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Maybe Bivol-Pascal Can Make For One More Legendary Night of Boxing on HBO

Bernard Fernandez

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Movie people have their “wrap parties,” partly festive but also partly somber, to mark the end of filming for a shared undertaking that might or might not become a box-office smash and meet with critical acclaim. But while many of the actors and crew can be expected to move on to another project, for some workers in an industry that offers no lifetime guarantees there is always the nagging doubt that maybe this might be the dropping of a final curtain, a farewell to the glamor and excitement of something that had become such a major part of their lives.

Technically, Saturday night’s HBO-televised matchup of WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol (14-0, 11 KOs) and former WBC 175-pound titlist Jean Pascal (33-5-1, 20 KOs) at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is not the premium-cable company’s farewell to boxing, a sport with which it has been affiliated for 45-plus mostly glorious years. HBO, which for so long advised fight fans that it was the “heart and soul of boxing,” has one more date on its 2018 calendar, Dec. 8 from Carson, Calif., a Boxing After Dark telecast which will be marked by its very late nod toward women’s boxing, with bouts pitting undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus (34-0, 9 KOs) of Norway vs. Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopez (18-4-3, 1 KO) of Poland and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields (7-0, 2 KOs), holder of three middleweight title belts, taking on WBO super middleweight champ Femke Hermans (9-1, 3 KOs) of Belgium. But for boxing purists who have been with HBO since its dramatic entry into boxing, in which George Foreman knocked down heavyweight champion Joe Frazier six times en route to a second-round TKO victory on Jan. 22, 1973, in Kingston, Jamaica, Bivol-Pascal undoubtedly will have the feel of the somber side of a wrap party.

HBO publicists are advising inquiring media minds that Jim Lampley, the longtime blow-by-blow voice of HBO World Championship Boxing, will not be taking questions about the curtain that is dropping and will thus mark the end of an era. Even the 36-year-old Pascal seems to have one foot out the door, with the fight against Pascal described in some quarters as being part of his “farewell tour,” although a return to his best form and an upset of Bivol, 27, a native of Kyrgyzstan who now resides in St. Petersburg, Russia, might extend his long goodbye in the manner of Cher, whose own farewell concert tour seemingly has been going on for 20 years.

But for every ending there must be a beginning, just as every death is counterbalanced by a birth elsewhere. Boxing on HBO and possibly Pascal, should he lose as anticipated, might be heading toward the exit but Bivol and his promoter, Main Events CEO Kathy Duva, profess to be excited by the first marquee bout showcasing a champion who has yet to fully grab the world’s attention. If there are to be no “legendary nights” for HBO in boxing in 2019 – that was the 2003 working title for 12-hour-long celebrations of great fights which had been televised by the network and helped cement its status as the sport’s primary outlet — maybe Bivol can create one for himself in as electric a way as Foreman introduced himself to a wider audience by dousing “Smokin’ Joe’s” fire in Jamaica.

“The next big step in Dmitry’s career, moving up to the main event for the first time,” Duva said in assessing the opportunity being afforded the new headliner of her promotional stable. “Nobody ever became a star on the undercard. This is the beginning of a journey.”

With or without HBO having skin in the game, Bivol and scads of other elite or mostly so practitioners of the pugilistic arts will not lack for opportunities to demonstrate their wares. TV boxing is busting out all over, with well-financed and committed joiners to the party serving to further diminish the HBO brand which had been in decline for several years.

Since August, blockbuster deals to provide boxing content were announced by British promoter Eddie Hearn, who has a $1 billion war chest to televise fights over the next eight years over DAZN (pronounced Da Zone), a new digital platform; Top Rank founder Bob Arum, who reached an agreement with ESPN to televise 54 fight cards on its various outlets over the next seven years, and Fox Sports, which is coming aboard for four years in partnership with Premier Boxing Champions. And Showtime, for so long cast as the second banana to HBO in premium-cable boxing, remains a player at the highest levels, with 22 shows in 2018 and the expressed intention to build on that number in the year ahead.

Faced with shrinking viewership at a time when a host of competitors were initiating or ramping up their boxing coverage, HBO, unlike, say, one of its longtime boxing anchors, the late, great Arturo Gatti, decided to quit on its stool rather than to buckle down and fight harder. In his Sept. 27 announcement that HBO would cease coverage of boxing in 2019, HBO Sports president 37-year-old Peter Nelson, who was nearly a decade away from being born the night that Foreman demolished Frazier, acknowledged that the low and getting lower ratings for boxing no longer justified the company’s continued involvement.

“This is not a subjective decision,” Nelson said. “Our audience research informs us that boxing is no longer a determinant factor for subscribers to HBO.”

Some years back, when HBO had only 15 million or so subscribers, it regularly featured such superstars of the ring as Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran, Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and Foreman. It was not unusual for bouts involving fighters of that magnitude to be watched by up to a third of the network’s subscribers. Now with 40 million subscribers, HBO boxing telecasts were averaging only 820,000 viewers, or about 2 percent of the total audience.

In an article in the New York Times, Nelson cited these depressing numbers as justification for HBO pulling the plug on boxing. Although Bivol-Pascal and the women’s twin bill were later added, the final HBO boxing telecast was to have been Daniel Jacobs’ 12-round split decision over Sergiy Derevyanchenko for the vacant IBF middleweight title at Madison Square Garden. No disrespect to Jacobs, Shields or Braekhus, but none qualify as the sort of can’t-miss TV as represented by some of the aforementioned household names who drew in viewers like metal objects to a strong magnet.

It has been theorized that the downfall of HBO boxing began with the departure of key executives Seth Abraham and Lou DiBella. Perhaps it was the slashing of HBO’s budget for boxing, making for fewer telecasts and less gifted, less popular fighters on the shows that were staged. Maybe it’s several factors that came into play in a witch’s brew of preordained calamity, no single one in and of itself capable of bringing down a giant but lethal when combined.

Larry Merchant, 87, the erudite former newspaperman who served as a commentator for HBO Boxing for 35 years until his retirement in December 2012, cited the natural progression and regression of a longtime fighter as a parallel to what is taking place with his former employer.

“I’m sad,” Merchant said from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. “But I was part of something that worked out well for me for 35 years. The way I put it, we were a good-looking prospect, then a challenger, a champion, a great champion, a long-time champion. Then we were an ex-champion, a has-been and, finally, retired. All I can say is so long.”

It is a given that Bivol-Pascal can’t possibly approach the drama of Foreman-Frazier I so many years ago, but it would be fitting and proper if they rooted around inside themselves to find the right stuff to help HBO to the kind of sendoff its rich history merits. The possibility for a good fight certainly exists, and each man has something of value he hopes to come away with.

For Bivol, who claimed the WBA crown when he knocked out Australia’s Trent Broadhurst on Feb. 23, 2017, in Monte Carlo, it is the chance for the quiet Russian to possibly announce himself as the best light heavyweight presently on the scene, what with Andre Ward retired and countryman Sergey Kovalev coming off a devastating seventh-round knockout loss to Eleider Alvarez on Aug. 4, also at the Hard Rock. (WBC champ Adonis Stevenson is still around, of course, but he’s 41 and notoriously judicious in his selection of opponents.)

Bivol also appeared on that HBO-televised Kovalev-Alvarez undercard, but in a supporting role, scoring a 12-round unanimous decision over South Africa’s Isaac Chilemba.

“Of course I am glad (to be in the main event),” Bivol said. “It means I am on the right way in my career. But every time I went into the ring I feel that I should show all my skills, all my best. It doesn’t matter now that it is my first (time atop the card). Every time I feel that responsibility. I want to prove to everybody with every fight that I am one of the best in my division.”

Truth be told, it was Bivol’s hope that he would instead be facing Kovalev in a unification matchup that would be of more obvious consequence than the fight with Pascal, whose best days might be behind him. But Kovalev relinquished his WBO belt to Alvarez, necessitating a change in plans.

“It was a little unfortunate because we know each other and have common friends,” Bivol said of his anticipation of the possible go at Kovalev that went by the boards. “We’ve boxed before. It is not pleasant to see someone you know, an acquaintance, go down like that. I thought he was going to win the fight. There was talk of us possibly fighting next, so that kind of fell apart. I was a little disappointed.”

Pascal wants to refute any notion that he is no longer a factor, even as he acknowledges that the end of his career might be coming sooner rather than later.

“I know that they picked me because they think they can beat me,” he said. “But it’s okay,  it’s part of the sport. This is the story of my life, to be the underdog. I was the underdog when I faced Chad Dawson. I won that fight. So I know what I have to do and what I’m capable of doing.”

First bell at the Hard Rock is at 6 p.m. The HBO telecast begins at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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