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Art and Heroism in a Corrupted Sport

Springs Toledo

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Tyson Fury: Art and Heroism

Tyson Fury lay in the ring like the Pietà in still life. Deontay Wilder’s right hand put him there, one of a scant few he didn’t get underneath. It landed behind his ear and sent his head flopping into the path of a left hook that sent all six-feet-nine-inches of him down with a crash.

The faces in the crowd—glomming, mouths agape, eyes burning with mad glee—morphed into a Bellows painting.

“…Two,” said referee Jack Reiss.

Fury was the only figure in the house that wasn’t moving. He stared at the ceiling as if something fearful was there, and a strange sound came from his throat—a raspy exhale, the kind you’d expect to hear from a man in the midst of night terrors. Unlike the Pietà, no one was holding him.

“…Three…”

He’d been there before; in that lonely place, flat on his back, nowhere to look but up. The desert monks called it acedia and considered it a form of existential despair. They were familiar enough with it to name it—the “noonday devil” attacks when the sun is highest, when everything is at its most brilliant.

Fury encountered it in 2015, after defeating Wlad Klitschko to become heavyweight champion. He was at the top of the world; he could reach up with one finger and touch the sun, but something was very wrong. “I had everything that a man could possess . . . but it meant nothing,” he said. So he did what rock stars do. He filled his emptiness with bodily pleasures, with animal beatitudes. “I was on Tony Montana and beer. Twenty pints, four or five times a week.” At four hundred pounds (“and counting”), his career was lost. His family moved out of the house. Legions of fans deserted him when he reached up with the wrong finger and sparked outrage with off-the-cuff and likely off-his-head comments about Jews, women, and gays.

“It was one of the greatest collapses in modern sports history,” said Rolling Stone.

“I don’t want to live,” said Fury.

He was all but finished. Then he blinked and made a decision.

That’s how recovery always begins: with a decision, a private commitment. The great “I will.” At first it was a narrowing of glazed eyes; he’d come back to the ring, have a few fights, see what happens. He told his wife, who saw only his flushed face and whale blubber. “Don’t try,” she said.

But Fury was looking beyond mere sport.

A product of a gypsy culture that reveres the figure of “the fighting man” most of all, he instinctively understood that this battle was personal. It had to be brought into the desert. His objective was not to reclaim lost glory but to transition from darkness into light the only way he knew how, by giving himself a familiar purpose, by devoting himself to daily discipline—and one look at him on a StairMaster was enough to prove that his twelve-step program required far more than twelve steps. He made sobriety a habit, lost a hundred forty-four pounds, and surrounded himself with men who brought hope first, expertise second.

In June and August, he defeated two respectable opponents and then sought out the most ferocious puncher in the heavyweight division.

—And dominated him in almost every exchange, demonstrating defensive superiority and an agility no giant ought to possess. Wilder, a one-dimensional puncher unconcerned with strategy and impervious to the pleadings of his corner, threw bomb after bomb that sailed over Fury’s ducking, dipping, slipping head a hundred times. In the ninth round, one of them finally got in, bouncing off the back of Fury’s head and sending him down. He wasn’t hurt; he saluted something over his head and proceeded to win the tenth and eleventh rounds on all three scorecards.

Wilder’s singular intention to get Fury out of there had gone from a confident plan A-no-need-for-B to a desperate hope. When he dropped Fury hard in the twelfth round, he swaggered off to a neutral corner and made a throat-slashing gesture with his glove to disguise his relief. As he stood ticking off ten seconds in his head, his manager was running along ringside ready to celebrate.

“…Five…”

Fury was staring at the ceiling, as motionless as marble. Then he blinked.

“…Six…”

He blinked again like a man with the rising sun in his eyes, the kind who doesn’t hit snooze, who gets up and goes to work.

He did just that. In the last minute of the last round, he was back in inspiration-mode. He hit Wilder with a right hand and left hook, stunning him and forcing him to grab hold.

The bell rang and it was bedlam in the Bellows crowd. Everyone in the raucous Staples Center and in living rooms across two continents was asking the same question: “How’d he get up?!”

Wilder was mystified. “I don’t know how he got up. Everyone knows I got heavy hands and I hit hard. I literally seen his eyes rolling in the back of his head,” he said at the post-fight conference. “Only God know how he got back up.”

When Fury came out and sat at the microphone, reporters forgot to honor the current zeitgeist and take Christ out of Christmas. “Did Jesus Christ come down and wake you up?” asked one of them. “What happened?”

“I think so. I had the holy hands upon me tonight and I was brought back. Rose me to my feet at the brink of defeat.” Fury said it matter-of-factly, then wavered. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

It was a miraculous, career-best performance that should have seen him up on the cards by at least eight rounds to four and up by at least two points despite two knockdowns. But this is boxing and it’s a corrupted place. Fury got no better than a draw.

Judge Alejandro Rochin—who had the wrong fighter winning seven rounds to five—is the Laszlo Toth of this story. He took a hammer and vandalized a stirring experience. What was he thinking? At best, he confused Wilder with Fury for the first four rounds and scored accordingly. At worst, someone or somebody with a substantial financial interest in Fury not winning got to him. At the very least, bank deposit slips of such judges should be examined and they should be deported from the sport like Toth was from Italy.

Why Great Britain’s Phil Edwards scored the seventh round for Wilder and thus forced the draw is a mystery. It should require his appearance in a locked room to review that round with a competent judge and Teddy Atlas.

Art and heroism don’t flourish amid corruption. When they do, they’re magnified. Brilliance is blinding in the dark. That, and referees like Jack Reiss, are about all that keep us coming back to a sport that cannot differentiate between a champion and a contender any better than Rochin can fighters four feet in front of him. Even so, Fury’s soul-stirring round twelve against Wilder measures up against any great heavyweight round of the last thirty years. It’s as stirring as Evander Holyfield’s round ten against Riddick Bowe and almost as stirring as George Foreman’s round ten against Michael Moorer. It is added unto the rich folklore of the flagship division.

Holyfield fought for little guys routinely outgunned, Foreman for old-timers. Fury has an eighty-five-inch reach and stretched his arms further than both. It was while he was laying there all but finished, he said—especially then, that he was representing “everybody who suffers round the world.” And everybody, one supposes, includes not only those with mental illness but Jews, women, and gays.

The Pietà depicts the compassion of one who knows first-hand what suffering is, and how redemptive it can be. Michelangelo grasped the higher context of his work and sought to honor it. He was doing more than carving stone. Fury, neither hero nor artist, sought to do more than simply win a prizefight. “It’s no secret what I been through,” he said. “I had to show that you can continue and you can carry on, and anything is possible.”

Yeah. That’s good. Inspiring. But how’d he get up?

__________________

Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War (2014), In the Cheap Seats (2016), and Murderers’ Row (2017). Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 is scheduled for release on 1/1/2019 as an eBook.

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Fulton Wins Inside War to Win WBO Title and Other Results from Connecticut

David A. Avila

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This time Stephen Fulton passed the Covid-19 test and then out-worked Angelo Leo in a brutal inside war to take the WBO super bantamweight world title by unanimous decision on Saturday.

Philadelphia’s Fulton (19-0, 8 KOs) was supposed to box and move against the body puncher Leo (20-1, 9 KOs) of Las Vegas but instead banged his way to victory with an artful display of inside fighting at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.

When Leo won the world title during this past summer, he was supposed to fight Fulton, but Fulton showed positive on a Covid-19 test and was forced out of the fight. Not this time. Instead, the Philly fighter would not be denied.

Fulton planted his feet and banged to the body against body shot artist Leo and kept it going toe-to-toe for most of the 12 rounds.

Leo had his moments and was able to start slightly quicker, but by the sixth round it seemed Fulton was the stronger fighter down the stretch.

“He started breathing a little harder,” said Fulton. “I pushed myself to the limit in training.”

It showed.

Fulton took control for the last four rounds and just seemed fresher and more active to win by unanimous decision. Despite fighting primarily inside, the Philly fighter seemed comfortable.

“The game plan was to box at first. But I had to get a little dirty,” Fulton said. “I made it a dog fight.”

All three judges scored it for Fulton: 118-110 and 119-109 twice. TheSweetscience.com scored it 115-113 for Fulton who now holds the WBO super bantamweight world title.

“I’m the only champion Philadelphia has,” said Fulton.

Aleem KOs Pasillas

A battle between undefeated power-hitting super bantamweights saw Ra’eese Aleem (18-0, 12 KOs) knock down East L.A.’s Vic Pasillas (16-1, 9 KOs) multiple times before ending the fight in the 11th round.

“I believe I put an exclamation point in my victory,” said Aleem who trains in Las Vegas but is a native of Michigan.

Aleem showed off his quickness and power in both hands that resulted in knock downs of Pasillas in the second, sixth, ninth and 11th rounds. It seemed that Pasillas never could figure out how to combat the awkward looping blows and quickness of Aleem.

Pasillas had a few moments with his ability to score with counter lefts and right hooks from his southpaw stance. But every time he scored big Aleem would rally back with even more explosive blows.

As Aleem mounted a large lead, Pasillas looked to set up a needed knockout blow but was instead caught with an overhand right to the chin and a finishing left that forced the referee to stop the fight at 1:00 of the 11th round.

Aleem picks up the interim WBA super bantamweight title. It’s basically a title that signifies he is the number one contender.

Lightweights

Rolando Romero (13-0, 11 KOs) floored Avery Sparrow (10-3, 3 KOs) in the first round and then exhibited his boxing skills to win by technical knockout.

It looked like the fight was going to end early when Romero caught Sparrow with a left hook. But Philadelphia’s Sparrow survived the first round and the next few rounds to slow down the attacking Romero. Things settled down but Romero kept winning the rounds.

Sparrow dropped to the floor during an exchange of blows in the sixth round which the referee quickly ruled “no knockdown.” Noticeably in pain Sparrow was under full assault from Romero and resorted to firing low blows. The referee deducted two points from Sparrow for the infraction.

The Philadelphia fighter limped out with a still gimpy knee to compete in the seventh round but within a minute Sparrow’s corner signaled to the referee to stop the fight. The stoppage gave Romero the win by technical knockout at 43 seconds into the round.

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Boxers Fighting the Best and Doing It Again for the First Time: Part Two

Ted Sares

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Boxers Fighting the Best and Doing It Again for the First Time: Part Two

As mentioned in Part One, the phrase “cherry picking” gained meaningful traction during the time “Money” Mayweather was making his run. A new and very simple business model seemed to fuel it; namely, make the most money the quickest way with the least amount of risk and that translated into fewer fights. The change was almost imperceptible.

WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. (31-1) has fought once a year sine 2014. WBO middleweight king Demetrius Andrade (39-0) started out fast but then fell into a less active mode. Wlad Klitschko began to pick his spots with more caution as he met the likes of Francesco Pianeta and Alex Leapai. Shane Mosley slowed down towards the end and even Guillermo Rigondeaux (20-1) has faded from the headlines after being stopped by Vasyl Lomachenko.

Back to the Future

Suddenly, however, a twist has emerged that suggests a new model may well be in the offing; to wit: make the most money the quickest way but with lesser regard to risk. Perhaps Daniel Dubois fighting Joe Joyce last November was an example. Translated, it could mean that the best will fight the best as they did in days of yore. If so, Mega- possibilities await.

“I Want All The Belts, No Easy Fights, I Want To Face The Best.” –Virgil Ortiz

Ryan “King Ry” Garcia (21-0) has called out everyone and anybody and it appears he might get his wish in Devin “The Dream” Haney (25-0) or maybe the exciting Gervonta “Tank” Davis (24-0).

The new breed of Davis, Garcia, Haney and Teofimo “The Takeover” Lopez is being is being compared to the “Four Kings” (Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Duran) but a flattered Devin Haney wisely notes “those guys fought each other.”

In this connection, writer James Slater nails it as follows: “Right now, in today’s boxing world, Haney, Lopez, Davis and Garcia could all do well, they could win a title or two and they could pick up some huge paydays, without fighting each other. This is the state the sport is in these days. It’s up to the fighters to really WANT to take take the risks, to take on their most dangerous rivals. The ‘Four Kings’ did it, time and again, and this is what added enormously to their greatness.”

Teofimo Lopez did it. After shocking Richard Commey, he beat Vasyl Lomachenko in an even more shocking outcome and now wants George Kambosos, Jr. to step aside for a Devin Haney fight.

It doesn’t get any better than the specter of Errol Spence Jr. (27-0) fighting “Bud” Crawford (37-0) unless it’s Tyson Fury (30-0-1) meeting Anthony Joshua (24-1.) If Covid 19 is under control, they could do this one in front of 100,000 fans.

Josh Taylor has talked about challenging Lopez even if it means dropping down to lightweight, and then moving up to 147 to challenge Crawford or Spence.

Dillian Whyte rematching with Alexander Povetkin is another highly anticipated fray and has the added dimension of being a crossroads affair. Oleksandr Usyk will likely face off with Joe Joyce in Usyk’s first real test as a heavyweight.

In late February there’s a big domestic showdown in New Zealand between heavyweights Joseph Parker and Junior Fa. On that same date In London, Carl Frampton squares off with slick WBO 130-pound champion Jamel Herring.

And Juan Francisco Estrada rematching with a rejuvenated Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez has everyone’s attention.

Super exciting Joe Smith Jr. meets Russia’s Maxim Vlasov for the vacant WBA light heavyweight belt. What’s not to like?

The showdown between Miguel Berchelt (38-1) and Oscar Valdez (28-0) is the best on the February docket and could end up being a FOTY.

Speaking of FOTY’s, the prospect of Naoya “Monster” Inoue vs. Kazuto Ioka is as mouthwatering as it can get and has global appeal.

Meanwhile, Artur Beterbiev looms and it’s not a question of opponents as much as it’s a question of who wants to contend with his bludgeoning style of destruction.

Claressa Shields, Marie Eve Dicaire, Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano, Delfine Persoon, Jessica McCaskill, and Layla McCarter are prepared to make female boxing sizzle. In the final analysis,  when Vasyl Lomachenko becomes an opponent, you know something is very different.

You can read Part One HERE

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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Vic Pasillas: An East L.A. Fighter

David A. Avila

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When East L.A.’s Vic Pasillas enters the prize ring this weekend he follows a path that many from his area have trod before. Not all were successful, but those that succeed become near legendary.

But it’s definitely not easy being from East L.A.

Pasillas (16-0, 9 KOs) meets Michigan’s Raeese Aleem (17-0, 11 KOs) for the vacant interim WBA featherweight title on Saturday Jan. 23, at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. Showtime will televise live.

Once again, a fighter from East L.A. stands pivoted for greatness. Can Pasillas go all the way?

For the past 130 years, prizefighters from East Los Angeles have developed into some of the best in the world if you can get them into the prize ring. Oscar De La Hoya and Leo Santa Cruz are two who were able to duck drugs, crime, street gangs and longtime allegiances that can often mislead aspiring boxers toward deadly endings.

One of the first featherweight champions in history lived in East L.A. Solly Garcia Smith won the world championship in 1893. He was the first Latino to ever win a world title.

There are many others from “East Los” who were talented prizefighters that were sidetracked into oblivion. Talented pugilists like brothers Panchito Bojado and Angel Bojado were derailed by mysterious obstacles that East Los Angeles presents. Others like Frankie Gomez and Julian Rodriguez showed dazzling promise but disappeared.

It’s almost as if a curse hangs over East L.A. area like a blanket of smog.

Many were surefire champions. But for some reason East L.A. or East Los as it’s called by those living in the 20 square mile radius, seems to have a dark lingering spell that makes it extra difficult for prizefighters to succeed.

Back in the 1950s a supremely talented fighter named Keeny Teran was skyrocketing to fame when heroin dropped him like an invisible left hook. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye were his biggest backers. Yet, not even they could help Teran.

Drugs almost took Pasillas too.

The fighter known as “Vicious” Vic Pasillas could have tripped into one of those sad stories from East L.A. you often hear about from your abuelitas. The streets can easily claim you if you let your guard down. Who is a friend and who is a foe are not often clear as the colors brown or white. It’s a potholed journey to navigate the barrio streets that look tame during the day, but ominous when the darkness arrives.

Barrio Life

Growing up with parents who were incarcerated led Pasillas to find loyalty from the vatos on the street. They treated him well and gave him protection and a sense of family, but often led to being involved in petty and major crimes.

“I moved out of the neighborhood. I had to get away from my friends. No disrespect to them but I knew that I would end up in jail,” said Pasillas who moved to Riverside, Calif. which is 60 miles east of East L.A. “Nobody knew where I was.”

One thing certain: prizefighting was his gift. All that he encountered recognized his boxing ability.

“He was always a gifted fighter,” said Joe Estrada, who would often take him to tournaments around California or in other states. “Every tournament he entered he won. He has always had speed, power, and defense. He’s always been a great boxer, but trouble was always around him.”

Gangs had always been a part of Pasillas life. He was born into gangs in South El Monte and even after moving to East L.A. it was not an escape. It was vatos locos that took him under their wing and showed him love and respect. They took care of him; some were also boxers.

East L.A. is an area much like a spider web. You can travel a quarter mile in one direction and suddenly you are in enemy turf. Gangs are everywhere. If you are an adult male you can’t simply walk outside a door without looking in all directions. It makes you razor sharp in recognizing danger. You always look out for danger.

Pasillas loved boxing and loved his friends, the big homies, but cutting off one for the other was the most difficult decision. He would train, fight, and win but then hang with the homies and end up being arrested with the rest of them.

“The cops would come and everybody would run so I would run,” said Pasillas. “I didn’t do anything, but I would get busted with everybody else for trying to evade the police.”

Things remained the same until he met his wife. The streets never had a chance. Once married he moved to the Riverside area. It was 2011 and newly married he needed to make a decision on whether to try and make the Olympic team or turn professional.

“I was ready to go to the Olympics. First, I was going to smash everybody but my wife got pregnant at 2011. It forced me to get a job at a warehouse. I was making 50 dollars a week. Pennies,” said Pasillas. “I got a call from Cameron Dunkin and Top Rank. They offered me a fight on the third Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez fight. That was my pro debut.”

Sadly, the streets reclaimed him again.

Reckoning

A move to northern California seemed to change things but the struggle to stay outside the grasp of the streets remained real even hundreds of miles away. Despite the dark times Pasillas still had friends and admirers.

Seniesa Estrada, who holds the interim WBA flyweight title and is poised to fight for a world title in March, remembers sparring with Pasillas when she could not find girls to spar.

“Vic was always very good. He would take it easy on me, of course, but I would learn so much from sparring with guys like him and Jojo Diaz and Frankie Gomez,” said Estrada, who grew up and still lives in East L.A.

Pasillas, 28, had more than 300 amateur fights. He lost only eight times. Anyone who ever saw him fight immediately recognized his immense talent.

“Vic is one of the best fighters I ever saw,” said Joe Estrada. “Everyone knew that when he’s in shape he can’t be beat. Just so much talent.”

That talent will be tested on Saturday when he meets Michigan’s undefeated Aleem. Whoever wins their battle will meet the winner between Angelo Leo and Stephen Fulton who fight for the WBO super bantamweight title.

“I want to fight the best now, and Pasillas is one of the best fighters in the division. I’m not ducking or dodging anyone. I’m going to be a world champion by all means necessary,” said Aleem who now fights out of Las Vegas.

Pasillas doesn’t doubt that Aleem has talent.

“I don’t want to give up my game plan but best believe I’m going to do whatever it takes to win this fight. If he wants to bang, then we’ll bang, if he wants to box, we’ll box. I’ve seen so many different styles in the amateurs, there is nothing that he brings that I haven’t seen. My power is what he’s going to have to deal with,” Pasillas said.

It’s been an incredible up and down journey so far for Pasillas; a lifetime of dealing with hidden traps on East L.A. streets that have toppled many previous fighters now long forgotten.

Or will those same streets show the way to glittering success as former champions De La Hoya, Santa Cruz, Joey Olivo, Richie Lemos, Newsboy Brown and Solly Garcia Smith discovered.

One thing Pasillas already discovered was his own family.

“People invite me all the time to events and parties but I tell them I already have plans with my family,” said Pasillas who has a wife and two elementary age children. “I never really had a family like other people.”

Now he has his own family. Something he didn’t have during his youth due to drugs and the streets.

“It’s just a domino effect. I’m making sure I’m going to stop that s—t,” says Pasillas. “It’s going to be good for East Los. I’m a born and bred fighter from East Los.”

Sometimes the streets can break you or make you.

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