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From Al Jolson to Mark Wahlberg: Hollywood Heavyweights Invade the Boxing Game

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On Friday, Nov. 16, on ESPN, Alex Saucedo appears in his first world title fight, taking on WBO 130-pound champion Maurice Hooker. The match between the two unbeatens — Saucedo is 28-0; Hooker 24-0-3 – will play out in Saucedo’s hometown of Oklahoma City.

Hollywood heavyweights Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg will be rooting hard for Saucedo. They are the cornerstones of Churchill Management, the boutique talent agency that signed up Saucedo and then gathered in 140-pound hotshot Regis Prograis. Berg and his partners also operate the Churchill Boxing Club in sunny Santa Monica, a gym formally called Wild Card West.

Peter Berg has worn many hats: producer, director, screenwriter, actor. He created the TV show “Friday Night Lights” from his film of the same name. Mark Wahlberg needs no introduction. In 2017 he was the world’s highest paid actor. He starred in four of Peter Berg’s movies and played Micky Ward in the award winning film “The Fighter.”

Berg and Wahlberg are merely the latest bigwigs from the world of Hollywood to invest in the future earnings of boxers. In fact, the relationship between boxing and the entertainment industry predates the advent of big Hollywood studios.

During the early years of the twentieth century, there was no bigger star on Broadway than the versatile and astoundingly prolific George M. Cohan. Theatrical producer Sam Harris was the primary backer of two-division world champion Terry McGovern, but Cohan had a piece of Terrible Terry too, as did ring announcer Joe Humphries. In age, Cohan and McGovern were only two years apart. In his free hours, the Yankee Doodle Boy was often seen in McGovern’s company.

Al Jolson made his mark on Broadway before lighting up the big screen in “The Jazz Singer,” Hollywood’s first feature-length talkie. During his heyday, say music historians Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, Jolson “was the most popular all-round entertainer America (and probably the world) has ever known, captivating audiences in the theater and becoming an attraction on records, radio, and in films.”

Jolson was a big boxing fan. One night at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, he became infatuated with Henry Armstrong, a steadily improving fighter who had recently defeated two of Mexico’s best featherweights, Baby Arizmendi and Juan Zurita. Armstrong’s manager, Wirt Ross, was a gambler who periodically had the shorts. Jolson bought the fighter for $10,000. The deal was consummated on Aug. 21, 1936.

What Al Jolson got was a fighter with a 48-10-6 record who was largely unknown outside California. Other than two early fights near Pittsburgh, Armstrong had never fought east of Butte, Montana.

Jolson entrusted Armstrong to Eddie Mead, the manager/trainer of former bantamweight champion Joe Lynch (that’s Mead in the photo, flanked by Jolson and Armstrong) and Al then set about making Hammerin’ Hank a household name. As Armstrong recalled in a 1981 interview with LA Times boxing writer Richard Hoffer, Jolson and Mead hatched the idea of him winning three titles as the only way a black fighter could make headway as a box office attraction with the shadow of Joe Louis looming so large. Armstrong went on to win the featherweight, welterweight, and lightweight titles, in that order, in an 11-month span in New York rings.

In the history of boxing, no one ever “moved” a fighter as adroitly as Al Jolson (Bob Arum would be envious). Of course, it was Henry Armstrong who did the heavy lifting.

It would later come out that Jolson’s friend George Raft, a dancer turned movie actor, routinely cast as a gangster, was a silent partner in Armstrong’s ring affairs. Furthermore, it would be written that Raft was an early investor in the career of future light heavyweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom. In those days, the fight game was thick with underworld characters and Raft, who was pals with racketeer Owney Madden and others of this ilk, fit right in.

In night clubs and concert halls, Al Jolson belted out his songs as he commanded the stage with his effusive body language. Eventually his fame was dwarfed by crooners whose style was more intimate; more laid-back. The giants of the genre were Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and, like Jolson, they were multi-media stars.

Crosby was a great sportsman. He co-founded the Del Mar thoroughbred track, near San Diego, which opened in 1937, and was the co-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team from 1946 until his death in 1977. Less well known, he had a piece of middleweight Freddie Steele.

Crosby likely felt an affinity toward Steele because both were products of the Apple State. Steele hailed from Tacoma; Crosby, born in Tacoma, was raised in Spokane. Late in his career, Freddie Steele won the New York State version of the world middleweight title and successfully defended it five times.

In January of 1944, twenty-eight year old Frank Sinatra, flush with money after signing a seven-year extension with the RKO Studio, purchased the contract of beefy Bronx bartender Tami Mauriello. Mauriello, who began his pro career as a welterweight, had twice fought for the NYSAC light heavyweight title, falling short in two tilts with Gus Lesnevich. He would go on to fight Joe Louis before 38,000-plus at Yankee Stadium. The Brown Bomber knocked him out in the opening round.

Francis Albert Sinatra inherited his love of boxing from his father, a Sicilian immigrant who fought professionally under the name Marty O’Brien, compiling a 1-7 record according to research by Thomas Hauser. In 1956, Sinatra hooked up with another fighter, purchasing a 50 percent interest in Robert “Cisco” Andrade, the “Compton Comet.” Andrade went on to compete for the world lightweight title, losing a 15-round decision to title-holder Joe Brown.

In 1974, with his hit TV series “Sanford and Son” going great guns, comedian Redd Foxx launched the pro career of Fred Houpe who had caught his eye while competing in AAU tournaments. A small heavyweight, Houpe, who was given the nickname Young Sanford, was undefeated in 12 fights when he lost a 10-round decision to former amateur rival Duane Bobick. He left the sport two years later, made a brief comeback in the 1990s, and ended his undistinguished career with a record of 14-6. (Houpe may have been the second boxer to break Redd Foxx’s heart. In an interview with an Oakland reporter on the occasion of Houpe’s pro debut, the comedian claimed that as a young man in Chicago he had a piece of china-chinned heavyweight Bob Satterfield.)

As Redd Foxx could testify, were he still alive, sponsoring a young boxer, an aspiring champion, is an expensive proposition that more often than not doesn’t pay off. Forming a syndicate diminishes the risk by spreading out the jeopardy.

Lee Majors, Burt Reynolds, and Motown recording artist Marvin Gaye were part of a syndicate that backed welterweight Andy “The Hawk” Price. The Hawk was good enough to defeat Carlos Palomino and Pipino Cuevas, but no match for Sugar Ray Leonard who knocked him out in the opening round. Ryan O’Neill, Robert Goulet, and Bill Cosby had welterweight Hedgemon Lewis. Trained by the great Eddie Futch, Lewis was 2-3 in bouts billed as world title fights with both wins coming against Billy Backus on Backus’s turf in Syracuse, New York. These syndicates were forerunners of Churchill Management.

Sylvester Stallone did not form a syndicate when he became interested in Lee Canalito. The architect of the “Rocky” franchise wanted Canalito all to himself.

A great defensive lineman in high school (a Parade All-American) and at the University of Houston before his football career was derailed by a chronic knee injury, Canalito made his pro debut at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach with Angelo Dundee in his corner. He had four fights under his belt when Stallone spied him on TV in a preliminary bout on a show that included the Spinks brothers. Stallone was then seeking an unknown actor to play his brother in a movie he had written and would star in, “Paradise Alley,” and when he saw Canalito (here flanked by Stallone and co-star Armand Assante) he found his man. Canalito, who bore some facial resemblance to Stallone, had the look that Sylvester was seeking.

Stallone eventually took over Canalito’s ring affairs. Canalito was 8-0 when Stallone purchased his contract. He installed the boxer in a guest house on the grounds of his spacious Pacific Palisades estate and the two often lifted weights and did roadwork together. The noted photographer Neil Leifer captured the scene in a five-page spread for Life magazine. Stallone’s hoped-for real-life Rocky, nicknamed the Italian Stallion, was a hot commodity before he ever touched gloves with an opponent who had the skill to give him a serious test.

Canalito, who customarily carried 250 pounds on a six-foot-five frame, never fought a top shelf, or even a mid-shelf, opponent. The well-coddled heavyweight was 21-0 with 19 knockouts when he lost interest in boxing and went home to Houston where he currently operates a fitness center, but only five of his victims had winning records when he fought them.

Stallone, far more so than predecessors like Al Jolson, could see that a boxer’s potential earnings weren’t limited to his purses. Churchill Management has taken it a step further. In its prospectus, the company says, “Churchill Management is the first of its kind, a promotional and commercial agency that represents an innovative approach to assist professional boxers with branding, marketing and public relations.” One surmises they will be adding more boxers to their stable in the near future.

Thus far, Alex Saucedo and Regis Prograis have done their part to justify Berg and Wahlberg’s faith in them. Saucedo’s last fight, against Lenny Zappavigna, was a humdinger and Saucedo walked through fire before stopping the Aussie in the seventh frame. The torrid fourth round between Saucedo and Lenny Z was one for the ages.

Who knows if Churchill Management will still exist in a few years? Their clients must keep winning to manifest the company’s vision for them and, to borrow an old Larry Merchant line, boxing is the theater of the unexpected. Regardless, it’s a safe bet that down the road we will see more Hollywood heavyweights dipping their toes into the business side of the boxing game.

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Fast Results from Fort Worth Where Vergil Ortiz Jr Won His 19th Straight by KO

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In a match pushed back from March 19, Vergil Ortiz Jr moved one step closer to a mega-fight with Terence “Bud” Crawford or Errol Spence Jr or Boots Ennis with a ninth-round stoppage of England’s feather-fisted Michael McKinson. The end came 20 seconds into round nine when McKinson appeared to injure his knee as he fell to the canvas, an apparent residue of the body punch that put him on the deck late in the previous stanza. To that point, Ortiz had seemingly won every round.

It was the 19th win inside the distance in as many opportunities for Ortiz who resides in nearby Grand Prairie and was making his first start with new trainer Manny Robles. McKinson was undefeated heading in, but had scored only two knockouts while building his record to 22-0.

Ortiz, ranked #1 at welterweight by the WBA and the WBO, pulled out of the March 19 bout after being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder associated with over-training.

Ortiz’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, says that Ortiz will fight the winner of Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford next assuming that the fight gets made, and if doesn’t get made, Ortiz’s next fight will be with one or the other. The WBA, which stamped tonight’s fight an eliminator, may push to have Ortiz fight their secondary title-holder, Eimantas Stanionis.

Co-Feature

Houston’s Marlen Esparza (13-1, 1 KO) successfully defended her WBA/WBC world flyweight title with a unanimous decision over plucky 4’11 ½” Venezuelan southpaw Eva Guzman who had won 14 straight coming in, albeit against soft opposition. The judges had it 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Guzman (19-2-1) was game, but just didn’t have the physical tools to overcome Esparza whose lone defeat came at the hands of talented Seneisa Estrada.

Other Fights of Note

In a 10-round match contested at the catchweight of 150 pounds, Blair “The Flair” Cobbs rebounded from his first defeat with a career-best performance, a wide decision over former WBO 140-pound world titlist Maurice Hooker. It was the second straight loss for Hooker who returned to the ring after a 17-month hiatus and came out flat. Cobbs put him on the canvas in the opening frame with a combination and decked him twice more with straight lefts in round two.

Things got somewhat dicey for Cobbs in round five when he suffered a bad gash on his forehead from an accidental head butt, but Hooker, who had stablemate Bud Crawford in his corner, hesitated to let his hands go and couldn’t reverse the tide. The judges had it 96-91 and 97-90 twice for the flamboyant Cobbs who improved to 16-1-1 (10). Hooker, a consensus 5/2 favorite, lost for the third time in his last five starts and slumped to 27-3-3.

In the opener to the main portion of the DAZN card, Uzbekistan’s Bektimir Melikuziev (10-1, 8 KOs), a super middleweight growing into a light heavyweight, dominated and stopped overmatched Sladan Janjanin. Melikuziev put Janjanin down with a body punch in the opening minute of the fight and scored two more knockdowns before the bout was halted at the 2:18 mark of round three.

This was Melikuziev’s third fight back after his shocking one-punch annihilation by Gabriel Rosado. Janjanin, a well-traveled Bosnian who fought three weeks ago in Massachusetts, declined to 32-12 and was stopped for the eighth time.

Also

Chicago welterweight Alex Martin (18-4, 6 KOs) overcame a first-round knockdown to win a unanimous decision over 38-year-old Philadelphia journeyman Henry Lundy. The judges had it an unexpectedly wide 98-91, 97-92, 97-92.

Martin was coming off a points loss to McKinson and this bout was his reward for taking that fight on short notice. Lundy (31-11-1) has lost five of his last seven.

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a lightweight who appears to have a big upside, advanced to 11-0 (9 KOs) at the expense of Mexican trial horse Rodrigo Guerrero whose corner wisely pulled him out after five one-sided rounds. It was the ninth straight loss for Guerrero (26-15).

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Conlan Wins His Belfast Homecoming; Breezes Past Lackadaisical Marriaga

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“The Return of the Mick” was the label attached to tonight’s show at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The reference was to local fan favorite Michael “Mick” Conlan who returned to his hometown in hopes of jump-starting his career after suffering his first pro loss in a brutal encounter with Leigh Wood.

In that bout, a strong “Fight of the Year contender, Conlan was narrowly ahead on all three cards heading into the 12th and final round when the roof fell in. Wood, who was making the first defense of his WBA world featherweight title on his home turf in Nottingham, knocked the favored Conlan unconscious and clear out of the ring.

This was the sort of fight that can shorten a man’s career. Hence the intrigue in Conlan’s homecoming fight tonight against Miguel Marriaga. On paper, the Colombian, a three-time world title challenger, was a stern test considering the circumstances.

To the contrary, Marriaga had no fire in his belly until the final round when he hit Conlan with a shot that buckled his knees. But, by then Conlan was so far ahead without overly exerting himself that there was virtually no chance of another meltdown.

While Conlan won lopsidedly, the scores – 99-89 and 99-88 twice – were somewhat misleading. True, “Mick” had Marriaga on the deck in rounds 7, 8, and 9, but the punches that put him there did not look particularly hard.

Conlan, 30, improved to 17-1 (8). Marriaga, 35, declined to 30-6.

After the fight, Conlan expressed the hope that Leigh Wood would give him a rematch.

Other Bouts of Note

In an entertaining 10-round welterweight scrap that could have gone either way, Belfast’s Tyrone McKenna (23-3-1, 6 KOs) rebounded from his defeat in Dubai to Regis Prograis (TKO by 6) with a hard-fought unanimous decision over 33-year-old Welshman Chris Jenkins (23-6-3). The judges favored the local fighter by scores of 97-94 and 96-95 twice.

Jenkins, a former British and Commonwealth title-holder, had the best of the early going, working the body effectively while frequently finding a home for his uppercut, but he could not sustain his advantage.

Thirty-four-year-old Belfast super middleweight Padraig McCrory who got a late start in boxing, scored the most important win of his career with a fifth-round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban, a former world title challenger. McCrory had Periban on the deck three times – once in the second and twice in the fifth – before the bout was halted at the 2:14 mark of round five.

It was the fourth straight win inside the distance for McCrory who improved to 14-0 (8 KOs). Mexico’s Periban, who returned to the sport in April after missing all of 2020 and 2021, fell to 26-6-1.

Highly-touted welterweight Paddy Donovan improved to 9-0 (6) with an 8-round unanimous decision over Yorkshireman Tom Hall (10-3). The referee scored every round for Donovan, an Irish Traveler trained by Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy Andy Lee, the former world middleweight title-holder.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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A Cornucopia of Accolades for Venerable Sportswriter Jerry Izenberg

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Ponder this for just a moment: Jerry Izenberg has written about sports for seventy-one years. No, this isn’t a misprint.

Behind a righteous conscience, a clear mind and a cool hand, the 91-year-old New Jersey native and columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger has pounded out stories from every venue, both near and far, and on every major sport and that includes boxing which he holds near and dear and has been a great story-telling device.

“Most fans like it but don’t understand it. Some writers take  advantage of the fact that because so many fans keep looking and waiting for a knockout. It’s the easiest sport for a writer to fake,” said Izenberg of the sweet science. “But for serious writers, it’s the best…just three people inside the ring and a cut man and a trainer in each corner…when two great fighters meet, they produce at one and the same time the most brutal yet graceful ballet requiring skill, courage and the most determination in all of sports.”

Izenberg, the author of more than a dozen books including “Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing,” has come across many interesting souls while traveling the globe dissecting the fight game, but one fighter in particular, a three-time heavyweight champion, caught his fancy.

“Muhammad Ali was someone I knew from the 1960 Olympics. He was my friend but he became my genuine friend the morning after he won the title from Sonny [Liston]. That was shortly after the press conference when as a world champion for just 24 hours, he announced his belief in a form of Islam then associated with Elijah Muhammad named the Lost Found Nation of Islam and colloquially known as the Black Muslims,” he said.

“It was the first time most writers had been exposed to Ali’s (then Cassius Clay) membership in the group. I may have been the first to defend his right to whatever religion he followed and whatever name he chose to be called. He respected the fact that I made it a priority to find out who the hell this guy was and that I would be writing about even after the day he died. We became close friends for about 50 years. Before that he had testified at a New York State Legislature hearing about boxing. A bunch of us were ticketed to return to Manhattan on the midnight train.”

Izenberg explained how the friendship really took off:

“I was in my hotel room writing my column when he walked in at about 2 p.m.”

“Man, I am so tired. Are there any empty rooms in this hotel?”

“Take my bed,” I offered. “I promise to type quietly.”

“After he beat Sonny, [February 1964], he started to tell everybody, ‘This man, this man gave me shelter and his bed when I had no bed.’ And I would say, ‘that was only because I didn’t know who the hell you were.'”

“And then we’d both laugh. It was a great friendship to the point where I still have trouble saying ‘was’ these days instead of ‘is.’ I miss him very much.”

“I always wrote about the human condition which you would be wise to consider whether it is admirable or deplorable. When I was probably the first to defend Ali’s constitutional rights, they broke out my car’s windshield with sledge hammers and mailed me dog feces and alarm clocks disguised as bombs,” he said. “When I explained the reasons behind [Colin] Kaepernick’s Star Spangled Banner kneel we got hundreds of negative emails – none of which noted that I had carefully explained exactly what he said about why he was doing it and it had nothing to do with patriotism. I listened to exactly what he explained about a horrible wave of police brutality and I wrote what he said.”

Izenberg, a graduate of Rutgers University Newark, shot back at the critics. “The trouble with these snap decisions by these knee-jerk detractors was that most of them wrapped their criticism in a tsunami of emotions but offered only a scintilla of facts,” he said.

John Feinstein, a contributor to the Washington Post and Golf Digest and the author of two of the best-selling sports books of all time, added his two cents on Izenberg: “I think Jerry’s done a remarkable job through the years of staying current, of remaining a REPORTER which many columnists – particularly older ones – fail to do,” he said. “He rarely falls back on, ‘back in the day, when I was a young reporter.’ His work always feels as if it’s fresh, not a rehash of material from years gone by.”

The prolific Feinstein spoke about Izenberg’s deft touch: “I always thought of Jerry as, ‘the quiet columnist.’ He never called attention to himself in press conferences or in the media room at big events,” he said. “He’d just sit there, puffing on his pipe, and turn out something which would cause me to say, ‘gee, I wish I’d thought of that,’ when I read it. I’ve always said the guys who are the best at what they do don’t have to tell you they’re the best at what they do. Jerry falls into that category.”

Izenberg reflected on his bar mitzvah at age 13, a rite of passage for Jewish boys. “My bar mitzvah ceremony was supervised nearly eight decades ago by a rabbi named Joachim Prinz. He had escaped Nazi Germany, rode a Freedom Bus during the beginning of the civil rights movement and introduced The Rev. Martin Luther King at the National Mall [in Washington, D.C.],” he said. “He was the one who called my attention to the Hebrew phrase “Tikkun Olam” – Hebrew translation: Repair the world.” The most modern understanding of the phrase is that you fix the world through the individual human action of each person.”

“So, I write what I believe, even if my soapbox is limited to a field of end zones and foul lines and ring posts,” Izenberg added. “My work is the residue of my father, who set the standard, my teacher, Stanley Woodward, who gave me the tools and Dr. Prinz, the rabbi who kind of deputized me.”

Former New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton who wrote about the odd coupling of Ali-Liston II and Lewiston, Maine, in a story re-visited on these pages, noted that Izenberg, a longtime friend, wasn’t swayed by popular opinion.

“He wrote what he thought. If that went with the wind, fine. If not, too damn bad. On his favorite topics (boxing, football, horse racing, baseball), he knew that he knew more than most and wrote with that level of authority,” he said. “In other subjects, his eyes and ears were focused on what he could learn and report. He was old school all the way, not writing for clicks or retweets or to land a TV deal by manufacturing (fake) anger. Come to think of it, Jerry was one of the first crossover print sports guys when he appeared on Sports Extra on Sunday nights on Channel 5 in New York (if memory serves correct).”

“If you knew Jerry, you could actually hear his (cantankerous) voice in his column. When I was in college and grad school, working on the desk of the Staten Island Advance, a sister paper to Jerry’s Newark Star-Ledger, we’d run his column,” he said. “Much too brash and a  little stupid, I’d ready my editor’s pen to see where I could make some changes and prove my worth. Whatever changes I’d make, my boss would undo. He’d tell me, “You don’t f*** with a voice and style as distinctive as Izenberg, OK?” Jerry had his pet lines he would use, or overuse, like ‘herniated snail’ to describe a slow runner, or’ Gomorrah-by-the-desert,’ meaning Vegas. But you never knew what delightful turns of phrases would turn up in his copy, though seldom, if ever, did they obscure the message.”

Araton noted Izenberg’s affection for the Garden State: “Many may not remember that Jerry was not only a Jersey guy, though his love for the state in general and Newark in particular was indisputable,” he said. “But in the late 70s, his columns were also picked up by the New York Post, in large part because of his friendship with Jerry Lisker, the Post sports editor, who was also a big boxing guy. So, in an era of many mega-bouts, Jerry’s voice was heard in what was considered by many to be the city’s best sports section.”

“One last thing,” said Araton. “About 9-10 years ago, I wrote a piece on the failure of the (now defunct) Newark Bears, or at least a remake of the team as an indie baseball team, to thrive despite a lovely little stadium the city and county had built,” he said. “The story explores whether soccer was the more realistic pursuit. Jerry had championed the baseball cause in his columns. If you read Jerry’s quote, you can see his irascible side but also his honesty; he says that people told him he was living in the past, thereby acknowledging that possibility.”

Here is a link to that story.
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/sports/baseball/did-newark-bet-on-the-wrong-sport.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

One of Izenberg’s biggest fans is Japan Forward sports editor Ed Odeven who penned the well-received “Going 15 Rounds With Jerry Izenberg.”

“Jerry’s prose,” said Odeven, “has never been saturated or bogged down with too many statistics or analytics…His stories are always anchored by human drama and a novella-like structure (with a beginning, middle and end).”

“Jerry was a progressive thinker decades ago in telling the plight of African American athletes and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (his visit to Grambling University, where he chronicled football coach Eddie Robinson’s squad, which produced his groundbreaking story in True in 1967). He was far ahead of the curve in recognizing that Black and Latino athletes were rising stars and a significant part of the nation’s sports culture,” continued Odeven.

Ira Berkow, who spent countless hours ringside with Izenberg, echoed that observation.

“The aspect of the significance of race in sports was late in coming for many sportswriters,” noted Berkow, the longtime sports columnist for the New York Times. “Not for Jerry. He was clearly in the forefront of the discussion.”

Boxers are more open and introspective than other athletes according to Izenberg. And when the best of the best step into the ring, it can be magical.

Izenberg recounted two classics at which he sat ringside. One took place in 1975 in the Philippines and the other in 1985 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

“I’m 91 now and I would like to say Cain-Abel but a camel died on the highway that day so I was late getting there,” he said. “The best fight of any weight – Ali-[Joe] Frazier in Manila…15 rounds of hell.

The best way I can sum it up is with the lead I filed 20 minutes after the fight ended: “Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did not fight for the WBC heavyweight title here last night. Nor did they fight for the heavyweight title of the planet. They could have fought inside a telephone booth on a melting ice flow and had all the room they needed. “They fought, instead, for the championship of each other. And as far as I’m concerned, they could fight forever and the issue would never be settled.”

izenberg

The second classic that stands out in his mind is Hagler-Hearns. “The best first round at any weight,” Izenberg said. “Hearns won the explosive round, drawing blood from Marvin’s forehead but when Hagler didn’t take one step backward, he won the fight then and there.”

For Izenberg, there have been some changes in boxing and not always for the good.

“Now when young boxers are told to hit the heavy bag by their trainers, the response is: ‘Okay, but will I ever play the guitar
again?’ Yes, we have a shortage of gifted fighters but so many of the ones we do have are in desperate need of gifted teachers,” he said.

And with that, it appears the sport has also lost some of its shine. “Yes, because now it features more self-styled entertainers than fighters. The most exciting moment in all of sports used to be when a slight murmur began from the back of the arena and then a crescendo that grew louder and louder as they approached the ring,” said Izenberg of the excitement of a big fight. “It was clear they had come to fight. Now we have smoke and mirrors, fake fog and an army of hangers-on for the walk to the ring large enough to double as extras in a cinematic re-creation of Exodus. The best fighters we have don’t need the theatrics. I wish we had more of them.”

Izenberg, who turns 92 on September 10, has been honored many times. Is there one that stands above the rest?

“I’m in 15 Halls of Fame but that’s not it. I won the Red Smith Award and that’s not it because when I was at the [New York] Herald Tribune my desk was next to his and I learned a lot and that was worth more than any award,” he said.

“I was, for a time, fairly regular on Irish radio and one day the host interviewed me as what he called an important journalist. He said with all the awards, why is it you never won a Pulitzer? Nobody had ever asked me that.

“I told him that when the Star-Ledger was the eighth largest Sunday paper in the country, we had an audience of over one million. On weekdays it was around 600,000. So, if just one of every six readers read Jerry Izenberg during the week I had an extended family of 100,000. If they came back because they liked what I wrote, well, hell, the Pulitzer doesn’t mean much when measured against that.”

Hall of Fame boxing writer Thomas Hauser weighed in: “He should have won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary long ago, but the jury that designates Pulitzer winners is journalism’s answer to boxing’s world sanctioning organizations with the New York Times playing the role of Don King.”

“If we’re lucky,” said Hauser, “Izenberg will write his memoirs someday. But that would be the crib notes version. To fully appreciate his work, one has to have read his columns; day after day, week after week, year after year. Ten thousand columns crafted over the span of more than four decades,” he said.

“Indeed, if the Newark Star-Ledger is interested in performing a true public service,” continued Hauser, “it will assemble those columns in multi-volume sets, put the sets in major libraries across the country, and give Izenberg a set to take home with him.”

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