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Christmas Day in Germany with Sugar Ray Robinson

Arne K. Lang

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Sugar Ray Robinson

It was snowing when Sugar Ray Robinson and his entourage left their hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, for the short walk to the sterile brick building where Robinson would display his wares. This wasn’t the soft snow that flutters from the sky to delight young children on Christmas morning; this was a driving snow, the kind that stings when it hits you in the face. No man should be out in this weather on Christmas but here was Sugar Ray Robinson on Christmas Day, 1950, going to work in a land far from home.

Robinson’s work was giving and receiving punches inside a small roped enclosure. He was a lot better at the former than the latter, capable of firing off a fusillade of punches before his opponent, if still standing, could answer with a punch of his own. But this was still a hard way to earn a living.

Robinson’s trip to Frankfurt was the final leg of a whirlwind European tour, five fights in 29 days beginning with an engagement in Paris on Nov. 27. In design, the tour replicated many of the tours arranged for America’s great black jazz musicians who found a more appreciative audience in Europe than in their home country. From Paris, Sugar Ray went to Brussels and Geneva and then returned to Paris for a match with Robert Villemain.

Robinson’s welterweight title wasn’t at risk in any of these five fights. He had given notice that he planned to vacate it. But these were not exhibitions. To the contrary, Robinson was matched against some of the top fighters in Europe. Villemain, a rugged fighter built along the lines of Marcel Cerdan, which is to say stocky, was Exhibit A.

They had met earlier that year in Philadelphia. The fight went 15 rounds with Robinson coming out on top. Prior to his first encounter with Robinson, Villemain had split two bouts with Jake LaMotta, avenging an awful decision from their first meeting, and scored a win over future Hall of Famer Kid Gavilan, the Cuban Hawk.

It has been noted that one of the hallmarks of great champions is that they invariably elevate their game in rematches. Fighting before a hostile crowd at the Palais des Sport, Robinson didn’t leave the sequel in the hands of the judges. He battered Villemain to the canvas in the ninth round and although the Frenchman beat the count, he was too badly hurt to continue in the eyes of the ref who waived the fight off.

After opposing a man of Villemain’s stature, Robinson was entitled to a nice long rest. But before news of his victory hit the next day’s papers, he and his entourage were on board a red-eye train to Frankfurt, a 12-hour trip.

Robinson was famous for his entourage. On this excursion it consisted of his manager, George Gainford, his wife, his chief second, his barber, his golf pro, two secretaries and a late addition, a dwarf he picked up in Paris who was useful to him as a translator. When the crew was together as a unit they all wore matching purple jackets, Robinson’s favorite color. In Europe, they could not have been more conspicuous if they were aliens from outer space.

It didn’t take long for sportswriters to anoint Sugar Ray Robinson the best boxer, pound-for-pound, in the modern (i.e. Queensberry) era of prizefighting. As an amateur he was 89-0. His pro record entering his second bout with Villemain was 119-1-2. The lone defeat had come in his second meeting with Jake LaMotta, a bout in which he was outweighed by 16 pounds, and he had avenged that loss thrice in what would ultimately be a six-fight series.

But forget the numbers. A fighter’s won-loss record is pretty much a useless statistic, albeit that was far less true in Robinson’s day. What was remarkable is that the most lavish bouquets lavished on him came from the senior members of the sportswriting fraternity.

Old-time fight fans are notorious for thinking that old-time fighters were superior to their modern counterparts and old sportswriters aren’t immune. Some wizened scribe was bound to have offered up this opinion: “Okay, I’ll grant you, this kid Robinson is pretty good, but if he had met Mickey Walker in Walker’s prime he would have been in for a rude awakening.” But no one offered up that caveat, at least no one to this reporter’s knowledge, and this reporter has spent countless hours rummaging through old newspapers. The lionization of Sugar Ray Robinson was unanimous.

In Frankfurt, Robinson was matched against Hans Stretz whose record was said to be 33-3. Seven years younger than Robinson at age 22, Stretz was a former and future German middleweight champion.

Stretz was refreshingly realistic when assessing his chances. “Anything can happen in boxing,” he said. “The worst sometimes beat the best and I’m not the worst.” But Stretz knew something that Robinson didn’t. He knew that the building that would house their fight, the Haus de Technik, a building built for industrial trade shows, was unheated and in hopes of getting an edge he prepared for Robinson in an unheated gym.

The patrons, reportedly 7,000, arrived wearing heavy jackets. Between rounds they stood and stamped their feet in unison on the concrete floor as a means of abating the chill.

Robinson knocked Stretz to the mat within the first 30 seconds of the fight. The German dusted himself off and had some good moments in rounds two and three, but that merely prolonged the inevitable. He would be knocked down eight times in all before the match was halted in the fifth round. The final punch was a straight left. Stretz wasn’t concussed but he was exhausted and made no attempt to rise as the referee tolled the “10” count.

Again there was no rest for the weary. Two days later, on Dec. 27, the ocean liner SS Liberte left Paris for New York. Robinson and his entourage, minus the dwarf, were on it.

It was important for Robinson to get home in a hurry. He would have only six weeks to get ready for his next fight and this was a biggie, a match with Jake LaMotta, the man who had given him his toughest fights. At stake would be LaMotta’s middleweight title, affording Sugar Ray an opportunity to win a world title in a second weight class. Before that, on Jan. 9, 1951, there was the annual dinner of the Boxing Writers Association of America where Robinson was set to receive the Edward J. Neill Memorial Award forged to honor “the person who has done the most for boxing during the preceding year.” (Neill was an Associated Press war correspondent who died from a shrapnel wound while embedded with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War.)

Sugar Ray was a worthy honoree. In Europe, by virtue of his fistic brilliance, he brightened the day of many people still suffering from the ravages of World War II. And how odd that his trip to Europe would include a stop-over in Germany, America’s arch-enemy just a few years earlier.

German fight fans aren’t as animated as fight fans in other countries, but I have no doubt that most of them watching the Robinson-Stretz fight with no apparent emotional allegiance were sorely disappointed that Hans Stretz didn’t make a better showing. Boxing, more than any other sport, feeds on tribal loyalties. But they left knowing that they had seen a master craftsman at work. “(Sugar Ray Robinson) is perhaps the closest thing to a perfect fighting machine the human race will ever produce,” wrote Bill Zalenski, the ringside correspondent for Stars and Stripes.

—-

I don’t want to get maudlin here. Robinson’s excursion to Europe was all about making money to maintain his ostentatious lifestyle. But I have thought about the Robinson-Stretz fight a lot and there’s a part of me that wants to think that he was drawn to Frankfurt by a force more powerful than a felt need for pecuniary enrichment.

The crowd included a smattering of American GIs. A few years earlier, they would have been in Germany on a killing mission. A little over five years had elapsed since the war in Europe had officially ended with the signing of the Armistice. Measured by the sands of time, that was yesterday. And yet here in an unheated building in wintry Frankfurt, with wounds still fresh from the deadliest conflict in human history, Americans and Germans had come in peace to watch a recital by the most skilled practitioner of the so-called manly art.

How appropriate that this scene played out on Christmas.

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Berchelt TKOs Valenzuela in Mexico City

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt hammered his way to a decisive knockout victory over fellow Mexican Eleazar Valenzuela in a non-title light fight on Saturday.

After nearly nine months off, WBC super featherweight titlist Berchelt (38-1, 34 KOs) unraveled a withering body attack including numerous low blows but Valenzuela remained upright in front of a sparse TV studio audience until he could take it no longer.

Berchelt used a seven-punch combination to knock the senses out of the very tough Valenzuela who hails from Sinaloa. The referee saw enough and stopped the fight with Valenzuela leaning against the ropes with a dazed look.

The champion from Cancun used a triple left hook in the first round to floor Valenzuela and it looked like the fight would not last more than two rounds. But Valenzuela, a sturdy veteran, bored into Berchelt to keep him off balance and was able to stop the momentum.

It did not last.

A vicious attack to the body sapped the energy from Valenzuela who has fought many elite fighters in the past, but none like Berchelt. He was able to batter the veteran round after round.

Valenzuela sought to reverse the momentum with some combinations of his own. Berchelt opened up with some combinations from the outside and cracked his foe with some skull-numbing blows that clearly affected Valenzuela’s senses. The referee wisely stopped the fight at 1:03 of the sixth round to give the win to Berchelt by knockout.

The victory opens the door to a potential clash with featherweight world titlist Oscar Valdez of Nogales, Mexico who has a fight of his own planned next month. Both champions are promoted by Top Rank.

Other Bouts       

Omar Aguilar (18-0, 17 KOs) bushwacked veteran Dante Jardon (32-7, 23 KOs) within a minute of the first round to win by technical knockout. A barrage of blows by Ensenada’s Aguilar opened up the fight and a four-punch combination forced the referee to stop the super lightweight fight with Mexico City’s Jardon against the ropes.

A battle between super bantamweights saw the taller Alan Picasso (14-1) out-hustle Florentino Perez (14-6-2) in an eight round clash between Mexican fighters. Mexico City’s Picasso fought effectively inside against the shorter Perez of Monterrey and was able to maintain a consistent pace. Neither fighter approved the use of a jab but Picasso was more effective inside with body shots and uppercuts and dominated the last half of the fight.  The six judges scored in favor of Picasso.

The WBC instituted the extra judges as a means of tabulating score cards efficiently. Three judges scored from the television studios and another three judges scored from the USA. It was the second time WBC judges officiated remotely and all six scorecards were official.

Photo credit: Zanfer Promotions

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Big Baby Miller, Roberto Duran and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller just can’t keep his hands out of the cookie jar. It was announced today (Saturday, June 27) that the jumbo-sized heavyweight from Brooklyn tested positive for a banned substance, forcing him out of a July 9 fight at the MGM Grand “Bubble” against Jerry Forrest. The story was broken by Mike Coppinger of The Athletic who breaks more hard news stories than any other boxing writer.

Miller, needless to say is a repeat offender. He failed three different PED tests in a span of three days for three different banned substances leading into his planned June 2019 match at Madison Square Garden with WBA/IBF/WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. That cost him the fight and a reported $5 million-plus payday. Andy Ruiz filled the void and scored an historic upset.

When the first test came back positive, Miller wailed that he was the victim of a faulty test. “My team and I stand for integrity, decency and honesty and will fight this with everything we have,” he said in a prepared statement. He later changed his tune. “I messed up,” he said.

In a story that appeared on these pages, Thomas Hauser noted that Big Baby had a history of PED use dating to 2014. In that year, he was slapped with a nine-month suspension by the California Athletic Commission following a kickboxing event in Los Angeles.

Counting this latest revelation, it’s five strikes for Big Baby. He’s taking quite a roasting right now on social media. Some of the harshest criticism is coming from his fellow boxers.

Assuming that Top Rank can’t find a replacement for Miller, this is another tough break for Jerry Forrest, a 32-year-old southpaw from Virginia with a 26-3 (20) record. Forrest was scheduled to fight hot prospect Filip Hrgovic on April 17 on a card at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a show swept away by the coronavirus outbreak. Forrest has been matched very soft throughout his career, but he acquitted himself well in his lone previous TV appearance, losing a split decision to undefeated Jermaine Franklin on “Showtime: The New Generation.” The decision was controversial.

There’s talk now that Carlos Takam is angling to replace Big Baby. The French-Cameroonian, a former world title challenger who turns 40 in December, was billed out of Henderson, Nevada, in his last ring appearance that saw him winning a unanimous decision over fellow greybeard Fabio Maldonado in Huntington, NY.

—-

When it comes to Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong, will”), there’s no sport quite like boxing. Just ask Bob Arum. The most mouth-watering matchup in his ESPN “summer series” fell out this week when Eleider Alvarez suffered a shoulder injury in training, forcing a postponement of his July 16 date with Joe Smith Jr. The match between Alvarez (25-1, 13 KOs) and Smith (25-3, 20 KOs) would have been a 12-rounder with the winner guaranteed a shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title, a diadem that Alvarez previously owned.

Joe Smith Jr, a Long Island construction worker once dismissed as nothing more than a club fighter, won legions of new fans in his last start, a one-sided (to everyone except one myopic judge) win over Jesse Hart in Atlantic City.

Cancelled matches have become a recurrent theme in ESPN’s semi-weekly boxing series. The very first card in the series lost what shaped up as its most competitive fight when Mikaela Mayer tested positive for COVID-19, scuttling her bout with Helen Joseph. In subsequent weeks, the manager of Mikkel Les Pierre tested positive for COVID-19 as did WBO junior lightweight champion Jamel Herring. Those bad test results forced the postponement of two main events. Then earlier this week, hot lightweight prospect Joseph Adorno was lopped off Tuesday’s card after feeling sick after coming in overweight at the previous day’s weigh-in.

The undercards of the Tuesday/Thursday ESPN fights have left something to be desired, but that’s understandable. As Bob Arum noted in a conversation with veteran boxing scribe Keith Idec, Top Rank’s matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad “Abdul” Goodman have had a hard time fleshing out the cards because with so many gyms closed there’s a shortage of boxers who are in shape to fight on short notice. Then there are the COVID-19 travel restrictions and (something Arum did not acknowledge) budgetary restrictions more severe than an ordinary Top Rank card. Most of the undercard fighters have come from neighboring states such as Utah, saving Top Rank the cost of air fare. Fighters from faraway places, with some exceptions, were already training in Las Vegas.

Kudos to the entire Top Rank staff for keeping boxing alive during these challenging times.

It’s old news now, but Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran, 69, tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized in Panama City with a viral infection. There’s been no update on his condition but his son Robin Duran wrote on Instagram that his father is not having any symptoms beyond those associated with a common cold. We will update you when new details become available.

Duran’s hospitalization came just a few days after the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Sugar Ray Leonard in what would say was Duran’s finest hour. They met on June 20, 1980 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Duran won a unanimous decision. Converting the “10-point must” system into rounds, Duran prevailed by scores of 3-2-10, 6-5-4, and 6-4-5. As Yogi would have said, you could look it up.

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Fast Results from the Bubble: Jason Moloney TKOs Baez

Arne K. Lang

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Top Rank was back inside the MGM Grand “Bubble” tonight for chapter six of their semi-weekly ESPN summer series. Jason Moloney, one-half of Australia’s Moloney twins, accomplished what his brother Andrew Moloney was unable to accomplish in this ring on Tuesday night, adding a “W” to his ledger and looking good doing it. It came at the expense of Mexicali’s Leonardo Baez.

It was Jason Moloney’s second start on U.S. soil after coming up just a tad short in a bid for the vacant IBF world bantamweight title at Orlando in October of 2018. Against Baez, he fought a smart tactical fight, blunting the Mexican’s superior reach by fighting him at close quarters. Baez fought from the third round on with a cut over his right eye and then suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round. By then the fight was becoming increasingly one-sided and Baez’s corner did not let him come out for round eight.

Jason Moloney improved to 21-1 with his 18th knockout. Leonardo Baez, who took the fight on short notice after Maloney’s original opponent Oscar Negrete was forced to withdraw with a detached retina, slumped to 18-3.

Co-Feature

In the 10-round co-feature, Abraham Nova advanced to 19-0 with a unanimous decision over Philadelphia’s Avery Sparrow but won no new fans with a lackadaisical performance. Nova, born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic and raised in Albany, NY, showed little but his jab through the first seven rounds until hurting Sparrow with a big right hand in the eighth. The judges had it 96-94, 97-93, and 99-91.

Sparrow (10-2), whose lone previous loss was by disqualification, was making his first start in 15 months. He was slated to fight Ryan Garcia in Los Angeles last Sept. 14 but never made it to the weigh-in after being arrested by U.S. marshals on a charge of threatening a woman with a gun after she threw his clothes out the window…

Other Bouts

In an 8-round featherweight contest, Puerto Rican southpaw Orlando Gonzalez advanced to 15-0 with a unanimous decision over Ecuador’s Luis Porozo (15-3). The scores were 76-74 and 77-73 twice.

Gonzalez wasn’t particularly impressive although he did score two knockdowns. He decked Porozo near the end of round two with a left hook following a straight left and decked him again near the end of round seven with a left uppercut to the body.

In a rather ho-hum fight, welterweight Vlad Panin improved to 8-1 with 6-round majority decision over San Antonio’s 36-year-old Benjamin Whitaker (13-4). Panin, a Belarusian who grew up in Las Vegas and earned a BA in English from UCLA, has a good back story but seemingly a limited upside in the fight game.

In an entertaining 6-round welterweight clash, Filipino campaigner Reymond Yanon improved to 11-5-1 with a split decision (59-55, 58-56, 56-58) over Clay Burns. A 33-year-old ex-Marine from Fort Worth, Burns declined to 9-8-2.

The opener, a heavyweight bout slated for six rounds, matched two Phoenix-based fighters in a rematch. Kingsley Ibeh, a former standout defensive lineman for the Washburn College Ichabods, avenged his lone defeat and improved to 4-1 with a fourth-round stoppage of Waldo Cortes (5-3). Ibeh, who at 286 had a 39-pound weight advantage, softened Cortes up with a series of uppercuts and Cortes was on his way down when he was tagged with a glancing left hand. He got to his feet, but referee Vic Drakulich waived it off. The official time was 1:41.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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