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Dmitry Bivol Iced the Cake at an Eastern European Soiree in Atlantic City

Bernard Fernandez

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – If ever there was proof that life sometimes imitates art, consider what took place here Saturday night in the Mark G. Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The eight-bout card was a veritable smorgasbord of Eastern  European boxing talent, the centerpiece of which was WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol’s wide and efficient unanimous decision over shopworn but still reasonably dangerous former WBC light heavy titlist Jean Pascal. It was a historic occasion, in light of the fact that that it was the final telecast for HBO World Championship Boxing, ending the premium-cable network’s signature affiliation with boxing after a run of 45 years. But there was historical context of another sort, perhaps missed by spectators in the half-filled arena and HBO viewers.

Calling the action at ringside was the HBO broadcast crew of veteran blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley and commentators Max Kellerman and Roy Jones Jr., all of whom played themselves in Creed II, the eighth film in the iconic Rocky franchise, which opened nationwide just three days earlier. The fairly standard revenge plot is an outgrowth of 1985’s Rocky IV, which introduced audiences to Ivan Drago, the remorseless Russian Olympic champion who is his country’s first professional boxer. Drago fatally bludgeons former heavyweight titlist Apollo Creed in the ring and tries his best to more or less do the same to Rocky Balboa in a climactic slugfest in Moscow. Thirty-three years after the original East-meets-West storyline, Creed II has Apollo’s son mixing it up with Ivan Drago’s remorseless, intimidating son in a matchup that no longer seems unique because Russian pros – really, quality fighters from throughout Eastern Europe – are now commonplace in America and just about everywhere else where punching for pay is allowed.

Asked about the post-Iron Curtain makeup of the card, which included three fighters from Russia, three from Uzbekistan, four from Mexico, four from the U.S., one from Uganda and one from Canada by way of his native Haiti (Pascal), Bivol said it was a natural progression after a new generation of fighters from the former Soviet Union discovered the joys of capitalism and freedom of movement previously denied to their forebears.

“Before it wasn’t (possible) because we had USSR,” said Bivol, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and now resides in St. Petersburg, Russia, in explaining the ever-increasing presence of highly skilled Eastern European fighters in bouts staged around the globe. “When there was USSR (which fragmented in 1991), there was no professional boxing, only amateur. Now it has kind of opened up with a lot of opportunities for these good amateurs to come out and fight in the world. They have really good backgrounds and they are showing it in the professional ring.”

After his turn at the post-fight podium, Bivol – whose English is surprisingly good, if heavily accented – posed for a sort of class picture with heavyweights Evgeny Tischenko and Sergey Kuzmin (both Russia), welterweight Shakhram Giyasov (Uzbekistan) and super bantamweight Murodjon Akhmadaliev (Uzbekistan), all of whom won their bouts in impressive fashion.

But make no mistake, the star of the show was Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs) who is too polite and a bit too light at 174.4 pounds to conjure thoughts of Drago the Terrible. Presumably just entering his prime at 27 (he turns 28 on Dec. 18), Bivol is a boxer-puncher who goes into every fight thinking knockout but is not displeased if his path to victory is more readily achieved with basic fundamentals and tactical superiority. There were moments in the methodical disassembly of Pascal – which one ringside observer described as “a competitive ass-kicking” – when it appeared that Bivol could conclude matters early and with a flourish, but his reticence in pressing his advantage owed at least in part to sparring sessions he had with Pascal two years earlier.

“When I sparred with Jean Pascal two years ago I felt his power,” Bivol said. “He is a really strong guy. He looks like Cross-Fit man.”

Impressive musculature or not, it soon became apparent that the 36-year-old Pascal is on the downhill side of a nice career and did not have enough weapons to seriously jeopardize Bivol’s hoped-for rise to the very top of the 175-pound weight class. After being semi-shellacked in the seventh round, Pascal –- chastised in the corner by his trainer, Stephan Larouche – came out in desperation mode to start round eight, winging wide and wild shots that Bivol easily stepped away from until the challenger’s furious assault gave way to fatigue.

The official scorecards – judges Carlos Ortiz and Lynne Carter each had it 119-109 for Bivol, with Henry Grant a bit more generous to Pascal at 117-111 – were reflective of the punch statistics tabulated by CompuBox, which showed Bivol connecting on 217 of 678, 32 percent, to 60 of 357 (16.8 percent) for Pascal, who chose not to convey his thoughts to the inquiring minds at the post-fight press conference. Pascal, a resident of the Montreal suburb of Laval, Quebec, had mentioned in the lead-up to the fight that he was on his “farewell tour,” a journey that appears to be accelerating to its conclusion, if it hasn’t arrived there already.

To his credit, Bivol is both a realist and as humble as most fighters of his stature ever get. He wants the kind of marquee fights his rising stock suggests are in his immediate future, but it takes two to tangle, as his consolation-prize pairing with Pascal demonstrated. Had he had his way, Bivol would have instead squared off in a unification bout with WBO champion Eleider “Storm” Alvarez (24-0, 12 KOs), but Alvarez instead elected to defend that title in a rematch against the man from whom he took the title, Russia’s Sergey Kovalev (32-3-1, 28), which will take place on Feb. 2 at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas.

“Every time I say to my team I want big fights,” Bivol said. “I want big names. I want belts. (But) if you can’t get me unification fights in my division, maybe I can go down a weight class. I want to make it big in boxing. I am ready. I have one belt and of course I want more.”

Which is Bivol’s way of saying that he does not have a strong enough argument to make a compelling case for being recognized as the indisputably best light heavyweight around, not with Alvarez, IBF champ Artur Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs) and WBC ruler Adonis “Superman” Stevenson (29-1-1, 24 KOs) all claimants to that designation. And don’t go to sleep on Kovalev, who might still have enough gas left in the tank at 35 to turn the tables on Alvarez, who knocked him out in seven rounds on Aug. 4, also at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City.

Those big fights to which Bivol refers are plentiful, at least in theory. In addition to the other titleholders against whom he’d love to test himself, there are Oleksandr Gvozdyk (15-0, 12 KOs), Badou Jack (22-1-3, 13 KOs), Marcus Browne (22-0, 16 KOs) and Joe Smith Jr. (24-2, 20 KOs). It should be noted that Beterbiev is a Montreal-based Russian and Gvozdyk a Ukrainian, making for even more Eastern Europeans splashing around in the deep end of the light heavyweight pool.

“These guys are the best,” he said in the sort of nod to other light heavyweight titlists that goes against the grain of the standard braggadocio found in boxing at the highest levels. “I am not the best in light heavyweight division. I am only one of four. We should make fights to understand who is the best.”

Should his preferred targets at 175 pounds prove difficult to land, Bivol said he has the frame to comfortably pare down to 168 and test himself against the biggest fish in that division, which likely will be Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez (50-1-2, 34) should he succeed, as expected, in wresting the WBC super middleweight crown from the United Kingdom’s Rocky Fielding (27-1, 15 KOs) on Dec. 15 at Madison Square Garden.

“Many fighters want to fight against Canelo,” Bivol said of his willingness to move down if necessary. “Of course, me too. I’m not a big guy. I can make (168).”

In the other HBO-televised bout, Akhmadaliev (5-0, 3 KOs), a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, defended his WBA Intercontinental super bantamweight title on a ninth-round stoppage of fellow southpaw Isaac Zarate (16-4-3, 2 KOs), of San Pedro, Calif. And if you think Akhmadaliev won his minor belt in rapid fashion, consider Madrimov, who won the vacant WBA Regional super welter championship in his pro debut, on a sixth-round TKO of Mexico’s Vladimir Hernandez (10-3, 6 KOs).

Another Olympian, this one a 2016 gold medalist – Tischenko (3-0, 2 KOs) – put away Mexico’s Christian Marischal (11-2, 5 KOs) in two rounds.

Two U.S. fighters, lightweight Karl Dargan (19-1, 9 KOs) of Philadelphia and welterweight Logan Yoon (14-0, 11 KOs), upheld American pride in this night of Eastern European dominance, Dargan scoring an eight-round decision over Moises Delgadillo (17-13-2, 9 KOs) of Mexico and Yoon (14-0, 11 KOs) stopping Uganda’s Hamizah Sempewa (12-11, 6 KOs) in five rounds.

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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Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

Arne K. Lang

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Twenty-six years have elapsed since the first boxing card at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The inaugural show took place on Jan. 29, 1994, the eve of Super Bowl XXVII.

A little background: The MGM Grand opened on Dec. 17, 1993. With its 5,005 rooms, it was the largest hotel in the world. The MGM Grand Garden arena, effectively the municipal auditorium of the self-styled “City of Entertainment,” was christened on New Years Eve with a concert by Barbara Streisand. Twenty-nine days later, the bill of fare was an 11-fight boxing card promoted by Don King.

Looking back, seven of the participants – boxers Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, and Christy Martin and referees Richard Steele and Joe Cortez – would go on to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hearns, who was nearing the end of his career, having grown into a cruiserweight, was matched soft, as was Christy Martin who was making her Las Vegas debut and was then looked upon as a sideshow novelty act. Two other notables, heavyweight Razor Ruddock and welterweight Meldrick Taylor, were likewise deployed in stay-busy fights. The undercards of Don King’s major promotions typically took this tack – big names in little fights.

Topping the bill were three world title fights. WBC 154-pound title-holder Simon Brown opposed Troy Waters. Trinidad defended his IBF welterweight title against Camacho. And in the grand finale, the great Chavez, who held a junior welterweight title, was matched against Frankie Randall.

Simon Brown had a more difficult time than expected against Troy Waters, a teak-tough Australian, but prevailed on a majority decision. Trinidad, at age 21 the younger man by 10 years, chased Camacho all over the ring en route to winning a unanimous decision. And Chavez….

The MGM Grand Garden was scaled to hold 15,200, but there were a lot of empty seats; the announced attendance was 12,777. One would have expected a sellout as Las Vegas is chock-full of revelers on a Super Bowl weekend, but there was an extenuating circumstance.

Twelve days before the fight, at 4:30 am on Jan. 17, Southern California was struck by an earthquake. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge Earthquake damaged buildings as far as 85 miles away. It buckled portions of some heavily-traveled freeways, forcing their closure and repairs were hindered by a scattered series of aftershocks that lasted the better part of two weeks.

Visitors from Southern California are the backbone of the Las Vegas tourism industry. Most arrive by car. The earthquake had the effect of reducing hotel occupancy as many Southern Californians cancelled their reservations and that assuredly spilled over into the fight, hurting attendance. But those that were there witnessed a memorable main event.

Frankie Randall, nicknamed the Surgeon, hailed from Morristown, Tennessee. He had an excellent record (48-2-1, 39 KOs), but Julio Cesar Chavez, who owned the most eye-catching record in boxing (officially 89-0-1), was so highly regarded that he was listed as a 17/1 favorite in the MGM sports book.

Randall started strong, an indication that he would be a hard nut to crack. But the middle rounds belonged to Chavez with his patented body attack. In round seven, one of those body punches strayed too low and Richard Steele deducted a point.

In round 11, Steele deducted another point for the same infraction and, worse for Chavez, he was knocked down for the first time in his career. It was a straight right hand that did the damage, a clean punch, and although Chavez was up at the count of “three,” it was a 10-8 round for Randall.

During the early rounds, shouts of “May-hee-co, May-hee-co” reverberated through the arena. Late in the fight, when one could sense that an upset was brewing, shouts of “USA, USA” punctuated the din.

The 11th round proved decisive. When the scores were read, the Mexican judge favored Chavez 114-113, but he was overruled by the Puerto Rican judge (114-113) and the Las Vegas judge (116-111). If not for those two points deducted by referee Richard Steele – the same referee who had controversially stopped Chavez’s fight with Meldrick Taylor with one second remaining on the clock in the final round – Julio Cesar Chavez would have retained his title — and his undefeated record — on a split decision.

Chavez did not take losing very well. He bellyached that he was robbed, an opinion that found few sympathizers. A fast rematch was arranged which took place at the MGM Grand on Cinco de Mayo weekend. In this fight, an accidental clash of heads late in round eight left Chavez with a bad gash on his forehead and the fight was stopped. By rule, it went to the scorecards where Chavez emerged the winner by split decision, a very controversial denouement (and a story for another day). There would be a rubber match in Mexico City when both gladiators were in their 40’s, a dull 10-round affair scored in favor of Chavez.

By the way, on the day following the debut of boxing at the MGM Grand, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 30-13 at Atlanta. As Super Bowls go, this one didn’t attract all that much buzz. The same teams had met in the Super Bowl the previous year and Dallas had won by “35.”

By all indications, the forthcoming Super Bowl will be a doozy. Enjoy the game.

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Introducing Top Prospect Raeese Aleem, the Pride of Muskegon

Arne K. Lang

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At age 29, Raeese Aleem has yet to appear in a 10-round fight, but that will almost assuredly happen this year. The undefeated (15-0, 9 KOs) super bantamweight from Muskegon, Michigan, takes another step in that direction on Friday, Feb. 14, when he opposes San Antonio’s Adam Lopez (16-3-2) at Philadelphia in a bout that will air on “ShoBox,” the long-running SHOWTIME series that’s been a springboard for 81 fighters who went on to win world titles.

Aleem earned a black belt in karate before taking up boxing and becoming a four-time Michigan Golden Gloves champion. As an amateur, he and his coach Terry Markowski did a considerable amount of traveling between meets to find good sparring. Grand Rapids, an amateur boxing hotbed, was just down the road, but Detroit and Chicago were a good three hours away and on occasion they went on an even longer excursion into Ohio.

Aleem turned pro in 2011 and had his first 10 fights on the Midwest circuit, venturing as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Cincinnati. At the time, he worked in the produce department of Meijer’s, a regional rival of Walmart. His bosses, he notes, were generous in letting him juggle his work schedule around his boxing assignments.

For a boxer with designs on winning a world title, the Midwest circuit is like a bicycle with training wheels. Aleem had to shake free of it to see how far he could go. Besides, getting fights was getting tougher and tougher. There’s a 28-month gap in his pro timeline that includes all of 2013. He had several fights fall out during this frustrating quiescence.

If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.

“When I came to Las Vegas,” says Aleem who has a daughter back in Michigan, “I had no family here, no friends.” He was directed to Barry’s boxing gym, run by ex-boxer Pat Barry and his wife Dawn, retired Las Vegas police officers, and started training under their son-in-law Augie Sanchez. But Sanchez, the last man to defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr (accomplished when they were amateurs), had other priorities. He is an assistant coach with Team USA which obligates him to spend a good deal of his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Things started looking up for Aleem when he joined the Prince Ranch stable under the management of Greg Hannley. At the Prince Ranch Gym, where the head trainer is Bones Adams, he has sparred with such notables as Nonito Donaire and former WBO 122-pound champion Jessie Magdaleno.

Aleem doesn’t miss the weather in Muskegon, a lakefront city where sub-freezing temperatures are the norm in the dead of winter and snow is forecast for all of next week. But he still has one foot in his hometown, as evident by his unbroken bond with Terry Markowski. In an era when some boxers appear to change trainers as often as they change their underwear, Aleem has remained loyal to Markowski who has been in his corner for all of his pro fights and will be there again on Feb. 14.

Markowski, who teaches boxing at the Muskegon Rec Center, is a protégé of Muskegon’s most esteemed boxer, the late Kenny Lane. The epitome of a crafty southpaw, Lane, a lightweight and junior welterweight, was a three-time world title challenger during a 100-fight career that began in 1953.

The relationship between Raeese Aleem and Terry Markowski dates back to 2003 when Aleem resided in the nearby village of Ravenna, where Aleem’s father, the patriarch of a large blended family, planted Raeese and his siblings to get them away from the temptations of Muskegon which has several blighted areas. “It was a culture shock for me when I started going to school in Ravenna,” says Aleem, looking back, as none of his schoolmates looked like him.

This will be Aleem’s fifth fight in Pennsylvania where he has made four of his last five starts. The connecting thread is Reading, Pennsylvania gym operator-turned-promoter Marshall Kauffman who has been credited with keeping boxing vibrant in the Keystone State.

This being Aleem’s national television debut, it’s important that he make a good showing. His Las Vegas trainer Bones Adams, a former world champion in Aleem’s weight division, expects nothing less. “I’m confident he will be a world champion someday,” says Adams.

Photo credit: Mario Serrano / Prince Ranch Boxing

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A Bouquet for Danny Garcia in This Week’s Edition of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Two-division champion Danny Garcia had the spotlight all to himself over the weekend in a stay-busy fight against Ivan Redkach on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader that had the odd privilege these days of not being counterprogrammed by a Top Rank show on ESPN or any other kind of boxing card on DAZN.

So Garcia, 31, from Philadelphia, had the chance to remind people how excellent a fighter he is in full force, which would help him greatly in his effort to secure an unlikely bout against WBA champ Manny Pacquiao or remain first in line to face WBC and IBF champ Errol Spence whenever the Texan recovers from the injuries he sustained in a car accident in October.

But did Garcia pull it off? Here’s the latest edition of HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Danny Garcia’s Pristine and Precise Technique 

The best parts about Garcia were on full display against Redkach. That was made easier by Redkach’s lack of anything that might have given Garcia any real problems, but nonetheless Garcia was able to show the lovely footwork and balanced countering ability that made him so formidable at junior welterweight. There’s just something special about seeing Garcia fight. The economy of his movement inside a boxing ring is something that is just plain different than just about any other world-class fighter in the world today. In a fight that most people probably would have preferred he just skipped, and one that didn’t turn out to be any different than everyone expected, at least Garcia’s beautiful boxing was on display.

MISS – Showtime Sparring Sessions

In addition to Garcia-Redkach, Showtime rounded out its tripleheader with undefeated junior featherweight Stephen Fulton taking on former Muay Thai fighter Arnold Khegai and former unified junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd taking on career welterweight Francisco Santana. While Fulton’s fight against Khegai seemed like a legitimate prizefight, there was something about the other two bouts that screamed sparring sessions. That was especially the case for Hurd’s bout. Not only was Hurd in there with a middling welterweight, but he also used the rounds of the fight to work on vastly different boxing techniques than what made him so popular in the first place. Showtime might not have the pull they once had with the people over at the PBC offices, but they for sure need to get more involved in vetting matchups if they hope to remain afloat within the competitive boxing landscape of today.

HIT – Stephon Fulton’s Title Chances at 122 Pounds

Fulton is a very solid boxer who digs to the body and has a fast, clean jab. Khegai was the perfect kind of opponent for the 25-year-old. He was very game and never stopped trying to win. Additionally, his background in Muay Thai offered some different looks to Fulton that should help him on his way toward world title contention. In the end, Fulton outworked Khegai to hand the tough 27-year-old the first loss of his career. Now let’s hope Fulton is off to bigger and better things such as challenging for a world title. He’s ready right now.

MISS – Andy Ruiz’s Continued Soap Opera

The best thing former unified champion Andy Ruiz could have done after blowing the rematch against Anthony Joshua in December is getting right back to work in the gym. What better way to show trainer Manny Robles that he was taking responsibility for his actions than to get right back to work with the same team he had just let down so badly? Instead, Ruiz fired Robles and is considering other trainers. That would make more sense if there had been some sort of tactical error in the fight. But Ruiz already admitted he simply didn’t train for arguably the biggest fight of his life, and that’s not anyone’s fault but his own.

HIT – Former Middleweight Titleholder Andy Lee’s Second Act

It appears former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee found his second act in life as a trainer, which makes a ton of sense if you followed Lee’s career under the tutelage of the late Emanuel Steward. Lee, 39, left Ireland after his amateur days to live with Steward in Detroit and train at Kronk. The two had a very close personal relationship and that experience ultimately helped Lee win the world title in 2014 two years after Steward’s passing. Now, Lee is passing on what he knows in the same way Steward did with him to other fighters. He trains and manages Irish upstart Paddy Donovan, is guiding Jason Quigley back to contention and even helped orchestrate distant cousin Tyson Fury bringing on Javan “SugarHill” Steward for the heavyweight’s upcoming rematch against Deontay Wilder.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

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