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Likely No Landslides in IBHOF Class of 2019, But Honorees Happy to Make the Cut

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Halls of Fame ostensibly exist to honor exceptionally high achievers, but some would say their secondary purpose is to at least occasionally generate debate. And the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., is no different.

Given the IBHOF’s requirement that three new inductees be enshrined every year, there is no guarantee that there are three annual slam-dunks in the most prestigious Modern category for fighters. Sometimes the field of candidates in a given year appears to offer no sure things. When someone who has been on the ballot for several years finally makes the cut, and even if a certain candidate’s election – the voting pool consists of full members of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an international panel of boxing historians — comes in his first year of eligibility (fighters must not have fought for five years to be considered for induction), there is apt to be some grumbling from naysayers who say a hall of fame should be the exclusive preserve of the indisputably great, not merely the very good. Among the Hall of Famers whose election met with some resistance are Ingemar Johansson, Arturo Gatti and Ray Mancini.

But as is the case with politics and, really, boxing matches that go to the scorecards as well, it really doesn’t matter if a winner is swept into office by landslide or the thinnest of margins. The difference with halls of fame is that once you’re in, you’re in forever; you can’t ever be voted out of office. How close, or not, the latest tabulations were in a crowded field of 32 Modern candidates was not revealed as the IBHOF, as is its policy, does not announce vote totals.

So all hail to the Class of 2019, the headliners, announced on Dec. 5, being Donald Curry, Julian Jackson and James “Buddy” McGirt. All of the former world champions had been bypassed in previous elections, snubs that didn’t seem to matter to any of them once they received word of their call to the hall from the IBHOF’s executive director, Ed Brophy. Sometimes all good things really do come to those who wait.

In addition to the Big Three, other members of the nine-member induction class include Old-Timer Tony DeMarco, Non-Participants Don Elbaum, Lee Samuels and Guy Jutras, and Observers Teddy Atlas and the late Mario Rivera Martino.

The 57-year-old Curry (34-6, 25 KOs), a native of Fort Worth, Texas, known as “The Lone Star Cobra,” arguably is the most talented of the Modern inductees. At his peak, he was a classic boxer-puncher who did not so much defeat his opponents as to overwhelm them with a compendium of ring skills that seemingly preordained him for all-time great status. The puzzle pieces fit perfectly for Curry on Dec. 6, 1985, in a welterweight unification showdown with Milton McCrory at the Las Vegas Hilton. Before Curry, who went in as the WBA and IBF champion, snatched McCrory’s WBC title in two one-sided rounds, HBO analyst Larry Merchant foresaw the outcome. “McCrory is regarded as a good fighter,” Merchant opined. “Curry is regarded as possibly a great fighter.”

Curry was then 24, and there were those who were ready to proclaim him as the finest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. He was 26-0-1 with 21 KOs at the time, and while he did not know it then, his prime would soon be shortened by the kind of arrogance that comes when a fighter – really, any inordinately gifted athlete – begins to believe in the myth of his own invincibility and thus takes shortcuts. The first crack in that glittering veneer appeared on Sept. 27, 1986, when the heavily favored Curry did not come out for the seventh round for his title defense against England’s Lloyd Honeyghan.

“All I know is that he was named Honey something,” Curry – who was so dismissive of the challenger that he had to lose 11 pounds in three days just to make weight — told me for a TSS story that appeared in February of this year. “I didn’t really know who he was. I wasn’t mentally prepared that night. If I had been, beating that Honey guy would have been no problem.”

Although Curry regrouped enough to take the WBC super welterweight belt from Italy’s Gianfranco Rosi, he relinquished that title on an even bigger upset than had come against Honeyghan when he traveled to France and dropped a listless unanimous decision to Rene Jacquot.

But memories of the Curry that once had been compared to the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor apparently were enough to convince enough IBHOF voters to finally reward him for his abbreviated prime, which was clearly Hall of Fame-worthy if lacking the sort of longevity that would have made him a no-brainer.

“All right! Now we’re talking!” an ecstatic Curry said upon getting the call he had begun to think he might never receive from Brophy. “What an honor. This is the greatest day of my life. I’m overwhelmed to get the call from the Hall of Fame. It’s a dream come true.”

Jackson (55-6, 49 KOs) was known as “The Hawk,” and the former junior middleweight and middleweight champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands, now 58, was certainly a bird of prey inside the ropes. He was a consummate knockout artist, capable of getting his man out of there with a single shot. In 2003 The Ring magazine had him at No. 25 on its list of the “100 Greatest Punchers of All time,” but that formidable power came with a caveat. He was nearly as susceptible of being the starchee as the starcher, as evidenced by the fact that all six of his losses also came inside the distance.

“He’s got to be one of the top 10 punchers ever, at least in his weight class,” said former IBF super welterweight champ Buster Drayton, who didn’t make it out of the second round against Jackson in their July 30, 1988, title bout in Atlantic City, adding that Jackson’s fragile chin was no secret to those bold enough to stand in there and trade haymakers with him. “I knew (he could be knocked out). He knew it, too.”

“I tell you, I’m speechless,” Jackson said upon being informed of that he would enshrined by the IBHOF. “This is a tremendous honor. Thank God for His grace and mercy. Wow! It’s amazing! I really don’t have words for this, but eventually they will come.”

McGirt (73-6-1, 48), from Brentwood, N.Y., is the youngster of the group at 54, a former junior welterweight and welterweight titlist who fashioned a long and distinguished career despite being hampered by chronic shoulder injuries. After stepping away from the ring as an active fighter in 1997, he fashioned an exemplary second career as a trainer, and was the winner of the 2002 Eddie Futch Trainer of the Year Award from the Boxing Writers Association of America, primarily for his work in transforming Arturo Gatti from a one-dimensional brawler into a somewhat more well-rounded version of his former self. He also worked the corner for, among others, Vernon Forrest, Antonio Tarver and Laila Ali, and has recently taken on the assignment of preparing two-time former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev for his rematch against Eleider Alvarez.

“To be honest, I can’t even talk right now,” McGirt said when informed of his selection by the IBHOF electorate. “This shows you’re appreciated by the boxing world and that all the hard work and dedication pay off.”

DeMarco (58-12-1, 33 KOs) is 86 and the former welterweight champ, a Boston resident, can be excused for believing that call from the hall would never come. Maybe that’s because DeMarco, for all his successes, is best known for his two classic but losing wars with Carmen Basilio, the second of which, a 12th-round knockout in 1955, was named Fight of the Year by The Ring.

With no mortal locks slated to make first appearances on the IBHOF ballot for the Class of 2020, several holdovers whose credentials for ring immortality, or what passes for it, were vying for the three available slots that were just filled by Curry, Jackson and McGirt. Presumably at or near that magic threshold are Michael Moorer, Nigel Benn, Ivan Calderon, Vinny Pazienza, Ricky Hatton, Meldrick Taylor, Fernando Vargas, Darius Michalczewski, Sven Ottke and the late Genaro Hernandez, among others. Taylor, another special fighter who did not enjoy the benefit of longevity, might be move up in the pecking order in light of the consideration given to Curry for being truly exceptional for even a relatively short period.

But whoever does not get the nod in 2020 will face even stiffer competition in succeeding years, with gimmes like Bernard Hopkins (2021), Wladimir Klitschko, Shane Mosley, James Toney, Miguel Cotto and Juan Manuel Marquez (2022) and Roy Jones Jr., Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Andre Ward (2023) all edging closer to their first appearances on the ballot.

While the Moderns always command the most attention during the four-day induction festivities, other honorees will be celebrated for their long and meritorious service to the sport. It immensely pleases me to be a friend of three of them.

Atlas, 62, will be inducted in the Observer category, a nod toward his long tenure as an analyst for ESPN and for NBC, for whom he worked four Olympiads . But Atlas, whose distinctive Staten Island inflections are as familiar to viewers as the late Howard Cosell’s nasal pomposity, always thought he would be recognized for his work as a trainer, which he considers his first calling. He added another world champion to the list of upper-tier fighters he has worked with when, on Dec. 1 in Quebec City, he was the chief second for Ukraine’s Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who dethroned WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson on an 11th-round knockout.

“I thought I’d go in as a trainer, to be honest,” Atlas said. “But that wasn’t my decision. I’m grateful and appreciative to be considered either way by the Hall of Fame. It’s definitely a privilege.”

As a trainer, Atlas has always been a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy and he has walked away from more than a few successful fighters who did not hew to his dictums. One was Michael Moorer, whom an exasperated Atlas did not feel was giving his all in what proved to be his majority-decision victory over WBA/IBF heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield on April 22, 1994, in Las Vegas. After the eighth round, Atlas told Moorer, “If you don’t want to do what it takes to become champion, let me go out there. We could trade places.” I made him answer me. I said, `Do you want to do that?’ And he said, `No, I don’t.’

“The thing that bothered me is that there were times when it seemed like he was letting Evander back into the fight. That’s why I stayed on him and I didn’t want him to be satisfied that he was doing well.” A reinvigorated Moorer won the 12th round to become the first southpaw to win a heavyweight title; had he lost that round he would have also lost a split decision.

Of Gvozdyk, with whom he was working for the first time, Atlas said, “It feels good to have another world champion. You feel like you’re still able to accomplish your goals and to help somebody get to the next level. I feel like I lived up to his trust and took care of my responsibility.”

Elbaum, whose age is a carefully guarded secret, is affectionately known as “The Bum” to those who know and like him. He jokes that he was the matchmaker for Cain vs. Abel, which might be a slight exaggeration. He also notes that he is the person who introduced another Don, last name King, to the fight game, something for which he is uncertain whether he should take credit or blame.

But Elbaum, who has worked the sport’s trenches in nearly every capacity, including as a fill-in fighter a couple of times in his younger days, takes only credit for being involved in a fight card he promoted that took place on Oct. 1, 1965, in Johnstown, Pa., and featured aging all-time greats Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep in separate bouts.

“Ray Robinson was my idol,” Elbaum said. “He was the greatest fighter that ever lived, in my opinion. And he fought his last three fights for me, which is something no one can ever take away from me. I was operating out of Pittsburgh when Ray called me to come to New York. He asked me, `Don, who can you get me who you think I can beat to get another crack at a world title?’ I immediately said, `Joey Archer.’ He asked me if I could make that fight. I said, `Absolutely.’

I made the fight for Pittsburgh. I told him I really wanted to build it up by first putting him in Johnstown, two months before the fight in Pittsburgh and then in Steubenville, Ohio, one month before. I was promoting the Johnstown fight as the biggest event in that town since the flood, and I was getting great press. About 10 days before the fight I got a call from Willie Pep. Willie said, `Don, I need a fight. I need money desperately.’ I said, `Willie, why?’ And – this is one of the great lines of all time – Willie said, `Don I got five ex-wives.’

“So now I got Ray Robinson (then 45) and Willie Pep (42), two of the greatest fighters ever, on the same card. That always stuck with me.”

Alas, the grand scheme hatched by Elbaum came a cropper when Robinson lost a 10-round unanimous decision to Archer on Nov. 10, 1965, and immediately retired.

Samuels, 71, came to boxing first as a sports writer, covering a couple of Muhammad Ali fights for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, which shut down in 1983. It was a relatively easy transition into the next phase of his journey, as a publicist for Bob Arum’s Top Rank, a three-decade association that is ongoing. Samuels is known for his unflappability and inexhaustible patience under pressurized conditions that would drive many sane individuals bonkers. He insists that he has never met anyone in the sport he hasn’t liked, which for most people would be a stretch but fits the personable nature of someone widely considered to be the nicest person not only in boxing, but maybe anywhere.

“It’s great to be reunited with Irving Rudd,” Samuels said of his becoming a Hall of Famer alongside his legendary mentor at Top Rank, who was 82 when he passed away on June 2, 2000. And it was Rudd, Samuels said, who taught him the value of getting writers what they need, which is a little one-on-one face time with fighters whenever possible instead of group scrums where  harried reporters shout questions in the hope of getting a usable quote or two.

“When you work for a newspaper, you have to get a story that day,” Samuels said. “I remember getting off a plane (when he was at The Bulletin) and telling Irving, “I have to speak to Ali. I’m on deadline.’ He said, `He wants to speak to you, too. He knows you’re here. Oh, and Angelo (Dundee) is with him.’”

Jutras is a Canadian judge and referee who has been involved in boxing for 30 years, and the late Rivera Martino, a Puerto Rican journalist who covered boxing for a number of publications, including The Ring, for nearly 60 years, beginning in the 1940s.

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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Oleksandr Usyk from a Historical Perspective 

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Oleksandr Usyk flipped the heavyweight division onto its head this past Saturday night in the Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, travelling a long way from home to seal his greatest victory. Usyk, small by modern heavyweight standards, towers over most men at 6’3″ and 220lbs and sporting a reach that lineal champions Ezzard Charles or Joe Walcott would have killed for. Things have changed though, and in the middle rounds of his war with Tyson Fury, Usyk suddenly appeared tiny. Fury, a giant at around 6’8” and over 260lbs seems a heavyweight for this century. Usyk, a journeyman in the most ancient sense of the word, feels like a throwback to a more savage time. His greatest achievements have taken place on foreign soil. The last time he boxed at home was almost a decade ago and given the situation in Ukraine and given Usyk’s 37 years, it is unlikely he will ever box there again.

Usyk took chances in the seventh and especially the eighth to take charge of a fight that seemed to be slipping away from him. In the vertigo inducing ninth, it was he, not Fury who appeared the giant. Usyk draped the Englishman over the ropes like so much fresh meat and tenderised him to within an inch of unconsciousness, the sheer hugeness of Fury perhaps preventing a referee’s intervention on behalf of his opponent, and not for the first time. Against both Deontay Wilder (the first fight) and Otto Wallin, a more squeamish official would have stepped in and stopped the fight, and here, too, there was a case. If Usyk seems a throwback, then Fury has been refereed like one, spared stoppages likely to be inflicted upon his peers, he was allowed once again to continue boxing, as Joe Louis was against Max Schmeling, or Jack Dempsey was against Luis Pirpo. But with Fury buckled at the knees, Usyk seemed the true heavy man in the ring.

In historical terms, Usyk is not a small heavyweight. He would have dwarfed “The Galveston Giant” Jack Johnson in the ring and loomed large over “Big” George Foreman. Usyk has every attribute necessary to make an unpleasant evening for Joe Louis, but it should be noted that while his footwork and speed and technical excellence would be the source of the discomfort, his excess of height and reach are the wildcards. Usyk would seem two to three weight classes bigger than Rocky Marciano, mainly because he is, and the towering Sonny Liston would look up. Circus strongman Jess Willard and the mob-sponsored Primo Carnera would both look down on Usyk – but not by that much. Usyk would stand eye to eye with Muhammad Ali but prime-for-prime he would outweigh him by ten pounds, as he would Larry Holmes. We must skip Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield and reach all the way into the Lennox Lewis era before we find men from history that truly out-size Usyk on a consistent basis.

Size, as Usyk has proven, is far from everything. Big by historical standards, he is small by modern standards. What else is now true in the wake of the seismic fistic events of Saturday night? Firstly, Usyk is unquestionably ranked the #1 heavyweight in the world. Of this, there can be no dispute. Accounting for his two wonderful defeats of another “super” heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, he is 3-0 against the rest of the top five and sitting unassailably at the head of the heavyweight table. More, and I have been surprised to see it disputed in some corners, Usyk is now almost as equally unassailably the pound-for-pound number one. The only fighter breathing the same air as Usyk right now is Naoya Inoue. Inoue has been operating at or near the highest level for longer, but the level of his opposition has not been as rarefied. Comparing the first phase opposition defeated by Naoya to the murderer’s row of cruiserweights that Usyk ran into during the Super Six series can lead to only one conclusion. Although Naoya’s busy, weight-class-bursting style has topped him out for most of the past two to three years, only one of these men has consistently been beating bigger, taller, longer opposition at the highest level, and that is Usyk. It is not a matter of opinion – he is the smallest man in my heavyweight top ten.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

02 – Anthony Joshua

03 – Joseph Parker

04 – Tyson Fury

05 – Filip Hrgovic

06 – Zhilei Zhang

07 – Agit Kabayel

08 – Daneil Dubois

09 – Martin Bakole

10 – Joe Joyce

Usyk lives among giants now and where there is parity of height (Kabayel) he is the lighter man by 15 pounds. This is not true of Naoya, who despite his weight-hopping, still manages to run into fighters of the same height and of shorter reach. The opposition argument is narrow, but the relative size opposition is not and there is no pound-for-pound credential more significant than that of consistently out-fighting bigger men. Usyk has done so and will continue to do so for as long as he fights. There is simply no smaller man in his class.

Not since the heyday of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has a lineal heavyweight champion consistently fought bigger men and not since Mike’s hype-infused prime has a heavyweight menaced the number one pound-for-pound spot. Usyk has not enjoyed anything like the same machine support as Mike did; indeed, he has laboured in the shadow of more prominent men until such time as he thrashed them. He is a true manifestation of pound-for-pound glory in the unlimited class. Where does this leave him in terms of all-time standing?

I am reluctant to rate active fighters for reasons that are obvious enough; Usyk could be pole-axed in three by an irate Fury in a December rematch and all this ink is for naught. But what I am willing to do is play let’s pretend and imagine Usyk as retired and consider his place in heavyweight history now.

Usyk’s raw numbers are low-grade at just 22-0 with 14 knockouts. Worse, most of this was built in the cruiserweight division and not the heavyweight division. Against men weighing in as heavyweights, Uysk is essentially 7-0, and only 3-0 against ranked opposition. On the other hand, one of these victories came against Daniel Dubois, now ranked, and the 3-0 was posted against Tyson Fury, generally held to be the best or second-best heavyweight in the world, and Anthony Joshua, ranked behind only Fury at the time of his first fight with Usyk. So, when he stepped up, he stepped up to tackle the best in the world and has become lineal as a result. It’s a hard ledger to wrestle with, but fortunately we have a career that is comparable in the shape of Gene Tunney.

Tunney, a career light-heavyweight, earned a heavyweight legacy built of essentially one man: Jack Dempsey. Past-prime and inactive, Dempsey was ripped apart by Tunney in their legendary first fight and did better in a losing effort against the genius “Fighting Marine” in a rematch, much like Joshua did against Usyk. Tunney then boxed the limited but game Tom Heeney and retired. The rest of his heavyweight career was spent beating great middleweights like Harry Greb and limited losing-streak gatekeepers like Charley Weinert and Martin Burke. One thing that must be noted is that Tunney is matching men who are smaller than Usyk’s cruiserweight opposition to his heavyweight credit. Men like Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev would have been big men in Tunney’s era, but they aren’t counted towards heavyweight legacy for the Ukrainian – either would constitute Tunney’s second-best heavyweight scalp, I think. Tunney’s wider resume does not necessarily include fighters who compare that favourably even to Dereck Chisora or Chaz Witherspoon, the men who make up Usyk’s second layer of opposition.

The point is, Tunney was made a legend for defeating a champion. Both Fury and Joshua were active, physically enormous fighters that Usyk simply unmanned with a type of genius Gene Tunney would have stood to applaud. Tunney appended to his light-heavyweight career the important part of a heavyweight career – the part where you fight and beat the champion, and it has made him a stalwart of heavyweight history. This, Usyk too has achieved, but I have been more impressed with Usyk’s summit than Tunney’s. To be direct: Usyk should rate higher at heavyweight than Tunney.

What that means is that the top twenty at heavyweight is the minimum Usyk can expect from history’s eye should he retire undefeated. In such a case, I would place Usyk in this sort of company:

18 – Ezzard Charles

19 – Oleksandr Usyk

20 – Jersey Joe Walcott

21 – James J Corbett

22 – Peter Jackson

23 – Ken Norton

24 – Max Schmeling

25 – Vitali Klitschko

26 – Riddick Bowe

27 – Gene Tunney

Also illustrative of a point is Tunney’s career pre-heavyweight. Tunney, every bit as brilliant as Usyk in the ring (although notably smaller, and successful against notably smaller opposition), laced up his gloves on close to ninety occasions and his level of competition dwarfs that of Usyk. That is no indictment. All it really means is that Usyk isn’t among the thirty greatest fighters ever to have drawn breath, like Tunney is. He can join an enormous and star-studded cast that includes Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Carlos Monzon in that. I do think, though, that Oleksandr Usyk’s career, were it to end tomorrow, could be readily compared to that of Evander Holyfield and that means that an unbeaten Usyk, lineal cruiserweight and heavyweight champion of the world, current pound-for-pound king, is within spitting distance of a list that captures the fifty greatest fighters in history.

56 – Ruben Olivares

57 – Wilfredo Gomez

58 – Vicente Saldivar

59 – Oleksandr Usyk

60 – Evander Holyfield

61 – Ted Kid Lewis

62 – Lou Ambers

63 – Rocky Marciano

64 – Abe Attell

65 – Manuel Ortiz

A retired Naoya Inoue would join him in the top seventy, I think, and a retired Bud Crawford the top ninety.

Boxing is dead, haven’t you heard?

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank

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Another Victory for Ukraine as Berinchyk Upsets Navarrete in San Diego

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Whether it was inspiration or perspiration, Ukraine’s Denys Berinchyk motored past Mexico’s Emanuel Navarrete by split decision to become the WBO lightweight world titlist on Saturday.

Just hours after his fellow countryman Oleksandr Usyk became undisputed heavyweight world champion, Berinchyk joined the club.

“This is a great night for all people of Ukraine,” Berinchyk said.

The undefeated Ukrainian Berinchyk (19-0, 9 KOs) gutted out a win over Navarrete (38-2-1, 31 KOs) who was attempting to join Mexico’s four-division world champion club in San Diego. The lanky fighter known as “Vaquero” fell a little short.

Through all 12 rounds neither fighter was able to dominate and neither was able to score a knockdown. Just when it seemed one fighter gathered enough momentum, the other fighter would rally.

A butt caused a slight cut on Navarrete in the 10th round. That seemed to ignite anger from the Mexican fighter and he powered through the Ukrainian fighter the next two rounds.

In the final round Berinchyk bore down and slugged it out with the Mexican fighter as both relied on their weapons of choice. For most of the night Navarrete scored with long-range uppercuts and Berinchyk scored with overhand rights.

After 12 rounds two judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 for Berinchyk and one 116-112 for Navarrete. Ukraine gained its third world titlist in one a week. Berinchyk joins Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko as world titlists.

“He’s a very tough guy,” said Berinchyk of Navarrete.

Welterweights

A battle between undefeated welterweights saw Brian Norman (26-0, 20 KOs) knock out Giovany Santillan (32-1, 17 KOs) in the 10th round to become the interim WBO titlist.

For nine rounds both welterweights engaged in brutal inside warfare as each tried to beat the sense out of each other.

Norman worked the body early as Santillan targeted the head. Neither fought more than two inches from each other.

The younger Norman, 23, connected with a right cross during an exchange that wobbled Santillan in the eighth round. From that point on the Georgia fighter began setting up for his power shots. Finally, in the 10th round, uppercuts dropped Santillan twice. In the second knockdown Santillan went down hard as referee Ray Corona stopped the fight immediately at 1:33 of the 10th round.

Other Bouts

Heavyweight Richard Torrez (10-0, 10 KOs) knocked out Brandon Moore (14-1) in the fifth round for a regional title.

Lightweight Alan Garcia (10-0) defeated Wilfredo Flores (10-3-1) by decision after eight.

Photo credit: German Villasenor

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UNDISPUTED ! – Usyk Defeats Fury ! – Plus Undercard Results from Riyadh

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The most ballyhooed fight of the young century played out today at Riyadh Arena in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where Ukraine’s amazing Oleksandr Usyk became an undisputed world champion in a second weight class with a split decision over WBC and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

This was a memorable fight with twists and turns. Usyk had some good moments early, but the middle rounds belonged to the Gypsy King. Heading into the second half of the bout, the old saying that a good big man will always beat a good little man, appeared to be holding up once again. Fury was having good success working the body as his trainer SugarHill Steward exhorted him to do, and when he went upstairs, he rattled Usyk, notably in round five when a big uppercut appeared to lift the Ukrainian off his feet. But Usyk finished round seven strong, a prelude of what was to come.

Usyk plainly won round eight and in round nine, he came within a whisper of ending it. A flurry of punches sent Fury reeling. He crashed into the ring ropes which dictated a standing-8 count from referee Mark Nelson. If Nelson had waited a few more seconds, he would have likely waved the fight off as Fury was on queer street. But this dramatic turnaround came late in the round and the Gypsy King was saved by the bell.

Among other things, Tyson Fury is known for his amazing powers of recuperation. He not only stayed the course, but appeared to win the final round. But in the end, Oleksandr Usyk, now 22-0 (14) saddled Fury (34-1-1) with his first defeat. Two of the judges favored him (115-112, 114-113) with the dissenter scoring it for Fury 114-113.

A draw wouldn’t have caused much of a stink and now they will do it again. The sequel is tentatively scheduled for October. Both are getting a little long in the tooth – Usyk is 37 and Fury is 35 – so we will be surprised if the rematch lives up to the hype.

Semi-wind-up

The first encounter between Jai Opetaia and Mairis Briedis was a grueling fight. Opetaia, an Australian Olympian at age 16, won the battle (a fair decision) but yet took the worst of it. Early in that bout, he had his jaw fractured in two places and for the next two months was forced to eat out of a straw.

The rematch tonight in Riyadh was a monotonous fight through the first nine rounds. Briedis, now 39 years old and inactive since their first meeting, looked old and rusty. But the fight heated up in round 10 and the championship rounds belonged to the Latvian.

It came too little, too late, however, as Briedis needed a knockout to win. At the conclusion, the judges favored the Aussie by scores of 117-111 and 116-112 twice.

Opetaia, 28, improved to 25-0 (19).  Briedis, who has defeated everyone that he has fought with the exceptions of Opetaia and Oleksandr Usyk (and the Usyk fight was close) falls to 28-3.

The first fight between Opetaia and Briedis was for the IBF cruiserweight title. Tonight’s match is for the vacant IBF cruiserweight title (don’t ask).

Cordina-Cacace

In a major upset, Belfast’s Anthony Cacace, a 12-year pro, captured the IBF 130-pound world title with a seventh-round stoppage of previously undefeated Joe Cordina who went to post a consensus 7/1 favorite. The end came 39 seconds into round seven with Cacace pummeling Cordina against the ropes.

The Irishman was the busier fighter and landed the harder punches, but the bout was not without controversy. In the third frame, Cacace stunned Cordina with a punch that landed after the referee ordered the fighters to break. That put Cordina on the defensive and before the round was over, Cacace put him on the canvas with a wicked uppercut and Cordina, badly hurt, barely survived the round. Cacace (22-1, 8 KOs) had a big sixth round and closed the show in the next stanza.

Cordina, a 2016 Olympian who was undefeated in 17 pro fights heading in, is a close friend and frequent workout partner of Lauren Price who captured the WBC female welterweight title last week. She now stands alone as the only current world champion from Wales.

Kabayel-Sanchez

In a mild upset, Agit Kabayel continued his late career surge with a seventh-round KO of previously undefeated Frank Sanchez. As was the case in his last fight when he upset Arslanbek Makhmudov, Kabayel (25-0, 17 KOs) finished his opponent with body punches. A left-right combination knocked Sanchez to his knees and then, after Sanchez got to his feet, a straight right to the belly sent him down again and he wasn’t able to beat the count.

Sanchez, who was 24-0 heading in, entered the bout with a brace over his right knee that compromised his mobility. Kabayel, the aggressor throughout, was comfortably ahead at the time of the stoppage. The official time was 2:23 of round seven.

Kovalev-Safar

In a dull 10-rounder, unsung Robin Safar, a Swedish-born fighter of Kurdish descent, may have written the finish for the career of Sergey Kovalev. At age 41 in his second fight as a cruiserweight and coming off a two-year layoff, the “Krusher” was a pale imitation of the fighter that won nine straight light heavyweight title fights before losing a controversial decision to Andre Ward in their first encounter.

Safar, who improved to 17-0 (12) punctuated his triumph by knocking down Kovalev (35-5-1) with a big right hand inside the final 10 seconds of the final round. The judges had it 99-90, 97-92, and 95-94.

Two early fights ended in early knockouts.

Moses Itauma, a 19-year-old, six-foot-six southpaw who was raised in London by a Nigerian father and a Slovakian mother, stopped Ilya Mezercev at the 50-second mark of the second round. Mezercev made it to his feet after being decked with a big right hook, but his legs were jelly and the fight was waved off.

Trained by Ben Davison, Itauma (9-0, 7 KOs) has been hailed as the next Anthony Joshua. As an amateur, he was reportedly 24-0. Mezercev, a Germany-based Kazkh, declined to 25-9.

British lightweight Mark “Thunder” Chamberlain (16-0, 12 KOs) looked sensational while blasting out Joshua Oluwaseun Wahab in the opening stanza. Chamberlain had Wahab (23-2) on the deck twice before the bout was waived off at the 2:42 mark.

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