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Oleksandr Usyk Continues to Replicate Evander Holyfield’s Career Blueprint

Bernard Fernandez

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They are, by consensus, the two greatest fighters in the 39-year history of the largely ignored cruiserweight division. Evander Holyfield, who already held the IBF and WBA versions of the title, fully unified the then-190-pound division when he summarily dismissed WBC champion Carlos “Sugar” DeLeon on an eighth-round stoppage at the Caesars Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas on April 9, 1988, savoring the accomplishment for only a moment before confirming his intention to move up to heavyweight and target WBC/WBA/IBF champ Mike Tyson.

Thirty years and change later, Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk, so different from Holyfield in some ways and yet so alike in others, has torn another page from the Holyfield career playbook. Already holder of all four widely recognized cruiserweight championship belts (the WBO did not exist in 1988) as the result of his three-victory run through the first World Boxing Super Series, the stylish southpaw, behind on two of the three official scorecards, defended his collection of 200-pound titles a final time when he knocked out Tony Bellew with a ripping left cross in the eighth round on Nov. 10 in Bellew’s hometown of Manchester, England. He savored the accomplishment for only a moment before confirming his intention to move up to heavyweight and target IBF/WBA/WBO champion Anthony Joshua, or possibly the winner of the Dec. 1 matchup of WBC titlist Deontay Wilder and former unified champ Tyson Fury, should that fellow aspirant get to and take down Joshua beforehand.

“I’m on the way to Anthony Joshua,” Usyk said of his farewell to the cruisers in the hope of attaining bigger and better objectives. “It’ll definitely happen. People just need to wait a little bit.”

Sound familiar? Listen to what Holyfield said after his thrashing of DeLeon, which took place with Tyson, already anticipating what the future might hold for each, sitting at ringside on an ostensible scouting mission. “The heavyweight champion is king of the hill,” Holyfield said, an assertion as true then as it is now. “That’s a motivating factor for me because I want to be king of the hill.”

Although separated by three decades and 10 pounds, Holyfield and Usyk are representative of the sort of tunnel vision that has led so many elite cruiserweights to test the waters at heavyweight. True heavyweight champions – at least those more recognized as such than passing-through holders of splintered alphabet titles – are regal monarchs of their sport, all right. Cruiserweight titlists, fairly or not, might not even qualify as crown princes. Until recently consigned by body size to a weight class that generally has been regarded as a sort of purgatory between light heavyweight and heavyweight, they are more like dukes or earls in the royal pecking order.

Most fight fans are far more likely to recognize and celebrate Holyfield, a 2017 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, as the only four-time heavyweight champion than for his relatively brief reign as a cruiserweight when he was younger, lighter and less-affluent. The “Real Deal” was paid $300,000 for his unification showdown with DeLeon, and don’t think for a moment that he and his promoter, Dan Duva, weren’t aware of the fact that Tyson was set to receive $17 million and Michael Spinks $13.5 million for their megafight 2½ months later in Atlantic City.

The gulf between cruiserweight and heavyweight, at least financially, has narrowed somewhat, at least in Europe where the division is much more popular than it is in the United States. But Usyk, at 31, no doubt is aware that his window of opportunity for striking it rich in the land of the really big boys is tighter than it was for the then-25-year-old Holyfield. A potential matchup with Joshua, Wilder or Fury, especially were he to win, would yield far more in terms of pay and prestige than any cruiserweight fight could.

It is a gamble Usyk, like Holyfield, believes must be taken, but make no mistake, it is a gamble. Since Marvin Camel became the first cruiserweight champion (in a division only recently created by the WBC) when he scored a 15-round unanimous decision over Mate Parlov on March 31, 1980, there have been 64 men who have held some version of the title. Only two, Holyfield and England’s David Haye, have gone on to enjoy the view from the heavyweight summit.

So who deserves the top spot as the finest cruiserweight of all time? Is it Holyfield, still a work in progress when he established himself as the best of his or any succeeding era until Usyk arrived on the scene? Or is it Usyk, older, more polished and the beneficiary of having come along when the division was deeper and more competitive? It’s a matter of opinion and cause for some debate.

ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael has weighed in on the subject, and he casts his ballot for Usyk, on the basis of the Ukrainian being in the division longer and having accomplished more while there. Rafael wrote that Usyk, as a cruiser, has “trumped Holyfield time and again” by virtue of his winning his first title in his 10th pro bout to 12 for Holyfield, and having defended or unified six times to four for Evander. He also notes, correctly, that the opposition Usyk has faced in cruiser title bouts – Krzysztof Glowacki, Thabiso Mchunu, Michael Hunter, Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Bellew – for the most part is a cut above Holyfield’s lineup of Dwight Muhammad Qawi (twice), Henry Tillman, Ricky Parkey, Ossie Ocasio and DeLeon. Bonus points, however, should be awarded for Holyfield’s 15-round split decision over then-WBA champ and future International Boxing Hall of Famer Qawi in their first meeting on July 12, 1986, which many still consider to be the best cruiserweight scrap ever.

Mere statistics, however, never tell the full story of any fight, or fighter. There is the eye test and individual gut reaction that influence any discussion as to who would or would not fare better in a hypothetical matchup. For the purpose of comparing the cruiserweight credentials of Holyfield vis-à-vis Usyk, I contacted four knowledgeable observers – Showtime’s Steve Farhood, ESPN’s Mark Kriegel, HBO’s Jim Lampley and Holyfield himself – to blend their thoughts into the bubbling cauldron.

Farhood: “They so clearly are the best two cruiserweights ever. Until now, with cruiserweights, it’s always been Holyfield, Holyfield, Holyfield. For the first time, I think there’s a challenger to Evander for that designation. A mythical matchup of Holyfield and Usyk is very interesting to me because of their very different styles. It’s not the kind of fight where most people would say that one guy would win easily. I see a very competitive fight, and a very tough fight for Evander. Usyk would use his height and reach to try to keep the fight on the outside. Evander would have to wear him down. Remember, Evander was fighting 15-round championship fights at cruiserweight for the most part. (The DeLeon fight was scheduled for 12.) A fight at 12 rounds, I think, would favor Usyk. A 15-round fight probably would serve Evander better because he would have been the pressure fighter, and pressure fighters generally have things their way in the later rounds. I think it’d probably be a distance fight and very close at 12 rounds. I’d have trouble picking a winner. My tendency is to lean toward Evander, but I think the reason for that is we all know how great a fighter he was on the basis of his whole career. It’s hard to separate what he did as a heavyweight from what he did as a cruiserweight. He’s one of the greatest fighters of all time. Usyk has a lot of career in front of him and we don’t know yet what he’ll do.”

Kriegel: “To me, Holyfield represents the triumph of the heart. I can’t recall a big guy who fought regularly whose heart was so often on full display. He was a very valiant fighter. Usyk, to me, would represent a triumph of technique. I’ve heard it said that he’s a larger Lomachenko, which is pretty accurate. He’s a southpaw, he’s Ukrainian, he trains with Loma and they have a lot of the same boxing characteristics. Against Holyfield, it’d be a perfect matchup of the violence of one fighter vs. the mathematical precision of the other. So who would win? I wouldn’t bet against Evander, especially against someone who’s about his size. I could see him losing to Bowe and I could see him losing to Lennox Lewis, but against a guy more or less his own size, like Usyk, I can’t see Evander losing.”

Lampley: “That’s a tough one. It’s a pick ’em fight. But if I have to choose between the Evander the night he beat DeLeon and the Usyk who beat Bellew, I’d have to go with Usyk by 51-49, something like that. The sort of parallel equation that I have settled on in my mind as a way of judging it is, assuming for a moment there isn’t a significant size differential, would be Crawford against Lomachenko. I see considerable commonality between Crawford and Lomachenko in terms of their athletic qualities, their competitiveness, their mean streaks and late-fight punching power. All those things were there with Holyfield, and they’re there with Crawford. Usyk clearly has benefited from his exposure to Lomachenko’s father (Anatoly) and therefore fights in a style that we haven’t really seen in that weight class, with the same kind of technical brilliance and creativity that Lomachenko shows you. So would I take Crawford or would I take Lomachenko? It’s an extremely difficult choice, just as it is with Usyk vs. Holyfield. But Usyk is a more finished product at this stage. He has settled into the upper range of what you’d expect him to be.”

Holyfield: “I only seen Usyk fight once (against Bellew). You have to see a guy fight against different styles to get a better feel for what he’s all about. Seeing him one time, I can’t say for sure that’s the way he is. But if he ain’t got a short game, he’d have trouble with me. I have very quick hands, so I could fight inside as well as outside. I tried to take things from the people that came before me. I took some things from Muhammad Ali, but I took more things from what Joe Frazier did because I was the shorter guy a lot of times and I had to get inside. I don’t know how good of a short game Usyk has because he didn’t show one against (Bellew), and I don’t know how he’d do against a guy who fights on the inside because the guy he beat didn’t really try to work inside.”

It should be noted that Holyfield had four heavyweight fights before he fought for the title, winning it on a third-round knockout of Tyson conqueror Buster Douglas on Oct. 25, 1990. Lampley, for one, thinks Usyk might require only two heavyweight bouts for familiarization purposes before he goes for the title, his timetable moved up by the fact he’s six years older than Holyfield was when Evander decided to swim with the sharks instead of the barracudas.

As cruisers, Holyfield and Usyk’s resumes are impeccable. After Holyfield disassembled DeLeon, who would hold versions of the cruiser title on three separate occasions, the impressed Puerto Rican said, “He is so strong. There is no question he will make a great heavyweight.”

Bellew was no less complimentary toward Usyk, saying “Oleksandr Usyk is a great, great champion. He’s fantastic, an amazing fighter and the greatest man I’ve ever shared the ring with. Anyone who faces him is in a lot of trouble. He’s tactically brilliant. Strong. He has everything.”

So what say you, TSS nation? In a dream matchup for cruiserweight supremacy, do you go with the 1988 Holyfield? Or the 2018 Usyk?

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Ramirez vs. Taylor Adds Luster to an Already Strong Boxing Slate in May

Arne K. Lang

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Boxing will heat up big-time in May. Canelo Alvarez will defend his WBC 168-pound title on May 8 against Billy Joe Saunders. Two weeks later, WBC/WBO 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez (26-0, 17 KOs) meets his IBF/WBA counterpart Josh Taylor (17-0, 13 KOs). Teofimo Lopez’s title defense against George Kambosos may transpire in May and now there’s talk that Manny Pacquiao will also return in May with Mikey Garcia in the opposite corner.

The Ramirez-Taylor fight was announced today (March 2). The match between the undefeated belt-holders, both former Olympians, will produce the fifth unified champion of the four-belt error. Middleweights Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, junior welterweight Terence Crawford, and cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk are the only boxers to have held this distinction.

Ramirez vs. Taylor will be on ESPN. The fight appears headed to an MGM Grand property in Las Vegas. The T-Mobile Arena, the city’s largest indoor sports arena, is likely in the running. The arena houses the city’s professional hockey team, the Golden Knights, which played their first game in many moons with fans in attendance on Monday. Attendance was capped at 15 percent of capacity and the game was a “sellout” with all 2,605 available seats attracting occupants.

Josh Taylor, who made his pro debut in El Paso, of all places, will be making his second appearance in Las Vegas, assuming the fight transpires there. The Tartan Tornado appeared at the MGM Grand Garden on Jan. 28, 2017, on a card topped by the WBA featherweight title rematch between Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz. Taylor and Frampton then shared the same trainer, Shane McGuigan.

In the words of Bob Arum, “Ramirez vs. Taylor is the best boxing has to offer, two elite fighters in the prime of their careers colliding in a legacy-defining matchup for the undisputed championship of the world. It’s a true 50-50 fight….”

In boxing, unlike other sports, anything under 2-to-1 is basically a “pick-’em” fight, so Arum isn’t far off the mark. For the record, however, the first betting lines to appear show the Scotsman the favorite in the 7-to-4 range, a price obviously based on the assumption that the fight will be held in Nevada, or at least anywhere other than Glasgow or Fresno.

Ramirez didn’t look sharp in his last outing when he scored a majority decision over Victor Postol at the MGM Bubble. Ramirez said he was burned-out after a long training camp – the fight was postponed twice – and said he thought the sterile atmosphere affected him; he was used to feeding off the energy of a crowd. Josh Taylor also had a tough time with Postol when they met in a 12-round bout at Glasgow on June 23, 2018 (the gritty Ukrainian is a tough nut to crack), but one would not have gleaned that from the scorecards which were soaked with hometown bias.

Josh Taylor’s last fight was at fan-less York Hall in London. The Scotch southpaw was entitled to a breather after his epic encounter with Regis Prograis and the IBF had just the ticket in mandatory challenger Apinun Khonsong. Taylor dismissed the overmatched Thai in the opening round with a body punch. This was Taylor’s first fight with new trainer Ben Davison.

The last time that Arum called an upcoming match a 50-50 fight, he was hyping the all-Mexican showdown between Miguel Berchelt and Oscar Valdez. That was no 50-50 fight, Berchelt was a solid favorite, but as it turned out, the pricemakers had underestimated the underdog who delivered the goods in a wildly entertaining skirmish.

On paper, Ramirez vs. Taylor will also be a very entertaining affair.

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From the Desert, Jack Dempsey

Matt McGrain

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Jack Dempsey, who has been matched by Jack Goodfriend to fight at the Hippodrome Monday, May 31 is expected to arrive from Reno within a day or two.  The match will be a ten round contest and preceded by a couple of good preliminaries. (The Goldfield News, May 22nd, 1915.)

In May of 1915 Jack Dempsey found himself trapped in Nevada and between purses. Fifty miles from his payday with no rail to ride, he walked out of the desert and into Goldfield, stuck the bewildered promoter for an advance and hired a sparring partner, knocked the sparring partner out and hired another.

Walking in ninety-five-degree weather can be dangerous for even an experienced athlete, but it seemed to agree with Jack. He had marched into Goldfield to meet a light-heavyweight named Johnny Sudenberg, a game but limited battler who had for the first time strung a decent run of wins together, all of them fought in the desert Dempsey travailed on foot. Dempsey had scored a series of knockout wins in Salt Lake City, enough that his name was known and interest in his proposed match with the local man stoked.

“Jack Dempsey, the husky Pueblo middleweight, who will meet Johnny Sudenberg at the Hippodrome next Monday night in a ten round bout arrived in camp this morning,” reported regional press. “Several local men have seen Dempsey in action…and all [are] united in the prediction that Johnny had better be ‘right’ when he crawls through the ropes.”

It speaks of boxing’s burgeoning’s status in the United States that there were two gymnasiums in Goldfield capable of staging training. Dempsey worked out at the Unity Club, little more than a middleweight, perhaps not least because of his fifty-mile travail through the desert earlier that week. He boxed a local footnote named Dick Trounce and he may also have boxed some rounds with the world class bantamweight Roy Moore.

Sudenberg, stung by assertions that it was Dempsey, not he, who was the puncher in the fight, bristled and demanded of himself a knockout while training down the street in the Northern Gymnasium.

There is a divergence now between Dempsey’s recollection of the fight and the newspaper reporting of the day. Before the fight, although he may have shared a ring with Jack Dempsey, not known for his tender attentions of even much smaller sparring partners, Roy Moore advised his sparring partner to steer clear. “Don’t slug with Sudenberg.  He’s awful strong. Stay away from him.”

Dempsey claims to have dismissed this advice, telling Roger Kahn, author of A Flame of Pure Fire, that the match was a brutal slugfest from the first. Local press though reported on a fight that was marked by cautious sparring early, and that after “feeling each other out” for two rounds that Dempsey dominated, it was Sudenberg who changed the pattern and “owing to the greater height and reach” Dempsey possessed, brought the fight to the inside. A fine battle resulted and one that saw Dempsey descend into total chaos for the first time, a feeling that would become as familiar to him as slipping on a pair of old shoes.

“I just kept swinging. Sometimes I think I saw a face in front of me, sometimes I didn’t. I kept swinging.”

Dempsey claimed he could remember nothing after the fifth.

A rematch was not immediately slated, but the failure of a potential Sudenberg opponent to deliver on a sidebet let Dempsey back in just days later. Dempsey moved a bit further north with the purses, his second battle with Sudenberg staged in Tonopah. Still years from the three-ringed circus his career would become, there was interest surrounding the young scrapper who trained for the fight in the town’s casino. Tonopah was a young but bustling setting, festooned with banks and lawyers and saloons as money poured in from Nevada’s second largest silver strike. By 1920 they had pulled $121m out of the ground and Dempsey was there to pull out his own piece.

“A great many were dissatisfied with the decision last Monday,” wrote the Tonopah Daily upon the fight’s announcement. “Dempsey gave Sudenberg the best fight he has had in this part of the country.”

Sudenberg, who seems to have been a prickly character, held the power in his relationship with Dempsey and so clearly backed himself to win a rematch. A fascinating aspect of the fight is their respective sizes. Dempsey was referred to as a middleweight in the earliest dispatches surrounding the fight, but in the ring made an impression upon ringsiders as the bigger man. Taller, rangier, it is possible he was already the heavier of the two or it may be that his trek through the surrounding desert left an early impression of litheness which slipped away as Dempsey, holding cash, boxed and ate his way to a size advantage during the build-up. The Goldfield News described him upon entering the ring for the rematch as looking “more like an overgrown schoolboy than a fighter” as he stepped on the canvas before noting wryly that he “proved otherwise.”

The fight quite literally drew from miles around, with “Goldfield well represented at ringside” and “eight to ten auto loads” appearing from nearby mines. Dempsey grabbed their attention early, a man you will recognise, coming out of his corner like a rocket and deploying what the Tonopah Daily Bonanza named “Dempsey’s mass attack,” presumably an early incarnation of the terrible beating he would inflict upon Jess Willard in Toledo with the world’s title at stake. Indeed, Sudenberg does appear to have visited the canvas in that first round, but Dempsey, over-eager, under-seasoned, missed with key punches following up his advantage and the canny Sudenberg survived a round of murderous intent.

Papers also report the use of straight punches by Dempsey, that he preferred range and looked to that superior range to dominate. Early Dempsey contests fascinate me in that they repeatedly throw up this story, of a fighter who at just 6’1 was able to dominate most of the desert’s pugs with height and reach. Here he plays the role that would later be played by Willard, Carl Morris and Fred Fulton, longer men trying to control the range while Dempsey tormented them with slips and punches.  Here it was Sudenberg who in the third and fourth seemed to do something of a job, getting inside and hitting to the belly while the two accused each other of low blows.

Dempsey is a victim of some criticism over his own use of low blows, alleged or otherwise, in huge fights with Tommy Gibbons and Jack Sharkey. It should be remembered always that he learned his trade in spots like Tonopah and Goldfield where local referees were not sympathetic to pleas for justice to be dispensed. Dempsey fought like a fistic savage because he was raised as one.

After just four rounds in Tonopah, he was tired, feeling the effects of a difficult month and a fast fight. “Dempsey takes punishment well and ducks cleverly,” noted The Bonanza, while The News saw Dempsey holding on a good deal more in the second half of the fight.

By round eight, Sudenberg began to show the effects of Dempsey’s right hand which he worked “like a sledgehammer” while Sudenberg “lands heavily on Dempsey’s digestive apparatus.” At the final bell the two worked one another mercilessly in search of the decision, but they were greeted by a draw.

Under a more modern ruleset I suspect that Dempsey would have received the nod. He crushed Sudenberg in the early part of the fight and more than matched him late, but with the referee acting as a single judge, draws in fights where a winner was not inarguably apparent were common.  Fighters expected it and pressmen expected it, which is perhaps why some of those in attendance saw the result as eminently reasonable. Dempsey clearly landed the better shots, but Sudenberg was rewarded for his gameness in “carrying the fight” a tenet of the era.

Dempsey had impressed though. “In Dempsey, who gives the promise of developing into a heavyweight,” stated The News, “there is room for a world of improvement, and with the experience he will gain during the next few years he should make a formidable opponent for any scrapper.”

Portentous words.

When Dempsey left Tonopah – history does not record whether he walked out – he was mere days from his twentieth birthday, an overgrown schoolboy appearing on the good end of draws against older, more experienced men, already determined to become heavyweight champion, already of the belief he would become one. History tells of a third fight between he and Sudenberg the following February, a more mature Dempsey thrashing a cowed Sudenberg in two rounds.

I spoke to Dempsey scholar and author of the outstanding In The Ring series, Adam Pollack. “Didn’t happen,” was his verdict.  “I am certain it didn’t take place.”

It is nice to have this one cleared up. Dempsey did not need to defeat Sudenberg to leave him behind. Dempsey, like any heavyweight champion has his obsessed fans – among them the men who developed a single thin thread concerning a third Sudenberg match and turned it into a truth that was reported in A Flame of Pure Fire and elsewhere – and obsessed haters, but there is no denying what he did. Irresistible and eternal, people will generate and propagate myths about Jack Dempsey for as long as there is fighting.

This story is about his beginnings – see the single-minded determination that saw him walk fifty miles through a desert? See the legendary fast start in the second fight? The mid-round sag that would lead Jack Johnson to label him a three-round fighter? His bending of the rules? Then again, what of his seeming determination to box against a smaller opponent? This was something he abandoned in time to avoid disaster against geniuses like Tommy Gibbons although it would not be enough to save his weary legs from Gene Tunney’s escape.

Dempsey’s matches with Sudenberg were his emergence from the desert in more ways than one.  They were where his pursuit in earnest of the world’s heavyweight title began. These were his first major steps outside of Salt Lake City where his ambitions were as penned as Sudenberg’s were in the desert; the defining series of an emergent Jack Dempsey.

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Jerry Forrest: When Heart Counts

Ted Sares

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While many Canelo fights end up in some fan’s memory bank, that probably won’t be the case given what occurred this past Saturday night in Miami. However, the show was salvaged by the entertaining heavyweight draw between China’s Zhilei “Big Bang” Zhang (22-0-1) and Jerry “Slugger” Forrest (26-4-1) on the undercard. This one had the fans up and roaring but for different reasons.

The 6’6” Zhang (with excellent amateur credentials) floored the American once in each of the first three rounds and the crowd sensed a stunning KO was on the way. But lo and behold, it didn’t come.

Then things began to change, subtle at first, as a determined Forrest survived the onslaught and began to fight back working well inside and landing shots both upstairs and to the body.

A Shift in Momentum

The momentum clearly changed in the fifth as Zhang used his body to lean on “Slugger” to tire him out, but in the process he didn’t mix and thereby lost rounds. Soon this strategy (albeit illegal) backfired and served to tire “Big Bang” more than Forrest and making matters worse for Zhang, he was deducted a point in the ninth by referee Frank Gentile for holding. (Given that he had been holding since the fifth round, the deduction was spot-on and could well have come earlier.)

Going into the last round, the fight seemed to be up for grabs and the fresher Forrest obliged as he landed crunching shots that had the fickle fans (are there any others?) now in is corner. He was actually chasing the gassed Chinese monster at the end and had the fight gone another minute, “Slugger” likely would have lived up to his moniker.

“For Jerry Forrest, this is a momentous result after a terrible start, and keeps him in the mix as a high-level gatekeeper, someone who will take on basically anyone and give it the effort. He’s a danger to prospects and mid-tier veterans alike,” wrote prominent boxing writer Scott Christ.

The scores were 95-93 Forrest and 93-93 twice for a majority draw. Zhang was lucky to keep his undefeated record intact.

Jerry Forrest showed a tremendous amount of heart. Hopefully, when folks look back at this card, Canelo’s blowout of Avni Yildirim won’t completely overshadow this entertaining heavyweight match.

(Note: Zhang was taken to a hospital for observation when his handlers noticed some concerning symptoms in the locker room after the fight. According to a published statement from Terry Lane of Lane Brothers Management, Zhang was found to be “suffering from anemia, high enzyme levels, and low-level renal failure, which may have been caused by severe dehydration. The good news is that all of his neurological signs are clear…Credit and respect to a game Jerry Forrest who battled back for a ten-round draw…Zhilei will be back.”)

Photo credit: Ed Mulholland / Matchroom

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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