, not just boxing.” The statement is illuminating for a couple reasons. One, it shows that DAZN regards boxing as a steppingstone, albeit a very expensive one. Two, the comparison to the entertainment giant shows just how ambitious the company plans to be. (DAZN is owned by billionaire Len Blavatnik.)

“Certainly the consumer wants fighting sports,” continued Socolow, “ but the consumer also wants a whole lot more than that and you probably need that as a business model to expand beyond that.”

The expectation is that once major rights are up for negotiation, DAZN will bid aggressively for pieces of mainstream sports, like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. In the meantime, that is where boxing comes in.

Talking about DAZN’s entry into the US market through boxing and MMA, Socolow referred to the move as “beachhead,” business shorthand for the type of strategy in which an investment is made in small markets before pursuing larger ones. “Right now [DAZN’s] focus has been on boxing and fighting sports,” said Socolow. “I think it’s a good way as they come into the United States and get the beachhead (for combat sports). But I think the intent there is to grow beyond that. I think they have to.”

But there are big question marks as to whether DAZN will be able to carve out what they require from boxing, a perennially hostile territory. The list of failed endeavors in boxing, after all, from crass peddlers to honest do-gooders, runs longer than most Senate bills. For all the ballyhoo that accompanied their US announcement earlier in the spring, the first card DAZN launched featured Jessie Vargas against Thomas Dulorme in boxing-averse Chicago. And despite the bellicose courting from Hearn, DAZN was unable to persuade some of the biggest names aligned with the PBC, including Adrien Broner, Gervonta Davis, and the Charlo twins, to join its ranks. No doubt, DAZN has dramatically improved its standing with the signing of Alvarez, and together with the UK’s Anthony Joshua, the platform can claim to have the exclusive rights to the two biggest box office stars on both sides of the Atlantic. Outside of those fighters, however, their roster quickly thins out. The November 17 card featuring Brandon Rios and Gabriel Rosado, two fighters way past their primes, is a tacky exercise in hodgepodge and mediocrity, and characteristic of some of DAZN’s bottom-heavy rotation.

Yet part of their strategy seems to be working, at least as it pertains to the middleweight division. Three of the four major title belts belong to Alvarez and new signee Demetrius Andrade. The other title holder, Danny Jacobs, is currently a network free agent, but as he is promoted by Hearn, it is expected he will appear on DAZN before long. And if Gennady Golovkin decides to join as well, as reports indicate, his presence would then give DAZN a veritable hold on one of the more intriguing and competitive divisions in boxing.

Silicon Valley “Experiments”

Not everyone is as aggressive as DAZN.

When asked about the pressure to compete with highly-strapped competitors like DAZN, Portia Archer, NBC vice president of direct-to-consumer services, told The Sweet Science, “We’re not in the business of they do 65 (million), we’ll do 70 (million).” (Sports Gold, NBC’s subscription over-the-top service, currently offers ten sports, with three more soon to be added. While Archer acknowledged that her colleagues were currently working out a potential deal with promoter Main Events, boxing is not on the radar for the app).

Such sentiment extends beyond the traditional power players.

In a recent SBJ article, Ourand pointed out how Silicon Valley titans have yet to pursue sports rights in a vigorous way and remain generally in the experimental stage. “Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have made sports investments in the United States,” wrote Ourand. “But they view those investments more as market tests than full-blown business strategies.”

This scenario largely describes what is going on at Facebook through its free VOD service Facebook Watch. Currently, Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has rights deals with the MLB, LPGA, Golden Boy Promotions, high school football games in Florida, and various soccer leagues.

Peter Hutton, Facebook’s newly-hired head of live sports programming, was on hand for the conference, and while he pointed out that the company was “very much [at] a listen, learn, watch, experiment stage,” he also insisted that their involvement with sports was not just a casual dalliance. “Whether it is South American soccer or whether it is major league baseball here in the US, there’s clearly a few bets being made and we’re looking at the data on the back of that,” Hutton told The Sweet Science. “I think it’s more important to say how do we integrate ourselves with a sport on a long time basis.”

Speaking specifically about boxing, Hutton explained that Facebook was not looking at boxing as “a short term, one fight, two fight sort of an experiment” and that he sees a natural affinity between the two.

“Boxing and Facebook is a quite an interesting story going forward,” Hutton explained. “If you think about the power of boxing it’s very much about creating stories and creating credibility about fights and therefore that social engagement around the fight is something that I think Facebook and Instagram and the rest of our platform can really be a part of. You need a dripfeed of information, you need that sense that what you’re going to watch is important and helping the boxers to tell that story and put regular content out before a fight and develop that route through watching a live experience. I think that is a really good balance, the sport and the social networks.”

One of the questions brought up in Ourand’s article is if social media companies actually need to own the content to live sports. Sports-leaning social media users, after all, constantly engage with sports content that is not owned by Facebook, like the NBA and NFL, say. Hutton believes that there are clear advantages to owning the content outright. In the case of boxing, given its relatively simple structure — a small circumscribed ring and two righters — Hutton sees an opportunity for Facebook to experiment with the actual live experience with their robust virtual reality technology. Facebook owns the virtual reality company Oculus and has bought hundreds of patents related to VR and augmented reality technology. In the end, Hutton wants to offer a sports product that is sui generis, that only Facebook can offer.

“We’ll look at the data through the deals that we’ve got through Golden Boy and see the popularity of the sport and how well it works,” said Hutton. “We don’t just want to show sport, we want to show sport that gives viewers a better experience and we want it to be positive. We don’t want it to be a worse version of what we’ve had historically.”

(Part of the Alvarez-DAZN signing called for guaranteed Golden Boy dates, so it is not immediately clear if Golden Boy will continue to work with Facebook.)

ESPN and Audience Expansion”

Drawing more viewers and subscribers is the mandate for any platform. But for a fixture like ESPN that has seen its viewership dwindle rapidly in recent years, the issue is existential. But during an interview with Ourand, Pitaro had some good news to share: For four quarters in a row, ESPN had seen a net subscriber decline. In other words, ESPN is still losing subscribers, just not as quickly as they once were.

One reason for that is likely because of ESPN+. Of all the streaming platforms operating in the United States, ESPN+ currently has the largest and most diverse portfolio of live sports under its belt. This includes mainstream sports such as NCAA basketball, NHL, MLB, and college football but also what ESPN head Pitaro, in a rare public appearance on the second day of the conference, described as “niche sports.”

“We’re interested in the pure point of big needle movers but we’re also just as interested in what’s now in the smaller niche sports,” said Pitaro. “So if you look on ESPN+ right now we have rugby, we have cricket, we have lacrosse, we have partnership with the Ivy League network.”

This also includes boxing — that is, Top Rank Boxing. The deal, struck back in 2017, was a major improvement on the usual club-fare shows that ESPN produced, namely through its Friday Night Fights series. ESPN would support Top Rank boxing through ancillary programming and a slew of primetime dates. Both parties seem to be enjoying a measure of success. Most recently in October, Terence Crawford-Jose Benavidez Jr. averaged 2.2 million viewers on a Saturday night, the second highest Top Rank-ESPN telecast since the beginning of their deal in 2017. Earlier this year, Top Rank and ESPN renewed their partnership with a seven year extension to showcase 54 live events through 2025.

Surprised by ESPN’s decision to strike up rights deals with combat sports entities, Ourand asked Pitaro, “If you would have told me 5 years ago that ESPN would have boxing programming and doing a deal with UFC I never have thought that would happen. What happened?

“Audience expansion,” Pitaro stated. “The main driver behind that deal was expanding our audience and presenting content that we think will speak to a younger generation.”

Pitaro singled out Top Rank president Todd duBoef for understanding exactly what their boxing programming needs to look like in order to attract more subscribers.

“Top Rank is run by a very progressive, a very intelligent guy named Todd duBoef,” said Pitaro, “and Todd is correctly focused on all the right things including expanding the reach, making boxing more popular around the globe and he believed that the best way to do that was partnering with ESPN.”

On ESPN+, Top Rank has shown fight cards from around the world, as far flung as Japan, Bulgaria and England. It also recently inked a deal with UK promoter Frank Warren to stream all of his fights on the app. All of which to say that there is an explicit corporate agenda in place for Top Rank, unlike its tenure with HBO, and that is to ensure that their fights drive subscribers to ESPN and ESPN+. So far, the results have been positive. In September, ESPN announced that the app had surpassed the one million subscriber mark, which many pundits considered impressive. (It should be pointed out that a reported roughly 300,000 of those subscriptions were brought in through ESPN’s existing paywall service, Insider).

Fragmentation

The current economic upswing in boxing — “it’s a great time to be a fighter,” is a common refrain heard around the industry — may taper out as initial investments flounder and the market comes back down to reality. Some executives were skeptical that the current proliferation of streaming platforms could be sustained in the long haul. “I don’t believe we’re going to find people who want 14 different type of OTT services,” said Hania Poole, vice president of BR Live, during a panel. Poole predicts that a degree of consolidation will be in order. “I think we’re going to go back to where television started with 3 or 4 networks. Sports becomes a premium piece of that package. Kind of like what the old world looked like but with a new delivery service, with one billing system, one password. I don’t see how this fragmentation can continue.”

NBC’s Archer was also similarly skeptical, but believed that the new model that streaming presents is here to stay. “Our fans are focused on customization and personalization. They really want something that is for them. I don’t see the interest in recreating something that they formally had. If we could keep that principle in mind and figure out what the right mix is so that you don’t have 15, or 20 or some unmanageable number (of apps), then perhaps (that will work).

The last thing an unregulated sport like boxing needs is more fragmentation, but the early signs suggest that the latest streaming deals have only reified the grand old political divisions. With Matchroom (and perhaps Golden Boy) now working exclusively with DAZN, Top Rank with ESPN, and PBC with Showtime and Fox, the current climate discourages collaboration. For example, neither a Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence Jr. or an Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder fight is likely to materialize anytime soon because of conflicting broadcast alliances. Such conflicts are nothing new, but with promoters now incentivized to spur the subscriber base of their respective broadcasters, there is one less reason to come to together at the table. DAZN, for example, is not about to let Joshua, its marquee signee, hop over to Showtime/Fox to fight Wilder — not when it has a business to build.

Back in May, The Sweet Science asked Top Rank’s Todd duBoef if he had any intention to let 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez participate in the WBSS series to face the other top fighters in the division. duBeof’s response was instructive. “I’m building an enterprise here,” he answered. “Why would I work five years developing a product just to give it away?” If Top Rank feels that strongly about Ramirez, why should it be any different with Crawford?

HBO is gone, yes, and the boxing landscape may look more different than ever, but the same problems appear no closer to being solved.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

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Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview with Author Tim Wendel

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Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview with Author Tim Wendel

Cuba is an island nation of roughly 11.4 million inhabitants and while sugar and cigars are major exports, superb athletes aren’t very far behind.

Known as a longtime baseball hotbed, the island has produced countless individuals who played and shined in the major leagues. Not to be overlooked is that Cuba has also given the world some of the best boxers ever to slip on a pair of gloves.

A partial list of standouts includes Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Kid Chocolate, Sugar Ramos, Benny Paret, Joel Casamayor, Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Yordenis Ugas.

That’s a mouthful and then some.

Tim Wendel, a Baltimore, Maryland-based writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University and one of the founders of USA Today Baseball Weekly, has visited Cuba four times. Though baseball is Wendel’s specialty, he’s also familiar with the gloved warriors.

Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel

Why has Cuba, despite its small population been so successful in producing so many outstanding athletes?

“Sports provided a way for Cuba to compete and even excel on the international stage. Baseball and such Olympic sports as boxing and track and field were emphasized by the Castro government. It helped that Fidel Castro, the island’s longtime dictator, loved sports, starred at basketball, ping-pong and baseball as a schoolboy,” explained Wendel, who has published 14 books including several works of fiction.

“I had fun teasing out the “what-if” aspect of the latter in my first novel, “Castro’s Curveball.” Winning gold medals and doing well in such international competitions as the World Baseball Classic was a way for Cuba to stand out. In addition, Cuba often had the domestic situation to develop stellar athletes. An understanding of a particular sport was regularly handed down from parent to child, as well as team allegiances. For example, if older members of a family were fans of the Habana Lions, once one of the fabled winter ball teams, the children would likely be Lions fans, too.”

And there have been plenty of incentives for athletes to excel on the world stage.

“More importantly, performing well against the rest of the world was a way for an athlete to help his or her family,” said Wendel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. “For decades, the best apartments and automobiles, what little the island nation had, or the government could provide, went to the best athletes.”

Stevenson, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who recently passed away, never fought professionally.

“It’s unfortunate that Stevenson never boxed against the best. I believe that’s why many baseball players have opted to defect,” Wendel said. “They want to test themselves against the best. Stevenson would have done well against Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the other elite boxers from the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, politics derailed what could have been some epic bouts.”

Recently the Cuban government has allowed its boxers to leave but in turn they would have to hand over a significant portion of their purse. What’s Wendel’s opinion on this matter?

“The new policy is better than nothing. They started to take a similar approach with baseball about 10 years ago and it allowed some of the top athletes in that sport to have more control over their affairs, make some money, and see more of the world,” he said. “But having a significant portion of their earnings going back to the government sends the wrong message. If the Cuban government believes this will stop or delay their top athletes from defecting, they are misjudging the situation. The more the Cuban athletes hear about how professional sports works in the rest of the world, especially the U.S., the more they want to be a part of it.”

Wendel said there’s something about athletic excellence that any fan, Cuban or otherwise, can appreciate.

“The Cuban people, like sports fans anywhere, enjoy watching excellence and that’s been the island’s legacy for many decades,” he pointed out. “The success of Stevenson eventually led to fellow Cuban champion Felix Savon. Both of them are three-time Olympic champions.”

Many Cuban stars are more than mere athletes, they’re actors on a stage, a really big and grand stage. “A flair for the game, whether it’s in boxing or baseball or other sports, has been misunderstood over the years. Cubans, similar to athletes from other Latin American nations, love to exhibit a joy for the game,” said Wendel. “In this country, that’s sometimes mistaken for showing the other team up. But as more Latinos have played starring roles, especially in the U.S. major leagues, I believe fans and even opposing players better understand where the Latino stars are coming from. Why do they do what they do?”

Wendel focused on something with which he’s very familiar: “A decade ago, I was an advisor on a permanent exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown,” he said. “We advocated for a screen showing a highlight loop of amazing plays by Latino stars (Roberto Alomar snaring a line drive, Omar Vizquel bare-handing a ball to save a no-hitter, etc.). That became the most popular part of our “Viva Baseball” exhibit.”

Castro was the boss of the island from 1959 until his passing in 2008. During his four trips to Cuba, did Wendel ever have a chance to speak with El Presidente?

“I never spoke with Castro, which may have been just as well. He’s a major character in the two novels I set in Havana (“Castro’s Curveball” and, most recently, “Escape From Castro’s Cuba,” the latter of which recently won an Indie Book Award). I was six rows behind Fidel at the 1999 exhibition game between Team Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles. That said, it could have been an awkward conversation.”

Wendel did however speak with a Cuban sports legend.

“Besides such Cuban ballplayers as Victor Mesa Sr. and Omar Linares, one of the most intriguing conversations I ever had about Cuba and sports was with Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400- and 800-meter races at the 1976 Olympics,” he said. “When he finished competing, he became one of Cuba’s top sports officials. We met at a reception in Havana for Olympic medalists. I wasn’t invited and got in through a back exit. “What are you doing here?” Juantorena asked me. I shrugged and then we had an enjoyable conversation about Cuba and sports.”

For decades, getting to Cuba was a difficult proposition for an American. But if you did make it there, it could be a splendid experience.

“Travel to the island got more difficult with Donald Trump as president,” Wendel offered. “In fact, the last trip I made to Havana was in early 2017 before he was sworn in. When everyday people can talk with everyday people, I believe we’re often better off than when politicians are left to dictate everything.”

“One of my best times in Cuba was walking through the old part of town, near the harbor and having a pack of kids and someone’s grandmother show me around,” he said. “In fact, the older lady insisted that the Cubans never trusted the Russians. When I asked why, she replied, “We’re better dancers.”

Wendel added: “On my four trips to Cuba, I bring along new baseballs. I’ll hand them out to the kids playing the game in alleys and backstreets,” he said. “They look at me with big eyes, like I just handed them the Hope Diamond.”

Have sports, including boxing, helped bridge the gap between the United States and Cuba?

“Yes, but we certainly have a long way to go. That said, I’m reminded of my first trip to the island, back in 1992. I was covering some exhibition games between Team Cuba and Team USA. This was a few weeks before the Barcelona Summer Olympics,” Wendel said. “First, I was so impressed with the Cuban’s caliber of play. That’s still one of the best infields, offensively and defensively, I’ve ever seen and I covered the major leagues, on and off, for 20 years.”

“Still, what I remember best about those games in Holguin, on the eastern end of the island, was this old man coming up to me in the stands. He asked me about the Minnesota Twins, who had won the 1991 World Series, one of the best Fall Classics ever, and I told him it would be difficult for them to repeat. The Twins didn’t have the largest payroll in the game.”

Wendel continued: “Undoubtedly, they would lose several stars and they did,” he said. “I was into my sports-talk radio answer when he interrupted me. “I know all that,” he said. “OK, I replied. What do you want to know? “What do they look like,” he said. “That’s when it
hit me what a star-crossed land Cuba is. Here’s this guy who knew as much about the Twins’ roster and payroll as me, but he didn’t know what they looked like.”

And because the island can be isolated from the outside world, it makes it difficult for those there to get any information.

“That’s how separated the island is from the rest of the world, especially the sports world,” Wendel said. “So, I went around the diamond, with major help from several of the other American sportswriters. We put Kent Hrbek at first base, Jack Morris on the mound and finished with Kirby Puckett in centerfield – a guy who’s difficult enough to describe in English. As I was searching for the right words, I was turning to my fellow scribes, looking out at the field. I didn’t focus on the old Cuban gentleman until I was finished. Then I turned back to him and said, “There you go. There’s your 1991 World Series champions.”

Wendel then described the man’s reaction. “The old man had tears in his eyes,” he said. “He slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Thank you. Now, I know.” With that, he disappeared into the crowd and since then I’ve never been able to get Cuba, its sports stars and its people, out of my head.”

Sports aren’t perfect and neither is boxing or baseball, but sometimes they are able to bridge gaps.

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Weekend Boxing Wrap-Up: Budler, Spencer, Rodriguez, Azim and More

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Weekend Boxing Wrap-Up: Budler, Spencer, Rodriguez, Azim and More

South African light flyweight Hekkie Budler, who has had a very interesting career, set himself up for another world title shot on Saturday in Mexicali, Mexico, with an upset of Mexicali’s Elwin Soto, the former WBO 108-pound world title-holder. Soto, 25, was the younger man by nine years, but he couldn’t hold off Budler who scored the bout’s lone knockdown in the final round to eak out a narrow decision (114-113 across the board) in a bout that without the knockdown would have been ruled a draw.

Budler (34-4, 10 KOs) has been a 12-round fighter since early in his career. He’s appeared in 23 fights sanctioned for one title or another. His signature win was an upset of heavily favored Ryoichi Tagouchi in Tokyo. Ironically, that fight was also scored 114-113 across the board.

Elwin Soto, who was 19-2 heading in, was a consensus 6/1 favorite over the South African invader. The locale loomed large in shaping the odds but Budler’s relative inactivity was no less salient. He had missed all of 2019 and 2020 and would be making his first start in 30 months.

Budler vs. Soto was framed as a WBC eliminator. That makes Budler the mandatory opponent for Japan’s newly-crowned Kenshiro Teraji. If he chooses to go in a different direction, an intriguing fight awaits with Jonathan Gonzalez who stripped Soto of his title by split decision in Fresno last year and successfully defended his belt on Friday with a unanimous decision over Filipino challenger Mark Anthony Birraga. And don’t rule out a rematch with Soto who was off-balance when Budler scored the decisive knockdown, leaving Soto more surprised than hurt.

An even bigger upset was forged on Thursday in Montreal where Dante Jardon upended Artem Oganesyan. Jardon had Oganesyan on the deck in the opening round and went on to win a clear-cut, 10-round decision.

A super welterweight who was 13-0 (11) heading in, Oganesyan, a 22-year-old Montreal-based Russian, is managed by Camille Estephan who also manages Artur Bieterbiev. Estephan had been touting him as a smaller version of Beterbiev.

Mexico City’s Jardon, who improved to 35-8, has proven to be quite the spoiler. In August of last year, he went to Sheffield, England, and scored a ninth-round stoppage of Sheffield’s previously undefeated Anthony Tomlinson. Jardon is a former world title challenger but back then he weighed only 130 pounds.

The Oganesyan-Jardan match was on the undercard of a show headlined by a 10-round match between Canadian-Armenian super middleweight Erik Bazinyan and Argentina’s Marcelo Esteban Coceres. Bazinyan improved to 28-0 (21) with a wide 10-round decision over Coceras (30-4-1) who was the first fighter to extend Edgar Berlanga the distance in a 10-round fight.

Middleweight Steven Butler and junior welterweight Yves Ulysse were victorious in other undercard bouts as was super welterweight Mary Spencer who stepped in up class and stole the show with a smashing first-round knockout of Uruguay’s Chris Namus. Spencer had Namus, a former IBF world title-holder, on the canvas three times before the bout was halted at the 1:56 mark of the opening round.

At age 37, Spencer has little time to waste if she wants to make her mark in this sport, but she’s very good. A three-time world amateur champion, she lost a four-round split decision to Claressa Shields on Shields’ turf in Michigan in 2017. An Indigenous Canadian on her father’s side, Spencer is 6-0 (4) as a pro and has yet to lose a round.

Also on Thursday, Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller returned to the ring on a small show in Buenos Aires after an enforced absence of more than three years and won a unanimous decision over hard-trying but overmatched Ariel Esteban Bracamonte.

If there were a Hall of Shame for fighters who have failed tests for banned substances, Big Baby would have the largest plaque in the joint. Against Bracamante, who brought an 11-7 record and been stopped five times, he weighed in at 341 ¾ pounds, 25 pounds heavier than his career high, but actually looked in better shape than his flabby Argentine opponent.

miller2

It was a workmanlike performance in the words of ringside scribe Diego Morilla. Big Baby lost a point for a low blow in round four, but prevailed on scores of 97-92 across the board, advancing his ledger to 24-0-1 (20).

Kazakhstan’s heavyweight hopeful Ivan Dychko, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist, was also on the card and, akin to Big Baby Miller, went 10 rounds against a local man with a flabby physique who proudly stayed the course, exceeding expectations.

Dychko had won all 11 of his previous pro fights by knockout. He topped Kevin Espindola (7-4) by scores of 100-90 and 99-91 twice.

—-

In Coventry, England, on Saturday, local fan favorite Sam Eggington (32-7, 18 KOs) stayed relevant in the 154-pound class with a hard-fought, 12-round unanimous decision over Poland’s spunky Przemyslaw Zysk (18-2). All the talk, however, was of 20-year-old phenom Adam Aziz who blasted out Belgium’s Anthony Loffet in 66 seconds on the undercard.

Azim, whose older brother Hassan Azim followed him into the pro ranks, is trained by Shane McGuigan whose stable also includes WBO world cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie and WBA secondary heavyweight champion Daniel Dubois. McGuigan has called Azim an unbelievable talent and predicted that he will go on to transcend the sport, an opinion echoed by Amir Khan who parlayed an Olympic medal at age 17 to become a big star in the U.K.

That’s high praise and Azim (5-0, 4 KOs) didn’t disappoint on Saturday. He had Loffet on the deck in the first 25 seconds and was so dominant that Loffet’s corner tossed in the towel before the first round was half over.

Adam Aziz and Mary Spencer turned in show-stopping performances on their respective cards, but the prize for the best performance in a high-profile fight goes to boxing’s youngest reigning world champion Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez who delighted his hometown fans with an eighth-round TKO of Srisaket Sor Rungvisai on a Matchroom show in San Antonio.

Rodriguez turned heads in February when he out-pointed veteran Carlos Cuadras for the vacant WBC super flyweight title. Rodriguez, who took the fight on six days’ notice and was moving up a weight class, impressed the cognoscenti and his footwork and his utilization of angles, inviting comparisons to Vasyl Lomachenko.

Against Sor Rungvisai, Rodriguez (16-0, 11 KOs) had the fight well in hand before dropping Sor Rungvisai in the seventh round with an overhand left. In the following frame, he pinned the Thai veteran against the ropes and strafed him with a fusillade of punches, forcing the stoppage.

Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez would be a shoo-in for Breakthrough Fighter of the Year if the year ended today. When the next quarterly pound-for-pound surveys are released, his name will inevitably appear in the “also receiving votes” category. The polish he displays at the tender age of 22 is another feather in the cap of his trainer Robert Garcia who will be Anthony Joshua’s main man in the corner when Joshua opposes Oleksandr Usyk on Aug. 10.

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Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez Dazzles on DAZN; Akhmadaliev and McCaskill Win Too

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Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez overpowered the dangerous Thai champion Srisaket Sor Rungvisai by stoppage and retained the WBC super flyweight title in spectacular fashion on Saturday.

“Feels like a dream,” said Rodriguez.

Fighting in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, the 22-year-old Rodriguez (16-0, 11 KOs) befuddled and battered the powerful Sor Rungvisai (50-6-1, 43 KOs) at the Tech Port Arena. Most expected a decision win against the always dangerous Thai warrior.

When Rodriguez was asked to face the two-time conqueror of Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and victor of Juan Francisco Estrada, many felt he was being shoved into the situation too early.

He was more than ready.

The memories of young champions put into the fire too early always loomed in the back of many experts’ assessment of the outcome.

“Bam” Rodriguez put those concerns to rest.

Behind his clever footwork and use of angles and jabs the muscular younger brother of IBF super flyweight champion Joshua Franco controlled the ring. Sor Rungvisai, 35, was unable to connect solidly for three rounds.

Though Rodriguez won the first three rounds clearly, the Thai fighter was eager to exchange with the intent of landing one of his big blows. When Sor Rungvisai could not pound the head, he targeted the body.

When the Thai fighter resumed targeting the body, he was met with stiff jabs and a strong Bam uppercut. From that point on the Texan who trains in Riverside, California seemed in even more control.

“His power wasn’t the same after the third round. That’s when I took advantage,” said Rodriguez.

During an exchange of blows Rodriguez connected with a counter left and down went Sor Rungvisai. He easily got back up but seemed surprised by the outcome. He never seemed the same after the knockdown.

“I threw my left shot and he went down,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez opened the eighth round with a veteran’s confidence and unleashed a five-punch combination that seemed to surprise and stun Sor Rungvisai. The crowd sensed a big moment and Rodriguez did too. The young champion unleashed another combination that stunned the Thai fighter and Rodriguez opened a torrential flood of blows until the referee stopped the fight with 1:50 of the eighth round.

Rodriguez had stopped Sor Rungvisai on his feet.

“We came out here tonight to put on a show,” said Rodriguez.

Super Bantamweight Title

WBA and IBF super bantamweight titlist Murodjon Akhmadaliev (11-0, 8 KOs) could have defeated veteran Ronny Rios (33-4) by a decision but was convinced to go for the knockout and did in the 12th and final round.

It was Akhmadaliev’s third defense of the two world titles.

The Uzbekistan fighter used his southpaw jab to score heavily and battered the body to keep Rios from gaining too much confidence. Akhmadaliev was winning most rounds but his corner convinced him to go for the knockout and he did. A body shot followed by several blows put Rios down. He got up but a flurry of blows forced the referee to end the fight.

Undisputed welterweight champion

Once again Jessica McCaskill (12-2, 5 KOs) surprised the experts and ran Mexico’s Alma Ibarra (10-2, 5 KOs) out of the ring with a bludgeoning attack to retain the undisputed welterweight world championship.

With most predicting a stiff test, McCaskill immediately erased all doubt with a withering offensive burst that stunned the much taller Ibarra with the first punch she absorbed. From the first round on the taller Mexican fighter was unable to connect with more than a few punches and instead relied on holding to survive.

I thought it was going to be a crazy firefight Mexican vs Mexican,” said McCaskill who is half Mexican and half Black. “I just knew my training was spectacular. I just had too much power, too many angles.”

McCaskill said she will be dropping down to super lightweight.

“I think I’m going to go down to 140. 147 doesn’t interest me,” McCaskill said.

Also

Raymond Ford (12-0-1, 6 KOs) cruised to victory over Richard Medina (13-1) in a battle between undefeated featherweights. Ford was as comfortable as an old sofa behind his southpaw jab in all 10 rounds and simply stuck it into Medina’s face with little danger of return fire.

Photo credit: Matchroom

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