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Christmas Day in Germany with Sugar Ray Robinson

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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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Abraham Nova and his Mascot are Back in Action on Friday Night

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With his black beard dyed gold, junior lightweight Abraham Nova is one of boxing’s most recognizable practitioners. Sometimes there’s two of him which makes him stand out even more. His twin is an inflatable mascot painted to look just like him. On fight nights they are inseparable. The mascot shadows Nova on his ringwalk, bouncing up and down and dancing to animate the crowd.

Some gimmicks are just plain hokey. Some are annoying. But there’s something whimsical about Nova’s invention that brings a smile to boxing fans of all ages. “Abraham Nova having his own mascot is one of the coolest things in boxing,” says fight writer Ryan Songalia.

“I played all sports in high school, football, baseball, track, and got the idea of it from other sports,” says Nova of his twin who he unveiled in January of 2020 at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort in Verona, New York, where he upped his record to 18-0 with a fourth-round stoppage of Mexican journeyman Pedro Navarrete.

He’s 5-2 since then, the smudges coming against future world featherweight champion Robeisy Ramirez (KO by 5) and defending super featherweight world champion O’Shaquie Foster where he came out on the short end of a split decision. This coming Friday, in his first assignment since failing to de-throne Foster, he opposes 21-0 Andres Cortes at the Fontainebleu in Las Vegas on a Top Rank card airing on ESPN+.

“I was the one who asked for this fight,” says Nova. “Top Rank offered me a match on their June 8th Puerto Rican Parade Weekend show at Madison Square Garden against an opponent who was 17-2, but I turned it down and asked for a better opponent and they accommodated me.” Las Vegas native Andres Cortes, who has been profiled in these pages, is ranked #2 at 130 pounds by the WBO.

In common with boxing’s historical pattern, Abraham Nova had a hardscrabble upbringing.

Born in Puerto Rico to parents from the Dominican Republic, the second-youngest of 10 children, he came to the U.S. at the age of 1 where the entire family was initially shoe-horned into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany, New York.

His father, Aquiles, had a friend here who was the pastor of a church and in need of an assistant pastor to help with his growing congregation. Aquiles eventually founded his own church in Albany, The Pentecostal Church of Unity & Prayer where services are held in both Spanish and English.

As a toddler, Nova lived briefly in Guatemala and Mexico where his parents were called to “spread the word” and to assist in redevelopment projects. The family traveled 5,500 miles in a rickety old school bus from Albany to Guatemala during the end days of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Each of Nova’s four brothers boxed, but he was the only one to turn pro. As an amateur, he won the 2015 Olympic Trials Qualifying Tournament in Memphis, defeating Frank Martin and Richardson Hitchins in back-to-back fights, but failed to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games when he lost a split decision to Gary Antuanne Russell at the Olympic Trials in Reno. Those bouts were contested at 141 pounds.

A 30-year-old bachelor, Nova had his final amateur fights in Lowell, Massachusetts, a pillar of amateur boxing in New England, and has remained in the Boston area without losing his Albany identity. He is trained by ex-U.S. Marine Mark DeLuca, a boxer of some renown who sports a 30-4 record and may not be done with fighting quite yet at age 36.

Nova’s opponent, Andres Cortes, has won five of his last seven inside the distance beginning with a smashing first-round knockout of 34-2 Genesis Servania. On paper, it’s a 50-50 match-up. (The pricemakers are flummoxed; as of this writing, they have yet to establish a betting line.)

Abraham Nova’s mascot may never become as well-known as some of the costumed human mascots in college sports (e.g., West Virginia’s Mountaineer or Michigan State’s Sparty), let alone as beloved as the University of Georgia’s flesh-and-blood bulldog mascot Uga, but give the boxer credit for originality and for bringing a little levity to a sport too often besotted with incivility.

Note: Abraham Nova vs. Andres Cortes is the co-feature. In the main go, new Top Rank signee Rafael Espinoza makes the first defense of his WBO world featherweight title against Mexican countryman Sergio Chirino. Espinoza forged the 2023 TSS Upset of the Year when he got off the deck to defeat Robeisy Ramirez on Dec. 9 in Pembroke Pines, Florida, winning legions of fans with his unrelenting buzzsaw attack. Action from the Fontaineblue begins at 4:00 pm PST on ESPN+.

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

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A True Tale from the Boxing Vault: When the Champion Refused to Fight

BY TSS Special Correspondent David Harazduk — A hundred years ago, ducking a worthy challenger wouldn’t simply stoke the ire of the fans, it came with the prospect of jail time.

On Thursday, November 3, 1927, 16,000 fans packed Wrigley Field in Los Angeles hoping to witness their local favorite challenge for the welterweight world championship. Nicknamed the “Nebraska Wildcat,” Ace Hudkins had relocated to the Pacific Coast where his devil-may-care style in the ring made him instantly popular among Angelino fight fans. He was set to battle Joe Dundee, the champion, an Italian immigrant who had settled in Baltimore at a young age. But there was one problem.

The champion refused to fight.

Members of the California boxing commission, along with promoter Dick Donald, raced to the Biltmore Hotel to plead with Dundee (pictured) and his manager Max Waxman to come to Wrigley Field and fight. Waxman steadfastly refused. Donald, a quick-witted cigar-chomping Irishman known as the “Boy Promoter,” had promised Max’s man the ungodly sum of $60,000, and Dundee wouldn’t enter the ring for a penny less.

Under the rules of the California commission, a fighter could only receive a guarantee of $500. The rest of the purse came from a percentage of the gate: 37.5% for the champion and 12.5% for the challenger. Waxman insisted that Donald had offered $60,000, but the commission couldn’t enforce this side deal.

Tickets in the bleachers were sold at $2.20 a pop while those closer to the ring went for $11. The most the gate could possibly produce would be $90,000. Add in Wrigley Field’s 15% usage fee and payments to the preliminary fighters, officials, and even to rent the chairs situated around the ring, and Dundee’s dreams of $60,000- $75,000 if he lost the title- never had a prayer of being realized. After all, 37.5% of $90,000, plus $500, is only $34,250.

Meanwhile, Eddie Mahoney, a preliminary fighter, entered the ring at 8:30pm. Mahoney was scheduled to fight Joe Dundee’s brother Vince, a future middleweight world champion. When Vince didn’t follow Mahoney into the ring, Mahoney soon left, much to the bewilderment of the crowd.

Donald scrambled to find a plan B. He searched for welterweight contender Sergeant Sammy Baker to replace Dundee and fight Hudkins. When Baker couldn’t be located, Donald asked a preliminary fighter, Olympic gold medalist Jackie Fields, to take on Hudkins instead. Hudkins and Fields had been sparring partners when the featherweight champion of the 1924 Games in Paris was a nascent pro back in 1925. Fields’s manager, Gig Rooney, felt Hudkins was too big for the Olympic champ at this stage of his career and preferred to remain on the undercard against San Francisco’s Joey Silver.

With no plan B, Donald and the commissioners went back to Waxman in a last desperate plea to coax Dundee to defend his title. One commissioner, Charles Traung, offered Waxman an additional $10,000 check for Dundee to fight. Waxman stubbornly held out for more.

At 9:20pm, back at Wrigley, Donald signaled Jackie Fields and Joey Silver to enter the ring. Though Fields was wobbled twice, he opened up a cut over Silver’s left eye and split the San Franciscan’s lip on route to a convincing points victory in a ten-rounder. A few minutes after 10pm, Mahoney and Vince Dundee finally entered the ring for their clash. Dundee starched Mahoney inside of two rounds. When Waxman, who also managed Vince, heard of the second-round stoppage, he said “Vince knocked that guy out, eh? I told him to carry him along.” Waxman had hoped to stall for time.

Soon after the end of the Dundee-Mahoney fight, Ace Hudkins waltzed to the ring. He spent fifteen minutes seated in his corner, covered in a bathrobe and towels to keep him warm. Dundee never showed.

At 11:25pm, ring announcer Frank Kerwin slid into the ring and bellowed, “Owing to the fact that Joe Dundee did not receive his guarantee, he refused to go on with his match against Ace Hudkins.” The crowd was advised to “hold their seat checks and watch the newspapers for other announcements.”

The fans didn’t take too kindly to the announcement and hurled those rented chairs in disgust. Fights broke out all over the stadium, spilling into the ring. All available police officers in the area rushed to Wrigley Field, wielding their nightsticks in a bid to subdue the violent mob. Dozens of fans were injured in the fracas. To add insult to injury, those who had paid $2.20 for their seats in the bleachers were out of luck; they had never received a ticket in the first place.

The next day, Waxman and Joe Dundee checked out of the Biltmore Hotel at noon and made their way to the train station. Later that night, they were pulled off an eastbound train at Pasadena and arrested for false advertising.  Waxman posted a $1,000 bond for each of them.

A warrant was issued for Donald on the same false advertising grounds. He phoned into the police station promising to turn himself in once his feelings of humiliation subsided. The police agreed to wait.

Ultimately, all accused would be acquitted. Waxman would return the $22,249.43 that had been placed in his account and an $11,000 check.

Fans didn’t receive refunds as it was deemed unfair to give them only to those who had bought $11 tickets since the gallery patrons had no ticket stub and thus, couldn’t get a refund anyhow. After the preliminary fighters, Wrigley Field, officials, ushers, and the chair rental company were compensated, the rest of the money was placed into a community fund.

Because he had entered the ring for his title challenge, Ace Hudkins declared himself the new champion, but no commission accepted his claim. Dick Donald’s promotional career, once so promising, abruptly ended. In 1935, he took one last gasp in boxing, serving as matchmaker at the famed Olympic Auditorium for a brief spell.

Joe Dundee would never fight in California again. His championship reign ended dishonorably a year and half later when several commissions agreed to strip him of the title for refusing to fight any top contenders. When Jackie Fields won the vacant title, he and Dundee were matched for the undisputed crown on July 25, 1929. With Dundee a two-to-one underdog, Waxman and Dundee bet $50,000 on Joe to win, with fouls canceling the bet. Fields shellacked Dundee, knocking him down twice. In the second round, after the second knockdown, Dundee knew he was licked. He got up and hit Fields low as hard as he could. Dundee was instantly disqualified, losing any claim to the title as disgracefully as his hold-out against Hudkins.

If only some of the alphabet champions of today had to post bail under the threat of jail for ducking contenders, maybe boxing would be in a better state.

EDITOR’S: Author David Harazduk has run The Jewish Boxing Blog since 2010. You can find him at  Twitter/X @JewishBoxing and Instagram @JewishBoxing

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Results from the MGM Grand where Gervonta Davis Returned with a Bang

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After an absence of 421 days, Gervonta “Tank” Davis returned to the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. In the opposite corner was Detroit-born Frank “The Ghost” Martin who has been training in Dallas under Derrick James. In previous fights, Gervonta, who holds the WBA world lightweight title, has shown a tendency to start slow before closing the show with a highlight-reel knockout. Tonight was no exception.

Martin, 18-0 heading in, fought off his back foot from the get-go, but had good moments and was arguably ahead after five frames. But as the fight moved into the middle rounds, Martin became more stationary and one could sense that the ever-stalking Davis was wearing him down. In Round 8, Davis trapped Martin against a corner post, discombobulated him with a left uppercut and then turned out his lights with a chopping left hand. There was no chance that Martin could rise before referee Harvey Dock completed the “10” count.

Davis (30-0, 28 KOs) celebrated by standing on the top strand of rope and doing a black flip. He has many lucrative options going forward and will be favored to defeat whoever his next opponent will be.

The Davis-Martin fight was the capstone of a four-fight pay-per-view, the second collaboration between Premier Boxing Champions and Amazon Prime Video.

Benavidez-Gvozdyk

In his first fight as a light heavyweight, David Benavidez scored a 12-round unanimous decision over former lineal light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

Benavidez, who improved to 20-0 (24), worked the body well and kept up the pressure in the early-going, building a substantial lead. His work output declined over the last third of the fight, but his punches still carried more steam than those of Gvozdyk, 37, who suffered his second loss in 22 pro fights, the other inflicted by the indomitable Artur Beterbiev, prompting the SoCal-based Ukrainian to take a long hiatus from the ring. The judges had it 119-109, 117-111, and 116-112.

Puello-Russell

In a major upset, Alberto Puello of the Dominican Republic saddled Gary Antuanne Russell with his first pro loss, winning a split decision. Puello appeared to have the edge in a furious final round, without which the bout would have ended in a draw. Puello, who improved to 23-0 (10), had to overcome a dubious call by referee Allan Huggins who took a point away from the Dominican in Round 7 for too much holding.

Russell, who was making his first start against a southpaw, is now trained by his brother Gary Russell Jr., the former featherweight champion, who replaced their late father. Russell Jr last fought in January of 2022.

Heading in, Gary Antuanne Russell had won all 17 of his pro fights by knockout. One of the judges thought he won handily. But his tally, 118-109 for Russell, was overruled by the115-112 and 114-113 scores awarded the underdog. Puello, who briefly held the WBA diadem at 140 but had it stripped from him when he tested positive for PEDs, won an interim belt in that weight class with his upset tonight.

Adames-Gausha

In the PPV opener, Alberto Puello’s countryman Carlos Adames successfully defended his WBC middleweight title in his first world title fight with a one-sided decision over former U.S. Olympian Terrell Gausha. Adames, whose late father reportedly sired 35 children, was the aggressor and landed many more punches. He advanced his record to 24-1 (19). It was the fourth loss in 29 pro starts for the 36-year-old Gausha. The judges had it 119-109 and 118-110 twice.

Adames’ triumph made it 2-0 for the Dominicans and their trainer Ismael Salas.

Other Bouts of Note

In a huge upset, Delaware’s Kyrone Davis overcame Arizona’s previously undefeated and highly-touted Elijah Garcia, winning a split decision. A 21-year-old father of two, Garcia, 16-0 heading in, was rated #1 by the WBA and seemingly one step removed from challenging Erislandy Lara for the WBA middleweight title. But Davis, trained by Stephen “Breadman” Edwards, had a solid game plan and although Elijah came on strong in the homestretch, it was too little, too late.

One of the judges favored Garcia 98-92, but his cohorts each gave seven rounds to Davis (19-3-1, 6 KOs) and the decision was fair.

Filipino junior lightweight Mark Magsayo, in his second fight back since losing back-to-back fights with featherweight belt-holders Rey Vargas and Brandon Figueroa, advanced to 26-2 (17) with a 10-round unanimous decision over Mexico City’s Eduardo Ramirez (28-4-3). Magsayo scored a knockdown in the third round with a straight right hand and won by scores of 99-90 and 97-92 twice.

Photos credit: Al Applerose

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