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Lew Jenkins: An Improbable Story of Redemption

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Lew Jenkins

In the early 2000’s Nicaraguan brawler Ricardo Mayorga took the welterweight and middleweight divisions by storm with his circus like nature out of the ring, his in-ring antics, and devastating power punching. Some of these crazy antics included showing up to press conferences drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, arriving at weigh-ins eating all types of junk food, and shouting every derogatory term under the sun at his opponent. His persona took the boxing world by storm and Mayorga had his moment in the sun. Despite not having pure boxing talent or a high in-ring I.Q., he was able to ride the wave of both his steel chin and power punch to multimillion dollar paydays against some of the best fighters of his generation.

While Mayorga seemed to be a fighter from out of this world, an aberration from the sport’s elite athletes, what he turned out to be was a fighter that harkened back to a time when those types of antics were not just viewed as something done to help give fights a promotional boost. No, they were the type of carefree antics that a certain lightweight champion of the world, who himself was an anomaly, found solace in during his reign at the top. Enter Lew Jenkins who took New York City and the lightweight division by storm in the late 30’s and early 40’s while becoming one of the sport’s most popular champions.

Lew Jenkins life story is full of anecdotes that not even the best Hollywood screenwriters could come up with. During the height of his popularity, he was the toast of the town as he hobnobbed with some of the biggest names in entertainment, like becoming one of Humphrey Bogart’s drinking buddies. However, unlike the aforementioned Mayorga, it would be what Jenkins did after his career in the ring that would define him not only as a man, but as a true American Hero.

Author Gene Pantalone delves into the life of Lew Jenkins in his latest book: From Boxing Ring to Battlefield: The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins. In just two-hundred pages Pantalone tells the incredible story of Jenkins’ life. “I was doing research for my first book (Madame Bey’s: Home to Boxing Legends),” said Pantalone, when his name kept coming up, since Lew was one of the fighters that trained at that legendary training camp. After finishing the first book I started gathering more and more information about Jenkins. He just seemed to be a fascinating character, his dirt-poor upbringing, how he couldn’t hold on to his riches, and how he eventually found meaning in his life in the most unlikely of places.”

Lew Jenkins was born and raised in Texas during the Great Depression and quickly found himself traveling around the state fighting in carnivals for cash prizes. Utilizing boxcar trains to travel free of cost, it was during his countless fights in the traveling circus and barrooms where Jenkins both gained fighting experience and developed his deadly right hand. “It wasn’t long before he found his way to New York City. Boxers can train all they want, and this is an opinion that’s shared by many, but you have to be born with that kind of punch, the type that Lew had. When I interviewed Lew’s son he told me that his father mentioned to him that when he was fighting his opponents appeared to be moving in slow motion. That actually helped him find the openings to throw the punch.”

What Pantalone is describing is the fact that Lew Jenkins would come to be recognized as one of the strongest punchers in the history of boxing. In fact, Jenkins was listed at number sixty-two on the list of the top one hundred hardest punchers in boxing history by The Ring magazine. It would indeed be his punching power, especially with the right hand, that would take Jenkins to the top of the lightweight division when he blew away Lou Ambers to capture the title.

“When I was collecting my research on Jenkins, I focused on information not just about Jenkins, but also about his fights,” said Pantalone. That’s where I got a lot of quality stuff, especially from the work of W.C. Heinz. It was as if his fascination with Jenkins became mine.” Through all the research conducted by Pantalone and all the crazy stories regarding Jenkins’ antics during his rise through the ranks in New York City, it was what Jenkins did after his boxing career was over that truly captured Pantalone’s imagination.

“I read an article on Boxing.com written by Clarence George and Lew Jenkins grandson made a comment in the section below the article. So, I obtained his e-mail and was able to speak with the son through the grandson.” At first the Jenkins family was reluctant to participate in the project since their father and grandfather had been portrayed as the “playboy champion that fought drunk,” or the champion that squandered his ring earnings on the nightclub scene in New York. “I turned over pages of notes and the first draft, about a hundred pages, to the son and since I also focused on what Jenkins did during his life away from the ring, they agreed to participate with the telling of his story,” states Pantalone.

After Lew Jenkins finished his career in the ring he was still in what today would be considered a fighter’s physical prime, even though burning the proverbial candle at both ends had taken its toll on his natural abilities. Jenkins was able to refocus his life and dedicated it to serving his country when he joined the Armed Forces to serve in War World II.  It would be his experiences as a soldier, in World War II and then in Korea, that would reshape Lew Jenkins at his core. “He completely stopped drinking and after his horrific and subsequent heroic efforts in the Korean War he stopped smoking cigarettes,” notes Pantalone.

Anything that he did inside of the ring came naturally to Jenkins. However, it was the amount of hard work and dedication as a soldier that unlike boxing didn’t come naturally to him. As a result, all his accomplishments and the courage he displayed during his military career, (which included being awarded the Silver Star) is what truly defined the man that was Lew Jenkins.

From Boxing Ring to Battlefield is a must-read for all boxing fans. Throughout the two-hundred pages, Gene Pantalone does a terrific job at engaging the reader and making him become invested in the development of Jenkins as if it was a life story being played out in real time. Pantalone also does a great job telling the stories of the people that played different roles in Jenkins life. He covers his two complex marriages (including his first marriage to Katie Taylor, one of boxing’s first female managers, who is a fascinating person in her own right), as well as the intriguing relationships with managers, fellow fighters, celebrities, and the military men with whom he served and would eventually help to rescue from a hell on earth.

“There aren’t many pictures of Jenkins. The funny thing is he said he felt more relaxed during war time.  If you look at the pictures of him during his military career he is smiling, while the pictures you see of him during his boxing days he tends to have a stoic expression,” says Pantalone. Historians of both boxing and the military are treated to a tale of one man’s spectacular life journey to redemption.

If not for Pantalone this is the type of story that may have been lost in the annals of time. Lew Jenkins may have been viewed as just another lightweight champion from years past. Instead readers are now able to connect with an intriguing character who finds purpose in the most unlikely of places during a period of time that is becoming more and more distant.

Luis A. Cortes writes from Philadelphia. He can be reached at Luisacortes83@gmail.com  His twitter handle is @LC3Boxing

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Regis Prograis and Fabio Wardley Excelled on the last Saturday of November

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Two fighters at different stages of development – Regis Prograis and Fabio Wardley – made great gains this past weekend. Prograis, a junior welterweight, was already recognized as one of the top fighters in his weight class, but had become something of a forgotten man. Wardley stepped up in class and collapsed Nathan Gorman in the third round, registering his fourteenth straight knockout.

Prograis got a lot of ink as he was climbing the ladder, partly because of his back story. Uprooted from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina — the awful storm demolished his family’s home — Prograis found refuge in Houston but his tie to the city of his birth remained strong. The tattoos that cover his chest pay homage to NOLA, the city where he spent the first sixteen years of his life.

Then there was that colorful nickname, Rougarou, a mythical creature in Cajun folklore, similar to a werewolf. In a sport littered with hackneyed nicknames, Prograis had one that stood out from the pack.

Of course, boxing writers would not have become enamored of him if he wasn’t also charismatic inside the ropes. “Prograis is a true rarity in boxing, a pressure fighting southpaw who slips and parries punches while moving forward in a patiently destructive way that might even make the great Roberto Duran feel proud,” wrote Kelsey McCarson in an article that appeared on these pages.

This story ran as Prograis was preparing for his first world title fight, a match with Kiryl Relikh for the WBA 140-pound belt. Prograis won every round before stopping Relikh in the sixth. In the process, Rougarou became the first New Orleans fighter to win a major world title since Willie Pastrano controversially out-pointed Harold Johnson in 1963.

Prograis vs. Relikh was also a semifinal contest in the 140-pound division of the World Boxing Super Series, an 8-man invitational tournament. It boosted Prograis into a match with IBF belt-holder Josh Taylor, an undefeated Scotsman. They met in London on Oct. 20, 2019.

Heading into this match, there was a raging debate about whether Prograis belonged on the pound-for-pound list. That talk quieted after Taylor won a majority decision in a bruising skirmish so spirited it was named the TSS Fight of the Year.

After this tiff, Prograis receded into the shadows. His last three fights preceding his match this past Saturday with Jose Zepeda were against Juan Heraldez, Ivan Redkach, and Tyrone McKenna, none of whom offered much in the way of name recognition.

The fight with Heraldez was buried on a show anchored by a match between Gervonta “Tank” Davis and Leo Santa Cruz. His match with the uninspired Redkach played second fiddle to a fight between youtuber Jake Paul and Ben Askren. He fought Northern Ireland’s McKenna on a card in Dubai that got very little attention in the United States.

Prograis was favored to defeat Jose Zepeda when they met this past Saturday at a sports park in the Los Angeles County city of Carson, but Zepeda, an LA-area native, represented his strongest test since he went overseas to fight Josh Taylor. Zepeda’s only losses had come on the road in title fights with Terry Flanagan and Jose Carlos Ramirez. He dislocated his shoulder against Flanagan, forcing him to retire after two frames, and lost a majority decision to Ramirez in Fresno where Ramirez had a big following. His 35-2 (27) record included a stoppage of Ivan Baranchyk in a wild slugfest at the MGM Bubble in Las Vegas, a runaway pick for the 2020 Fight of the Year.

Zepeda edged the first round, a feeling-out round for Prograis, and held his own in round two, but from that point on until the fight was stopped in the 11th round, it was all Prograis. Indeed, his performance called to mind Vasiliy Lomachenko on one of Lomachenko’s best nights.

The 140-pound weight class is top-heavy with talent. In addition to Prograis, Taylor, and Ramirez, there’s Teofino Lopez plus Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney, both of whom appear poised to move up in weight. Prograis wants a rematch with Taylor, but the best guess is that he will fight Ramirez next. Regardless, he has emerged from the shadows at age 33 and figures to finally cash in on his immense talent.

Wardley

Fabio Wardley’s bout this past Saturday in London with Nathan Gorman attracted more buzz than the main event (Dillian Whyte vs Jermaine Franklin) and delivered more entertainment, notwithstanding the fact that it lasted less than three full rounds.

Wardley, who turns 28 next month, hails from the historic English port city of Ipswich, near the North Sea. He was 14-0 heading in and had stopped his last 13 opponents, but there were a lot of doubts about him. His amateur experience, as it were, consisted of only four white-collar bouts and as a pro he had answered the bell for only 35 rounds. Gorman, Tyson Fury’s cousin, had come up short in his first crossroads fight, getting blitzed by former amateur rival Daniel Dubois, but that was his only setback in 20 pro fights.

Gorman had all the best of it in the opening round, repeatedly finding a home for his right uppercut, and in the second frame he busted Wardley’s nose wide open. But the site of his own blood emboldened the Ipswich man who decked Gorman twice before the round was over and then, in the next frame, decked Gorman again, bringing forth the white towel from Gorman’s corner.

wardley2

wardley

Fabio Wardley, who carried 240 pounds on his six-foot-five frame, remains very much a work in progress – foremost, he needs to tighten up his defense – but with the victory he claimed the British heavyweight title vacated by Joe Joyce and stamped himself as arguably the best of the next generation of British heavyweights.

To that list one can add the name of Johnny Fisher, the Rumford Bull, who is built along the same lines as Wardley. A hot ticket-seller with a rugby background, Fisher, 7-0 (6 KOs) is also very much a work in progress, but a fight between him and Wardley, even at this juncture of their young careers, would be a box-office bonanza.

Regis Prograis photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan photos

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” has rolled off the press. Published by McFarland, the book can be ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clash-of-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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Ian Thomsen Recalls His Days with Buster Douglas Before Buster ‘Shocked the World’

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Mike Tyson’s reign of terror in the heavyweight division began on March 6, 1985 at the Plaza Convention Center in Albany, New York, when he flattened Hector Mercedes in one round and it concluded for all intents and purposes on February 11, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome in Japan when James “Buster” Douglas stunned the boxing world by knocking him out in the tenth round, scooping up the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in the process.

Several weeks before the bout in which odds-makers had established “Iron Mike” as a 42-1 betting favorite, sportswriter Ian Thomsen spent time with Douglas in his hometown. The result was an insightful feature in the short-lived National Sports Daily that appeared in the February 9-10 issue and ran four pages.

On the cover and at the bottom of the newspaper, this teaser appeared: “Buster: Big Talk, Little Chance” and the subhead said “Tyson’s Saturday Opponent Confident Of Upset.”

The headline above the story blared: “All Alone With Mike Tyson” and the subhead stated: “Alone, Except For Jesus Christ And Woody Hayes And Even They Might Not Be Able To Help.”

“I was with The National Sports Daily [1989 through 1991] and they had four of us doing long stories. They called them the main event and they were take outs. They wanted me to go out to Columbus, Ohio, and spend a week up there and get to know him and let people know who he was before he submitted to what everybody figured would be a loss,” explained Thomsen who came to “The National” from the Boston Globe. He subsequently worked for the International Herald Tribune (1992-1997) and was with Sports Illustrated from 1998 until 2014 where he covered the NBA and wrote the first story on Kobe Bryant for the magazine.

Given Tyson had a 37-fight winning streak and had stopped 23 of his victims within the first two rounds, few gave Douglas any chance of coming away with a victory.

“I didn’t go to Japan for the fight, I just spent the time with Buster,” Thomsen said. “There is a story that when [Associated Press boxing writer] Ed Schuyler was filling the form for security at the airport and he said it was a business appointment, they asked how long he was going to be there and he said about ninety seconds. That’s what everybody thought.”

Thomsen, who currently works for news.northeastern.edu, a website that covers Northeastern University in Boston where he has been a multimedia reporter since 2018 writing on all subjects involving Northeastern happenings and interviewing university experts for their opinions on national and global events, said the set-up for Douglas wasn’t filled with glitz and fanfare, but there was a sense of confidence within the camp.

“When I went out there I didn’t know a thing about Buster. I remember my first day there I went out that night and went to the training ground and he was at a health club in Columbus and they roped off a corner of the health club so all these people are there after work,” he said. “Behind a curtain in the health club there was a ring set up for Buster and the only people I remember being there were his manager John Johnson, his uncle and trainer, J.D. McCauley and another trainer [John Russell], who helped him out.”

Johnson was a former assistant football coach at Ohio State University during the time head coach Woody Hayes patrolled the sideline. In many ways, Hayes, who passed away in March 1987 at 74, was a mentor and an inspiration to Johnson.

Thomsen, a Northwestern University journalism graduate who penned the 2018 book “The Soul Of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, And Dirk That Saved The NBA,” said the more time he spent at the camp, the more he could see Douglas feeling at ease.

Still, there’s always that bit of doubt because of what Tyson had accomplished.

“And you’re watching him work out and you’re saying to yourself, ‘this guy is going to beat Mike Tyson?’ It was such a small production,” Thomsen remembered.

That aside, there was a real belief in the camp that Tyson was going to have his hands full.

“He [Buster] thought he was going to win and John Johnson thought he was going to win but doesn’t every fighter think he’s going to win?” Thomsen said.

Tyson seemed indestructible at this juncture of his career and it was almost inconceivable that he would lose.

“You watch Tyson’s fights and you see what happens to them [his opponents]. Buster was going to take on a great challenge and the more I got to know him, the more you had to admire him,” Thomsen said of Douglas.

Boxing was in his DNA, Thomsen pointed out.

“His dad [William “Dynamite” Douglas] was an ex-fighter and a really tough guy and was hard on Buster,” he noted. “It was one of those troubled relationships that you’re never good enough. It was an impossible standard to live up to.”

The elder Douglas, who posted a 42-16-1 professional ring record with 32 knockouts, was a contender in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.

Father and son were vastly different according to Thomsen.

“Buster was a more gentle guy than his father. That was clear from spending time with both of them,” he pointed out. “His mother [Lula Pearl] was a wonderful person and spoke highly of everybody. You could see how important she was in his life. After I left she died [at age 46 from a stroke] about a week before the fight. Obviously there were questions of whether Buster would fight.”

Though Thomsen wasn’t certain of the outcome, he felt Douglas was sincere and hard-working. “Maybe if I hadn’t spent any time with him I would have dismissed him as another guy that’s going to get killed by Mike Tyson, but when you spend a week there and you see what it’s all about and everything he’s overcome and the fact that he’s put in this position, instead of writing a story dismissing him or making fun of him, you want to convey a sense of respect for him,” he said.

It seems Douglas and his handlers were impressed by Thomsen’s feature because after the victory, he was asked to join them in Sin City.

“It meant something to him. That’s why I was invited to be part of the group after he beat Tyson,” he said. “I flew out to Las Vegas in Steve Wynn’s private jet.”

Thomsen said Tyson’s loss that night was the beginning of the end for the one-time Brooklyn bad boy.

“Tyson was not as technically sound a fighter as he had been before,” he said. “When Tyson lost he was a global figure. Everybody knew the heavyweight champion. No one came along to match the stature of Tyson. It was the end of boxing as we knew it.”

Like so many during the 1970s, Thomsen followed boxing and recalled some of the big names and bouts of that era.

“I loved boxing as a kid growing up and watching it and the big fights that would be on ABC on the weekends, especially Friday nights,” he said. “You knew all the heavyweights. It was a great honor to be heavyweight champion of the world.”

Some of the names of that era are folk heroes.

“I remember [Muhammad] Ali was making his comeback against Joe Frazier,” Thomsen said. “I remember and was horrified to see what [George] Foreman did to Frazier and [Ken] Norton breaking Ali’s jaw.”

“The one big fight I covered was the [Marvin] Hagler-[Ray] Leonard fight in Las Vegas,” he said. “Steve Marantz [the boxing writer] and [columnists] Leigh Montville and Ron Borges were there. I was a young guy. I didn’t talk to Hagler. I spent more time talking to Angelo Dundee. But you could see the energy there.”

When Thomsen worked at the International Herald Tribune and was based in Europe, he spent more time ringside.

“I covered a few Lennox Lewis fights. I covered a fight in Cardiff, Wales, against Frank Bruno [1993]. It was like midnight and 2 or 3 in the morning,” he said. “It was very strange. Frank Bruno was a limited fighter. He had a big punch but not much else.”

Thomsen recalled a prescient conversation he had more than two decades ago.

“I used to work at the Boston Globe [1983 through 1989] and it was an honor to work with Will McDonough, who was one of the top newsmakers in sports writing,” he said. “We were playing golf one day about 20 years ago and he said in the 1950s the big three sports in America were horse racing, boxing and baseball. He was pointing out just how quickly things change. Back then in the 1950s in the NBA, you couldn’t make enough of a salary to do it full time. A lot of NBA players had off-season jobs to make ends meet. Boxing was the glamour sport. Now it’s the opposite.”

It seems that no truer words were ever spoken.

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Regis Prograis KOs Jose Zepeda at Dignity Sports Health Park

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Regis Prograis KOs Jose Zepeda at Dignity Sports Health Park

Not all big bangers are the same.

Regis Prograis slugged it out with fellow knockout artist Jose “Chon” Zepeda and after 11 rounds of tactical battle ended the WBC super lightweight battle with a flourishing knockout on Saturday.

Prograis (28-1, 24 KOs) becomes the first two-time super lightweight champion from New Orleans after his win over Zepeda (36-3, 27 KOs) at SoCal’s Dignity Health Sports Park. It had been more than three years since he last held a world title.

“This was the hardest fight of my career,” said Prograis after the strategic clash between the super lightweight division’s biggest punchers.

The heavily favored Prograis and Zepeda were cautious under the cold outdoor weather arena. Many a previous world title match ended quickly under similar circumstances and both were wary.

Zepeda was slightly busier and able to connect early with his deceptively fast left cross. Though the first two rounds were not very action-packed, it seemed Zepeda landed more effective blows.

Then Prograis went to work.

“At first, I wanted to come out and box him. Maybe in the third round I caught my rhythm,” said Prograis. “Then he caught on to that.”

Behind his awkward head movements and more agile movements Prograis used jabs and counters to force Zepeda into a more defensive stance. Though neither fighter dominated a round it was the New Orleans native who dictated the pace and action.

Round after round was going into the books favoring Prograis, not until the eighth round did Zepeda make a move into a more aggressive mode and finally out-punched Prograis. But the former world champion adapted again.

Prograis and Zepeda slugged it out in the ninth round. Zepeda connected with a left uppercut but Prograis withstood the blow and continued moving forward. Once again Prograis out-punched Zepeda in a very close round.

Both seemed ready to make the 10th round their own and Zepeda connected with a left cross that landed flush. Prograis barely was moved and then increased his output and the two super lightweights exchanged furiously with the New Orleans fighter seeming to out-punch Zepeda again. It was a telling round.

Prograis had withstood Zepeda’s biggest blows and was ready to unload some of his firepower. He had dominated most of the fight behind his jab and quick combinations. Now he was ready for the big shells.

Both super lightweights opened up in the 11th round with each connecting early. Suddenly an overhand left by Prograis sent Zepeda reeling backward and he did not let up. A furious 13-punch barrage was unloaded and down went Zepeda. Referee Ray Corona did not bother to count and ended the fight at 59 seconds of the 11th round.

“In the 11th round I felt like taking him to deep waters and drown him,” said Prograis.

Once again Prograis holds a super lightweight world title.

“I heard the small talk. I heard the rumors. I want to congratulate Zepeda, that guy was tough, tough, tough. He gave me my hardest fight,” said an ecstatic Prograis. “Listen, I got 29 fights, this was probably my hardest fight.”

Yokasta Valle beats Evelin Bermudez

Seeking big challenges Yokasta Valle (27-2, 9 KOs) rallied after a slow start and out-boxed Argentina’s Evelin Bermudez (17-1-1, 6 KOs) to win the WBO and IBF light flyweight world titles by majority decision after 10 rounds.

After absorbing big right hands from Bermudez during the first two rounds, Valle solved the problem and out-hustled the taller world champion behind quick combinations and making the champion shift her feet. It was a simple but effective plan and led to Valle storming down the stretch with more effective punching.

Bermudez had steamrolled most of her opponents behind a relentless attack that focused mainly on her big right cross. But against Valle that punch was mostly eliminated after the third round.

Valle slipped under Bermudez’s attacks and countered with her combination punching. Occasionally the Costa Rican fighter connected with a big shot that caught the eye of the judges.

After 10 rounds, one judge scored it 95-95, while two others saw Valle the winner by majority decision 99-91, 97-93.

Valle, an IBF and WBO minimumweight world titlist, moved up a division to win her second weight division world title.

Conwell Wins

In a savage battle Ohio’s Charles Conwell (18-0, 13 KOs) bludgeoned his way to victory over Juan Carlos Abreu (25-7-1, 23 KOs) by unanimous decision after 10 rounds in a super welterweight contest. It was a skillful display of 1950s-style fighting that saw Conwell showcase his strength and canny punch selection in out-fighting veteran slugger Abreu.

Heavyweights

Former Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist Bakhodir Jalolov (12-0, 12 KOs) knocked out Curtis Harper (14-9) in the fourth round with a barrage if blows. Twice he knocked down Harper who had been deducted a point for an intentional head butt.

Vargas Brothers

Both sons of boxing great Fernando Vargas emerged victorious in their bouts. Fernando Vargas Jr. (7-0, 7 KOs) knocked out Alejandro Martinez (3-3-1) in the second round of their super welterweight bout. Amado Vargas (5-0, 2 KOs) won by decision after four rounds versus Osmar Hernandez (1-2) in a featherweight match.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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