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Oleksandr Usyk TSS’ 2018 Fighter of Year

Bernard Fernandez

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The best advertisement for a newly released movie – any product, actually – is not television commercials or print ads in newspapers and magazines. It is favorable word of mouth. People see or use something, they like it, and they tell their friends and neighbors they should give it a try as well. There is no better endorsement of a restaurant’s quality than to peek inside and see a full dining room.

And so it is for undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, The Sweet Science’s 2018 Fighter of the Year. The 31-year-old Ukrainian southpaw’s publicists and handlers don’t have to try very hard to sell his worthiness as a fighter whose time is now and maybe well into the future; his vanquished opponents are doing a fine job of that as it is. Who better to spread by word of mouth of any fighter’s star quality than laudatory comments uttered by the men he has beaten up?

After Usyk (now 16-0, 12 KOs) fully unified the cruiserweight title with a wide unanimous decision over Russia’s formidable Murat Gassiev on July 21 of this year in Moscow, adding Gassiev’s WBA and IBF 200-pound belts to the WBC and WBO ones Usyk already possessed, the losing fighter was so complimentary toward the man who had just given him a boxing lesson that he felt compelled to pass out more compliments than the punches he had thrown but was unable to land.

“He’s the best opponent in my professional career,” gushed Gassiev, who lost for the first time as a professional after winning his first 26 fights, including 19 inside the distance. “How on earth do you beat this guy?”

How, indeed? Despite performing before a hostile, pro-Gassiev crowd that might have influenced the judges had the match been even reasonably close, Usyk won by yawning margins of 120-108 and 119-109 (twice). For those of you keeping track at home, Usyk won 34 of 36 rounds on the official scorecards. That’s a level of domination seldom seen at such a high level of competition.

Nor is Gassiev the only vanquished opponent who is flinging verbal rose petals at the feet of Oleksandr the Great. In his third and final ring appearance of the year, Usyk traveled to Manchester, England – unfriendly turf once more – to defend his four titles against popular Briton Tony Bellew, a two-time former cruiserweight champ who, at 35, had announced his retirement beforehand, thus making the 35-year-old even more of a sentimental favorite than he otherwise would have been. Bellew fought courageously and even led by a point on two of the three official cards, with the third even after seven rounds.  However, he was nailed with a jolting left hand, went down, and ultimately was stopped in the eighth in the Nov. 10 bout that has helped fuel Usyk’s continued rise toward superstardom and in the pound-for-pound ratings.

“He is an exceptional champ,” Bellew, as gracious in defeat as Gassiev had been, said in complimenting Usyk. “He is everything I have feared. He is the best I ever fought. He is probably the best cruiserweight that ever lived.”

On a more ominous note to the biggest boppers in the heavyweight division, which Usyk now appears ready to enter, Bellew, who holds two victories over former WBA heavyweight champion David Haye, issued a warning that they had better not sleep on Usyk, who is 6-foot-3 and, according to Usyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, is already a genuine heavyweight at 215 pounds, which is 2½ pounds more than WBC titlist Deontay Wilder came in at for his controversial split draw with lineal champ Tyson Fury on Dec. 1.

“I don’t think there’s anybody else for him to fight in the cruiserweight division,” said Klimas. “Well, maybe there would be if (former super middleweight and light heavyweight ruler) Andre Ward comes out of retirement and moves up, which is something I’ve been hearing. But if he doesn’t, we probably will go to heavyweight.”

If it really is a done deal that Usyk is through with the cruisers, acknowledgment should be rendered to his incredible body of work in 2018. It might be a matter of opinion as to whether Usyk is the finest cruiserweight ever, a designation that arguably could go to the late 1980s version of future four-division heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, but there is no disputing that the polished Ukrainian’s three-victory run through the year that is about to end surpasses anything ever seen in the division over a 365-day period. Although he entered the cruiserweight portion of the eight-participant World Boxing Super Series as the nominal favorite and reigning WBO champion, the way Usyk separated himself from the pack of highly regarded 200-pounders was something to behold. He began the tournament on Sept. 9, 2017, with an impressive 10th-round stoppage of Germany’s Marco Huck before kicking it into overdrive in 2018, beginning with his majority-decision unification victory over previously undefeated WBC champion Mairis Breidis in Breidis’ hometown of Riga, Latvia, on Jan. 27. After adding Gassiev’s two titles in the WBSS finale, his TKO of Bellew made it three up, three down in 2018 against opponents who were a collective 79-2-1 with 57 knockouts at the time they faced him.

It is one thing to win a Fighter of the Year award, and quite another to possibly be recognized as 2018’s best among all athletes. Usyk is one of four finalists for the BBC World Sport Star of 2018 Award, where his competition will come from U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, winter sports athlete Esther Ledecka of the Czech Republic and Italian golfer Francesco Molinari.

However that vote goes, it is interesting to note that Usyk is TSS’ Fighter of the Year the year after the same honor went to fellow Ukrainian Vasiliy Lomachenko, who, like Usyk, was a gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics and, like Usyk, is trained by Loma’s father, Anatoly Lomachenko. It has been said that Usyk is, for all intents and purposes, a virtual replication of Lomachenko, only larger. That is high praise indeed, what with Vasiliy Lomachenko widely considered to be the world’s finest pound-for-pound practitioner of the pugilistic arts.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however. Before the launch of the WBSS tourney in September 2017, one writer, Gleb Kuzin, opined that “the reality is Usyk is not and never will be a producer of highlights like Vasyl Lomachenko. Usyk is a blue-collar technician. His work is subtle. The comparisons to Lomachenko or any other fighter are ill-informed. Usyk isn’t a highlight-reel machine. He’s out to make his opponents feel hopeless.”

Some would say that making quality opponents feel hopeless is by definition highlight-reel stuff. But either as his own man or a stylistic match for his buddy Vasiliy Lomachenko, 2018 was the year of years in the boxing journey of Oleksandr Usyk. Until, of course, he possibly tops it as a heavyweight.

Comic book cover artist ROB AYALA, whose specialty is combat sports, provided the graphic. Check out more of Rob Ayala’s illustrations on twitter at fight posium.

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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Muhammad Ali Biographer Jonathan Eig Talks About His Book and the Icon Who Inspired It

Rick Assad

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Given the breadth and depth of Muhammad Ali’s 74 years, it isn’t very easy to capture the complete essence of the man.

Dozens of books have been written about the three-time heavyweight champion including Jonathan Eig’s 2017 biography, “Ali: A Life.”

Born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay, he would one day be known around the globe as a world-class boxer, civil rights advocate, philanthropist and cultural icon.

Like so many others, the Brooklyn, New York-born Eig became intrigued by Ali.

“I loved Ali as a child. He fascinated me. He was outspoken, radical, yet so very loveable,” he said. “And, of course, he could fight! I was astonished to realize, around 2012, that there was no complete biography of Ali, even though he was probably the most famous man of the 20th century.”

Eig, currently at work on a major offering about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., added: “I had read lots of Ali books, including [David] Remnick’s “King Of The World: Muhammad Ali And The Rise Of An American Hero,” and [Thomas] Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times,” and [Norman] Mailer’s “The Fight” – but those were not complete biographies,” he pointed out. “By 2012, enough time had gone by to put Ali in historical perspective. Also, there were plenty of people still alive to tell the story. I did more than 500 interviews, including all three of Ali’s living wives. I wanted to write a book that would treat Ali as more than a boxer. I wanted to write a book that would show the good and the bad. I wanted to write a big book worthy of an epic life, a book that danced and jabbed half as beautifully as Ali.”

Given Eig’s exhaustive research, what previously unknown tidbits about Ali did he come across?

“I learned thousands of new things. I think even hardcore Ali fans will find new information on almost every page,” said the former Wall Street Journal reporter and 1986 Northwestern University graduate. “I discovered things Ali himself didn’t know. I discovered Ali’s grandfather was a convicted murderer, for example. Ali didn’t know that! I read Ali’s FBI files, as well as those of Herbert Muhammad, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. I interviewed Ali’s childhood friends. I found MRIs of Ali’s brain. I counted the punches from all of his fights. I measured how those punches affected his speaking rate. Ali’s wives also confided in me things I never knew. I spent four years working on this book, and every day delivered revelations.”

Over the years, Ali, who posted a 56-5 ring record with 37 knockouts, seemed to mellow with time which helped ingratiate him to an even wider audience. How was this possible?

“People change. They grow. It’s hard to stay radical as you get older and richer,” said Eig, who has written five books including three that deal with sports. “The late Stanley Crouch had a great line about Ali. He said young Ali was a grizzly bear. Ali in the ’70s was a circus bear. Ali in his later years was a teddy bear. We all loved the teddy bear. We wanted to hug him and love him. But it was the grizzly bear who we should remember first. It was the grizzly bear who shook up the world.”

Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram covered nearly the entirety of Ali’s career which spanned 1960 through 1981 and included a three-year period, 1967 until 1970 when he wasn’t allowed to box after being convicted of draft evasion because he refused induction into the armed forces.

In Kram’s book, “Ghosts Of Manila,” the author asserts Ali was essentially a pawn of the Black Muslims.

What’s Eig’s take?

“I love Kram’s book, but I think it’s dangerous to question anyone’s religious faith,” he said. “Ali was a true believer. The Nation of Islam took advantage of him at times. But does that mean he was a pawn? I don’t think so. He knew what he was doing. He made his own choices. One might argue that the NOI did more for Ali than Ali did for them.”

Ali wasn’t perfect and that included his fondness for women. As a Muslim, how did he hurdle this?

“He didn’t reconcile it – except to acknowledge that humans are human, they are flawed,” Eig said. “The thing I love about Ali is that he said he was the greatest, but he never said he was perfect. He talked to his wives about his weakness. He even talked to reporters about his flaws – his weakness for women, his disdain for training, his poor handling of money. He knew who he was and he never tried to be anything else.”

Eig, who has also penned “Luckiest Man: The Life And Death Of Lou Gehrig,” and “Opening Day: The Story Of Jackie Robinson’s First Season,” went on: “We’re all complicated, right? Ali was no more complicated than you or me, but he let the whole world see his complications – his racial pride and his racist behavior toward [Joe] Frazier, his love of women and his cruelty to his wives, his generosity with his money and his stupidity with money,” he said. “I don’t think Ali was different, just more open, more willing to let us see everything.”

Ali’s battles with Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton are legendary, but his two fights against Sonny Liston are filled with question marks, such as were they fixed?

Ali claimed the title on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach when Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round and then faced Liston 15 months later in Lewiston, Maine, where he knocked out the challenger in the opening frame.

In Eig’s mind, were these two bouts on the level? “My hunch is that the first fight was legit. Liston quit when he knew he couldn’t win,” Eig said. “The second fight is more suspicious. Liston’s flop was pathetic. Bad acting! But I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. As an aside, Liston’s wife said Sonny had diarrhea before the fight, which might have given him one more reason to throw it.”

Still, Ali in his prime was a sight to behold. “Ali before the exile, in my opinion, was the most beautiful boxer of all time. His combination of speed and power and ferocity was thrilling, elegant, frightening and marvelous,” Eig said. “Was he the greatest heavyweight of all time? Maybe, maybe not. Was he the most breathtaking? To me, yes.”

Early in Ali’s career his braggadocio was off-putting to many. But much of it was showmanship.

“One of the Greatest” doesn’t sound as good, does it? If we’re only discussing his action in the ring, Ali was one of the greatest,” Eig said. “But that’s like saying Louis Armstrong was one of the greatest trumpet players without considering his voice, his charm, his improvisational skills, his smile. In and out of the ring, Ali was the greatest in my book.”

For so many, Ali was many things. What traits in the man does Eig admire? “I love his fearlessness, his honesty, his insatiable appetite for people,” he said. “He was so very loving. But he could also be narcissistic. He wanted everyone to love him, but he wasn’t always sensitive to the feelings of others – including his wives and children. He turned his back on friends like Malcolm X and Joe Frazier when it served his purposes.”

While Ali could be polarizing, he had his legion of supporters including Howard Cosell, Jerry Izenberg, Robert Lipsyte, Larry Merchant and Jack Newfield.

“You could add Mailer, [George] Plimpton, and so many others to that list,” Eig noted. “Those men were lucky enough to spend time with young Ali and to bask in the great warmth of his sun. He was great to reporters. He was the best story they ever covered. And unlike most celebrities, he really paid attention to them.”

Eig continued: “I only met him once, six months before he died, and I envy those reporters who got to know him and got to see him at his best. I think those who knew and loved Ali became his disciples,” he pointed out. “Ali’s friend Gene Kilroy told me over and over that he thought Ali was like Jesus, that people would be studying his words and drawing inspiration from his life for centuries to come. That’s the feeling he gave to those with whom he spent time.”

Ali was a boxer, but so much more. How does Eig see him? “I think Ali will be remembered as one of America’s great revolutionary heroes – one whose courage went far beyond sports. Like Jackie Robinson, like Martin Luther King, like the abolitionists and suffragettes, he loved America but refused to accept its shortfalls,” he said. “He fought to make his country live up to the promises contained in the Declaration of Independence. He will also be remembered as an important world figure, one who united Africans, Americans and Asians, one who helped Americans better understand Islam and helped people of Islamic faith around the world better understand America.”

In Ali’s last quarter century, he was almost universally loved. This is a far cry from being labeled a draft dodger.

“Ali was always a spiritual man, but in his later years I believe he clarified and deepened his spirituality,” Eig said. “He became more focused and more thoughtful.”

When Eig turned in his manuscript, what was his immediate thought? “I wanted to take it back. I didn’t want to be done,” he said. “I had so much fun writing this book I wanted to work on it for the rest of my life. I knew I would never find anything more fun to work on.”

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The Peculiar Career of Marcos Geraldo

Ted Sares

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 If you play word association with retired boxer Marcos Geraldo, you might come up with “chinny,” or “easy work.” But if you did, you would be wrong.

This extremely active Mexican boxer fought out of Baja California but was a staple in Nevada and Southern California and was 38-12 before he ventured outside these regions

Many saw Geraldo as easy work because of the 21 KOs he suffered but what they missed was the fact he had 50 KOs of his own and that made him an ultra-exciting type of fighter–and it guaranteed him plenty of marquee events. If you didn’t get Marcos, he was likely to get you. That translated to bringing in fans. He also was an active fighter and fought, for example, 12 times in 1972 alone. He also toiled 25 times at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas—yes, 25 times—and he went 21-4!

Along the way, Geraldo (who at various times was the middleweight and light heavyweight champion of Mexico) did battle with four Hall of Famers — Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Virgil Hill — several world champions, and numerous title contenders. (Michael Nunn, another stiff opponent, could someday become a member of the Hall as well.)

As his career progressed, the level of his opposition became stiffer. Listed in the order of appearance, these are the records of some of his opponents at the time that he fought them: Peter Cobblah (48-46-5), Angel Robinson Garcia (138-80-21), Armando Muniz (32-6-1), George Cooper (49-4-3), Sugar Ray Leonard (21-0), John LoCicero (15-3), Marvin Hagler (48-2-2), Caveman Lee (13-2), Thomas Hearns (33-1), Fred Hutchings (20-1), Ron Wilson (71-33-7), Prince Mama Muhammad (29-1-1), Michael Nunn (7-0), Tony Willis (9-0), Chris Reid (14-0-1), Virgil Hill (16-0), Jesus Gallardo (16-1), Antoine Byrd (6-1-1).

Whew!

In 1979, Geraldo went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard which surprised boxing buffs though Ray had previously been extended by others.

The following year he gave Marvelous Marvin Hagler all he could handle while losing a unanimous but close decision in a surprisingly tough thriller.

Hagler (May 1980)

Hagler pressed the action in-close but surprisingly was met with strong counterpunching. Both did plenty of shoe shining. First Hagler; then Geraldo. It was tit for tat and the fans roared their approval. What won the fight for Hagler was his stamina and harder punching which enabled him to tire the tough Mexican, but he never managed to break him down.

The scoring was Duane Ford 97-93, Art Lurie 97-94, and Chuck Minker 97-95.

The fans at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas gave both fighters a standing ovation as they raised each other’s arm up in a marvelous (no pun intended) show of mutual respect. The media framed it it as a “great” fight. It defined “fan–friendly.”

Geraldo had stopped Bomber John LoCicero before the Hagler fight, but was KOd in round one by both Caveman Lee and Thomas Hearns subsequent to Hagler. And then he was stopped much later by Michael Nunn and Virgil Hill.

His final slate was 71-28-1 — 100 bouts put him in rarefied company. Also, seven of those 21 KO losses came in his last eight fights.

After a very close review of his career, the word association that could more appropriately fit might be “incongruity,” or “action, or “resilient,” or even “peculiar.”

Sadly, he was always one big win away from entering the top tier.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com

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HITS and MISSES: Javier Fortuna Shines and More

Kelsey McCarson

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HITS and MISSES: Javier Fortuna Shines and More

The boxing schedule continued during the penultimate week of November though there seemed a little less action over the weekend than prior weeks. Still, important contests took place featuring some of the top fighters in the sport.

Here are the biggest HITS and MISSES from another week on the boxing beat.

HIT: Future Fortunes of Javier Fortuna 

Perhaps it’s just my affinity for southpaws, but Javier Fortuna looked sensational on Saturday night in the main event of an FS1 PBC Fight Night card.

Fortuna, 31, from the Dominican Republic, is a legit threat in the 135-pound division. His sole loss since moving up to lightweight was a split-decision to former titleholder Robert Easter in a fight that could have been scored either way, and his athletic and unorthodox style will just about always make him a problem for anyone.

Alongside being tied to Al Haymon’s PBC group, Fortuna is promoted by Sampson Lewkowicz, whose most famous recent client is probably former middleweight champion Sergio Martinez. Like Martinez, Fortuna is the type of talent who could unexpectedly make some legitimate noise in his division during the latter part of his career.

MISS: Austin Delay’s Emotional Reactions to Accidental Headbutts

Despite the two losses on his record, there’s a lot to like about lightweight prospect Austin Dulay. The 25-year-old from Nashville defeated Jose Luis Gallegos in a 10-round decision in the co-feature of the PBC card on Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Dulay’s a sharp-fisted, crafty southpaw with fast hands and good feet. While his win over Gallegos absolutely proved he possesses some upside as a rising talent in the sport, his emotional responses to the three accidental headbutts in the fight gives his team plenty to work on with the fighter as he progresses.

Referee Thomas Taylor did a great job explaining the key concept to him. “It happens,” Taylor reminded Dulay at least twice in the fight after the clashes of heads. Indeed, it does happen, and that’s especially true in southpaw vs. orthodox matchups.

After the second headbutt in the fight, which happened in the sixth round, Dulay angrily gunned for the knockout. Everyone loves action like that, but reactive responses to innocuous events aren’t on the path to the highest levels in the sport. Dulay needs to reel his emotions back in during those types of moments if he hopes to become a world champion.

HIT: The Savagery of Alen Babic vs. Tom Little

Hopefully, you’ve witnessed the majesty of Alen Babic by now. The 30-year-old from Croatia is the type of heavyweight you’d better enjoy now on the way up the ranks because, let’s face it, Babic’s style and skill set make him likely to be exposed as he climbs higher up the ladder.

Until that time comes, though, Babic is must-see TV. The savagery of seeing a volume punching heavyweight who throws just about every single punch with serious emotional intent is a wonder to behold.

For his part, Tom Little did his best to turn the Babic tide back. In fact, the 33-year-old was the first fighter to weather Babic’s early storm and offer a return, but Babic ultimately dumped him down for the third-round knockout.

By the way, that’s faster than Daniel Dubois and Filip Hrgovic did it.

MISS: Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Not Making Superfight Priority

What shouldn’t be lost in the Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence debate is how both fighters would rather fight Manny Pacquiao instead of each other.

I had the chance to speak with both elite welterweight champions within the past week, and both men told me the same thing in regards to their focus on making one fight happen. Crawford wants Pacquiao next. Spence does, too.

While it’s completely understandable why these guys would seek the bigger payday against the legendary future Hall of Famer, something would seem to be broken in boxing overall when arguably the best and most important fight in the sport doesn’t even seem to have a tiny chance of happening anytime soon.

HIT: The Professional Amateur Conor Benn

Imagine having just around 20 amateur bouts and trying to put together a world-level professional boxing career. Now, imagine also trying to follow in the footsteps of your father, himself a former world champion.

But rising welterweight contender Conor Benn seems to be on his way to giving that run a serious go. Benn, 24, from England, defeated Germany’s Sebastian Formella in the main event of a Matchroom Boxing card on DAZN on Saturday.

While Benn doesn’t exactly have the look of a can’t-miss prospect destined for greatness, he does at least possess some of the qualities that could lead him to the top of the sport. Certainly, Benn believes it.

After beating Formella, Benn argued he’d done it just as good as two-time welterweight titleholder Shawn Porter had done.

“I beat him just as good,” Benn said during his post-fight interview.

He wasn’t wrong about that, and neither was his father, Nigel Benn, for lavishing praise on his son after his big win.

“Well done, son. I’m proud of you,” Nigel Benn said.

Benn has a tough road ahead of him. He’s basically been a professional amateur up to this point, a fighter getting paid professional money to employ an amateur skill set on fight night.

But he’s improving at a rate that suggests that might not be the case soon.

Photo credit: Sean Michael Ham / TGB Promotions

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