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In Boxing, Offense Sells Tickets But Defense Wins Fights

Rick Assad

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At its core, its essence, the sport of boxing is relatively simple. In a nutshell it comes down to hitting your opponent and not getting hit. And yet, when watching a boxing match live or on television, many times you’ll witness two guys pummeling each other, seemingly without any regard for defense.

If a poll was taken and fans were asked if they prefer action-packed bouts or defensive matches, the vast majority would probably choose the former. Cuts, bruises, welts and bloody noses are part of the sport’s appeal for many. It seems the more blood and gore, the better.

The thinking goes defensive battles are for the most part boring. Case in point would be the May 2015 welterweight mega-fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, which was late in coming, but still a massive money-maker.

The bout went the distance and had little action. Mayweather easily captured a unanimous decision, but over the course of 12 rounds, threw and landed very few punches. When Mayweather wasn’t standing right in front of Pacquiao, he was on his bicycle, dancing around in the ring.

Pacquiao connected and threw even fewer punches and looked confused and out of sorts, later claiming a shoulder injury.

The fight didn’t live up to its billing, primarily because neither boxer forced the action. This is what makes Mayweather so extraordinary. Try as one might, it’s never a picnic being in the squared circle with a defensive genius and, make no mistake, Mayweather is at the top of the food chain when it comes to defense.

When Mayweather collided with a past-his-prime Shane Mosley in May 2010, early in the second round Mosley tagged Mayweather with two solid rights, which buckled his knees and had the fans in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on their feet. Never panicking and never flinching, Mayweather simply held on, not allowing Mosley to extend his arms and follow up, eventually earning a one-sided unanimous decision triumph.

Now think of the best and most exciting fights. They’re freewheeling affairs with lots of action, like what Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo offered in May 2005 at the Mandalay Bay with the World Boxing Organization and World Boxing Council lightweight titles on the table.

The bout was filled with ebbs and flows with Corrales, whose left eye was practically closed, getting knocked down twice in the beginning of the 10th round, then rallying and having Tony Weeks, the referee, halt the action later in round 10 in what was voted Fight of the Year.

While offense wins the hearts and minds of the fans and media, often times the defensive component is overlooked and underappreciated.

Just think of other sports. Who likes a 2-1 baseball score? Or a 14-10 football score? Or a 45-39 college basketball score before it had the shot clock?

The critics would say there’s not enough scoring. Not enough action. Too boring. But the purist would counter that a 2-1 baseball contest is a thing of beauty. It’s a pitchers’ duel. Great artistry. You know, Greg Maddux versus Randy Johnson.

Ditto for football. It was simply two great defenses playing at its peak. Think of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

No one will deny the greatness of featherweight king Willie Pep or three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

Pep (pictured against four-time opponent Sandy Saddler) and Ali were peerless in part because of their ability to step aside when the heavy artillery was within close range.

Pep, who was voted by the Associated Press as the No. 1 featherweight of all-time and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, was a defensive wizard. He held the featherweight title from 1942 to 1950 and finished his career with a 229-11-1 mark and 65 knockouts.

Ali was at his very best when moving, dancing and on his toes, making full use of the ring while enticing his foe to chase him. He was a master at bobbing and weaving, sticking and jabbing. His jab stung and he also possessed a solid right hand that could floor any man. He was at his pinnacle beginning in 1964 when he upset Sonny Liston in Miami Beach for the title until 1967 when he fought Zora Folley at Madison Square Garden.

The Folley fight was Ali’s last before being stripped of his crown and forced into inactivity for three-and-a-half years because of his then unpopular stance of refusing induction into the United States Army on religious grounds.

When he returned to the ring, he was good and sometimes even great, but there was ring rust and aging present.

Perhaps Ali’s greatest moment came in Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974, when he faced the undefeated and fearsome George Foreman with the WBA and WBC belts on the line. Foreman had an explosive knockout punch with either hand and many saw this as a massacre on the highest order.

Ali, at 32 and perhaps with fading ring skills, used his now legendary rope-a-dope defensive strategy in order to save his strength and it worked like a charm as the 25-year-old Foreman expended so much energy that he wore himself out and was floored in the eighth round.

Mayweather is regarded by many as the finest defensive fighter of his generation. Before Mayweather, it was welterweight king Pernell Whitaker, who capped his 16-year career with a 40-4-1-1 mark and 17 knockouts. Whitaker, who won titles in four weight classes, was a once-in-a -generation talent based solely on his ability to avoid punches. He was voted fighter of the year by The Ring magazine in 1989.

When Mayweather was asked about his over-the-top ring skills, he famously said. “My job is to win the fight. I don’t want to get hit. I’m trying not to get hit.”

At a press conference I attended at the MGM with Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Bernard Hopkins present, a reporter asked Mayweather who he thought was the greatest boxer of all-time. “I think that I am,” said Mayweather, who ended his career with a 50-0 mark and 27 knockouts. “I know that there have been great fighters in the past like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and many others. But they all lost. I haven’t. That’s why I think I’m the best.”

Pepe Reilly, who boxed as an amateur and was a member of the 1992 United States Olympic boxing team that included Oscar De La Hoya, is currently a trainer.

Reilly, who toils in the corner for former lightweight title holder Ray Beltran, said an offensive fighter can be taught the basic defensive principles, but it’s not always easy to grasp. “It depends on the fighter’s ability,” he said. “As a trainer, I make adjustments based on body structure in order to teach that particular boxer how to act out on defense.”

Reilly, who went 15-4 with 11 knockouts as a professional, said he would prefer to train a defensive fighter. “Personally, I’d rather have a defensive-based boxer that could figure things out offensively,” he said. “If a fighter goes straight forward only, his one-dimensional style has its limits. And there is no room for the ever important changes needed.”

“Principles of defensive fighting for me are based on distance,” said Reilly. “If a fighter gets too close he is susceptible to smothering and if he is too far away, he isn’t in range to interact. Based on body positioning, a fighter can understand what to do.”

Reilly says that defensive fighters are overlooked and underappreciated. “(They) should absolutely be given more credit than they get. A good defensive fighter can inspire others to understand the principles of the art, which is to hit and not get hit,” he says.

Another practitioner of the defensive style is two-time Olympic bantamweight king Guillermo Rigondeaux. The Cuban refugee, whose only setback as a pro was to Vasyl Lomachenko in December 2017, is known for his fast hands, counter-punching ability and being extremely elusive, all valuable traits inside the ring.

“Guillermo is probably the greatest talent I’ve ever seen” said Freddie Roach, a seven-time Trainer of the Year and Pacquiao’s longtime cornerman. And yet Rigondeaux  isn’t as marketable as he could or should be, with much of this due to his boxing style which isn’t fan-friendly.

Again, it seems it’s all about offense, offense and more offense. That’s what gets people’s attention and what sells tickets and pay-per-view buys.

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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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The Hauser Report: Garcia-Redkach and More

Thomas Hauser

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Boxing made its debut at Barclays Center on October 20, 2012, with a fight card headlined by four world title bouts. Danny Garcia, Erik Morales, Paulie Malignaggi, Peter Quillin, Devon Alexander, Danny Jacobs, and Luis Collazo were in the ring that night. The franchise grew nicely. Fans who went to Barclays saw good featured fights with solid undercard bouts. But as of late, the arena’s fistic offerings have faded.

Barclays cast its lot with Premier Boxing Champions. And PBC has moved its prime content to greener pastures (green being the color of money). There were five fight cards at Barclays Center in 2019. Each one struggled to sell tickets.

January 25 marked the thirty-ninth fight card at Barclays. The arena was half empty. The announced attendance was 8,217 but that included a lot of freebies. There were six fights on the card. As expected, fighters coming out of the blue corner won all of them. That’s what happens when 6-0 squares off against 2-10-1.

Three of the fights were televised by Showtime Championship Boxing, which has also been diminished as a consequence of a multi-year output deal with PBC.

In the first of these bouts, Stephen Fulton (17-0, 8 KOs) and Ukrainian-born Arnold Khegai (16-0, 10 KOs) met in a junior-featherweight bout. Each had fought the usual suspects en route to their confrontation. There was a lot of holding and rabbit-punching which referee Steve Willis ignored. Eventually, Fulton pulled away for a unanimous-decision triumph.

Next up, Jarrett Hurd (23-1, 16 KOs) took on Francisco Santana (25-7, 12 KOs).

Hurd is a big junior-middleweight who held the WBA and IBF 154-pound titles until losing to Julian Williams last year. Santana is a career welterweight who had lost three of his most recent four fights and had won only three times in the last five years.

Hurd was expected to walk through Santana. But he was strangely passive for much of the fight, which led to the strange spectacle of Santana (the noticeably smaller, lighter-punching man) walking Jarrett down for long stretches of time. Francisco is a one-dimensional fighter and was there to be hit. When Jarrett let his hands go, he hit him. But he fought like a man who didn’t want to fight and didn’t let his hands go often enough.

By round seven, the boos and jeers were raining down. Hurd won a unanimous decision but looked mediocre. That’s the most honest way to put it. One wonders what tricks losing to Julian Williams last year played with his mind.

Also, it should be noted that, when the winning fighter thanks God in a post-fight interview and the crowd (which supported Jarrett at the start of the bout) boos at the mention of The Almighty, there’s a problem.

“The crowd didn’t love it,” Hurd acknowledged afterward. “But you gotta understand; I got the unanimous decision and I did what I wanted to do.”

The main event matched Danny Garcia (35-2, 21 KOs) against Ivan Redkach (23-4-1, 18 KOs).

Garcia had a nice run early in his career, winning belts at 140 and 147 pounds. But later, he came out on the losing end of decisions against Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter. Other than that, he has gone in soft for the past five years.

Redkach is a junior-welterweight who had won 5 of 10 fights during the same five-year time frame.

There was the usual pre-fight nonsense with Garcia telling reporters, “We picked Redkach because he’s dangerous and we knew he’d be tough.” But in truth, Redkach had been whitewashed by Tevin Farmer at 135 pounds and was knocked out at the same weight by John Molina Jr (who never won again).

Garcia, like Hurd, was a 30-to-1 betting favorite.

Redkach fought a safety-first fight. Also, safety second and third. There wasn’t one second when it looked as though he had a realistic chance of winning the fight or fought like he did.

One of the few proactive things that Ivan did do was stick out his tongue from time to time when Garcia hit him. Then, at the end of round eight, he bit Danny on the shoulder while they were in a clinch. At that point, one might have expected referee Benjy Esteves to disqualify Redkach. But Esteves seemed to not notice.

Rather than go for the kill after the bite, Garcia eased up and cruised to a unanimous decision. Meanwhile, by round eleven, the crowd was streaming for the exits. Most of the fans were gone by the time the decision was announced.

Garcia and Hurd had set-up showcase fights scheduled for them. And neither man delivered the way he should have.

Meanwhile, a final thought . . . Sunday, January 26, would have been Harold Lederman’s eightieth birthday.

Harold was the quintessential boxing fan and loved the sport more than anyone I’ve known. He never missed a fight at Barclays Center unless his health prevented him from coming or he was on the road for HBO. He died eight months ago.

As Saturday night’s fight card unfolded, I imagined Harold sitting beside me. He would have had a kind word for everyone who came over to say hello and loved every minute of it. Harold Lederman at the fights was a happy man.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book — A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing — was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. On June 14, 2020, he will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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